Two words describe our time at the Elephant Park Project: Weeeee!!! and Oww!! It was a ton of fun, but man were we sore the next few days. Who would've thought riding elephants would make the hips hurt so much?!
We have wanted to ride elephants somewhere for a little while now, but had seen how it was in parts of Thailand and had wanted to look for a good place. The best Elephant Park in Thailand was recommended to us by Deadra Kaehler but we were never able to get over there, though it was our first choice. It's in the Lamphang Province, south of Chiang Mai a good few hours, and the doctors that work there go all over the country to help tend sick elephants and even into Laos to tend to the elephants at Tiger Trails' Elephant Park Project. We found this place on the internet and it was well-liked by online reviewers and some folks we met had also recommended it to us. (www.laos-adventure.com) They also have some partnerships with the surrounding villages, where they contribute a large % of each fee they collect. They have their own elephants that they "rescued" from the logging industry where elephants can be made to work too many hours. Harsh employers have even allegedly given amphetamines or MDMA to the elephants to make them work through injuries or fatigue. After Tiger Trails purchases the elephants (~US$10K), they get them cleaned up and healthy and they only really work about 4 hours a day with them, if that. So, basically we knew we were giving our money to people who deserved it; instead of in Thailand, where so many of the rides are so cheesy and staged that it just feels like a circus ride or a carnival type experience. And we didn't really feel the need for that. So we found this program (http://tigertrail.travity.de/travels/travel.asp?t=C0A103C1-112A-490A-9ACA-B346AD8F1AA2) and knew it was the right place for us. Plus, it was about a half-hour right outside the next city to which we were headed.
I can understand why elephants were used in the logging industry. They are huge, fairly docile animals that can move trees with relative ease. In fact, it uses its trunk/head to bash trees to knock down fruit from the branches. At one point, the elephant I was riding down to the river saw a tasty looking small tree and wrapped its trunk around it and just snapped it right off. Then while the mini-tree was lying there, it ripped off a secondary branch, put that in its mouth, and then picked up the rest of the small tree with its trunk and walked with it like that until it had chewed through the branch. Then, it put the next branch in its mouth...crunch, crunch, crunch. I was sitting right on its head during this time, swinging around quite a bit while it was breaking the tree, and could feel the crunch of the branches. These are large animals...the closest thing left to a dinosaur?
When we got there in the morning, we dropped our bags off at the lodge where we stayed that night and then got right over to the elephants. We were told by our guide we were going to ride them and then check into our rooms and have lunch. We had to take a very short boat ride across the river in a very slim, long, and low motor boat and then walk to get into the forest a bit to the camp. We had to walk up a steep hill and, like an oasis appearing in the desert (except it wasn't our salvation, it just sorta came out of nowhere) these enormous animals were all of a sudden right in front of us and they had something funny on their backs. As we got closer (and simulataneously more nervous), we saw they were full-on benches strapped to their backs. Our guide brought us up some stairs of a little hut and told us to get on. We were being thrown right into the fire. Little did we know that they were just easing us into our time with the gentle beasts. So we were sitting on this bench (Laurie and I rode together, as did Judy and Peter and Jackson, their son, rode by himself. We were with this family during much of the weekend and saw them many more times during the next days in the city.) just ridin an elephant through the forest, up hills and down hills, through some knee-deep puddles, while we tried to take some photos. It actually proved somewhat difficult to get the shots because the elephant moves around a lot while we're on its back and the Mahout (the handler) is on its neck. With about 10 or 15 minutes left in the ride, the Mahout turns to me and asks if I want to switch with him. Without the elephant stopping, we switched places. How, you ask? Very carefully. Now I'm on an elephant's neck. Maybe seen one in a zoo before, seen some on TV, but now i'm on its neck. And you can't see their hair on TV but they are thick and bristly, and they are many. We heard we should wear long pants because some people get scratched up by the hairs sometimes. I knew I would end up sacrificing a pair of pants to the elephant gods. To be honest, I think it would have been pretty easy to fall off the elephant's neck, but once you relax a bit and get into the elephant's rhythm, it'd actually be quite hard to fall off. So we rode for a bit, got back to camp, and jumped off the elephant. I mean, yes, we put our sneakers on its back and pushed off to get back onto the elevated shack. Not quite a jump, but putting a foot on an animals neck tends to lighten one's step. We got down and had the chance to feed some bananas to the elephants and of course had to take the opportunity. We did and they have huge slimy tongues. We both thought the elephants would take the bananas with their trunks, as they did sometimes, but for us they wanted us to put it directly into their mouths. Pretty strange to see a big elephant mouth wide open right in your face. But there was no danger.
We meandered over to the baby elephant, who was chained up, and started to give it some bananas and take pictures and what not. This "little" elephant (my height, maybe 600lbs) was only 3 years old, and actually, it acted like it. At one point, it curtsied after doing a trick. It crossed its legs and posed and then sort of took a bow/curtsy. So cute, but then we ran out of bananas, and the baby started getting fresh. It was gettin a bit grabby and Laurie was standing against this tree that was a bit too near the baby. The baby kind of pushed the tree and then sort of bitch-slapped her with its trunk. It wasn't hard but it obviously took her by surprise. Then an older lady came over with a nice camera and started getting a bit too close as well. The baby actually grabbed her by the wrist and started pulling it towards his mouth. She pulled it away from him, but still. She took it well, but we thought she was a being a bit brave. This was the only male elephant in the camp. All the working elephants were female, and I think I know why. The males can be a bit boisterous.
So we went back for lunch and then back to the elephants again to ride them. They didn't tell us though that we would be riding them without the bench, just solo on the neck. All of us. Laurie was pretty nervous but she did great, and the mahout with her elephant was wacky. He wanted to be a singer and was singing the whole time and playing games and stuff. He was a riot. For this ride, we took the elephants back towards the mountain where they sleep at night. Actually, they dont' do much sleeping, just 2 hours/night we heard; I guess they just eat at night. We rode them for a good little while into the forest/jungle and then walked back. The first time we rode them, we got on them from the elevated shack; this time the elephants either got down for us to jump on, or put its foot out to use as a step. It was really cute. These gi-normous animals were just flopping down on all fours for us. But when I hopped on the first time, she didn't really wait for me to get settled. Right up she went and right off I nearly went. But the mahout grabbed me, and I got settled in for the ride. After the ride, we were taken to a waterfall that people were swimming and the water was COLD!! It was really cool because the waterfall wasn't running as much as during the rainy season so we could walk around on its different levels and terraces. Finally, we went back to the lodge and got ready for dinner. To bed early because we had to wake up around 6:30 for our second day.
On our ride into the mountains, the elephant, a few times, clearly followed orders from the Mahout. There was a small fork in the path and the elephant was headed toward the wrong one apparently. The mahout started yelling a command and the elephant changed to the right fork. The mahouts can tell you about their elephants. For instance, one of them doesn't like to be approached from behind and will kick, as people and elephants have both found. Others don't like to be approached from a particular side or are just slow and refuse to speed up. They're pretty interesting animals. In the "Old Way" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, she cites a reference saying that elephants have been known to eat fermented apples and get drunk from it. I can't remember the footnote but they have a certain level of intelligence for sure.
Laurie said a few times, "Remember, we asked for this, so there's no complaining." Not that I was complaining, obviously, but you all know I don't get up well early in the morning. It was very misty and cold. And we were headed down to the river with the elephants to help give them a bath. So we had to hike into the forest to where we left them off the evening before and we hopped on (this time I rode without a mahout and my elephant had a really bad cataract in her right eye) for the ride to the camp where we would pick up some supplies for the bath. Mind you, the 5 of us, Laurie, myself, and the family, had no idea what we were in for. We knew we'd get wet and we thought the water'd be cold. We did, and it was. But it wasn't so bad, except for Peter who fell off his elephant. He was near its back while it was in the water and it stood up and off he went into the water. So we knew we'd be riding the elephants down to the water but didn't know what would happen after that. Well, I got to the water first and my elephant didn't want to bathe, which was okay with me, I didn't either. But her mahout ordered her into the water to join the elephants that had already gone in and she took a few steps into the water and then just sat down. Sat down right in the water and he told me to start scrubbing. Mind you, he's not in the water. He must've been so happy that people paid to do his job for him. Pretty nice deal. Because I wasn't about to get off her neck and move around like some mahouts were and Peter was as well. That didn't end too well for him, so you know I wasn't moving around at all. I gave her a good courtesy scrub and splashed a little water. Laurie's mahout was going nuts, jumping all over the animal and telling laurie to scrub harder, scrub harder! When my mahout left to go fill up a water jug, my elephant just got up and left the water: she was done apparently. I thought this was okay (I didn't have much of a say though) and back we went to the camp. We're almost up the final hill, which was pretty steep, and we were goin pretty well. All of a sudden I hear screaming coming from behind me; it was the mahout who hadn't noticed we had left! I was riding that thing all alone! But it was okay; she knew what she was doing. They get bananas after their bath, and she wanted her treat I suppose. She was hungry all morning and lookin for tasty branch snacks during the walk from the mountains and down to the river. :) After hearing the mahout scream, she turned around on this steep hill to see what his problem was, and that's when I thought she might fall off the hill, but she just turned back around when she saw he was smiling and continued up the hill to her bananas. We all got back safe and sound, fed them some bananas and high-tailed it to breakfast. By this time it's about 9:30 and we had some kayaking planned for after breakfast.
We thought we were going to go kayaking for an hour or so and be back in town around noon because the second day was only a half day. Ha! We kayaked for about 4-5 hours, and 28Km's later, barely able to feel our shoulders, we docked and got a ride back to town. At one point, Jackson and our guide slowly kayaked over to a water buffalo what was just chillin in the water up to his nose, and they started splashing him. It hustled out of the water and just stared at them like, "Hey, what's your problem, man?" It really had that look of like on its face. Priceless. There were supposed to be rapids and they had us wearing helmets. Not sure why; there were no real rapids and not much of a current, so paddling for 28km's it was. The good thing is that we got home early enough for a massage. hehe.
That was our elephant weekend. Sorry if some of the details were a bit boring but I wanted to get it all down to help us remember it well for years to come. It has definitely been a highlight of the trip so far.