As I recounted in my blog post a couple of weeks ago, the day I spent in Thailand with elephants was one of the most memorable days of my life. In the morning I went to a camp for aging elephants that had been retired from duty. My afternoon was spent at a training camp for elephants that would work with tourists. I wanted to experience what many people come to Thailand to see. I realize that there is much debate about using elephants for tourism and I will address these issues in a later post. This post is about my personal experience with elephants.

My day with elephants continues … after an amazing lunch at a local restaurant, my guide and I scampered off to our next adventure! This was the camp I was most intimidated by.

Most tourism operations in Thailand have gotten away (thankfully) from allowing tourists to ride elephants using the big cages atop their backs. The facility I went to, fortunately, only allows tourists to ride barebacked so you won’t injure the elephant.

As it was at the previous camp, when I arrived, they showed me to a changing room and gave me a blue, faded, smock and trousers, much like what mahouts wear and similar to my morning garb. The material is very thick and coarse but if you’ve ever ridden an elephant, you’d understand why — we humans need the protection!

After donning my afternoon attire I was seated at a table with loads of oranges, a handful of other tourists and our instructor. We learned basic mahout commands in Thai: stop, go, down, up, pick that up. Very valuable words when you are training an elephant.

Then we got to meet our charges for the next couple of hours …

Our guides handed each of us a basket filled with bananas and/or sugar cane and suddenly a stampede of elephants ran toward us!! I elephant-snackskid you not.

Have you ever had elephants running towards you?

It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life!

Shockingly, however, they were unbelievably cute and curious, even as their gigantic masses bounded eagerly toward their treats – and us. I was as surprised as the rest of the folks in my group when I realized they were much more gentle than I could have imagined.

elephant-loveAfter a couple of minutes of sharing our snacks with the elephants, I met my girl.

She was gorgeous.

Huge – at least 20 feet long! And she had the most soulful eyes I have ever seen. She inspected me with her eyes and her trunk.

I was smitten. Our mahout asked her to kneel down so I could climb aboard and she obeyed immediately. It hurt my heart to see this magnificent creature tamed by a man but she seemed eager to please and I knew my 145 lbs. was nothing on her 10,000 lb. frame.

The guides asked us to try mounting our elephants a couple of times so we could get the hang of the down, up, off, on – I was excited and terrified. After completing our training, we all lined up to take a stroll through the village to the elephant’s favorite watering hole.

I have to admit, learning the rhythm of an elephant is no easy task for an old gal like me, but I got there.

You have to sit up high on the elephant’s neck and hold your knees up above their ears. The flat part of the top of the head is where you rest your hands so there is not really a place to hold on.

Basically, you are forced to get into a rhythm or you cannot stay atop an elephant. There are no handholds, no ropes — no help whatsoever in steadying yourself!

Once I had the rhythm down I could let go and just sway with her as we jaunted merrily toward the river. As we got nearer the water I could tell how eager she was to enter the watering hole and I had to lean forward and place my hands on the flat part of her head to steady myself.

Her pace quickened and she nearly launched herself into the water! I stepped off easily once we were in the river but I was drenched. The guides were very cautious and made sure to let everyone know not to go between the elephants and to watch them carefully to avoid getting stepped on.

The elephants were splashing and squirting water like children. We all splashed them with water too. It was like a swimming pool filled with a bunch of adolescents!

I was absolutely filled with glee! And as I stepped back to the shore to take it all in, I realized it was one the most beautiful sites I had ever seen.

At that moment I was heartbroken at the thought of leaving her behind. Clearly, she couldn’t go with me but the thought of leaving her in a world of captivity confused and saddened me. She seemed so joyful yet I knew it wasn’t natural.

She was truly magnificent and childlike and, I wanted to protect her forever. My mind raced with thoughts of becoming her Mowgli and just staying in Thailand but she already had a mahout!

Yep, I was in love and I knew I wanted her (and all the other elephants in Thailand) to be treated with kindness and respect.

As we sauntered back to the village after our swim, I sang You Are My Sunshine to her. I hugged her a thousand times. I promised I’d see her again and I thanked her for allowing me to be a part of her world for a few hours.

She didn’t seem sad to live in a village. She looked well taken care of and adored by her mahout. I know there are elephants that do not get treated well in Thailand but this elephant seemed content.

It was life changing to know her if only for a couple of hours.elephant-eyes

As hard as it was, I had to leave my beautiful girl with her huge soulful eyes, but I will never forget my day with elephants in Thailand!

Thanks for reading about my experience with elephants in Thailand. It was a truly remarkable experience and I hold the memories close to this day.

I know my experience likely leaves some of you longing for the chance to spend time with elephants and it might make others of you even more reluctant. I will speak more about elephant conservation and captive elephants in Thailand in coming blog posts so please stay tuned. And I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!

When you are ready to plan your trip to Thailand, give us a call. I’d love to tell you more about what experiences await you and your family.

With big elephant sized hugs to you,


Bambi Wineland is the mother of two internationally adopted children, a traveler, the Founder and CEO of Motherland Travel. Motherland Travel designs Heritage Journeys for families with internationally adopted children. The emphasis of these Heritage Journeys is on family bonding, building self-esteem and cultivating pride in a family’s multi-cultural heritage. Read more about her here >>

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