Thailand: Part 9 Leaving Chiang Mai and arriving at Anantara

Sunday, August 1, 2015

We had another lovely breakfast at our hotel in Chiang Mai this morning. I wish we had more time to spend there, because we were truly in the lap of luxury. The breakfast was three courses served leisurely. It makes for a good start to the day to drink the small cups of strong coffee and wait for the next plate of food to arrive.

Nicky/Vicky and driver met us at 8:00 AM and we hit the open road. I asked her which was her name and she replied, “Both.” Then she told us her real Thai name (totally unpronounceable) and explained what we had already figured out: nearly every Thai person gets a western nickname. She told us that the morning she was born, the hospital was very quiet, and the only sound her father could hear was a ticking clock. Tick-tock, tick-tock. She explained, “I can’t answer to my nickname Tick-Tock. People would laugh, so I’m called Ticky. Some people can’t say Ticky so they say Nicky or Vicky. Say any of them and I will know you are talking to me.”

Our drive was uneventful for about 30 minutes until we were stopped at a checkpoint at the edge of the city by the highway police. Our driver did not have the proper license for carrying tourists, and so he had to pay a fine to get his paperwork right on the spot. Plenty of others were in the same boat. We also saw truckloads of Burmese people being stopped and asked for their work permits. Our guide and driver took it all in stride and so did we. The delay was only about 20 minutes, and our driver came back with a scowl on his face and the papers wadded in his hand. Ticky said that sometimes the police are corrupt and simply take a bribe and give no paperwork in return.

We drove about 2 1/2 hours to Wat Rong Khun, better known to foreigners as the White Temple. The temple is really an art exhibit. It is contemporary, unconventional, and privately owned by famous artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors in 1997. The white is intended to symbolize the purity of the Lord Buddha. There is also a gallery of the artist’s works, and he is prolific and imaginative.

There was a wishing well. Your wish will come true if the coin lands on the top-most cup. I think Genene hit it, but it was hard to tell.

This tree is comprised of “leaves” left by individuals. You write your name and birthday on each one and hang it on the tree to “make merit.”
Now this is a “No Smoking” sign!
 
We had lunch at a local noodle shop, and Nicky steered us toward dishes that were the specialty of the north. I had a hearty crispy noodle soup made with coconut milk that was simply delightful. Greg had a pork noodle dish that was spicy enough for him, though he admitted that my dish was better. Genene stuck with her favorite: pad thai noodles. We also had fruit smoothies and sticky mango with rice. Lunch was very inexpensive and filling.

The artist likes superheroes and movie characters as well. There is not a real person inside this. It’s a statue…sort of.

We strolled around the White Temple and admired the artistry.
I can imagine that on a sunny day this would be even more spectacular. There are tiny mirrors embedded in the temple, and I am told the entire thing glistens in the sun. It looked pretty awesome on this rainy day too.
Frozen?
Batman hanging from a tree:
Even the traffic cones are stylized:
 

We hit the road again. Our itinerary called for us to drive into the mountainside to see the hill tribe people and go to a plantation. Nicky steered us away from this plan. It had been raining all day, and she said the roads to the tribe and plantation listed on our plan were very narrow and there were mudslides in the area. She said she knew of a good tea plantation and a hilltribe village along our route and asked if it would be okay to stay on the main road. We agreed. It was the right decision in the end because we still didn’t get to our hotel until 5:00 PM. If we had done as our travel agent planned, who knows when we would have arrived. I think it is best to follow the advice of the local guide.

The Akha hilltribe village was a sad place. The Akha people are originally from China but arrived in Thailand via Burma. Civil wars have driven them from country to country. They have a subsistence farming living, and some of them grow poppy for opium. As soon as we got out of the van, an old woman and a child attached themselves to us, pushing a basket full of trinkets in our direction and trying to get us to buy something. The trinkets did not look appealing at all. There was no real craftmanship to them and they were probably made in a sweatshop in China somewhere. We took a pass, but they stayed at our side constantly. Nicky explaned that the men were “lazy” and did absolutely nothing all day (except chew betel nut and perhaps smoke a little opium). The women must go to the fields, work all day, and come home to cook for their men. “It’s not fair,” Vicky said. Genene and I agreed. Greg thought it sounded like a good gig. As we walked by, one man gestured to Greg. He was holding some kind of bong pipe (Was it opium? Nicky wouldn’t say). Greg waved him off and kept walking.

This old woman is in her 70s. Her teeth are gone from chewing betel nut.

She wanted us to see her traditional Akha hat.

 

The old lady wanted money after I photographed her, but Nicky told me not to pay her. Nicky said that the children do receive a free education, but the cycle of poverty is hard to break.

We were glad to get back in the van. It’s one thing to know that people live lives like this. It’s another thing to hop out of your fancy van, snap a few photos of them, and motor off. I waste more than these people have.

We saw rice fields all along the way.

We drove another hour to the Choui Fong tea plantation. The setting was beautiful. The tea plant can live 50 years. The leaves are picked by hand from the top of the plant. If two leaves sprout from the top, that is the top quality tea. If there are more than two small leaves, it is a lower grade of tea. The top leaves can grow back in only a few days so the leaves can be harvested constantly. The leaves are spread out to dry. Because it was raining, the drying area was not in operation.

 
Tea with a view:
We sampled the different grades of tea and all of us agreed that we liked the one made with the tea flower best. It smelled sweet and needed no sugar. We drank a pot of it, ate some green tea ice cream and relaxed for a few minutes before moving on.

We arrived at our resort at about 5 PM. While it had been a long car ride, our day was not that strenuous. We felt good. We sat down to check in and our hostess greeted us very graciously, offered us hot ginger tea and cold face towels. She said, “It’s been a long day in the car for you, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon. Would you like a small neck massage while we are getting your passport information?” I knew immediately I was going to like this place. A beautiful lady appeared from nowhere and began rubbing my neck and back. I sat and relaxed for about five minutes while she worked the kinks out of my neck and Greg took care of the paperwork. Then it was his turn for the neck massage. I could get used to this!

Our resort package is all inclusive and each day we get an activity. I was so enthralled with the neck rub that I chose a spa treatment on the spot. We had just enough time to go to our rooms, take a quick shower, put on our robes and head for the spa. Greg and I chose a 60 minute Thai massage and a 30 minute facial. Genene chose the Balinese massage and facial.

I’ve always heard about Thai massages but cannot recall that I have ever had one. Back in my SEAL PT days, we all used to go see a lady named Betty the Bonecrusher who gave rough, “therapeutic” massages. The Thai massage was something akin to that. It’s a dry massage that involves a lot of muscle stretching and manipulation. Greg and I were in the room together, and they asked us to put on Thai pajamas, a loose fitting white top and bottom. Then they worked us over. Some of it was a bit painful. I’ve had massages where I have almost fallen asleep, but there was no chance of it happening on this day. My lady was up on the table with me, bending and manipulating and stretching me. My buddy Mark Ivy swears that a good Thai massage can help a lot with back pain, and I believe him now. They released a lot of sore muscles and pinched nerves on my body. Riding the elephants was hard work, and we had many sore spots and kinks. Greg and I only squealed a few times as the ladies dug in.

The facial was more relaxing. They rubbed on various oils and astringents and massaged gently. When we were done, we met up with Genene in the spa reception area, where we all enjoyed some more hot tea. Her Balinese massage had been much more relaxing. They had rubbed her with warm oils, and she felt pampered.

We had a delicious three course Thai meal at the hotel restaurant and came up to bed. We have nothing planned tomorrow until a cooking class at 5:30 PM. It’s our first night to sleep without an alarm. What a luxury that will be!

 

Thailand: Part 8 Last day at Thai Elephant Camp and Chiang Mai

Saturday, August 1, 2015

We woke up for the 6:30 AM feeding.

Elephant bell:
Drinking from the garden hose:
The mahouts live near the paddock with their elephants. Some of them are as young as 16, and some have children of their own. Looks like there's a new mahout on the way:
Breakfast was a white soup, fried rice, longons, and hot coffee.
Mahout toast:
This photo is proudly and prominently hung in the campsite. The boy aboard the elephant is the Crown Prince's son, the grandson of the king. The hippy told us that Thai Elephant Camp can never sell this elephant now, because they may be able to say some day that the king rode it. Elephants live for 100 years, so it's a big commitment.

 

At breakfast, we finally spent some time talking to the young girls who were staying in a dormitory just below our camp. They are serving with Global Leadership Adventures. It's like a Peace Corps program for students 14 years of age and older. The girls have been here for more than a week planting trees, visiting schools and caring for the elephants. One girl's mom lives in the Heights and attended law school at UT when I did, though I did not know her. It's a small world. Genene was intrigued by the program. Perhaps in a few years…..

We wished Johann a good day. He is off to spend it at the nursery and will go straight to Bangkok from there and then return to Belgium…until the next time.

We went down to the paddock to practice our mount and dismount skills. Our guides required us to try two other mounting methods. We already knew “map long,” which is when the elephant kneels for us to mount. The second method is song soong, in which the elephant remains standing and lifts a leg. As you get your feet on the leg, the elephant raises the leg up, up, up until you can jump to the neck. Tam long means head down, and you scramble right over the top of the head.

The “new recruits”– day-tripper elephant riders–came in. There was a British man who lives and works in London now, but when he mentioned we were from Houston, he said, “Oh, I worked there for several years and our two daughters were born there.” He said he would love to get back to Houston as the work pace was slower than London. We were amazed to find so many Houston connections this morning. We listened to the main guide, Mr. Man, give the elephant lecture word for word. The Asian elephant has a big head and small ears. The African elephant has big ears and a small head. The Asian elephant has one “finger” on the end of its trunk, while the African elephant has opposable fingers. The Asian elephant has five toes on front and four toes on the back. The African has five in the front and three in the back. Both male and female African elephants have tusks. Only the male Asian elephant has tusks, and some of the males do not have tusks. What do you call them? Thanks to my law partner Taylor Goodall, I was able to shout out the answer on the first day: Ladyboys!

Genene was so adept at getting on and off that the guides allowed her to demonstrate to the newbies. I was so proud of her. She went right to the elephant, introduced herself to everyone and gave the commands.

Map long:

Song soong:
Tam long:
Greg did a very good tam long with one small problem at the end.
My song soong:
My tam long (very flattering view):
I could not have done this a few short months ago. My back is much better, and I can get up and down, though it still isn't easy. If I could drop about 20 pounds, it would help.
Balance!
Thank Ganesha I made it!
 
Getting off is like…well, it's like falling off an elephant.
Har har har!
Put the sugar cane right here and no one will get hurt.
 
Today, we were heading into the high forest. Greg had a new mount, Ruby, and he seemed much more relaxed. The “newbies” were taking the route we took two days ago, so our little family of three, our elephants and our mahouts hit the road on our own.
 
We passed these men at work. I'm pretty sure this hole wouldn't pass an OSHA inspection.
 
 

The mahouts foraged for food for their elephants as they walked. They would use their big knives to chop the juicy stalks and throw them up on the trail, where the elephants snagged them and munched away as they walked. The mahouts also foraged for mushrooms for themselves. By lunchtime, they had collected a large bag.

Our lunch stop was very quaint:

 

I told the young mahout how beautiful Thailand was. His immediate reply: “The United States is beautiful too, yes?” I assured him that it certainly was. He said, “I would like to go there some day. I have never ridden a horse and I think I would like to.” Isn't that funny? We've come halfway around the world to ride an elephant, something we think is very exotic. He wants to come to our backyard to do something we think is pretty pedestrian.

 
We returned to the Maetang River, this time at a slightly different crossing.
Genene's elephant is loaded:
Incoming!
TJ's mahout, my constant companion for two days. I could not pronounce his name.
TJ gets a soak.
Greg thinks he looks like this without the elephant too.
Greg's dreams of being kissed by two woman at once finally come true. He was back in good spirits today and seemed to love the day. I was happy for him.
We finished our ride and said goodbye to our elephants. Greg finally “got it.” He had a great day on Ruby and was pleased that he had changed elephants. It made all the difference in the world. I don't cry very often, but I cried when I had to say my final goodbye to TJ. She was an awesome elephant. The animals are so gentle, so protective of us. They could kill us in an instant, and given the cruel treatment that some of them have endured, who could blame them? And yet they protect us. They walk carefully around us, making sure never to put a foot down wrong. We have always heard about the bond between men and horses, but the elephant is bigger, stronger, smarter. They live for 100 years, and the bond with the mahout can last for the lifetime of the mahout or the elephant.
We received certificates of mahout. I don't kid myself: the elephant didn't listen to me at all once my sugar cane and bananas ran out. The real mahouts have the love and respect of their beasts.
We got back in the van for Chiang Mai. We struck up a conversation with a young Belgian couple who had been on the day trip. They loved their ride. They were traveling across the country with nothing but a backpack. Ah, to be young again.
Genene made a pillow out of her backpack and was gone.
We got back to Ratchamancha hotel in the late afternoon. We got a different suite but it was just as spectacular as the first.
Our living room:
Overcoming the withdrawal of three days without wifi:
Like daughter, like father:
On our first evening in Chiang Mai, we had done absolutely nothing. We did not want to leave the city without at least doing some exploration. We had heard that the Night Market was fabulous. The receptionist told us it was a short walk, and she gave us a map.
The only problem is that vitually none of the streets was marked, so we had to remember each turn very carefully. I wanted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs, but the rats and dogs would have eaten them. We saw both. Amazingly, we were able to follow the paper map and find the market, but the walk was a fairly long one, about 45 minutes. By the time, we got there we were pretty ragged out.
Scooters, people, food:
Street food:
Would you buy “fresh sushi” from a street cart? Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. We kept walking.
Fruits are probably safer, but we wanted a meal:
We turned down the main street for the night market, and things got really chaotic. The crowd was wall to wall. It was hard to move, and most of the stalls were selling trinkets and junk. How many flip-flops does one person need? Perhaps we were just exhausted after a long day on the elephants, but the whole thing lost its charm very quickly.
I was the first one to admit defeat. I said, “I've had enough of this.” Greg was waiting for me to say that. He was locked and loaded. He said, “Pick your way to the 7-11! It goes through to the next street.” I was impressed that he had our escape plan ready. We climbed up the steps. I took two final shots of the craziness.
We ducked into the long narrow store. I've never been happier to see a 7-11! We walked through and out the other side and were immediately on a quieter street. I got some great shots of the moat in the old city.
The old city gate of Chiang Mai:

 

We picked our way back carefully exactly the way we had come. Genene is lots of help to us now, as we asked her to help us spot landmarks at each intersection where we had turned. We were happy to be back on a fairly quiet street. Suddenly Greg called out, “Look there. Look who I see.” Across the street were Phil, Antonio and Michael from the elephant camp! We met in the middle of the street and hugged like old friends. In a city of nearly 3 million people, what are the chances that we would meet them again? It was a little bizarre. I got Phil's email and told him we would send photos of his boys and he could send us any that he had of our family. They were headed to the Night Market. We told them to have fun! We wanted no part of it. It was so wonderful to have found them again!

We arrived back at the safe haven of our resort hotel.

We were the last ones in the dining room, but we enjoyed a quiet, family meal together. The streets of Chiang Mai beat us tonight!
Tomorrow, we head further north to another resort. We have some down time and pampering built into our schedule after the elephant camp. We are looking forward to a break in the action.

 

Thailand Part 7: Thai Elephant Camp Nursery

Friday, July 31, 2015

For our second day at elephant camp, our experience would be different. We were going to the nursery to see the two babies–Dumbo and the other with a Thai name I cannot recall– and their mommas. The nursery is about a 45 minute drive from the main elephant camp. The moms and babies do not work at all, and they must have more to eat and more room to roam. They need a low stress environment in which to bond, grow and thrive.

The handlers jumped in the front of a small Toyota pickup truck, while we tourists hopped in the back. The backend of the truck was covered, and there were long benches to sit on. The California boys–Phil and his sons Antonio and Michael–were with us. There was just room for the six of us to sit in the back. The ride was, as my dad would say, “as rough as a log wagon.”

Our view from out the back of the truck. Elephants, water buffalo, scooters, and vans sharing the road: Dorothy, we are definitely not in Kansas any more.

We stopped in a longon orchard and bought the fresh fruit right off the tree. The fruit is translucent, sweet and juicy. There's a large hard stone pit in the center. I showed the California boys my Arkansas watermelon seed-spitting technique, and soon we were all having a spitting distance contest. I think I won.
We continued on, and the road got narrower and narrower and muddier and muddier. Halfway up the hill, we stopped moving and the driver shifted into low and we could smell the rubber burning as the tires spun and spun and spun. You could smell the engine burning too. In the Arkansas woods with my dad as a kid, we've gone through many mudholes. If we had been in Arkansas spinning our wheels like that, I would have expected us to bury up the the axle, but there must be a firm ground a few inches under the muck in these Thai hills. Our driver eventually found it, we gained some traction, and continued up the hill. It happened again. And again. Each time, we were at a dead stop, but our driver got us moving again and we finally crested the hill. He pulled to the side of the road and told us we would walk the rest of the way.
He called this the “shortcut.” Can you see the trail?
Picking our way down gingerly. I kept expecting to see Forrest Gump and Bubba.
The road we had to walk down because the truck could make it no further.
First view of the elephant nursery.
We each received a basket of bananas. The mommas can eat them peel and all, but we were told that the babies should only get the peeled bananas. We couldn't peel fast enough, and they were giving us the bum's rush and trying to grab them out of the baskets. It was chaotic. The mommas had no problem snatching the bananas from their babies, and if a baby dropped a peeled one, it was GONE.
Gimme some!
Got anything up there?
The mahouts let the mommas and babies out of the paddock, and we headed out into the surrounding woods.
The babies played king of the hill.
One of the guides seemed to be having a good time encouraging one of the babies to push and swing his trunk. The baby and the guide “boxed”, and the baby is already quite strong. I thought this seemed like a bad idea. When training a dog, you never want to teach it to play aggressively with you because you always want to be known as the alpha. It seems to me the same principle should apply to elephants, even more so with a multi-ton beast. Official training of the babies won't begin until they are three years old, and I think these two are around one or 1 1/2. Some day, the baby will probably get hooked for the behavior the guide was encouraging today. I didn't photograph any of it. The boys from California wrestled some with the babies and got pushed around. I didn't fault them for it. They were sweet kids. Boys will be boys, and everyone was laughing and having a good time. However, I was pleased that Genene didn't try it. When I asked her later why she didn't, she said simply, “I didn't want to be knocked down!”
The mommas wasted no time and headed straight into the hills to eat. I heard one of them snap a tree, and it sounded like a gunshot. Not so many years ago, the elephants were used in the timber industry. They hauled the teak wood from the jungles and forests.
If you are at the back of the elephant parade, your view never changes.
While we were wandering in the jungle, I saw one of the elephants express some obvious displeasure. She flapped her ears and put her head down and gave a little trumpet sound. The source of the problem was apparent: a big yellow dog was following us, and Momma did not like him getting anywhere close to her baby. The mahouts shouted at the dog, and he retreated to a safe distance and continued shadowing us. It was the only time I saw any of the elephants upset.
Genene made it across this bridge. I tried to follow, with disastrous results. The water was waist deep and cold. The California crew took one look and elected to roll up their pants legs and ford the stream in a shallower spot up the creek. Smart move!
Just a girl and an elephant in the jungle. Nothing to see here.
Family photo.
Take a look at that teat!
Getting a little suck-suck.
Water buffalo in the field. The nursery area also produces crops for elephants and people. We saw rice and corn growing.
This guy was about two inches long and 3/4 inch wide. I guess I could have put my hand into the photo for perspective, but …no thanks. I think I saw his brother on a cart in Bangkok.
Football season is right around the corner. Go Hogs!
Water buffalo:
Our lunch today was fried rice with chicken in a banana leaf with fresh longon.
At the lunch stop, a scrawny yellow cat took right up with me. I fuss at Greg and Genene all the time, telling them not to pet any of the dogs or cats we see. Years ago, Greg tried to catch a loose dog in Memorial Park, was bitten, and had to take a series of rabies shots. I tell Greg and Genene that every time they think of petting an animal here, they should ask themselves if they are ready to end their trip and spend a $1,000 on shots. Of course, my heart melted when the old cat jumped right up and settled into my lap. I sat there stroking it while it purred. Do as I say, not as I do!
After lunch, the guides let the children ride the mommas for a few minutes to the mudhole.
We gave the mommas and babies a good mudpack. The guides tell us that it is good for their skin. It's a natural sunblock and insect repellent. Thai Elephant House elephants have the best skin in Thailand!
We went back to the running stream to wash the mudpack off.
American Gothic:
We said goodbye to the babies and mommas and took the shortcut back to the truck. We started down the muddy road. The dog ran after us for a good quarter mile.
 
 
Greg was worn out when we got back to camp. He said he was ready to leave, but he knew we couldn't. Genene and I were tired but our spirits were better than his.
Our duplex cabin was simple.
The camp was pretty.
Greg stood at the hill's edge and watched the elephants and tried to recover his usual good spirit.
Genene sat inside playing games on her iPad.
The rooms were very simple. The beds were very hard.
We relaxed at our cabin and on the grounds. The California boys were not staying the night. I walked down to the muster point to try to see them off, but I missed them. I was sorry because we didn't get their email addresses or full names. I would have liked to stay in touch. They were great traveling companions for the day. The boys were good natured and adventurous. The father Phil has been on many travels and it was nice to listen to his stories.
We watched the guides cook dinner. These are omelettes in a banana leaf boat.
We sat around drinking beer and shooting the breeze with the guests and the locals. We met a wonderful old gentleman from Los Angeles. We never caught his name, but he was a delight. He had served in the Peace Corps in various African countries for 20+ years and then gone on to teach English in LA. He is retired now, and he decided to come to Thailand to live. He came on a trip here a few years ago and was enthralled. He's built a house up on the hillside and owns one of the elephants at Thai Elephant Camp. He told us he paid $30,000 for it. I can't really tell what that means, except he comes down every day to feed and socialize with the elephant and with us. He was in his mid-sixties, with two earrings in each ear, a large tattoo going down his arm–a delightful old hippy. He was an excellent raconteur, and he enjoyed listening to our stories as well.
We also met Johann from Belgium. He has obviously been bitten by the Thai bug. In a few years, I predict he will have his own elephant. He has been to Thailand 19 or 20 times in the past few years. (He has lost count.) He has been to the Thai Elephant Camp 9 or 10 times. (He has lost count.) He was quiet and didn't share his inner motivation for coming time and time again to this place. He must love the elephants.
We went for the night feeding.
My new camera has an ISO of 10,000. I got a pretty nice shot of the paddock with it.
We were lucky enough to see the second full moon this month, the so-called blue moon. The next one won't be seen until January of 2018.

We are going to ride again tomorrow. Greg has asked for a different elephant to see if that will make him more comfortable. I hope that it will because Genene and I are having a blast.

Even a hard bed feels good when you are exhausted.

 

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.