It was in 1968 when a squad of US Army soldiers was transported to Cambodia under the cloak of darkness. This was a clandestine operation to gather information on Viet Cong troop movement through a remote mountain region. The mission was also breaking the international law of the day since the United States had not declared war against Cambodia.
The squad was dropped off by helicopter, set up a security perimeter and then awaited orders. The orders never came. Days passed into weeks and finally, into months. The young American soldiers, bored out of their minds, passed the time by cleaning their guns and smoking pot. And they rode elephants.
I know about this secret mission because my friend, Richard, was there. He and a couple of his squad buddies befriended a couple of local Cambodians who owned elephants. Richard always rode the same elephant, which he ended up calling Al. It was a daily ritual for him to get stoned and happily ride his trusty pachyderm pal along the lush mountain trails with an M16 in hand. Months later, the squad was informed that they were pulling out. Richard was going home. He had served his 13 months in the service. As the departing chopper ascended from the jungle, my friend caught one last look of Al. He would never forget about riding his elephant.
More than forty years later, I get my chance. I find myself on top of an Asian elephant for a morning ride up a river valley in Thailand near the Khao Sok National Park. My elephant is one of a dozen that slog through the stream to deliver us to a waterfall a half hour away.
I must interject here to say that my personal rule about riding four-legged beasts is being broken. I have a distrust of doing this unnatural act. I have refused rides on horses, camels, donkeys, even goats—and wisely so. No good can come of such endeavors. But I make an exception today. Richard’s fond memories of riding Al persist in my memory. He said that it was the only thing that kept him sane during his precarious stay in Cambodia. I thought I should give it a go.
My elephant for the day is one of the older ones and also one of the few with tusks. I like him immediately. I’m told to mount a makeshift chair that straddles the elephant’s back and we are soon off. I learn quickly to keep my body balled up rather that spread across the chair at all angles. Once that is mastered, the ride becomes enjoyable.
The journey is slow and methodical, but very pleasant, at least for me. I believe it’s just another day at the office for my elephant. He appears bored and that is certainly understandable. The elephant handler is constantly yelling orders to keep the animal on track. The man holds two sticks, one with a mean looking hook on the end, but they are never used. The verbal commands are all that is needed. I am relieved.
At one point, the handler jumps aboard and rides the head of the elephant talking to him in soft tones between harsh-sounding commands. The guy even swats the stinging horse flies that try to bite the animal. It is good to see the affection, but I can’t help but think that this elephant would rather be free than serve as a beast of burden.
There are wild elephants still wandering Thailand, but their lives must also be arduous. As humans encroach on their natural terrain, the wild elephants are viewed as pests. If they are not captured and tamed, they are eliminated.
I have mixed feelings about this ride. It is a quiet thrill riding upon such wonderful, dexterous animal. But I lament my elephant’s existence. I sense that he does too. Plus, the river habitat upon which we tread is being destroyed with every step. The elephants follow a well-worn path through the river and along it’s banks day after day. This riparian area is an eco disaster because of it.
By trip’s end, the tourists are told that they can buy bananas and feed the animals. I look into my elephant’s eyes and know this is the best part of his day. I buy a basketful and feed my new friend the sweet fruit one by one. He gently grabs the bananas with the end of his trunk and deftly delivers them to his mouth. We soon part ways and like my friend, Richard, I also take one last look. I, too, will always remember riding my elephant.