Saddle sore on the gentlest of mammals
27.02.2008 - 09.03.2008
There is no other image as identifiable of Thai culture than the elephant. This ancient beast has had a long and valuable impact on this country as a working companion and as a powerful attack force over the centuries. But these gentle creatures are in danger of neglect from unemployment and destruction by the still active illegal ivory poaching. Their once valuable contribution to farming and other heavy work related activities has diminished since the banning of logging in 1989, so it was without hesitation that I opted to go on an ‘elephant safari’ to keep one elephant and its mahout employed and fed for at least another day.
The Chiang Rai safari may not be as large as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang Province near Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure I wanted to go as far as seeing these regal creatures performing tricks, I just wanted to get close to them, to sense their temperament, to feel the texture of their skin, to understand more of their manner. So with my guide, Joy, we set off on an hour-long boat trip to reach the Karen village and our mount.
It’s a sudden sight as we turn around a bend in the river to be confronted by a gaggle of elephants, saddled up and tethered along the riverbank, a mounting hut dominant and waiting our arrival.
Before climbing into the saddle be sure to buy at least three bags of elephant food at 20 THB each or three for 50 THB. These consist of bananas and cut sugar cane and help the elephant’s food intake of up to 400 kg a day. The saddle is cramped for two people and one leg hangs over a square steel frame, but you’re too preoccupied at this stage to care as you mount and head off down the main street of the village towards the distant mountains. But, the first thing I learn about our elephant, apart from her name being ‘Rumpoon’, is that she doesn’t like the sound motorcars or motorbikes and starts to turn for home. The mahout gives out a shrill order and a rub behind the ears with his feet, she reluctantly obeys and continues in the right direction after the motorists have passed.
The ‘safari’ I’m on is for two hours and Rumpoon’s slow, gentle stride takes us through farmland, hillside plantations and into the jungle high in the mountains. The trail followed gets thinner and at various times Rumpoon chooses the trickle of a watercourse to follow. The trail can be very steep and high up in the mountains the drop each side can be worrying, but the elephant is no fool and considers each step taken with great care. Her step is soft leaving little if any foot print in the ground as she shuffles slowly along, sometimes too slow for the mahout who can get a little impatient and gives out with a whack of a heavy chain, a disturbing action that makes my guide Joy issue a complaint.
As food is thrown in front of Rumpoon regularly she’ll quicken her step to sniff out the offering, deftly curl her trunk around the sugarcane or bunch of bananas and lift to her mouth. After a time the mahout dismounts from Rumpoon and I’m offered his place. Sliding out of the saddle and onto her neck, I now have unencumbered contact as I rest my feet behind her ears and pat her coarse, hairy head, my level of emotion is lifted as I feel the power yet gentleness of this graceful 41-year-old lady. Then as if in protest at the mahout, who is now walking behind her, she aims a 2-gallon sneeze at him. What a wonderful gesture, I feel.
At the end of the 2-hour trek and after I’d returned to the saddle, we reach our destination on the other side of the mountain. Saddle-sore we climb out, buy three more bags of food, which is devoured immediately and sadly bid farewell to our gentle friend.