Travel

Meeting the gentle giants of the jungle in Northern Thailand

Shirley Sinclair

THE scene is straight out of the Serengeti Plains of Africa. Am I dreaming?

A lone elephant nonchalantly grazes near what looks like an acacia tree about 100m away.

I squint to take in the full outline of the mammoth creature in the mist rising up from the river.

Switching to the easier view through a camera zoom lens, I begin snapping away until, one by one, other elephants begin stepping out of the fog curtain into the foreground of my shot.

By the time we are ushered to our meeting point, we are almost surrounded and struggling to register all the activity taking place around us.

Bath time on Northern Thailand's Ruak River, separating Thailand and Myanmar, occurs at least twice a day to keep the great animals' skin well-moisturised.

For this relatively cold early morning dip in Chiang Saen, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation-rescued residents are a little reluctant.

With a mahout by their side or atop a massive head, each Asian elephant dutifully but ever-so-slowly steps from the dewy grass and brown earth down the muddy incline and into the river.

With their snorkel-like trunks raised in the air, they take in some oxygen before momentarily disappearing below, leaving their mahouts balancing on their backs as if standing on smooth rocks jutting out of the grey water.

The mahouts then skilfully crouch or scramble over the backs, splashing, washing and scrubbing away the dirt.

Once the ritual has completed, the elephants advance up the hill.

Now comes our big moment. We are to undertake a morning mahout training course.

We are matched with a mahout and their animal and I am pleased to meet medium-sized, 25-year-old Lanna - from the "elephant heartland" of Surin in North-East Thailand.

Lanna was rescued from a tourist camp where she was forced to work long hours trekking and participating in shows.

We receive a quick demonstration on how to jump on an elephant while they're in their sitting position with bowed leg, and how to grab their ear to boost ourselves up and over, before inching our bums closer to the small dip between their head and back.

We are shaking collectively in our denim mahout pants - a questionable fashion statement that only looks good on short, thin, Thai men.

But within minutes, and with a little helping hand where needed from assistants, I cannot believe I am riding bareback.

Shirley Sinclair

I am almost high enough to touch the clouds, with my heart rate soaring and hands firmly planted flat on the head of "Lanna the Beautiful".

Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa executive assistant manager Marion Newell has warned us that the first five minutes of our ride will be the scariest.

After that, we will quickly ease into the journey to the mahout training camp, about 1km away, and take in the jungle scenery.

But Marion failed to tell us about the six steep elephant-sized steps up to the road that have me part-screaming/mostly squealing with delight only minutes into the journey.

Or that Lanna might test my nerve by veering a little too close to the edge of the steep roadside drop-off in search of a tasty flower treat.

Or that we would be competing for roadway space near the resort where tourists in hire cars, cyclists and workers in trucks soon learn to pay attention to the give-way-to- elephants-and-drive-slowly sign.

But Marion is right in saying that the fear soon dissipates - I find in proportion to the Cheshire cat grin growing on my face and the joy expanding in my heart.

Lanna, thankfully, has me under control.

I only need to memorise five words: pai, how, baen, toi and map long.

Pai (pronounced bai) tells the animal to start moving/go forward.

A confident and loud "baen" instructs the elephant which way to turn, when using a foot to bump the leg opposite to the side you wish it to go.

How tells it when to stop, while map long makes the elephant sit down, and toi to back up/walk backwards.

While whispering encouragement into her overgrown ears and thanking her for her patience also seems to help, food bribes work a treat at the camp.

Sly Lanna knows when a mahout has handed me some bamboo sticks or bananas.

So as I try to keep the food stable in the "cradle" against the small bag dangling from my neck (while also concentrating hard not to fall off from a great height), she swings her thick trunk backwards towards my face.

Clumsily, I place a single treat at the end of the amazingly flexible trunk, which latches on to it like a hand.

As soon as one treat is flicked swiftly into the mouth beside the cute little tusks, the trunk rears back, seeking another.

When it comes time to learning how to get off, via the head, I bend forward and plant a kiss before sliding in an extremely unladylike fashion to the ground.

While that proves relatively easy, I draw the line at trying to leapfrog on to her forehead and turning around to get back into riding position like a real mahout.

Give me an easy leg up any day.

On the journey back to the resort atop the elephants, I am so happy and relaxed that I even manage a "look, Ma, no hands" moment.

A kiss of the trunk in the resort's luggage drop-off area and I must wave goodbye to my new best friend.

For the next two days, I have slightly sore thighs from holding on for dear life with my "jockey" knees against her neck but the special memories and photos of my beautiful girl will last forever.

 

>> To read more travel stories

Topics:  animals elephants holidays thailand travel


Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

A splash of cash for community

CASH AVAILABLE: At the launch of the ETC community fund's grants are (from left) ETC chair Rod McKelvey and previous recipients from the House With No Steps, local initiatives co-ordinator Tori Smith and area manager Tina Purdon.

$120,000 up for grabs for community groups

Rainbow club shines at Gold Coast regatta

Rainbow Region Dragon Boat Club at the Gold Coast's Broadwater regatta.

Teams battled it out in blistering heat

FORECAST: Perfect storm for a lazy weekend

Rain is on the way on the Northern Rivers.

Much needed heat relief expected to continue

Local Partners

Furious Price wants to quit I'm a Celeb after clash with Keira

AN IRATE Steve Price has threatened to quit I'm A Celebrity after a series of drama-filled clashes with Keira Maguire.

Novel with lots of heart

The romance in A Quiet Kind of Thunder was only one of the joys of the book.

Book proves to be a gem with layers

Bliss N Eso announce tribute show for stuntman

Bliss N Eso will play a tribute show at Coolangatta in honour of Johann Ofner. The stuntman died during the filming of the group's Friend Like You film clip earlier this year.

BLISS N Eso to play tribute show to raise funds for killed stuntman

MOVIE REVIEW: Trainspotting sequel as good as original

Ewen Bremner in a scene from the movie T2: Trainspotting.

Director Danny Boyle proves sequels can be done well.

How Karl Stefanovic's wife, kids found out about girlfriend

Karl Stefanovic and Jasmine Yarbrough after their day on Sydney Harbour. Picture: Jonathan Ng

Pictures splashed across tabloid were shock to family

WATCH: Toowoomba opera hopeful's incredible voice

Kaitlyn Orange attends Opera Queensland auditions at Empire Theatres for Opera at Jimbour, Saturday, February 18, 2017.

Opera hopefuls vie for parts in performance at Jimbour House

MKR turns spiteful in suddendeath elimination

Alyse and Matt battled Josh and Amy in a spiteful elimination cook-off.

Bottom of the ladder faces off in spiteful sudden-death cook-off.

Submarine, buses and 3000 tyres removed in $100K clean up

The list of things removed from this property is beyond astonishing

Popular island resort sells to loaded international investor

OUR PICK: Chris Foey's colourful shot of one of Gladstone's great tourism hot spots, Heron Island.

International investor snaps up piece of Gladstone paradise.

Potential home buyers punished for doing the 'right thing'

Should I go to university or buy a house?

50 more high rise buildings planned for Brisbane CBD

Height limits have been scrapped for Brisbane CBD

800,000 more people expected to work in city over next 20 years

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!