Okay, I’ll admit it. I am a total scaredy-cat. My cousin had to taunt me into riding the California Screamin’ roller coaster at Disneyland (her words, I believe, were, “Don’t be such a pussy”). My legs shook as I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge (they kept shaking even after I hit solid ground). And I nearly backed out of paragliding in Austria (only I had already coughed up the money for it and was halfway up the mountain).
One of the funniest things I’ll admit to being scared of was mounting an elephant. Bareback. All by my lonesome.
But more than three years ago, I did it.
Here’s how it went down.
My sister (“Ate”) and I stayed in Bangkok for a few days before flying to Chiang Mai to meet her friend there. Along with checking out its temples and cultural spots, Ate deemed that we couldn’t leave the city without visiting an elephant camp…and riding one of said elephants. I’d promised myself I would try something new every time I traveled, so I went along with the plan. An elephant was tall, but it was bulky with thick legs. Surely, it was safer than riding a horse, right?
A mahout is a person who takes care of and rides an elephant. He or she usually develops a bond with his animal, much like we do with our pets.
We signed up for a one-day elephant mahout training course at the Baanchang Elephant Park. The first thing we did was change our clothes and listen to a short introduction about Thai elephants and life at an elephant camp.
Then, it was time to experience it for ourselves, starting with the feeding.
Elephants eat bananas by the hand, and they eat a lot of them. It’s amazing to watch how their trunks curl around the fruits and bring them to their mouth.
Each of us got a personal thank-you from one of the elephants in the form of a kiss on the neck.
After that, the mahouts taught us the commands and demoed the proper way of mounting an elephant. They made it look simple and effortless, but when it was our turn to try… Let’s just say I waited to be the last person to give it a go. I actually wanted to chicken out, but I was already there. How many times would I get the chance to do something like that?
So, I bit the bullet and climbed on. And yes, it felt a lot different compared to riding a horse.
First, there’s the height. This girl—I can’t remember her name, so I’ll just call her Elle—was way taller than me. And since her back’s broad, I really had to spread my thighs to get a good seat on her. Yes, I know how that sounds, but that’s the truth. I’ve never ridden a horse bareback, but I’m guessing it must be more comfortable than riding an elephant, ’cause at least a horse’s back is more or less smooth.
Then, there’s the movement. I squealed like the ‘fraidy girl that I am and clung tight as Elle lumbered up onto her feet (see the photo above). She walked slowly, but I swayed along with every step to the point of worrying that I might fall over. To get her to stop walking, I had to squeeze my knees around her and call out, “How!”
You can bet that I worked my leg muscles real good trying to get her to stop and let me down.
And then there was the highlight—riding the elephant up the hill. Luckily, we got to do it in pairs, and my sister was only too happy to be our designated driver.
The awesome thing about being in the backseat, so to speak, was that I didn’t have to “steer.” The downside? It was harder to stay seated. I was slipping and sliding along my poor guy’s back as he ambled up the hill. Thankfully, they rigged a kind of rope harness for us second riders to hold on to. The incline wasn’t steep enough for me to fear for my life, but there were a couple of times when Ate’s and my elephant (not Elle!) scratched his/her butt against the tree, and I nearly fell off.
These elephants sure loved to use trees as their scratching posts.
After a quick break at the top where we stretched our aching legs, it was time to head back down and get our elephants cleaned up.
Bathing was a communal thing, and I definitely understand how it brings a mahout closer to his elephant. Despite their hulking size, the elephants seemed to turn into babies in the water, and it looked like they enjoyed getting washed and brushed. I guess it’s like a spa experience for them. Of course, they also do all sorts of things in the water, if you get what I mean.
Needless to say, I enjoyed my own bath later on.
There you go—my first close-up encounter with an elephant. It was educational, funny, scary, exciting, and tiring, but most of all, it was memorable.
So, yes. It does pay off to conquer my inner scaredy-cat.