Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nothing tiny about Boa-Thong

She's Thai, she's an elephant, and riding her is kinda scary

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How do you mount an elephant?

It is not, as you might imagine, a conundrum I've often considered, but as I survey the vast acreage of a 3,000-kilogram female at an elephant camp in Phang Nga, Thailand, I realize this is not going to be a walk in the park. In fact, it's supposed to be a 90-minute ramble along a dirt-and-gravel road threading through a rubber plantation a few kilometres inland from Thailand's famous golden beaches.

A mahout, as the elephant guides are known, makes it look easy, of course. Using the animal's bended knee as a step, he'll swing himself up, Tarzan-like, with a rope. Half a dozen mahouts squat in the shade of primitive huts, their laundry flapping damply in the humid breeze.

Fortunately for greenhorns like myself, Sairung Elephant Camp provides a wooden platform the approximate height of the elephant, allowing you to step right onto the back of your ride.

My husband, Scott, sensibly ensconces himself on a bench strapped on the back of our lumbering beast, Boa-Thong, which I believe is Thai for "tiny underwear." Although it would easily accommodate two, I've decided I want the "real" experience, riding on Boa-Thong's neck.

Gingerly, I scoot forward until I'm planted just behind her ears -- and instantly regret it. I'm a long way up, and there's nothing to stop me from pitching forward except my own sweaty palms gripping the animal's forehead, which is firm, spongy and unexpectedly bristly, a bit like a porcupine's buttocks, if indeed porcupines have buttocks.

Then we're off, Boa-Thong's shoulders rolling rhythmically beneath me with each step as our mahout, Leim, follows on foot. Every so often, he pauses to gather Boa-Thong's cannonball-size dung deposits, using the soles of his plastic flip-flops to fling the droppings into the foliage. Not for a million dollars would I walk a mile in his shoes, literally or figuratively.

On the left, tall, straight rubber trees line up in orderly rows, tapped low on their trunks to gather sap. On the right, fields stretch out towards a tangled ridge of jungle. It feels like a world lost in time, rooted in some past century, an impression that's reinforced when we approach a humble home, topped by a rusted tin roof, behind a twig fence.

An old man in a sarong, as lean, dark and knotted as a sapling tree, reclines outside on a bench of bleached planks, clutching a mobile phone. It's almost as disconcerting as discovering Gilligan punching up Google Maps on his iPad to find his way home.

At the end of the road, we dismount via another tall platform and hike a short way for a gander at a modest waterfall, with a sign in English that emphatically, albeit politely, requests: "Please Do Not Swimming!!! (This water for water supply.)" Then we climb back aboard Boa-Thong, with Scott on the elephant's neck and me feeling much more secure in the seat.

Returning to the camp, we reward our leathery steed with small, green bananas, which Boa-Thong plucks delicately from our hands with her long, prehensile snout, shovelling them into her mouth, peel and all. "Jaew" Thanita Kumphetch, a petite, soft-spoken woman who runs the elephant camp with her father, tells us the animals eat up to 250 kilograms a day.

Having grown up around elephants, Kumphetch clearly harbours a great affection and respect for them. She recalls the day her grandfather died, and someone had to break the news to his favourite beast.

"The mahout go to talk to the elephant, and the elephant make a noise and he cry, because he know," she says. She worries that when her father retires in a few years, she'll have to give up the camp, along with the two elephants her family still owns.

"But if I can't take care of them anymore, I can take them to the king in the north of Thailand," she says, her face brightening. "He has a hospital, free for every elephant." Surgeons at the hospital even designed a prosthetic leg for one unfortunate juvenile, which lost a limb when it stepped on a landmine.

Looking into Bao-Thong's tiny brown eyes, blinking contentedly as she scarfs yet another banana, I'd like to think that one day she'll enjoy a leisurely retirement at the pleasure of the king, knitting afghans, playing canasta and complaining about arthritis in her trunk.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Fly into Phuket International Airport.

Riding: Sairung Elephant Camp in Phang Nga, about 90 minutes north of Phuket, can be reached at 089-773-5238 once in Thailand. A 90-minute ride for two people costs 1,500 Thai baht, or about $48.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 D6

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