Riding Miss Muchiba

Umphang Travel Blog

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Muchiba
Yesterday morning my ride pulled up to take me to the songthaew that would take me back to Umphang.  By "ride" I mean elephant.  Named Muchiba.  She was forty years old, and looked pretty damn good for her age.

I've had mixed feelings about the whole riding elephants in Thailand thing.  It's the big tourist attraction and it's available virtually everywhere you go, and for that reason I'm against it.  I don't like the fact that they keep these poor things chained up and treat them like slaves, carting tourists around on jungle joyrides.  I deliberately stayed away from elephants in the south, and had no intention of going near them in Chiang Mai either, where the industry is at its highest.
Forging the river
  I don't want to support people who treat animals that way.

But it does have its draw, and I figured if I were to ride an elephant I'd want to do it somewhere where there wasn't an enormous tourist demand and (in theory) the elephants were treated better.  Muchiba met this criteria and was included in the price of my trek, so when push came to shove my inner animal rights activist took a backseat and I climbed on.

Riding an elephant is unlike anything else.  The best thing I can compare it to is a steep rollercoaster ride, without the safety bar and seatbelts.  I was CLINGING to the seat so I wouldn't be thrown from her every step she took.  I've rode an elephant once before, years ago at the Miami Zoo when I was very small.  My mom took us and we stood in line for ages just to be led around a small circle, and it was like the coolest thing ever.
Poor Muchiba without her elephant beater.
  We loved it.  I don't remember holding on for dear life, but I'm pretty sure we were strapped into the elephant back equivalent of child safety seats.

Anyway.  I wouldn't call Muchiba stubborn, I'd call her overworked.  And exhausted.  And loaded up with gear and her handler straddling her neck and kicking her ears and a funny looking tourist oddly perched in her basket.  I wouldn't want to move very quickly either.  In order to get Muchiba to move, the Thais would yell at her.  Yell.  Thais don't yell.  It startled me.  For the most part it was just her handler, but if Tom happened to be astride he'd chime in too, as well as any of the others (we accumulated a good four or five people along the way, who seemed to materialize out from behind a massive tree, or would suddenly appear on the path out of nowhere) who happened to be around.
  Why are you yelling at her?  It's not like she stopped and started or alternated her speed ever.  It was slow and steady the whole way.  And yet they'd yell and yell and yell.

About twenty minutes in her handler hacked a bamboo reed we passed (everyone in the jungle carries enormous machetes, apparently they're quite useful) and cut off all the little sprigs sprouting off it to make one long rod, a solid meter and a half in length or so.  He'd use it to whack at branches in our way (there's LOTS to smack you in the face when you're up that high -- I think I cleared every spider web out of that jungle with my face) and occasionally thwacked a passing tree trunk, which is supposed to goad the elephant on faster, because they don't like the loud violent noises.
  And then about ten minutes after that he whacked her.  Good and hard with a hideously loud CRACK!  I didn't see it coming.  I was so surprised and horrified I screamed.  Which of course makes him turn around and grin.  And I call down to Tom, why is he hitting her?  "It no hurts, it no hurts. Elephant big animal. No hurts. Only makes go fast."  Uh, dude, I beg to differ.  You cane anything with a reed that size and it's going to hurt.  Especially when you throw your body weight into it and make a crack so loud it sounds like thunder.  Particularly since we've already established HER SPEED DOESN'T CHANGE.  BEATING HER ACCOMPLISHES NOTHING.  

I was beyond upset.  So I ask to get down, and Tom is all "it's ok, it's ok.
"  No, it's not ok.  I don't like that he hit her.  I don't want to be part of that.  But Tom persisted, and the handler didn't hit her again, so I stayed put.

Straining to stay on, lurching with every labored step, the constant yelling and thwacking at tree trunks, it started getting to me.  The novelty was long gone, and I felt like a horrible hypocrite sitting up there putting her through this.  I hated it.  So I asked Tom again to let me down.  I asked something like eight times.  And he kept saying "it's ok, it's ok."  Our paths parted, Tom and the others walking one way and the elephant another, and for a solid twenty or thirty minutes it was just me and Muchiba and the elephant beater.  Who kept yelling and yelling and whacking at tree trunks with a new and improved cane about twice the size of the last, and then started whipping her again.
  I wanted to cry.  I HATED it.

Finally our paths converged again and I pleaded with Tom that I wanted to get down.  And he said "ten more minutes, it's very rocky, very steep; you stay with elephant ten minutes, then ok you get down."  Fine.  Ten minutes went by.  Twelve.  Fifteen.  I was a broken record.  "Can I get down now?  I want to get down.  I want down!"  Then the elephant beater took out his machete and started beating her skull with the flat of the blade.  Are you kidding me?  Finally I snapped and I was like LET ME DOWN!  NOW!  And everything halted and I was set free.

For starters, I could hardly stand up straight my legs were shaking so badly.  I'd been on her for nearly an hour and a half and was holding on as tight as I could with my hands and arms clenched tight, and my feet and legs braced against the sides of the basket.
  It was exhausting, and my muscles, finally allowed to relax, were involuntarily shaking like I was standing on a fault line.  I stumbled around a few paces to try to walk it off, loaded up my gear, and off we went.

The rest of the walk was quite enjoyable.  It was just Tom and I; the others went on ahead while I was climbing off Muchiba, too disgusted with the ridiculous whiny tourist to hang around.  It was just an hour or so, mostly steep downhill, through jagged terrain that was slick and muddy and pockmarked with massive elephant prints (we're talking a foot deep, at least -- the ground was that soft).  

So he and I joked around and goofed off, talking about his baby (not yet born, it's "inside") and what he wanted (a boy -- typical) and what he should name it.
One of the more unstable bridges I've had to cross.
  I suggested Buffalo, which is what we had taken to calling each other, or rather what he'd taken to calling me, having worn the same disgusting shirt for three days, coated with a hitherto unheard of amount of sweat and dirt and sunscreen and jungle goo.  Yuck.
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Muchiba
Muchiba
Forging the river
Forging the river
Poor Muchiba without her elephant …
Poor Muchiba without her elephant…
One of the more unstable bridges I…
One of the more unstable bridges …
Ride back to Umphang.
Ride back to Umphang.
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Refugee village
Refugee village
Refugee village
Refugee village
Refugee village
Refugee village
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Ride back to Mae Sot.
Umphang
photo by: domnicella