McKayla has been planning our elephant riding trip since we saw them in Angkor Wat, 5 days into our trip. She’d wanted to ride elephants the most ethical way possible, no saddles, no baskets overloaded with passengers, no bull hooks, on elephants that were treated with respect and only had a single mahout (handler\trainer) per animal. Through her research, a very few companies in northern Thailand were the answer to her list of requirements. There were only 3 companies with excellent reputations for their care of the elephants and thankfully one of them had an opening while we were in Chiang Mai (some online blogs will tell you to absolutely not ride elephants. From what we read – those are people against any and all use of animals in labor or rec. It is up to you to decide your ethics on the matter). We knew this would be one of our pricier ventures in Asia but we planned for it. Chai Lai Orchid picked us up from Chiang Mai and brought us up to the hills about an hour and a half SW of the city. It ended up being about $90 per person, less than we expected.
They’d planned a full day of activities for us. Our guide brought us through an agriculturally spotted hillside and pointed out some of the local flora and fauna. He showed us a green leaf that when crushed produced a red dye for textiles and henna. He found us the root of tiger balm, smelled a lot like IcyHot. The guide did us a big favor early on by showing us a tarantula hole, then he did his best to poke at it and coax it out. I got a view of one big hairy leg, and that was really all I needed. We stopped for tea at a little waterfall, then made our way past several elephants getting bathed by tourists, but sadly, these weren’t our elephants. We ate lunch by a nice quiet stream then hiked to a road where we were picked to up and dropped at a field with grazing elephants, but wait… not our elephants. Then McKayla and I were sat on a bamboo raft (about 7 pieces of bamboo attached length wise; our craft was about 15ft long by 3 ft wide, tied together by, what looked like, old shredded pieces of tire.). After we got situated the captain stood in front with a staff that he pressed into the streambed on either side to direct our ‘boat’. It was definitely different, but other than our asses getting soaked from time to time on the ‘rapids’ it was a pretty pleasant way to float through the jungle. While McKayla was hoping to catch a glimpse of Ka, I was imagining the best way to dry our passports. Thankfully no giant snakes, only a little one and a couple turtles, and our passports even managed to stay dry.
The float ended at the elephant (stable? kennel? Not sure how that works). There were a mix of small bungalows dotting the riverbed where guests could stay, but we figured one day would be enough. Across the river from the bungalows were our elephants! Our group of 7 consisted of us, and a group of 5 young Colombians, each of us was given a large satchel filled with chunks of sugar cane (the actual cane), that would serve as elephant treats. We took some time getting to know the elephants. Each one we approached sent their trunks right for the bags, they defiantly knew what were in those satchels. Each had a name and a personality all their own. They took turns doing a few tricks, but mostly McKayla and I just walked around feeding and playing with these gentle giants. Every once in a while they’d give you a kiss by suctioning the ends of their trunks to your cheeks, but they were mostly interested in the sugar cane and man were those trunks powerful when they thought they could snatch some cane. It was clear to see the intelligence in their eyes, they were working out ways to separate you from their favorite treats.
There were 11 elephants in all – 10 were female, the bull was separated but we saw him on our ride. Only 7 of the 10 were big enough to ride as two of them were under 6 years old and one was only a year and a half. One elephant had the day off leaving only 6 to ride for our group of 7. They’d asked if we minded riding together, we quickly agreed then reneeged on our agreement 2 minutes later. We’re both paying and we both wanted our own. The guide was fine with it and instead we’d wait for the others to get back and in the meantime, we’d go bathe Deedee.
Though Deedee was only 7, she seemed to be the smartest, or at least the most outgoing of the troop. Her handler got her down to the river where she happily flopped into the water, rolled onto one side and awaited her scrub down. She laid sideways with her face fully submerged, only slightly exposing her trunk which she occasionally made into a fountain while we scrubbed her with sand and brushes. It was like petting an enormous dog, she loved being scratched behind the ear and I even got her leg kicking once while scratching her butt. Deedee was pretty happy to be in the water. Her handler said she was a hot elephant, always going for the coldest parts of the river. The mahout asked McKayla if she wanted to take a picture on Deedee’s trunk. She went and stood in front of Deedee and was caught off guard when she lifted her into the air then proceeded to reach up and give her a kiss on the cheek. It was truly a unique and incredible experience.
Next came the ride. McKayla was on Pohwah (22 years old), while I was riding LeiMui. They had a nice river crossing/jungle loop set up. Going down hill to the river was a little scary being that we were leaning forward about 10 ft off the ground. I think mine may have been a little more spirited on some of the flats where I got to experience riding a stampeding elephant (okay maybe it was more like a fast trot, we’ll call it a jog but it was definitely faster than a walk). Thankfully, if I ever started swaying too far one way or the other, Lei Mui would press my leg between her ear and shoulder with just enough pressure to stabilize me and allow me readjust, using mostly my hands on her head (more patience than I would have for a stranger on my neck).
After our ride, we were given coconuts to drink, then gave the rest to the elephants. She happily grabbed it with her trunk, threw it on the ground and crushed it under her foot before excitedly eating it piece by piece.
We came back exhausted, wet and covered in elephant snot. Knowing neither of us would want to come back out for food, we went to where Ronald McDonald is posed in a bow. Yep, Chiang Mai McDees.