“Tips for Trekkers”;

  • watch for low hanging branches
  • getting on and off can be tricky as the elephants sometimes bend down at odd angles–call for assistance if needed
  • pay attention to the trail–anticipate jerky movements on up-hills and down-hills…. hang on!
  • Relax and Have Fun!                                                                               

Thus began the adventure of a lifetime. These were the instructions handed to us as we prepared to “board” our respective elephants. My sister, Judy, and I along with ten other trekkers and three guides were embarking upon an elephant safari in the northern hills of Thailand.

In Chiang Mai, the previous day, we hopped into the back of a old, red 48 Ford pickup. This would take us to the Karen village of Ban Mai where we would spend the night in the tribal chief’s hut. We watched as dinner was prepared for us on a Thai cook stove, resembling a bucket. It was delicious. We would “meet” our elephants the following morning.

Judy and I immediately decided to go native and have a bath in the local river. We were in the middle of changing into our bathing suits, half naked, in what we thought was a secluded spot. We looked up only to find two giant water buffalo, not fifteen feet away eyeing the show. Welcome to Thailand.

That night our group was given the honor of sleeping in the village chief’s hut. Our first evening consisted of two radically different cultures attempting to communicate without the benefit of a common language. Whoever said, “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet” should have seen us that evening. With the help of a little sign language, a lot of song and a mutual desire to make it happen success was the order of the night.

We awoke the next morning to the sounds of children playing …and something else…. the distant, melodious clanging of bells. And then we saw them. Seven humungous, slowly moving elephants appeared, delicately weaving their way among the numerous bamboo huts. Each one had a wiry mahout perched on their neck. Our rides had arrived!

As they approached, we expected the children to react much like our children would have. But no. This time we were the children and the local youngsters went about their play as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. And to them it was very ordinary to have elephants in your back yard, but not to us. It was actually going to happen. We were actually going to board these gentle beasts and ride them.

They saddled the seven elephants as we watched. They used four pads per elephant, each pad 5-6 inches thick. On top of the pads went the saddle chair. Judy and I were assigned the lead elephant, Memsoon. Our mahout’s (handler’s) name was Samsong. He motioned to me to come forward.

MELUNG!”, I heard.

I had no idea what the mahout was commanding, but suddenly I saw the vast grey shape before me kneel with it’s head lowered and one enormous leg outstretched. It was obviously waiting for me to do something. So I did. With much encouragement from the waiting bystanders, I tentatively walked towards it, set my foot on it’s trunk, grabbed the leather band around its head, and convincingly hoisted myself up, carefully placing my booted feet, (so as not to offend), and warily made my way to the saddle. The saddle chair, cleverly disguised as a small, rectangular, three sided playpen, resembling a Ferris Wheel. (Little did we know how close this analogy would be to reality.) I was rewarded with cheers from my fellow travelers. I had been the first to board my elephant. A big ole smile covered my face. And did I mention? “It” was no longer an “it”. My elephant had a name. Her name was Memsoon.

My sister, Judy, was next. And she did okay, but definitely lacking the finesse that I showed. Once she was aboard, we looked at each other in amazement. Was this really happening? Were we about to embark on a five-day journey through the mountains of Thailand, on the back of an elephant? Yep. We were.

MELUK!”, our handler shouted and lo and behold, Memsoon began to rise and the saddle began to sway and Judy and I began to roll and rock, holding on for dear life. As Memsoon had finished her ascent and the saddle had settled into place, Judy and I looked at each other and smiled big ol’ crocodile smiles…this was going to be fun!

Our mahout was the small, wiry and silent type. When we first started out, he was seated below us on the elephant’s head. We asked him a couple of times if he spoke English and he didn’t acknowledge our questions. We naturally assumed that he didn’t speak our language.

Judy and I carried on quite a lively conversation, comparing notes on our first night in the village. We talked on and on, even discussing our quiet, little mahout.

We had been out for a couple of hours when we came to our first hillside. Let me rephrase that… mountainside! Our silent mahout slowly turned around toward us, smiled and said, “Hang on”! So much for our non-English speaking mahout. He no doubt had quite an ear-full to write home about.

The preliminary literature had said that we would dismount on the mountain and walk down with the elephants. Presumably, they (the exact identity of ‘they’ never was known) decided it was safer for us to stay on top of the elephants.

Judy and I were in the lead and the trail was so narrow, steep and winding that you literally could not see it in front of you… straight down! Memsoon negotiated it perfectly. Carefully, and slowly placing one foot directly in from of the other, sometimes sliding on her bottom. Once we had safely reached the bottom we took great pleasure in watching our fellow trekkers traverse the terrain we had just descended. The looks on their faces were worth a million bucks, as I am sure, ours had been too. We would be forever in Memsoon’s debt.

That evening we were in a Hmong village. They put us in their “guest house” which was a bamboo coed dorm. The twelve of us got very chummy that night, no more secrets among us!

After dinner that night, we sat around a huge campfire. The Hmong were shyer than the Karen. In an effort to get to know them better, someone brought out a guitar and soon to our amazement, the children began singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in their language. We didn’t understand the words but the tune and the age-old sign language of the spider crawling up the drainpipe were unmistakable. We couldn’t believe our ears…here 10,000 miles from home in a primitive village in the hills of northern Thailand we were hearing a song we had all grown up with…small world. We taught them the “Hokey Pokey” and it was down hill from there on out.

The next morning it was time once again to say good-bye to our Hmong friends. We mounted our hefty steeds and away into the jungle we headed.

I always was the first to get on Memsoon. That put me on her right side. Memsoon always seemed to find the best eating on her left side…much to Judy’s dismay. Judy’s broad brimmed hat was in shambles by the end of the first day…not to mention her nerves. Poor Judy was constantly being sideswiped by bamboo, banana leaves and all manner of unidentifiable flora. She was constantly admonishing our Christian god for doing this to her. I suggested quietly several times that perhaps she should speak to Buddha and not his Christian counterpart. After all, we were in his neck of the woods, so to speak. Finally, on the third day, she did and she had no more problems…go figure.

After a night in another Karen village and the last night in a Shan village we ended up back at the village from where we had begun this adventure. We were all a little sad to say good-bye to our mahouts and our elephants. Each of us held a special little place in our hearts for our big new friends.

It had all been fantastic…the food, the fellowship and the new found friends. I wouldn’t have changed a minute of it…except maybe to add one thing to the list of “Tips for Elephant Trekkers”…don’t just hang on…hang loose!!