We went to Thailand in November. It was our first visit to this wonderful country and, rather than spending any time on a beach (we're hopeless on beaches, get bored after 5 mins), we did a tour which took us to the north of the country, where we visited Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
We spent two days at the Baan Chang elephant sanctuary a couple of hours' drive from Chiang Mai. The sanctuary is home to 47 elephants, all of whom have been rescued from the logging industry, begging or giving rides to tourists on iron chairs which really damage the elephants' backs. When the sanctuary learns about elephants that are being mistreated they locate the creature and offer as much money as they can afford to convince the owners/abusers to sell their elephants. Each elephant at the sanctuary has its own mahout who is responsible for its welfare. The sanctuary runs 'mahout' training days for tourists, which allow people to learn about these amazing creatures, as well as provide some income to contribute to the substantial feeding and upkeep costs. The eldest elephant living there is a 65 year old female, who is blind.
The sanctuary is set in 135 acres and the majority of the land is dedicated to growing food for the elephants. Interestingly, although the sanctuary produces about 14 tonnes of extremely fertile poo a week (I was tempted to bring some back for the allotment but couldn't really face carrying a load of dung in our luggage and would probably have had to face some tough questions at customs had our bags been opened up), it turns out that the elephants kinda know that crops have been grown using fertiliser used from their poo and won't eat the food. Hence, the vast quantities of dung are donated to local farmers.
Elephants are highly intelligent creatures. Their brains weigh about 5kg. They are also emotionally intelligent; they recognise and interact with other elephants and have likes and dislikes just as we do. In fact, elephants that really hate each other need to be kept separated at the sanctuary. They bond with other elephants and experience jealousy as well. One of the bulls, Casanova, is known to be very popular with the lady elephants and the sanctuary are expecting 2 babies sired by him within the next couple of years. Elephants also make judgements about the humans they interact with and, if they decide they don't like someone, will refuse to co-operate with that person. Also - those cliches about elephants are true. They really have terrific memories. Thai people also believe that you can judge an elephant's character by the shape and quantity of its tail hair. Indeed, elephant tail hairs are considered a sign of good fortune (and are sometimes kept as a lucky charm).
Our first experience was feeding the elephants. We were given baskets of sugar cane and bananas and were given the task of feeding the assembled throng. The elephants were very happy to grasp the bunches of bananas and sticks of sugar cane that we offered them with their trunks.
Some simply helped themselves directly from the basket.
Some of the elephants had learned behaviours if they had been trained to beg and one in particular enjoyed giving tourists a 'kiss' with his trunk - also getting a taste of salty skin.
The next part of the experience involved learning basic commands and how to ride and elephant bareback. The commands we learned were:
No lo: kneel down - essential when you want to ride the elephant; it will kneel down while you attempt to climb onto its knee, grab its ears and attempt to, er, get your leg over its neck.
Bai: move forward
Kwae: turn. You select the desired direction by kicking the opposite ear of the elephant (it made sense at the time)
How: Stop. Most important.
We also learned how to praise the elephant if he obeyed these commands. Just say "dee". Loudly.
For extra praise you can pat the elephant, preferably on its forehead between the eyes, but you have to pat really hard. Their skin is 2" thick, so a light tap feels like an insect to them.
We had a practice session where we learned to ride bareback - climb on, sit as far forward on the neck as possible and rest your hands on its head. You can hold onto the ears if stabilty is necessary.
Elephants are surprisingly hairy - although you think of them as having tough, grey skin, they actually have coarse hairs all over. You can be assured of a thorough exfoliation if any bare skin comes into contact with them while you are mounting/riding them.
We then took an elephant for a brief walk around the park and bathed him in the river. Our elephant was the biggest of them all.
On the second day we helped prepare the bananas and sugar cane for the daily feeding sessions but also learned to prepare special balls of high energy food. These comprised sticky rice, rock salt, banana, grain pellets, calcium and tamarind all squelched together to form a bundle of food about the size of a tennis ball. Each elephant has its own mahout who is entirely responsible for its needs and he (exclusively he) will specify whether their elephant requires additional food. We made these food balls and fed each elephant according to the mahout's instructions; 0, 1 or 2 balls. Whereas on the previous day the elephants would take food with their sensitive trunks, these needed to be fed directly into their mouths.
Then we took an excursion into the jungle. Our elephant was called Tom Parr, a large male with long tusks. Tom Parr was very calm and co-operative, but was scared of chickens and cars. He adored going into the jungle - many elephants who have been rescued from the logging industry have mental scars and refuse to go back into the jungle; they are never forced to go where they do not wish to go. But Tom Parr had a marvellous time. So did we.
We trekked for about an hour, Tom Parr sauntering across the fields and walking narrow trails with surprising grace, and arrived at a clearing in the jungle. We all had a picnic. We had brought some sugar cane with us and Tom Parr knew it. He wanted his reward for carrying us into the jungle on a blisteringly hot day and he deserved it. He followed us into the little hut, trunk demanding his prize.
Once satisfied that we had indeed provided him with the requisite reward he wandered off into the jungle, munching on any tasty bamboo that he encountered along the way.
In the meantime our guide was busy hacking away at bamboo and lit a fire to provide our picnic. Because bamboo stalks are segmented and hollow our meal was actually cooked inside it: Add sticky rice and water to a bamboo stalk, place over a fire for a few minutes and... yummy sticky rice! Pour some water into a stalk, add a teabag, place over the fire and a few minutes later... a 'pot' of tea! Best of all was the egg - crack open a couple of eggs, add some herbs, pour the mixture into the bamboo stalk, shake a bit, place over a fire (you guessed it) and a few minutes later... delicious cylindrical omelette.
After feasting, our mahout wandered about 100m into the jungle to fetch Tom Parr. We had sneakily retained a couple of stalks of sugar cane, so offered him those before climbing atop once more and trekking back to the sanctuary with him. All the elephants are bathed at the sanctuary at least once a day. You know when an elephant needs a bath because their eyes water. Tom Parr was very much looking forward to his bath.
We went to the pool to give Tom Parr a well-deserved wash. Walking into the pond with him we showered him with water and scrubbed his skin and tusks.
Throughout the experience we had been wondering whether we would need to 'muck out' the elephants at any time, something we had been quite prepared to do. However, the sanctuary had made arrangements such that the tourists' exposure to poo was minimised. In fact, they even had a pooper-scooper chap on hand at the pond, ready to scoop any errant poo into a bag and prevent the tourists from having to wash the elephants in a dung-pool.
Tom Parr loved being bathed. He sat in the pool, trunk curled, eyes closed as we washed him down.
It was a marvellous experience getting up close and personal with these amazing creatures.
Photos from the rest of the trip are here