Travel experiences

To ride an elephant without knowing

We have a few more days in Bangkok and a visit to an elephant sanctuary pops into our minds. The idea is to feed the elephants, walk with them, and bathe them. As appealing and exotic as it may be, we decide against riding them. I’ve read somewhere that an ethical way to ride an elephant is skin to skin. Anything else is considered animal cruelty.

We arrive in an area surrounded by a jungle. It’s hot and humid and adventure is in the air. A few minutes later, we change into blue outfits and with childlike excitement, feed the elephants with bananas and sugar cane. The animals devour them with appetite and nod as to remind us to keep the food coming. A professional photographer takes a photo of each of us being ”kissed” on the neck by an elephant. Our research prior to booking assures us that the sanctuary rescues sick elephants and those trapped in circuses. So far, so good.

I catch myself daydreaming about walking with elephants and then bathing them in a muddy river. Not for long. To our surprise, the guide throws himself into lengthy explanations about the upcoming elephant ride. What?! There must be a mistake – we have booked peaceful activities. Something has definitely gone wrong and we are put in the wrong group. However, we don’t want to make a scene and carefully listen to the instructions. Each elephant has two riders on its back, skin to skin. We learn a few commands in the Thai language – stand up, turn left, turn right, and sit. ”Our” elephant obeys and I confidently conclude that my pronunciation is not that bad.

I hold on to a rope across the animal’s body as if my life depends on it. I quickly learn that the elephant’s hair is pointy and thick but decide to focus on more existential activities such as keeping my balance. All elephants walk in a straight line but ours decides to stand out from the crowd and eat grass at the edge of an abyss. The mahouts (elephant trainers) seem calm and unbothered. A total lack of control over my body. I remember that besides being smart, elephants could also be aggressive and dangerous and the synthetic fabric on my back quickly gets drenched in sweat. 

Other riders in our group smile and take photos of each other. I laugh at myself and pray to quickly feel the ground again under my feet. A stretch from the ride seems very steep and I hear myself asking whether elephants can climb. ”Sure they can”, answers one of the mahouts with composure. What follows is a wild run downhill and I nearly fall off. 


After some of the longest 20 minutes of my life, we bathe the elephants in murky waters, have lunch, and take a break in hammocks. 


No workout has ever left any stronger footprint on my buttocks.




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