When reading guidebooks and planning our trip, I had decided against riding elephants in Thailand. Everybody talked about how horrible animal exploitation was, how poorly treated the elephants were, how the keepers kept them starving and worn down, and how westerners perpetuated this problem.
Evidently, since these guidebooks were written, some of the Elephant keepers in Thailand have wised up a bit. At least in the area we were visiting, “Elephant Eco-Tours” were advertised in all of the tourist shops. We decided to try one out that proclaimed the outfit was run by a village cooperative that treated the elephants like members of their own families. And we were glad we did.
Videos and photos after the break…
We met our guide/driver in Ao Nang, and we rode in the back of his pickup out to the trekking site, about an hour away. Along the way, we got a great view of rural southern Thailand, lots of palm and rubber plantations, country houses, Madrasahs and little kids in Muslim school uniforms, and lots and lots of scooters.
The site was a group of wooden pavilions at the edge of a palm plantation, at the end of a long dirt road. We were surprised to meet two other groups there, so Mark and I weren’t as alone as we thought.
The elephants were in great shape. They all seemed well fed, with no open sores or raw spots, no signs of cruelty or trauma. I’m no elephant expert, but these animals seemed in better health than many horses I’ve ridden on trail rides in the states, and ours, in particular, had a bit of an stubborn streak.
The riders sat on the head, and we rode on the back in a funny little seat with a metal bar in front. When they loaded us on, I felt a bit like I was getting set in a Ferris wheel, but the bar came in handy for balance along the ride.
We rode in a line through the jungle, following a narrow creek. The rider was friendly and answered all of our stupid tourist questions. The elephant got to chomp on palm branches. Towards the end of the hour-long ride, we wandered off into the forest while the other two groups (who paid for it) got to check out some waterfall. Mark and I hung out while the elephant dragged GIANT (50ft long) palm branches around to strip all of the leaves off for munching. Those trunks are strong!
After the ride, we had a chance to pet and feed the elephants. We bought a basket of little green bananas, and our elephant snarfed those down quickly. We were fed quite a bit of fresh pineapple, and I got in a conversation with the local Thai’s about some kind of nut they were munching on. They explained that you put it in your cheek (a bit like smokeless tobacco), and something about how old people didn’t have teeth because of this. They really wanted me to try it, and when I said I’d do it if our driver did it first, they found this hilarious, and let me off the hook. I still don’t know what this nut was. If anybody knows, feel free to explain in the comments!
Though Mark and I didn’t pay for a trip to the waterfall, we did pay to bathe an elephant. We followed a kid (who we later found out was about 20 years old) rode an elephant down to a deep spot in the creak, and then laid the elephant down in the water and gave us some buckets.
We waded waist deep into the murky, but swiftly running, water. And started to wash the (not very dirty) elephant. This is when we found out that the kid knew the secrete word for getting the elephant to suck water up in its trunk and spray it all over us.
THAT was fun! I had a ball hanging out in a jungle stream, petting and washing the elephant as it trumpeted and sprayed us all with gallons of water. What an experience!
We rode back to town soaking wet, and very happy. It turns out, despite the bad press, you can have a lot of fun, and learn a lot, on elephant treks in Thailand.
So, I’m going to stop here with the Thailand posts. Mark and I have pictures from several of our other fun adventures, including cooking classes and a day at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok. But I don’t think I’m going to write those up. I hope you’ve enjoyed all of these photos and stories! It was a great trip, and I cannot wait to go back!