I have always loved elephants. As a child, I remember being completely fascinated by their enormous size and gentleness which at the time seemed contradictory. I rode my first elephant at the Renaissance Festival in Tampa, which makes me sad thinking back to the conditions of the animals. They were stuck in a circular pen, forced to walk in circles with tourists riding a bulky seating platform on their back.
In Thailand, elephant riding is a tourist must-do and the conditions of the elephants are poor at best in most places. So I did my research, knowing that I wanted to ride an elephant but in a way that was ethical. Enter Baan Chang Elephant Park. The park is about a 45-minute drive from Chiang Mai Old Town and provides a home for exploited and abused elephants. To manage the cost of care, visitors come to learn how to be an elephant trainer, or mahout, for the day and are able to ride elephants bareback. This seemed like a good-enough policy to me, even if this makes me a terrible tourist. However, you do what you can.
Carina and I woke up brutally early in the morning, sleepy but excited. After waiting for our driver at the wrong location for half an hour, we eventually found him with the rest of our group who had been waiting for us! Whoops. We boarded our bus full of other tourists from Switzerland, France, and Scotland and made our way out of the city at break-neck speeds. About 45 minutes later we arrived in a forested area at the base of a hill which opened up to reveal a grassy field of ambling elephants. “Look! Elephants!” we all whispered to each other in hushed tones of excitement.
Our bus pulled up to a large open-air metal roof with picnic tables full of other tourists in matching faded blue smocks. We sat at table as our guide began to talk about the park and our itinerary for the day. We nervously sized up the other tourists and slathered sunscreen onto our faces and exposed limbs. It was going to be another hot and sunny day. We were handed our very own blue shirts and shorts and directed to a small room to change. Carina and I made friends with a Swiss girl who immediately stripped down to her birthday suite while chatting with us amicably. Americans really are prude!
As soon as we were all dressed, our guide led us to a dirt area full of elephants just waiting to be fed!
I immediately noticed that the elephants had their ankle chained to ground which made me a little uncomfortable. But then we dug into bushels of sugar cane and bananas and I felt a little better knowing that we would be feeding these animals in a safe and spread out fashion. All of the elephants at the front refused to let us pass so we obliged by putting food into their outstretched trunks. Eventually we snuck past the selfish front line to feed the elephants at the back.
Some of the elephants were so lazy that they lifted their trunks and opened their mouths, just waiting for you to drop food into their mouths. Well played!
We fed them every last banana and touched their rough trunks with affection and wonder. How could anyone mistreat these incredible creatures? One look into their gentle eyes and I was a goner.
Once the feeding was over, we walked over to an enclosed arena a few trees. On the way, mahouts played with their elephants, rolling in the dirt or hopping on their trunks to be lifted onto their backs. Many of the mahouts have been with their elephants since they arrived at the park and their relationship is fascinating to watch.
In the arena, we had a rundown of how to ride an elephant bareback and as well as how to say the basic commands of Stop, Go, Left, Right, Up, and Down in Thai. After this quick lesson, it was time for each of us to mount an elephant! Using the command for Down, the elephant knelt, allowing us to grab his ears and scramble onto his neck before he lumbered to his feet.
While Carina was up on his back, this sly young male elephant picked up her flip flops which she had left on the ground! He then reached forward and presented her shoes to me in one generous swoop. We laughed so hard!
I was the last to go up and it was amazing to feel the elephants prickly head and rough skin. After a few minutes I could feel his steady breath filling up his entire belly like a balloon. It was pretty amazing.
Afterwards we all had the chance to ride an elephant around the track using our newly learned commands. I think the elephants were just following their mahouts but it was fun anyway. Walking over the dusty terrain, you could feel the elephant shifting his entire weight from foot to foot, creating a gigantic roll from side to side. The only way to stay upright was to jolt your hips from side to side in an exaggerated dance. We were moving with the elephant in a way that was exhilarating and exhausting.
And then it was what we were all waiting for, a long elephant ride through the jungle! Carina and I shared an elephant, a glorious large female who had a tendency to walk very slowly and steadily behind the others. At least we were able to see more than the rump of the elephants in front…
I first sat on her neck to lead while Carina sat on her back, holding onto a rope tied around her belly. We soon realized that the jungle trek was more like a lap around the center. However we did climb up a hill, over some rough terrain and under low branches. At a middle point, Carina and I switched places so that she was leading our elephant. We quickly made our way back to the start and continued for another lap!
At this point the rough skin and prickly hair on our elephant’s back began to chafe my skin in an unpleasant way. No matter which way I shifted, her rough hair scraped at at my skin like barbed wire. At the same time my muscles began to tire from clenching to stay upright. Let’s just say that the second leap was rough and I couldn’t wait for our trek to be over!
Sweet relief came once we dismounted our elephant at the watering hole where it was time for a bath! We grabbed a bucket and brush and followed our elephant into the water. She lay down and happily rolled onto her side in the shallow water as Carina and I began to pour water over her warm skin and scrub her flanks with gusto. A few of the mahouts got a little frisky and began to spray water at all the foreign girls so by the time we we left the water we were drenched! However Carina and I ignored their flirtatious ways and focused all our attention on our elephant while she closed her eyes in bliss. Bathing our elephant in such close proximity was a truly wonderful bonding experience and unlike anything I have ever experienced before.
Afterwards, we said goodbye to our elephant and headed back to the center. We took a shower, changed, and sat down to an amazing Thai lunch. Food never tasted so good! Then it was time to leave. It was really sad to leave these beautiful animals behind. But I know that this is one experience Carina and I will never forget.
Click Here to read more about Baan Chang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai.