1. (in South and Southeast Asia) a person who works with, rides, and tends an elephant.
Ever since I started planning my trip to Asia I knew I wanted to volunteer somehow with elephants. Like circuses in the US, elephants are widely used for tourism in Asia. They are made to paint with their trunks, do tricks, and give rides with this canopy contraption on top. They are shackled up, poked and prodded to listen to commands all for the sake of money. Did I want to be apart of that… absolutely not! So, I researched. I looked on Trip Advisor and read all the reviews of the top companies. Although the company I chose did allow riding, it was only bare back and not for a long time. It boiled down to the most time I would have being able to care for these elephants. The company I chose did one on one volunteering. They paired EACH of us with our own elephant. I was lucky, I got a mama and a baby! Paul got the biggest one on the farm, which was a bit over 4000lbs!
Our day started out with just being around the elephants. Getting used to them and vice versa. At first I was very hesitant and Paul even more so. Their skin is so rough, I'm not sure what I expected it to be like, but not that. This company rescues the elephants from circus’s or other tourism companies, rehabilitates them and releases them back into the wild.
We soon got “mahout” shirts to wear so that the elephants would start to recognize us as we took care of them. We shared responsibilities such as feeding, bathing, and learning thai voice commands. Elephants eat roughly 10% of their body weight in food per day. Thats A LOT of food. I felt like I was constantly feeding them. We had a basket filled with bamboo and fruit that weighs as much as a small child. I barely was able to feed them myself without them getting handsy. My baby elephant kept sneaking in and grabbing what it could. But how do you say no to that face?! (also I am fairly certain they could eat me, so if they wanted to reach into my basket on their own, far be it from me to stand in their way ;) )
After feeding them, and playing with them a bunch we washed the dirt of them. They dirt protects them from insects and the heat. If the elephant was comfortable enough with us we would be able to ride it. This was their form of exercise, we were to take them down to the river using the thai commands we learned.
“Song soong” - Get up..The elephant usually bows their head and lifts you up by their trunk or you can use their leg to be lifted.
“Bai” - move forward (moving your both feed behind the elephant ears)
“how” - stop
“phae” - come
“goy” - slow down
“non long” -lay down
“sok” - walk backwards
“dee dee” - good good (while patting them..used as positive reinforcement)
Paul and I both opted to get on by having the elephant bow their heads and lift us up with their trunk. It was a little scary I have to admit. Paul was first to go and he was not a fan. (Heights aren't his thing) The elephants have a rope you can hold on to when going down hill. Paul may or may not have split his hand holding on for dear life. Then riding the elephant wasn't easy either. You have to keep your knees up behind its ears. My bad hip did not like it very much. We took our elephants up and down steep hills, through the jungle to get to the river. A few times Paul’s elephant sped up and took detours off the path. He was also not a fan of me laughing the whole time. I told him I wouldn't make him sound like a baby in my blog and he said “Oh, I was terrified, there is no sugar coating that”. So there you have it. I probably couldn't pay Paul to ride another elephant but I was having a blast. Once we got down to the river it was time to bathe them. My legs were shaking by the time got down. These animals are such majestic beings. So fun and playful. I commanded her to lay down as I washed her, she helped spray water on herself..and me, and she genuinely enjoyed when I brushed. When their ears are flapping and tail swinging they are happy, just like a dog.
After bath and play time we had a few more minutes to take pictures with our new animal friends. I could not stop smiling throughout the entire day, it just felt so surreal. I am so thankful to have been able to take care of these animals for the day. I for sure took Paul out of his comfort zone of low key, Mexican vacations by having him meet me in Thailand, but even he said this was a day he will never forget. I am so happy to have been able to have this experience with him.