I’m sat in the boiling Asian heat with a stray kitten on my lap. My friend Ben is giving the cat evils (suspicions of rabies none the less), and my friend Laura is getting her camera ready for the day.
We’re waiting for our minivan to take us into the hills of Chiang Mai, and to drop us off at an elephant camp. Fellow travellers are turning up and signing a declaration that states: if an elephant tramples you to death, it’s not the company’s fault. I’m concerned. The van turns up and a friendly Thai woman introduces herself as Nong. We all clamber into the air-conditioned vehicle. It’s bliss.
Nong states we are in store for a long journey into the hills of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. There are elephant camps all over the city, but we chose to go so far away to get the most authentic experience possible. My main concern was riding an elephant bareback and not sitting on a basket – this type of tourism is cruel.
During the journey we stop off to buy bananas for the elephants, this is their treat for the day. Nong also buys a selection of food to create our lunch at the camp. Laura, Ben and I use this journey as an opportunity to sleep – still not used to the time difference and exhausted from our travels, we tend to sleep at every chance possible.
After a long bumpy ride we reach a stony hilltop. No elephant in sight, however a large open truck meets us. We are ushered out of the air-conditioned people carrier and thrown onto the truck – along with the bananas. Clinging on for dear life we head almost vertically down a beaten track. Everyone laughs, Ben laughs with fear.
The camp is a postcard picture; bamboo huts, a flowing river and the odd elephant grazing happily. Nong hands out clothes for us to wear; official mahout trainer kits. These comprise of unflattering ankle-swinger style trousers and a striped tunic. Laura’s long legs make the trousers look like shorts and we giggle at how silly we look.
After a brief introduction to traditional Mahout elephant trainer life, we are taught how to ride the gentle giants. One by one we climb up and sit on the elephants’ necks. The commands (in Thai) are practised and the baby of the pack Dodo, is behaving very well for us.
Time to trek, and one by one we are assigned our elephants. Climbing on is a challenge. A quick command and my elephant has raised her leg for me to climb up. I know my elephant’s a girl as she doesn’t have a chair leg swinging between her legs – some of the boys are very well endowed.
Sat non-securely on my elephant’s neck, I make my first command and we’re off. My pulse is racing as I’m trying not to fall off. Although the pace is slow, it’s insane to believe I’m sat on an elephant, trekking through a jungle in Northern Thailand, so far away from home.
A Thai lady boy named Lucy is handing out traditional hats for us to wear during our trek, she’s taking photos of us all and smiling away. The well-known rice picking hats are perched on everyone’s heads. Lucy hands me a cowboy hat – she must have ran out of authentic attire – I hand it back, not quite the experience I was after.
Each elephant has a Thai guide making sure they’re behaving. Unfortunately for us, our Thai guides seem to be a group of teenage locals, smoking weed along the way and laughing their heads off at us. I ask them what’s so funny and they have no idea what I’m on about, they just laugh at Ben’s hat and Laura’s panic ridden face. It’s all a bit strange.
Lucy furiously takes snaps at every opportunity. Which I know Laura will be pleased about. Her camera is stored away back at camp and every moment is a Kodak moment for her. These photos will prove priceless.
We’re in the river and my elephant is full speed ahead, screw the rest, we’re off. Although my elephant doesn’t understand me, she’s happily moving at a good pace. Laura’s stuck behind in a bush and Ben’s nowhere to be seen. I’m sure he’s fine. After a long trek we’re back at camp and feeding the elephants their treats. Bananas by the bucket load are swooped up by their trunks and thrown into their giant mouths.
Once we’ve had an amazing traditional Thai lunch, we lead the elephants to the river to wash them. I glance at the elephant poo flying past me in heaps. This river couldn’t be further from clean but I convince myself to go for it and embrace the experience. We wash the giants with scrubbing brushes and they love it. Our elephant is fully submerged in the water, relaxed and loving life. It is a magical experience. Glancing over at our guide Nong, we notice she’s using the scrubbing brush to exfoliate her feet – each to their own. After posing for photos in the river and being blasted by water from elephant’s trunks we wade out of the filthy river and change back into our clothes. The stoned teenagers lead the elephants out to the camp where they relax and munch on greenery.
Lucy’s camera is filled up with photos, and we’re exhausted. Climbing back on the trucks and waving to the camp we chat excitedly about our experience. We sleep the whole way back, and although Nong can’t find our hotel to drop us off to, we eventually arrive home and leave the bus full of memories of a once in a lifetime trip.
Elephants are amazing gentle animals and knowing we had an invaluable day with these creatures is such a privilege. Like the saying goes: Travel is the only thing you buy, that makes you richer – and after this day the saying couldn’t be more true.
The tour we chose to do was: Chiang Siam Mahout Training School – Chiang Mai.