Picture this: Me, in over-sized, heavy cotton pajamas (jean blue), hair in two braids, sunglasses perched on the top of my head, barefoot and dirtier than I’ve been since I was probably eight years old. My face is caked in dried mud; my shirt has streaks of dirt running from collar to hem and my pants look like I’ve spent the afternoon riding a large mud-covered animal. But wait. One more detail. Beneath that dried on muck covering my face is a smile that goes from muddy ear to muddy ear. Why so happy about looking like Peanuts’ Pig-Pen? Because I just spent the entire day riding and tending to TJ, a lovely 35-year old elephant who became my pal for the day.
My day started with a 6:30AM alarm, which is normally much too early on a vacation, but it was no problem, as I’d been up for an hour already, lying in bed quietly, trying not to squirm too much as I looked forward to my day as a mahout. As soon as it was not ridiculous to be up and dressed, I hopped down to the restaurant of our adorable boutique hotel, settled nicely within the old city walls, and had some cornflakes, partially because I can’t start my day without breakfast and partially because I needed something to do until our 8AM excursion pickup arrived.
Thai Elephant Home, our destination for the day, is about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The trip out was fascinating. I always love just driving through new places and I had to giggle to myself as I watched people bundled up in winter coats, beanies and scarves to brave the early morning 55 degree weather that cools the city in January and February. (We loved the weather! It was a perfect break from the constant heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur.) Upon reaching TEH, we were handled bundles of clothes to change into, knapsacks to take along on the trip and bottles of water to keep us hydrated as we headed into the mountains.
Elephant assignments followed. Thad was given one of the largest, which frankly I was glad went to him. Even my “average” sized critter was enormous once I was mounted. The world looks different from atop an elephant head! I was assigned TJ, who brought up the rear of the line (we were a group of five, so awesomely small!) , which meant she wore a bell that tinkled all the way up the mountain and back down the other side, reminding me a bit of a horse-trek we took in Songpan, China, where the horse bell about drove us all nuts! Luckily, TJ’s bell was quieter and more soothing, plus I liked that it meant someone always knew where we were at!
With TEH, guests don’t ride elephants in baskets or with a trainer. Each visitor gets their own elephant for the day- solo. Of course, there are trainers who go along for safety (we learned command words, but TJ did whatever the heck she wanted and who was I to tell the elephant which way to go?! She knew the route better than I did!) TJ obediently bent down, allowing me to step on her front leg, at which point she stood, shooting me onto her back, and off we went. There was a rope behind me that I could hold onto going down hills, but otherwise, it was bareback all the way.
I have to say, there is no sensation in the world like having your bare feet pushed up against the skin of an elephant. To sit up there and just imagine how much muscle and power is beneath you, knowing that in the end, you have no control, is a few parts terrifying and a few parts exhilarating.
At the top of the mountain, we dismounted and had some lunch (banana leaf for the humans, grass/trees for the elephants) and then it was time to hit the spa. In the US, you’d excpect to pay $100 for a mud-mask and massage day at the spa, but we enjoyed it right out of the mountain with our elephants. TJ loved her mud-bath, getting coated from trunk to tail in a gooey mess, which made remounting her a bit petrifying. I was getting well-versed in her boosting me onto her back, but with both of us packed in slippery slime, I hit her back and kept going! Thank goodness for that one rope, which I clung to with all my might!
At the bottom of the mountain we forded a stream, dropping all sunglasses, cameras and phones on the far bank, and then headed back into the middle of the idle flow for bath time, much needed my animals and humans alike! Rolling off TJ into the river, I had my work cut out for me, trying to clean mud off an elephant! Luckily, she helped by provided extra rinse water from her trunk! It felt like something out of a cartoon, where the elephant serves as a shower.
As we headed back to camp, it had been a long day, which I loved, but I was honestly ready to be off TJ’s back. Horse saddle—soreness is one thing, but imagine that times about three, to factor in the width of an elephant. I was sore- everywhere! We did swing by an elephant drive-thru on the way back to buy sugar cane as a treat for the last kilometer of the journey. I held the bundles on my lap and TJ would lift her trunk up to get one each time she ran out. I only wish I had had more! An elephant can go through a bundle of sugar cane like a fat kid with a bag of Cheetos.
Animal-travel. Fauna-frolicking. Creature-trips.
I don’t know what the best clever name for my favorite kind of travel is, but whenever we are looking at new places to visit, one of the first things I do is figure out what animals are native to there and how I might possibly hold, cuddle, ride or basically fondle (in a good way!) whatever adorableness the country has to offer. Thailand, and specifically Chiang Mai, has a corner on the elephant business, so while we did visit our share of beautiful, gold-leafed temples and wandered night markets until we could no longer see straight, the highlight of my latest trip to Thailand was Thai Elephant Home, the small elephant camp (the camp is small, not the elephants) that allows visitors to be a mahout for a day- riding and tending to their own creature from sun-up until saddle-soreness makes one ready to call it a day.
“The very things that held you down are gonna carry you up and up and up.”
― Timothy Mouse, Dumbo