We were walking to my bungalow on the eve of the conference when I first heard it. Sounded like ... elephants, far in the distance, trumpeting, interacting, making their presence known. I knew from the hour-long van ride north of the Chiang Mai airport that the event was being held on the outer edge of civilization. The “jungle resort” setting along the river had stirred my wanderlust as we pulled in, and now this.
“Are those elephants?” I asked my host, hopefully.
He shrugged. “The locals say there is an elephant camp upstream. We heard them during our conference last year, in the mornings and evenings.”
An elephant camp, nearby — how far? Can you get there from here? Is it a working camp, or a tourist site? How long would it take to hike there? Has anyone checked it out?
My curiosity surged, but my questions met with amused smiles and vague replies. Even the Thai staff had only hearsay to report — a dirt track roughly paralleling the river, several villages, lots of dogs, not really advisable for farangs (generally clueless foreigners like me, who should really stay within the walls of our manicured compound.)
On the third morning I slipped out the back gate of the resort as dawn crept through the tree canopy. Working my way along what turned out to be a maze of trails, I headed toward where I thought the river should be, skirting a couple of villages, grinning and nodding bravely under the wary gaze of locals headed to work in the outlying plantain groves and taro fields. And they weren’t kidding about the dogs — unshackled, mean-looking beasts. Our mutual hackles rose in concert with their barking salvos, while I feigned confidence I really didn’t feel so they wouldn’t smell the fear that was real.
What did I get myself into?
I had a limited window before I had to be back to speak at the morning session, which was after all the reason I came to Thailand. But the elephants! Soon, however, my focus shifted to not getting hopelessly lost, finding my way to the river so I could just get back to the hotel.
Ah, well, Columbus never did find India, I consoled myself. This is a good workout, regardless ….
I followed a branching path in what I hoped was the direction of the river and broke out of the jungle to the water’s edge … directly across from the elephant camp. Eureka! A cow elephant ambled down the slope into the water at the prompting of a young boy, gently leading her calf.
Impulsively, I plunged into the current, then realized that the eddies had scooped out a channel in front of me. I paused, waist deep, unsure about my next steps — and suddenly remembered every water snake story I had ever heard.
A second handler had brought a large male elephant down to bathe, and the two regarded me with a mix of consternation and amusement. Then, by the grace that cares for sincere but foolhardy travelers everywhere (with which I am well acquainted), they took me under their wing, motioning emphatically to keep me from disappearing into a hole in the river bed, and set about the task of bathing their charges.
Meanwhile, I was free to just fit in, to fade into the background — NOT! Nevertheless, my gracious hosts checked on me from time to time, signaling to let their approaching companions know I was there, but basically harmless. I absorbed it all through the lens, breathless as they rolled the behemoths in the current, singing to their charges and chatting like friends at the local bath-house.
Half an hour and 700 pictures later, I extracted my Crocks from the Ping River muck — soaked and satiated, but with my camera equipment still miraculously dry. Smiling and bobbing to my new friends, I emerged from the swirling water humbled, grateful, and deeply satisfied. We disappeared down the jungle trail in opposite directions, each of us to our day’s work, humming our own tune, musing about the strange creature(s) that shared the river with us this fine morning. Each of us had bathed and emerged, refreshed.