AFTER HAVING WRITTEN ABOUT ELEPHANTS in a previous story, and dismissing the whole concept of turning them into a self-sustaining economic commodity in service to man, I had a few issues to struggle with before plunking down 500 baht for an elephant ride. The fact of the matter is that I just wanted a picture of myself riding an elephant. It struck me as one of those photos you need to have atop your dresser when you die, along with the one of you in aviator goggles and scarf standing next to a biplane (preferably a sepia print). So I ended up taking the bus from Bangkok to Laem Ngop pier, a six-hour trip, where my girlfriend and I boarded a ferry for the hourlong journey to Ko Chang (Elephant Island). Ko Chang is the second-largest island in Thailand after Phuket, and lies in the Gulf of Thailand near the Cambodian border. Lush and green, with palm trees and blue water teased by ocean breezes, it promised to be a tonic to steaming Bangkok.
Elephants, however, are not indigenous to Elephant Island. The name appears to derive from a local legend about a rebellious elephant named “Petch” who was brought to the island by a Buddhist saint. She escaped from captivity and ran off with a wild elephant, a tryst that resulted in three offspring. When the saint tried to recapture Petch, she abandoned her children and swam for the mainland. The young ones tried to follow her, but drowned in the attempt. When Petch eventually returned to Ko Chang (when the money ran out, one presumes), the saint again tried to capture her, but she once again eluded him, which was the last straw. The old man cursed the island to prevent elephants from ever living there again. Another version of the story includes adultery, drug use, and transvestism, with the climax coming when Petch and the Buddhist saint start shouting profanities and throwing chairs at each other in front of a live, studio audience.
After a slow voyage, during which the water turned from gray to turquoise, the ferry stopped at Centerpoint Pier, running its ramp ashore so the vehicles could off-load. People disembarked alongside cars and trucks in a slow-motion version of Bangkok traffic until everyone had dispersed to the island. Our hotel offered free pick-up at the pier so I gave them a call. It wasn’t really a hotel though, it was a bungalow (one of my favorite words in the English language). Situated in the jungle, the entire complex consisted of eight or nine bungalows on stilts, most of them facing a stream that burbled out of the hills. They all had porches and most had a “shower”, which meant a stone basin filled with rainwater and a bucket for dumping it over your head. I loved it. My girlfriend, who was suffering from the double whammy of being on her period and having a rash as a result of a poorly executed Brazilian wax job in Bangkok, absolutely hated it. Nevertheless, the food cooked by the matron of the place was heavenly and there was plenty of beer in the self-serve fridge at the main hut. As I drank a few of these while swinging in a hammock I felt perfectly superfluous to the wider world.
According to Lek, our main host (guitar player & fire dancer) at the bungalow, the Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Camp was just up the road. He made reservations for us and we set off on foot the following morning. The road was narrow and bordered with thick forest, but it was close to noon and the high sun was cooking the pavement beneath our feet. Heat haze shimmered like water off the path ahead, and out of this delirium came an elephant, wading through the mirage. Then another appeared, and then another. Six or seven elephants materialized, carrying mahouts on their necks and passengers on their backs, riding high on benches that swayed from side to side. No one spoke. It was a silent procession that could have passed for another mirage were it not for the fact that they didn’t vanish upon approach. One by one the animals passed and the riders looked down at us with an expressionless gaze. It was strange, but then I realized that the howdahs had no canopies to protect them from the sun (as the ones in Ayutthaya had been equipped). I saw that the passengers were not so much in the grip of an ethereal experience as they were suffering from heatstroke. I hadn’t bothered to bring my umbrella since the dry season was now upon us and there had been no rain since the downpours of October, over two months ago. No hat either. But I consoled myself with the thought that we had reserved the 45-minute ride and not the full-baked two-hour tour.
Turning off the road at the small Ban Kwan Chang sign that hung askew, fading in the tropical sun, we entered the forest shade of the elephant camp. I was surprised to find that it comprised an entire community of mahouts and their families living in large, stilted bungalows. They lounged in hammocks, cutting open pineapples and watching their children sleep. It was a bit of an idyll, complete with the fanciful presence of the elephants who were languidly scooping up sheaves of foliage and whacking them against their legs to throw off the dirt before bringing it to their mouths.
A young lady detached herself from the group to greet us, taking our names and money: fifteen dollars to ride an elephant on Elephant Island in the Gulf of Thailand. A bargain to be sure. She directed us to a large porch at the end of the bungalow complex where we sat under the shade of a thatched roof and snacked on pineapple slices that were placed in front of us. Presently, other tourists began to arrive, mostly by sorng-taa-ou (a similar conveyance to a tuk-tuk but with four wheels instead of three). They were ushered to the porch, fed, watered, and told to wait. They were mostly Germans with one Asian couple and their two-year old who began to cry when an elephant walked past the porch.
We were called forth when the mahouts had lined up their animals in front of the tall hut which served as the mounting platform. The first elephant took the Asian couple. Their child immediately began to scream in horror as she was lifted aboard. Tears streamed down her face as she gasped for breath, then she let out another shriek. I’m not prone to anthropomorphism in my writing, but I’m almost certain that I saw the elephant lower its head and sigh. Another elephant proved too stubborn to line up properly at the platform and had to be led away by the mahout riding on its neck. As punishment, the mahout raised his club-like takaw and brought it down on the elephant’s head with a loud crack. The animal didn’t flinch, but I did. It was a blow that would have killed a man. I found out later from an American woman who was working on the island as a veterinarian that the Elephant Camp was not without its problems. “They have all female elephants at the compound,” she said. “They used to have males, but one of them went on musth and killed a mahout.” My girlfriend and I were the last to take our seats. We removed our shoes and slid onto the bench as our mahout jammed a bar into its holds in front of us, like the safety bar that comes down across your lap in a carnival ride. And then we were off. My bare feet were on the elephant’s shoulder where I could feel its muscles moving under the soft folds of leathery skin. It was the skin of an old woman draped over the sinews of a Titan. We swayed gently from side to side as man and beast took us away from the compound and into the deeper woods. The experience was extremely pleasant. We stayed in the shade of overhanging trees, surrounded by birdsong and the chatter of insects. Occasionally we would break into the open and see the verdant hills around us. The mahouts kept the animals in line while allowing them to graze freely. At a stream crossing one of the elephants paused to fill its trunk and sprayed its sides, back, and Germans with water.
Near the end of the trek our mahout climbed down and directed me to take his place on the elephant’s neck. Without hesitation I stepped over the bar and slid into place with my hands resting on the two knobs of the elephant’s head. Its neck was not very wide and the loose skin made for a slippery seat, but I managed to avoid a pratfall by keeping my hands in place. I could not help wondering what was going through the mind of the elephant. What was going through my mind was simple; I was remembering a news story on television about an elephant that had gone amuck at a circus and was shown crushing a bystander with its knee. The elephant was still wearing its festive ensemble and the scene was unnerving in the same way that, I imagine, some people find clowns frightening. However, these thoughts dissolved as the motion of the plodding beast and the ceaseless sun lulled me into a reverie. The mahout, an accommodating man, offered to take pictures as he led us back to camp on foot.
So now I had my photograph which I could frame and place on my dresser when I was old and done with this kind of life. As we dismounted at the hut I patted the elephant’s trunk and joined the others at the feeding area to hand out bananas, which the elephants eagerly lined up for. We then parted company as my thoughts had already begun to swirl around biplanes…