Traveling alone thousands of miles from home, I had the best Valentine’s Day of my life. Screw flowers, screw chocolate (okay, I don’t mean that, chocolate, but you’d melt in the Thai heat anyway!). All this girl needs is a basket of bananas and pile of elephant dung.
I have worked several seasons as a park ranger, AKA professional flora and fauna lover. I like animals. Elephants have been among my favorite animals since I was a kid and rode one at a circus in Wisconsin. At eight years old I didn’t grasp the problematic world of animal tourism, but I hope that elephant is all right wherever she is.
Anyhow, 14 years later in Southeast Asia, I knew Thailand had a bunch of elephants and I wanted to hang out with those elephants, too. I initially also wanted to go to a Tiger Temple, but I ruled those out after looking into the heartbreaking ethical implications.First, I settled down at the bar of my Bangkok hostel with a big bottle of Chang and got to googling. I found this list of humane elephant sanctuaries. I emailed the well-known Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, but they were booked for the next two months and I needed an elephant BFF like, yesterday. Luckily, ElephantsWorld in Kanchanaburi had spots open the following week! I think that’s partly because of it’s location… Chiang Mai is well-situated on the Banana Pancake Trail while Kanchanaburi is more of an out-of-the-way stop for WWII buffs. It was an easy train ride from Bangkok though, and ended up being an awesome, historically fascinating little city I never would’ve visited without the elephantine motivation!
Fast forward to the following Saturday and there I was, getting ready to live the dream. This was probably the only time I woke up at 7 AM in Southeast Asia; they send the ElephantsWorld jeep right to your hostel in the morning. It’s just a 20-minute, bumpy ride through dry jungle and some open grassland, during which I chatted with the five other tourists (two couples and another solo female traveler from Canada). The rides to and from Kanchanaburi+lunch are included in the price. I wanna say 2500 Baht=about $70.
The day was a blur of proboscidean pleasure.
We got to meet the retired elephants and their handlers, called “mahouts”, learn how to prepare their meals, trek with them through the jungle, and feed them baskets of fruit which they grab out of your hand with their hairy trunks. Watching the elephants interact with their mahouts, tourists, and each other was such a treat. They’re incredibly gentle; one British family had two toddlers with them and I was surprised to see them running around, weaving in and out of elephant legs. It’s like the elephants knew to be careful, either moving extra slowly and gently or just freezing completely still when the little rugrats were near.
After the aforementioned jungle trek, we ended up on the bank of a river. The elephants wasted no time splashing around in the cool water. To my absolute excitement, one of the mahouts gestured for me to approach him and his elephant. I was just happy to be in the water, honestly. Thailand is hot. Then the mahout did whatever magical mahout signal means “kneel down, beautiful elephant” and she knelt in the shallow water just low enough for me to climb on her back! I was definitely grateful for my horseback riding background in that moment; I just kind of threw myself onto her back and figured the rest out once I was up there.
We splashed around among the ~6 other elephants, their mahouts, and farang (=white n’ foreign) riders for a while. It was probably a solid 5 minutes, though it felt like 30 seconds and was over way too fast! Although, man, are elephants wide. My hips would probably be killing me if the ride had been any longer (… that’s what she said).
Maybe it was because I was one of the few farangs not to slide off and into the water (until the end of the ride, when I did it deliberately, though it was such a hoot I kind of wished I did sooner), but my mahout actually directed our elephant out of the water and across the beach for a short walk! You don’t realize how dang tall they are until you’re on dry land. I was relieved when we slid down a muddy slope back into the river.
All in all, it was a Valentine’s Day I will never forget and probably never top. Sorry, future husband, but long walks on the beach will never be the same without elephants involved.