I don’t want to get up. I’ve only been sleeping off last night for a few hours but it’s already time to get ready for this elephant sanctuary thing the guys were stoked about yesterday. I briefly consider skipping it, since the doctor I saw yesterday told me I can’t get any water in my ears anyway and the highlight of this thing is bathing with elephants, but I suck it up and hope it’s nothing a few cups of coffee can’t fix.
Drisdelle is downstairs pacing around in fairly good shape, Murphy looks rougher than I do and is staring vacantly into the ether, putting me in the Goldilocks Hangover Zone but hopefully a little Rotten Ronnie’s will pull me up to Drisdelle’s level. This is my third McDonald’s meal in a row, which is kind of disgusting but kind of awesome. I make it in the door while they’re about to change the menus over from breakfast to lunch, just in time to score a glorious McMuffin and a hashbrown that tastes exactly the same no matter where you are in the world.
I get back with 15 minutes to spare. Our truck-tuk shows up a few minutes early so we jump in, there are already two couples in the back, one from Germany and one from Austria. It’s blazing hot and we’re only intermittently in the shade, depending on buildings and direction. Our next stop is a little boutique hotel and we can see a couple in the front lobby talking to our driver at length, like over ten minutes. We’re sitting there baking while they try to work out some issue. Murphy, sitting at the back of the truck-tuk, is directly in the sun and his condition looks to be going downhill fast, until he says “Well fuck this”, stands up and gets into the air-conditioned passenger side seat of the truck. It’s hard to tell from the back but it looks like he almost immediately passes out.
After almost twenty minutes we leave without the couple, a couple more stops though and after a couple of British girls jump in the AC’d truck with Murphy we pick up a French guy to jump in the back with us who lives in San Diego doing digital marketing. Really nice guy, he and Drisdelle start talking about all the things to do in the area and the two couples are getting into the conversation quite a bit as well, makes for a good ride as we talk about everything from travelling to our hometowns to politics to sports.
Two hours after we were picked up we’re flying down a narrow jungle road in the back of the truck when we veer off into the sanctuary. There are thatched-roof huts around, little gazebos, we don’t see any elephants right away though. Our truck unloads and our group mingles with another several loads of tourists, about thirty of us in all. The organizers introduce themselves and for reasons I still haven’t figured out insist that we take off our shirts and put on these hippy-ish ponchos. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to wear these things swimming or what but they look really hot and I’m too hungover for that shit so I tell the organizers about my ears and that I won’t be swimming so I’m not changing and they nod “Oh okay no problem”. We gather around the table and a Dutch guy next to me is sweating like a pig, “Why are they making us wear these?” He looks at me and contemplates joining team Fuck-That-Shit but sticks with it.
Gathered around the table the lead tour guide starts telling us about the many reasons why the sanctuary is a preferable alternative to the standard riding-an-elephant experience. Besides conservation purposes (elephant numbers in Thailand have declined dramatically), he tells us that elephants have never really been selectively bred like horses to carry heavy loads and that anything over 70 kilograms will put undue stress on their backs. As most elephant riding places throw a heavy wooden seat on their backs and then two tourists, they’re likely at least doubling if not tripling their maximum load. One elephant at a riding place nearby apparently suffered a broken back from being ridden by tourists. He told us of other riding elephants being worked too hard and having other health issues, a lot of good reasons by the time he was done to avoid elephant rides that I wasn’t aware of (I’ve ridden them a couple times in Bali and had no idea).
After giving us the spiel he begins going around the table and asking each person what their name is and where they’re from. As each person says where they’re from he gets everyone to go “Woooo!!!” Having a great time at summer camp! Last in line is Murphy, who’s not only outside the circle but lying completely horizontal on a nearby table and he says “Kobra. From Canada.” “Wooooo!” “Oh, Mr. Kobra, very good name.” Thumbs up.
He walks us over to a little hut full of bamboo shoots and boxes of bananas and as he’s beginning to tell us what to expect when the elephants come out, an elephant unexpectedly appears behind him just out for a stroll, minding its own business. Someone notices it and runs after it and guides it back to where it apparently got away from. He warns us that there’s a baby elephant (awwwwwww) that hasn’t really learned how to play with people properly yet, so it might try to ram us or push us around but rest assured it’s being friendly, it just doesn’t know any better. One important point was that when feeding an elephant with tusks – both sexes have tusks past a certain age – to feed from the side, otherwise when it comes up from eating the tusk may clip you in the face. Don’t worry about getting your hand into their mouths though, their teeth won’t catch you. I’m skeptical about this.
We grab some bananas and bamboo and on cue a mother and baby elephant come trotting toward us at a pretty decent clip. I’m mostly keeping the eyes on the mother because she’s a big momma and she’s coming straight at me, I neglect to watch the baby as a result and it’s moving even faster and in the same trajectory until I feel its high-velocity forehead connect with my upper thighs and more importantly, my gentleman’s region. It nailed me directly in the junk. My eyes are saucered. I can’t speak, kind of gagging and choking. Trying not to fall over. Between gasps it’s still pretty cute. It rams its head into me again. Oh, gaaaag, so cute, gaaaaag cough ugh. My crotch and thighs are covered in red elephant mud and everyone is laughing at me. I step to the side and take a minute to pull myself together.
Although I was a bit crunchy at the time, now that my testicles have re-descended from my abdomen I have to admit it was probably hilarious; at least I would find it funny were I to witness it happening to anyone else.
Everyone starts breaking bananas off their bunches and holding them in front of the elephants. The elephants waste no time jutting out their trunks and grabbing the bananas or slorping their mouths down on wrists and taking the banana while leaving a coating of saliva in its wake. Our guide had told us that the babies couldn’t be fed whole bananas – the peels were too tough for them – so I peeled one and held it out to the baby that’d kicked my ass a few moments before. It enthusiastically gobbled up the pieces I held and almost took my watch with them as well. Holy shit that’s adorable.
Some more elephants are released and everyone gets in on the feeding frenzy.
The baby was understandably the center of attention as everyone was trying to feed it (even while it wasn’t really eating much) and get selfies with it, approaching it from any angle possible to make it happen. One unlucky lady tried to approach it from a little hillside when the baby noticed her and decided it’d be fun to knock her down the hill. She slid down on her ass, half-catching herself with the palms of her hands but not slowing her down much. The baby seemed to enjoy it and I thought it was hilarious but she was super crunchy about the whole thing.
A few of the elephants knew a couple of tricks. One of them seemed to respond to certain questions with a loud sneeze. “Parlez-vous francais?”, the guide would ask… “Phneewwwww!”
Murphy was understandably feeling like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag so he sat in the shade to enjoy watching the elephants more. He was passed out within minutes (and just look at that sunburn).
After forty or fifty minutes of patting and feeding the elephants they were led away and our guide rallied us together, “Okay everyone, time for the mudbath!” After those who needed to get changed into swim trunks, everyone else took off their weird poncho things and we followed a path down to a pond filled with reddish-brown mud. Since I couldn’t risk breaking doctor’s orders and getting water in my ears I followed a muddy path around the side of the pond with Murphy’s phone in hand. Everyone else got down into the mud and the guide asked for a volunteer to demonstrate proper mudbath technique; “Ah, Mr. Kobra!”
Murphy goes in front of the group and follows directions, scooping up some watery mud and rubbing it onto his chest. The guide takes a hands-on approach, reaching to the bottom of the pool, scooping up the thick stuff and rubbing it over his back. Murphy enjoyed this immensely, “Oh.. you’re hands are so soft.”
The elephants came into the pool and everyone else began coating themselves and the elephants in the mud.
Of course this is a relatively small pool that several elephants bathe in every day, and even during our time in the pool the elephants were shitting and pissing, so what everyone was smearing over themselves was really a medley of dirt and excrement.
From that pool we headed down to a nearby river where everyone washed themselves and the elephants off, using buckets to arc water into the air.
The elephants sauntered off and we all hit up a buffet of fried rice and some delicious noodles, kicked them up about three notches with hot sauce. We loaded back into our truck-tuks, shot the shit on the way back, got the contact info of some of our co-riders and jumped out at D-Well.