Her trunk presses against your cheek. You get a slight tickle from the delicate 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.
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
You learn to read your elephant’s 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.
After feeding and grooming and bathing her, you climb atop Mae Boonpeefor 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 Boonpeeis 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!
What other wonders await you in Thailand?
Go to a mountain village to learn to box! Or cook pad thai!
Spend the night at a monastery.
Visit temples and learn the history of the Thai royals.
Get a traditional Thai pedicure (yes, those are real fish in the water!)
Ride a khlong boat through Bangkok’s canals to its weekend floating market at Lad ma Nyom. Sample lotus flowers, king prawns right off the roti, coconut creams, grilled needle mushrooms, fried bananas, Thai pancakes, and this favorite – curried fish paste steamed in a banana leaf. Spicy!
Take a daytrip out to my guide’s village where you can help them harvest salt and share lunch on the porch of her family’s stilted home.
Sleep in a treehouse!
And after the tumult of Bangkok, repair to a secluded cove in the islands. You’ll swim-up to bars, feed fish, free solo on the rock cliffs, get around on khlong boats, and c-h-i-l-l.
See Thailand in Action
Prawns at market
Lad Ma Nyom market
Hanging with the Big Cats
Swim to tropical bar
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