Our adventure began standing on a tall wooden platform ready to board the elephants. Each animal had a trainer, called a mahout, sitting atop its thick neck and head. A very small bench sat on the elephant’s shoulders, sitting on a foot of blankets and pads. My roommate Jessica and I watched our 7-ton ride come pick us up, curbside! We placed one foot on the inch-thick skin, then awkwardly fell into the padded seat. Our handlebar was an old, thin, fraying rope that slacked across in front of us. We clutched our cameras and a cluster of bananas and sugarcane that was given to us for treats for the animals and began the long walk. It reminded me of being on the back of a bus in the unpaved roads through the Costa Rican mountains and rocking wildly from side to side. Our mahout sat on the elephant’s head, using his own feet on the back of its ears as a steering device. The huge animals walked lazily in a line, and we went down a short, steep hill to enter the slow flowing river surrounded by green on every side. We all squealed in delight as our modern-day mammoths strolled downstream, keeping pace with the lazy river itself.
We crossed the water and started up the hill on the opposite bank. I snapped pictures wildly while the cold, clean air invigorated my senses. I clutched on for life with my left hand and captured visual memories with my right. Suddenly remembering the food, we jerked the fruit off the cluster and jabbed our guide in the shoulder. He took the dwarfed banana from my hand and tapped the elephant on the head. She immediately lifted her trunk, which curled above her boulder sized head and grabbed the food. While I had the driver’s attention, I pointed to myself, then to the elephant’s thick neck under my feet. “Please?” I begged, hoping to convey the fact that I wanted to sit shotgun. He said something in Thai (a “no” I presumed), chuckled, and we wobbled our way up and down the uneven terrain.
A few minutes passed, during which Jessica and I almost plummeted to a likely death several times. The slack rope that was supposed to be holding us in was not doing its job, and more than once we almost slipped out. We came up on a barn, and our barefoot driver led our elephant behind it, away from the group. As soon as we were out of sight of the rest, he turned around, pointed to me and said “you, down.” Beaming, I made the switch from the bench to the elephant’s head in under 5 seconds. He took my camera and climbed down the elephant’s trunk-like legs, and I fed her bananas while he snapped pictures of me. Jessica took her turn, then we came out of the hiding place to find the rest of the group still secure in their seats taking photos.
On the way back to the camp, we passed souvenir shops on stilts (to make them eye—and wallet—level). We passed on the exotically colored hats and water-bottle holders, and I tried very hard to look at the beautiful green scenery with my eyes instead of through the viewfinder of my camera. I breathed in the fresh air, tinged with lemongrass, and felt the breeze move my hair back behind my shoulders. Lurching forward, I almost fell again, but sat back up in unstoppable laughter—I was riding an elephant through the jungle in Thailand! The elephants’ charcoal skin was rough and wrinkled and covered in bristly black hair, and I could feel muscles moving under the skin with every step.
We fell victim to the elephants’ water fight on the way back across the river. Our mahout pointed to the elephant leading the way at the front of the line and said, “Mother.” The matriarch elephant evidently decided her children needed a lesson. Nonchalantly lowering her trunk into the river, she turned and sprayed gallons of cold river water, leaving half our group drenched. The younger elephants retaliated with sprays of water shooting over our heads. The other elephants, wise to this sport, expertly sucked water through their long trunks and sprayed it out with such force that it shot halfway to the riverbank, scattering the dawn-colored morning with rainbow-colored drops. The mother elephant got one last good spray in before she climbed the steep bank out of the river with surprising speed. I was too busy hanging on for life to notice if the younger ones decided to chance another attack.
Back on the ground, I bought a bunch of fruit and started feeding one of the elephants in a pen, one banana at a time. After three bananas, I guess she decided I was being too slow. She stepped toward me, wrapped her trunk around the lot (rubber bands and all), and put the entire mass in her mouth.
Our group had a while to walk around the elephants before the show started. I donated some Baht and took a few pictures right under a huge elephant’s mouth. I grabbed onto its tusks and grinned for the camera. Now this was the time where I was supposed to move on and join the rest of the group watching the show—but I couldn’t move: I was captivated by the animals’ beauty. I stood in front of one for a long time, patting his face, feeling the trunk, and having my hands and feet searched by this curious 5th appendage. The end of his snout was a little dirty from the mix of dirt and water, so my hands, feet, shirt, camera, face, purse, and clothes were getting soiled, but I didn’t care in the least! I ran my hands over the leathery thick skin and could feel the muscles rippling underneath. The eyes searched mine with an intimidating intensity, and I found it easy to understand why this animal has been worshiped for hundreds of years.
I moved on to the other elephants—ignoring everything, including my purse, which was hanging haphazardly at my side. I shelled out Baht left and right for donations. Petting, feeding, and being eye-to-eye with these wonders was like nothing else on earth. I finally tore myself away and went to watch the show. The elephants did all sorts of tricks, from sitting on an oversized toilet to sitting upright on their haunches, standing on their rear legs and then doing a sort of handstand. One of my favorite parts was the dance. A tape of Thai music was blasted through a stereo, and the animals started moving to the music: swinging their trunks in rhythmic circles and shaking their legs in tune with the beat. Watching something 30 times my size have better rhythm than me was hilarious, and even the elephants seemed disappointed when the music screeched to a stop.
Once it was time for some volunteers, I cowered in the back, as usual, and it’s the first time I’ve ever regretted it. One girl was deemed the “elephant princess” and was carried around in circles between two elephant’s interlocked trunks. Then two more volunteers were called to receive a massage. Aeisha lay on her stomach while an elephant lightly stomped on her butt with his massive foot, while Scott lay on his back and got his crotch smacked repeatedly with an elephant’s trunk. I laughed along with everyone but was itching to spend some more time with the elephants, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the grand finale. An easel was set up on the ground, and one of the elephants, paintbrush in trunk, began to draw on the paper. I thought he was drawing randomly, which still amazed me. After several brushstrokes, however, the image on the canvas started to take shape. He drew a picture of an elephant kicking a ball!