On the back of an elephant

Discworld may require four elephants to support it, but B and I only need one. Perhaps that is why our ride was so shaky, but Namchou never let us fall.

We were on an organised day tour of the Kachanaburi area about 130 kilometres away from Bangkok. Our small coach raced along the highway to the city at breakneck speed, flying over every hump like an aircraft in a storm. It was frightening at times!

Along the way were small shophouse, sometimes teak, often concrete and occasionally thatched palm. Goods for sale along the roadside ranged from stuffed toys to wooden canoes. There were shops selling potted trees, steel water towers, shrines and fruits, amongst other things. We passed trucks packed with sugar cane and teak.

The area around Kanchanaburi is best known for the “Death Railway” to Burma. Almost a 100,000 labourers died in the construction of this railway by the Japanese in World War II. Many of them were prisoners of war from Australia, Britain and the Netherlands, working in atrocious conditions.

Our first stop was the bridge over the River Kwai. The initial bamboo and wood bridge was replaced after the construction of the steel bridge that exists today. Some of the spans were destroyed by Allied bombers during the war and only the curved top sections are original, brought there by the Japanese from Java.

From this sombre stop we moved to somewhere much more uplifting, literally so! The Saiyok Elephant Park sits in the middle of the jungle along the river. In pairs we climbed up a wooden platform to mount the elephants. We were seated precariously atop a wooden seat saddled on to the back of the elephant. A mahout sat behind the head to control it. According to our guides the mahouts and their families are all Karen people rather than ethnic Thais.

As the elephant began working around the rough and hilly jungle tracks it was difficult to believe that people could sit upon them for any length of time. Eventually though we got into the swing of things. Our elephant’s name was Namchou (or something like that), a 34 year old female who had a penchant for stopping frequently to snack on leaves. This allowed us to get a good view of her wonderfully dexterous trunk as it pulled at the branches. However, it did get a little frightening at times as she lurched up and down slopes in search of food.

The guide lead us into the river, then as we reached the bank he leaped off the elephant. B’s dreams were made true as she got to sit behind the elephant’s head. The mahout took our camera and took photo after photo of us on the elephant. He still commanded her from the ground, leading us back up to the platform, where the ride came to an end.

That was a full 30 minutes of great fun, one of those precious travel experiences that we will always cherish.

Afterwards we posed with a couple of cute juvenile elephants before walking down to river again for a bamboo raft ride. The rafts are actually mounted on buoyancy tubes and are dragged up the river by a powerboat before being released to float back down on the currents, past bamboo groves and jungle. It was nothing to compare with the elephant rides, but it was a relaxing way to spend 20 minutes.

Bank on the riverbank we were greeted by the next parade of elephants. Namchou was there and greeted us. There were also a couple of small juveniles in the group, chained to their mothers, presumably for training purposes and so they could remain together (we observed that they were released in their pen). One of them came up to me and playfully pushed me in the belly with his powerful head. He then deliberately stepped on my foot with his hind foot as he moved off. Fortunately he didn’t press hard as I would hate to think what would have happened had he wanted to stomp me. Kids like to play rough with me for some reason.

There was more juvenile action back at the camp where two of the young elephants were performing. Part of the show was an elephant massage, where you lie down on the ground and the elephant gently presses down with a front foot. Women had a back massage, but the men were required to lie on their backs with the cloth that acted as the target placed upon their groin. Watching the red face of the burly Russian tourist as he was massaged and then “kissed” by the elephant’s trunk was hilarious.

Sadly our time at the elephant park had to come to an end and we reboarded the bus to go to our included lunch stop. The drive there took us up through the hills and past tapioca plantations in the red soil. It was easy to see that it was the dry season.

Lunch was at Wang Pho. An open sided restaurant served hot food (though not really spicy) and salads. It was tourist food and not very good, but the breeze through the eating area was very pleasant.

We then walked down to the station, where our train was delayed for about half an hour. Under the platform canopy a couple of older women and a uniformed male railway staff member played dominoes as dogs lazed under the tables. A stall served hot dishes and cool ice creams.

Finally a train rattled its way up to the station for us to board. The train would take us partway along the Death Railway to Thakilen, taking about 30 minutes.

Five minutes out from Wang Pho we slowed to observe some magnificent views across the River Kwai, looking down upon Thai holiday resorts by the river and out towards that craggy mountains in the distance. Then we sped up once more, bouncing around on the tracks like a child jumping on a bed.

The two and a half hour ride back to Bangkok by coach was an opportunity to rest and relax. I loved the dingy shops that we passed, the blackened machinery repair sheds, the grocery stores, the covered eating houses. There is so much life visible inside, yet you do not observe them hurrying.

Back in time for a last dip in the pool, watching the red sun set across the smoggy city. Normally we don’t really enjoy guided tours, but today’s was about experiencing things for ourselves rather than being dragged through a set checklist. We had a lot of fun viewing the world from the back of an elephant.


P.S. I achieved a first today. My first successful use of a squat toilet. From Singapore to Japan, from China to France I’ve never had success until now. Blame it on the Bangkok Belly I’m suffering.
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