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Riding High

Author’s note: Creature Comforts is, of course, about the animals of Kentucky. But my trip in November to see the elephants of Thailand was too wondrous not to share. We’ll come back to Kentucky for the next column.

Within moments of my arrival, I was hoisted to the top of a 10-foot-tall elephant. There was a bit of terror involved.

The source of my terror—which instantly turned into exhilaration—was Prathida, a 15-year-old female Asian elephant that lives at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand. I’d waited a long time to meet her.

I felt like I already knew her, though. I’d been reading about her for a year, had an original painting by her (yes, by her), and heard the music she played with other members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra. And now here I was at last, feeding her, bathing her, riding her through the forest, and trying to learn elephant commands in Thai.

Prathida, which means Royal Princess (she was adopted by a member of the Thai Royal Family), is one of about 100 elephants that live at the Center. In the 1980s, logging in Thailand was banned as the precious teakwood was just about depleted. The ban meant the loss of jobs for many elephants and their mahouts, the men who train, handle, and care for these elephants. The elephants and mahouts were literally begging in the street: elephants eat 250-300 pounds of food a day, and many of these elephants were sick and starving.

In response, the government started the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, or TECC. The only facility of its kind in Thailand, the Center cares for elephants with a myriad of histories: the hospital, with three full-time vets on staff, cares for any ailing elephant as well as those who have been injured, most notably elephants who have stepped on old land mines; some elephants here have been too traumatized in the past to interact with anyone but their mahout, and live quiet lives in the forested areas of the Center.

Then there are elephants, like Prathida, who were born at the Center and have lived with people all their lives. These elephants, about 15 of them, give shows and demonstrations to tourists. They are also the elephants who host people, like me, who come to the Center for the three-day Homestay program, actually living at the Center.

I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived: the grounds were immaculate and beautifully landscaped, and the hut I stayed in was quite large, with an open veranda. The hut, built on stilts, was one of many on the grounds that constituted a small village of the Center’s mahouts and their families that live here year-round.

I should note, I’m lucky enough to have a friend who is as passionate about elephants as I am. Thea Feldman, who lives in New York City, and I traveled together; we’d planned this trip for a year, and it was hard to believe we were actually here. In all, there were 10 of us doing the Homestay program: we hailed from Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Idaho, California, England, and Japan. It was indeed glorious to meet such like-minded people—it’s not easy finding people who think it’s fun to sit on a plane for 18 hours to ride an elephant.

After checking in at the Center and meeting Supat Sutti, who coordinates the Homestay program, we were given our denim training suits and introduced to the elephants and mahouts we’d be training with. My mahout’s name was Chinnakorn Pongsan; luckily, he went by John. Off I went with Prathida and John, and Thea left with a lovely elephant named Wanalee and mahout Teum.

John didn’t speak a great deal of English, but he gradually showed me the three ways of getting on an elephant, and the three ways of getting off an elephant. I approached Prathida full of confidence that this would be a cinch for me; after all, I’d ridden horses most of my life, so I should be a natural at this.

Oh, how wrong, how pathetically wrong I was. The mahouts were able to leap onto their elephants and hardly break stride. I, on the other hand, clambered and scrambled and clawed at the air, and generally made a fool of myself.

I snuck a look at the other mahout trainees. Oh, good, Thea was having trouble too. But look at Matt, he looks like he’s done this all his life!

I kept practicing. John alternated between laughing at me and shoving my butt when needed to get me up on Prathida. “Song soong,” I told Prathida in a loud, firm voice. Nothing happened. I asked again. Nothing. Maybe it was my Southern accent. Finally, with a barely noticeable gesture from John, Prathida obediently lifted her left front leg for me to step onto and climb my way up to her neck.

Sitting on Prathida was difficult at first. It’s a lot like perching atop a racehorse, except that there’s no saddle, no reins, and no stirrups to prop your feet up. It’s all about balance, and keeping your knees bent and tucked behind the elephant’s ears. Try it sometime.

Doing a leap-frog onto an elephant presented new challenges. Prathida lowered her head to the ground and waited for me to run, jump over her head, and situate myself on her neck. I actually managed it the first time, with just a small shove from John. The second time, I misjudged and went SPLAT right into Prathida’s face. John finally stopped laughing, Prathida waited patiently, and I triumphantly made a successful leap.

Then, to everyone’s relief, training time was over, and we rode our elephants to the river for a bath. This was what I’d been waiting for, and it was every bit as fun and magical as I’d hoped. With John sitting behind me, making sure I didn’t fall off, Prathida eagerly lumbered down the riverbank and splashed into the water. I squealed and laughed, Thea was downright sobbing with joy, and it looked like we were all having the time of our lives. Prathida was thoroughly enjoying her bath, and seemed to particularly like the bong bon command, in which she filled her trunk with water, held her trunk over her head for me to grab onto, and allowed me to douse the other trainees with gallons of water. Prathida let me do this over and over, until all of us were soaked. No one seemed to mind. When we climbed out of the river to dry land, I felt as though I’d been baptized.

The elephants were given a break while we all went to lunch, the first of many wonderful meals prepared by the mahouts’ wives. The food was delicious; I didn’t always know exactly what I was eating, but I tried not to think too much about the many chickens that roamed the Center’s village.

Thea and I chattered excitedly about our elephants, our mahouts, and congratulated each other on making such a wise decision to come here. We got to know the other members of the group: it was great fun to meet people from other states and countries, with their own love-of-elephants stories.

After lunch, we watched our elephants give a show to the tourists. The mahouts demonstrated their elephants’ skills at painting, playing musical instruments, stacking logs, and various tricks such as curtsying and putting a hat on their mahout’s head.

Then it was practice time again for the trainees; we seemed to be getting the hang of it, and I didn’t go SPLAT anymore.

All was going well until John wandered off, after first tossing up a bag of sugar cane for me to feed while on Prathida. She raised her trunk over her head and groped at me until I placed pieces of the sweet treat in her trunk; she was a greedy girl and the sugar cane didn’t last long. I wasn’t sure what to do—the sugar cane was gone and she was insisting on more. John was nowhere to be seen; I was left alone with a 2-ton elephant who paid no attention to my commands and was still hungry. What was I supposed to do? Just before I started to panic, Prathida took matters into her own hands and approached the railing separating the tourists from the showgrounds. To my delight, she started “dancing,” bobbing, swaying, and sashaying her way around the rail. Naturally, this attracted the attention of the tourists, who gathered all around to feed her sugar cane and bananas. I felt like a queen watching the visitors feed “my” elephant, as my own body swayed along with hers. John came over to ask if I was okay with Prathida’s dancing; I grinned and nodded. I was loving it.

When Prathida was at last satisfied, she made her way purposefully to the pool of water in the middle of the showgrounds. But instead of drinking the water already there, she turned on the spigot with her trunk, drank her fill from the hose, then tidily turned the spigot back off. I just gawked—I’d never seen such a thing in my life.

Prathida continued with her own elephant agenda. Unless John was gesturing at her from behind a tree, she seemed to be choosing her own activities. She wandered over to the instruments that had been specially built for the elephants, and began rhythmically playing the chimes with her trunk. I was overcome with joy, and squealed in delight: I’d been listening to CDs of the famous Thai Elephant Orchestra for years, and here I was getting a live concert!

That accomplished, Prathida climbed a large log lying on the ground, and showed off her balancing act by walking down its length. I was suitably impressed; for all their size, elephants are surprisingly nimble.

I looked around and saw that all our elephants were making their rounds from the tourists to their favorite activities, just as Prathida was doing. There was a lot of visiting with each other among the elephants, touching with their trunks to say hello. I’ve never seen such big smiles as I did on the trainees’ faces, and Thea and I began a debate on which of us had the more talented elephant. I was sure it was Prathida, but she insisted it was her own Wanalee.

Prathida made her way to her next activity. To my horror, she made a beeline for a steep riverbank. I knew what would happen next: she’d leap into the river and I’d go flying.

Sok, sok,” I begged, pleading for her to back up. Needless to say, I got no response. “Benn, benn,” I tried, nudging her with my left foot to make her turn right. Signaling for a left turn didn’t work either. She just stood there, shuffling her feet in anticipation.

John finally showed back up, strolling rather nonchalantly I thought, considering my elephant had nearly run off with me. But the small smile on John’s face told me I’d never been in any danger at all.

After another communal bath, where Prathida once again reigned as the bong bon queen, we rode our elephants into the forest where they would spend the night sleeping, eating, and talking to one another.

As for Thea and me, we retired to our hut exhausted but happy. Our only concern was waking up in the morning. Supat had instructed us to be ready to get our elephants from the forest at 6:30, and there was no alarm clock available.

We needn’t have worried. We awakened first to the sound of roosters crowing, then birds in the forest, then, best of all, the elephants began trumpeting. We leaped out of bed, eager to start the day.

The trouble was, it was only 3:00 a.m.

But 6:30 finally came, and the group of us began the trek back into the forest. Now knowing what to expect, we were all able to relax a bit more during the bathing and training times. It was another wonderful day, made even more special in that it was Thanksgiving; even our friends from England and Japan seemed very grateful.

At the last of the day’s training, an amazing thing happened. I asked, without much hope, for Prathida to tag long. To my surprise, she waggled her ears, the only response to a command I’d gotten from her. Daring to hope, I asked for tag long again…and she put her head to the ground, allowing me to slide off! We still had communication problems with commands such as phae and goy, but it was a start. I told her what a good girl she was by patting her head and telling her dee mak mak.

It made me think a lot that night about the relationship between the mahouts and the elephants. A mahout is often paired with an elephant for life, and I was seeing a lot of love and respect for each other at the Center. For all my fear of Prathida wandering off, I realized she kept an eye out for her beloved John every minute, that she’d never go far from him. And when John was alone with her, under no pressure to entertain or safeguard me, he had an easygoing way with her that made him and Prathida look just like two best friends going about their business. As much as Prathida enjoyed—and needed—to spend time with other elephants, John was obviously her god. At one point, while I was simply sitting on her and soaking it all in, Prathida started chirping and squeaking. Wondering what had her so excited, I looked down and there was John, talking quietly into her ear. I’d like to think it was sweet nothings.

Our last day began with the now-familiar routine of forest trekking, bathing, and practicing our commands. As a group, we’d gotten much better, and our confidence was growing. Then, to our horror—or at least mine—we learned that we would be IN the show for the tourists with our elephants! I can only say that the tourists certainly got their money’s worth that day.

After the show, Thea and I continued our debate. She felt Wanalee was the best elephant because she did the put-the-hat-on-Thea’s-head trick. Big deal, I said, Prathida opened the show by stepping up to the front and raising the Center’s flag, with me on her, then closed the show by lowering the flag.

And then, too soon, it was over. We’d become mahouts, with Certificates of Appreciation to prove it. Okay, we weren’t real mahouts, but I will point out that mine was the only elephant to give her trainee the certificate, tipping the scales in Prathida’s favor as far as I was concerned.

It was hard to say goodbye. Over and over we thanked Supat, our mahouts, and everyone at the Center for our incredible time there. Most of us cried, and if the real mahouts were just a little bit glad to get their elephants back to themselves, well, who could blame them?

I left for home emotionally wrung-out, physically exhausted, but with one clear thought: my horses were really going to seem small to me now.


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