Boun! The beast standing before me opened her mouth and hooked her tongue forward, ready for some food. I fed her a banana which she ate in one gulp. Boun and this time a tamarind ball, salted to make her drink more water later. Boun and a stick of sugarcane – she really liked the sugarcane, flapping her ears and tail appreciatively. Like this, we worked our way to the bottom of the food basket and Boonthong and I got to know each other. It turns out elephants and I are a lot alike – feeding us a good breakfast is a sure way to our hearts.

Then it was time for a quick health check. Ben, our guide, explained the things to check every morning to make sure the elephant is healthy, including a stool inspection. After that, bath time. I led Boonthong down to the river…

Nan Lang! With that command, Boonthong lowered her immense bulk into the river, allowing her trainer and I to wash her with buckets of water and a scrubbing brush. It’s important to wash elephants before riding, so that dirt and rocks on their skin don’t get ground in and cause irritation or cuts. I also helped Robin wash her elephant’s tusks, since mine had none.

Look means "up" in Elephant. Boonthong was ready to leave the river and go for a ride! I led her out by her ear, and we learned the basics of riding.

Tan Lang! This is the most fun way to mount an elephant. It means "trunk down." You can then climb up her trunk, step over her enormous head, and place your feet on either side of her neck. Then you just have to turn around and you’re ready to ride!

Pai means go… and we were off!

Riding Boonthong took a bit of getting used to. Despite the breakfast, she was still hungry and repeatedly demonstrated her ability to uproot and eat an entire sapling, or haul off large tree branches. Yana means "stop that!" but I didn’t know what she could and couldn’t eat, and I didn’t want to upset her too much, so I left most of the yanaing to the trainer.

We rode to a river, ate lunch (us first, then the elephants got the leftovers and the papaya leaf tablecloth), and went swimming together. Swimming with elephants is more like surfing – you have to stay on top while the elephants roll around, usually submerged apart from the tips of their trunks. Incidentally, kapow means "spray with your trunk!"

After lunch, more riding: back along a different path and the side of a highway. I was getting the hang of things, patting Boonthong and saying deedee: good elephant. Boonthong flapped her ears appreciatively.

For our last ride of the day, Robin and I rode double on her elephant, and then sadly parted ways with our huge grey friends. We bought them a basket of bananas though as a final treat… more boun, more deedee, then we said goodbye. The trainers rode the elephants home and we got a ride back to Chiang Mai.

Yay elephants! They’re so nice.

Here are some photos.

(We rode elephants on Robin’s birthday, March 28th.)