Tour du Monde
Welcome to the Jungle30.03.2010 / 15:04
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Text by Alex Marashian Photos by Rainer Hosch
DAY 4: Elephant Excursion
Halfway through the Tour du Monde, we’ve managed to explore quite a few new (at least for us) modes of transport, from helicopter to snowmobile to dog sled to antique schooner, and here in Thailand we’ve added the three-wheeled Tuk Tuk to the list. But nothing quite compares to the ride we enjoyed today — on the back of an elephant.
The Elephant Training Center at Chiang Dao is situated along the Ping River in the hills north of Chiang Mai, some 45 minute’s drive from the city center. This lush tropical forest, tranquil and cool, is worth a visit in its own right, if only to escape the commotion of the city. But the presence of 32 happy, well-kept elephants makes the place unforgettable.
With a brain twice the size of the largest whales, elephants are among the most intelligent of animals, exhibiting behavior associated with play, memory, learning, compassion, grief and the use of tools. They figure heavily in the mythology of Thai Buddhism, where the Elephant god Ganesha is revered to this day — and now we understand why.
The elephant I rode, Mae-Koon, is known around camp as “Miss Congeniality” for her happy, obliging nature. As I was preparing to mount her, she seemed to take me in with her beautiful, almost painted-looking eyes. I felt an immediate connection to her and, throughout the ride, had the sense that she was mindful of her passenger. For an animal so large, her movements were remarkably delicate and graceful.
The good manners of Mae-Koon and her fellow elephants at Chiang Dao are as much a function of their upbringing as their innate intelligence is. The animals receive what might be best described as a modern education for elephants, one that teaches them the traditional skills of forest work along with new ones such as painting, all in an environment that’s sensitive to their needs and rights.
The happiness of the elephants, explains the camp’s owner, Sumonchart Yaviraj, who personally visits each animal every day, is the primary concern of the camp. The elephants train in the mornings only, allowing them the afternoons and evenings to roam freely on more than 100 acres of natural habitat. As a result, baby elephants are born and raised in a herd, and the natural sense of elephant community is preserved.
Each elephant at Chiang Dao has his or her own mahmout — a sort of caretaker, trainer and rider all rolled into one — who sticks with the elephant for life, even living in a hut in the forest near his charge. The bond between the mahmout and his elephant is difficult for us conceive: A good mahmout can coax his elephant to paint a cherry tree in blossom simply by the way he touches its right ear.
There are laws against taking elephants out of Thailand. And the truth is, I really wouldn’t know what to do with her (or her mahmout) in my third-story Berlin flat. But in the short time I knew her, I really felt something for my dear Mae-Koon. I may never see her again, but at least I got to ride her once. Thanks for the memories, Mae-Koon.Experience the DEDON Tour du Monde Webspecial