Intimate though I felt I had become with Yuki over the course of a two-hour getting-to-know-you meander along some of Thailand’s most idyllic tropical pathways, I was not sure we were ready to share a bath.
What with her massive frame (Yuki, you really need to lose a pound or two), brittle, spiky hair and unbelievably thick skin, we hardly seemed compatible. Then there was the tricky question of whether to confine it to a quick, partial dip – or go the whole hog: total immersion, followed by a shower.
Yuki had no such qualms. As soon as she saw the flowing brown water of the River Ruak she proceeded to wade in. I had little choice: I tightened my thigh muscles around her upper head, and gripped her vast ears. I was about to enter untested territory – bath time with an elephant – and with Yuki weighing in at just under four tons, I just hoped she didn’t want to create too much of a splash.
Initial reservations aside, bathing in a river with an elephant – and indeed several of her friends – turned out to be a genuinely thrilling experience.
With those great lumbering legs, Yuki was soon up to her neck in the water and enjoying cooling off. She was playful, too, dipping her trunk into the river and flicking it back to spray all those behind her.
Within minutes, I and the 10 others who had entered the water perched precariously on our pachyderms were drenched – and laughing hysterically. Fears allayed that we might find ourselves trapped underneath an almighty weight, we relaxed – and went with the flow. “Wow, this is like a bath party!” declared one of the Americans.
The communal splash came at the end of a day spent interacting with some of the 25 or so elephants kept in the 160-acre grounds surrounding the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa, close to Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand.
It had involved learning some of the different ways you can mount an elephant – climbing up a leg, leaping on top of the lowered head or getting it to lie down and approaching from the side. There had been lessons on their diets (on average elephants consume 550lb of vegetables a day) and their medical needs. We had heard about the historical role of elephants in Thailand – used variously in warfare, for heavy lifting and for logging. And we had learnt some key commands: pai (forward), ben (turn) and, most crucially, how (stop).
The tuition came courtesy of the elephants’ mahouts (driver/owners) and the resort’s English-speaking staff, many of whom have built up considerable expertise over the 10 years experiences of this kind have been offered to guests.
Sitting bareback on an elephant is not easy. For a start you do not sit on its back, but rather as far forward as you can, on its head. Staying there involves a constant clenching of the leg muscles and keeping a firm grip on those ears. You have to be alert, too (elephants are easily distracted by the sight of sugar cane).
It is not exactly comfortable, but far more authentic than the alternative, which involves sitting in an attached chair. And it is a wonderful sensation. The world looks very different from the top of an elephant – and this part of the world, the “Golden Triangle” where the Mekong river touches Thailand, Laos and Burma, is a particularly enchanting one.
Before venturing too far afield with Yuki, I put her through her paces around a sort of slalom course at the resort’s elephant camp. It was most satisfying when she responded to my commands. “Pai,” I said, and off she plodded. “Ben,” I ventured, and turn she did. Should things have gone awry, Yuki’s mahout was nearby, but for a moment I did feel I was at the controls.
There are many who question this sort of activity; animal-rights activists who argue that laying on elephant rides for tourists is cruel: not as bad as using them in circuses, but nevertheless exploitative.
John Roberts, the British “director of elephants” at the Anantara, is sensitive to the criticism but points out that all the elephants at the resort have been rescued from bad situations – some from the streets of Bangkok where they were used to entertain tourists in a demeaning way; some from illegal logging operations (the practice was banned in Thailand in 1989); some from being sent to Chinese circuses.
He points out, too, that rather than simply taking on the elephants, the Anantara resort also “adopts” their mahouts – people for whom earning a living from elephants has been a tradition for 4,000 years.
“Mahouts need to make an income from their elephants and we give them a better option than some of the others,” said Roberts. “Compared with most of Thailand’s captive elephants, ours are very well looked after. They are fed and cared for, and with all the land here they can lead something of a normal ‘elephant life’.”
He acknowledges that the resort’s mahouts still sometimes use their metal hooks for control (“let’s not forget that elephants can be dangerous”), but says that in general, non-physical methods of “positive reinforcement” are encouraged.
Roberts comes across as a man who is genuinely concerned about the welfare of his charges. Alongside the camp at Anantara, he was instrumental in setting up the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a charity that aims to help elephants in need throughout Thailand. In his ideal world, there would be no elephants in captivity.
Roberts insists that giving tourists rides does not hurt the animals and is a small price to pay for the benefits they receive at Anantara, not least in the form of regular inspections by vets (those doing the three-day mahout course get to see this side of the operation up close; in the case of temperature readings, perhaps closer than they’d like).
Certainly in her slow, leisurely sort of way, Yuki gave the impression of being contented – even if for part of her day she had to put up with the likes of me sitting on her head.
I made sure she was rewarded with a plentiful supply of bananas – and constant words of encouragement. And she got her own back when it came to giving me a good dousing in the River Ruak.
“That,” declared my American friend over delicious fried rice back in the comfort zone of the Anantara resort, “was a life-changing experience.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it was pretty special. And bath time will never be quite the same again.