Water for Elephants

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Flag of Thailand  , Chiang Mai,
Friday, April 22, 2011

Another morning in Chiang Mai, another sunrise wake-up!  Friday we woke up and enjoyed breakfast in the hotel before being picked up for our day with the elephants.  It just so happens that the movie Water for Elephants opened this week so for some reason it's all about elephants right now.  Anyway, we'd been interested in exploring elephant life in northern Thailand thanks to Steve's recommendations and our hotel had helped us book a day at the Bangchang Elephant Experience.  The mini-bus arrived right on time and in about 45 minutes outside of the city we arrived at the elephant ranch. During the ride our tour guide (Sonny) explained that the camp was founded as a sort of haven for elephants previously mistreated in tourist shows or not able to handle themselves on their own in the jungle.  They currently have 17 elephants in the camp ranging in age from 1 year to 30 years old including 2 pregnant elephants.  Every elephant bonds with a mahout, a local elephant whisperer.  These guys live in shacks right next to the elephant and the elephant trusts only them.  An elephant is never without their mahout. When we got to the camp Sonny also said that we shouldn't make any sudden movements and to stay close to him at all times. Uh-oh what did we get ourselves into?! 

We pulled into the park and got out of the car and there are elephants and people in strange denim uniforms everywhere.  We were ushered into a lobby-type area and told that we could store our things in lockers and had to change into uniforms because today was going to be a very dirty day.  We're handed these super heavy denim balloon/parachute/capri costumes and changed into them (Dave loved this part).  All suited up we went out to the training area for our first lesson of the day, feeding the elephants.    Dave was asked to grab a basket of sugar cane and we headed over to the area where the elephants were hanging out, chomping away.  We were advised not to go near the pregnant elephant as she's not very friendly towards other people right now, for obvious reasons.  But we were free to approach all the others, slowly, by starting to offer up some delicious sugar cane and they'd take it either with their trunk or some liked to be fed directly into their mouth.  I took pictures while Dave fed a few smaller elephants first and we got comfortable being close to them.  Although they weren't as big as the African elephants we'd seen in South Africa, Asian elephants are very large up close and personal!  They told us the Asian Elephant is more intelligent and friendlier (I think they are biased).  It was really neat to feed them though and we enjoyed a few rounds (of feeding) with different elephants.

Next, we went back to the training area for our next lesson, how to climb on top and sit on an elephant.  The mahouts brought over 2 elephants to practice on so that 2 people in our group at a time could hop on top. I shouldn't really say hop because it's quite an effort to get up there on top of them - they have to sit down based on the mahout's commands and then you have to step on their knee and swing yourself over their huge neck while holding the tops of their ears.  The first time each of us got up there was definitely a 'holy crap' moment!  It's the strangest feeling to be sitting on top of the elephant, completely bare-backed.  They are very hot and they have prickly hairs all over their tough skin.  They were really patient with all uf us and kept heaving their body weight up and down which really impressed me - it's hot out here!  Sometimes the mahout would have to yell or shout or even poke them a bit to get them to move but I guess in return they are fed for 20 hours a day (they only sleep 4 hours a day and eat the rest) and kept safe.

Now that we all mastered how to board and disembark from elephants it was time for our next lesson, learning how to command your elephant to walk, turn right or left and stop.  The command for 'go' is 'by' and you need to lightly tap your legs around the elephant's neck.  The command for 'turn right or left' is 'quay' and then lightly click your opposite leg in the direction you want to go. The command for 'stop' is 'how' and squeeze your legs around the elephant's neck.  Each person hopped on each of the 2 elephants so we could get to know their personalities and take them each for a spin around the closest tree.  It was funny to watch everyone scream out commands as if the elephant was listening to them when the mahout was the one in charge as they were pulling the elephants ear the whole time.

Now that all of these lessons were complete and we had our first experience on top of the elephant it was time for a leisurely lunch.  We washed up and headed to the outdoor area for a lovely lunch of soup, chicken and veggie stir-fry and little crispy chicken wings all served family style.  We ended up at a table with another couple and during the usual introductions we learned that they are doctors finishing up their residencies at Drexel University in Philadelphia.  What a small world as we hardly meet any Americans and certainly never anyone else from Philly.  We had a lovely chat with them about both of our travels and also enjoyed the elephants bathing in the ponds nearby.  It made me think of an old Sesame Street episode "Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath...." where they show all the elephants playing in the water dancing to the music.

Anyway, lunch went on for quite a while because they had several different groups to rotate through but in my opinion we could have done a lot more activity over this span of time.  Regardless, after the lunch/siesta Sonny brought out sun hats for each of us as we were about to embark on the main event: an elephant hike through the jungle up the local mountain and then back down (they tell us we are doing a good deed by riding the elephants because it is their excercise for the day).  When we had practiced with the elephants earlier in the day there was only one person on the elephant at a time.  But for the big hike we were 2 to an elephant so one person was the driver and one the passenger.  Dave and I were sent to the elephant named Mangia and his mahout, Lu.  Mangia was a very large elephant compared to the others (probably to support the big Americans) and I got the feeling he wasn't too happy to be taking us up the mountain today.  But we hopped on and I shimmied back to the passenger seat as it's extremely uncomfortable for guys to sit this way (and I had quite a bit of trouble as well, a week later I'm still sore).  I had to sit with my legs bent backwards also as elephants like to scratch themselves on the trees and if your leg is in the way they don't really mind (but I think I would!).  We ended up at the back of the pack (about 5 other elephants in front of us) and the view up there was just amazing.  We're firstly in the middle of the jungle in northern Thailand and the foilage is beautiful.  And to sit on top of the elephant slowly making his way up the path was incredible. Sonny took all of our cameras and got family shots for all of us which was nice.

Now, that being said I will also mention two things.  Firstly, elephants are huge.  Massive, really.  So when riding them it's not like a horse with a smooth gait.  I don't think I can compare it to anything else but it was a very lumpy, unbalanced and laborous ride so you had to hang on and pay attention.  The second thing (Melissa & Emily, this is for you!), is that to keep cool, the elephants spray their snot behind them on their backs every few minutes.  Guess where I am sitting - exactly in the line of fire for loads of elephant snot.  All I could do was keep my mouth shut and try to squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath when I saw it coming.  I got pretty good at recognizing the signs.  At least I was wearing their uniform!  Other than these two things the ride was fantastic and not something I will soon forget.  Once we reached the top of the mountain we all dismounted and the elephants went to town scratching themselves on the trees and resting while we also rested under some shade and talked with Sonny about some history of the elephants, Thailand, and any other questions on our minds.  During this break I was a bit wary of the bugs and snakes but Sonny didn't seem to be concerned so we just followed his lead.

After the break we went to get back on our elephants but Sonny warned us that riding down was harder, especially in the passenger seat, as it's so wide you can't really hold onto anything to stay balanced.  Dave and I had agreed that we would switch for the ride back down so I could drive but when he tried to mount the elephant his legs wouldn't even go the right way and there was no way he could ride that way (I guess he needs to do more yoga to improve his flexibility).  So he was driver and I tried passenger again.  Well the first hill we went down was super steep so that to keep my balance I had to not only sit uncomfortably but also lean over and hold on with both hands so I was looking down at the elephant and Dave's back.  It was really painful and not fun at all.  We had to ask Lu to let us down at the first opportunity and Dave offered to get off compeltely so that I could have a chance to drive.  Dave walked back on the path but Sonny told him that our elephant doesn't like people walking near him so he had to walk up in front.  It was really hard to hold on and balance the whole way down so I was glad when I saw that we made it back to camp and could dismount.  However, I was not glad when I saw the next activity was straight into the mud pond for bathtime with your elephant!

Dave told me that since I got to ride the elephant, I was in charge of cleaning as well, so he handed me a bucket and sent me on my way into the muddy, poop-filled pond.  All the elephants got some playtime with their mahouts first while we were handed buckets and brushes and sent into the pond.  My elephant was all around the other side and was huge (bigger than the others) so was a pain to wash.  The mahout didn't even want me washing him, he took over most of the time and would give me one tiny area to throw water on. Meanwhile, the others are pooping everywhere and it's one mahout's job to collect all the poop out of the water.  Needless to say, this activity didn't last very long and I was happy when it was over.  As we headed out of the water one of the younger elephants was trained to give 'kisses' to people.  Dave pushed me forward and the wet, muddy trunk snaked across my neck and gave me a big suck.  It was the strangest feeling but a lovely way to end the elephant experience.

Thank goodness that they had showers and soap right outside the complex so we could shower up a bit to at least get all the mud and poop off of us and change back into normal clothes. I was able to get clean enough for the ride back except that the elephant kiss had gotten in my hair.  Anyway, we said goodbye to Mangia, Lu, and the rest of the elephants and headed back to Chiang Mai enjoying conversation with our new friends along the way.  Once back at the hotel I jumped in for a long hot shower and finally felt clean.  I then headed over to a spa nearby for a pedicure as I had already needed one before the elephant mud and now was in desperate need.  Dave, as usual, settled in for a siesta.  The pedicure was alright but took forever so it was well past 7pm when I finished.

We had tenatively made plans with our friends, Dale and Carla, for drinks in the bar at 7pm, so I ran back and had to wake Dave up.  They also had enjoyed an elephant experience and also an orchid farm so that was interesting to hear about.  We all wanted to go to the Night Bazaar so we hailed a songtheaw (the local taxi which is really a pickup truck with 2 benches in the back) together and found a restaurant for dinner.  It was good food, but unfortunately took a long time and by that time we started to get really tired from our elephant adventure day.  One thing that's frustrating about Thailand is that if you order anything (appetizer or main dish) they will bring it out whenever it's ready.  So usually if we get an appetizer it comes out the same time as a main dish, and oftentimes one of us is compeltely done eating before the other gets their food.  I guess that's because they eat everything family-style here but for us it's a bit different.  Anyway, we bid goodnight to Dale and Carla as this was their first trip to the market and we wanted to head back for some much needed sleep - there's so much to do in Chiang Mai! 

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Ann Boras on

That sounded like fun wth the elephants, except for the snot & poop. I would have been totally skeeved out. My elephant would have ran screeming with just one look at me!!

Debbie Beaver on

This is priceless...

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