Elephant riding…is this trip necessary? by Maxine Sommers

My trip was billed as “Bangkok and Beyond.” A more suitable title would have been “Bangkok and WAY Beyond.” Traveling in Thailand offers the dedicated traveler an unrivaled cultural experience in a land where the word exotic still means something. Thailand, which means “land of the free,” is a country far removed from the Western world…a place whose culture and traditions have endured throughout centuries.

As I trudged by foot over the dusty, mountainous roads, bounced up and down in the back of a pickup truck and skimmed over swift, dark rivers in a flat-bottomed boat, I pondered the adventurous nature of the intrepid American tourist. Elephants, hill tribe villages, magnificent scenery and ancient temples are major attractions in northern Thailand.

Every day is a festival-day in many of the Thai villages, since they simply sell much of their native merchandise in outdoor markets. Heavy pottery, carved wooden pieces and clothing made of rough, black fabric patterned with colorful strips of brilliant red and yellow are stitched into jackets and trousers-all popular items for visitors. Bargaining with vendors is a must.

While making an excursion through the countryside it is not unusual to witness trained elephants working. When tractors were first introduced in Thailand, they were aptly named chang farang (foreign elephants.)

Visits to the elephant training camps and treks on elephant back are priority items for first-time Thailand travelers. No visit is complete without this adventure. Each elephant has one person who acts as his driver, keeper and best pal… he tends to his elephant’s every need. This man is referred to as a “mahout.”

The day opens with an early morning bath for the elephants. Work begins about 6 A.M. and stops at 11 A.M. because of the intense heat. While walking through an elephant training camp one bright, sweltering morning, I was invited to take a short journey on one of the monstrous animals. Standing directly beside an elephant for the first time in my life, I pondered the invitation and was immediately impressed by three facts:
An elephant is tall. (10 to 11 feet high.)
An elephant is big. (Average weight 3.9 tons.)
An elephant does not stand still.
Like an enormous Sequoia tree in a brisk wind, the immense creature sways from side to side with its trunk swinging like a colossal club. (Woe to the person who does not step up to an elephant with a great deal of care and respect.)

As I anxiously assessed the whole situation, I realized that in order to get up to the elephant’s back I had to climb up an ancient ladder, then stand on a platform that appeared to have been constructed from old scrap lumber circa 1800. I perused the rickety structure and fanned myself with my straw hat to try to cool off in the muggy, 100-degree heat. As I looked up I saw a miniature-sized man seated right behind the elephant’s head. He appeared frustrated and motioned me towards the ladder.

With fear in my heart I slowly climbed up…up…up. Imagine my surprise when I finally stood on the platform to find that, like the elephant, the platform also swayed from side-to-side… I hasten to add, not in conjunction with the elephant! The little man, waving his arms in a universal sign language, motioned me across (what appeared to be) a huge expanse of open space 11-feet above the ground. As I contemplated his command my feet remained firmly glued to the shaky platform.

The mahout, with an furious look on his face, waved his arms wildly again. He indicated I should vault across the void, place both feet on the elephant’s back, and seat myself on a short wooden plank. I thought, “Is this man crazy?…surely I will not be able to jump that far and will crash to the ground!”

With every nerve in my body zapped to attention, I mentally wrapped myself in a blanket of courage and remembered that good-ole’ Texas girls never give up. While making a fervent act of contrition, I jumped out onto what I hoped would be the elephant’s back.

Wonder of wonders! I managed to get both feet in place, then literally fell onto the plank seat. Clutching the sides of the seat with a death-like grip, I braced my body and attempted to assume my most dignified demeanor. I smiled at the little man sitting behind the elephant’s head. This was a grave error. He mistook the smile as a “proceed” command, and before I had time to realize what was happening, he uttered an ear-piercing scream and swatted the elephant’s ear with a big stick. WOW! Off we went in a blinding cloud of dust. As we bounded ahead at an alarming rate of speed, my hat sailed away along with my camera and one slip-on shoe.

Survival being uppermost in my mind, I shouted, “Help! Help!” ….Alas! To no avail. The next hour was devoted to hanging on for dear life while riding at full speed through villages and the surrounding forests.

From this experience, “Maxine Sommers’ suggestions for elephant riding” are respectively offered for your consideration:
An elephant loves to walk on anything dropped on the ground. So, when your hat flies off, the elephant will stomp on it and turn it into a pancake. Do not attempt to rescue the hat unless you want 3.9 tons of elephant to flatten you in the same manner.
If you are truly adventurous and crave extra excitement during an elephant ride, ask the mahout to urge the elephant to take you down a steep hill at a fast run.
Never, never ask the mahout to stop suddenly if there is another elephant following you. The sudden realization that you are about to experience a read-end collision with another elephant gives a whole new meaning to the word fear!