That's Mike and Bethy on their pachyderm. (Is that not the best word ever? Say it with me: pachyderm.) And you know these two characters sitting atop a new friend:
Now, I know that the elephant is considered the most dangerous animal in the zoo by keepers, but these were absolutely lovely, mellow creatures. We were picked up from our hotel by a tour group and after about an hour of driving came to a village along the river with the massive beasts waiting patiently for us, their handlers riding casually astride their great heads. We were handed out in groups of one or two to sit in seats with metal bars across the front, not unlike the bars they put across you at a carnival ride.
Our seat tended to tip, and as the elephant began to walk down the hillside to lumber briefly in the river, her russet-skinned handler, carrying a stick with a wicked looking hooked blade, turned and did his best to steady the seat as it wavered unsteadily. I was doing my darndest to keep the thing centered and our weight evenly distributed: I think our elephant had naughtily taken a sneaky deep breath while they were tying the rope around her middle that served as a girth.
I had thought that I would only get photos of Bethy and Mike riding, but as it turned out, once we were on the flat grassy hilltop and our seat seemed willing to stay on the top half of the elephant, our handler hopped off with impressive and enviable agility and began taking photo after photo of us with my camera as the elephant walked slowly towards him.
More than once I hugged Thomas and said to him, "Buddy, we're riding an ELEPHANT! Right through the jungle. Isn't that cool? "
Thomas agreed. It was cool. And we both agreed that yes, yes, the elephant is very, very big.
After taking the photos our handler climbed back up, stepping first on her trunk and then being lifted to her head as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He turned around and showed me a braided ring fashioned from the stiff black hairs from his elephant. "100 baht!" He said proudly, "you look."
Just as he handed it to me, I dropped it, off the elephant, and into the deep grass.
He obviously thought the same thing. He looked pained for a moment, then, halting our giant gray ride, lept nimbly to the ground and after only a few seconds of searching found the ring.
He carefully handed it to me for the second time. "100 baht OK? Is OK, you like?"
Of course I bought the ring. Happy to. Three bucks. And probably doubled his take for the ride; those folks make almost nothing and were as sweet as could be to us. The little village children had led us by the hand to the elephants and had given Bethy and Thomas tiny flowers.
Yes, I am a sucker for that sort of thing, but you know what? I spend a heck of a lot more than that for a coffee at Starbucks. Happy to hand money directly to those who care, do a good job, and can really use it.
And I'll bet you don't have an elephant hair ring, now, do you? It'll be the hot accessory of next season, just you wait.
After our ride we went back to the elephant stand to get off, and walked down to the river where we stripped down for the even cooler part of the tour.
Yes, there was an even cooler part.
We got to wash the elephants.
Oh yes, we did.
Riding without the metal seat was actually more comfortable, even without anything for me to hold on to. I felt much more connected to my bristly friend.
Thomas had gotten geared up in the smallest life jacket they had, which was still much too big, and after starting out in my arms got to ride with the handler on the head of our beautiful elephant. She had already gotten soap and a scrub from two other riders, and now we were to give her the washdown.
She was obviously looking forward to it, because when she got deep enough into the brown swirling river she suddenly submerged her head with just her trunk sticking up.
Great for her but for Thomas, who was already nervous about going into the water, suddenly the elephant was disappearing under him, and the cold water flooded up. With that his buoyant lifejacket got pushed up around his head and he couldn't see anything.
So, like any self-respecting child, he began to scream bloody murder.
Mike and Bethy made it into the river on their elephant. Mike left his shoes on to stabilise his broken toe. Then the real fun began. Obviously we weren't bathing the elephants; they were bathing us.
Our handler gave Thomas back to me and was explaining with decriptive arm movements that we were about to be doused "for bath, OK, OK?"
I was OK with it but Thomas wasn't.
Thomas clinging like a limpet for dear life.
I didn't know Thomas could scream that loud.
Trunkful after trunkful of cold river water up and over and directly onto us. I think our poor elephant didn't quite get the bath she wanted, but Bethy and Mike's did.
Bethy bracing for the next impact
And now for the action shots:
What cracks me up is the handler getting out of the way and us as tourists getting facefuls. My elephant handler gave up on Thomas, and by extension me, as hopeless and urged his lady from the water.
Bethy and Mike got off their elephant in a far more graceful fashion, and I dressed the shivering kids who were happy to be done. One of our fellow riders, a Polish fellow who worked in Bangkok and had brought his mother out for a weekend, told us it was the best time he'd ever had, and that he's ridden elephants many times, but never washed them.
That made me feel pretty good about choosing the tour. I thought it was the experience of a lifetime.
The kids, however, well, they just wanted more garlic bread.
All bundled up after our elephant encounter.
PS. I can't help but recommend a really wonderful and beautifully written tale here: the novel Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. One of my "read-again" favorites.