Joy is all around us and in our hearts. The four of us just spent 30 minutes in the Chiang Mai airport bathrooms changing from damp bathing suits into clothes suitable for airplane travel. Tonight we are going back to Bangkok, the final stop on our awesome journey.
As we sit at the ‘Ritazza’ coffee joint drinking cappuchinos and smoothies, the conversation is light. Lily giggles. Trish is smiling from ear to ear. We are still high, floating on the experience of the day. Today was not ‘normal’ adventure travel. Today we met mother nature herself.
Ma Nature is not beautiful by any human standard. In fact, she’s leathery and has hairs like a wire-brush and a trunk that has 40,000 muscles. I’ll start from the beginning…
The Elephant farm
The Thai owner of Patera Elephant Farm, Pat, picks us up in the nicest car we’ve seen in a while, something with leather interiors. All our luggage goes in the back. I’ve arranged in advance for them to take us to the airport right after today’s events. They gladly obliged. (It’s close timing like that that allows us to see so much in a short time.)
We’re accustomed to drive time being quiet and boring. Drivers don’t usually speak any English and aren’t part of the activity, but Pat engages us as soon as we buckle in. “Did you know we have three baby elephants?” he asks the girls. “They are troublemakers!.” He says. He is Thai but has good English, spoken with an Australian accent.
Pat talks about his approach to Elephant farming, eco-tourism, and the state of elephants in Thailand. He points to a picture of the Thai King surveying a map. “You’ll see pictures like this all over. Those represent the King’s commitment to stop the deforestation and destruction of Thailands ecosystems. With pride, he says that Thai’s really listen to the King even though he has no official power. “It really does have an impact that he does this.”
A history of abuse
There are many thousand elephants in the wild in Asia, but they are endangered because the population has declined 50% over the past few generations. (African Elephants are a different species.) They have been revered and important for centuries, but like most large mammals, the 20th century was not kind. Elephants were used in Thailand for logging extensively, and of course hunted. The population in Thailand plummeted.
The logging ban in 1989 (which is difficult to enforce) saw hundreds of elephants safe from the dangers of logging, but out of work with no one to care for them. The first generation of eco-tourism was born, with elephant rides, tricks and circus activities becoming popular. Unfortunately the treatment and care was lacking and the elephants suffered. The population continued to die.
Patera is what Pat calls a ‘second-generation’ or ‘new-generation’ elephant activity. They are a farm, dedicated to elephant reproduction and reintroducing elephants to the wild. There are lots of elephant activities labled eco-tourism that involve 30 people splashing one elephant with water and then watching it dangerously walk on two legs. Elephant knees can’t handle that kind weight. (‘Chinese tourists” he says, with poorly disguised criticism.) Patera teaches tourists about elephants and gives each person an elephant to themselves for the whole day.
We drive up a small road and pull the car under the shade of a large tree at a garish Buddhist temple that is playing loud music. Ahead of us are rice paddies edged by high-canopy, jungle-forest. It’s bright but not unbearably hot. We join the other guests and Pat’s introduction continues under a thatched roof as we sign waivers.
He emphasizes, perhaps a little too much, that he isn’t critical of other Elephant activities, but that this is a better way for the elephants.
Elephant trainers in training
Past the rice paddies, across the stream and through the wet, high grasses we walk to the next ‘station;’ another thatched roof. Our first glimpse of the Elephants is exciting. They are spread out in the fields before us, a few alongside the stream. Our group of about 12 gets into soft, cotton, traditional ‘trainer’ clothes, which help the Elephants identify and trust their new ‘owner for a day.’
Our first task is to feed our Elephant. Pat jokes that ‘all friendships begin with a meal.’ This is especially true in Thailand where food and eating is much more integral to friendship and family than it is in the West. I’m told that if one person in a group of friends mentions they are hungry, everyone will stop and eat.
We each get a basket of banannas to feed them. Lily heads to ‘Lucky’ an adolescent with a good temperament. Emma gets Tah-Tang, who turns out to be slightly stubborn, Trish gets the great Momma of the Elephant pack, Masi-noi. And I am given to May-noi, who is trailed by her four month old baby elephant.
How can I even describe this? In front of me is a huge beast, with leathery skin and wiry hairs that towers three feet over my head at her shoulders. She weighs 60 times what I do, and eats my body weight twelve times each day in grasses and vegetables each day.
Up close, she takes up my entire field of vision. I can’t see over or around her, it’s just a giant head and trunk and shoulders. As her head rears high and the pink tounge, the size of my calf, pokes out, the sun is blocked. In her shadow I push the whole bananna deep into a mouth that conceals plates of grinding and mashing white molars.
Maybe this is an alien planet and I am making the first contact with extra-terrestrials. Is this what it would be like? Standing in the shade of the largest animal that walks the earth (or second if you count African Elephants first), as it’s gigantic but gentile mouth sucks up and smashes whole banannas, it’s impossible not to feel other-worldly.
Wrapped up in my own experience with Mai-noi, I just barely see the trainer move quicly out of the corner of my eye, and then my basket of banannas is wrenched out of my hands, spilling them to the ground. I’m almost pushed over by a three foot baby elephant that just nabbed my stash of banannas with it’s little trunk! The trainer and I grab the banannas and he discourages the baby from eating the food that’s for the mom. It’s amazing how strong the trunk of a 3 month old baby was.
The baby comes back for another shot at the basket, but it’s not that hard to keep it out of his trunks grasp as long as I know he’s coming! The trainer tells me to keep feeding Masi-noi, we are still bonding and the baby, who is unnamed, will overfeed if we give him banannas now. Baby walks under Mai-noi and sucks on her breast. Aww, my elephant is breast feeding her child! How amazing is this?
Poop smells good?
Lily has been talking for days about elephant poop. I don’t know if I told her that we would be looking at elephant loads as part of the program, or if she just assumed we would, but multiple times she has said “I ain’t touching no elephant poop!”
Ben, the lead trainer, tells us that they are going to use the youngest guest (Lily) to learn how to check if our elephant is healthy. I’m a little nervous that Lily will play shy or worse have a panic attack in front of everyone.
Ben’s English is a little hard to understand. But Lily is a good sport and follows all the directions, even when they make us all squeeze the grassy elephant poop to see if there is enough water (indicating adequate hydration). We smell it. It’s amazingly clean and grassy smelling. Herbivore shit is much nicer than ours.
We brush our elephants off with a bunch of leaves. They are incredibly difficult to clean because the wiry hairs cling to dirt and other crap. As soon as mine is cleaned, she covers herself again with twigs and grass and earth.
Bathing an elephant
Mai-noi walks toward the stream with me holding her ear for guidance, although it’s tough to say who it guiding whom here. The baby follows along. I brush her top to bottom with a wire brush using a reed basket to rinse her off. My trainer tells me to rub harder! I am being oddly gentle with a three ton elephant, as if I could hurt her somehow.
AAAAGH, I fall back in the water, which is fortunately shallow because I’m holding our camera. Baby, lying on his side in the stream, had grabbed my ankle with his trunk and tripped me! Lol, Baby – that’s a good one. I wonder if he does that to all the guests? The trainer takes my camera and gives me a look like I’m kinda dumb. (Quiet, Carol and Angela.)
Baby makes this activity tough, but hilarious. He pushes me backward into the high banks of the stream, splashes me and tries the ankle grab a few more times. Mai-noi just stands and enjoys the scrubbing. She doesn’t seem anxious at all by humans touching her baby.
Soaked, I grab my camera from dry land and head over to Trisha and the girls, who are close together upstream. We pose for a family photo and are susprised to have the elephants splash us from behind.
The forest trek
There are a few ways to get up on an elephant depending on your size and strength. Lily is simply picked up on the trunk, which is adorable. Trish and I do the more conventional way, in which the elephant lifts one knee to use as a step and we vault over the back.
They teach us bareback riding, which is really bareneck riding. I sit with my knees high on Mai-noi’s head and use my knees and feet to guide her. It’s not very comfortable if you are trying to guide the elephant, but if you allow your legs to relax it’s okay. Fortunately, the trainer is along side guiding.
More accurately, he is guiding Baby. The elephant pack will protect baby and won’t go forward unless they can see him. So it’s critical to get Baby moving first. the slower Baby forward. I’m in the lead with masi-noi, the mom and Baby.
We walk upstream and through rice paddies. Farmers are tilling and building the locks and dams that move the river water through the fields. Baby goes after the tender rice plants and is shooed away.
Ben tells us that once in a while, one of their elephants escapes and eats the crops and gardens of local farmers, for which they have to pay dmages to keep the community peace. Wild Elephants are sometimes shot by locals because they ravage local gardens and farms.
Lily is having a blast, giggling far behind me. It’s fun being so high up, but it’s a little scary too. Emma is quieter. She has a little trouble trusting her elephant, but her trainer is right there moving things along.
Dunked in the river
The caravan of elephants heads downhill after a climb up the mountain road. We hear rushing water ahead. The jungle seems to part for us, revealing a half-mile of terraced waterfall with pools on different levels and mossy rocks. Georgous. There are a few open-walled huts where we will probably eat lunch.
The elephants let me off first onto a large rock so I don’t have to get down. I position myself for photos of the girls as the ride in. Elephants are difficult to photograph. I want to get up close, but they are so huge that you have to step back.
And back I step, to get a better shot of Trish’s incoming elephant. SPLASH! My legs strike for the bottom of the river and my arm shoots high clutching the camera but it’s deeper than I expected and I fall. The camera spends a few seconds under water until I regain my balance.
Crap. I’m soaked from head to toe but that doesn’t matter. My camera is dead. The camera man comes over and reassures me that the camera will probably survive, and I agree he is right. But it’s really frustrating to miss out on pictures of the rest of our Elephant day. And there is still 3 days left on our trip. Our first camera broke on day four! Now our second is dead too. How many cameras do we have to take?
Fortunately Patera take pictures of us (we got almost 1,000 photos on a dvd at the end of the day.) It takes me a little while to deal with the dissapointment. But it only lasts for a few minutes because we are about to have the greatest experience of our lives.
Swimming with Elephants
The girls want to slide down a mossy rock into the deeper pool. One of the trainers yells to wait, and walks over to them with Emmas elephant in tow. Tah-Tong lies down in the water and holds out her trunk for the girls to slide down. So cute.
What follows is the most delightful 30 minutes I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Swimming in this pool with the elephants is satisfying on a primal level. The girls jump from beast to beast, splashing. Trish gets lifted in the air like a jungle queen on a trunk and then dunked playfully in the cool stream. They soak me with the spray from their trunk – almost 10 liters of water.
As one picks me up, and we look eye to eye, I get that feeling like I’m meeting aliens on a distant planet again. Elephants are aware of themselves and us. They have enough consciousness to posses a soul and feelings and maybe even aspirations. Trapped without language, their brains can’t share what they experience, but I’m convinced that if they could talk, they would have a lot to say.
Good bye to Mother Nature
When you are on top of an Elephant and it makes sounds, the whole body shakes like a big motorcycle. It’s amazing! I give Mai-noi some kisses on the top of her leathery head, and the wire-brush hairs poke my face and nostrils. I doubt she can tell a puny human like me gave her a kiss. But I love this animal.
The ride back from the waterfall is fun, especially when we take a muddy path through the mountain that would be completely impassable by humans. The mud is a foot deep and the ‘path’ is completely destroyed and pot-holed. But the elephants, carefully navigate their tons of muscle and bone without spilling their rider.
And then it’s over. We feed our beloved elephants one more time with a basket of banannas. The baby again reaches for the basket and nearly pulls it out of my hands. Mai-noi, Lucky, Tah-Tong and Masi-noi ride away with the trainers, giving us a wave and a trumpet-roar.
We pay Pat the $800 or so for the day, and give the trainers a good tip. Our car to the airport is ready. Lily cries a little. She already misses Lucky.
Not words nor pictures
And here we are drinking cappuchinos and smoothies at Ritazza in the Chang Mai airport. We don’t try to analyze or review the day. Neither words nor images can describe what we experienced. Maybe I’m just another tourist reflecting the old myths about Elephants, or an urbanite dazzled by nature that is foreign to me. But I feel like we were in the presence of Mother Nature herself, and she brought us contentment and joy.
Neither Trish nor I are very religous, but we’ve had a religous experience. These beasts are epic, timeless, and wise. I feel blessed to have been so close to them even for just a day. Trish says it’s one of the greatest things she has ever done. We’ll never forget our day with them.
Epic day is Epic.