Friday, February 26, 2016

Chelsea with the Elephants!

Well, yesterday was the day… the day we’ve been waiting for for months and months! It was the day we were to meet the ELEPHANTS! This was something both Jessica and I agreed was one of our top priorities to do in Thailand. Our main bucket list check box to complete before we would leave the country.

As I was planning our itinerary, I did a lot of research on where we would spend our time and, more importantly, money to be with the elephants. I’d heard a lot of negative stuff about elephant “conservation” companies, who tout rescued elephants but do not actually care for them or treat them properly. The elephant population in Thailand is decreasing at an alarming and unsustainable rate, and I wanted to be sure my money would be going to an organization that was not only humane and with rescued elephants, I wanted to find the best one.

I looked into several options in northern Thailand, and eventually settled on Patara Elephant Farm. Their websit was extensive and gave a lot of information about their mission, their priorities, and their aim for each person’s visit. I liked that they advertised their service as “Elephant Owner for the Day” instead of “Elephant Riding” or something of that nature. They touted a wholistic approach to your visit – focusing not only on spending time with the elephants, and riding them, but also learning about their healthcare needs and efforts to avoid extinction.

I made a reservation for us online, and was happy that we didn’t need to pay a deposit. It was particularly surprising since the experience was so expensive – by far the most expensive thing we did on our entire trip. But, we got picked up at 7:45am from our hotel by a van with two other girls and one staff member from Patara. The drive took us out of Chiang Mai and into the nearby mountains. We passed a lot of resorts, and I can see why; the area was absolutely stunning. It was probably more beautiful than the road we took to Pai.

Around 45 minutes after being picked up, we rolled onto a gravel road. There were no signs, and it felt a little sketchy. No one told us anything, really… the driver just opened the door and gestured for us to go to a small gazebo near an open dirt area. We walked over and a staff member finally told us to put our stuff down, that the elephant and baby would be coming over soon.

A minute or two later, sure enough, we got our first sight of elephants. They strolled down the dirt road and came into the dirt clearing in front of us. The staff said we could go “play” with them, and even helped us take pictures. More people arrived after us, and there was eventually 16 people together. They encouraged us to approach the elephants, take pictures with them, and even play with the baby on the ground. The two girls who had been in our van, at the staff’s direction, sat on the ground and the baby elephant came up to them. It looked great at first, then the baby elephant proceeded to CLIMB ON TOP OF THEM. It was partially horrifying, and partially hilarious. The baby elephant was only playing, not trying to hurt them, but even the baby is pretty big and HEAVY. It climbed so much on top of them, knocking them over, that it wound up with all four legs on the ground with the girls pinned under it. It probably sounds more horrifying than it was. I mean, I’m sure they were scared, but we were all kind of laughing in a “is this really happening?”/”should someone interfere?” kind of way. The trainers were all laughing and finally helped get the elephant off. The poor girls who got trampled were completely covered in dirt and all I could think is “Thank GOODNESS I didn’t volunteer for THAT!” They weren’t hurt at all, just a little shocked I think.

The elephants were having some breakfast; because they eat huge sugar cane poles, bamboo shoots, and massive bunches of bananas, it was kind of scary to get near them while they munched away. It was so cool to see them eat though! Their trunks are so dexterous!

After taking a bazillion pictures with the elephants, the trainers led the elephants over to a water hose and they filled up their trunks and sprayed the water into their mouths. It was incredible to watch!!! This was obviously not their first rodeo and they knew what was up. The little baby elephant even nursed the mom while she was eating (after playing with the humans, aka knocking them over!).

Eventually, the staff called us all over to the gazebo and briefed us. Up until this point, the experience felt a little weird (although cool!) since the staff hadn’t really told us anything or explained the day. Now, though, someone who looked in charge gathered us together and told us about the organization and what we should expect. Basically, he reiterated what I’d read on the website: that Patara not only rescues elephants, but cares for them AFTER rescue. They get the elephants healthy and then promote reproduction and healthy living. I really enjoyed hearing this and felt even better about our day. Their brochure states that you will do 10 things with the elephants, and riding the elephant is only part of it.

Another thing I really liked about this place was they provide a professional photographer, so I didn’t even bring my camera with me. However, I realized that the photographer could only be in so many places, so I used my phone to take some pictures. I really wish I’d brought my camera, though, to have better quality and control over what photos I got. Anyway, Jessica and I agreed that we would not worry about photos (as long as we felt like we got at least a few!), and just enjoy the experience.

After our briefing, we were split into two groups. Luckily, Jessica and I were in the group that did NOT include this French family with two small children. They seemed super nice, but the kids didn’t speak any English and the parents were translating the entire time. Plus, kids just slow things down ;)

Well, we were finally ready to meet our elephants! Before we headed out to find the elephants, we were each given traditional garb – riding pants and a frock type top. Very stylish! We were each assigned to an elephant, and both Jessica and I ended up with a mother and their babies (I had a mother + baby, Jessica had another mother + baby). My elephant’s name was Buantong (it took me about 10 tries to get the pronunciation down). In order to first make friends with the elephant, we were going to feed it. We were each given a basket full of sugar cane pieces and bananas, and instructed us to tell the elephants “BON” to open their mouths and praise them with “DeDe” (good girl or good buy). I walked out to my elephant, which was intimidatingly huge. They obviously are used to the basket of food, because Buantong was very good about opening her mouth when I instructed, but eventually got impatient and started sticking her trunk into my basket and grabbing the food. I started to just put the sugar cane on her trunk, where she held things. Her baby, Aryang (I think), was very greedy and never even waited for me to feed her, but instead just kept grabbing the food right out of the basket. I did praise them, like I was told to. They were so incredible and sweet! I loved getting to intereact with them in this way.

After we went through two baskets, the group reconvened. We were then taught about the four signs of an elephants health: 1) eating and drinking 2) sleeping 3) ears 4) eyes.

      1)    Eating and Drinking – the elephants are basically always eating. They eat a lot of bananas and sugar cane and bamboo. Their food moves through them quickly, so they poop about once an hour. They even showed us what healthy poop looks & SMELLS like! They picked up a piece of dung and broke it apart. It was basically all grass-like fibers, and it smelled super mild, like grass a little bit. Their poop is also very watery; when you squeeze it (yes they squeezed it in front of us), water comes out. A healthy elephant should be eating a lot and drinking a lot with green/yellow fiberous and water poop.
      2)    Sleeping – an elephant should sleep lying down on its side. You can tell if it is sleeping correctly because it will have dirt on its side. An elephant shouldn’t sleep standing up.
      3)    Ears – a healthy and happy elephant will flap its ears a few times per minute. If he is in a mad mood or aggressive, his ears will be out for a long time. When you approach the elephant, you should do so from the side instead of from the front, which is seen as aggressive.
      4)    Eyes – Elephants do not have tear ducts, so their “tears” flow constantly. They should always show some tears below their eyes.

After learning about this, we learned how to brush the dirt off the elephants. The dirt is good for their skin, to protect it from sun and bugs. They will actually throw dirt on themselves. However, sometimes it should be brushed off to help their skin stay healthy. We each got a palm-frond “brush” and were instructed how to brush them off by slapping them with it. It felt a little mean, but I don’t think the elephants could even really feel it. My elephant was particularly dirty, so my trainer took the elephant to a pool.

After watching them play in the water for a while, we gathered back together and learned about the various ways to mount the elephant. We would be riding them bareback, so we had to learn how to get up without steps or anything. Basically you can get up on the elephant’s leg or trunk. The elephants know a command that tells them to hold up their leg, which you can put your foot on and hold their ear and haul yourself up. Alternatively, they will put their head down and you can get up on the head, but then you have to turn around, because you’ll be facing the back of the elephant.

I was pretty intimidated to try and get on my elephant, as she was so big! But, when my turn came, I put on a brave face and stepped up to the elephant. She put her leg up at my trainer’s command, and it took a second to have it steady. I put my right foot on it, grabbed her ear with my right hand, the lone rope around her chest with my left hand, and hauled myself up for all I was worth. I got about halfway up and my trainer had to push my foot up to help me get up the rest of the way.

Finally up, I was up! It felt so HIGH and unsteady! We were supposed to sit far forward on the elephant’s head, not the neck, to be the most comfortable. Our knees were to go notched up behind the elephant’s ears, with our feet back on its neck. It was so high up, I was definitely nervous! There was basically nothing to hold on to, either, as the rope was so far behind me. My elephant started to take off towards a trail, and my trainer was no where to be found. I started to freak out, spotted my trainer, and yelled at him to get over here! I was so annoyed that he was not staying near me. Finally I got him over and we started down the trail, leading the pack. The trail was uneven and had some inclines (lean forward) and declines (lean back). At one point, my trainer actually got up on Buantong with me, but sat pretty far behind me. I was glad he was there at one point when Buantong walked towards a half fallen down bamboo rod which would have clotheslined me, had my trainer not hacked it down as Buantong stopped for a snack.

We had walked about 20 minutes, and were on a pretty steep decline. My trainer kept falling further towards me, and I realized that he was nervously laughing and talking in Thai to another trainer. This continued on for several minutes before he said “You okay” to me, and another trainer said “can he get down?” I said of course (I never wanted him up with me anyway!) and he jumped down. It was definitely kind of awkward, but I know he was super uncomfortable about it.

As we walked through the jungle, it was so surreal. It was absolutely gorgeous and I couldn’t believe I was riding on an elephant! She was impressive, too, as she could follow the path, no matter than terrain or sharp turns. Buantong was a trooper.

We finally got to the end of the trail as it intersected with a road, and Buantong easily stepped over the barrier and we crossed the road. There were some Thai kids on motorbikes that were coming out of the area we were heading towards who stopped to watch us. It was really cool; I was proud to be badass enough to be doing what I was doing! We headed down another path on the other side and some other elephants came into view, and another group of tourists with matching riding attire. I was happy to be with my group, as there were fewer of us and I felt like we were having a more legitimate experience.

Another five minutes and we were at a natural pool. I think in the rainy season, it would be a waterfall, but as we were well into the dry season, it was mostly just a pool. We dismounted (gracefully of course) and waited for the entire group to convene. Next it was time to bathe the elephants and scrub them clean!

The elephants were seriously enjoying the pool, lying in the water and spraying themselves. We got in our bathing suits and were given scrubbing brushes and got to work. The water was cool and felt wonderful (although it wasn’t very clear!). We took some more photos in the water, then got out to have our picnic. We had about an hour to eat, relax by the water and in the tree hut, and rest. We all got to chat together and there were some interesting people in our group – and the most Americans I’d seen in Thailand thus far! Two girls from New York, a mom & daughter from Jersey, and a couple from Canada. The mom was hilarious beucase throughout the day she had been obviously quite nervous of the elephants, but what a trooper!!! She was awesome.

After the break, we re-mounted our elephants and had a short ride to the top of the waterfall area, near the road. We got off and took final pictures and said goodbye to our elephants. I was so sad to leave them, but what an amazing time we’d had! We piled into the van and headed to the main office. We turned in our riding outfits and received our cd’s of professional pictures. We got to see the pictures on an ipad while we waited, and I wasn’t too impressed. I really wish I’d brought my nice camera. But at least I got some pictures with my phone J I’ll be able to see the pictures when I get home and get to a CD drive.

They took us back to the hotel and I couldn’t believe we still had so much of the day left! We rested a bit then headed out for dinner and exploring. We walked back around the wat I’d found the night before so Jess could see it. Then we explored some shops, and finally I decided to get a massage. I opted for a package that included a foot massage (30 minutes), Thai massage (1 hour), and back/shoulder massage with oil (30 minutes). It was divine!

At this point, all of the “big” items for our trip were completed. All we have left is a travel day on Friday and a market day on Saturday before departing for home that night. I can’t believe it’s almost over!! I am bittersweet about leaving – I could totally stay here for months!! But, I really miss Danny. I don’t look forward to going back to work, but I am really ready to get back to my own bed. I am also sad to leave because I don’t know what my next big adventure will be. Danny and I are planning our honeymoon, but that is a very different kind of travel. It will be much more relaxing and focused on US, rather than on adventure. After we get married, things will be different with finances too. So, I am just… sad.

No matter what, though, I will never stop traveling. Of that, I am sure.


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