On our third day in Chiang Mai we once again woke up early, but this time with a reason. The day of hanging out with elephants (which for some reason Taylor and I have taken to calling lollies) had finally arrived! We were both understandably quite excited. Whenever I see elephants in pictures or at the zoo I want to hug them, but 2-dimensionality and fences always get in the way. But not on this day! Hug all the lollies!
We were picked up at our hostel by our guide, Aof (pronounced ‘Off’), who ended up being really informative and funny. I lucked out with great guides on all of my excursions, and this time was no exception. We drove up to the Baan Chang Elephant camp in a van with the rest that day’s group. By the time we arrived Taylor had to pee so badly I was legitimately worried she was going to pee her pants in the car, so beyond the excitement of seeing a whole meadow of elephants was an element of suspense about whether Tay would make it. Thankfully my 23 year old sister narrowly avoided publicly wetting herself. Huzzah! (I was laughing so hard at her during the drive, I felt like a horrible person but her angst was hilarious. Schadenfreude I tell you.)
Aof distributed our ‘Mahout’ (meaning ‘elephant trainer’) clothing, a denim-ish outfit comprising a button up shirt and loose capri pants with a stretchy crotch panel. All visitors to the park wear these clothes. First, because our regular clothes would get really dirty and might not be suitable for the activities of the day; and second, because the elephants have been rescued from abusive situations they are understandably afraid of most people but have been trained to know that people in the Mahout outfits will not hurt them.
I have to admit, Aof told us a lot of great information throughout the day and I can remember almost none of it. I was too excited! Lollies! Right in front of me! What I do remember will probably make it out of my subconscious and into this post as I write, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Our first interaction was feeding. The elephants are chained for feeding, one foot to the ground, so that no one gets stepped on or backed into by a couple tons of animal. We were given huge baskets of banana bunches and sugar cane and set free amongst the elephant herd, told to hold out the food and let the elephants grab it with their trunks or, when we got more comfortable, to go up and put it directly into the elephant’s mouth. Taylor and I fed almost every elephant at least once. I very quickly got used to being so close to such large animals and lost all trepidation about approaching them. I noticed that they have crazy long eyelashes and their mouths look too full of tongue to actually fit food, but somehow they slurped down entire bunches of bananas with ease. Apparently this feeding was like a snack to them, it takes much more than a few bananas and some sugar cane to keep a lollie fat and happy.
Next we sat on benches facing the meadow of elephants while Aof told us all the tidbits I have forgotten. One piece stuck with me though: he told us that every worker there carries an elephant hook. When I was researching which elephant camp to spend a day at I kept finding conflicting information online. One elephant camp swore they were the only ones who didn’t actively abuse their animals, but that seemed a bit too good to be true. We ended up at Baan Chang because the one we liked was full, but I don’t regret the choice at all. It became clear that they love and care for these animals, and Aof mentioned (not by name) that a certain camp (I assume the one I found online) was spreading misinformation about animal abuse in the other sanctuaries to drum up more business. He said he worked for a company that forced him to lie to the guests about not having elephants hooks despite using them just like everyone else who works with these huge animals. He explained that he never uses the hook to hurt them, but because elephants are so big and with such thick skin every elephant trainer carries a hook for protection. I appreciated that he told us the truth despite the bad connotations surrounding elephants hooks.
While this talk was going on the small Thai and Burmese men who worked at the camp were getting on and off the elephants by running up and jumping on their faces, then clambering up the trunks to sit on their heads. One man situated himself on top of an elephant with his legs hooked behind the elephant’s ears, lying down along the animal’s back. He then took out his cell phone and started playing games and texting. “Hey bro, what are you up to?” “Oh not much, just chillin on an elephant. You?”
After teaching us about the camp and the elephants they have rescued, Aof brought two elephants over in front of the group. We took turns learning to climb on while the elephant was sitting, not falling off when the elephant stood up, and then practicing the command to make them lie down again. To get on we had to step on the elephant’s bent front leg, then grab the top of the ear and swing ourselves on to sit on the neck. Elephant skin is really dry and rough feeling, and the top of their head is covered with sparse short hairs that are so thick they are almost more like bristles. We then each rode the elephants on a short loop to practice the commands for going, stopping, and turning. You have to yell like you are really angry to get the elephants to listen to you, which as a small girl who never yells at anyone I found really difficult and unnatural. I wasn’t mad, I wanted to hug them!
We took a lunch break, both the people and the elephants. We ate and then hung out in bamboo hammocks before the next part: riding the elephants all the way around camp, something like a 30 minute loop. I was a bit nervous so I made Tay be the driver for the first loop. And oh my god, as much as I loved this day let me please dear lord never be the passenger on an elephant ever again. The butt pain! Oh the butt pain. So freaking uncomfortable. The passenger holds on to a rope tied around the elephant’s belly and that’s it, relying mostly on gripping the large circumference animal with thigh muscles and prayer. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only a little bit. There was a moment on the downhill section I was truly worried about falling to my tragic death.
We switched positions on the second loop, being driver was so so much more comfortable. The whole time I simultaneously felt bad for Tay because I knew her pain and thanked god it wasn’t me back there. The driver sits on the elephant’s neck, with a much more manageable diameter to wrap your legs around. Also when the elephant decides to suck up some mud and throw it on to its back the passenger gets the brunt of it, although Tay and I both got a mud bath on each loop.
Our last stop was a giant pond to clean our elephants. The lollies got in the water and then just laid there while we scrubbed and rinsed them with the muddy, poopy water. Yep, real clean. Somehow I ended up a target for splashing so I got a number of face-fulls of water. It was all really fun except I had my contacts in, so I think some of the poo water may have sat on my eyeballs for longer than desirable (I threw out those contacts as soon as we got back to the main camp and lived blurry the rest of the day). We showered back at camp, changed into our normal clothes, and that was it. End of lollie day.
I can’t even describe accurately how awesome it felt to be around such huge lovable puppies, except to say that elephants are truly my favorite animal and I wish I could have spent at least a week there. I miss them! I guess I’ll have to go back to Southeast Asia and do it again.