Oh to be a kid at Christmas! The sharp, pungent scent of a Frazier fur in the living room blanketed in tiny twinkling lights and handmade ornaments. Personalized stockings hung neatly across the mantle and the joyful hope of unknown treasures morning brings. I can still remember what it was like lying in bed fighting sleep in an attempt to catch a peek of Saint Nick and his team of magical reindeer. Unencumbered by adult concerns, children experience true Christmas elation, absorbed in the wonder, anticipation, and delight of this magical time. Sadly the sheer, unadulterated joy of a childhood Christmas was but a fleeting feeling. That is until I rode the elephants.
The Pattaya Elephant Village was one of two excursions we booked directly through the cruise ship and certainly worth the money (in fact, Paul says he would have paid double). We were excited to have the opportunity to visit the elephants, but certainly didn’t expect this excursion to be so interactive. This was, by far, the best experience of the trip! We left the village with cheeks sore from smiling so much.
Reminiscent of my summer camp days at Gwynn Valley, Pattaya Elephant Village is like a nature oasis for big kids. It teaches simplicity and a close relationship with the land incorporating lots of hands on activities. After a quick introduction we purchased two bunches of bananas and headed down the dirt path for our first encounter with the elephants.
There in the opening of the wooded forest stood four magnificent animals. I was immediately struck by how still they were. Aside from the occasional twitch of the ear, the statuesque creatures barely moved a muscle. Tall and wrinkled with kind eyes and small bits of wiry hair the gentle giants just stood there waiting patiently for an introduction. Elephants are so approachable and easy to love, we couldn’t wait to rub their furry trunks and connect with these precious animals and apparently the feeling was mutual. In addition to being super sweet, elephants are extremely curious and affectionate.
Being patted by an elephant is a weird and wonderful experience. Slobbery sniffs followed by light taps of the nose. Like a blind man navigating unfamiliar terrain the elephants poked inquisitively at our heads, shoulders and arms with the tips of their gigantic trunks.
The elephants here are experts in the art of retrieving bananas from tourists. Palm to mouth takes about two seconds. Before we could separate another banana from the bunch they were poking us with their trunks for another. Paul got a slight reprieve as his elephant took an extra second to remove the stem, however my elephant just shoveled them in one after another. Somewhere around the fourth banana, deciding that my performance wasn’t up to par, she plucked the full bunch from my unsuspecting hand and swallowed it whole!
Continuing on with our tour, we followed our guide down a dirt road for a ride to the other side of the sanctuary. Transportation consisted of a wooden wheeled cart and two robust oxen. Not my favorite mode of travel, but ok for a short ride. The combination of hard wooden seats and bumpy roads would certainly do a number on your backside after awhile.
Relieved to be standing again, we headed down to the water for a leisurely float across the catfish farm. Our hefty vessel easily accommodated 30+ passengers, but barely caused a ripple in the water. No paddles or engine involved, just two hand operated winches at either end of the barge, some industrial rope and a few willing participants. Naturally, Paul was more than willing to flex a little muscle. He commandeered the front winch and coiled the rope around the wheel as one of our guides let out the slack at the back of the vessel. An eager school of catfish followed in hot pursuit as the kids onboard hurled chow by the fistful.
After disembarking we made our way to a small thatched roof building to learn how silk is made. It was a bit disheartening to see women excluded from the rank of elephant master, however I was impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit. The ladies of Pattaya Elephant Village have created a fairly efficient self-sustaining enterprise which helps provide financial support for their families.
The process begins by breeding Bombyx mori or “silk worms” on the leaves of the mulberry bush. The mulberry bush provides berries for people to eat and leaves for Silk moths to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch the silk worms eat the mulberry leaves and later make their cocoons on their branches. The cocoons are collected and boiled to loosen the threads. Each cocoon is made of a single thread which ranges from 300 to 900 meters in length. It takes 25 cocoons to spin one fabric thread. This unfinished silk is yellowish in color and rather coarse, however a short soak in hydrogen peroxide bleaches the silk white and softens the fibers. At this stage it is ready to be dyed to a myriad of colors and woven into fabric. With the silk tour complete, we bid the ladies farewell and headed down to the tree stands to rejoin the elephants.
Straddling the head of the elephant I placed both hands on her giant head and offered a few gentle strokes on the ear. As we started to move I shifted my weight from side to side trying to find balance with the right alignment of pelvis and hips. Massive ears fanned my knees and wiry hairs tickling my ankles with each exaggerated sway. Riding bareback is way more fun than riding in a basket. It allows you to feel every bump in the road and every twinge in the elephant’s stride. Steps on the uneven earth became even more pronounced as she followed divots in the road with her entire body and I pressed my thighs together to keep from somersaulting overtop of her head. From time to time she would stop long enough to pull a snack from the trees. Like a boa constrictor trapping and squeezing its prey, she would coil the branch with her powerful trunk, then snap it loose from the shaft and voraciously shovel it into her mouth.
Eight feet above the ground, I got to appreciate the lush green canopy from the elephant’s perspective. She and the other elephants followed the trail with little prodding as I am sure they had done it a thousand times before. Paul was quick to note that should one decide to go rouge we would have little choice but to hang on for the ride. Atop his elephant he found humor and truth in the old adage: Where does an elephant sit? Anywhere it wants.