Note from Gina: I wrote this blog post shortly after returning from a trip to Thailand. Several months later I began learning more about riding elephants in Thailand and felt guilty about this experience after learning it’s best to avoid riding an elephant when traveling. To see my new views on this, please visit my post Elephant Rides: Not Always Happy.
One Day in Thailand, This Happened…
An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent!
I stare at the elephants lumbering by and the old Dr. Seuss line doesn’t make me feel better about the fact that these elephants could smoosh me in about two seconds. They don’t know me after all, so they’re not going to be faithful to me. Maybe they’re faithful to the guys riding with nary a worry on top – and I mean right on top – of their heads.
Despite the man vs. beast monologue going on in my head that is assuring me I will lose any type of “versus” anything that involves an elephant and myself, I am super excited that I am about to be on top of one in a matter of minutes.
The fiance and I are on an adventure trek outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The first adventure? Riding an elephant in Thailand. Tom (the fiancé) is not quite as excited as I am. At least, that is what I’m going to assume since he nixed us going on the 3-day – and substantially more expensive – elephant trek, during which you even get to bathe with the elephants. Traveling with a significant other is about compromise though so we are doing the adventure trek with the elephant ride instead. Well, not sure compromise is exactly the right word, more that he reminded me we have a wedding to pay for so it was to be three days with elephants or a celebration to start off our eternal bliss.
I chose eternal bliss, but now that I’m seeing the elephants, I’m not sure I made the right decision. Elephants are awesome! I’ve always been a bit indifferent to elephants before. Now though, as we’re climbing up the platform to get to the launching pad for getting onto the elephants, I’m surprised how interactive and smart they are.
Tom and I bought a bunch of bananas to feed them with and as I’m standing there fiddling with pulling the peel off one, I notice an elephant trunk snaking its way over to me. It’s the elephant the trekkers in line ahead of us are climbing onto and the caretaker sitting on its head gives him a slight nudge with a stick and he extracts his trunk and begin walking into the heavily wooded area a short distance away. As he walks away his eyes stay rolled backward and glued on our bananas.
“Oh, I feel bad we couldn’t give him one,” I tell Tom.
Our guide hears me and looks over from where he’s standing on the platform. “What you doing?” he asks with a laugh. “They eat it all!”
The elephant that we’re going to ride has just stopped in front of us. It takes her all of a moment to sense the bananas and her trunk is instantly at my side, its hand-like tip searching me for the fruit. I giggle and tear off a banana.
“Here, here,” I say to the elephant with a laugh as I hold out a single banana. The nostrils of her trunk graze my hand as she grabs the banana and tucks it away into her mouth. Then immediately, her trunk is back at my side, groping for more bananas.
“Come on, time to get on,” our guide says.
Tom and I both look at the trunk blocking our way up onto the elephant’s back.
“She’s going to knock us over,” Tom protests.
Neither our trek guide or elephant mahout seems worried, so Tom and I gingerly inch our way past her trunk, me firmly clutching the bananas so she doesn’t steal them, and we climb on and settle on the small bench type seat on her back. I peer at the ground. We are quite far up, but I figure we’re safe as long as we don’t fall off right when the elephant is taking a step forward – onto the area where we fell.
Once we’re safely on, our elephant takes a few steps forward, then stops and swings her trunk over her head and back toward the mahout riding on her head. Mr. Mahout turns around toward us. “Banana,” he says. I hand him one and he gives it the elephant, who puts it into her massive mouth and begins walking again. The elephant stops again several feet later, but this time our Thai elephant guide ignores her request and urges her forward with some harshly spoken words.
As for our mahout…once we enter the woods he suddenly jumps off the elephant and goes to talk to the rider of another elephant.
“Ummm, where did he just go?” Tom asks. “Why are we the only ones without a guide riding with us right now?”
I ignore him. I’m thinking instead how this is perfect because now I can ride on the elephant’s head – or at least her shoulders. I didn’t come all the way to Thailand to ride an elephant on a bench strapped to its back. In that case, I may as well be at a zoo, not in the middle of Thailand’s lush jungle. I tell Tom this.
“I’ve never seen elephant riding at the zoo,” he scoffs. “You can’t just climb onto the elephant without permission.”
“But what if they say no?” I ask.
He gives me a “please don’t get us kicked out of the elephant trek” look and I lean back against the back of the seat. “Ok. I’ll ask when the guy comes back.” If he comes back. We’re continuing down a steep trail which our elephant is taking his sweet time going down, which is fine with me; I don’t want him toppling over. At the bottom, he veers toward the right. All the other elephants go toward the left to the river.
Tom is spinning around in his seat frantically. “Hello?” he calls uncertainly.
“Oh relax. They’re not going to just let the elephant wander off with us. She probably knows what she’s doing. Don’t you, Miss Elephant,” I coo and pat the big, dawdling animal on the shoulder. She instantly swings her trunk back for a banana. I laugh and toss one into her awaiting trunk. After eating it he immediately swings her trunk back up.
“No,” I tell her. “You just got one. Go over to your friends.” But our elephant stays where she’s at, moving only a few inches in one direction or the other to eat some grass. Tom is still slightly worried, and I keep laughing at him – mostly because I’ve never seen him like this. He’s usually the calm and collected one. Apparently, not where animals are concerned. I’m reminded how much I love traveling as a couple because it always shows us new sides to each other and keeps things interesting.
After a few minutes, the other elephants leave the river and join us on the trail we’re on.
“See?” I say to Tom. “Our elephant knew what she was doing. Maybe we have the smartest one and that’s why we don’t have a guy sitting up here with us.”
Our elephant guy is still with the group, but is on the ground and seems to be in charge of keeping all the elephants moving forward. He is close to us again, so I seize the opportunity.
“Excuse me,” I call down to him. “Can I ride on her shoulders?” I point from myself to the front of our elephant’s head. He nods with a grunt.
I excitedly push up the safety bar for our bench and scramble forward onto the elephant’s shoulders. “Hey you,” I breathe as I situate myself on her rough hide and tuck my legs behind her ears. As she flaps her floppy ears back and forth, I’m struck by how strong they are against my legs. As soon as she senses me, her trunk comes back again and I give her two bananas this time for good measure. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent. Hopefully she’s at least faithful to my bananas and won’t knock me onto the ground. I hear the elephant guy saying something from the ground and instantly hope it’s not that he’s already telling me to go back to the bench. But nope, he’s just telling Tom to center himself in the middle of the bench. We start walking forward and I’m jostled back and forth sideways as she takes one slow step after another. I can feel her shoulder bones working underneath me and lean forward a bit to get more in rhythm with her strides. My heart beat starts to slow down as I feel more secure and I look around at my surroundings, my hands securely placed atop the elephant’s head, her thick, bristly, black hairs rubbing my palms.
The elephants are making their way up a fairly steep incline and we’re walking underneath and between large trees. Behind us a stunning vista of the mountains and river make a picturesque setting. But there’s no chance of me taking the time to take a picture right now.
I’m riding an elephant.