University of Wisconsin–Madison

Happy Elephants

This past weekend I went on an incredible 2 day trek in Chiang Mai to the Karen Village. Away from the smog of Bangkok, it felt as if I could truly breath again! I had been away from Bangkok several times to the beach, but once I was deep within the jungle, surrounded by nothing other than fresh greenery, it was amazing how much of a difference it made. It’s as if I was on a different continent entirely, meanwhile I was just at the top of the country!

The trek was unbelievable: rewarding, refreshing, and most of all, eye-opening. After meeting our tour guide, Mr. T, we started our hike through the jungle…or should I say up the jungle since it was mainly an uphill climb the entire way. It was not until later that we learnt that Mr. T was a native to the Karen Village, and had lived there his entire life like the many ancestors before him. Once the sun started to tuck away, we arrived at his small village, “small but spicy”, as he would say.

Before the sun had finally set, we walked down stream where we were soon greeted by Mr. T’s neighbors, all of whom were riding in on elephants.

Sure, I had seen elephants at the Zoo when I was younger, but being able to touch these massive creatures, look into their eyes, and feel their every move while riding on top of them was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

Coming to Thailand, everyone has the dream of riding an elephant. Even if I did not want to admit it myself, of course this typical tourist attraction was appealing to me. However, after learning the abuse that many of these elephants go through, I was skeptical about the whole thing and no longer had any desire to try. Many elephants that are used purely for tourist elephant riding are tied up all day, often times with the heavy seat on top of them. Not only is this painful for the elephant, but it can leave lasting effects such as deep gashes… “No happy elephant”, as Mr. T would say.

BUT, as Mr. T later explained, these elephants that his neighbors had were indeed happy elephants. They only are ridden bareback and get plenty of the treatment that they deserve. So, I changed my mind and decided I would give elephant riding a go.

As I was approaching this beautiful creature, I had to put my complete trust in him, and it seemed as if he had instilled his trust in me as well. Once I had somehow maneuvered my way on top, I could finally understand why everyone wants to ride an elephant.

At first, I could feel the adrenaline running through me; my fate was completely up to this creature that looked at the ground from so high up in the sky! But after I took a few deep breaths, I felt stable and secure; elephants are so stable and secure. It felt like I was in sync with this huge species; feeling his muscles move when he walked, along with his anticipation of every motion he would make.

Although it may seem cliché…and even if you are trying to get away from the typical tourist attractions… riding an elephant should be added to everyone’s bucket list—just make sure that they are happy elephants. 🙂

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