Saturday, April 13, 2013

An Elephant Experience

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we went to Baan Chang Elephant Park.  It was amazing!!

I thought riding an elephant was easier than riding a horse, honestly.  (But that's probably because as a little kid I was always the one that got put on the lazy/fat/skittish/grumpy/mean horse.  I remember one time in Canada when I had to cling to my horse for dear life as he decided to break formation and gallop across the field... yeah.  At least elephants move more slowly.  And it seems harder to get elephants to break into a trumpeting stampede.)

Getting into the bananas.  
Asian elephants are a little smaller than African elephants, but they are still plenty massive, clocking in at around 4 to 5 tons when fully grown.  Interestingly, Asian elephants, while smaller, have slightly bigger brains. They eat about 200 kilograms of food a day, in the form of sugar cane, bananas and leaves.  All of that food has to go somewhere - they poop about 70 kgs per day!  We also saw one elephant pee, and it looked like a gushing fire hydrant.  With some of the longest gestational periods in the animal kingdom (18 months), elephants aren't fully grown until they are 20 years old.  As they age, their skin undergoes pigmentation, particularly around their nose and ears.
This elephant is 57 years old.  Elephants can grow as old as 100+!
I loved how much personality these animals had.  When you walked close to them with bananas, they would snake their trunks out to try to get to the goodies.  They also showed a marked preference for bananas over sugar cane, such that sometimes when I tried to give them sugar cane, they would literally nose around my hand and try to go for the sweeter fruit.
Naughty elephant sniffing out the bananas, as our guide explained how to feed the elephants
Elephants have very weak eyesight and very poor peripheral vision, so they rely heavily on their sense of smell.  They can smell stuff up to 2 kilometers away!  Also, if you have trained or worked with an elephant for an extended period of time, they remember your smell and will recognize you years later.  Remarkable right?
They love to eat...An elephant with the sugar cane
We researched quite extensively to try to find a camp that treated its animals with care and kindness.  It is so sad when the animals are mistreated, and my sister and I felt that we had a responsibility to support a camp that did not abuse the elephants.  We decided pretty early on that we were willing to pay more for our experience.  You'll note that the elephants were chained during our initial feeding session, but it was only during this period and it was to maintain order / prevent fights over the food.  Mahouts (the trainers) carried sticks with metal hook as a precaution, but I never saw anyone use them. 

Mahouts are so nimble when they get on the elephant.  Here, an elephant giving his mahout a leg up:

The tourists are not as agile as the mahouts. They taught us the command to make the elephant kneel, so that we could clamber on more easily (albeit no less gracefully).  Most of the commands that we learned were Burmese, as that is where most of the mahouts are from.
Surprisingly deft for such a big animal
After the feeding and the training, we were ready to ride elephants bareback into the jungle and to give them a bath.  Elephants have very thick skin and they really like to scratch it by rubbing up against tree bark.  For the rider, the hairs on the back of their heads and back can be a bit prickly.
My mom and dad on their elephant - sitting like pros!
The elephant caravan.  Aren't elephant butts so funny looking?  Tehehe.

My sister and I rode a 30 year old elephant, Anni, who was very docile.
See where her trunk is? Here, Anni has just sprayed us with water that she reserved in a sac in her throat. 
Elephants do this to keep cool in the hot sun.  The rider in the back gets a lot more of the spray!
Funny shot of our tour guide perched in a tree, taking pictures
 This was a really lovely experience and I'm so glad we decided to try it.  I know my mom was very apprehensive about getting on the elephant at first, but she was brave and ended up really enjoying the experience.  I overheard my dad marvel at the end, "In all my 62 years I've never been so close to an elephant!" 
Elephants are wrinkly!

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