There it was in living colour… a surfing elephant.
I believed this to be true, I had seen it on YouTube. Look…
See. Elephants can surf.
That’s why, when Mt Raung, 140km from Denpasar Airport in Bali, inconsiderately decided to spew volcanic ash a few months ago, forcing Virgin Australia to cancel our flights and us to cancel our hotel bookings. Plan B was Phuket Island in Thailand.
Why? It’s got elephants.
And on the strength of internet research, some Mambo-clad jumbos would no doubt be hanging around the beach, swimming trunks at the ready, waiting for the surf to come up. And elephants never forget. So the elephants on the island were certain to know where to find the surf.
But the best laid travel plans can come unstuck. Mother Nature has a way of taking control (remember the volcano).
When you go to a tropical island, something you automatically expect is sunshine. When we arrived on Phuket, the mini-bus driver taking us to the hotel gave us a weather update. He was driving through axle-deep lakes of water washing over the bitumen, squinting hard through the slapping windscreen wipers as they attempted to deal with the sheer volume of rain, falling from the sky in twisting silver cables.
A sun shower, I thought.
“It’s been raining for two weeks,” he said in that understated Thai way which almost always seems like an apology.
Damn. That’ll keep the surfing elephants away from the coast. We might have to go inland to find them. (Note to self: Search where surfing elephants go when not surfing)
The Merlin Hotel at Patong was pleasant enough, but there was “an elephant in the room” … our balcony view of the giant, flashing, neon-lit electric guitar which belonged to the Hard Rock Hotel next door. We even got to hear the rock music for free… for hours.
The next day, we were told that if we wanted to see elephants, we would have to head south of Phuket Town, about an hours’ drive by car, to Siam Safari’s award-winning Sea View Elephant Camp. Makes sense, I thought. The elephants had set up camp where they could see the sea, just in case the surf came up.
Thailand currently has about 2,700 domesticated Asian elephants, living in protected areas and in elephant camps, while an optimistically estimated 2000 to 3000 wild elephants still cling precariously to existence, deep in the tropical jungle. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre’s figure of around 100,000 domesticated elephants which once lived and worked in the former kingdom of Siam in the 1850s, just before their massive decline.
Fifty years later, at the start of the 20th Century, there were only 100,000 elephants inhabiting the whole of Asia, according to estimates by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). But the “human in the room” in the WWF conversation on the fate of Asia’s elephants is that, over the past three generations alone, shrinking habitat and species fragmentation caused by Asia’s massive human population pressures, has seen elephant numbers plummet by 50 per cent.
Today, Asian elephants are still in decline, which is why the establishment and maintenance of elephant camps, reserves and hospitals in Thailand through Royal Thai Government and public support, including tourist dollars, is so important. While debate continues on the merit of keeping elephants in camps as tourist attractions, it’s worth noting that the camps are a relatively safe haven for out-of-work domesticated elephants no longer employed in the logging industry due to injury or age, providing their mahouts and associated families with a home, a job and an income.
The mahouts are men from the Karen hill tribe of northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle region bordering Laos and Myanmar, where the tradition is that an elephant is owned for life. It is part of the family. With a lifespan of more than 70 years, Asian elephants often outlive their masters. When a Karen mahout dies, tribesmen go to great pains to try and ensure that the elephant is happy with its new mahout.
At the elephant camp, we met eight-year-old Poonok, a young two-tonne female who seemed more interested in trying to keep little one-tonne three-year-old Baiyok under control rather than posing for the cameras. Baiyok had all the mannerisms of a giant puppy, fortunately with less of the bounce. But her big, expressive eyes, long, dark eyelashes, cheeky trunk and keen eye for food, kept both her and the children on the tour well entertained.
Departing Phuket Town at 9am, the five-hour tour is well organised, includes a generous buffet lunch and touches on a variety of aspects of traditional Thai life.
On a 30-minute elephant trek through coastal jungle overlooking Kata Beach and Chalong Bay, we rode on 35-year-old Boub, mastered by Mr Lamu, who has been Boub’s mahout for the past five years. Perched in seats high on the elephant’s back, it offers a broad view of the rich green forest canopy, dotted with brilliantly coloured butterflies. Here and there, tree branches are festooned with the sprawling webs of giant orb spiders.
The rolling gait of the elephant is peaceful, and the big, soft pads of their feet are surprisingly quiet. You can hear the forest.
The Siam Safari half-day tour also introduces visitors to traditional Thai rice farming methods, how rubber trees are tapped for sap in the early hours of the morning and the resin made ready for shipment, and how coconut milk is made and coconut oil is distilled by the boiling down of coconut milk and flesh.
There’s also a Thai cooking demonstration, explaining the use of various ingredients and curry pastes. The elephant camp cooking demo was the taste of things to come, inspiring us to sign up for a day-long Thai cooking class at the Phuket Thai Cookery School at Koh Sire, an hours’ drive east of Phuket Town.
Picked up from our hotel at 8.30am, we were taken on a tour of the local Phuket Market, where accompanying Chef James pointed out exotic local fruit, vegetables and spices, big bowls of freshly ground green and red curry paste and coconut flesh being freshly grated.
In an open-air kitchen setting under a broad thatched roof, overlooking the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, Chef James put celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay to shame as he demonstrated how to cook the traditional Thai way. Lovingly, patiently and amusingly, James chopped, simmered, steamed and wok-seared his way through a range of dishes, pointing out the importance of balancing the tastes of salty, sweet and sour and carefully demonstrating the preparation method of each recipe before unleashing his students in the kitchen.
My wife Lee-Anne made Tom Yum Goong (Hot and Sour Prawn Soup), Guaytiew Khua Kai (Saute Chicken with Rice Noodles), Som Tam (Papaya Salad) and the highlight, Kaeng Kiew Warn Kai (Green Curry with Chicken). Cooked the Thai way, quickly and with fresh ingredients, the green curry was the stand-out.
But not to be outdone, Chef James concluded by serving us his previously prepared Khao Niew Mamuang (Mango with Sticky Rice). Subtly sweet, and served with just-picked mango, it was a great ending to a very tasty day.
Click any image to see full size photos and start a slide show.
By the way, I still haven’t met a surfing elephant.
Maybe on the next trip.
Elephant trek –The Siam Safari Nature Tours half-day safari (5 hours, morning departure, hotel transfers) costs 2,300 Baht (about $A92) for adults and 1,500 Baht (about $A60) for children. The tour includes buffet lunch, a 30-minute elephant trek, a ride in a water buffalo-drawn cart, rubber tree tapping, coconut milk and oil making, rice farming, coffee sampling and Thai cooking demonstration.
Cooking school – A day lesson (5 hours, including hotel transfers and meals) at the Phuket Thai Cookery School at Koh Sire costs 2,900 Baht (about $A116) for adults. It includes a tour of Phuket Market and the preparation/tasting of five recipes, including (depending on the daily schedule) Thai Green, Yellow and Mussamun Curries, Papaya Salad, Spicy Minced Chicken Salad and Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup.
All photos by Vincent Ross – All Rights Reserved