There's a moment, when the elephant stands, that you seriously question the wisdom of mounting it in the first place.
Like the high dive at the pool, it looks much safer from below. But this time it's not a jittery board underneath, but a heaving, breathing, 3,000-pound animal with sharp tusks.
Then it takes a step and you lurch forward, planting both hands on two massive head bumps and grasping for longer strands of the black, Brillo-like hairs sticking from the tough, leathery, grey skin. Then the divoted dirt road dips and takes the elephant with it, and that's when you recall you don't have health insurance.
The next step is to quell panic with long breaths and find balance with the right alignment of pelvis and hips. From there, sit up straight and enjoy the view. At 10 feet above the ground, the lush green canopy of Northern Thailand takes a step back, giving you a broader perspective to appreciate. To the eyes of someone who grew up among snowy Vermont pines and sugar maples, the tropical fruit trees and bright flowers carpeting the valley seemed a Shangri-La.
Srinan, my betrunked bearer, seemed to be enjoying it too, and I hoped he did. Having a sister who's a veterinarian and an aunt who thieves dogs (allegedly) out of abusive relationships, animal rights is important to me (albeit not enough to go vegetarian). I've seen the truly horrific videos of elephant abuse online and was nervous to support any of it, directly or indirectly, via patronage.
Happily, Maetang Elephant Park, 30 miles north of Chiang Mai, agrees and considers itself on a rescue mission, taking in injured elephants and those used in illegal logging. At the on-site clinic, head veterinarian, Pukkanuch Bunsit, introduced me to one elephant under treatment for an infection in a softball-sized toenail. Part of cure is nutritional, using as many natural remedies as possible.
As far as any training going on, the camp is zero tolerance on abuse. "Our method of training does not involve cruelty of any description!" the camp declares. "Nor does it involve the 'carrot-and-stick' method, otherwise known as paa jaan."
The caravan of about eight elephants soon reached the Mae Taeng River, which threads the valley. Dismounting, the murky brown water quickly filled with happy elephants. Indeed, it was surprising how much they like to play, especially the younger ones, who roll around and squee with adorable delight. Anyone in the perimeter gets at least one snoutful of spray.
Srinan, a much older fella judging by the dappled pink pigmentation on his brow and trunk, just flopped to one side and stretched out. He clearly knew what to expect. I was handed a tuft of soft, fibrous, tree bark and instructed to start scrubbing. A lather quickly whipped up and filled the rivulets of cracked skin. With one side finished, Srinan rolled to the other -- an important thing to watch carefully if standing near.
Once rinsed off, the caravan crossed to the far bank and narrowed single file line as the path led into the hills, which spread out in not-so-unlike Vermont fashion. Over the next hour, I learned the following about elephant riding.
1) Bareback is best for intimacy but can be hell on the loins.
2) This is a technology-free affair. Any you bring is bound to get broken, if not your head from attempting to use it on the back of a moving elephant.
3) Elephants gorge. The ride is actually one long movable feast for the elephants and half the mahout's (elephant driver) duty appears to be coaxing them from banana trees.
4) Elephants shit. For every action there is a reaction, and in this case, a vast amount of it. Look out below.
5) Elephants are chick magnets, at least for the mahouts who've learned a few honeyed English phrases like "You so beautiful."
After about an hour, we reached a large mud pit, scraped out of the hillside by the elephants themselves. Dismounting, I watched them eagerly dive into the stuff and wallow in joy. For many on the caravan, it was a good opportunity to get down and dirty with the elephants, slathering and being slathered in turn.
With that, it was time to say goodbye to Srinan. I doubt the experience was all that special to him, but it surely was for me. Whatever your view of elephant riding, the time together was life-changing -- not just for their sublime balance of majesty and gentleness, but for the gaze, which penetrates the ecological conscience.
It's one thing to love elephants, but another to be kissed by one.
And If anyone wants to hurt elephants, they have to go through me now.
Returning home after 10 years abroad, Mike Dunphy now gets his travel fix in 800-word portions.