San-Poon the Elephant

Standard

The mahout that rides San-Poon the elephant plucks hair from the animal’s tail, which he then weaves together into small black rings using a needle.  Elephant hair is thick and tough, and making the rings must be like braiding plastic.  The mahout keeps the rings he makes in a small bag wrapped around his waist.  At the end of the elephant ride, the mahout turns to the customers, the ones who have just ridden San-Poon across a short span of dry land, and tries to sell them the rings.  The smaller ring, designed for a woman costs 100 baht, and the larger one costs 200.  Elephant hair is said to be good luck, which would lead one to believe that San-Poon himself should be, by the extension of this logic, quite a lucky animal.  He’s the one that grows the hair, after all.

Although I’m told 200 baht is a steep price to pay for an elephant hair ring, the mahout didn’t have much trouble convincing me to buy one.  I rode San-Poon on a hot Monday afternoon in Thailand as part of an adventure package that also included a waterfall and tiger petting.  Of the activities – and nothing against tigers – riding an elephant was surely the thing I looked forward to most.  I was in great spirits.  A pretty female friend of mine rode San-Poon with me, and when the mahout asked if we were married, I quickly blurted out, “Yep!  We haven’t ridden an elephant since our honeymoon!”  My friend gave me a look that told me she was not amused, but I smiled like a fool anyways, because it was a hot day in Thailand and I was on the back of an elephant.

There were things about San-Poon, though, that were difficult to block out.  On the van ride over, a girl from Holland told us she wouldn’t take part in the elephant trekking.  “Do you know what they do to those elephants?” she asked.  It was tough not to think about what she said while San-Poon lumbered along.  There was a large pink hole in the elephant’s forehead, right by where the mahout sat; it was impossible to see from the saddle, and I tried to forget that I’d seen it at all.  San-Poon, in his journey, took us past another elephant as well, and I noticed the metal chains around the elephant’s feet.  It reminded me of when we used to tie someone’s shoelaces together in grade school.

The girl from Holland talked about this.  It’s called Phajaan training – the conditioning a trekking elephant receives in order to break its spirit.  Phajaan training begins when an elephant is young.  It’s typically locked in a small wooden cage where it can’t move.  Later its feet are bound with chains and the chains are pulled by a group of mahouts so that the elephant topples over.  The smart elephants learn to go down quickly.  The stubborn ones go down hard.  Hammers are also used in Phajaan training, to hurt the elephant when it behaves badly.  The elephants are usually hit somewhere on the forehead, around the same place where San-Poon had his big pink gash.

San-Poon has a good 15 years left in his career before he’ll be too old and have to retire.  I smiled the entire time I rode him.  All I kept thinking was, “This is so cool!  I’m on an elephant!”  At the end of the ride, I bought the 200 baht ring from the mahout.  Still trying to pull off the marriage lie, I called my friend “honey.”  I put my arm around her, looked away from San-Poon’s boo-boo, and smiled ear-to-ear like we were the happiest of couples, and everything was fine and dandy.

*

Advertisements

One thought on “San-Poon the Elephant

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s