“IT’S ELEPHANT DAY!!” That’s how I woke up early that morning in my Chiang Mai hotel bed while the sun was just beginning to make its appearance. Within hours, I was going to come face to face with my favorite animal with no bars or fences to distance us. My adrenalin was running high, causing me to act way outside my character. I had become a morning person, something that happens only on very special occasions. Jason (who is always a morning person) and I met the others in the kitchen where we patiently ate our breakfast while we waited for our tour guide to arrive.
We weren’t really sure what to expect from the tour we booked. I did a little research and chose Dante’s Elephant Park, because the reviews sounded as if the elephants at the park were treated well. I was very apprehensive about the whole thing. I don’t support circuses that abuse elephants. So, I didn’t want to support any other tourism activity that would be comparable to the same thing. But the only way to know for sure was to visit the park and see for my own eyes. And I will say my curiosity tends to get the best of me in these situations.
When the tour guide arrived, there were four other guests already in the van. We introduced ourselves to Alex, Caroline, and Amanda all from the States. We had a pretty good representation of the USA in that van. Houston, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
Before we made it to the camp, our tour guide, Mr. Big (who oddly was nothing like the Mr. Big from “Sex and the City”), stopped at a local market to pick up a few items for our lunch. This gave us a good opportunity to get some snacks for ourselves as well. I bought a hat for $3 and some other food items that I didn’t know. And we piled back into the van and made our way into the hills.
When we arrived at the camp, we immediately saw the elephants off in the distance. My first instinct was to run out to greet them, but I knew better. I needed to be patient and follow Mr. Big’s instructions. So, we settled up money and were given our outfits for the day. We all looked pretty sweet in our matching mahout outfits. And they even found one big enough to fit Jason.
While we were getting dressed, we were surprisingly greeted by a curious baby elephant who decided to wonder inside the hut to see what was going on. She sneaked up behind me and startled me with her little (but still quite large) trunk. And that was my first formal acquaintance with an elephant. I was in love. Once she realized we didn’t have any treats though, she wondered on to nosey around somewhere else.
After our not so formal training with Mr. Big where he unsuccessfully attempted to teach us a bunch of elephant commands in Thai, the boys cut up some sugar cane, showing off their muscles. And we all made our way out to meet the elephant family.
As the elephants saw us coming, they started getting extra excited. I’d like to say they were excited to see us, but truth is they knew we had sugar cane. And they wanted it bad. The boys were carrying the sugar cane, which made them nice targets for trampling elephants with bad sweet-tooths. And the girls got quite the laugh as the boys starting running in every which direction trying to keep the elephants from taking them each down and stealing all the sugar cane. Soon, we all realized the best thing to do was to just feed them.
We spent a lot of time feeding the elephants in order to get use to being so close to the massive animals. We learned quickly that we needed to watch our feet especially around the two babies. Jason suffered from a baby elephant stomp which probably felt similar to having a 4-wheeler role over your feet. Ok, maybe a lawn mower, but still, owwww! If truth be told, being around these big guys seemed way more dangerous than being around the tigers we experienced the day before. But the longer we hanged out, the more comfortable we became. Well, until Mr. Big summoned the first guest to climb up top one of them. This was a whole different game!
There were a couple different ways to get on top of the elephant. The best way though was to let the elephant lift you up with her trunk. Once up there, you had to shimmy yourself around to position yourself right behind the elephant’s ears. The skin behind the elephant’s ears is sensitive enough to feel the commands you give it. And then we walked, well sort of. Maybe I should have listened a little more closely when Mr. Big was teaching us the Thai commands. The elephant seemed rather un-phased that I was on her back, and she really didn’t care to listen to my commands. She pretty much just walked where-ever she wanted. Which for the most part meant she was in search of more sugar cane. And sitting on the elephant looked simple enough from the ground, but after getting up there, I have to say, it was quite terrifying. Being behind the ears meant I was looking straight down at the ground. I realized I could easily fall off and get stomped on by a massive elephant foot quite easily. But despite the small fear, I was on cloud nine. I was riding an elephant after all!
Once we all got our chance to try out our elephant riding skills, we took a break and had some lunch. After lunch, we had a couple beers. We were about to go on a long hike on the back of an elephant, we needed to hydrate. Then, we headed out to meet our elephant partners for the hike. Mr. Big had paired each of us up with the elephant he thought met our personalities. Not surprisingly, this meant that Jason got Big Joe, the only male in the family who was nearly twice the size as the females. I got Mee Noi, Big Joe’s pregnant wife. You could see this as a sign, but I chose to ignore it. Later, I made Mr. Big promise me that he would name the baby after me. He said he would name the baby Missie-Jay. I am assuming because she was pregnant, Mee Noi was tied up to Big Joe.
I wanted to take my camera with me, but because my previous training turned out to be a little bit more challenging than I thought, I decided against it, an action I later regretted. However, it was the right decision as for once, I actually got to enjoy the experience without focusing on the getting the perfect shot. I love photography, but sometimes being in the moment is important! This was one of those times. So, I let Mr. Big take photos for us.
We all climbed onto our elephants and started our hike. Derek was on the Baby Mama’s back, and he led the way. But she was a little too concerned with the curious baby and not at all concerned about Derek. She continuously wondered off the path chasing down the little one causing Derek to yell a lot and us to laugh. The other elephants were rather well behaved aside from the occasional butt scratch on a rock. They knew the trail pretty well. So, those commands we practiced were useless. I’m not completely convinced they were real commands. I suspect they might have been some sort of Thai profanity giving all the Thai elephant keepers a good inside giggle as we yelled them out.
The longer we hiked, the more comfortable we became on the elephants’ backs. We stopped for some water along the trail, and the elephant’s sprayed their bodies (and us) down with it. Another one of the elephants kept whispering cooing noises into my elephant’s ear. I wasn’t really sure what that was all about but it fascinated me. Soon, we came up to a small creek and the elephants plunged right in. Mr. Big brought us all beer to drink while we bathed the elephants. Then we played. The babies enjoyed trying to knock everyone over into the water. They were having the time of their lives! Which was kinda scary for those of us that didn’t want to get squished. The adults liked having their skin brushed. They splashed us with water, gave us kisses, and lifted us with their trunks.
Then we climbed back on their backs with beers in our hands and hiked back to the hut. I switched elephants with Jason so I could get my shot at riding Big Joe. He was like the Cadillac of elephants, very comfortable and easy going.
While sitting on top of an elephant with a beer in my hand, I wondered, is this a dream? It seems like the kind of weird dream I would have. Or maybe a commercial for Chang Beer. Either way, it was very real.
Yes, very real. And since that day, I have often experienced the “Elephants on Parade” dream from Dumbo as my mind is continuously wrapped up in elephants these days. I guess it’s time to head to the Houston Zoo to get my fix.
Until next time,