Befriend an Elephant For a Day
Photos by Will Hatton
Traveling through the northern jungles of Thailand? Then spending some time with the elephants is a must-do! In beautiful Chiang Mai, my friend and I had the great pleasure of booking an entire day with them at the Chang Siam Training Camp — where you are given your very own elephant for the duration of the visit. The trip included an elephant education session, jungle ride and a refreshing river bath.
Before departing for Thailand, I was warned by fellow travelers and animal activists not to support the elephant camps in Asia, since many are rumored to not treat their animals well. However we did our research and found a family-run camp, which had a great reputation and happy healthy elephants.
Upon arrival, we were promptly supplied with some stylish camp clothing — a loose red burlap shirt, beige straw hat and oversized Aladdin pants that wrapped around us twice. We fit in nicely. After dressing in an open-air hut made of sticks and grass, we sat down with our three fellow campers for a lesson on elephants.
How to Control an Elephant:
“Sangsum” + hand on ear = Elephant will raise their leg for you to step on
“HUHHH “+ leg kicks behind the ears = Forward
“Gway” + opposite foot kick = Left or Right turns
“How” + leg squeeze = Stop
“Toy” + a bum jiggle = Backwards
The lesson also included a brief the history of the camp and its elephants, which we found highly useful and somewhat relieving. It is comforting to know that we were in good safe hands for the day, and that we wouldn’t be thrown to the ground and smushed at any given time.
It was time to enter the ring of free grazing elephants. You don’t realize just how monstrous these creatures are until you’re standing right beside them. Amazingly, the elephants have been trained to turn their bodies into a rather twisted set of stairs for you to climb up and reach its wide platform of a back.
A guide stayed close on the ground while we all took turns practicing the commands within the outdoor riverside arena. A few circles around the camp and we were naturals — or so we thought. Each propped up on our very own elephant, the five of us trekked through the river and jungle with our trainers following on foot.
Although we thought we could easily control the elephants ourselves, they really had personalities of their own and would disobediently wander off to find a nearby tree snack. Hmm… there were no tempting tree snacks in the practice arena. My elephant did not follow commands well at all — but I liked him even more for it. We even named him “The Rebel.”
Once we returned to the camp, the elephants were rewarded with bananas, sugarcane, and pineapple hides — they were very excited for this. Greedily, they took the sweet fruit from our hands as quickly as we supplied it. We were in an elephant trunk maze as all five surrounded us in search for the bananas. They are the gentlest creatures; we never once felt threatened.
Following our delicious lunch, which consisted of an array of traditional Thai dishes laid out across a long wooden picnic table, we were each handed a small colorful wooden brush. Bathing time. This seemed like an abnormally small brush for the size of an elephant, but we went with it.
The trainers rode the elephants into the nearby river and commanded them to lie on their side. They gladly obeyed, to cool off from the heat. We followed them into the river, fully clothed with tiny brush in hand. A side note — elephants toss dirt onto their head and back to protect their skin from the sun’s heat, therefore bathing them was quite the dirty challenge.
The guides did mention this is a great way to bond with your elephant, so I took my time to do a quality job of scrubbing all his wrinkly skin crannies. We were warned to stay away from the elephant’s feet and only wash them from their back, as they often kick their legs if ticklish.
After posing for some group pictures with all the elephants, including Dodo, the eight-year-old baby, our day was complete and we hugged our newfound friends goodbye. I even felt a tinge of sadness as “The Rebel” was led back into the ring to retire for the day.
Elephants are astonishing creatures; I have a newfound admiration for them. If you ever get the chance — spend a day with an elephant!
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