Editors' Choice

Elephant Driving 101

by Kate Crawford

Riding with elephants means hearing new songs.

“Is that my elephant?” I ask as the first mammoth mammal lumbers into camp.

“That’s Lawan,” John replies, watching her undulating gait. “She’s our youngest, the village flirt. She can be a bit naughty. She’s known to indulge in little diva tantrums if another elephant gets more camera time.”

Shivering in the dawn, we slurp instant coffee from bamboo cups and wait for the els, as John calls them. John Roberts, Director of Thailand’s Anantara Elephant Camp, is an elephant whisperer. He’s this elephant-human herd’s Alpha male, chief rescue rider and sometimes substitute Papa.

Steamy-lush hills rise behind the elephant’s corral. In front is the practice clearing for the wannabee mahouts—bareback elephant riders. The gentle giants’ bathtub is a pond to the right. On the left, the real mahouts’ houses sit, stilted and thatched, tucked into the hills.

Anantara is in the heart of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. It’s where the Ruak River flows into the mighty Mekong forming borders between Thailand, Burma and Laos. Its gold is black—the ‘black gold’ of opium. The oozing sap of poppies kept the Triangle off-limits until the late 1990’s when crops of coffee, strawberries and baht-bearing tourists ousted the drug lords. Neither young nor buff, I have come seeking adventure.

“Is that my elephant?” I ask again as a stately Elephas maximus emerges from the mist.

John hesitates a moment, then says, “Yes, I believe she is. Her name is Yom.”
An old “arrow” brand on Yom’s rear tags her as a logger—a pusher and hauler of teak. Thailand’s 1989 logging ban threw thousands of domestic elephants out of work.

Yom, fortunately, ended up the pleasantly plump, 62-year-old matriarch of a five-star elephant camp, the center ring of Anantara Golden Triangle Resort’s plushy-casual hotel. It hugs the rivers’ Thai-side ridge. Laos is across the murky Mekong. Across the Ruak, the misted hills of Burma rise beyond Paradise—a two-story casino painted a raging red.

Yom lobs her trunk over her head and then under her belly to scratch. Picking up a stem of bananas, I tear one off and inch toward her. She plucks it out of my hand and pops it into her mouth. Then, with a slight swing adjustment to avoid hitting me, she continues to scratch—and watch. Yom casts a cautious, intelligent look from her golden-green eyes crowned by a triple layer of luxury lashes.

Snatching bananas with her one-thumbed schnoz as fast as I yank them off the stalk, Yom collects them in a crook of her trunk. When she has six or so, she lines them up in a wad and tosses them down. She munches through one roadside fruit stand a day, about 250 pounds.

Yom is, however, a discriminating gourmand. She won’t touch anything that’s fallen on dung. She likes her bananas ripe, her bamboo newly sprouted and oranges anyway she can get them. I snitch them for her at breakfast.

John is a fair-haired British expat who stretched his post-university break year into a decade. He met Anantara’s owner while tending elephants in Nepal and sold him on this scheme to rescue, employ and mollycoddle Thailand’s imperiled domestic elephants.

“My first mission,” John explains, “was to show that elephant camps could be a profit center for a hotel—that people would pay enough to properly feed and care for the elephants, the mahouts and their families.” Working with The National Elephant Institute, Thailand’s conservation, veterinary and training center, John put together his twenty-three-elephant herd. The Institute offers a rigorous 30-day mahout course.

“Ours is the wussy course,” cracks John of their three-day course.

Yom’s real mahout is Jamrat Chuenbarn—her full-time trainer, caretaker, handler and friend. Every day, he sweeps her off, checks her skin, and burnishes her pearly, half-moon, teapot-sized nails. Like other Asian females, she has no tusks.

Jamrat then rides Yom deep into the pond, stands up on her back and swabs her off like a yacht. At the spa—an 8x10 concrete slab near the pond—he showers her with a garden-hose and a scrubs her with a brush one might use on a lorry. A little wary, I help with the hosing, but Jamrat does the scouring. Yom loves her spa.

Next, the getting-up demonstrations begin. First, Jamrat mounts Lawan. He taps her trunk and Lawan stretches it into a 45-degree ramp. Then, Jamrat vaults over her head, onto her neck and flips forward—in one neat gymnast’s move.

John performs second. Lawan raises her hind leg; John grabs her tail, uses the back of her leg as a springboard, and flies onto her bum.

Song soong,” Jamrat coos commencing the third demo. Yom lifts her front leg. Jamrat grabs her ear, bounces up on her leg and hoists himself up onto her neck. Meanwhile, a crowd of kids is forming. Alarmed, I realize they’re expecting me to catapult myself up onto Yom’s back.

Song soong,” I suggest to Yom, moving next to her barrel-sized leg. Nothing.

Song soong,” I venture again, louder. Seconds tick by.

Song soong,” Jamrat sings. Yom raises her right front barrel. Jumping, I catch her ear and stretch my foot up onto her leg. There my not-quite-five-foot length hangs extended to the max.

I drop back to the ground, and with a running start, manage a bunny-ish hop. Three pairs of hands rush to push my tush. I land on Yom’s neck, splayed-out and facedown. The crowd roars—quietly. John has told the group it’s not nice to laugh at the tourists. He, I notice, turns away—his shoulders shaking.

Scrambling upright, I attempt a proper mahout pose. My hands clutch the rope-like ridges along the top of Yom’s palm-sized ears. Tucking my feet under them, my legs spread like a cheerleader’s after the winning touchdown.

As a certified, view-deprived short person, it’s a thrill to be looking down on everyone. My twelve-foot perch features a tableau of the bowed bamboo pith helmets and the bowl-cut black hair of the Thai mahouts. As for the top of Yom’s head, it’s a stunner: two large orbs, separated by a deep crack, are stuck with short thick hairs. It puts one in mind of a fat man’s butt with a two-day stubble.

Pai,” I mummer when its time to go. That’s “giddy-up” in elephant speak. Yom does not giddy.

“Shout,” Jamrat instructs. “Kick her. Harder.”

Pai,” I whoop, delivering my most authoritative boot. Yom moseys forward—making a beeline for the banana bin.

“Back her up,” yells Jamrat. “Sock and rock,” he reminds me.

Braying “sock,” I writhe back and forth while socking it to Yom with my tennies. Yom lifts her head as if she might have heard distant thunder. Then, to my wonder, she backs up.

Yom, I discover, is not entirely averse to going where I suggest. The morning ends with us trailing after Jamrat along the edges of Anantara’s terraced rice and vegetable fields. We pass a pagoda-covered Buddha smothered in offerings of incense, pink birthday cake candles and garlands of popsicle-orange marigolds. Yom accepts lemongrass treats from two conical-hatted women.

Royally, Yom and I advance on Anantara’s entrance. We are, doubtless, the envy of the guests gathered to watch.

Scotty, beam me off,” I pray.

I know my options: hang over Yom’s side and drop into the arms of waiting mahouts or slide down her trunk. I opt for the snazzier scram.

Tag long,” I bid—the stick-your-trunk-out-like-a-slide command. Yom stiffens her proboscis and gracefully bows her head. I push off for my slide—and splat—I fall into the mahouts’ arms.

Afternoon in elephant camp is hot. Everyone is up for a swim. Elephants are so genteel they perspire only above their toes. It’s the flapping that keeps them cool—ninety percent of their blood runs through their ears every ten minutes. They love water though and are quite good swimmers—their closest living relatives are sea cows. John even had one of his els swim to Burma. It took much negotiating to get her back.

I mount with a simple two-person tush-push. Then, with a cavalier “pai,” Yom moves out. We march right into the pond halfway up her belly. Trained, she awaits my command.

“What’s the word for sit down,” I holler.

Map lung,” Jamrat calls back.

Map lung,” I bellow. Yom sinks up to her neck—my waist—in the gunky pond.

Without warning, we’re under attack. That village flirt, Lawan, has snuck up behind us, sucked up a keg and a half of water and morphed into a two-and-a-half-ton super soaker. With her trunk pistol-straight, she strikes, and a Mekong monsoon erupts over my head.
Drenched and laughing, I figure I’ve passed initiation.

“Lawan,” John now mentions, “is an inveterate water sprayer.”

After the bath, we set off for our first ride along an upward sloping path that narrows as it rises. Yom steadfastly places each foot before she puts her weight on it, pitching us up another story. Yom, at a 45-degree angle, is straining. Scared, I lean forward as far as I dare. Seeming to sense my fear, Yom folds her ears back, snug against my legs. I feel safe—and select.

The next morning with her trunk curved like a periscope, Yom waves it over me for a security check. With one whiff, she knows who I am, where I’ve been, my mood, my breeding status, my bathing habits and where I’ve hidden the oranges. I know I’ve passed muster when her ears start flapping.

After a trunk hug, the downing of eight dozen bananas commences. Poor thing, she hasn’t had a thing to eat for at least an hour. Elephants, when they can, eat 18 hours a day. Their digestive systems are not adept at converting food to nourishment, so they kiss the earth with fifty pounds of dung a day.

Yom’s ears are also special. Like all Asian elephants, they are shaped vaguely like India. They are much smaller flappers than the bulkier African elephants whose ears are shaped vaguely like Africa. The lower third of Yom’s ears are pale peach, sprinkled with cocoa freckles. Dollops of peach also highlight her checks and dot her trunk.

As today’s masseuse, I lead Yom to the spa and say, “none dee,” lie down. Thoughtfully, she turns her head to make sure she won’t flatten me, lies down and rolls over on her side. Having already attended to her four pillar legs, I gingerly scrub her belly. With a final spritz, Yom looks lusciously like she’s smothered in milk-chocolate icing. On the way back to the corral, she applies a full dusting of dirt and is ready to face the world.

Her dust powder, to my way of thinking, is not a major improvement, but literally eons before someone invented face cream with SPF thirty in it, Yom’s coverup had SPF el-hundred. Although her skin is thick—she can squish little bugs in its folds—it is delicate. Subject not only to sunburn, it is easily scraped. Infections from minor skin irritations are a big problem.

We set out for a ride. Jamrat walks ahead, but Yom sets the pace—slow, dawdling and stopping to eat. It’s a discoverer’s tempo. Tiny details come into focus. A moth lands on a banana leaf. I notice its shape is that of an elegant kite. Then name its color—kiwi cream splashed with mango puree.

Feeling blithe, I make up a song. To Lara’s theme from Dr. Zhivago, I sing, “Yom, yom, yom, yommmm, yomm, yom, yom, yom, yommmmm.” Yom stops eating. She lifts her head to listen, then begins to vibrate and then to squeak.

“Jamrat, Jamrat, what’s she doing?” I ask anxiously.

Jamrat grins. “She’s laughing.”

I sing to her again. She laughs again. I laugh. Jamrat laughs. Then, we do an encore.

Elephants, it turns out, not only like to hear their own songs, but they like to make their own music. The Institute has the world’s first elephant orchestra complete with drums, gongs, chimes and a xylophone. They started by playing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony along with fifty school kids and a marching band. Now they’re into jazz.

Elephants take their music seriously. One elephant’s big part was a dramatic gong. Her mahout handed her the bamboo banging stick just before her part. Once he forgot. Like a real trooper, she whipped out her trunk, poked her mahout, grabbed her stick and gonged right on time.

That evening I burrow into the hot tub. Darkness falls dense in the jungle. Things are no longer themselves. Sounds that bounce off the Mekong are magnified, difficult to identify and hard to place. A gecko’s chortle cracks like gunfire.

“Stay on the path,” the staff warns, “you don’t want to step on a snake. Thailand,” they add, “has forty-eight venomous vipers.” And there are ghosts. Most Thais I talked to believe in them. They put spirit houses outside their homes to distract them. But there are no spirit houses in the jungle.

The next morning Yom and I meander up a balmy-green path with Jamrat trailing behind. Through a clearing, we glimpse the Mekong sliding down from China. Moving closer, we watch it water three of the seven countries it crosses on the way to its Vietnam delta. Serene, we stand for a long time.

Suddenly, shivers fizz up my back.

First, I think it’s shear-joy-of-being-here shivers, or maybe the ghost-bump willies.

Then it comes to me …

Yom is singing her song.


Kate Crawford's "Elephant Driving 101" won the Animal Encounter Gold Award in the Fifth Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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