Her trunk presses against your cheek. You get a slight tickle from the brittle hairs and a puff of warm mist from her breath. And then the wet nose of the trunk hones into a sweet spot beside your ear and with a “pop”, suctions your face. You’ve just been kissed by an elephant!
Mae Boonpee is your elephant for the day. She lives with her 1-year-old baby in the forest outside of Chiangmai Thailand at Patara Elephant Farm, whose mission is to support the rescue, recovery, reproduction, and reintroduction of these friendly, funny, powerful mammoths.
Mae Boonpee and her herd are enjoying a morning free in the jungle when they hear their trainer’s call. You first hear a rustle and some cracking branches, and then they emerge from the wall of green, almost trotting down the dirt trail towards you. They know that freshly cut bamboo stalks and bowls of bananas await. One of the youngest babies is still so awkward that, in the jostle, he steps on his own trunk and lets loose a squeal. Mae Boonpee’s 1-year-old is still nursing and he tucks himself neatly underneath his mother’s belly with his trunk flipped back to enjoy breakfast, while she deftly breaks the bamboo stalks into 2’ bite-size lengths with a stomp of her foot and a twist of her massive yet dexterous trunk.
Surprisingly, you are able to approach Mae Boonpee in the midst of this nursing and lunching. You learn to read her demeanor by happy signs like a swinging tail or flapping ears. You instruct her to open her mouth for a treat of mangosteen with the command “dee-dee” and a tap below her eye. And then you take charge of her with a quick “Ma!” and a firm tug on her left ear, leading her down to the river for her afternoon bath.
The baby has his own priorities. He is enthusiastically digging with his trunk into a pile of his mother’s fresh dung, dollops of which he tries to get into his mouth with his unpracticed little trunk. The trainer explains to you that the mother’s waste provides babies with some of their earliest and most nutritious solid food.
Your day of elephant “daycare”, as Patara’s program is known, has been instructive – who knew that elephants sweat through their toenails. And it’s been fun – you’ll never forget that kiss! But the most enduring memory of your day will be the discordant mix of power and tenderness that you sensed at Mae Boonpee’s side. Her mass could have crushed you in a second if she so chose, yet her long eyelashes flipped up and down over eyes that looked right into yours and seemed to say, “I know what you’re up to!” Her dinner-plate sized feet stepped mere inches from your sandaled toes and yet, without harming you, she barged nimbly through the other elephants to reach the last banana in the treat bowl.
After feeding and grooming and bathing her, you climb atop Mae Boonpee for a ride through the jungle back to your van. Over the day, you have stuck your hand in her mouth with treats, stood knee-deep in water alongside her for bathing, and felt her trunk wrap around your waist. But now, sitting right atop her neck, just behind her flapping ears, is the first time all day that you have felt vulnerable. Mae Boonpee is a powerful creature and all it takes is one glimpse of a tasty palm frond by the trail to tempt her off-piste and up the ravine. Just wrap your arms around her neck and hold on tight!
“That was a trip of a lifetime”, you say. “Let’s do it again next year!”
Sharing the love of travel,