© 2012 monica A Wave Goodbye

A Day with the Elephants

The unforgettable day we spent at Baan Chang Elephant Park.

I began preparing for this activity with a lot of research.  I wanted to spend the day with elephants without contributing to the ongoing exploitation I had been reading about.  I learned that at Baan Chang their elephants are only ridden once a day for a total of one hour and that they do not subject the elephants to the harsh training for “elephant dancing, elephant painting, or elephants playing soccer”.  They also do not use the heavy chairs used to help tourists feel like kings at the discomfort of the elephants.  Their elephants are ridden bareback.

I was convinced I had found the best Elephant park and we confirmed that after spending the day there.  We were picked up at 8:00 a.m. which was an early call for us.  We then continued to pick up 12 tourists or as our guide would explain “12 more friends to pick up”.  Sumir was with us throughout the day smiling all while explaining the elephant’s personal stories, about their personalities, the parks future plans.  He was very informative and was open to all questions.  I asked him how much it costs to feed an elephant a day which he responded to with: 4,000 Baht = $130.  They eat 300 kilos of food a day!

We were given Mahout clothes to change into and were told by Sumir to not worry if we did not look very “sexy because playing with elephants is very dirty”.  After caking myself in OFF and giggling with the other lady tourists about our new fashion statements we were off to feed the elephants sugar cane and bushels of bananas.  We were given a quick introduction to the elephants and the safety precautions (basically do not approach any elephant without its Mahout close by & stay away from the dark elephant up the hill & off to the corner, he’s not very nice & only listens to his mahout).  Then we were off!  What we didn’t expect was the fear factor that we immediately experienced after being let loose to interact with the 12 elephants.

I seemed to tip toe around the elephants while trying to stay out of reach of everyones trunks reaching out for the coveted bananas I was gingerly holding.  But I must say, within the first 5 minutes we got the hang of it and began getting closer and petting the happily munching elephants.

After 20 minutes we began our first Mahout lesson.  Three elephants were brought over to help us learn how to mount, ride, and recite the newly learned commands.  Oscar was the first volunteer to mount the 9foot elephant (She was the Grandma of my baby elephant- more to come about my little nugget).  His face said it all,  as the elephant began to get up he seemed to see stars.  Just pure amazement mixed with a lot of fear.  I was snapping away and trying to catch every emotion he was experiencing but I wouldn’t fully know until it was my turn.

When it was my turn…I kinda wished it wasn’t.  The fear returned in an instant, but with the Mahout motioning me to come closer I followed directions. First you step on their bent leg and you grab a handful of Elephant ear and with a  1,2,3 your boosted up.  The elephant immediately begins to stand up once they feel your weight on their neck.  That feeling is indescribable…so much adrenaline begins to pump through your whole body.  You are suddenly 11 feet tall and begin to realize how crazy elephant skin feels!

These are the commands we learned

  •  non long: lower for mounting and dismounting
  • bai: go! (while tapping both elephant ears with both of your legs
  • how: stop
  • look: stand up
  • quai, quai: turn left or right depending on which ear you tapped

In this picture I pulled all my nerves together in order to get “the picture” but in reality I was FREAKING OUT

And here is Oscar’s money shot!

After our class we washed our hands, which were just flithy and sat down for a lunch of coconut chicken with rice, sweet and sour chicken, a broth soup with noodles and fresh pineapple for dessert. Delicious.  We met a British lady that is a television producer in L.A. who was on vacation with her Hungarian husband.  We also met a young Canadian girl traveling along that is living in China teaching music classes at an English school.

This was our view during lunch.  This view really made me realize how far away I was from home.

After lunch we lazily lounged in the shade while anticipating which elephant we would get assigned to .  Oscar got one of largest elephants in our group and I was assigned to the smallest.  My little nugget was one bony little man.  Since he is only 5 years old I was instructed to sit on his back and not on his neck.  The mahout working with my elephant was very attentive and responded to all my little cries (I tried to stay cool but I felt like I was going to fall off!)  He also had to hold my nugget’s ear while we walked through the jungle since he was so excited and wanted to run away with me.  As it was we were the leaders of our group and I spent the majority of the hour trek alone with my mahout and baby elephant.  It was a beautiful day and I loved looking at the exotic vegetation and then looking down at the elephants head, constantly reminding myself to enjoy every second.  I felt like a girl version of Tarzan and at the same time like I was completing a childhood dream of riding my very own Dumbo.

I felt pretty lucky to have the mahout that I did because every time I had the chance to look back at Oscar I would see his mahout off in lala land or talking to my mahout.  I would hear Oscar yelling the commands we learned while his very hungry elephant ignored him and continued to wonder into the thick brush looking for more leaves and branches to munch on. Even with all of that in mind he kept a smile and dodged the branches his elephant was pulling him through.  A real Champ!!

It was only an hour but both of us were ready for our rest.  Getting off my elephant I could feel my legs shaking (not sure if it was the fact that I was squeezing my little nugget the whole time to stay aboard or from the adrenaline).  We took a rest at the top of the trek and got to pet the elephants and watch them roam around the forested area.  Here Oscar is taking a mini break.

 Our elephants felt the same.

And…here is my little nugget playing with his mahout

Oscar and I also took advantage of the great photo op with his elephant.

Next, we got back on our elephants and rode them down to the water.  Those hats were a lifesaver because it was hot when we got out from under the canopy of trees.

As we reached the water we got off our elephants and were able to watch them enjoy themselves rolling around in the water with their mahouts performing balance tricks to keep themselves from getting completely submerged.  It was fun to see the elephants and their mahouts play with each other.  Next it was our turn!

We were each given a bucket and scrub brush and sent into the water.  What we weren’t expecting was the mushy mushy pond floor that we stepped into.  It was not enjoyable to think about what you had between your toes but when elephants are rolling around in water right next to you nothing else really matters.

So after scrubbing my little nugget down his mahout instructed my to hop up on the elephant with him.  I was all for leaving behind the mushy floor surface but I had no idea what he would lead me around to do next.  So we were off…one by one we would walk up to the other tourists and with two short commands from my mahout my little  nugget would spray them right in the face.  Our first victim got it the worst, I think she may have even had her mouth open in a wide smile… I was laughing so hard that I could barely hold on.  Then we were after Oscar.  I think we ended up spraying him about three times before my nugget and mahout were satisfied.

After getting out of the elephant pond all we think of was our own showers.  I literally had elephant poop in my hair…it wasn’t my best look, but completely worth it.  After cleaning up we all piled back into the airconditioned van for the hour drive back to Chiang Mai.  Oscar has a great video of me sleeping on his shoulder.  Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll see it one day!

Farewell Baan Chang Elephant Park.  We loved our experience!