Today I scrubbed an elephant with a nail brush. It reminded me of that prison punishment when prisoners are made to scrub the toilet with a toothbrush. The difference being I was in seventh heaven!
Now in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, it was time for our day at Patara Elephant Farm – a hands on experience of being an elephant owner for the day.
Our group consisted of just eight and the drive from Chiang Mai to Ban Pong in a small mini bus took about an hour. We climbed up and up the mountains, eventually turning down a steep, wooded rough track that opened up to a clearing and there waiting to greet us was a female elephant and her baby.
Below us a small waterfall flowed into a lagoon surrounded by large rocks. About half a dozen elephants with their mahout (handlers) were lazing in the sun.
After making a fuss of baby Jumbo and his mum, it was time to get down to the serious business of elephant keeping. We learned a few basic commands such as deedee (meaning good boy/girl). We learned how to spot the signs of a healthy elephant, when our elephant was angry or happy, bored or sad. Finally it was time for the practicalities to begin and after donning our water gear, we clambered down the rocks to join the other elephants that had patiently waited for us and we were paired with our elephant and guide. SO (Significant Other) was delighted to be paired with the head of the herd resplendent with a super set of tusks. Bo-put was his name. As it turned out SO and Bo-put bonded like no other pairing of the day becoming the best of buddies.
I was paired with the dancer of the herd Ploy. She was a big gal and understandably I was nervous – of her feet mainly. I was handed a basket of bamboo and bananas. My guide demonstrated how to feed her, either straight into the mouth or offered to the end of her trunk for self-feeding. This was an instant bonding success. By now Ploy had accepted me, so much so she reached up with her trunk and kissed me on the neck. She nuzzled her trunk into my neck like a suction cup before she blew dust accompanied by a snort at me – I felt honoured.
We learned how to make our elephant lie down and then we brushed the dust off with a bundle of what look like bay-leaves. My handler indicated for me to brush harder. I could tell Ploy was enjoying this.
After learning about spotting healthy dung and finding out where elephants sweat (any guesses?) they were bath ready and excited to be heading into their lagoon.
With the assistance of my handler, I instructed Ploy to lie down – she didn’t need much persuading and then I was instructed to jump on – just like that – ‘you can climb on’ he said. Ploy’s skin was very tough and sprouted with hair the texture of wire wool – in fact it pricked my fingers, making them tingle. And then I was handed the nail brush. ‘You scrub like this’ my guide demonstrated and then he started scooping water over her body while I scrubbed away with the nail brush. My immediate thought was that this was going to take some time. I could tell that the elephants loved being in the water and they moved around immersing their heads and rolling around. In fact Ploy tilted suddenly and I fell off. I scrambled back on facing backwards and continued the washing.
Once the washing was over, we lined up for photographs and unbeknown to us, the elephants were instructed to squirt water over us – it was such an amazing experience – I was quite emotional!
We changed into our ‘elephant riding gear’ which consisted of special thick trousers to protect us from their rough hairy skin and a special tribal poncho-like top. Did you know there are three ways to mount an elephant? Neither did I.
- Instruct your elephant to lie down and clamber up to the neck – this is the most boring and least fun.
- Instruct your elephant to raise its front leg slightly and with two steps up, grab the upper rim of the ear and with your left hand on the support rope, hoist yourself ungracefully up and over with the assistance of your guides hand pushing your backside – nothing elegant about this method.
- Instruct your elephant to lower its trunk and just walk up it before pirouetting into place at the head. This was not an option for SO with Boput’s tusks being a major hazard.
Once sitting atop our elephants it was time to set off. Ploy was restless and I soon realised it was because she always has to lead the group and she was the first one ready for the off. My guide also jumped up with the agility of a gazelle as Ploy took the lead – I reckon it was so she could have first pick at the overhanging branches. The river was shallow and the rhythmic plodding of the elephants easy going. I spotted some bright yellow and blue butterflies darting around the edges of the water. Then two women walking along the river bank caught my eye. They were carrying baskets of food and I realised they were carrying our lunch. I thought it was odd that they were carrying this heavy load when the elephants were more than capable of doing that for them.
We plodded up the river for about thirty minutes before dismounting our charge – easy, instruct your elephant to lower its head and slide down the trunk. Just a short walk up a gentle slope to a straw thatched hut and our lunch had already been laid out by the two women. It was a super spread of chicken drumsticks, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, cakes and fruit. The bottled water was hot after being set in the sun all morning but we didn’t care, we were in the middle of nowhere!
When lunch was over, we fed the leftover fruit to the elephants. It was time to mount our charges once again and this time we headed along a wooded hillside track. Ploy didn’t lead this trek and my guide didn’t jump on either. He walked along chatting to another guide who was fashioning a sling-shot from a fallen branch he had moved from the path. Progress was slow. The elephants wanted to explore the undergrowth. There were mosquitos about and the elephants were flapping their ears a lot. The track levelled out and we trudged through a wet muddy puddle. There was excitement and conversation between the two guides just after Ploy sucked up the muddy water and then showered it all over me. The guides laughed and told me it was elephant mosquito spray. I had mud splatted all over my nose, neck, arms and legs but I didn’t care, I felt like I’d been blessed. Ahead of us was our mini bus and it was time to dismount and say our goodbyes. It was actually a bit emotional after a day’s bonding with such a great beast.
If you ever find yourself in northern Thailand, I would strongly recommend Patara Elephant Farm and their Elephant Owner for A Day programme. The elephants have been saved from ill treatment or bred on the farm. It’s reassuring to know the elephants are living happy and contented lives.
It was truly a once in a lifetime experience and one we shall cherish for a very long time.