“You like baby elephant? I like you.”
I knew it was going to be an eventful day when Somsa, one of the elephant caregivers at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, replied in this way to my comment about liking the baby elephant. His previous behavior was only a warmup to that statement. What was to follow was a marathon of attention.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the most common tourist activities is to ride or frolic with elephants. It’s common to hear disagreements among travelers in hostels over what’s okay and what’s not. Whereas riding elephants used to be big business, most tourists are conscious of the harmful consequences. It’s not just that elephants suffer from so much unnatural weight on their backs. It’s also that in order for them to perform this work, they are tortured into submission from a young age. Want to learn more? Here’s why you shouldn’t ride elephants.
Tourists are encouraged to research the companies and chose one that cares for rescued elephants in a humane way. This includes being free to roam and graze, unchained, and treated with compassion. Most companies that advertise as such, like the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, have tourists feed, bath, and pet the elephants instead of riding them.
(I’m still guilty. Even though a chose a “reputable company” that “respects” and cares for elephants, I am still part of the problem. If I really respected elephants, I would have left them alone. I wouldn’t have had to have a mud bath with them.)
Unfortunately, The EJS didn’t give us any information on best practices. The leaders didn’t shed light on how the elephants came to live in the protected area. They didn’t give us any information on how to behave around them or how to gage their emotional state.
The young male employees were far too busy flirting with young girls for that.
I first noticed what a precocious bunch the young guys were when we arrived. Smiling and laughing, they approached us with vests to wear over our swimsuits. Assuming they were of some significance to the hilltribe people of northern Thailand, I asked “Mr. D,” one of the employees, which tribe the patterns belonged to. He looks confused.
“No, no. These aren’t real. These are cheaper. Those,” he said, pointing to the vest of one blond German girl in my group, “are real. But they too expensive. These much cheaper.” I coveted her vest. It’s not fair only one of us got the real thing. It’s a little contrived wearing a vest that somewhat resembles the authentic patterns of the Hmong people, just so the company’s pictures on Facebook make us look “cooler,” as Mr. D put it.
Which may be why from the get go the boys were having so much fun with us. I mean, just look at us. We look pretty goofy.
After changing into the extremely authentic vests, we sat on a porch at the top of the hill. From there, we watched as four adult elephants, two younger looking ones and one baby were guided into the valley below. It was feeding time.
If we thought this stage of the excursion was for the elephants, we were so naive. It was an all around marketing tool for the company and tourist photo opportunity. Those vests will be in so many Facebook photos they’ll be more famous than a Kardashian.
Each armed with a bundle of bananas, we were ready to stick our hands out as the elephants’ trunks (quasi suction cups) inhaled them whole. Some of us, myself included, didn’t think first base was enough. We went so far (with the encouragement of the employees) as to stick our entire forearms up into the grown elephant’s mouth. I felt the thick, meaty tongue as if my hand was a body was sliding down a sticky, real life slip and slide.
Looking up into her mouth as this was happening, I noticed the elephant I was feeding was stockpiling upwards from 17 bananas, just in case the tourists started getting stingy.
It was here that I first noticed how flirty Mario, another employee, was. The company hires a photographer to document the day. He would go around the group and tell people to pose with elephants, or wait for someone to be in the perfect feeding position and snap a photo. During this stage, I saw most of the employees taking a break and leaving tourists alone unless they needed help.
Mario on the other hand was on the prowl. He noticed girls who didn’t know where to go or how to pose, and he grabbed them by the arm leading towards a baby elephant or giving them more bananas. He even asked to have a few of mine, which I reluctantly gave him. You could argue he was simply being a proactive team member. However, I noticed he seemed to always come back to the same few girls. And he sure didn’t seem to be giving any of the men attention.
Once all the bananas had been consumed or stockpiled in elephants’ mouths, the elephants ran in front of us up the hill to feed on bamboo. Meanwhile Mr. D is screaming “Exercise! Exercise!” and encouraging us to pick of the pace because “exercise good to body!”
If Mario got close with his love interest during feeding time, it was during this downtime waiting for the elephants when Somsa realized his undying love for me. Or at least that he liked me in the same way that I liked baby elephants.
Sitting at the top of the hill, I felt a tickle on the back of my neck. Then another. Each time I shook it off, it came back stronger. I turned around and saw Somsa, giggling and nodding to say, “I see you.” It wasn’t a mosquito, it Somsa brushing grass on my skin. He then sat down next to Jennifer and I and struck up a conversation.
In the Moroccan desert, the boys flirting with Kimberly and I seemed to stick to their surroundings. Most jokes revolved around camels and about how many you could fit in one refrigerator. Similarly, Somsa started talking about elephants. As we sat and discussed where he was from (near Pai), how many family members he had (many more than me), and his famous pineapple curry (he didn’t have time to cook for me) some of the elephants were pooping.
“Elephants poop a lot!” He said. I looked at him and said, “Yeah, me too.” He nodded in approval.
Just in time to save us from more talk about poop, it was time for the mud bath. At this point, tourists stand at the bottom of the hill and watch the elephants slide down on their knees. Next, we follow behind the elephants into the mud pit, where the idea is to get dirty with them. Mr. D, back at it again, gives us directions: “Alright everyone we take our shirt off!” referring to our matching vests.
We strip and put down our belongings on a wooden bench near the pit. In trying to keep up the spirit, Mario, Mr. D, Somsa and the others scream, shout and run into the water. They were already shirtless, so getting ready for the water was a bit easier for them. From there they looked at us lagging behind and said, “Come on! No wet, no fun!”
The idea is to pick up mud from under the water and throw it on the elephants (or each other). All the while, the elephants are flopping around, getting on top of each other (“No fun, no baby,” Mr. D explains. Later, when an elephant mounts another again, he shouts, “Practice makes perfect!”), and defecating in the water. When this happens, someone shouts in Thai and another employees runs up with a basket to collect it. There is only a 15-20 second period where we also play with dung.
While most of the people present were indeed using the mud for the elephants, others were using it to flirt. At this point, Somsa had made sure to cover my chest, back and face with mud. I bet there was a lot of feces in there as well. I would hear my name, turn around, and get smashed with mud. It covered my face so much that could crunch it underneath my teeth. I also noticed some of the other favorites (foreign girls) were getting dumped with mud as well.
We got dirty, but not too dirty! Soon enough it was time to go to the waterfall and wash off. While I scrubbed the elephants with a bristle brush, I kept feeling the coolness of freshwater on my head and back, and more tickling of my ankles under the water. Who was to blame? Who else but Somsa, who seeing that he got me pretty muddy was determined to get me just as clean. The tickling of the ankles was a mere reminder that he was there to flirt.
After scrubbing a lifeless looking elephant for a while (“Does he actually like this?” I kept inquiring), I stepped to the side and started to seriously scrub my arms, back and chest, after having visions of the poop floating past me in the stagnant water. From across the water Somsa saw me and stopped his spraying duties. Grabbing a bucket and locking eyes, he told me to sit down. I was mid-conversation with Jennifer and another Swiss girl, so I just sat next to them in the water as we continued to talk.
Like any respectable elephant sanctuary employee, Somsa then scrubbed me. Actually scrubbed me. He poured water on me, washing off the mud he had catapulted at me earlier. He was detailed and precise, making sure he had rid the insides of my ears and back of my neck of mud. It was odd and out of place, but I just let that happen. Meanwhile Jennifer is dying of laughter next to me. I just shrugged my shoulders. If he wants to take the time to cleanse me of dirt and grit, so be it. I was fine squatting amidst others who were still having a great time splashing with elephants.
Being surrounded by giant, majestic creatures was special. But being shouted at to “take my shirt of,” told that “no wet, no fun,” learning that “practice makes perfect” and being hand washed by a Thai elephant caretaker was exceptional. What’s more unforgettable than a rowdy bunch of Thai boys who know how to rally up a crowd?
Top photo: EJS