I met Lori at the famous Hideaway bar in Cave Creek, AZ….to sign my book for her.
She asked about my next ride. I mentioned chasing elephants in Thailand. After a Moscow Mule or two, I agreed to ride a motorcycle through Thailand. Last minute decisions put you in the middle seat next to a baby for 21 hours on a plane. Actually, the baby fared better than me. When fellow adventure riders are ready to roll, you go!
Bangkok is bustling on a Friday evening. This city of 8 million has more motorcycles than automobiles. I stayed in a hostel that my daughter reserved. She was chasing elephants through Asia. Don’t ask.
Six thirty the next morning, I was wide awake. I’m funny that way. Met up with Lori. She turned out to be one of a bunch of adventure riders that have bought my book, Leave Tomorrow (available on Amazon).
On Sunday we caught a flight to Chang Mai to rent motorcycles and ride northern Thailand. Laura, my daughter, informed me that there are 5,000 elephants in Thailand and 2,000 are wild. Wouldn’t it be cool dad if you could find a wild one? That kept weighing on me. That would be cool dad!
Chang Mai was bustling with bikes and rental places. Two motorcycles were readily available at the Toons Motorcycle rental. I wrangled a Honda 500 and she chose the last 300. Lori was a very good rider. Being an adventurist and producer of documentaries, she could ride with one hand and video with the other. That would prove tricky on the Mae Hong Son trail. 1864 curves and over 700 kilometers through northern Thailand. From the city of Hot to Mae Sarieng and on to Mae Hong Son. Then the twisties from Pai to Chang Mai. Lori’s company, How We Roll Productions, documents rides all over the world. She was excited for the challenge.
The first night we ran into a group of riders from Europe that were jealous of our plan of “no” plan. A rider from Croatia almost bolted to join us. He wasn’t so sure about riding with 10 other riders on his tour. Fly to a country, rent a motorcycle, find a map and go. Did you see any wild elephants they asked? No, but we saw a statue of one at a temple. The temple was a sanctuary for monks. A giant gold buddha caught my eye as we sped by. We both decided it was worth the detour for a quick tour. There are 40,000 temples in Thailand. It seems the elephant is revered above all else except Buddha. But you can see an elephant and the message from my daughter kept coming back to me. Find a wild one! It seems that in Thailand the elephant is invited to every wedding, funeral, and birthday. When the elephant dies, the people mourn. Poaching the elephant for Ivory and using it for the tourist trade is big business. In an effort to “protect” the elephant, they capture them and put them in camps or sanctuaries. Tourists love to ride the elephant, pet the elephant, and even bathe and swim with the elephant. The elephant brings good luck. So, with this in mind, we set out to find a wild elephant.
Our travels took us to the Myanmar (Burma) border. At a bridge a border police pointed us to a bridge over the river. We were close to the border. After crossing the bridge, we hit a dirt single track that lead us down a steep hill to another bridge. We’re on street tires now and the trail becomes rocky. We had left a village miles back that had Burmese people called Longnecks. They wore a car spring around their necks to stretch their necks. The women were the only ones brave enough to do this. The men mainly sat around smoking a strange smelling tobacco. Hmm…They did not suggest going any further but said the wild elephant might be near. We looked at each other and Lori said, “Let’s roll”.
As we cascaded and slid down the rocky trail on street bikes, a pack of ravenous dogs greeted us at the bridge. Across the way a lone soldier in fatigues gave us the arm cross that is universal for “Don’t come any closer”. Lori was game but I called her back. The trail ends here for me, wild elephant or not. I turned around and Lori followed but was not happy about turning around. I had never spent the night in a Burmese jail. Lori, well, I didn’t ask. The ravenous dogs were not happy either. They saw dinner, but I wanted none of it.
We regrouped in Pai, a bohemian hippy enclave with open air hookah cafes. Free spirit all the way. Lori fit right in and was tempted to stay. I was ready to go it alone. The massage huts that we enjoyed every evening in every small village made riding a motorcycle stress free. Pia was no exception. Massage parlors and massage tents were everywhere. Chairs line the open-air tents where hands, feet, backs, necks, can be rubbed down. Any one that wants a massage can put down their $15.00 for an hour. If you need money you can give a massage, if your Thai. It’s in their genes. Young and old, male and female walk up and are hired on the spot. I got so many massages, my muscles and bones screamed for a break!
The next morning Lori rides up ready to roll. I had calculated that west of Chang Mai was our best bet to see a wild elephant. A day’s ride and we could be there. As we neared Mae Win, we needed to change vehicles. The elephants are a bit skittish. Our guide was Bom. He was 38 and lived among the elephants all his life. He was “one” with the elephants. We scouted for elephant dung in the late evening and found some 30 minutes old along a creek bed. Bom knows his dung. Out of nowhere, there was a loud bang, sounding like a gunshot. Three elephants go stampeding through the creek right for us. As they raced by, I barely got a picture. I wondered, how would you like to have a saddle on that! I was informed those were camp elephants that are free to roam, but stay nearby because they are fed by the village and have become domesticated. Wild, but not really wild. I had come for a wild elephant and as they headed into the brush, I was glad that was as close as I got. As the big one ran by you could see fear in his eye. Run my friend and don’t look back.
As the debate rages over how to protect the elephant of Thailand, I for one, hope that the 2,000 that are wild will remain that way. The government must protect the elephant from poachers and oversee the captive ones. The truth is always in the middle. But for the people of Thailand that revere and profit from the elephant, some truth will always remain a mystery. For me, I’m glad I made the journey. Lori’s expertise at riding and rolling video made my job easier. Oh, and thanks for a Moscow Mule at the Hideaway bar, which lead to a great adventure!