The elephant is Thailand's national animal. There are few left in the wild, while others are exploited as "begging elephants" in such places as Bangkok.
We're visiting the Baan Chang Elephant Park today, one of a number of parks that rescue abused and orphaned animals, and use the revenue generated by tourists to support their program. No elephant tricks, but the chances to get close and ride them abound.
Picked up fairly early at the Secret Garden with a larger party of eight (the Colorado College connection), we drive for an hour or so before entering the park. Before we know it, we're dressed in our elephant-riding outfits (jammies?), looking at large quantities of bananas, and staring in awe at the elephants.
Pssst... guess who's pregnant.
Our first assignment is to feed the elephants. Well, we've always wanted to find out what the inside of an elephant's mouth feels like.
Ellyn makes sure the baby gets a share.
Elephant babies, like human babies, can be pushy but the Mahouts keep a close on eye on their elephants.
Feeding elephants is one thing...
But mounting and riding them is another. No, they're not nearly as large as African elephants, but they do look mighty big up close and it's hard to maintain your dignity the first couple of tries.
Horsewoman Ellyn looks like a natural from the start...
Here she readies herself to hook the elephant's ear to make it turn, obviously pretending it's Tom.
Kathy and Brian are a little slower at catching on to the fun of it all. Kathy in particular looks like she'd rather be back at cooking school.
Are we having fun yet?
Thanks to Ellyn's video skills, you can admire us on our first elephant rides. You can hear Brian yelling "Pai," because that means "Go" in elephant-talk. Obviously we were being led around like our younger grandchildren would be on a pony ride, and we were just as excited and a little more apprehensive. We follow the instructions to grab their ears as they're getting up and down. Even though we're holding on for dear life, it doesn't seem to bother the elephants.
After lunch we each share an elephant to ride a half-mile or so up a sometimes quite steep hill through a patch of jungle, where we dismount and stretch our muscles before getting on again for the ride back down. Kathy rides in front on the way up and in back on the way down. We have no photos for an obvious reason: We're both concentrating on hanging on.
The last few minutes of the ride down in the 90 degree heat become downright painful for the old guys. We four pass up the chance to ride them into the water and scrub their backs, preferring to stand around in the shade and massage our aching muscles. Thank goodness some of the other elephant campers stepped up.
Of course, nice folks that we are we don't want to get in the way of the fellow with the cart and bucket who seems so busy shoveling something out of the watering hole.
It's then time for a farewell photo of us and the elephants. As for Kathy and Brian, we're really glad that we experienced all this even if we're not planning to try it again anytime soon.
Lulu, our young Laotian Hill Tribe guide, and the mahouts all deserve our appreciation for a special day.