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Who would have guessed that a fifteen-year-old boy born and raised in west LA would befriend a forty-nine year old elephant half way across the world? My elephant, Yom, lives in a conservation camp hidden deep in the jungles of Lampang in Northern Thailand. The conservation camp was created to protect the elephants from poachers and to safeguard the villages from elephant rampages.
I got to this camp with a group called Rustic Pathways, a 25-year-old community service group that teaches students about other cultures. Our group of 15 American students went to Thailand to give our services to the elephant’s lifelong trainers who are called mahouts. The mahouts work all but three days every month. By helping them, we would take out some of the menial jobs from their exhausting schedule.
The journey to Lampang was an adventure in itself. We ended up taking three flights just to get to Bangkok, spending what seemed like countless hours on the leathery seats of Singapore Airlines. It felt as if the airplane had stopped at every destination possible before arriving in Thailand. During a pit stop in a gift shop at the Tokyo airport, many students with our group took turns inspecting the different packages of sliced squids and fried anchovies. On our next layover in Singapore, a couple of the fifteen-year-old boys tried to test the country’s strict laws by chewing gum. Singapore is known for their “anti-gum chewing” laws. Once I arrived in Bangkok I found out that we needed to take yet another flight to Chang Mei. But that wasn’t all. We also had to take an hour car drive from Chang Mei to Lampang. The long journey later proved to be well worth it.
The elephant conservation camp was filled with native Thai shrubbery of every color. The straw roofed buildings of the camp were just touching the edge of the forest as if they were afraid to enter the uninhabited territory. The elephants’ smell was strong in every room of the camp and seemed to follow us around wherever we went. It was hours after I arrived that a mahout showed me to his elephant, Yom. Her eyes, immense and brown, showed a deep level of love and serenity. Her hair, which is almost invisible from afar, felt as sharp as nails. And Yom’s giant ears drew attention away from her enormous nose.
On my first day working with Yom, I was given a denim mahout suit to wear every time I rode her. The outfit seemed to be the least practical piece of clothing I ever wore. The pants didn’t have the conventional fitted sizes and were made to be folded over and tied with a string of cloth. The shirt was so stiff that I wasn’t sure if it was even made of fabric. This unique ensemble would be worn over thirty hours in the next six days. I was instructed to not wash my suit under any circumstances so that my personal smell would soak into the suit and stay pungent when I wore it.
It is remarkable how smart elephants really are. After a couple of days, Yom flapped her ears in excitement every time she smelled me coming. And those flapping ears acted as an automatic seatbelt when I rode her, always holding my legs against her neck to make sure I didn’t fall off. At the conservation camp I learned how to take an elephant’s temperature (you don’t really want to know) and how to shoot a rampaging elephant with a homemade dart gun (very carefully).
Every day I gave Yom two baths. I rode her into the nearby lake once in the morning and once at night. There she submerged herself in water for up to fifteen minutes at a time, with only her trunk sticking out like a snorkel. The one problem with the bath was that the lake water was so muddy that I wasn’t sure if Yom was really clean. Sometimes I thought she had just covered herself with a new layer of dirt.
After Yom’s morning bath, I took her to either the feeding grounds or the training area. On every occasion that I took her out to eat, she would pile food in her mouth like it was her last meal. We passed areas that looked as if a logging company had recently come through the forest. With all that eating going on I wondered how there was even a forest left at the end of the day. Once Yom had her fill of leaves and branches, I led her to her daily activities. One of these activities included a mini obstacle coarse. I steered her through poles, instructed her to bow her head, and made her walk backwards. Yom was exceptionally good at the course because she had over forty-eight years of training at the camp. Yom performed these tricks in shows for tourists to raise money for her own upkeep.
Time always flew by when I was working with her. Before I knew it, the sun was ready to set and I had to put Yom back in the forest for the night. I rode her into the forest for miles to find the perfect spot. Once I decided on a place to leave her for the night, I tied her down to a nearby tree sturdy enough to hold her back. I always looked at all the surrounding trees, and took note of the fact that they would not be there when I would return the next morning. Yom would make sure to take down every tree or bush she could reach for a midnight snack. Then just as I would leave, I would look back at her standing amidst the trees. I would stare in awe of Yom’s beauty in her native habitat, standing half hidden in the foliage looking perfectly peaceful. This sight was the highlight of my trip.
I spent the evenings with the Thai counselors and staff members. They introduced me to their native dances that they learned as children and their favorite Thai bands. Two counselors told us about their schooling at a local Buddhist temple. Both their parents had died when they were just children, and as orphans they were brought up in a temple. They grew up together and always watched each other’s back. When they were old enough, they became tour guides and counselors for Rustic Pathways. These were people I would have never met unless I traveled to Thailand.
After four days of bathing, feeding, and training the elephants, we set off to a small campsite in the middle of a forest so dense that I could not see the sky above. It took us an hour elephant ride to get there. In the forest, we had to collect bamboo for cups, leaves for plates, and wood for the fire. For utensils we used our hands. At nightfall silence took over the forest, and the only sounds I heard came from the mahouts’ singing and drumming on paint cans. There was no T.V., no electricity, and no running water. We were just 16 kids, a herd of elephants, and a breathtaking forest.