(Elephant in Thai language)
[Note: This is the story of a librarian, and her husband, who fulfilled a lifelong dream of riding an elephant in the jungle. A more detailed story about Helena can be seen in “I Have a Story to Tell”.]
When I was a young girl, my grandfather gave me a very special book for Christmas. The title was “Toomai of the Elephants”, by Rudyard Kipling. I was very impressed by little Toomai; and I dreamed of riding an elephant like Toomai, having an elephant as my friend.
This winter, my dream of bonding with elephants came true; my husband and I went to Thailand to train as mahouts. In preparation, I conducted some thorough research on elephant training centres; what they offer, what to expect, and I also learned a few Thai words needed to communicate with the elephants. Armed with this knowledge, we arrived in Chiang Mai, one of the northern provinces of Thailand. Noot, our travel agent from Dare Travel recommended the Patrar Elephant Farm, which is situated north of Chiang Mai. As I discovered later, we were lucky, since Patrar is one of a few elephant centres that treat their elephants with exceptional care and without exploitation.
To start our elephant adventure, a driver picked us up at our hotel and drove us along a winding road into the hills to meet our long dreamt-of elephants.
On arrival, a young gentleman (who I will call Paul) greeted us and gave us brief instructions. First, we had to spray ourselves with an insect repellent; after all, we were in the jungle. Then, each of us was given a basket with fruit for our elephant. It contained bananas, sugar cane, some kind of squash and a tamarind cake for better digestion. Paul told us several facts about elephants:
- Elephants in Thailand are revered in religion, though captured for domestic work and warfare. In the past, only kings rode elephants, and a white elephant was on the Siam flag up until the kingdoms were united and Siam became Thailand. Asian elephants weigh 3 to 5 tons and eat 100 to 200 kg of food per day. They do not see well, but have an exceptional sense of smell.
Paul also told us that the elephant has to like us or it will not let us ride it. If that happened, Paul would try to pair us with another elephant. If all ten elephants on the farm refused us, a driver would take us back to our hotel. This was bad news. I had come to Thailand to ride an elephant and now it might not like me. I was worried that I would smell bad after all the insect repellent that I had sprayed on, so I grabbed a tamarind cake from my basket and rubbed myself with the sticky substance
Paul chose a 17-year old bull with beautiful, gleaming tusks for me. His name was Boon Moon. I was to call his name from a safe distance and wait for his approval. To me, Boon Moon looked agitated and much larger than I had expected. He flapped his tattered ears, rocking his bulk from side to side. With trepidation, I offered the fruit basket and called his name. Nothing happened. My heart sank. There you go. That was the first rejection. With apprehension, I shook the basket in front of me and called Boon Moon again. This time he lifted his trunk and trumpeted his approval. I was near tears. My elephant had accepted me!
Now, I was allowed to approach him and feed him the bribe which I had brought not to his trunk, however, but directly to his mouth. Once everyone was paired up, Paul explained the sleeping habits of elephants and how to check if the elephant is healthy and slept well. The elephants are released into the jungle to forage and sleep, which they do only eighteen minutes at a time on each side so as not to crush their insides with their weight.
There are seven spots on each side of the elephant that we had to check for signs of dust. Then, we inspected his nails, as healthy elephants sweat at the edge of their nails. I did my check and Boon Moon was okay. He had nice dark rims around his nails. Next, we had to dissect his stool. We had to check the stool for the length of the fibers and moisture content to see if the elephants were drinking enough. To our relief and surprise, the stool did not have any unpleasant odor. Apparently, an elephant’s stomach is used mostly for storage of food. Actual digestion occurs as the vegetation is ground up by the elephant’s molars. He also has very active salivary glands as well as the mucous glands within the short esophagus that act to moisten and help to digest the food.
Next, it was time to test my vocabulary. However, to my surprise, it very much differed from the words I learned at home. Paul wrote the Thai commands down on my arm and we were ready to do some serious grooming. Our mahouts fashioned small brooms from leaves and we had to dust dirt off our elephant’s hairy backs. The elephants throw dirt on themselves because the dirt acts as an insect repellent as well as sunscreen.
Then, I unfastened Boon Moon’s chain, grabbed his ear and led him into the nearby river for a bath. I was given a waterproof basket fashioned from bamboo leaves, and a hard brush to scrub him. Every part of his great body had to get attention. I had to scrub around his eyes, scrub behind his ears, and even scrub his tail. His tusks had to be scrubbed by sand from the river and then rinsed. When I was thoroughly drenched and Boon Moon was clean, he good naturally sucked about fifteen liters of water and unceremoniously dumped it on me. I could swear that he had twinkle in his eyes.
We were now ready to learn how to mount an elephant. “Song Soong” is the command to lift a leg. Boon Moon bent his leg and I stepped up onto his heel, then on his knee. There were still ways to climb to his neck. As graceful as a sack of potatoes, I wiggled my way behind his ears. How proud I was! I kept telling Boon Moon what a good boy he was, patting his twin, hairy domes between his ears. He flapped his ears in acknowledgement. We walked a short distance to the road, crossed it and walked towards the jungle.
Just before reaching the jungle, a car drove by and Boon Moon showed his displeasure by facing the noisy vehicle, stomping and snorting. I worried what would happen if my elephant stampeded. Nobody had told me how to stay put and what to do in a situation like that. It was a long way to fall down. Luckily, the mahout who was walking behind me calmed Boon Moon and we continued our slow progress into the jungle without further incident.
And jungle it was! We wandered into a dense, exotic forest with a narrow path trodden by elephants. It felt a bit wobbly on top of Boon Moon’s head as we travelled. We had to lean forward and hold onto the elephant’s ears when he climbed a hill. We also had to lean backwards when they descended it. Going down was a bit frightening. With each huge stride Boon Moon made, my lower spine screamed in protest. But, eventually, we walked to a beautiful waterfall where we unceremoniously slid from our mounts and let them frolic in the river. They rolled and splashed; and it was obvious that, second to eating, this was an elephant’s favourite pastime.
Our mahouts served us lunch on a large boulder on which they spread banana leaves. The leaves formed a green tablecloth and the mahouts decorated it with a beautifully prepared selection of Thai food. When we could not eat any more, we fed the leftovers to our elephants, including the tablecloth. Then, we stripped down to our bathing suits and slid over a mossy boulder right into the midst of submerged elephants.
“What a dream! What a blast!” I almost cried. I felt truly blessed and privileged to be able to experience this.
After the elephants decided that they had had enough of splashing about, we remounted and continued on our trek. A steep, steep hill up, and then down and down. I thought that my spine would snap now at any minute. From time to time, our elephants grabbed a trunk full of vegetation and munched on the succulent leaves.
We urged them on by saying : “Pai! Pai!” (“Go! Go!”). At one point, the elephant walking behind me broke a smallish sapling and the bushy part of the tree fell on my head. Boon Moon stoically walked on and I was freed of the unwanted decoration.
After walking for quite a while, we arrived at a hill tribe village. We dismounted, let the elephants feed again, and were all grateful for a little rest. We admired garments that local girls from the village were weaving on hand looms. But, unfortunately we did not think of bringing much money with us for the elephant trekking and were not able to buy anything. Perhaps after a half hour of rest, Paul and our mahouts showed us how to mount an elephant via his trunk. The elephant lifted his trunk, we stepped onto the curved part, grabbed the ears and somehow made it up onto the forehead. Once there, we crossed our feet and held onto the ears. This gave our sore backs and legs a bit of rest. Mine were throbbing and I had difficulty walking during the break (as a matter of fact, the following five days as well).
Subsequently, we were ready for the last stretch of the ride. Now we walked in the river to file the elephant’s nails on river sand and pebbles. We walked through rice fields and let the elephants munch on the harvest leftover straw. Then, we arrived back at the clearing where we had begun the morning. There was a local village girl from whom we bought a basket of bananas for each elephant. We fed them to our elephants one last time. Then we changed back into our clothes. Two of the elephants gave us a wet kiss on an arm. Finally, the elephants lined up and each bowed before his rider, waved his ears, lifted his trunk, and trumpeted loud goodbye. There were six of us in our group of mahouts in training, and all of us without an exception, all of us were absolutely moved by the experience.
As a goodbye, Paul shared a little bit of his wisdom with us. He told us that people could learn a lot from elephants. We should eat as they eat and be vegetarians; and we should all live together, just like the elephants do. Support and help each other, and live like one big happy family.
My husband and I traveled through Thailand from the south to the north. For three weeks, each day was rich in experiences, one more exciting than the other. We swam with sharks at Koh Tao and explored the ancient culture of Thailand from its peaceful religion and incredible architecture to the terrible traffic in Bangkok. We went to the highest peak of Thailand and admired the King’s and the Queen’s Pagodas set within beautiful gardens surrounded by jungle and listened to the Buddhist’s chant in their temples. We even played with Bengal tigers, watched trained monkeys practise in a monkey school, and watched a king cobra spread its regal cape and dance a death dance.
We experienced so much and learned so much while traveling through Thailand. Yet the most memorable experience of them all, for my husband and me, was our day with our intelligent, gentle, and happy elephants from the Patara Elephant Farm.