An adventurous day with elephants in Thailand (and their poop)

It’s our third day here in Chiang Mai, Thailand and definitely our most special.

We rode to lunch today on the neck of an elephant…

We also squeezed his poop.  But more on that in a minute.

Elephants in Thailand play a special part in Thai tradition and culture.  There are basically three kinds – the royal White Elephant (the most rare), the “important” elephant (trained for war – you don’t mess with a king whose army includes 500 fighting elephants), and the domestic, “work elephant” (born and raised on a farm, trained to pick up and carry heavy teak trees down from the mountain).

Elephants here are respected.  They’re considered good luck.  And, for a long time, those not used for war could provide a family with enough income to support the household by carrying up to half of their body weight in trees.

Today, elephants are no longer used this way.  Sanctuaries and refuge camps are everywhere (some good, some not so good) to care for and help rehabilitate the elephants that no longer have a job.  They can’t live in the wild.  They were never wild.  They would last about three days in the mountains on their own.  Without exercise and social interaction, they’ll die.  So they live on farms, and tourism helps provide for their caregivers.

Our job today was to be the elephant’s mahout – their caregiver for the day.

My elephant’s name was Pride.  Here’s what I had to do…

The very first thing you do before approaching an elephant, they told us, is to visually check his emotional state. Is he happy?

Thai people believe elephants have a sixth sense.  They’re emotional just like people.  And that’s why they’re sacred.  You can tell if an elephant is in a good emotional state by the way he’s standing.  A happy elephant will be moving… his ears will flap, his tail will wag, and he’ll most likely be eating (elephants are always eating).

Unlike a dog who might not be safe to approach when he’s eating, a very good time to approach an elephant is when he’s eating.  Pride was happily munching on some tall weeds, so I approached and offered him more – a snack of bananas and sugar cane, his favorite.

Our next assignment was to check his poop.  A healthy elephant will poop several times a day, between four and 10 droppings.  Too few might mean he’s constipated and not in the best emotional state.  Too many might mean he’s having digestive issues or another problem (and again, not in the best emotional state.)

So I checked.  And sure enough, Pride lived up to his name.  He left for me a large pile of seven fresh poos.  “Healthy boy,” I said as a patted his trunk.

But unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.  Quality is just as important as quantity, they told us.  So we were all instructed to get a little closer and squeeze our elephant’s poop to make sure it’s well hydrated.

We were also asked to smell it and check for the size of its fibers. (Not my favorite part of the day… but ok.  It’s important that my elephant is healthy and if that means squeezing and smelling a little poo, I’m willing and able.)

Pride’s poo checked out just fine, so I carried on -- first checking for the right emotional signs, then healthy signs, then brushing him, bathing him, scrubbing him, feeding him, and eventually riding him to lunch.  It was a big day.

Here are a few photos of us at “work”…

We even splashed our elephants in the water – us with buckets, them with their trunks.

I absolutely loved my elephant and I miss him today.  In fact, we all met at breakfast this morning and wished we could go back to see our elephants again.  They say an elephant never forgets.  Will they remember us?

It was a very special opportunity I’d highly recommend to anyone visiting Chiang Mai.  The farm’s name is Patara Elephant Farm and most of the photos here belong to them.

Tomorrow’s Yi Peng flying lantern festival might pale in comparison to today’s experience but I’m hopeful that it doesn’t.  If tomorrow is anything like today, I’ll go ahead and book next year’s trip while I’m here on the ground.  It’s one you won’t want to miss.

P.S. Not all elephants are treated with the same care and attention the elephants at Patara receive.  We later saw elephants in local hill tribes with stinky, flat poop – no ears waving, no tail wagging, clearly malnourished.  Trips like these open your eyes to all sorts of things.  It’s one of the greatest excuses (if you need an excuse) to travel.

Stay tuned tomorrow for pictures from the famous Yi Ping flying lantern festival here in Chiang Mai.  I could go home today and feel completely fulfilled from this trip.  But I won’t.  Tomorrow has been on my bucket list for years.  Stay tuned.

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