Elephants are large. My elephant for the day, Mae Boon Si, is no exception. Her mahout, Chon, tells me in his halting English that she is 31 years old and has had two babies. Our group leader, Athit, tells us that elephants live to be 80, so Mae Boon Si is not quite middle-aged.
Athit also tells us that to become an elephant's friend, you should feed it. “Married people, you know what I'm talking about. It's the same with men,” he jokes.
Mae Boon Si doesn't bother putting her trunk all the way up like she's supposed to when I give her the command. But I'm still able to stick my hand in her mouth and put bananas there. Elephants' teeth are quite far back in their mouths and all I feel when she chomps down is her wet, soft tongue.
Athit comes over and says that Mae Boon Si is gentle and kind but eats slowly. I have to wait for her to chew the sugarcane.
Next we learn the signs of a healthy elephant: sleeps laying down, constantly eats, flaps its ears and tail, sweats, and has fibrous, grassy-smelling poop.
Mae Boon Si looks like a healthy elephant and lumberingly follows me down to be groomed a bit. She lays down and I whack her with a bundle of leaves to get the dirt off. Then she can eat the leaves. I spray her with a hose and she stands there loving it. Then I fill her trunk with water. I feel like I'm gassing up my car.
It's time to get on by now. Most people have it relatively easy and can mount by climbing up the right front leg. But this won't do for Mae Boon Si. No, she prefers the trunk method, where you step with your right foot on the trunk and the elephant lifts you over her head. I have some balance issues but make it up with Chon's help. All I have to do now is turn around and scoot forward so my legs are tucked behind her ears.
An elephant's walk involves a lot bigger motions than, say, a horse's. This makes sense. The feet are bigger. It takes a few minutes to get used to the feeling and not be worried that I'm going to fall 10+ feet to the ground at any moment. But I get the rhythm eventually as we meander downhill towards a waterfall.
There are voice commands that I use sparingly, but mostly Mae Boon Si is just listening to Chon. She seems like one of the more well-behaved elephants, judging by the troubles other people have (if an elephant wants to eat, it is just going to and there's not a lot you can do about it). She rubs her butt on a tree and I feel as though I am on a bucking horse.
Eventually we make it to the waterfall. We're here to bathe the elephants. Mae Boon Si, again, loves being splashed with water. First I scrub her lower body as she stands in water that comes up to my knees. Then we move to deep water, I scramble onto her back and scrub her head, back, and butt.
Mae Boon Si leans on the elephant to her left, trapping my leg. I know, with the size of the elephants, I could be in real danger here. But Chon gets her to move and I am sure to hold my leg clear from then on.
Finally I rinse her off and we all take a group photo while two well-trained elephants spray water on us. We rinse ourselves off under the waterfall and have lunch.
Elephants were never my favorite animal, but since my experience I feel like they are knowable now, and they fascinate me. Despite her vast size, I was able to get to know Mae Boon Si and her personality.
My elephant experience was with Patara Elephant Farm near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Elephant Owner for a Day program lasts 5-8 hours and costs 5800 Baht (US $193), which includes lunch, transportation, and a DVD full of photos and videos taken by their photographers, who do an excellent job as you can see. Check the website for details on signing up – I recommend it!
Do you like elephants?