Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bonding with Pang the elephant

Who knew elephants can be as mischievous and fun-loving as your pet dog or horse?

Seventeen-year-old Pang (pronounced “Bang”) taught us just that as we experienced a jungle trek followed by a swim with him in a river’s deep pool.

IMG_1001Just getting on Bang was an adventure: the howdah (elephant seat) is secure on their broad back, but what was comical was ascending a set of stairs to a platform 3 metres high, then scrambling onto the howdah, with the mahout’s (the elephant’s driver and companion) help. And then we were off!

Now, Bang didn’t lope about. Instead, we went on a fairly sedate walk. As he strolled, his great feet fell gently on the narrow pathway lined with rubber trees (yes, we walked through a plantation where rubber was being collected in sap buckets slightly reminiscent of our maple sap gathering).

Using his sensitive trunk he grabbed at delectable leaves and vines, stuffing them into his mouth. From time to time he delighted us  by trumpeting: amazing noise emanating from his tubular trunk.

IMG_0987Only one other elephant was on our trek, and Bang ensured Nam Taan didn’t get too far ahead. From time to time he stopped snacking, hit second gear and “sped” past his pal. Hilarious!

But the best part was the swimming with the elephants. We strolled to a river where a platform awaited for us. The howdah was removed, then we clambered onto Bang’s bare back. I was the lucky one, seated right behind his head on his (relatively) slim neck, just behind his ears. Eric had no grip: his fate was to do the splits on Bang’s back. Suddenly, the mahout was off and instructing his charge to dive into the water, twist and turn to try to unseat us. Talk about laughing!

IMG_1036Eric had no hope and was off in an instant. I, however, stayed on – and on, to Bang’s astonishment as well as his mahout’s. Bang surfaced several times, twisting his great head to look at me in what seemed to be surprised amusement—I know… I’m hopelessly anthropomorphic! Finally, however, he succeeded and after a deep twisting dive I was unseated.

And then we tried to clamber back on. Bang was so cooperative. There’d have been little hope but for the fact he extended his back leg, creating a most helpful step so we could climb “up his broad butt”—which he never did manage to submerge.

IMG_1083After our trek I met the owner of this elephant trekking outfit. Preecha told me he’s from a tribe who, for 200 years had been hunting wild elephants in Cambodia, bringing them back to Thailand, and training them in forestry work. Now that the forestry industry is in serious decline, these great beasts and their mahouts are unemployed. Hence the proliferation of elephant trekking outfits.

IMG_1067I hope Bang has a good life. At his “stable” we met an 18-day-old baby who we were able to pat. Ever so cute, it was “gumming” its bamboo fence enclosure, for all the world it looked as if it was teething, while proud Mama looked over its wee form, ensuring all was well. Odd: we noticed the teat of the mother is located behind her front armpits. You’d think they’d get in her way – but I’m sure evolutionary design has figured all that out better than me.