Vagabond Tales: Swimming with elephants in Thailand

Anyone who has visited Thailand will recognize the word Chang.

The national beer of Thailand, the over sized green bottles are found everywhere from the markets of Chiang Mai to the bars of Bangkok’s Khao San Road. In the Thai language, however, Chang does not mean beer. It means elephant. Hence the ornately drawn white elephant placed prominently on the bottle.

Another Thai word you may be familiar with is the word koh (also spelled ko). Ask anyone who just returned from Thailand about their trip, and they’ll rattle the word off as if they’re trying to remove a hairball.

“Oh the trip was great. We visited Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Lanta, Koh Mak, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui” etc.

Koh, as it turns out, is not the Thai word for hairball, but rather, it is the Thai word for island.
Put the two together, Koh and Chang, and what you are left with is Elephant Island, a nod to the fact that when viewed from the sea, the island appears to have the same profile as an elephant lying down. Therefore, it should come as little surprise that the lush and mountainous island of Koh Chang is one of Thailand’s premier locations for riding elephants.

Though there are many places around the world where you can rest on top of a moving pachyderm, what’s unique about Koh Chang is that it’s the first place I’ve seen where you don’t just get to ride on top of an elephant, but you go swimming with it as well.

Wait. Swimming with an elephant? This sounds dangerous. They’re the largest living land mammal on planet Earth, and you want to go jump into a watering hole with them?Though the idea of a four ton animal treading water in the first place is tough to wrap your head around, there are few experiences more surreal than straddling the neck of a leathery, hairy beast, your hands firmly clinging to a rope which is tenuously wrapped around the elephant’s underbelly, and to have the four-legged monstrosity completely disappear into a puddle of deep brown water.

Of course, these elephants are exceptionally well trained, but nevertheless, it all happens so fast. In one moment you are firmly on dry land bouncing along through the dripping green foliage of the jungle, and in the next you find yourself waist deep in a brown lake straddling one of the largest creatures on Earth which has, suddenly, completely disappeared.

This experience is of course coupled with the fact that an elephant is equipped with a fire hose on its face. Capable of drawing up to four gallons of water into its long, serpentine snout, the elephant will then deposit the massive reservoir of elephant boogers where ever he happens to see fit. The most typical place for it to unleash its hose is its own back in an effort to cool itself down. If you happen to be sitting on the elephants back, however…

Luckily I avoided the experience of being drenched with elephant snot, but this was perhaps my biggest fear going into the expedition. Not falling into the water and getting kicked in the face like any normal person might be wary of, but of being briskly trumpeted by a dual-nostrilled cannon at a speed of about 95 knots.

“She must like you” claimed the mahout, an Indian word for a man in charge of driving the domesticated elephants.

“She usually brings most people back with their hair dripping wet.”

Still seated bareback on top of the gray animal, I trembled with excitement at what had just taken place. Potentially unaware that I was even still sitting on top of her, for her part she had moved on to flapping her small ears and chewing on a soaking wet piece of sugar cane.

This may sound crazy, but if you ever travel to Thailand, do yourself a favor and go swimming with an elephant. A package deal of a mechanical bull, a zoo, and a waterpark, it’s an experience you assuredly will never forget.

Read more of the Vagabond Tales here.