While normally Christmas is spent with families, either on the beach in Australia, or hiding indoors with the heat cranked in Canada, mine was anything but that, because I spent it at an Elephant rescue camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I had been wanting to go to an elephant camp for a while, but was debating with the costs. A lot of them costed a lot of money just to go watch the elephants, and the ones that were cheap were cheap for a reason; the elephants were treated poorly, and were only there to serve the customers - that's not what I wanted to participate in at all.
Eventually, I looked around, and Tamlee told me about the place that the British bunch went to, called Woody's Elephant Training, and though it was a little expensive for me - I deemed it a Christmas present, and reckoned it was worth it - boy was I right.
I got up early on Wednesday morning and after waiting about a half hour, the van finally came around and collected me. The night before I had purchased a Christmas hat, and to my surprise when I got on the bus, there were three girls who also had them on too - awesome.
We drove for about an hour, and finally arrived at the camp, where we got settled in, and checked the amazing views from the back porch. Over the first hour, we got to know each other's names, learned some history about the camp, and learned the commands for the elephants. We also got dressed in our Mahout clothing, as we would be teaching the elephants as well - which was super awesome.
They're really intelligent creatures, and I say that, because they can speak better Thai than I can. They understand quite a few commands - though we only learned a few, like YoKaa (leg up), Yud (stop) and a few others... I kept mixing up stop for fast, which turned out not to benefit me too well.
We then spent the next hour feeding the elephants, cleaning up after them, and learning to control them. You use a hook on it's head, which doesn't hurt the elephant as long as you're gentle with it. It's important to remember that when the elephant is young, even though nobody wants to hurt it, if it does something bad, it has to be immediately taught that it's behavior is not appropriate via a negative stimulus. It is sad to think of, but in order for them not to be killing people - it's necessary.
After that, we had a great lunch, and got to ride the elephants across the camp. It was actually a lot more scary than you'd think, since they're huge creatures, and as well as they teach you they can be difficult to control. We also learned how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, which was actually a lot easier than I expected.
After we got back, it was time to take the elephants for their baths. The Mahouts lead the elephants into the river, handed us brushes and we followed suit. The water was absolutely freezing at first, but I sucked it up, since it was Christmas, and how many people in the world get this opportunity, right?
Not going to lie, it was a little scary to have the elephants carelessly rolling over in the water, however after staying clear of them, it was a lot of fun. They began sucking water up into their trunks and spraying people, and even stamping their feet, making the entire river boil.
Once they were "clean" we went for a swim with them, where we rode their backs through an incredibly deep pool of water. The elephant seemed to take joy in buckling it's front legs, keeping it's trunk above water, but completely dipping it's head (and us) under. Later on she reared up on her hind legs and I held on for dear life - was very close to falling off. It was a lot of fun, a little painful, and the elephant ended up trumpeting at the end while we were riding her - it was crazy loud.
After that, we said our goodbyes, took a couple pictures, and headed home for the day. Not a bad way to spend Christmas, right?