Playing with elephants is virtually a requirement when traveling to Southeast Asia. Every trinket and article of clothing in the street markets are embroidered with elephants, and to say we were excited to finally see some elephants is an understatement.
Chiang Mai is home to an abundance of elephant sanctuaries, the majority of which exist to protect elephants from poachers, the circus, and any number of hardships that are eliminating the incredible animal. We landed upon the Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Center, that is not only geared toward protection of the elephants, but also enables visitors to interact with the elephants on a personal level; however, we didn’t know how personal the experience would get. (Quick aside, we rode bareback and made sure to avoid any so called “sanctuary” that use harnesses and torture methods to train the elephants. At Ran-Tong, they train through feeding bananas and voice commands only).
After a delicious buffet breakfast at our hotel, they picked us up and we drove about an hour into the jungle. The second we got out of the bus, we spotted an elephant grazing in the grass below. They are so extraordinary, even from afar, so were itching to begin the tour.
We began with the grandmother of the elephants, Mary Lou, and acclimated to being so close to such a giant animal. Even though we were told they are gentle creatures, and to stay still when they run at you, it is hard to hold your ground when a two ton elephant is coming straight at you while you’re holding bananas. Turns out, Mary Lou is incredible gentle and kind, and we were able to snap some pictures with her, pet her, and finally drop bananas in her mouth. Elephants are very, very smart creatures. I guess when you feed one, they remember you, and will keep coming back for more food, and will immediately love you. It was easy to feel comfortable around her–she had a subtle smile from one flapping ear to the other the entire time we played with her.
Once we felt comfortable, the young elephant kids (about 25 years old) walked over for us to ride. Side note, they age like humans. They grow until they are about 20 years old, and act like naughty teenagers until then. Bill offered to ride alone, while the rest of us paired up with two on an elephant. Chase and I hopped on (struggled to climb on, I mean) our pretty girl Sohria (Soh-Rye-Ah), and we all held on for our lives.
If you haven’t ridden an elephant, let me tell you, it is amazing and terrifying. They are HUGE animals. You are so high up off the ground, and riding bareback is not an easy feat. During our trek, Sohria would stop and graze, dropping her head to grab some grass, and almost sending Chase face first into the ground (he was in the front by the head, the harder place to ride). It is impossible not to smile and laugh hysterically while riding, the experience is like no other in the world. It is hard to describe how happy and connected to the elephant you feel.
After about 15-20 minutes, we made our way to a small lake to bathe our elephants. This means that the elephant has to slowly walk down a mini marshy hill, therefore dipping her head down and making it difficult to hold on without slipping off. Once we made it into the water, she knelt down so her body was submerged, and we hopped into the water. Having such a large body mass, elephants are constantly overheated, and adore taking water baths. That is why you often see them guzzling water in their trunk, and spraying themselves. We splashed around with them, and they could not have been cuter. They rolled around in the water like little puppies, smiles baked on their faces, having the time of their life.
We then made our way to the baby elephant, and he was the cutest little (they are born at 250 pounds…) elephant. He was so playful; he tried to climb through the gate, tried grabbing onto our clothes with his trunk, rolled around in the water on the ground. The sad part was watching his mother behind him. She was chained to the ground in the cage, due to being an aggressive mamma elephant. No matter where her little baby was, her eyes followed him to make sure he was safe.
Afterward, we were greeted with some fresh fruit, water, and chicken Khao Soi. After we stuffed our faces, we took quick showers and returned the traditional clothing we wore, and headed home with the biggest smiles on our faces.
I still cannot believe I had the opportunity to ride Sohria! Riding and bathing with elephants is one of the most memorable experiences I will cherish fo the rest of my life. It definitely imprints an appreciation for how gentle, intelligent, and adorable elephants are.
The next leg of our journey is back to the islands, Koh Samui!