If you're looking for an amazing experience in your life, this is one you should try at least once in your life!
Dogs, tigers, sharks, horses... they all fade into darkness next to the amazing feeling of meeting an ELEPHANT.
It's not an everyday activity, but if you're planning to do a trip in Asia, I bet you can easily find a place where you can meet these gentle giants.
First of all, you should make sure that the place where you are going to is not abusing these beautiful animals for tourism purposes, or agricultural work. An elephant may seem giant and strong, but actually they have a very weak back structure, which results in that they can easily be hurt if they are forced to carry wooden carriages on their back to let tourists have a comfortable while ride on their back, or by being forced to lift heavy weights or pull chains. There are thousands of organizations that allow you to meet an elephant in real life, so I cannot make up a list of the good and bad ones, but just be awake when you are looking for one, and do some research before you choose a place to go to.
I can tell you about my own experience, in Baan Chang Elephant Park, located in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Half of the elephant there are rescued from other places where they were abused, the other half was born there and raised by the mahouts ("mahout" is the Thai word for an elephant trainer).
First you need to realize that - just like people - every elephant has his own character, and has his past experiences with humans, that might not have been very positive. Except being taught about how elephants behave in general, when you get introduced to "your" elephant - which you get assigned, no matter if you stay just for one day or a few weeks - you get a full character description by the mahout that is usually working with this elephant, and who will help you become friends with him or her. They will also teach you the use of the bull hook - which seems cruel at first sight, but when you spend a longer time with the elephants you realize that their skin is really very thick and the bull hook is just like a poke for them, and that the use of the bull hook has its reason.
Elephants don't hear very well - in contrary to their giant ears, so the bull hook is only used to draw their attention to what you are saying, and the commands need to be pronounced in a commanding tone - which for most European and American people would be categorized as almost yelling.
Commands are usually very short, and instinctual.
For example, "pai" is the command to walk, if you say "how", it means you want your elephant to stop and " noo long" means lay down. Some of the commands are difficult for Western people to pronounce - let's say that for the first few days, "pai" and "pae" was almost the same for me, though the first tells the elephant to go forward, and the second is more of a "good boy, good girl" thing you say to them shen they behave well.
No need to tell you that there might have been some misunderstandings between the two of us the first few days :)
My elephant was Ko Chang - which means as much as that her ears are covered with golden spots - and was a beautiful female of around 5 years old. She was slightly stubborn in the beginning, but once she got to know me, she was even giving me morning hugs and dirt showers - which is a sign of affection in "elefantish" - upon arrival.
Taking care of an elephant is not an easy task, if you imagine that they eat around 100 kg per day - which also includes every single of those kilograms is coming out as well, but from the other side... and you are being the one cleaning that up as well, every day! Though, nothing compares with the huge smiles they give you when you are bringing them bananas and sugar cane in the morning - and NO, I am not joking, they really smile like little kids!
Riding an elephant is a sensible subject, as I already mentioned, because many elephants are abused, forced a huge wooden carriage on their back for the luxury tourists to take a ride and so on. The only possible and acceptable way of riding an elephant, is bare simple - you just climb on their back and sit in their neck, where you do not bother them and they can easily carry you. The crucial thing is, that no matter how amazing it is to bond with your elephant and take a ride on its back, this is not something you will keep up with for hours, since the "legs wide open" position is far from comfortable for everyone except a ballerina, who are used to sitting into a full split while watching an entire movie. Also, you get dirty, the elephant occasionally might give you a mud shower, and the thick and hard hair scratches your legs. This explains why most people are not up for this, and prefer the carriages instead, without thinking how much pain and discomfort they cause to the elephants.
So either you bite your teeth, accept all these discomforts and have an amazing view from up there - either you just don't ride an elephant. That's the only deal.
And to top all of that, there is also the washing and swimming with the elephants. This was actually the climax of the day for me, to go into the water and go wash my Asian beauty. Elephants enjoy it so much, and I have to say that most of the humans that I saw doing it enjoy it even more! After a while the elephants get used to you, and even start playing. Also, it's a nice way to bond with the mahouts, who stay the first period of time near you to watch over you, and don't speak too much English.
Suddenly, sign language becomes something very useful...
I can freely say this was the most amazing experience with animals in my entire life. I played with tigers, swam with sharks, worked with stray animals in Europe and Asia... But elephants are the first creatures that I met that are so close to us, humans, in soul and behavior, that I felt like leaving a friend behind when I had to leave.
And to be honest, just as I long to visit some of my friends that live on the other side of the world, it is one of my dreams to go back to Thailand, and find back Ko Chang and her eyes filled with intelligence.
Elephants are just like us, humans, yet with a soul more pure.
Or even better, like a Medieval British poet - John Donne - said once:
"An elephant, nature's great masterpiece, is the only harmless great thing."