Thursday, January 8, 2015

Baan Chang Elephant Park: Playing with Pachyderms

After our five days exploring Chiang Mai, it was time to get out into the countryside and go to camp; elephant camp, that is.  We spent two days at Baan Chang Elephant Park, learning (or attempting to learn) how to be mahouts, or elephant caretakers. 

We had seen plenty of elephants from a distance in Africa, but definitely had not come anywhere near close enough to feed, bathe, or ride them like we did at Baan Chang.  Asian elephants are actually a different species than the African elephants we had previously viewed from afar.  There are a variety of differences between the two species, but the most obvious is that Asian elephants are much smaller and only the males have tusks.

We started our time at elephant camp by changing into what would be our uniform for the next two days: incredibly trendy blue polyester mahout outfits.  Thus fashionably attired, we were ready for the first activity: feeding the elephants!  Elephants actually spend about 18 hours each day eating, so we were just there to provide them with their daily dose of treats in the form of bananas and sugarcane. 

Highly intelligent, as well as creatures of habit, all of the elephants knew that the arrival of minivans full of strangers meant it was time for their favorite foods.  They waited eagerly for the visitors carrying bunches of bananas and sticks of sugarcane, inquisitively reaching out their enormous trunks as we passed.  Some elephants were pickier than others, preferring sugarcane over bananas or refusing to eat green bananas entirely.  It took some time to get used to the elephants snatching the food from our hands with their trunks.  Not only does the proboscis contain up to 150,000 muscle fascicles, it handles food and objects in an amazingly adept manner!

Once we were more familiar and comfortable with these majestic creatures, it was time for our training to begin.  Our small group clustered around our guide to learn a series of commands, starting with non long, or “lie down.”  Having learned this basic command, we were ready to get up on the elephants and back off again.  Despite their smaller size and our vast experience riding horses, elephants are much larger.  Getting on even the smallest elephant was somewhat of a vertigo-inducing experience.

Having mastered mounting and dismounting, we quickly added a few other commands to our repertoire.  We now know the elephant commands for go, turn, and stop (bai, quay, and how) – we are practically fluent!  However, we are pretty confident that the elephants simply follow their trainers and completely disregard any orders from foreigners mispronouncing their instructions.

Regardless, we set off on an elephant ride around the camp’s perimeter.  We were each entrusted with our own elephant for the afternoon.  Several couples in the group had opted to share just one elephant, but Giorgio had insisted that we each get our own – how else could we have elephant races?  We clambered up onto their backs after instructing each of our elephants to non long and headed down the path.  Giorgio’s more experienced and larger elephant lead the way for Stephanie’s younger (and smaller) pachyderm.

Not long after the elephants had commenced plodding through the jungle and searching for tasty, leafy treats alongside the trail, a firecracker popped in the distance.  Although the older elephants in the group generally remained complacent, Stephanie’s elephant and a few others were not so calm, spooking and breaking into a run.  Staying in place while bareback on a spooked elephant is not quite the same as riding a galloping horse, but Stephanie held on until a mahout urgently instructed her to dismount.  Eventually, the entire group dismounted and gave the elephants a much-needed break.    

It turned out that there was a Buddhist funeral on one of the neighboring farms, accompanied by traditional fireworks.  Once our guide had confirmed that there would be no more fireworks that afternoon, we were back in the saddle (or back bareback on the elephants).  This time, Stephanie got to ride the biggest elephant in the group, who not only sported immense tusks, but would also be less prone to spooking in the event of further firecrackers.

In case any riders out there are wondering how elephant riding compares to horseback riding, we suggest you stick to horses.  Elephant necks and backs are not the most comfortable places to perch and they are also quite hairy!  And their hairs are quite bristly, constantly scratching through your clothes.  Who knew?

After their exertions, the elephants were more than ready for their daily bath.  We had seen plenty of elephant pool parties in Etosha, but this time we got to join in!  We both narrowly avoided having a foot accidentally crushed by one of the giant beasts in the water while vigorously scrubbing them down.  For the mahouts, being in the water with their elephants was second nature and they simply laughed at our concerns.  (Afterwards, we had our own bath time; elephants don’t have the same rules as humans about not pooping in the shower.)

After the day-trippers had left, we settled into full camp mode.  We shared stories over the campfire, roasted sticky rice in bamboo in lieu of marshmallows, and lit a few more wishing lanterns.  The whole time, we could hear the elephants rustling in the background amidst their massive piles of leaves and fruit – it was like we were back in Africa!

Armed with yet more sugarcane and bananas, we re-introduced ourselves to the elephant team the following morning.  Plus we got to meet the resident baby elephants, who looked just like Dumbo (although they were happily ensconced alongside their mothers).

We spent our final day with the elephants in the jungle.  Apparently, the elephants are not really supposed to be trekking through the jungle, which is owned by the government.

We trekked through mango fields, over a river, and up and down a few steep hills before arriving at a small clearing where the mahouts prepared a luxurious picnic of freshly grilled chicken and fried rice.  Meanwhile, our elephant friends were meant to be exploring the jungle on their own, where they would presumably find tons of tasty snacks.  Stephanie’s elephant was quite disgruntled by this plan, preferring to remain within sight of the group rather than exploring on her own.  The other elephants, except for one older male, eventually got tired of browsing independently and slowly made their way back to the campfire, sneaking up on us as stealthily as an animal weighing several tons can do.

Back in camp, it was already time for another bath.  Stephanie headed into the pond with her new friend, who turned out to be quite mischievous, spouting feces-water all over her multiple times. Giorgio and the other members of our group decided one time was enough and refused to get into the dirty water again.

Baan chang means “elephant home” in Thai.  They provide a home for 40+ rescued elephants that had previous careers as logging or show elephants.  They no longer put on shows for hordes of tourists or pull massive logs through Burmese forests.  However, we had some concerns about taking part in the Thai elephant tourism industry, which is known for its mistreatment of these majestic creatures.  Overall, we are happy with our decision to visit Baan Chang and learn more up close and personal with such amazing animals.  Living at Baan Chang seems to be a happier alternative to the elephants’ prior lives and we’ve determined that the ideal of roaming free through the jungle does not seem attainable in modern-day Southeast Asia.  Regardless, the welfare of the elephants here in Thailand is certainly something that we have seriously considered, both before and after our visit.

Following our two days of elephant camp, we embarked on a new adventure – a week of road tripping around northern Thailand!


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