Modern Mammoths in Thailand
Updated: Jun 13, 2018
Traveling through the seemingly-unending forests on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand, everything starts to look rather monotonous. Trees. More trees. A dog in the middle of the road I pray gets out of the way of our micro-bus. A chicken that doesn't. A brief glimpse of a muddy river, flowing rapidly from fresh rainfall. An occasional fisherman perched on a rock. Then... a gray mass in the hills opposite the river, difficult to distinguish between the trees. As it reached a clearing, it's massive, majestic form that slowly lumbered up the path seemed surreal. No, that was definitely not a deer in the woods.
Approaching tall, brown thatched shelters made of huge timbers that housed the giants felt other-worldly; petite Thai men "mahouts" perched atop a huge gray cranium, the large center bulge of the skull a perfect place to rest his crossed-legs. We climbed the stairs and walked the upper deck towards the towering giants and stepped on to the animal. This idea of stepping ON to something- both feet- while in no way harming it just seems... wrong. But, it felt more as though we were stepping onto another building than onto an animal, like the roof of a small house. A house that swung it's thick trunk gently from side to side.
Sitting on a bench strapped to a large saddle, the only thing that kept us from falling off was a rickety, thin iron bar in front of us. We gripped it with both hands. Having been an adventure seeker my whole life, it takes a fair amount to make me nervous. As the gray house beneath lurched forward, each gargantuan step sharply jostling the pathetic bench we were sitting on, the situation at hand had my full, undivided attention. It was both thrilling and terrifying, mostly due to feeling like at any given moment you could easily fall a good 10 feet to be trampled below by the spare-tire sized feet.
As we crossed the flooded river, the elephant behaved as though the water were only a faint breeze- it's deliberate, sure-footed stride made little work of the rushing water.
Climbing a wet, muddy, steep hill on an elephant just feels like such a bad idea- if it slips, this elephant is gonna roll right over us. I couldn't believe how secure it's feet were on the greasy, brown mud. Passing trees on each side was a new experience, feeling like you're half way up the forest canopy instead of seeing only the base of each tree with the tangle of branches above. There's a certain slow rhythm that you get accustomed to with each stride that allows you to feel a connection to the gargantuan yet gentle animal below. Supremely humbling, yet peaceful at the same time, the way you might feel hearing the harsh, heavy rain drumming on the roof during a thunderstorm.
Getting off of the elephants and getting to interact with them can make you want to laugh and cry; a truly-colossal creature in front of me, yet one that is clearly sensitive and intelligent. Large, perceptive eyes seeing, not just watching. Floppy, sheet-like ears subtly rising and falling. Their thick skin like hairy leather. Tree-trunk legs supporting a huge body I couldn't even wrap my arms a quarter of the way around. Large, wrinkled, muscular trunks always investigating and searching their nearby surroundings or hunting for a banana.
The forest may have felt monotonous, but getting to be in the presence of these awe-inspiring creatures was anything but.