Watching elephants bathe is kind of magic. You can see their eyes roll back with pleasure when their trainers scrub their two-inch-thick skin with heavy brushes.
Then they take matters into their own hands.
After their baths, we watched them move logs the way they used to do when Thailand was a big lumber supplier to the world. The elephants in these camps like this one (The Young Elephant Training Centre in Chiang Dao) live 20 - 30 years longer than those in zoos because of their semi-wild and natural habitat.
Next came playtime and a little break for creativity before an hour's walk through the jungle with us on their backs.
I'm not a sissy. I've done ziplining and waterfall repelling and white-water rafting. I'm usually game for doing it but when the actual event rolls around my imagination takes over. I don't think this is crazy, but I can tell you everyone I'm with feels otherwise.
"What if the elephant trips or slips?" I asked.
"They don't. And her name is Babu," our guide said. He, of course, wasn't taking the ride. He was just fastening the seatbelt around us. Yes, there was a seatbelt -- an actual seat belt and it didn't boost my confidence. Additionally the chair was so loosely fastened to the elephant's back that I envisioned it slipping all the way under the elephant with us securely attached, now riding upside down between the elephant's legs.
Mostly I had an image of Babu lying on her back like some huge water bug, legs wobbling in the air, with me squashed underneath. The path was narrow and steep with treacherous foot-catching vines scattered about, but I seemed to be the only one to notice. Below us was the river. There was little question that this two-to-three ton beast was going to trip and we would both tumble to our deaths unless I helped her keep her balance by leaning deeply toward the uphill side, crushing Sam.
And indeed, after a few dozen yards, the elephant stumbled. Well, maybe she didn't stumble so much as stop walking and look around at me. The trainer who was riding with his legs straddling the elephant's neck, his feet on her ears, turned and glared at me.
"Balance," he shouted.
"Right," I agreed.
"No balance," he snarled, and shoved me toward the downhill side. "Stay!" And stay I did.
So, here are the things I have learned about Asian elephants today:
There are four things a healthy elephant does. One, they sway their heads, trunks and ears from side to side for long periods of times. Two, they sleep lying down and snore loudly. Three, they have round grassy feces. And four, they sweat through their toenails.
Now fortunately I can't really speak to number three, but all the others lead me to believe that Sam is part elephant.