Northern Thailand: Elephant Riding

H, my colleague gave me a puzzled look when I told him that I was not at all keen on riding the elephant.   I would go home with pleasant memories of having had an amazing fun playing with the baby elephant and a personally rewarding experience of working with the kids.   For H, riding the elephant was the ultimate reward for volunteering at the Elephant Home.
The Elephant Home is an eco-tourism and conservation park north of Chiang Mai, Thailand in the village of Maetaman.  Part of its profit supports the local community by supporting reforestation efforts and contributing to the local economy.   They offer one to five-days elephant training programs and two to four weeks volunteering programs. (Check out the link below for the many programs they offer).   While the many so-called elephant camps in Northern Thailand take in 1500 to 2000 tourists a day, the Elephant Home takes no more than 15 tourists a day, so it could offer a more intimate experience.  Tourists and volunteers alike at the Thai Elephant Home get to shadow a mahout (elephant trainer), ride bareback and learn to command elephants, bathe the elephants in the river and play in the mud with them. 

One evening I was helping P, a mahout and Liberal Arts major, with his homework.  His homework was to write a paper, an argument on a topic of his choosing.  His topic was “Elephant Training”.  He needed to extract data from two different sources to support his argument.  The first source that he picked was an article about ‘Elephant Training Center’.  The source talks about elephants in general and how they are trained so that they are integrated into every day part of Thai life.  In reading the article, I learned about the elephant’s behavior and the issues of stress, pain and suffering experienced by elephants in human care.  The second source talks about the basic rules for a good elephant trainer.  It states, “The number one rule before you try anything is to have a full established dominance, in the same natural way as elephants are dominated by their group leader.  Respect and love in combination”.  The book’s main argument is about the trainer-elephant relations, “A good elephant keeper or animal trainer has to slip into the elephant’s skin. He has to feel and to behave like an elephant. For this purpose he has to know the animals very well. He needs the powers of observation, sensitivity, determination and a sound severity.”     

After our tutoring session, I came to realize that my not wanting to ride the elephant was due to my ignorance and fear.  Although P really appreciated my help with his homework, I thought I benefited more than him from our tutoring session.  Not only did I learn about some elephants’ trivial information, but I gleaned something about the human-elephant relations and understanding the elephant intelligence and sense of self.  I was convinced that the mahouts (elephant trainers) had indeed “slipped into the elephant’s skin” so they really had to be good at what they do.  My learning gave me the courage to ride the elephant.  

The following day, I joined four tourists (FM and FW from France, and GM and GW from Germany) who just arrived from Chiang Mai.   I was very fortunate to have the support of my host PF and the Elephant Home manager, Joe for allowing me to ride the elephant in such a short notice. After changing into our mahout garbs, we gathered for a short briefing and introduction and to learn a few commands like “Mahp Long” (Down), “Bai”(go), “How”(stop), “Ben”(turn).   We fed our elephants with bananas and sugar cane before heading out into the forest.  Each of us had our own elephant.   I picked an elephant that I thought was relative to my size - the smallest.  Her name was “Easy”.  As it turned out, Easy was the smartest and the most trained to do extra tricks. (I’m getting ahead of myself here).   I used the command ‘Mahp Long’ for Easy to lower her body, and I used her right leg as a ladder to get on her back.   I then sat on the top of her neck with my legs behind her ears.  We headed to the forest with GM’s elephant leading the caravan.  GM’s elephant was the biggest.  And it was easy to see why.  He ate a lot.   We had to make a few stops because GM’s elephant loved to grab some food along the way:  banana plants and bushes.  (Elephants consumed food equal to 10% of their body weight – something to ponder on when it comes to sustainability).  I saw a ginormous dropping coming out of GM’s elephant’s behind.  

Passing a mountain tribe village, we continued on to the river where we bathed the elephants and played in the mud with them.  Or should I say where the elephants get to play their tricks on us like spraying water and giving puckers and kisses.

Easy was giving me a ride on her trunk and lifting me up in the air.  I did not realize that “Easy” was doing all the extra tricks until I heard someone called my name, “A…how did you get your elephant to do that?”  I eventually shared Easy to the rest of the group, so we all could experience her playful nature.
On our way back, I saw a convoy of tourists riding the elephant in   basket chairs heading towards our direction.  There were two people sitting in a basket chair.  They came from the nearby Maetaman Elephant Camp. 

Approaching the main road, we heard a truck revving noise to which our elephants reacted with panic.  (Another noteworthy observation:  Elephants are sensitive to noise.)  Our mahouts who were walking on foot reacted in such a way that confirmed what I read on paper.  The mahouts had really mastered their craft, leading both elephants and riders to safety.
Travel Tips:  

  1. Check out the website for the many programs they offer: ).
  2. Elephant riding is one of the reasons why tourists come to Northern Thailand in droves.  However, Elephant Camps and Elephant Nature Parks that provide such activity don’t exist without controversy. So if you're planning on going to Northern Thailand or any part of the world intending on riding the elephant, I recommend to do a simple Google search before you go and consider the following: 
  -Look for a more intimate experience like riding bareback instead of a ride in a basket/chair on the elephants back 
 - Look for an elephant camp/park that keeps the elephant healthy, and support the local community by supporting reforestation efforts and contributing to their local economy.



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