Elephant day! After discovering that there is really good bacon in Thailand (and that's not just because we haven't had much western food lately!), we took an early bus from our hotel, and then spent another 1.5 hours picking up other guests and getting out to the elephant camp location. This group was all young, mostly European. We got to see other parts of town where tourists stay, and decided staying in the old part of town was the best experience. The other areas were catering to tourists so heavily, it felt more like Reno or a small Vegas! We of course were still being catered too where we stayed and visited, but on a much smaller and more personal scale. We had many more opportunities to participate in Thai life and culture, instead of Thais participating in ours, we felt.
(we got to wear really stylish denim workwear over our swim suits for the day)
The elephants were amazing. We spend the morning learning about the center, which acts somewhat like a combination retirement/restoration center for the animals, and an education center for the people. The owner is just 29 years old, and opened the center 5 years ago, based on a passion to help the remnant elephant population, which has suffered since the government banned logging – the elephant and mahout (guide, or trainer, or keeper)'s primary role in Thai society. Now many mahout and elephants are resigned to touristy shows with gimmicks and poor working conditions, or begging on city streets. At this center, Baan Chang (“Elephant Home”), the elephants still do light duty work for exercise (mainly doing short hikes with tourists- no baskets!) and have a one-on-one relationship with mahouts, but are treated well and will remain there until the end of their long lives (up to 80 years!). Most of the elephants were around 20-30 years old, although we had 2 babies (around 11 months) and 2 of the females were pregnant -including our elephant for the day!
After a debrief on the center, safety, and the fact that we would be covered in mud and elephant waste by the end of the day, (“please accept this – we are joining the elephants’ world, not asking them to join us”), we got to feed the animals fruit we had bought at a market in town. Bananas for vitamins, watermelon for fiber, and sugar cane for treats. The animals are LARGE, SMELLY, and FANTASTIC! The smell is somewhere between a cow and a horse, so not entirely unpleasant, but definitely pungent. Feeding these large animals very small fruits and cane pieces was a trip – but after a few rounds of excited trunks taking the fruit from us, we even had the courage to put the fruit right into their mouths – an entirely intimate experience with strange animal parts!
(Ty feeding an elephant - check out the giant trunk!)
The elephants here were calm, social, and seemed happy and well cared for. We were wary of being told a schtick by the operator but the operation seems genuine. The mahouts varied by personality, but all seemed very attentive to their animals. They should be – they live, sleep, and eat together all year long. The mahouts play games with their elephants, crawl all over them, kiss them, trick them (in a silly sort of way), and generally adore them. They never leave – no days off, and work 5am to 11pm. It is a dedicated way of life. They feed, bathe, care for, and relocate the animals every day – including checking for wounds, mites, etc. and treating them. And of course, sharing their partner animals with us. As with any large animal, they do speak firmly and prod with a stick – but we never any signs of aggression or callousness. More often they acted like fathers with children – alternating between play and discipline, affection and direction.
(you feed one elephant, all the other elephants notice!)
Just before lunch we go to learn how to get on and off the elephants (no baskets, we rode bareback behind the ears like the mahouts), as well as walk in some circles to learn commands like left, right, stop, go, and lay down. Of course, we were later told none of the elephants listened to us, only to their mahouts – who were at our sides (our stinky muddy feet right next to their faces) the whole time. The commands are something like:“non long” for lay down (to get on and off), “bai” for go/continue, “kway kway” for turn (combined with a tap on the left or right to indicate direction), and “how” for stop.
To get on a lowered elephant, you grab an ear firmly (strange!), step on their bent leg (strange!), hoist yourself up and over (especially hard on the large animals, although they have a smoother gate once you are up), and schooch yourself as far forward behind their hot and leathery ears as possible. You grab their necks with your legs and feet to hang on, and don’t let go of the ears until they are all the way standing up. The motion is surreal – a dip forward, then a heave back, then up and up (looking at the sky and hoping you won’t slide off) until you are very tall! Then you can place your hands on the elephant’s head – which is covered with bristly, giant, poky hairs, and often dirt and insects to boot. The elephants throw dirt and regurgitate water through their noses onto their back to remain cool – this means they are also throwing these things on you at times! We didn't get sprayed too badly, just once to the face (mouths closed, thank god!), and a few on the feet.
We each took turns riding elephants and mounting/dismounting. The walk is something like a horse, but wider, slower, and with more up/down motion and more side to side motion. Where a horse strides forward, efficiently, an elephant ambles in almost a weaving pattern. However, by the end of the day, we were riding and mounting/dismounting quite naturally.
After lunch and a break to digest (full of good conversations with people from Spain, Canada – as close as we got to talking with other Americans – and Holland), we paired up to ride our elephants into the mountain jungle. Ty and I got to ride Mae Si, an older (30ish) pregnant momma who also had cataracts and could only see about 40%. This didn't stop her from leading the group and she seemed pretty content – never seeming to have trouble with the path or growth. Elephants are pregnant for 24 months, sometimes longer, and so she wasn’t being overworked in her special state either. She was also huge- both in height and girth, which made for some funny mounting (imagine Ty and I being hoisted and shoved up by tiny Thai mahouts onto this giant animal!) Mae Si also had the classic Asian elephant's enlarged, bony head and speckled ears – which I used to dislike but now find adorable. Asian elephants are much smarter and more trainable than African elephants, by the way.
With mahouts, the owner, and the day's guide (giving us instructions and history) by our sides, we ambled up into the jungle. Much like horses, the trail of elephants included much munching on bamboo, stopping and prodding, nickering and bleating (especially the babies, who were generally the most noisy, and who came with us alongside their moms). An elephant does make just the noises you think of from movies and cartoons – chittering, trumpeting, squealing – quite adorable. They are so incredibly social as well – it’s really amazing to watch them interact. The trail was littered with giant elephant footprints, which create wells of water in the rainy season. It’s easy to see how these giant, hungry animals can shape an ecosystem!
(I'm squeezing a hello to the baby elephant inside our mama elephant for the day!)
At the top of the short hill, the elephants ate the newest bamboo growth while we learned more about their lives and biology. We had dropped our shoes at camp to better grasp their necks, and now stood barefoot on a jungle path, wondering about the nematodes and other infectious diseases we could get from tropical mud, while the elephants crashed through the bamboo getting lunch and rubbing their itches on trees. We had to watch for trees while riding, as the elephant will take the change to get a good scratch even if your leg is there!
On the ride down, we traded positions, so that I was in back holding a rope around the elephants belly, and Ty was in front as the “driver.” The ride on the back was easier than up front for the flats, but on the steep slope downhill, I kept sliding forward. It got really steep! I had to use some of my old creative leg positions from when I would ride horses long enough to get sore and numb enough to kick my legs out of the saddle and move them around. This also helped me get enough foot hold on Mae Si’s rough belly to keep from sliding into Ty on the steeper slopes! One of the mahouts showed Ty a plant that looked like a boring little green leaf – something like a sage relative. Once you rub the leaf it turns wet and bright red, like blood – what a trip!
(Ty as our driver on the trip home)
Back at camp we got to bathe our elephants. This was the experience we had been really looking forward too – not all of the camps offer it. But it took quite a mental leap to choose to walk into very, very, very muddy sinking brown waterholes with giant animals tromping around! It was extremely slippery and you couldn’t see where you were stepping –and the texture of the mud was the most slippery, pudding like texture you can imagine. One of the mahouts thought it was very funny to ride the baby elephant around commanding him to spray us with the murky brown water. We were all laughing like children as we got nose-sprayed without seeing it coming! Where the elephants had stepped, the mud compacted under their weight, so that you could sink 2 feet with every other step, while the areas not compacted were even more slippery for your alternate steps.
(note the crazy mud in the lower right corner!)
However, being in the water with these animals was fantastic – they love the water and since they were done working for the day they became even more social. They would put their entire giant bodies underwater on their sides, crawl on each other, use their noses as snorkels and hoses, spraying themselves, each other, and us. Their whole demeanor changed and became more playful – I am sure buoyancy is a relief when you weigh 3 tons!
(I've just been sprayed by the baby elephant behind me)
We got to crawl all over our elephants with brushes and buckets of water to help clean them (more of a massage than a cleaning since it was so dirty in the water, and our little brushes did not cover much of Mae Si’s enormous hide!). This was also a way for us to thank them for their service on our hike. It was pretty crazy when Mae Si, kneeling in the mud, decided to get up and shift position, with us right next to her giant legs and heavy feet in the dark water, on slippery mud! It was like an island decided to get up and roll over! Finally, we got to climb (again very awkwardly) onto our elephants in the water, ride them out of the watering holes, and take a group picture. The guides also took pictures of us bathing the elephants, so hopefully those come out well!
(bathing our elephant after a good hike in the jungle)
At the end of the day, we got to shower in relatively nice shower stalls and get out of our mahout clothes, which by now were full of mud – as were our swimsuits we had worn underneath. We got fluffy towels and soap, and clean clothes to change back into. It was truly amazing, and the steep fee seemed like a bargain for everything we had experienced! They asked us to spread the word – so I will say if you are ever in Northern Thialand, please please be sure to make a day trip (or a 2- or 3-day trip if you are up for it!) to Baan Chang Elephant Park!