Thailand: Part 6 Thai Elephant Camp–a ride in the jungle

Thursday, July 30, 2015

I got a good night’s rest last night and awoke before Greg and Genene. It was probably 4:30 or so, but I felt rested. It was the best night’s sleep I have had so far. Our suite was large, so I took the opportunity to go out into the living room and get caught up on my blogging. I always begin to despair when I get two or three days behind. It gets to be more like work than pleasure. If I can keep the blog up as I go, it’s much easier. Anyway, I finished the Wednesday blog right as the sun came up. The birds were chirping, and I felt ready for anything.

Our hotel is stunning. We will get to come back here for one more night after the elephant camp, so perhaps we will get to enjoy more of it. We went down to breakfast, expecting the usual continental buffet. Not so fast, partners. We had a full service breakfast with three courses. Greg had some traditional rice soup that was very savory. I was in the mood for more American fare and had the fruits, waffles, eggs, bacon, and croissant. Best of all, the coffee was bottomless, although it was served in dainty cups.

Our driver arrived promptly at 8:00. We probably should have packed one bag and left the others at the hotel but alas…we had been very lazy the day before and weren’t that highly organized. We stuffed all the bags into the van and hopped aboard. There was another family in the car with us, a father and his two sons from San Luis Obispo, California. We rode along quietly together.

Our driver brought his daughter along. She might be a little older than Genene. It looks like she enjoys sleeping in the car too.

About 40 minutes out of town, we made a drive in grocery stop. Our driver picked up fresh fruit and dropped his daughter off. Maybe she was in school? I don’t know. We didn’t even get out of the car. The driver simply drove into the market, handed a list to someone, and soon the pineapples and fruits were in sacks and riding along with us.

We kept driving north and the city fell away. We saw rice paddies, palm trees, and mountains in the distance. A light rain was falling.

An unusual street sign:

We arrived at the camp a little after 9:00 AM. Our bags were carried to our rooms, and we followed right behind. We received a cloth tote bag and a mahout’s uniform. The uniform was a lightweight denim, cut with plenty of room for ventilation and for riding. I chose to wear compression pants underneath. They gave us a few minutes to get changed into our outfits and get our gear together. We met back at the visitor’s center, andd they gave us a few lessons in elephant commands and a safety briefing, which was amazingly short and sweet considering we were about to get up close and personal with animals whose weight are measured in tons.

The Thai Elephant Camp is proud of their reputation as one of the more humane elephant camps. We would be riding “bareback.” Other camps use the large basket and allow up to three people on board. Our guides said that was too much weight for an elephant to carry. They also allow only one guest per elephant, so the experience remains an intimate one. We each would get one elephant to ride. There are only 13 elephants at the camp, so no more than 13 people can be here at any given time. On our trip today, we were with a honeymooning couple, a family of four from Paris, and the father and his two sons who rode up with us.

The camp made no bones about the fact that they do use an elephant hook. The hook is just what it sounds like: a wooden stick with a large metal hook (about 3 inches long) on the end. Our guide explained that the hook is not used often but is necessary for training. He said, “These are animals. They have a heart. They are not machines. Sometimes, they may have a bad day or may feel aggressive. They must be taught to respect us and do as we command. Otherwise, they could just hurt or kill us.” I was satisfied with his explanation. I did see the hook used from time to time, but most of the time it was turned on its flat side. The few times I saw the hook end used, it was a light, attention-getting tap. I don’t deceive myself enough to think that the animals have never had the sharp end used on them, but our guide told us that was reserved for really bad behavior. He also told us that if an elephant is in musth or is having a bad day for any reason, they just send it back to the paddock for the day.

We reviewed our command words. The big six for today were body down, go up, go, stop, turn, and retrieve. A real mahout uses over 70 commands.


We signed our waivers, which basically said that we understood that we were taking our lives into our hands and that they had a $500,000 insurance policy on us. I guess that would get our remains repatriated and pay for a nice funeral.

We stopped briefly to pay respect to Ganesha, the elephant god. Our guide would be asking Ganesha for a good ride, a safe ride. He told us that if our religion strictly prohibited this, it is okay not to participate. We stood respectfully by as he lit incense, clasped his hands together prayfully and stood silent for a few moments.


We each got a basket of cut sugar cane and went down a short hill to the paddock to meet the elephants. We lined up along a rail fence and they came to us, with their real mahouts on board. They snatched and grabbed the crunchy sweet cane from our hands with their trunks.

The mahouts demonstrated the four ways to mount the mahout. This last one is reserved for the pros.

We practiced riding around the paddock area, and it was much harder than I thought. Obviously you are a lot higher up than when riding a horse. I’ve ridden a lot of bareback horses, but the elephant is different. We were told that the best spot is to ride up on the neck, not on the shoulders. The top of the elephant’s head is right in front of you. Unlike a horse, you can actually wrap your legs around the elephant’s neck and grip some.

Genene made it look easy. I wish I were 11 again sometimes, though I could do without the puberty mess. I’d settle for being 35 again.

One of Genene’s favorite early childhood books was called “Everybody Poops.” One of the lines is, “An elephant makes a big poop.” Yes, it does…and a big pee too. The guides said jokingly that they use the pee in Chang beer.

With just a couple of minutes of practice, we started our journey. We rode right into the jungle. At first, I thought it was going to be a very long day because I felt wobbly on top of my ride, a good sized girl named TJ. Greg was aboard Scooby Doo, and Genene had Hero. I wonder how many people actually fall off their elephants. It seemed easily possible. There was a rope around their bellies, but you had to reach behind you to hold on. I tried that for a while, but it seemed awkward. Adding to the tension was the fact that we were walking up and down slippery trails with sharp drop-offs on one side or the other. If the elephant turned her head out over the hillside, you were quite literally dangling out into space. That took some getting used to. I was amazed at how sure-footed the elephants were. The trails were slick with mud, but the elephants never slipped. They walked very slowly and put each foot down in the right spot.

After several minutes, the tension just melted away, and I began to feel the rhythm of TJ’s steps. The elephants also wear bells. When they range in the jungle, the bell helps the mahout to locate his elephant. The bell also helps people not to be surprised by walking up on a strange elephant, which could be dangerous. There’s nothing much to do on the elephant’s back except watch the scenery and listen to the soft tink-tink of the bell.

The elephants remind me of horses in one way: they love to eat and will try to do so as they walk along. Our guide told us that elephants sleep about five hours a night, laying down on their sides. The rest of the time they spend eating and pooping. They would walk a few steps, stick their trunks out on the side of the trail, and snag a bite. The command to go (pbai or huy) was a constant refrain from the mahouts. My elephant, TJ, was bringing up the rear, and she was very smart. She realized that she could get away with eating a lot more if she rushed up right behind the elephant in front of her. As long as the elephant train was stopped, her mahout wouldn’t fuss at her for eating so she could munch away.

We got to a river crossing. The mahouts mounted the elephants with us so they could stay dry while crossing.


Genene’s elephant gave her a nice spray.

We rode for a couple of hours to a lunch stop.


We had pad thai wrapped in a big banana leaf. It was delicious.

We also had fresh rambutan, a very odd looking fruit whose flavor was akin to a grape.

After lunch we got elephant kisses. We sat down and the elephant extended her trunk, made a suction on our face, and smack! The elephant must be careful not to get an entire ear. They could easily pop an eardrum. The noise from the trunk was actually a little disconcerting. It sounded like a wind coming down a long pipe. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what it is.

After lunch, it was time for the mud spa. Our guide picked one elephant (they take turns), and she laid down in the dark gray clay. We rubbed her entire body with it, stem to stern.


The humans got to use the black clay on our faces too. We spread it on our entire faces and let it dry into a hard pack. The honeymooner girl had appeared this morning in full make-up, gold sandals, and painted fingernails. She didn’t let her hubby spread the mud all over her. I thought it odd that she got all fixed up to go ride an elephant, but to each his own. I look for any excuse NOT to wear makeup.


We climbed back aboard and kept riding through the jungle, our faces still black with mud.

TJ reached up from time to time. I think she wanted to know if I still had any sugar cane.

Sugar cane?


We got to the river again, and this time we stopped to play.



The mahouts said, “Map long” right in the middle of the river, and our elephants went down and we all got soaking wet.


We splashed and squealed and threw water on ourselves and our elephants. We washed off the clay masks. The mahouts threw water on one another. We took turns getting lifted up by the trunks.


The river was cool and refreshing. The water was flowing swiftly but not so strong that you couldn’t stand and walk. We squealed and laughed. The crossing was a popular spot, and we saw several people riding the elephants on the baskets. The folks in the baskets looked at us with clear jealousy in their eyes. After all, they were essentially riding along on a moving park bench while we were swimming in the river with “our” elephants.

We rode through people’s backyards.
Flooding the fields:

We got back to camp at about 3:30 PM. Genene and I were exhilarated with the experience. Surprisingly, Greg was not as enthusiastic. He had never really learned to relax on Scooby Doo and was consequently exhausted. He has never been a horseback rider, so perhaps that was why he wasn’t as comfortable. Some of the guides theorized that Scooby Doo likes to look around a lot and maybe all that side to side motion was disconcerting.

Our cabin was very basic, and the shower had a simple electric heater that merely knocked the cold off the water. Genene and I took warm showers, and Greg’s lucky continued to hold when we threw a breaker and the electricity went off right before he started his shower. He couldn’t take the ice cold water and elected to walk to the day showers a short distance away.

At 4:30, our guides taught us how to make a mahout dinner. Greg was much more in his element working with food. There are times when the elephant and mahout used to go into the jungle together, although our elephants were chained in the paddock below us. When in the jungle, the elephant may be allowed to range and might get a good distance from the mahout. No worries. All you need for a night in the jungle is some water, rice, a bamboo stick and fire. We stuffed the bamboo sticks with rice until about 3 inches from the top.


Keep it packed loose so that the water can get all the way to the bottom. Pour water in to the top. Roast on a fire for half an hour and voila: sticky rice.

At 8:30 we went down for the night feeding, and then we were off to bed. We were all exhausted but Greg was particularly ragged out. He was snoring within seconds. The bed was very hard, so I had a little more trouble going down. We had no sheets on the bed, just a light blanket. It was all we needed. I was very sore. Tomorrow we will get to play with the babies so we will get a day off from riding. I could hear the soft tink-tink of the elephant bells and the occasional elephant grunt as I drifted off to sleep. It was a great day.

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