In Thailand, the riding of elephants is very much frowned upon, and rightfully so. Having been to an Elephant Centre in Indonesia we decided to choose this excursion carefully. The sanctuary we visited had great reviews and came highly recommended. Here, the elephants are a mix of rescued animals and many that were born there too. They were well looked after and there was no sign of an electric fence like we saw in Indonesia.
We were given a briefing on how to feed the elephants and what to do should one come bounding towards us. You see, they have two calves here, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. They are noticeably smaller than the rest of the herd but still much larger than the babies you have no doubt seen David Attenborough commentate on. Either way, they are as cheeky as they are adorable. However, unlike their elders, once they gain momentum they can’t stop or change direction quickly. A simple side step is all that’s required but it’s hard to stay calm with such a cumbersome animal bearing down on you.
We were given a kind of poncho before approaching the camp that served two purposes. Firstly, it has a smell familiar to the elephants allowing them to recognise you as a friend. They are so clever they will remember your own distinct scent for next time. The second use is the large pocket on the front which is filled with pieces of pumpkin, sugar cane and bananas, or as the elephants understand them, bon bons.
We all line up and raise a banana each, shouting ‘bon bon’ as loud as we can. Sure enough, these beautiful beasts hear us and descend on our location to fill their bellies. We learnt in Indonesia that when it comes to the appetite of elephants, the phrase ‘never enough’ sums it up nicely. They eat about 100kg of food a day. The older elephants will let you put food into their mouths, sometimes leaving your hand covered in saliva if you’re slow pulling it back. The younger ones will happily take it from your hands using their dexterous trunks. They will also delve straight into your pocket to get straight to the source. Like I said, they can be very cheeky. They are clearly intelligent and know exactly what you are there for.
Once the feeding was over the elephants were gracious enough to let us have pictures. We all had to go and retrieve some bamboo shoots for them in order to get them to stay put. That helped to convince me that these elephants had much more freedom than in other places. We were also free to move among them and attempt our own photos and selfies. Luckily we had made friends with another English couple and helped each other, and a Florida man, to get some good pics.
Next up we had lunch; a small buffet with rice and other dishes. We were then charged with making elephant medicine. All that food is hard to digest and elephants are renowned for being bad at it. Their faeces is very fibrous and difficult to pass so they require laxatives. We smashed up rice and bananas with sticks in hollowed tree trunk, then added a few of natures local sources of fibre. We ended up with a sticky paste that we rolled into balls. We put on our bathing suits and sun lotion, it was time to get wet. We fed the medicine to the elephants then took them to a mud pit that consisted largely of dung and spread it over their backs. They do this themselves in the wild as a natural protection from the sun and bugs. They are also capable of finding their own foods that act as laxatives, again a very clever species.
The guides then proceeded to cover our backs with the elephant dung/mud concoction and draw cave painting style effigies of elephants onto our skin. I was saved from this ritual by virtue of wearing a UV t-shirt as it’s easier than covering my pasty white torso with lotion. Florida man, a 19 year old American, with a seemingly rich father that had never said no to any crazy suggestion in his entire life and had hundreds of amusing stories to tell because of it, ended up covered in the mud, legs, arms, chest, back and face. By the time we had walked the elephants to the river, he had gone crusty and started to peel. We got into the water and given buckets to throw water over the elephants. The guides then proceed to throw water over us too sparking a water fight. The water is cold but once you’re in you get acclimatised quickly. We forgot about our charges and played in the water fighting against the current to get our heads under a waterfall. As we left, Lady Gaga charged toward me and Florida man. Waist high in water with slippery rocks under foot was not helping us to remain cool. Side stepping calmly had become an impossible ask. Mild panic ensued and a guide appeared out of nowhere, slamming into the animal to make it change course.
Lady Gaga refused and stayed her course and a second guide dragged us out of her path. Now more elephants were charging and we appeared to be in danger once more. We were pulled in another direction but all I remember is slipping on some rocks and landing back into water. As quickly as the drama had started, it passed, and the elephants settled down and resumed course back to their field. Looking back at the go pro footage, it’s hard to discern if we were ever in danger at all. I know full well that the elephants meant us no harm, they were just keen to follow their herd. We said our goodbyes to the majestic creatures and returned to base for showers but opted to simply dry off in the tuk tuk (the pick up truck version rather than the small trike looking ones in Bangkok) on the 2hr drive back to Chiang Mai. That night we ate back at the night market. We tried the yellow curry that was recommended by a girl we had met in China and followed up with frozen curls for desert.