An Elephant Experience of a Lifetime

It’s only the middle of May, and I can already cross off the three things I promised myself I would do in 2016 before the end of the summer. (1. Run a half marathon2. visit Kyoto, and now 3. go to Thailand). Before I make a new list, I want to share with you one of the most memorable and incredible experiences I’ve had yet on this side of the world…and arguably my whole life.

Now if you know me even in the slightest of ways, one of the first things you can guess about me is that I say EVERY experience I have is the BEST experience of my life. I am amazed by first experiences like an excited Kindergartner, I know.

But…I really mean it this time.

All I wanted out of my trip to northern Thailand was to spend time with healthy elephants who were loved and cared for. Unfortunately the elephants in Thailand (and many other countries) are exploited for entertainment in major cities, and it severely damages their health and happiness . But in recent years, many rescue camps and sanctuaries have opened up in northern Thailand  for elephant rehabilitation and awareness, and those places seem to be gaining in popularity over tourist companies that only offer elephant rides, where the poor animals are forced to work with a broken spirit and a chair strapped to its back all day, every day of the year.

For my trip, I was in search of a humane elephant encounter that would be educational as well as very personal. I wanted to bond with an elephant. So a fellow ALT in Japan recommended I visit a place called Karen Tribe Native Elephants. She spoke so passionately about her experience with the Karen people and their elephants. I knew I had to experience it for myself.

I`m not sure if any words or pictures can emulate how special my time was with the elephants and trainers. But I want to share my experience with you on behalf of every human and animal I met at Karen Tribe Native Elephants.

And speaking of pictures, 95% of these photos were taken by Sun Ahtid with his awesome camera.

And speaking of words, this post is really really long and overflowing with random elephant facts. I squeezed everything I learned into one blog. You’ve been warned.

So it here goes…

But first…an elfie.

I booked a day trip with the Karens for Carson and myself on Monday, May second.  After a fun but exhausting day and a half zipping around Bangkok with some new friends, I was longing for the mountains in Chiang Mai and anticipating whatever the Karen Tribe had in store for us.


This is Sun. I reached out to him back in February and he got back to me within the hour about booking a trip with his elephants. Sun is the kind of person who will make you feel at ease within moments of meeting him. He is warm, welcoming, and above all, incredibly passionate about the well being of his animals and educating people on the many ways to keep elephants happy, healthy, and pregnant.

Sun arrived at our hostel in Chiang Mai exactly at 7:30 am like he said he would. We hopped in the back of his van and then drove a few meters down the road to another hostel and picked up Jason, the only other person who was going on this adventure with us. I felt so lucky to be headed towards such a private encounter with elephants. Just like I wanted.

We drove two hours outside the Old City to Sun`s grandfather`s village in the mountains. In between confessions as writers and artists with Carson and Jason,  Sun answered all our curious questions about the Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai.

So who are the Karen?
For centuries, the mountains in Chiang Mai have been home for the Karen people. Other hill tribes reside in the north, but Karen has the highest population. Sun told us that a long time ago, the Karen people were tangled up in serious political unrest when they used to live in Myanmar (Burma), so thousands fled across borders and sought refuge in northern Thailand. Some Karen people even migrated to different reservations in North America too. The Karen used to believe in animism, but now most of the Karen people have converted to Christianity after Burma was colonized. The Karen people are incredibly family-centric. When a man and woman have a child, they are then on referred to as their child`s first name, plus Mo (Mother) or Ba (Father).

There are almost a dozen different  Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai, and different tour groups do one-day trips or overnight stays so people can try traditional Karen weaving, Thai cooking, and experience how the Karen people live primitively in their villages.

But as you already know, I did not book through a tour group. I reached out to Sun on my own.

Karen Tribe Fun Fact #1: Village homes are made of bamboo that rest atop raised wooden structures as a way to  keep livestock safe from predators. Apparently, before houses were built on the raised structures, tigers would come during the day and eat the chickens!

Karen Tribe Fun Fact #2: Pythons are refereed to as bi bi in Karen language, which means grandfather. You don’t want to mess with a bi bi because they could crush your bones and swallow you whole.

Becca’s Note: I did not come across any tigers or grandfathers of the jungle during my visit thankfully.

Country Road, Take Me Home
The scenic mountain drive to the village was a nice break from the fury of Bangkok. We drove past many beautiful flowers and fruit trees, and as we approached the village, there were tons of  chickens, cows, and water buffalo! Of course I seized the opportunity to sing The Water Buffalo Song from Veggie Tales. The mountain air was refreshing in our lungs as all four of us sang along to Country Road and The Lazy Song.

These sunset orange blossoms only bloom for a short time every year. Lucky us!
Everybody has a water buffalo! Mine is fast but yours is slow. Where they come from I don’t know, but everybody has a water buffalo.

We chatted the whole ride up until we reached the farm and spotted our elephants! I had never been this close to an elephant before. My heart pounded in my ears as I watched their tails swish back and forth in the dirt and they collected big, green leaves with their trunks. Carson, Jason and I jumped out of the car like excited children. Sun told us how to approach an elephant for the first time and introduce ourselves.

An Elephant Never Forgets

Getting to know you…getting to learn all about you.
Those eyes…

Carson and I shared an elephant named Mae Come Hpo. Apparently it means flower in Karen. She is 40-years old, and one of the biggest elephants in the village. I fully understood the term “gentle giant” after I met her. When I put my hand on her trunk and told her my name, she stared right back at me with her gold and gray eyes. I fell in love with her right away. And she is ticklish!

Jason had Maemari to himself. She is 25 and significantly smaller in size than Mae Come Hpo, but right now she is 3-4 months pregnant!  Did you know that an elephant can only get pregnant every 4-5 months, and when they DO get pregnant, their pregnancy lasts between 18-24 months? I didn`t know any of that and I was amazed. I quickly realized I knew so little about elephants before my visit.

Listening for the baby’s heartbeat…I didn’t hear it.

Elephant Fun Fact #1: Trainers can predict that the baby will be a boy if the mama elephant is pregnant for longer than 20 months.

Elephant Fun Fact #2: If a male elephant doesn`t have large tusks, then the lady elephants are more likely to get with him because it means he will be a gentle elephant lover. One tusk-less elephant in the village has fathered 40 babies already!

Elephant Fun Fact #3: If you spend only one week with an elephant and come back to visit her a year later, she will remember you!

To command an elephant in Karen to open her mouth for feeding, you say bon!

After we got acquainted with our elephants, Sun gave us our Karen shirts for the day and sat us down to teach us the many ways to keep elephants happy, healthy, and pregnant. He shared with us the reason his grandfather`s village began this program in the first place. They are fully aware of the elephant tourism industry in Thailand having a negative impact on the animals` physical and mental health. They know it so well because Sun admitted that his village had to send their own elephants and trainers to the city for work to make ends meet for their people.

But then a few years ago, his grandfather made the decision to bring their elephants back. When I asked Sun if the elephants are rescues, he said to me, “I don`t use that word. I say that they are returned.”

The 5 signs of a happy and healthy elephant:
1) Is your elephant`s tail swishing back and forth, and are her ears flapping?

2) Did your elephant sleep while lying down for 4-5 hours last night? If there is dirt on her cheeks and sides then the answer is yes. Elephants are aware of their size and will not lie down unless they know that they are healthy enough to get back up again.

3) Is your elephant crying? I was surprised by this one. When I was feeding my elephant banana after banana I thought she was crying because she was too full or something. Turns out that they were happy tears! Elephants don`t have tear ducts, so constant tears streaming down their face is a sign of good health. Also tears running in different directions down her face, is another indicator that she slept lying down.

4) Is your elephant sweating? Believe it or not, with all that wrinkly skin…elephants only sweat from one place. After Sun let each of us have one guess (I guessed the butt because I am really mature), he told me to look at my elephant`s feet. She was sweating from her toenails! If your elephant is sweating, then she is hydrated. Check again!

5) And lastly, is your elephant eating? A sure sign of a happy and healthy elephant is if she is constantly eating. My elephant weighs 4,500 kg, so just think about how much food she needs to consume to stay full! We constantly were feeding them fruit and leaves throughout the day.

Making herbal medicine to keep our elephants farting
Family photo with our herb balls!

5.5) Is your elephant pooping enough? Because what happens after eating, dear reader? That’s right–pooping! Sun had us get up close and personal with elephant poo. A healthy elephant should be dropping out a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 20 nuggets per poop. Sun showed us what healthy elephant poop looks like–it should be yellow-green, full of water, fibrous, and not smell bad.

Elephant Poop Fun Fact #1: Human poop and dog poop smell way worse than elephant poop.

Once we had thoroughly checked that our elephants were happy, healthy and pregnant, we learned some commands so we could walk our girls downhill to a small stream for drinking and clearing their backs of dirt.

The Karen command for making an elephant follow you is “ma.” So Carson and I kept shouting “ma! ma! ma! ma!” until Mae Come Hpo  trudged down hill. It was actually really difficult to get our elephants to follow the commands, so I was grateful we had a trainer help us move her along.

Gotta brush that dirt off!

After our girls were dirt-free and full of food and water, it was time to learn how to mount an elephant safely for riding. We put on these special sunset orange wrap pants for riding. I was a little nervous to ride Mae Come Hpo because I did’t want to hurt her in any way. But Sun assured me our weight would not harm her. And the purpose of riding our elephant was not just for fun…it was so we could give her exercise and take her to the river for bath time!

So with Sun’s blessing, Carson and I climbed up her trunk, posed for a few pictures, and then squealed because we were about to ride an ELEPHANT on a gorgeous, sunny day through the village.

Sitting atop an elephant was not difficult. As I said, Mae come Hpo is one of the biggest elephants in the village, and we felt entirely safe and secure on her. The challenge was getting her to GO anywhere. She loved to stop in the middle of the path so she could munch on some trees, and then poop. We learned the command for go, which is to shout Hua! in Karen. Yes, when Carson and I did it it sounded like the “Hua!” from Mulan’s Be a Man.

Karen Elephant Trainers for a day
You know you’ve been living in Japan when…


Miss frizzles riding through the water

The command we had down pat though was dee dee. Which means “good job” in Karen. We definitely overused this phrase because it was so fun to say, but I’m sure Mae Come Hpo appreciated all our compliments!

Carson and I eventually made it through the forest on Mae Come Hpo. (We had an elephant trainer with us the whole way.) She brought us to our lunch spot–a picnic table in the shade that had the most scrumptious looking fresh tropical fruit, drum sticks, sticky rice with various fillings wrapped in banana leaves, and thai desserts. It was some of the freshest fruit I’ve had in all my 27 years.

A feast for Karens

Sun told us that we had to eat every last bite, but between the three of us, we still couldn’t finish it all!  I made sure to try one of everything, but I just couldn’t eat one more thing…

and then our clean up crew arrived: Mae Come Hpo and Maemari! We fed them every last crumb, leaf, and fruit rind.

Next up was my favorite part: BATH TIME! We commanded our girl to lie down in the water so we could climb atop her and give her a good scrub. The first thing we did was splash water on her, then we used a special mineral bark found in the forests in Chiang Mai that helps to keep parasites away from her skin. The bark creates a natural lather when mixed with water. After the bark, we scrubbed her clean with a brush…and then came the buckets!

Scrub a dub dub
Mae Come Hpo was so comfy
Just hanging out
Splish splash!
Charlie Bucket heads

I swear there is nothing cuter than an animal getting a bath. We even fed the elephants the bark after bath time. They really can eat anything!

True Life: I’m Standing on an Elephant
Trunk hugs!

After bath time, we climbed back on our girl and trekked back to camp. Carson and I sang the whole way, and Mae Come Hpo flapped her ears back and forth.

We made it back to camp after 3 pm and changed out of our Karen outfits. Then we had to say goodbye to our trainers and elephants. It was sad to say goodbye after such a fun day connecting with them. Fortunately we had a two hour car ride back to Chiang Mai with Sun so we could debrief the day and sing some more Bruno Mars with him.

A Unique Experience
What sets Karen Tribe Native Elephants apart from other compassionate programs that I know about is how they only take a small number of people per visit so we can receive a personalized experience with the elephants. I cannot say enough about how amazing it was knowing that I didn`t have to share Mae Come Hpo with anyone else but Carson.

Dear reader, if you are ever looking for a compassionate and personal elephant encounter, then look no further. Sun and his elephants are it. You will be treated like family. It’s not right to call this tourism…it’s so much different than that.

I loved my time with Sun and the other Karens so much that I went back for a homestay on my final night in Thailand. I could write a whole second blog about the experience,  but I’ll save it for another time. But I will say that I got to see Mae Come Hpo and Maemari again.

Elephants are more beautiful, sensitive, thoughtful, and loving than I ever could have imagined. Thank you, Sun for everything you gave to us. I cannot wait to return some day.


3 thoughts on “An Elephant Experience of a Lifetime”

  1. I absolutely love this Becca! The photos are gorgeous (especially the 6th from the top) and from reading this, I realize I know very little about elephants (although now I am more informed, thanks!). :) It sounds like you had an incredible experience, and I’m really looking forward to hearing about your homestay! One day, I would love to do this as well, it’s on my bucket list!

    1. Thank you, Karen! I’ll definitely be writing about my homestay. If you go to Thailand and do this I am sure the Karen people will be happy to meet another Karen! :)

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