Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Elephants forever

Yesterday we spent another day with elephants, this time at Baan Chang Elephant Camp. In the Thai language Baan means "home" and Chang is "elephant", so the name seems pretty fitting. Two sessions with elephants in two days was a lot, but both were good in different ways. As a result my mahout skills have been further developed. New muscles I was unaware of have started complaining at their overuse, and now, thanks to a different riding style I have lost some "bark" off the inner edge of my knees. Luckily for me I kept them covered today so we could visit a temple. Skinned knees is not a good look. Baan Chang is set up more for backpackers and as such has a camp kitchen and accommodation available. We spent more time practicing mounting and dismounting safely, and fed a large range of elephants before being allocated one each to ride and bathe.
Bun Ward, pronounced Bun Won, was mine for the day. In her early thirties, she was smaller than Boon Pat. She did however move quite differently and as such swayed around more. She also is rather fond of bamboo leaves, which I found out when she stopped on her walk and very nearly dislodged me in her efforts to reach up high. Good thing I grabbed onto her ears quickly. It was the only thing that stopped a minor catastrophe. We learnt further manual handling techniques too in order to request our elephants to move left and right. The command given is the same for both - "kwey", however the accompanying movement varies. Similar to riding a horse, you use pressure from you right leg, and kicking with your left, to turn right, while saying "kwey". Then to turn left you do the reverse, that is, apply pressure with your left leg, and kick with your right. Simple really. Until you realise that this huge animal is under your control and you don't really have any idea what you are doing. Luckily our mahouts were walking alongside, so I was quietly encouraged when mine started singing. It made me thing that maybe I was doing ok enough that he could sing and not keep correcting what I was telling the elephant. Mahouts earn about 4500 Baht a month, plus receive free accommodation and one bag of rice a month. That's less than $150 a month. Based on the accommodation for paying guests, I am guessing a shack in the forest might be all it amounts to. Seems to me they work for the love of it, not the big bucks.
We walked through forest terrain which was interesting, and saw nice vistas across the valley, then did the steep decline thing again. The ride ended at the pool, after passing by the new elephant house, currently under construction. Once finished this will allow safe, dry sleeping quarters for the entire herd.
For me, the water was the highlight of the day. As we were the only two in our group we had the pool to ourselves which meant there was less need to be aware of the activity around us. I could focus on being in the water with Bun Ward. She lay like an angel and didn't move, which suggests she was enjoying her scrub down. Occasionally her trunk snorkelled around me, that was it. She just lay watching me as I moved around her. Once clean, our guide for the day, Tum, invited me to not only lie on her, but also to stand up on her back. I happily obliged his request. How happy was I!

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