Chiang Mai

Today is elephant day.

The level of excitement I’m feeling can only be compared to how I used to be on Christmas Day when I was little.

We’re driving an hour and half out of Chiang Mai to the Chang Siam Elephant Mahout Training School.

Our guide, Beam, tells us elephants are one of the most loyal animals in the world. The trainers at the school we’re going to have a lifelong bond with the elephants – there are no chains or whips involved, they only use their words.

An elephant day was one of the things I wanted to do most in South East Asia and before the trip I had done my research to try and find one of the more humane places to do it. Chiang Mai kept coming up as one of the best places, as it has more sanctuaries rather than shows. Anywhere near Bangkok was an absolute no go.

After walking down a steep hill to get to the school, we get a our first glimpse of an elephant wandering through the grounds with a trainer beside them. We get given a poncho to put on over our clothes, as elephants have rough skin. Then we go to an open area to feed the elephants.

I raise my arm, palm outstretched.
“Bon,” I say, using one of the command words we were taught. The elephant opens it mouth and I throw a banana into it.

As others in the group continue to feed the elephants, some of us go over to the baby elephant and it cuddles and kisses us on the cheek with its trunk.

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It’s a strange sensation being kissed by an elephant. And also a strange sentence to write. The best way I could describe it is like a wet plunger on your cheek but gentle and adorable.

After elephant kisses, we get to ride them. I know this is a controversial issue in Thailand and I am reassured to see that there are no saddles. The elephant raises its leg, I grip its right ear and heave myself up (after being reassured this is fine) with the help of a trainer. Thai elephants are smaller than African ones but it’s still pretty high up and it is absolutely exhilarating being up there.

The elephant walks a small route, essentially a little circle then backwards. The trainer uses command words for the elephant to change direction. I know I’m meant to use my legs to help guide it but they remain firmly locked on the elephant.

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It’s time for another little feed. One of the elephants lay down as we feed them tamarinds, a personal favourite of theirs. The trainer makes sure the elephant doesn’t lie down for too long as it would be in pain due to it’s large, hallow body

There are plenty of photo opportunities this afternoon, but I’ve left my phone aside, happy to be enjoying the moment rather than trying to capture it.

We then walk with the elephants to the river.

Brushes are handed out, ponchos taken off and we get in the water. There are five elephants, four fully grown and one baby. They gather water in their trunks and spray us, the guides pour buckets over us. Everyone is laughing and I can’t stop smiling.

You need to remember how happy you feel right now

There’s a moment where it’s just me, one of the trainers and a baby elephant. I brush through the coarse hair on top of its head –  it beams at me and bows it head, eager for more.

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I look around and see how happy everyone is, including the elephants. I don’t think anyone has stopped smiling since we got here. It is one of the happiest moments in my life, and I take a moment in the river, bathing the elephants, to soak in the sheer joy of it.

 

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