Things you’ll probably not know about elephants until you ride one


Going to Thailand without riding an elephant at some stage is almost impossible. Look through any list of day trip options from pretty much any Thai hub, and it’s reasonable to assume that an elephant ride will feature on approximately half of them.
Nothing wrong with this of course – elephants are truly magnificent beasts. Getting up close and personal with them is a brilliant way of spending half an hour or so (occasionally longer). It’s also a good way of spotting a few things you probably didn’t know about elephants before – such as…

They’re hairy: Obviously not woolly mammoth hairy, but their skin is not as porcelain-like as it may seem from a distance. When you’re on top of one, you spot the hairs on its head and neck. It’s a little like an old woman’s chin – little individual sprouts everywhere, but never enough to brush or comb.
They’re sometimes freckly: Take a look at the top of the trunk. It’s often a bit ginger person out in the sun too long.
They defecate ferociously: When they stop to let rip, you don’t want to be standing behind. Dung dumps can be of prodigious volume and urination sounds like a row of people on balconies pouring buckets out onto the street.
They’ll rarely turn down a snack: Most elephant rides are punctuated by the elephants going off script, wandering into the grass and trying to gobble as much foliage as possible. When they set about a tree or a bush it can be astonishingly violent as they tear huge branches off. In a tour from Kanchanaburi, I ended up on top of a 50-year-old male elephant that nonchalantly strolled towards a tree and then embarked on a one-animal deforestation campaign. He tore the tree to shreds, then carried all the branches back between his tusks to eat later.
Their trunks are incredibly dextrous: Also noticeable was the way he used his trunk. He would angle it round thick branches to get at the thinner ones that were easier to tear off, contorting it with considerable aplomb. On other occasions, they’ll wrap branches around their trunks – almost like spaghetti round a fork, or wrapping a rope round your arm in a tug of war contest – then use the extra grip to wrench the branch from the tree.
As are the mahouts: Arguably even more impressive than the heffalumps are the people that ride them. They sit almost cross-legged on top of their steeds and get up and down with incredible nimbleness. One mahout got down to take a photo of us, then clambered up using the elephant’s tusks as a platform. Another went even further and seemingly magically shimmied up the side. I’ve still no idea how he did it.


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