Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chiang Mai: Elephants

Advertisements for the elephant camp are all over the old city of Chiang Mai. It gives the impression there is only one camp, but in fact there are several elephant attractions. 

In one of the camps you can sign up to "train" the elephants for a day. You and others will wash it, ride it, send it through its trick-paces, etc. 

A tour to the Maesa Elephant camp includes a ride up and back in an air-conditioned van with an English-speaking guide. Plus the elephant show and an opportunity to see them bathe in the river. For 800 Baht more (about $27), you can ride for 30 minutes down a well-trod trail through the jungle while sitting in a large box atop the elephant. 

Bunches of tiny bananas and sugar cane are sold in front of the animal pens for you to feed the elephants. People attempt to feed one banana at a time but the elephants reach way out with their trunks and take the entire bunch. There is no resisting a snout that is thicker than your arm and ten times stronger. 

Rheta with two pachyderm buddies
They've been taught tricks like reaching up to take the Mahout's hat and place it on your head. They wrap their trunks around you in a big hug and pull you close. The Mahout has his hand out with a 100 Baht bill in it, indicating that he'd like you to give him one also. The elephant is more than willing to take any bill from you and swing it up into the Mahout's hand. 

I'm always a bit reluctant to go see animal performances, as many animals in the world are treated badly and perform under terrible circumstances. 

These were Indian Elephants that have been domesticated for thousands of years. They breed in captivity and there were many young elephants. Each one has its own Mahout.

There was a big sign at the entrance to the park with each of the 72 elephants and Mahouts, photos, and information.  The Mahouts did have a wooden baton with a hook on the end, which they used to give the elephants signals, but I never saw one strike an elephant or mistreat them in any way. That's not to say it doesn't happen.

The animals had big shelters to stay out of the rain, and they relished bathing in the river. I filmed two young ones rolling around, hooting and splashing. The mature elephants behaved like older people—it was nice to be there in the river, but they were not ecstatic.

There seemed to be plenty of hay and clean troughs of water. Although the area was muddy from the rain, it looked like a well-managed place. 

The show was impressive. The elephants played soccer with giant balls that flew out of the stadium when kicked. They still need to work on their aim a bit, but a few goals were scored. Three of them pulled in giant teak logs and stacked them, just like their ancestors did in an earlier line of work. 

And they painted pictures. 

Very smart baby elephant painting a picture.
I read about an elephant that painted in the Chicago zoo. The keeper noticed her drawing lines on the concrete with a wet mop and gave her paper and watercolors. She loves to paint. Her paintings are modern art and sell for quite a bit of money. She also paints what she likes and stops when she finishes. 

These elephants were performing a trick. The Mahout chose the color and brush, crammed it into the elephant's snout and then guided the painting with movements of his hands under the ear as the animal painted. The paintings were the result of a human’s eye, recognizable stems and flowers, hills and sky with a tree, etc. In the gift shop there are hundreds of similar paintings, all of the same three or four images.  The baby elephant’s strokes had a lot of energy, and it painted the most complex picture. It was a very impressive trick, and quite a feat of training. I doubt that it could be done with any other animal.

At the end of the show, the elephants came up to the wooden fence in front of the bleachers for more petting, picture taking, and money giving. I sat on the rail and stroked a young elephant’s trunk as Rheta photographed us. The trunk reminded me of pig’s skin. The Mahout flashed the 100 Baht bill, but my purse was at an awkward angle and I couldn’t burrow into it for my billfold. I raised my hands to show they were empty. The elephant, whose head was right next to me, began to push me into a pole on the other side. I was clearly getting squeezed for money!

On the way back to Chaing Mai, we saw a sign for a place that transforms elephant waste into useful products. The place was named ElephantPooPooPaper. Rheta and I decided that would be the perfect medium should we ever need to write a “Dear John” letter.