- Watch for low hanging branches
- Getting on and off can be tricky, as the [animals] 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 "get on board." 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. We just had arrived by open truck in the Karen village of Ban Mai. We would be introduced to our elephants the following morning.
In the meantime we 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 eying the show. Welcome to Thailand.
That night our group was given the honor of sleeping in the hut of the village chief. Our first evening consisted of two totally different cultures trying 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 be understood.
The next morning our cooks prepared a delicious breakfast. We sat around marveling at our good fortune when off in the distance we heard the muffled clanking of what sounded like cow bells...it was the noise made by the approaching elephants.
We anxiously awaited their appearance, but to the children of the village their arrival was nothing out of the ordinary. How differently our children in the States would have reacted to this sight! This time, however, we were the children. It was actually going to happen. We were actually going to board these gentle beasts and ride them.
As we watched, each of seven elephants were "saddled" first with about four 5-6 inch pads and then the saddle itself, resembling a three-sided wooded playpen secured with chains and ropes.
Judy said it reminded her of the seat on a ferris wheel. Little did we know the truth of this analogy.
My sister and I were assigned the lead elephant, Memsoon. The name of our mahout (handler) was Samsong.
“MELUNG!”, Samsong shouted, and Memsoon obediently stretched out one leg in front of her and bent down nearer to the ground. I stepped up onto her front leg, as I had been instructed to do and then grabbed the saddle and pulled myself up...and I do mean up! I had made it...and was cheered royally by my comrades. Judy successfully came up next.
“MELUK!”, our handler shouted and, lo and behold, Memsoon began to rise, 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 a small, wiry, 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. He didn’t acknowledge us.
Judy and I carried on quite a lively conversation with each other, 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...mountain side! Our previously "silent" mahout slowly turned around toward us, smiled and said, “Hang on!” He no doubt had understood quite an earful.
Before we started out, we had been advised that we would dismount on the mountain and walk down with the elephants. The guides apparently 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 steep and winding that you literally could not see it in front of you. We are talking straight down, but, once we had safely reached the bottom, we took great pleasure in watching the rest of our trekkers traverse the same terrain.
The looks on their faces were worth a million bucks, as I am sure, ours had been, too. The elephants literally were sliding down on their bottoms. I couldn’t believe that animals as humongous as those elephants could negotiate so gracefully such a steep and narrow path. What a sight to remember!
That evening we stayed in a guest house in a Hmong village. It was basically a bamboo coed dorm. The twelve of us who were on the expedition got very chummy that night; no more secrets among us!
After dinner, sitting around a huge campfire, we found that the Hmong were more shy than the Karen. In an effort to break the ice someone brought out a guitar. To our amazement the children began singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in their language. A piece of our culture had been brought to a people 10,000 miles away in a primitive village in the hills of northern Thailand.
The next morning it was time to say good-bye to our Hmong friends. We mounted our "hefty steeds" and headed back into the jungle.
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 broadbrimmed hat was in shambles by the end of the first day...not to mention her nerves.
Poor Judy constantly was being sideswiped by all manner of somewhat unidentifiable flora. She forever was 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. After that, she had no more problems...go figure.
It all had 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!!