elephant rides and guilt

Posted from Chiang Dao, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The bridge you must cross to get into the Chiang Dao Elephant Training Center.

The bridge you must cross to get into the Chiang Dao Elephant Training Center.

I have always had a dream of riding an elephant. Never a horse. Only an elephant. In fact, I have never been on a horse. But my desire to ride an elephant goes back quite some time. I think it has to do with the romantic allure of Arabic stories and the wild tales of jungles and spice-trading and tribal folklore. Or maybe it’s explorers on caravan riding these pachyderms through trails and mountains in search of new routes in foreign lands. I thought it would be a grand experience, and it was in a way. Only not in a positive way.

My friend, Oliver, and I went to Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre during a three-day motorbike ride through northwestern Thailand. The centre is about 60km north or Chiang Mai and is open from 8 a.m. to just after noon. Entrance fee is 100 Baht. The elephants get half the day off – I think. They could be in school during this time.

After reading lots of reviews on how bad it is to ride elephants I decided maybe i would forgo the experience and just bathe one. That would be personal and up-close, and besides, I feel horses shouldn’t be riden either, so perhaps I could get over the allure elephants have over me.

The first elephant we passed. He looked so sad.

The first elephant we passed. He looked so sad. His mahout just sitting there.

The elephants at the training center are bathed in the early morning. We arrived at 10:30 a.m. We missed it. There was a show going on where they elephants moved logs and painted pictures, so we went to that instead. This slightly disgusted me. Sure, it’s impressive to see an elephant lift a huge log with his trunk and see a man riding on his head directing him with what to do. But a switch flips somewhere. You realize that these elephants are expressive. You realize that they know how to communicate. And they are communicating. They hate their life. And you know that they know that their spirit has been broken. They have been made to be submissive to a creature much tinier than they. It’s hard to wrap my brain around, but a feeling I was unfamiliar with was forming in my gut.

Doing their show. We left about 15 minutes into this.

Doing their show. We left about 15 minutes into this.

So without the opportunity to bathe one I decided I would ride one. I know. I wasn’t listening to myself. I figured it out too late. We paid 800 Baht for the two of us to have a 30 minute elephant ride. The thing was we went on this ride after all the tour groups got their rides. It was late – 12:30 p.m. Our poor elephant was looking forward to lunch and yet had to work for another 30 minutes so I could get my rocks off. He protested. A lot. The mahout would kick him in the ears and jab him with the hook every time he tried to turn around and go back to his buddies. I was mortified that I was making him do this. What is wrong with me?

Heading down the dirt tract. Poor elephant.

Heading down the dirt tract. Poor elephant.

When you get on the elephant you don’t know where to put your feet. You step onto him and you realize you’re stepping on his spine and shoulder blades. Part of me thought, hey, he’s big. Maybe he doesn’t feel it. But deep down I knew he did. Again, this made me sick. I hung my feet off to the side to help alleviate some of my guilt, but it didn’t work. Then we go through a narrow path in the jungle and he wants to turn around again. He knows he’s working over-time. I still think he’s hungry, but there’s no where to buy him some bananas to eat.

An earlier group got to walk through the river together. I think our guy was lonely.

An earlier group got to walk through the river together. I think our guy was lonely.

After the track we go into the river and I think he likes this a bit more. It’s cooler. He’s half-way submerged and ambling along, and at one point I just know he wants nothing more than to rollover and soak his entire body in the river. I don’t blame him, but I’m glad that the mahout has control of this two-tonne creature.

I tell Oliver how bad I feel and he laughs. He was kind of against the ride the whole time, but only went along with it because we were there.

The seat on the back of the elephant, the howdah, isn’t really stable. You can feel yourself swaying and at some points I worried it would just slide right down the side of him.

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Disembarking was a great feeling. The thirty minutes went by slowly and with tons of anguish, for me and the elephant. It’s not a feeling I wish to re-explore.

There’s lots of information out there as to why you shouldn’t ride elephants and how brutal the training is to teach them how to accept people as passengers. I had never really read any of it until I got to Chiang Mai. I mean, that’s what people do in Chiang Mai – they ride elephants and see tigers and go see the long neck hill tribe people. After this experience I decided against seeing the hill tribe people. I’m sure they feel like a circus show too.

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