I am knee-deep in the river giving Memei, a 20-year-old elephant, her daily bath. I am brushing her adorable freckled ears and she seems to be loving the attention. Nu, her mahout (trainer) informs me that each of the pachyderms here at Patara Elephant Farm has his/her own quirks. Memei is afraid of mice!
The elephant, revered in the Buddhist religion as a symbol of protection, has played an important role in Thailand’s history and economy. Centuries ago, royals and warriors rode them in combat against the Burmese. More recently, elephants hauled lumber from Thai jungles. But when the teak exportation business dwindled, many pachyderms and their mahouts became unemployed. Fortunately, they are now finding new careers in “elephant-centric” responsible tourism.
Pat Theerapat, founder of the Patara Elephant Farm, near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, is passionate about the health and happiness of his elephant family and eager to teach us “day owners” as much as possible about their care.
Previously I had only viewed elephants from afar or behind bars. At Patara I found myself literally face to trunk with a family of them. Before the bath, Nu had introduced me to Memei and her daughter Naya. He handed me a basket of sugar cane sticks and bananas and showed me how to feed them. Elephants eat 10 percent of their weight per day, so feeding is an integral part of the bonding experience. At first, being so close to these mammoth creatures was unnerving, especially when Naya playfully wound her trunk around my shoulders to grab a banana. Soon I relaxed. Elephants may be huge, but they have a great deal of dignity and grace.
After the feeding, Nu gave me a leafy branch and instructed me to dust Memei’s coat. Then we ambled down and into a river for bath time. When I’d finished scrubbing every inch of Memei, she thanked me by filling her trunk with water and showering me.
I hope that old adage that “an elephant never forgets” is true. I certainly won’t forget this amazing experience.
After Memei’s “spa treatment,” it was time for mine. When in Thailand you’re never far from a massage—whether you opt for a cheap reflexology foot rub from one of the many street shops, or go for a full Thai massage at a luxury resort.
Thai massage is said to have been created by Shivago Komarpaj, a physician who lived more than 2,500 years ago and was the personal doctor to the Buddha. The series of contortions and stretching movements are patterned on the Asanas of Hatha Yoga. In a traditional Thai body massage, you are given a pair of loose fitting “pajamas” to wear and you lie on a mat on the floor. No oil is used and your usually female masseuse uses most of her tiny body to exert very firm pressure. You might want to learn the expression, “bao bao,” meaning “lighten up a bit.” Your masseuse might hike your legs over your head while she presses her elbow into your hamstrings. Don’t be alarmed when she turns you over and tries to twist you into a sitting pretzel. A Thai massage is more revitalizing than relaxing, but at the end you feel like you’ve had a total body workout.
At the Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre at the Dhara Dhevi Resort, splurge on the Royal Thai Ceremony lasting a blissful three hours and twenty minutes. Starting with a ritual foot washing, your pampering continues with a safflower body scrub, then an herbal bath strewn with fresh jasmine flowers. Next comes a traditional Thai massage and facial acupressure meant to increase circulation and smooth away your worries.
Beware: Thai massages can become addictive.