I leap out of the trunk of the van, glad to be released from the confined space. Our car is too small for all of us to fit in the back seat. Luckily, we have a comfortably sized trunk. My brothers delight in taking turns riding back there. I however, find it a little too cramped for my tastes.
The sounds and smells of the jungle intoxicate me. Birds sing, bugs whistle and rasp, and jungle animals call. I have always found that the songs of the jungle are unique. Here, it is especially so, as elephants join the chorus!
Where am I?
The small town of Pai is nestled in the highlands of Thailand. There are many elephant camps there, but one of the more reputable establishments is Thom’s Elephant Camp. This camp is known for treating their elephants properly. They own four elephants, ranging in age from twelve to the early fifties, all females.
Our trip there was a surprise for Ezra’s birthday. He ran to the back of the van, face beaming, to grin at me and whisper excitedly “Elephants Hannah! Real, huge, elephants!” I laughed and grabbed my camera before we walked to where they were secured. I noticed that only a single chain attached their leg to a wooden post, and that none of the elephants were scarred or pulling against their tethers.
Ezra’s eyes widened, and his pace slowed. “They’re really big, aren’t they?” I mentally agreed. It’s hard to realize just how big an elephant is until you stand right next to one. It was rather disconcerting to be so close to an elephant, with nothing between it and myself. The sheer size of the beast was incredible.
“Hey Hannah! Come check this out!”
Famous last words from the test pilot. I glanced over to where Ezra stood giggling, the trunk of an elephant around his waist as it reached for a chunk of banana plant he had hidden behind his back. “They’re hairy! Wanna try?” Soon he had us all feeding the elephants, even swinging on their trunks.
The elephant men showed us how to clamber up to the elephant’s lofty back. One of the men in particular was very interesting. “He’s like an elephant whisperer.” Mom described him. His hair hung in a dark, tangled mane around his tanned face. He said something sharply in Thai, and one of the elephants picked him up, setting him up on her head. Once there, he proceeded to lay out a blanket on the elephant’s back, before sliding down her nose to the ground. “You, come up.” He told Elisha and Gabe in broken English. He showed them how to mount the elephant using the joints in it’s legs. Elisha yelled with delight from his perch on the elephants neck. “This is so cool!”
Mom and I were on one of the smaller elephants. “Small is still big enough to make it hard to get up!” I thought to myself as I clambered up rather ungracefully to balance on the elephants head. Mom leaned forward behind me. “I think you got the comfortable seat Hannah. But be careful, it’s a long way down!” Poor Mom. She straddled the ridge of the elephants backbone, swaying with each step she took. I turned forwards, running my fingers through the elephants hair. It was bristly, rather like thick wires of plastic.
I have never experienced anything more peaceful than riding through the highlands of Northern Thailand on the back of an elephant.
Her ears flapped against my knees as she walked, and I could feel her breathing with my bare feet pressed against her shoulders. Birds sang in the trees, and the sounds of the jungle surrounded us. We passed out of the forest, and walked quietly through fields of grass. The keepers explained to us that all of this was for the elephants. The four of them combined ate a full ton each day of banana plants and grass, with the occasional piece of fruit as a treat. They ate near constantly, even as we walked.
Did you know elephants love music?
It wasn’t long before the elephant man began to sing to his. His voice rose and fell as he sang a traditional Thai song. Mom and I sat listening in silence, entranced by the beauty of the moment. The elephants swayed as they walked quietly through the fields, around great gray rocks almost as tall as them, and under tall trees that whispered along to the song as a breeze swept through their branches. As we came to the bottom of a hill, we saw it. Dirty yellow, a river wound it’s shining path down through the hills. The elephants waded knee deep into the muddy water, and promptly sat down. My feet swirled the chilly water around us.
The keeper shouted something that sounded like “Monsoo! Monsoo!” and the elephant threw it’s trunk back, spraying me and Mom, just instants before she shook her wide head, throwing us off into the waist deep water. I came up laughing and spluttering. Mmm, delicious. Water the elephants had just pooped in. Oh well.
The keepers delighted in hauling us back onto the elephants and then having them shake us off again. If you think a beast as large as a small truck tossing it’s head around and rolling over until you fall off is a gentle thing, then you are greatly mistaken. It’s rather like having a house toss you off the roof. Mom thinks she may have cracked a rib.
Without a doubt, Dad and I were the best at staying on.
At one point, the keeper had my elephant stand up to toss me off. As she stood, I asked the keeper “No tossing off ok? Yes? No tossing?” He grinned widely from where he held on tight on the back. “Sit on neck ya? You hold on… hold on ears? Ok? Ya?” I sighed, and grabbed both ears tightly. He knew that from the elephants back, he’d be able to stay on, but that from where I perched precariously on her neck, I’d be tossed about half a mile. “Fine.” He grinned wider and shouted “Monsoo! Monsoo!” I actually managed to stay on for quite a few seconds, before being tossed about fifteen feet into the water. The keeper almost fell off laughing.
Later that day, we were all sitting around the elephant camp, waiting for lunch to be served. I found it a perfect opportunity to get out my mandolin and play a few songs. To my surprise, the largest elephant seemed to enjoy it. So much so, she actually began to dance! She shifted back and forth, swaying her head up and down, shuffling her feet, and flapping her ears in time to the music. I was so startled I nearly fell off my chair! It was the first time an animal had so obviously reacted to my music. I started up a faster paced tune, and the elephant danced along.
We left after lunch and a quick soak in the hot spring. The elephant man waved to us as we drove out, and Ezra waved back, to both him and the elephants. He sighed, a beatific grin on his face.
“This was the best day ever!”