I’d only ever ridden an elephant 1 time (that I could remember).
And it was after the circus, with my sister, when she was little.
I think I had a better time than (or at least equally as good of a time as) she did.
That was at least 12 years ago.
Carrie had never ridden an elephant.
And so, being in Northern Thailand, we decided that as part of a day tour, we would also go and ride elephants.
This was a big debate for us actually.
In the 20th century, elephants were widely exploited and used as circus animals, often receiving poor treatment at the hands of their caretakers.
With some new and more enlightened views in the 21st century, abuse has dropped.
But we wanted to be sure that the elephants we were riding were well cared for in the off times (as well as in the time when tours were happening).
After asking a fair number of questions, we found the tour we wanted to take part in, which included a tour of a couple of indigenous villages (one of the tribes of the KaRen), lunch, and a 45 minute ride on an elephant.
The village tour was very interesting.
There are huge similarities between the indigenous people of central America and the indigenous people of this part of the world. The way they weave, the clothes they wear, and their everyday life and customs have great similarities.
Perhaps more about that at some other time.
After a nice (if hastily prepared) lunch, we went to see the elephants.
The elephants we would see belong to one of the local villages near Chiang Mai.
This means that the caretakers have been elephant caretakers and trainers for generations.
Upon arrival, Carrie and I bought a bunch of bananas (about 25 bananas) for 20 Baht (about 70 cents).
Getting on the elephant was quite simple due to the platform that was built for the purpose.
And there were harnessed benches built for two that were saddled on to the elephants with blankets and rope.
Riding on a bench on the back of an elephant is definitely a cushy way to ride an elephant (rather than directly on the back, where you have to either straddle the elephant or sit with your legs in front of you).
However, it also makes you more subject to the rocking motion caused when the elephant starts moving quickly.
It’s a lot like riding a horse… just way more rocking and a lot higher up.
The whole first of the ride, the elephant trunk kept coming up over the top of the elephant’s head pointed directly at us.
Honestly (at first) I couldn’t figure out what the loud sucking sound was.
But it didn’t take long before I realized that it was the sound of the elephant searching for food from us, hoping we would stick a banana in her trunk.
Perhaps she sensed or smelled that we had bananas for her.
But I think she’s just used to there being bananas when tourists pay a visit.
When we put a banana in the trunk, it would no sooner down and out of sight than the trunk would be back up again, taking a long deep breath in and looking to be filled with another banana.
A couple of times, we didn’t get the banana there quick enough before the elephant ran out of sucking and decided to blow out instead.
In one of those instances, I got a mixture of mud and elephant snot on my face and shirt.
It was a bit icky, but then, kind of funny at the same time.
How many times can you say that you actually got snotted on by an elephant?
(Not something I want to do every day, but don’t mind it once in a while or a couple of times in my life.)
At one point, we ran out of bananas, and our elephant was pretty much refusing to move. So the guy on the ground went away for a minute, and came back with a banana tree.
Like the whole tree.
And you could tell it was heavy because the guy was having difficulty carrying it.
But he tossed it best he could at the front feet of the elephant.
Not only did the elephant pick up the tree, but also carried it with her and ate it (the whole tree) along the way.
I knew elephants were powerful, but bear in mind she’s got Carrie and me on her back, she’s walking uphill, and now she’s carrying a banana tree and eating it while walking.
And she appears 100% unphased by any of it.
After the banana tree is gone, the trunk comes back up to look for a banana again.
Since we don’t have one, I touch the underside of the trunk which is actually quite smooth (compared to the rest of the quite rough and tough skin everywhere else on her body.
I’m glad we did our research.
I feel good that the money we spent to do this activity supports a local village which is taking care of these elephants well.
Should elephants run wild?
(The same could be asked of horses that are put to work for trail rides, sleigh pulls, and cattle ranching.)
This is a question I’m not likely to be able to answer in a short post.
But if elephants are going to be used as work animals, even if that work is giving rides to tourists for bananas and money, it’s good to know that the money we paid for our elephant ride went to a local village which treats the elephants in a humane way.
Afterward, I had a conversation with some of the locals – some local acquaintances of our Chiang Mai tour guide who let me try some of their homemade rice whiskey.
(Don’t worry, I was cautious about who I was accepting a drink from.)
The rice whiskey was delicious.
It was a great conversation and really interesting to chat with these guys who don’t have cell phones or email, never have, and aren’t likely to get them any time soon.
This is not due to poverty, but due to lack of infrastructure, and simply a lack of desire.
They’re happy where they are, doing what they’re doing, and enjoy learning English, French, and Dutch from the tourists who come to ride the elephants, (drink rice whiskey,) and take bamboo raft tours down the river with them.
The 1 day tour includes:
– 2 hours transportation (1 hour each way)
– 2 indigenous villages tour
– 1 hour trekking through rice paddies and mild jungle setting
– 45 minutes elephant ride
– 45 minute bamboo raft river ride
It cost a whopping $31.66.
I love how affordable things are here in Thailand.
And I loved our time with the locals – including the local elephants.