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Riding Atop an Elephant in Jungles of Thailand May Turn Out to Be a Narrowing Experience : THAILAND: Elephant Rides

October 07, 1990|BARNABY CONRAD | Conrad is a free-lance writer living in Carpinteria, Calif., and author of 24 books, the most recent of which is "Hemingway's Spain" (Chronicle Books, 1990) .

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Up ahead of us on the narrow jungle path were two trees that were so close together, I knew our elephant could never squeeze through. The howdah, or seat, we clung to stuck out two feet on each side of the behemoth. The trees would clip the howdah, my wife would fall insensible to the ground on the right side and I would do likewise on the left.

Our young mahout, sitting serenely ahead of us behind the animal's ears, seemed oblivious to the approaching mayhem. And why not? The passageway through the two trees was big enough for the elephant and him--it was just we on the wide howdah who would pay the terrible price of the misjudgment.

As we came closer to the trees, the mahout held his anka at the ready but did not use it. He urged his mount on with his bare knees under the animal's floppy ears.

There was simply no way that the broad platform we were sitting on could get through that opening. My wife grabbed my hand. The elephant slowed his pace and stopped. Carefully, he felt the trees' trunks, measuring the distance with his own trunk, mentally adding four feet to his own width.

Then, with about three inches grace on either side of the howdah, he stepped carefully through the gap and lumbered his immensity down the path. We breathed again, and never again for the two-mile ride did we worry, even when we forded a stream and climbed up the steep bank on the other side.

This was just one example we saw that day in Thailand that proved that the pachyderm is one of the smartest creatures alive, quite capable of the highest type of reasoning.

We were not on any kind of exclusive safari. We were doing what any tourist to Chiang Mai can experience by paying less than $50 for two.

I recommend it for anyone of any age. Your hotel concierge can arrange the experience for you. Make a day of it--visit the hill tribes in the morning, have a good lunch at the nearby restaurant, then climb to the top of the hill and sign up for the elephant ride.

In a few moments you are ascending the steps to the platform that puts you on a level with your elephant. Then you are in the howdah and your Kiplingesque adventure begins. The jaunt lasts a little over an hour and you go through a beautiful jungly forest.

Afterward you get to watch as your elephant is scrubbed and bathed in the river. The best part is seeing how the animals are trained for their intricate and essential lifetime tasks.

Although elephants have become a tourist attraction, these superbly schooled creatures do not exist primarily to do circus tricks for the benefit of the growing Thailand tourist trade. They are there to work, and they are very important to the Thai economy.

No machine has been able to surpass or even equal the elephant as a skilled worker in the teak forests of Thailand; the northern forests are too rough, dense and steep for heavy machinery.

In addition, the extraction of the logs is a selective process, and the amazing animals can maneuver the smallest of trails, whereas the machines would need large roads necessitating more environmental destruction.

While each elephant requires about 450 pounds of leaves and bananas and 45 gallons of water daily, that fuel is cheaper and more readily available than gasoline and diesel fuel.

And the elephants more than pay for themselves. (A good one is worth about $6,000, which is a lot of money in Thailand.) An adult elephant can lift a log weighing almost a ton, and can drag a two-ton tree.

It is fascinating to watch the young elephants being trained at Lampang and the various other schools near Chiang Mai.

The training begins when the elephant is 3 to 5 years old, and takes 5 to 7 years to complete. Once the baby is separated from its protective mother, the animal is introduced to a young mahout who will be its partner, boss and friend for the rest of its--and probably the mahout's--working life. Elephants are retired at 60.

The highly intelligent animals, given pet names by their mahouts, are taught 30 to 50 commands--such as kneel, raise your leg, pick up this, put down that, lie down, push this, pull this and so forth. A unique and intimate relationship develops between the mahout and his elephant during their lifetimes.

They tell the story of one elephant who used to carry his mahout home in his trunk when his master got drunk. The mahout does carry an anka , a small hook, but uses it seldomly and reluctantly, preferring verbal orders and intricate signals with his knees applied behind the elephant's ears.

Occasionally, a mahout is injured or killed by an elephant, usually by a male. The attacks generally occur during the animals' annual musth period, when a glandular secretion causes some to become merely irritable and others to go crazy and attack anyone who approaches.

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