I reached into a woven, bamboo basket at my feet and pulled out a ripe banana. I hesitantly held it forward. It was then pulled from my hand in a strong, but gentle sort of way. Although intimidated by her huge size, I got the sense that this elephant was intelligent and trying to figure out if I was someone she could trust. I also trusted the elephant more and started putting the food directly into her mouth. I was told by the handlers that feeding your elephant is the best way to start the bonding process.
After feeding “my elephant” the entire contents of my basket, I led her by the ear to a shallow stream nearby. This was my elephant, because she was assigned to me for the day. Since this elephant was less than 10 years old, she was still very playful, rolling in the stream and squirting water through her truck. With some in trepidation, I got into the water to brush and clean my elephant. It soon became fun for both of us and I only watched out that my elephant did not roll over my leg. Soon, we were both soaked.
After all the elephants were bathed, I gathered with a small group of other visitors who had also come to participate in this Thai elephant sanctuary experience outside of Chiang Mai. We were similarly attired with the local elephant handlers rough, striped shirts. Now, they were going to show us the right way to mount your elephant.
By the way, there were no seats or saddles on these elephants. I watched closely as the trainer taught us the 2-step method to get on your elephant. He said, “Get your elephant to lift its foreleg by pressing your foot behind its leg, use its upper leg as your first step, and then swing your other leg over the top.” I was the last to go and I had this technique totally memorized. However, just as I started, he stopped me and said, “Since your elephant is taller than the others, you need to use the 3-step method.” I immediately got nervous, but after adjusting to this new information, I was soon confidently, sitting on top of my elephant.
Seated on my elephant’s neck with my knees tucked behind her ears, I felt her rough skin and short scratchy hairs. I viewed the surrounding, verdant forest from this commanding position and was amazed that I was totally in control of my elephant. I glanced down at my arm, where I had written phonetically the Karen tribal words for right, left, stop, forward, back up and sit down. I said “right” and pressed my left knee into the back of her ear and she turned right. As I moved along the forest trail, my body and mind were totally connected to this magnificent creature.
I was glad that my elephant was able to live in this reserve for abandoned elephants. Traditionally, young elephants grew up with a young boy of similar age and they stayed together for life. The elephant and its “mahout” performed age old tasks in agriculture and logging. Now they have been replaced by machinery. However, after you spend a day with an elephant, you better understand that elephants still need family and purpose.
- Photo: The author with his elephant © Rick Talbot is licensed under a All Rights Reserved license