At first she was about 50 meters away from me, but distance did not diminish just how big of a creature I could see she was upon first sight. On a travel adventure myself, the first time I came in close contact with an unchained elephant was not in Thailand, but in Cambodia.
Before 2011, the nearest I can remember being to a full grown elephant was at a zoo where the elephants were unchained, but enclosed, and metal railings separated me from the dusty herd, who were mostly standing around in the shade of their pen, the object of snapping cameras and shouting children.
Here in Cambodia, however, the elephant encounter was far more surreal. On the outskirts of the jungle and among the ruins of the stone-paved entrance to the magnificent Angkor Wat, two dark-skinned elephants, royally decorated with a red and gold riding harness and a howdah (the carriage on the elephant’s back that seats riders), ambled down the jungle-y, tree-lined path set among the ancient temples that now attracted thousands of tourists each year.
I first saw these creatures as I stepped out of my Tuk-tuk onto the same dirt path they were walking. I was en route to explore the enormous and crumbling temples, seek the blessing of an orange-robed monk, and clamber up steep temple steps – but I was caught off guard by the sight of the first elephant making her way towards us.
The elephant seemed to walk slowly, one rough, thick leg forward and then the next. It was startling to watch as the hefty animal stepped gracefully in line touting its passengers aboard its tasselled howdah, and flapping its dark grey ears with each step. Atop it’s bowled head sat its hatted mahout in matching garb, legs crossed, casual demeanour, hook in hand.
Today, through the project work we do with our lovely elephants in Thailand, I realize the meaning of the hook, and understand the reason it’s possible for us tiny humans to master the size and strength of such a powerful animal, and bend them to our will, whether for logging, farming, or circus-performing endeavours.
The domesticated elephants we interact with have not been well-trained with the promised rewards of elephant-treats or affection. They have been tortured, starved, and abused in order for their mahouts to be able to control them, to push or pull them, and use the animal for labour or other money-making purposes. The hook is usually used to stab the elephant brutally, right on top of the head, or behind the ears, digging in so deeply into this sensitive part of the elephant’s skin that there is often blood, or … horribly . . . screaming. It’s an awful thing that is done to these intelligent and emotional, and beautiful creatures, and a horrific thing to ever witness.
But back then, before I had learned and asked enough questions about the role that elephants play in Asian culture, it was only amazement that struck me, standing in that dirt path, in the shadows of the sandstone blocks and tangled trees, and watching the approaching elephant. I hurriedly reached for my camera – a natural instinct of most tourists and travellers to snap away at the sudden appearance of the magnificent or unusual. An elephant! Free from chains! Walking “freely” around, decorated and beautiful!
What. A sight. To see.
It was only a few moments of camera-juggling though, before my hands stopped moving just as my feet had.
I realized I was standing directly in her way. The costumed elephant carried on doing what she was trained to do dozens of times each day and circle the ruins with her human cargo. But I just stood there in the path.
I was so close to such a huge animal, tremendous and beautiful and exotic, . . . . and coming right for me. Not too fast, or at all aggressive, but steadily, and on track. In the few seconds it took me to find and fumble for my camera, the animal had gained on me. Not only was she directly in front of me now and approaching, but she was looking me right in the eye.
And what an eye it was. Coppery, and glittery, and sharp. And curious. That’s what I remember. Her eyes were not soft brown, or dull, or mindlessly indifferent to what she saw when she looked my way, some relatively tiny creature standing where she needed to go. I distinctly remember her looking right back into my own eyes and how much hers sparkled with bronze and bright copper. She never slowed her gait or faltered from her trained path, she just looked directly at me as she kept her pace and kept contact with my eyes.
It was one of the seemingly timeless moments one experiences on the road and on our travels. The unexpected moments of connection, or realization that you are in the presence of something incredible.
It wasn’t the sheer size of her that stunned those moments into lasting longer than they were, or knowing there was no wall or railing in between her and I, or that I was blocking the way of a 10-ton free-walking elephant – it was the eye contact. Under thick-skin folds and lashes, were her big, copper-speckled eyes, locking with mine.
It might have only lasted a couple seconds, but have you ever tried to maintain a locked gaze with someone else? A few seconds seems to last for so much longer. It’s challenging and soon becomes uncomfortable or even awkward. You begin to see more than the other person’s coloured iris, intense pupils and feathery lashes. You start to see them.
In those few seconds of my eye-gazing with this beautiful beast, she had gained on me. Flight or fight kicked in and I clumsily scrambled backwards, and to the side of the path, as she continued forward purposefully with heavy steps and walked right past me. I stood at the side, and watched as her huge, thick-skinned body and wide flat feet moved surely along, looming above me.
But then, just as her large head was in line with where I stood, her long, muscled trunk, with coiled wrinkles lining from head to snout, reached out to the right, and swung a long, friendly wave towards me.
It wasn’t the back and forth, casual pendulum swing of a trunk, or an indicator of stressful behaviour like I have often seen since. This was an intentional reach of her trunk to where I was standing, extending her nose to get a good scent of me and what she had been looking at, perhaps hoping for cucumbers or bananas, perhaps just out of curiosity, but most definitely friendly and gentle and interested. It was a gesture hello.
Now, years later, I’ve spent plenty of time with unchained elephants, am more knowledgeable now than I was about the way these animals are domesticated. I better understand how we can interact with elephants more responsibly.
With my groups in Thailand, I can see this clearly. The elephants can give us what we want, which is really just to be around them, in awe of them, in an environment where they live harm-free, and are able to roam freely, indulge in belly rubs, river baths and feast on cucumbers and sugar cane. Where their curious and playful personalities are more forthcoming, and in turn where we can learn more about them.
The mahouts also learn how to better integrate their elephants through educational tourism which supports their families, instead of entertainment tourism that otherwise requires painful and unnecessary suffering for the animals.
Several years ago, when I first travelled to Cambodia and Thailand, elephant rides were abundant. It featured on tourists’ bucket lists: explore the temples, chill out on the islands, and ride the elephants. This year, it was encouraging to see so many advertisements for elephant experiences that boasted “NO RIDING”.
I can’t account for the well-being of all elephants in every elephant sanctuary or tourism attraction, but it’s encouraging to see elephant owners embrace a more humane alternative and become aware of what tourists really want to be a part of when they set out to be up close with an elephant. It’s not an abused elephant, forced into bending the knee for elephant-lovers to climb up on their backs and be ridden in circles. Not at all.
What we really want to see, what will really connect us with these intelligent and social creatures if we have the chance is to just be among them.
It’s to feed them, to walk them, to touch them. It’s to look into their eyes, and feel them looking right back.