There’s a knack to riding an elephant, and that largely centres around doing anything possible not to fall off and die. Dramatic, aye, but considering you’re sitting from approximately atop a first floor building, the ground looks a lot harder than when your feet were firmly on it.
It’s important to know what language your elephant speaks. In my case, it was Thai, and as such the following commands may not work if you’re ever poised upon an elephant one day outside of Thailand.
As it is hard on the knees for an elephant to get up and down to allow humans to clamber on its back, the preferred way of mounting an elephant is from its foot. To ask it to lift its foot you need to say, with decided clout, ‘Song Soong!’ (that’s more pronunciation than actual spelling). You may need to repeat a few times and tap the elephant’s foot lightly to reinforce but ultimately it should result in a lifted foot.
This is all good and well, however, perched precariously on this, my head was still not yet level with its back and the ‘hop’ our mahout had mentioned seemed a little far off. As such there may have been two people ungraciously pushing me up onto it’s back, while I desperately tried not to fall over the other side.Once on I got my bearings and shuffled to the neck as we’d been instructed. From up here, it was quite clear that there is absolutely nothing to hold onto. As such, the majority of my time was spent with my hands firmly planted on its head, trying to counteract the side-to-side motion, while shutting off its wind-pipe with my shaking knees.
To get an elephant to move forward you shout ‘Pai’ (pronounced ‘pye’) and shuffle forward with your backside. You would use ‘hau!’ (pronounced ‘how’) to make it stop, while at the same time squeezing its neck with your legs. To turn an elephant (don’t laugh, it occasionally works), yell ‘Baen!’ while using your foot to nudge the opposite ear to the direction you are wanting to go in to encourage head-turning. Finally to praise your elephant you say ‘De Mak!’ (dee mack!) which means ‘very good’.
The elephant didn’t seem to mind me being up there. Until at least she decided to do her darndest to throw me off. This was in the river bed when thoughts of throwing myself clear were certainly top of mind. But mid my hunting for a rock-free haven, she halted. And pottered off to the side of the river to nibble on some greens. It’s not quite like a horse where you can ‘pull their head up’ and drag them in the right direction. Here it’s a combination of knee-flapping, tonal shouting and mind bullets. And most effectively, the sharp shout of her mahout.
Despite being sand-blasted by a fellow elephant, and feeling the rumble of an angry ellie warning off another female, at some point I realised I was enjoying myself. Elephants love the water and the calves who came along for the trip were especially splashy and playful as they clambered over each other and the rest of the herd. Their tough, wrinkled skin collects dirt in its folds and so they are bathed a couple of times a day.
Obviously elephant riding is not possible in London, and I would urge that if you are ever faced with the opportunity to, that you suss out how it came about that these elephants were prepped to take passengers.
Two major considerations before embarking on this, to be fair, rarer of hobbies:
Firstly, an elephant is a wild animal. Those interacting with humans override their natural inclinations to run free and throw any pesky beings off their backs. This isn’t because elephants are particularly mean, it’s just ‘not natural’. As such, apart from a massive element of risk in putting oneself atop these towering beasts, you should give them the respect they deserve, and pay attention to any warning signals it may be trying to share with you. Also never hug their trunks – the under side in particular is very sensitive and they don’t like it.
The other is to understand that, as it is not a natural thing for an elephant to carry people, there must have been some work to getting it to this stage. And it’s rather unlikely that in this scenario it dealt only with the bunches of bananas and sugar cane we bought from the local market on our way in. In my case it was from tragedy that these elephants were able to tolerate human interactions; they once were mistreated on walking treks. In particular I wanted to ensure this elephant home did not teach unnatural things such as elephant painting or brass band playing. This extremely unnatural behaviour is completely unnecessary to me and I don’t like to imagine the hours of teaching and ‘disciplining’ that would have gone into this.
While I imagine they still would prefer to be left alone, the money raised in allowing tourists to interact with these creatures fuels the better care of more ellies that have been injured or mistreated, but a vicious circle ensues. And in many cases this money doesn’t flow into the right channels and often goes to creating what is trying to be prevented. Despite a unique experience, I would have to say that it is far better to watch an elephant in the wild, than to ride it.