Updated: Jan 17, 2020
“Hang on – she’s going under”! I tried to grip tighter with my knees and leaned back to keep from being thrown off, as Rosukan completely submerged her body and head so that I was up to my neck in the Pa Sak river. The warm muddy water swirled around us as Rosukan sprayed water in the air with her huge trunk and trumpeted with happiness. As she slowly
surfaced and turned to the left, I could see Jazz close by on the back of Jumpee with her mahout, all three thoroughly enjoying the river bath, as large clumps of water hyacinths drifted by in the current.
Bathing in the river was my favorite part of a wonderful day at Elephant Stay, an organization dedicated to the welfare of retired and non-working elephants located about 80km north of Bangkok. They currently have about 80 elephants that they have bought to provide a healthy environment to live out their lives, interacting with humans and other elephants at the Royal Elephant Krall Village.
Lexie, Michelle & Ewa greeted us when we arrived and Lexie gave us handbooks and Elephantstay t-shirts, which would help the animals to recognize us. She gave us an overview of the organization and the grounds, and basic facts about the elephants, how important they have been in Thai history and how to interact with them. Now – time to go meet our new friends for the day!
Susie and I were paired up with Rosukan, the oldest elephant in the village, born about the same year as me, whilst Skylar and Jazz were introduced to Jumpee, about 40 years old who has resided there since 2009. Female elephants are typically used to interact with newcomers
due to their more moderate disposition. There were several different large covered areas with metal fencing around the sides, and the elephants have one of their legs chained to keep from wandering off unattended. The larger male tuskers were kept separated, as was a large female with a notorious past.
After a short break it is time for our first elephant rides! Jazz and I are “volunteered” to go first, so Rosukan and Jumpee are led by a helper to a tall platform we climb up to board our elephants, who measure about 9 – 10 ft tall at the shoulders. The mahout gets on first with his takaw (elephant hook) and I climb on in front of him, with my knees behind Rosukan’ s ears and hands on her head. We are bareback and I can feel all the massive muscles in her neck and shoulders as she starts to amble across the field. “chews” with their four brick-sized molars and they were ready for another. Lexie and one of the mahouts (elephant handlers) cut open two of the cukes, hollowed them out and inserted a bunch of iron pills, and plugged the hole with more veggie. Jumpee swallowed hers just like the others, but as soon as Rosukan got it in her mouth she spit it out. Two more attempts – same results – so we gave up on her pills for the morning.
After a short break it is time for our first elephant rides! Jazz and I are “volunteered” to go
first, so Rosukan and Jumpee are led by a helper to a tall platform we climb up to board our elephants, who measure about 9 – 10 ft tall at the shoulders. The mahout gets on first with his takaw (elephant hook) and I climb on in front of him, with my knees behind Rosukan’s ears and hands on her head. We are bareback and I can feel all the massive muscles in her neck and shoulders move and stretch as she starts to amble across the field.
The sensation is quite amazing and a bit alarming at the same time as we move across the dusty field, and becomes suddenly more so as Rosukan decides to grab some grass out of the nearby ditch and puts her forelegs down a short slope, threatening to pitch me headfirst into the ditch. Luckily the mahout has a good grip on the sash I wrapped around my waist before climbing aboard - and tragedy is averted!
Our entourage continued across the field, down a short dirt path and a brief trek on the highway, and into a park at the Royal Krall where many statues commemorate the elephant’s contributions to Thai history. We each maneuvered our mount between two large sculptures of war elephants for photo ops, and then practiced some basic commands such as stop, forward, left, right and reverse. Then it was off to the river where the animals can amble down an inclined path cut through the steep banks. After our playtime in the water we returned our friends to their stalls and fed them more cucumbers and headed off for our own lunch.
There were several baby elephants around the village and Skylar was especially drawn to them, caressing and playing with them every time we passed. One of them was particularly
anxious to leave his mother for a while, so after lunch Lexie pulled out a large plastic water tub and hose and released the “little” guy (150 kg). He immediately ran over and clambered into the tub while Sky splashed water over him with the hose as he rolled around in apparent ecstasy. Really fun and amazing to watch.
One of the indications of a healthy elephant is when they have babies, and Elephantstay has had 80 successful births since 2000. Their animals are well cared for with ample food and a varied diet, daily exercise, baths and grooming. Elephants are social animals and get bored if they are isolated or have nothing to do but eat. Thailand stopped logging with elephants in the 1980s which resulted in many being released “into the wild”, which did not really exist. They quickly became pests as they foraged for food wherever they could, such as private gardens and farms.
Elephantstay and its related org Phra Kochabaan Foundation were formed to rescue old elephants and give them a safe and healthy home, where they can earn their keep through tourism. The amount of food, water & medicine to sustain one of these animals is quite expensive, and while there are private families that keep elephants it is far less than the number that were previously employed in logging. The animals here now have a longer life span, living into their 80s. Besides entertaining visitors at Elephantstay, the animals and mahouts and hired out to festivals, parades and special events.
After our lunch and a shorter feeding session for our friends, we led Jumpee down to the river for a bath on her own, with a short wait while she scratched her massive back and butt
on a huge old tree alongside the road. Skylar and Jazz practiced leading her along by holding the lower edge of her left ear and giving the commands to start (HUA) and stop (HOW). She was much more obedient when her mahout spoke than when the kids did! The mahouts form a lifelong bond with their animal. One elephant had recently given birth and her mahout had been sleeping on a wooden bench next to her every night since.
After Jumpees swim in the river she was led to the cleaning area where we all grabbed a scrub brush and hose to give her a good cleaning. Their skin is up to 4cm thick and wrinkled, which increases surface area to aid in cooling, and they have stiff hair on top of their heads. Later on we saw one of the bull elephants being cleaned with a pressure washer!
Now another short rest and another feeding session, this time with pineapple plants, less the fruit. Rosukan would grab a large bundle of plants with her trunk and pluck off 6 or 7 long leaves, then smack these against the railing to knock off dirt and the roots, finally tucking the bunch into her mouth. Looked awful to me but she seemed content.
Time now for Susie & Skylar to go for a ride and swim in the river. It was quite entertaining to see their faces when they first mounted and the elephants immediately started walking off. I imagine I looked the same way – exhilarating and unnerving at the same time. Normal walking speed is 6.5 kph but they can reach 48 kph in a charge. That would be scary with 5 tons of pachyderm coming at you!
As Susie & Skylar were leaving the river two young Thai entered with their elephant. One guy remained standing (!) on the back of the elephant, holding a cast net. The other fellow
jumped off and proceeded to grab handfuls of something out of a bag and throw it in the water near the elephant. The other guy would watch, and then throw the cast net, all the while keeping his balance as the animal moved around and dunked herself! Quite the show, even though we did not see them catch anything. Then Jazz & I had to chase after the gals, heading on down the road.
The day was almost over. Group photos with Rosukan, Jumpee, their mahouts and Lexie, and time to clean up and head back to our room. This was a truly wonderful experience, to be able to get so close to these majestic creatures and learn about their lives and history. Elephantstay has several programs where folks can stay over multiple days and really bond with their animal. Everyone working there was very devoted to providing the best possible care for the elephants. What an amazing place.