Everyone does it. You come to Chiang Mai, you ride elephants. It would almost be trite except that elephants are such fascinating creatures that it doesn't matter that every other tourist in the vicinity is having a similar experience. I chose to spend my day with Patara Elephants, a family run outfit that emphasizes elephant care and pairs each visitor with her own elephant for the day.
My elephant was Soo, an eight year old male with big tusks and a playful personality. We first learned how to make our approach to an elephant – bring lots of bananas, and if the ears are flapping, all is well. If the ears are spread straight out – best to find another elephant as this one is having a bad day. The guide taught our small group the four ways to check an elephant's health: (1) Check the poop. No way around it, you have to actually pick it up and squeeze it to check if there is enough water and if the grass fibers are fully digested. Interestingly, when it is fresh, it is actually not incredibly gross, but you have to really love an elephant to touch its dung. (2) Check to see if it has sleep marks on its sides. Healthy elephants sleep lying down on the dirt and they get up every half hour to switch sides. A sick elephant doesn't lie down because it knows it won't be able to hoist its massive weight up again. So if an elephant has the dirt equivalent of pillow marks on its body, you are good to go. (3) Check if it has tears. Elephants always have a slow but steady stream of tears coming down their tusks. (4) Check for sweat. Where do elephants sweat you might wonder? Between their toenails. I was definitely a little nervous about getting trampled down there by Soo's massive feet but he did indeed have a little sweat on his toenails.
Next up was brushing the loose dirt off the elephants and washing them with a hose. From what I could tell, Soo loved the water, and playfully drank from the hose while I was washing him.
Once we determined that our elephants were healthy and clean, it was time for a bamboo jungle hike to a waterfall so that we could give the elephants a proper bath. We rode bare backed, and you can climb up an elephant two ways: hoisting yourself up its trunk or using its front leg as a step stool to swing one of your legs over its back. Needless to say, both methods are incredibly graceful. We learned a few commands for “Stop” and “Go” and we were off. Riding an elephant is pretty cool – you really get a sense for its sturdy size and how it navigates the terrain. It turns out it is also pretty uncomfortable after a little while to straddle its massive neck as you lumber down steep hills. Definitely an experience worth having; probably not one that needs to be repeated in the near future.
An hour and a half later we reached the waterfall and I think the elephants were as excited as our group was to get out of the hot sun and into the cool water. They immediately lay down in the river and rolled around like little kids, splashing water at each other with their trunks. Also just like little kids, they tried to wriggle away from the grown ups attempting to clean them with brushes and buckets. Except that unlike children, they could completely squash you as you try to hang on and wash them. It was really fun and kind of amazing to be in the river with all these massive and gentle creatures who were so clearly enjoying themselves.
When Soo was finally clean, I walked her up the hill to snack on some bamboo and realized that I was completely starving as well. Luckily, our guides had set out an amazing feast of fried chicken, sticky rice, a bunch of different palm sugar, banana, and coconut cakes, and tons of fresh fruit for us to feast on, including sticky sweet mangosteens, my new favorite fruit. It was the perfect jungle lunch.
After we and the elephants had eaten, it was time to say goodbye. One of the incredible things about elephants is that they look you in the eye when you stand next to them and it feels like there is a glimmer of recognition in there. Spending the day with Soo has absolutely increased my appreciation for these smart and fascinating creatures who are disappearing at a disconcerting rate. To me, they seem to offer a glimmer of another age, where massive creatures with intimidating tusks roamed the earth.Additional information:
299/22 Siwalee Rachapreuk MaeHea, Chiangmai, Thailand