Friday, February 15, 2013

A day with the elephants

It was about an hour and a half drive outside the city to get to the elephant camp, but eventually, after picking up several other groups of people and several loads of bananas (for the elephants and even a few for us), we made it to the outskirts to where the elephants dwelt.

And elephants there were! Similar to how cows are treated in India, likewise elephants are treated with extreme respect in Thailand. The king is given the best elephant every year from his people and everytime a true albino elephant is born it is also automatically given to the king. Back in the day apparently if one king riding an elephant killed another king's elephant that was it - the losing king accepted defeat and that was that.

Elephant power, apparently.

Anyway, the day was filled with extreme elephant activities. It started off easy - feeding elephants. To be more accurate - feeding elephants extreme quantities of delicious bananas.

The bananas in Thailand are better than any bananas I've had the world over. Why is this true? I have no idea. I feel it likely has to do with the fact that they are probably grown locally, the climate is actually the right one for growing bananas, and well, things just taste better in Thailand, as I was about to find out the whole length of my trip.

Anyway, apparently elephants freakin' love bananas.

They go bananas for bananas.

I've fed quite a few animals in my life, having been to the wild animal park in San Diego and other places where feeding wild creatures is something you do, but elephants are strange ones. Their trunks really do seek you out like truffle-seeking hogs and they're curious buggers to say the least. My sister had an elephant tug at her shirt more than once in an attempt to get more bananas from her! Hilarious.

Btw in case you were curious - they eat bananas whole - peel and all. Quite curious.

After feeding came mahout (pronounced "may-hoot") training. This is where we learned the commands elephants have been trained to follow. As a mahout (or elephant trainer/rider), you ride elephants and use a particularly scary looking instrument to control your elephant's movements. Here is a picture of the tool you use:

Despite it looking like the most violent torture device you've ever seen (and I was imagining terrible things as soon as we were introduced to them), you actually never use it any way but peacefully. Remember, elephants are revered and respected in Thailand. To hurt an elephant is close to ungodly there. Big no no.

The most you do with this particular hook? Place the tip of it against the skin of your elephant and shout commands.

I kid you not. There is no movement with this hook other than placement. It is so the elephant can tell what direction you want it to go or where your command is centered on its head. That's it. No hacking, swinging, or other movement of any kind. Placement.

And surprisingly, there aren't that many commands. Similar to a horse you use your hook, shout commands, and sometimes use your feet to kick their ears or push behind their heads a little. Not so terrible.

The directions your elephant can go? Right, left, backwards, forwards, stop, lifting up a foot so you can get on and off. If you're a particularly adept mahout you can get your elephant to kneel and get back up so your descent/ascent is smoother, but I didn't learn that command.

The words are also pretty simple.

  • "Pai" while kicking the elephant's ears and scooting your hips forward will move your elephant forward.
  • "Toi" while holding the hook on the top of the head and scooting your hips backward will move your elephant backwards.
  • "How" while holding the hook on the front of the head and one palm on the head means stop.
  • "Tay" and basically putting the hook on the opposite side of the elephant's head than you wish to turn (near the top of where the ear connects to the head) and then kicking with the same foot (so opposite foot as well) makes it turn in whatever direction you want.
And that's about it. Easy as pie, right? :)

One of the coolest things about being a mahout is actually the clothing. They wear some sweet comfortable clothing. Loose v-neck shirts and scarves to cover themselves from the sun and the most awesomely comfortable drawstring pants this world has ever seen. My sister was so in love with them that she ended up buying five pairs to bring back to the States. Yeah, that comfortable.

(This guy is just wearing normal clothes but traditional mahouts wear the awesome outfits I've described).

After our foray into commanding we rode our elephants for awhile and eventually lead them to the nearby river, where we then walked them into the water and washed them. Washed elephants!

Hilariously we had no idea that this was when a large water fight was to break out and we were going to get soaked. We had been told to wear bathing suits ahead of time but the magnitude of soaking had not been accurately described to us. Basically we ended up swimming with our elephants and the elephant trainers in the river. My sister did a hilarious tumble over her elephant in an attempt to shield herself from the onslaught of water coming from one of the trainers. It didn't really work.

At one point in the fight poo was actually thrown. Yes, poo. Elephant poo. Right before my elephant went into the water it decided that it had to go. Right then. My sister's elephant, oblivious to the ways of etiquette, continued plowing into the water, nearing the "splash zone" as it were. My sister tried to command her elephant to stop, but alas, the damage was being done. Hilarious in my life.

Anyway, that's how large (and I do mean in bowling ball size) poo was in the water. At some point in time a trainer thought it would be hilarious to throw this instead of water. Luckily the shot missed but my sister and I agreed that a line had definitely been crossed, no matter how relatively clean elephant poo was in comparison to human poo.

...I mean I didn't want to get elephant conjunctivitis or anything.

After we washed the elephants and rode them back to their areas (where they quickly gave themselves dirt baths, defeating the purpose of our cleaning them), we took showers and were served an amazing homemade lunch of soup, stir fry, and deep fried egg rolls (which I will cover later in a post about the food). We lazed about in the sun for awhile and talked about our newfound love of pachyderms.

We also got to visit an elephant poo paper factory. Being a fanatic about strange things of the sort, I actually already knew about this operation, and was thrilled to see it in person (I'd been given several gifts of elephant poo paper journals previous to my making plans to go to Thailand, so it was nice to see where said gifts were being produced).

Surprisingly, it's a pretty simple process:

  1. Get elephant poo.
  2. Dry poo.
  3. Boil poo with hydrogen peroxide to bleach out basically everything.
  4. Let it set into oatmeal-like consistency.
  5. Wash it out in a watery-like solution and set on frames.
  6. Let dry.
  7. Peel off frames and create into paper products!
Yeah that was pretty much it. Like the oldest paper-making process in the world (like I feel this is just a more modern version of how papyrus was made into paper...something something mash it down and dry it into sheaves).

And thus ended our day of the elephants. Magical it was. I'll never think of elephants the same.

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