Elephants, Bikes and Tuk Tuks

Riding an elephant was a new experience for me. So was feeding an elephant with big tusks that just happen to be at eye level and tongue that looks quite erotic. After learning the command for “open up”, I would shove a small banana or a 6 inch piece of sugar cane into the cavernous opening. It took just a few minutes to empty a whole basket of food into my new favorite elephant. From then on, we were best friends and if what I hear is correct, even if I show up again after a few years, he will still remember me. You know, elephants never forget!

With my new Swiss friend, Laurence (female), we spent yesterday at the Patara Elephant Park. I had done a lot of research to figure out which of the 15 or so elephant places around the city was a good match for me. Some are little more than tourist shows with elephants painting pictures or bathing in mud. Some places chain their elephants or treat them badly. The one I chose has rescued many elephants from the surrounding hills where, in former times, there was a lot of logging done by the hill tribes that lived there. “My” elephant, was rescued from a circus when he was 2 years old. Some elephant places only keep females, as they are gentler, but Patara is also a breeding facility. Their hope is to return elephants to the wild and apparently they have been quite successful in their programs. The results of an elephant honeymoon were evident as we walked down the path and could see two huge moms with their babies, munching and nursing at our gathering point. There’s nothing quite as cute as a baby elephant and being able to touch and play with them was a great start to the day. One leaned into me and I had to move my foot quickly before being stepped on.

That was a good lesson. After learning much about the care of elephants and donning our woven shirts, made by the local tribes, we were led down to the river to meet our new friends. Each of the 7 of us had our own charge to care for and a mother/daughter pair got one of the moms and her baby.

Except for the other human mom, I was probably the oldest person by about 20 years. (She declined to ride and walked the rough elephant tracks up hills and down instead.) I’m not sure why they chose me to take on the feistiest elephant, a male aged 8. At the end of the day, I won a surprise elephant kiss for doing the best job with an elephant that day. We never know what skills we have until we try new things!

We learned how to check their health – flapping ears, waving tales, sweating toenails. We had to check and see if it slept on both sides (dirt on their skin), counted their huge droppings (7 is ideal from the night before) and even take apart and smell their droppings – surprisingly benign. You can tell an elephant’s age by the length of fibers – short for young elephants, longer for those whose teeth have worn down.

We led our elephants down to the river by the ear for their bath. Using woven buckets, we poured water over them and scrubbed them with brushes. There is a lot of elephant to wash including around their eyes and behind their ears. Mine indulged me with a shower of my own, spraying me with a lot of force from his trunk. In the heat, it felt great!

Now clean and fed, it was time for their exercise. Each of us had a trainer nearby who lives with the elephant to help us learn the commands. There are 3 ways to mount an elephant and my favorite was to give the command to raise a leg, grab an ear, step on on his ankle and leg and then hop over the top. You have to sit further forward than on a horse and grab with your bare feet behind its ears. As the ears flap, you keep your feet engaged on his body, using those thigh muscles you work so hard to firm up at the gym. The first time we headed down into the river I couldn’t believe I could keep my balance but before long as we climbed a steep elephant trail uphill through the jungle, I started to gain a little more confidence. Two babies walked freely along with the big 7 up to a waterfall about 45 minutes away. At one point, we stopped to walk them across the road where it took my aching muscles a few moments to remember how to move on their own.

It’s amazing how these huge animals can navigate the rutted paths they follow. Mine would stop and steal a branch of leaves when he could and the babies would wander in and out between the elephants without a stumble. I was startled at one point when mine let out a loud trumpeting sound. I don’t know what he was saying but it was impressive!

Once we reached the waterfall, our lunch stop, I dismounted and my elephant went right into the water, lay down and rolled completely under. I’m glad I was off at that point! He was the only one who did that, enjoying his boyish youth, I guess.

The humans gathered on a bamboo platform above the river to enjoy a delicious Thai spread laid out on huge banana leaves set up as a table cloth. There was sticky rice with different flavors wrapped in individual leaves and cooked, fried chicken and bananas, several different coconut and banana flavored treats and a variety of tropical fruits. After we had eaten, all the leftovers, including the “tablecloth” were gathered up and we fed them to our elephants.

Now it was time for a swim. My elephant was the last one in and given his tendency to submerge himself earlier, I was a little nervous about our time together in the water. Indeed, I almost fell off his side as I was pouring baskets of water on him and he decided to roll, but I grabbed onto a rope tied around his middle and hung on. Once again, he indulged me in a shower but this time, I was in my bathing suit and ready for it.

Taking a different way back, it was about another hour to climb over the guardrails, across the road, and up a very steep narrow path for our return. On the way down, leaning way back to stay balanced, I was trying to memorize the feelings of being up so high on such a grand animal. The lumps on his head were quite firm, and although not really hand holds, provided a nice place to rest my hands. His skin was quite bristly, covered with coarse inch long hairs. We wore special pants to protect our legs from the rough skin. His flapping ears had visible veins on the backsides and the cartilage made a good hand hold for mounting and dismounting. Holding an elephant’s trunk is quite like holding a large snake with the strong muscles curling and uncurling around your hand or a bunch of cornstalks or grass for a snack. Mine had tusks made of the coveted ivory, sharp and imposing when at eye level but otherwise innocuous. Both males and females can have tusks of various sizes but my guy was well endowed. And yes, he was well endowed in another way as well. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.

This morning, I exchanged my seat on an elephant for a more familiar one, a seat on a bike. When I arrived at the bike tour place, I found there were only two other participants – a mother/daughter pair from Singapore. It quickly became apparent that “Mom” was not very able on a bike (it really is important to know how to brake!) so they quickly hired a Tuk Tuk, a little motorized vehicle to follow behind the guide and me to carry the two women. I love to travel by bike to learn about a place and this tour started off on city streets but quickly turned out into the countryside. There were lots of stops, starting at a temple (“Thai people start their day at a temple so it brings good luck to the people and safe travels”), then a bakery (free samples!), a school for Cambodian and Burmese refugees, a community of lepers, a candy factory, an orphanage for Hill Country tribal children and a local market. Along the way, we learned about Thai customs and people and got glimpses of different homes from a suburban middle class neighborhood to country shacks.

Not surprisingly, my favorite stop was (no, not the bakery), the school. We were led into a classroom of 6 year olds – perfect! Our guide had brought 4 pieces of plastic fruit and my job was to teach the children the names of them in English. Using lots of years of kindergarten teaching experience, it didn’t take me long to get right into my element. It was so much fun to play games with the kids and sure enough, most of them had learned the names by the time I left (at least for a little while). I asked if I could sing with them and we launched into Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. It was an easy comfortable lesson and I had many new friends when I left there. The teacher seemed grateful for a little break and I got my kid fix.

Along the way, we could see evidence of the flooding that swamped Thailand in October. I saw pictures at the orphanage of the water flooding the rooms which looked so much like the flooding in my town this summer. I passed a huge pile of discarded furniture outside of town and water marks along the fences. Unlike in the U.S., the clean up in these little towns was all done without government help. They have made good progress but also worry about more flooding during the next rainy season.

At the end of the tour, it was my turn in the Tuk Tuk for the ride back to my room. I am staying in the old city and have enjoyed lots of walking through the narrow streets. There are many guest houses, temples and massage places in the neighborhood and I’m writing from my new favorite cafe, The Blue Velvet which has organic food, a beautiful garden and yummy fruit shakes. Laurence and I strolled through the streets of the Sunday market the other evening, much like a Gallery Walk in Brattleboro. There were shopping options of all kinds from high quality handcrafts to black jelly drinks (Jello like cubes mixed with milk – not so great). I have to confess that I passed on my opportunity to try the fried grasshoppers, silk worms and large crickets. I’ve had enough new experiences this week already. Maybe the next time I see them…

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14 Comments

  1. Mary Blake

     /  March 6, 2012

    Your elephant looks especially proud to have you as his adornment. I’m feeling many regrets for not meeting you in Bangkok. I’m loving your tales of your very full days
    Safe travels. Mary.

    Reply
  2. Janie Sherwin

     /  March 6, 2012

    Ellen – I read your blog to the early morning group at Curves, and everyone was enthralled. This was my favorite of all of your experiences yet. I would have loved to have been with you and the elephants. Your smile speaks a thousand words!

    Reply
  3. Jan bee

     /  March 6, 2012

    It is one big WOW day after another. Awesome report!!!

    Reply
  4. Judy Lang

     /  March 6, 2012

    I’ve finally sat down to read all the amazing details you write about, Ellen. What a remarkable journey – you will never be the same! I’ve always wanted to “connect” with an elephant – you can’t get any closer than you did! I will continue travel vicariously through you! Happy travels!

    Reply
  5. Candice Stein

     /  March 7, 2012

    OK, Ellen, you must create a book from your amazing blogs. Wow, and then some!!!!!

    Reply
  6. Donna Jacobs

     /  March 7, 2012

    I’m so glad you able to keep in contact so frequently-You have so many great experiences to share and it would be a lot to catch up on after a month or so. I can’t believe the things you are doing. It sure sounds like you are soaking it all up with gusto!

    Reply
  7. Barbara

     /  March 7, 2012

    One word- AMAZING that you can cram so much into your time there!

    Reply
  8. pam perkins

     /  March 7, 2012

    OK, I have to ask you “What in hell is Picture #2?” and in Picture #6 I’m in awe of your arm muscles. Is that from Curves? I’m signing up tomorrow!

    You look like one happy lady. Amazing!

    XXOO

    Reply
  9. Ellen

     /  March 7, 2012

    Ok, Pam. #2 picture is the mouth of the elephant between the tusks and under his trunk. That’s where you put in the food, pink, slippery and powerful. It took awhile to feel confident that my hand wouldn’t be swallowed up too!

    Reply
  10. Linda Hutt

     /  March 8, 2012

    Ellen What an amazing trip, you are amazing. I follow your blog a couple times a week. Take care…….a new friend in Oregon Linda H.

    Reply
  11. Beth-Ann Betz

     /  March 9, 2012

    Hi Ellen, Your posts are so facinating – The elephant visit, congratulations to you for riding and being relaxed with him, what an experience. Did you know that Blanche had an elephant ride when she was in India? And, Bravo to your daughter for Yale. It was 60 degrees today here in VT/NH with a good deal of sunshine – totally delightful. Until next time, Beth-Ann

    Reply
  12. Ellen, I can’t think of anyone else I know who would go into this adventure with so much gusto and share it with such enthusiasm and grace – I am loving feeling, tasting and breathing with you. Thanks so much Jean B.

    Reply
  13. My favorite adventure to date. You may have been an elephant queen in a different life.

    Reply
  14. Fran Ziola

     /  October 3, 2012

    Hi Ellen – would you be so kind as to share your bicycle tour company info with me? We are off to SE Asia in a few weeks and Chiang Mai is our 2nd stop. This adventure sounds like a great way to spend a day seeing outside of the city.

    Reply

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