Sunday morning dawned humid and hot. While getting dressed for the day’s activities, AJK and I realized that although we had brought two huge suitcases, we were going through our clothing at an alarming rate. This may have been due, in no small part, to the activities we had been partaking in. Hanging around with tigers, ATV-ing and flying through the trees are not exactly ways to keep your clothes in tip-top shape. Luckily, laundry, like most other things in Thailand is dirt cheap. I ran across the street from the hotel with our laundry in hand and entrusted it to a small Thai woman who told me I could come pick it up later that evening.
With that taken care of I headed back to the lobby to wait for the van to come pick us up for that day’s activities. AJK meanwhile, you guessed it, was back upstairs on the phone with United. I was starting to realize that this was desperately important to him. I wasn’t sure at that point what this was, but something to do with the make of the airplane that we would be flying back on. I think it was some model of a plane versus another one but I didn’t quite understand the intricacies. Either way, it was of crucial importance to him so I didn’t mind being the lookout in the lobby for the van. Seeing as most mornings since we got there AJK was upstairs on the phone with United, we had worked out a little system. I would stand watch and then, when I saw the van for our activity pull into the hotel driveway I would dash inside call AJK on the lobby phone and run outside to distract the driver until AJK finished his talk with the United representative and made his way downstairs.
Sunday’s activity was one of the most exciting, wonderful treats ever. AJK, knowing how much I adore elephants and most things animal related (snakes and sharks aside), had arranged for us to spend all day at an elephant farm. Like with all other touristy things in Chaing Mai, there are tens of places you could go to do the same or similar activities. This specific elephant farm had been recommended to us by our new friends who we had met at Chabad and by a few hundred of our closest friends on Trip Advisor.
It seems that at some of the elephant parks the elephants are treated poorly. That would have sapped all my enjoyment of the day, so we chose to head to this one where we were told that the elephants were treated well and it was more of a rescue park for elephants than a tourist trap. The ride there took about forty minutes and we were one of four couples in the van heading to Bong Choi for a day with the elephants. As soon as we got there we were surrounded by about thirty or so elephants being fed bananas and sugar cane by tourists wearing denim jumpsuits. While the fashion choice was a bit lacking in my opinion, the choice of activity was more than awesome.
Pretty soon our guide handed us our own fabulous denim jumpsuits to change into. Understandably, hanging out with elephants all day is not the cleanest of activities so they are kind enough to lend you a genuine “mahout” outfit for your day with the elephants. Mahout is the Thai term for the guys who train the elephants and pretty much sleep, eat, and live with the elephants for their whole lives (both the mahouts and the elephants). This was mahout boot camp.
We quickly changed and headed out to meet the rest of our group. Our guide gathered us into a circle and gave us a quick history of the elephant farm. Due to his heavy accent and extremely limited English, (and let’s be honest, because I was standing twenty feet away from more elephants than I had seen in my life), I caught the word elephant three times and that is all. We then were dispatched to an area with large wicker baskets filled to the brim with bananas and sugar cane. We were instructed to pick up a basket and bring it over to the elephants and begin feeding them. This is just one of the many times that reminded me, I wasn’t in America anymore Toto. No waivers this time, no instructions, no words of wisdom to avoid being stepped on and crushed by these behemoth giants. Nothing, just “go feed the elephants bananas.”
I followed these instructions with unbridled glee, running around to the various elephants and literally handing them a bundle of bananas right into their outstretched trunks. One elephant even let us put the bunch directly into his mouth. There was an adorable little baby elephant who stretched out his trunk to kiss me on the check and at the last second turned it into a mouth-on-mouth experience, that was less fun than it sounds, let’s leave it at that. There were big elephants, small elephants, babies, seventy year olds, cute ones, funny looking ones, males, females, tusks, long, strong trunks…we were surrounded with elephants and I was loving it.
After feeding them for about twenty minutes, and getting a lot more elephant kisses in the process, we were led over to an area that had a bench and a little clearing in front of it. We all sat down and watched as two large, lumbering elephants with mahouts on their backs made their way over to where we were sitting. It was time for our first elephant riding lesson!
The gist of it is this: get on, and then do not fall off. The elephants somehow lower themselves onto their stomachs with their feet tucked under them and then you can climb up on their knee or just swing yourself onto their back. The key then is to hold onto their ears for dear life as they ungracefully un-tuck their legs and rise back to their full, towering height. I will tell you this, riding an elephant is scarier than it looks and elephants are bigger when you’re sitting on them than they appear from the ground.
We all took turns learning how to get on the elephants, stay on the elephants and practice a few elephant commands that are pretty much useless. When you are an elephant, and you weigh 1,000 pounds, and you have something on your back that at most, weighs as much as your trunk you are so not listening to that person yell at you in their pathetic newly-learned Thai. For future reference however, should you need a Thai elephant to get down on its knees so you can get on its back, you can try saying “nonlong.” If that works, then by all means pull out all the stops and tell it to “byby,” which means go, and “qwei,” which means turn.
After our brief and not nearly exhaustive enough tutorial session we were each assigned an elephant. AJK and my elephant was medium sized and we both swung up on her back like the professional mahouts we were. I sat up front, basically on her head and AJK sat about a foot behind me. There is almost nothing as scary as being on an elephant’s head when they are standing up from a sitting position. I’m sure many of you can relate.
In the process of standing up they put their heads forward and down, and then they raise their heads back up when they are fully standing. This basically leaves you feeling like you are about to pitch head-forward from the back of a twelve foot elephant and crack your skull open. We were warned to really hold on when they stand up because many a tourist has had their day cut short with a broken arm or wrist incurred while toppling from the back of an elephant. It’s a good story to tell when you get home but it will really ruin your day.
Suffice it say, I held on so tightly to that elephant’s ears that she had handprints on them when I finally let go. It is unfortunate that elephants like to use their ears as a cooling system by swinging them back and forth to send cool air over their backs, because this elephant did not get that opportunity.
What she was able to do however, was another neat elephant trick. When elephants drink water they sometimes store some of that water in a pocket in their mouth which they can then reach into with their trunks and spray over their backs in an effort to cool off. Because I was holding so tightly to her ears cutting off the option of using them fans, she resorted to spraying herself and us with a delightful mixture of warm, half-swallowed elephant water and gooey mucus-y saliva, it was delightful and refreshing.
We started up the steep side of a mountain with both AJK and I hanging on for dear life. While watching my life flash before my eyes, I did pause to realize that I was sitting on the back of an elephant somewhere in the mountaintops of Thailand, and with that thought I decided to just enjoy the trek even if I did end up falling off and getting smushed, like I said, it would make a good story.