Paradise in Chiang Mai

My life has been forever changed by an elephant named Pu.

Before one can understand what this means, I ought to add a dazzling introduction. My love of elephants began when I was very little; how or why is beyond anyone’s imagination. It was at this tender age that I began my collection of elephant toys and stuffed animals. The boys were all dubbed Ellie; the girls all Ella. It was a difficult naming process. My plastic elephants would romp the great outdoors with me– the baby especially loved the mud baths I dug in the yard. My parents maybe not so much.

Years and years passed and the little girl became an adventurous traveler. My first real upclose interaction came last year in Cambodia when I rode and fed an elephant bananas. My heart pounded with happiness and I wanted to cry of joy. In less than one year, I came to Thailand and had not one but three riding opportunities (and a fourth and fifth declined because the trainers seemed unkind).

The ride in the outskirts of Bangkok was fun because the young guide jumped off to take pictures and instructed me to climb down onto the elephant’s head– my first bare back riding! The first in Chiang Mai, however, filled me with such sadness. The feats they were trained to do were impressive, like shooting goals and painting, but the poor elephants were jabbed and mistreated into entertaining customers. When I rode one through the jungles, I was both happy in the serene surroundings and incredibly upset at the ignorant fool of a trainer who often hit the poor elephant for trying to eat bananas from a lady feeding it at a buy-bananas station. It’s just a natural reaction– why the abuse? I was tempted to clobber the young guy myself: Let’s play pretend to be an elephant. I’ll be the abusive trainer. See how you like it. Needless to say I certainly did not give him a tip. A verbal beating was all he deserved.

By the end of the elephant village, I was disheartened and sad. Only a bamboo raft ride down the river brought me some ease. Followed by playing with baby tigers at Tiger Kingdom- also a terrible tourist trap but the tigers seemed to be well cared for. And adorable.

The next day– sadly my last as I had no idea Chiang Mai had so much to offer!– I had a real adventure. One of the best days of my life. At Pataya Elephant Farm, you don’t come for entertainment. You come to work and look after an elephant as if it’s your child for the day. My group of eight was assigned one elephant per person. I learned more about elephants than I could have from books: How to know if they slept well; whether or not you should approach them; that they sweat from the cuticles, and so many other facts. The whole day was hands on, with the trainers merely giving assistance. It was then I met Pu, my five year old adopted son for the day. He was happily swishing his ears, wagging his tail, dancing with his feet.

I was cautious at first, sizing up his tusks and wondering just how quickly he could destroy me. I did sign away my life in the waiver just moments ago, so it was all up in the air. First, introduce yourself: with a basket of sugar cane and bananas. If he doesn’t like you, new assignment; if the next one fails, go home, they joked to us. Pu and I bonded instantly.

The next few hours were a haze of blazing heat, learning and giving commands, and riding up and downhill through the lush jungle. If you’d have told me, when I was a child, that one day I’d be clambering up the trunk of an elephant to ride on his head, I would’ve been in a tizzy. Did I mention there are three ways to go from ground to king on a elephant-head throne? One: the elephant lies down and up you go. Two: he graciously lifts a leg which you use as a ladder while balancing on his ear for support. Three: pat with both hands on his head and he’ll kindly lower his trunk and let you scramble aboard. That’s my personal favorite.

The journey through the jungle had me nervous at first. It’s a long tumble off an elephant, even the young ones. And the trails involved some seriously rough terrain. After about half way, I finally got the hang of it; however, crouching in riding position — knees bent, feet begin the elephant’s ears for communication — takes a toll after a while. We all hopped off on shaky legs for a mid-journey rest and snack: bananas. While noshing, we watched them happily munch on bamboo trees and leaves. Pu, the youngster, came straight to the source: our banana peels. Atta boy.

By the time we got to the bathing pool and waterfall, we had little clue what lay in store. Strip down to bathing suits and follow your guide: it’s bathing time! Pu was happily submerged when not wrestling with the other youngling (Bang?) and the baby. Who knew they could stay underwater so long?!? I was terrified to hop on him as he kept lying down underwater. My biggest fear for a long while has been of drowning: add crushing by large elephant and I guess I could die happily. To say washing him was a challenge is a fierce understatement. Yet through plunging sideways into the water many times and avoiding the baby who kept trying to jump on me too. Adorable but deadly. I don’t think I could win that underwater game. The highlight was definitely getting sprayed by Pu’s trunk water gun. Haha I couldn’t stop laughing though it was quite cool water. After brushing and washing away the dirt, bath time was over. No rubber duckies, but a baby elephant was an acceptable alternative. The day ended with one more short ride and a goodbye, like saying farewell to a beloved friend. Pu, I’ll miss you. An added farewell bonus was seeing the very young babies- only months old. Playful, energetic. One crushed her mother’s bananas, rolling into them head first because she herself wasn’t allowed to eat them. Cute little brat. The even younger one, Tara, ran around her mother when we tried to take pictures with her; the other half of the time she tried to sit on a trainer. Haha. I love babies.

When all was said and done, I had one of the most remarkable days. More than a dream come true. Having the honor of caring for an elephant as if I were solely responsible for its well being was both difficult and rewarding. Seeing Pu react to my “dee dee” or “good” by flapping his ears was so heart warming. I can’t say I’ll ever see elephants the same way. For starters, I don’t think I can tolerate seeing them as entertainers again. It’s too sad when I can compare that to the memories of happy elephants in the jungle. And then I also feel grateful to those who dedicate themselves to taking care of elephants and other endangered animals, whether they want to or not. Just one day tired me out tremendously– I can’t imagine every day being as physically demanding. Yet I bet they take one look at those gentle faces and remember what they are working for- I know I would.

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