The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand and wherever you go you see them whether it be elephant souvenirs, stone elephants outside temples, posters of elephants being used to promote tours (even if they’re nothing to do with the animal!) and of course the ubiquitous bottles and cans of Chang beer. Chang is the Thai word for elephant which gave me an idiotic eureka moment! Of course it seems so obvious now!
Our first mission on arriving in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand was to book an elephant tour for the following day which was New Years Eve. My first choice place was booked up for the next week so we chose another company called Jumbo Elephant Camp which was booked through ‘Kunt Tours‘ and believe it or not I didn’t actually notice that unfortunate name till we had stumped up the cash!
One of the first stops was at Elephant Poopoopaper Park and yes you did read that correctly. This was a fun outdoor museum park where we learned all about how, as the name suggests, elephant dung is used to make paper. Dye is added to the poo, made into balls and then spread out to form a sheet of paper which is then used to make greetings cards, postcards, notebooks and so on which can naturally all be bought in their gift shop otherwise known as “The Poo-tique!!” No, it didn’t smell at all and was an interesting warm-up to the main event which followed on.
Once at the elephant nature park, 40km away from Chaing Mai, our tour party of six (an American family of four and us) met and fed the elephants before we had to change into special elephant trousers and bright yellow t-shirts. Our elephant training tour guide then ran us through the four short words and instructions needed to control the elephant which we put into practice on a short test-run albeit with a mahout (trainer) always on hand as reassurance.
The keywords were as follows; Pai = Forward; How = stop; Toy = Backwards and Pe = Turn left or right *. This latter instruction decides the direction by way of how you use your stick on its head. For example, you tap the elephant on the opposite side of the head to the way you want to turn….or something like that! I wasn’t particularly accomplished at it but I knew that you really didn’t need to be!
* The spellings of these Thai words may not be correct!
Following the short trial run, there were baskets of bananas waiting for us to feed to them. They generally took the fruit from our hands by way of curling their strong muscly trunks around the food but we could also just place the bananas directly into their mouths which was a pretty awesome thing to experience.
As there were only four elephants, the American family went first on the main ride whilst we had a very nice chicken and rice lunch. A while later and the roles were reversed and it was our turn to ride these huge animals through a jungle course which was immense although a bit nervy at times, given the high position at the front of the elephant in which you sit as well as the gradient of the landscape.
The finale was the bathing of the elephants which was similar to what I did in Laos just over five years ago not that I can really recall that too well. This was great fun actually and needless to say we got a good soaking doing it all.
Whilst it was my third time to ride an elephant it was my girlfriends first time to get up close and proper with the elephants and she found it an incredible experience. Its no wonder this is a such a popular thing for all travellers who make it to the north of the country.