Shirley Sinclair

Meeting the gentle giants of the jungle in Northern Thailand

THE scene is straight out of the Serengeti Plains of Africa. Am I dreaming?

A lone elephant nonchalantly grazes near what looks like an acacia tree about 100m away.

I squint to take in the full outline of the mammoth creature in the mist rising up from the river.

Switching to the easier view through a camera zoom lens, I begin snapping away until, one by one, other elephants begin stepping out of the fog curtain into the foreground of my shot.

By the time we are ushered to our meeting point, we are almost surrounded and struggling to register all the activity taking place around us.

Bath time on Northern Thailand's Ruak River, separating Thailand and Myanmar, occurs at least twice a day to keep the great animals' skin well-moisturised.

For this relatively cold early morning dip in Chiang Saen, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation-rescued residents are a little reluctant.

With a mahout by their side or atop a massive head, each Asian elephant dutifully but ever-so-slowly steps from the dewy grass and brown earth down the muddy incline and into the river.

With their snorkel-like trunks raised in the air, they take in some oxygen before momentarily disappearing below, leaving their mahouts balancing on their backs as if standing on smooth rocks jutting out of the grey water.

The mahouts then skilfully crouch or scramble over the backs, splashing, washing and scrubbing away the dirt.

Once the ritual has completed, the elephants advance up the hill.

Now comes our big moment. We are to undertake a morning mahout training course.

We are matched with a mahout and their animal and I am pleased to meet medium-sized, 25-year-old Lanna - from the "elephant heartland" of Surin in North-East Thailand.

Lanna was rescued from a tourist camp where she was forced to work long hours trekking and participating in shows.

We receive a quick demonstration on how to jump on an elephant while they're in their sitting position with bowed leg, and how to grab their ear to boost ourselves up and over, before inching our bums closer to the small dip between their head and back.

We are shaking collectively in our denim mahout pants - a questionable fashion statement that only looks good on short, thin, Thai men.

But within minutes, and with a little helping hand where needed from assistants, I cannot believe I am riding bareback.

Shirley Sinclair

I am almost high enough to touch the clouds, with my heart rate soaring and hands firmly planted flat on the head of "Lanna the Beautiful".

Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa executive assistant manager Marion Newell has warned us that the first five minutes of our ride will be the scariest.

After that, we will quickly ease into the journey to the mahout training camp, about 1km away, and take in the jungle scenery.

But Marion failed to tell us about the six steep elephant-sized steps up to the road that have me part-screaming/mostly squealing with delight only minutes into the journey.

Or that Lanna might test my nerve by veering a little too close to the edge of the steep roadside drop-off in search of a tasty flower treat.

Or that we would be competing for roadway space near the resort where tourists in hire cars, cyclists and workers in trucks soon learn to pay attention to the give-way-to- elephants-and-drive-slowly sign.

But Marion is right in saying that the fear soon dissipates - I find in proportion to the Cheshire cat grin growing on my face and the joy expanding in my heart.

Lanna, thankfully, has me under control.

I only need to memorise five words: pai, how, baen, toi and map long.

Pai (pronounced bai) tells the animal to start moving/go forward.

A confident and loud "baen" instructs the elephant which way to turn, when using a foot to bump the leg opposite to the side you wish it to go.

How tells it when to stop, while map long makes the elephant sit down, and toi to back up/walk backwards.

While whispering encouragement into her overgrown ears and thanking her for her patience also seems to help, food bribes work a treat at the camp.

Sly Lanna knows when a mahout has handed me some bamboo sticks or bananas.

So as I try to keep the food stable in the "cradle" against the small bag dangling from my neck (while also concentrating hard not to fall off from a great height), she swings her thick trunk backwards towards my face.

Clumsily, I place a single treat at the end of the amazingly flexible trunk, which latches on to it like a hand.

As soon as one treat is flicked swiftly into the mouth beside the cute little tusks, the trunk rears back, seeking another.

When it comes time to learning how to get off, via the head, I bend forward and plant a kiss before sliding in an extremely unladylike fashion to the ground.

While that proves relatively easy, I draw the line at trying to leapfrog on to her forehead and turning around to get back into riding position like a real mahout.

Give me an easy leg up any day.

On the journey back to the resort atop the elephants, I am so happy and relaxed that I even manage a "look, Ma, no hands" moment.

A kiss of the trunk in the resort's luggage drop-off area and I must wave goodbye to my new best friend.

For the next two days, I have slightly sore thighs from holding on for dear life with my "jockey" knees against her neck but the special memories and photos of my beautiful girl will last forever.


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