Ride an Elephant? Not on your Nelly!

| February 6, 2012

‘They’re just like dogs’, my friend Jess claimed matter-of-factly. ‘Yeah right’, I thought, looking up at the hunk of leathery grey beast before me, who I could tell was already weighing me up with his beady eyes, working out the best method of pulverising me. I took a step back.

The idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary had been a much mulled-over prospect whilst we traversed Thailand and in the end we couldn’t resist the idea of cavorting about in the jungle with an adorable baby Nelly or Dumbo. I couldn’t wait to feed, bathe and ride my very own heffalump and form a bond not dissimilar to that of Aladdin and his simian sidekick Abu (who gets temporarily morphed in to an elephant by the genie… keep up, people). We would regard each other with curiosity, then after a generous offering of bananas he would sweep me up with his trunk and we would perform a song and dance routine, a dazzling spectacle of cross-species camaraderie.

My anthropomorphic aspirations were soon squashed flat. My idealised image of cute and cuddly characters evaporated as soon as I saw the size of their tusks. Unfortunately, life for many elephants in Thailand is far from a Disney film. At Baan Chang Elephant Park, just outside of Chiang Mai, all of the elephants are rescued from dire situations, having worked in hard labour carrying logs, or been forced to perform and parade the cruel streets of Bangkok.

The mahouts (elephant trainers) explained to us that as a result of their traumatic pasts, the residents of Baan Chang (literally meaning elephant home) can be incredibly wary of human contact and their behaviour can be unpredictable and aggressive. I took another, larger step backwards.

But these are no mindless brutes. You can genuinely see the shadows of stress on their faces, the emotional memory of their abuse reflected in their mesmerising gazes. These animals have been known to actually grieve, repeatedly visiting the spots where they have lost their loved ones as we would visit a grave. They are incredibly strong, yet evoke a gentle tenderness which instantly draws you to them. This complexity, this intelligence, this integrity, demands respect.

Feeding time was our initial up-close encounter with the herd. It turns out that elephants aren’t great at catching bananas and bamboo when the person feeding them launches the bundles of grub from the opposite end of the field (and my throw is appalling). Once I realised they weren’t all conspiring to strangle me with their trunks, I even managed to scale a vast wall of surprisingly hairy, two-inch thick skin in order to ride one. After an incredible hour of waltzing through the wilderness, we reached a shallow pool, at the sight of which the elephants gathered pace. Bath time meant play time, and although at this point I was genuinely at risk of obliteration-by-elephant, it is my favourite memory of the day.

Throughout the whole experience I was acutely aware of how fortunate I was to be in such close proximity to these majestic creatures. I suppose Jess had a point with the dog comparison.  The elephants were extremely loyal to the mahouts and revelled in boisterous mischief, but I’m not sure they’re suited to domestic life. You would need one swimming-pool-sized litter tray, that’s for sure.

They say elephants never forget. After my time with them, I know I certainly won’t.


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Category: Inspiration

About the Author ()

Fresh from the SE Asia/Australia backpacker trail, Emma (or Sparkle as her friends call her) is the newest recruit to join the My Destination Content Team. Currently mourning the loss of her tan, she’s finding comfort in sharing her stories and reminiscing about her travels, which is apparently deemed to be ‘work’. Having grown up in a village outside Cardiff, this little Welshie is still getting to grips with London and delights in shocking people on the tube by smiling at them. She’s a keen dancer and is looking forward to visiting Pineapple Studios and impressing some of you at future socials with her moves (drunken tap dancing is her specialty). Dreams of moving to Fiji and marrying Michael Palin.

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  1. Why I Travel « sparkyseestheworld | March 12, 2012
  1.  Sounds such an amazing experience!!

  2. Wendy says:

    Excellent piece Emma especially for those of us who are less than comfortable around animals but have always wished they were :>)

  3. I love how witty you are in your writing Emma!!  That last line was beautiful, the whole thing was actually – just shows why these beautiful creatures are my favourite animal – so jealous you’ve had this experience! 

  4. Pete says:

    I’ve had various encounters with elephants over the years; as a very small child in Pakistan playing with a baby one to riding one up to the Red Fort in Jaipur, India and I shall certainly never forget them. Great post Sparky.

  5. Lucy rees says:

    This is all so true, I had an experience much the same in Thailand a year or so ago. Hugh animals that are just so gental and loving, Lucy.

  6. Anna Lucy Terry says:

    Beautifully written and I just love how adorable your outfit is!!! When I was in Thailand I actually peeled the bananas before feeding the elephants…bit embarassing as apparently they are not peel adverse. 

    • Anonymous says:

      No they are certainly not. Banana skin provides a lot of fibre. I know this because I very nearly stood in the evidence.

  7. Hilda Sparks says:

    On my visit to Thailand I did not get as close,to an elephant. how brave of you.  A great piece of writing once again.  Love Nan

  8. Ellie Gallagher says:

    Love it! I’ve always wanted to see elephants up close. With my name we share a very special bond

  9. Ellie Gallagher says:

    Love it! I’ve always 

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thanks folks! It was an incredible day – have a little elephant charm on my bracelet as a keepsake :)

  11. Guy Arnold says:

    Agreed, great post. Love the lightheartedness, style and tone of voice! 

  12. Emily Waller says:

    Excellent post, Emma :) I love the pictures too, particularly that last one!!

  13. Will Jones says:

    This is such an awesome post! Love the title as well! :-)