It seems like everyone who visits Thailand finds themselves following a similar itinerary and inevitably doing the same things. As much as I’d love to separate myself from the ‘tourists’ and opt for the roads less traveled, I can’t pretend that I’m not dying to ride elephants and frankly it seems there are fewer and fewer ‘roads less traveled’ in Thailand. Time to accept the fact that in Thailand, you are far from ever being the first. Like the tigers, we heard the north was the most humane (and natural) place to have the experience so we decided it was now or never.
As our day began, I couldn’t help but wonder what the mahouts must think of us silly white people shouting Thai words at elephants, enthusiastically butchering every command and wondering why the elephant isn’t moving… Maybe because we all sounds like bloody idiots?? The mahouts are the elephant trainers and have grown up with most of these elephants from birth. Birth of the mahouts that is, since the elephants often live to be a healthy 90+ years and aren’t all born on the reserve. Many of the elephants brought to the reserve were previously used in logging and dancing shows, therefore considered ‘rescued’. Since logging has been made illegal in Thailand (due to deforestation -not animal cruelty- since elephants historically have made very effective work animals) and dancing shows are a cruel use of an elephant’s time, many of these guys are brought out to the Chiang Mai hillsides to allow visitors to learn to care for them. It’s pretty magnificent.
We were first taught a fairly comprehensive list of the Thai elephant commands so that we could be in full control independently and not guided with the elephant on a rope. As you can imagine, it wasn’t the words but the pronunciation that was difficult. My best were ‘Yood’ (=Stop), ‘Toy’ (=Reverse) and ‘Ya-Yaa’ (=No more fruits). We tried integrating our new Thai vocabulary into conversations back in the city, but weren’t very effective. Yelling ‘Yood’ at the tuk-tuk driver did, however, make for a good laugh from both parties.
Next we were taught to mount and dismount from the elephant so that we could ride them naturally (aka bareback), which is easiest and most comfortable for them. As soon as the command was given, they knew exactly what to do. Down goes the front knee and once you’ve secured your foot on her knee, up she goes to hoist you into position. So, so cool.
After everyone was comfortable with the commands we started the real journey; Across a rice field, into a watering hole for bathing, back out for a ravine tour and then back into the goop for a mud bath. Who would’ve thought swimming in poopy elephant water could be so fun? The thought of Giardia briefly slips your mind as you engage in the group mentality of ‘everyone’s doing it’. After about 10 minutes of bathing the old Babe I slowly crept back onto her back to avoid standing in the stagnant water for any longer… Hey, she was going to get dirty again in the mud bath anyway!
[Click any photo to enlarge and view frame-by-frame]
The hardest part was having to leave these beautiful creatures, knowing that it’ll be a long time until we’ll be this close with an elephant again. Such smart and mighty animals. Definitely a bucket list item and must-do for a true Thailand experience. Worth every baht.