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A Trip to Thailand – Elephant-keeper For a Day, Flying Lanterns Into the Night


I’m bareback and barefoot on the neck of a pregnant elephant named Tip.

Her spiky head hair is piercing my bottom through my borrowed mahout’s pantaloons, which are still soggy from the bath I’ve just given her — or was it the other way around?

I’m riding this pregnant and spunky elephant down a 45 degree grade in the jungle of northern Thailand, and the path goes on and on, down and down, as far as I can see. I’m probably not going to die, but I’m having to work hard to convince my monkey brain otherwise.

I’ve become pretty intimate with this creature in the past few hours. I’ve checked her health (Runny eyes? Good. Sweaty toenails? Check. Nice, moist dung? A big thumbs up). I’ve swept dirt off her back with a leafy branch, I’ve fed her bananas and sugar cane, and more bananas and more sugar cane. I stumbled barefoot and immodestly clothed into a (cold) river pool with questionable sanitary conditions and scrubbed the pebbles from her wrinkly neck so they wouldn’t damage her skin when I rode her later. I doused her repeatedly with a bamboo basket of water, and she repaid the favor by hosing me with her nose. All in fun, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Elephant bathtub

Now I’m stopped at the top of a steep hill, after 30 minutes of climbing up and down a treacherous, rocky, narrow trail, grappling Tip’s rope collar with one increasingly fatigued hand. I’d quickly learned the technique of keeping balance:  lean forward when climbing uphill, lean far back when climbing down. The former is a breeze. The latter is much more challenging, when you have to rely upon wimpy inner thigh strength to keep from sliding off the head of a seven foot tall beast, rolling down a rocky slope and breaking multiple bones, at best (and then being trampled by the rest of the herd, at worst.)

Trust your elephant, they’ve told me. But I don’t trust myself. There is no guarantee that I’m going to pull this off. I thought I was full to the eyeballs with inner strength, but at this moment, I’m closer to absolute panic than I’ve ever been in my life. Tip has mercifully stopped for a taste of the jungle — elephants eat a lot and being pregnant, she seems to need even more frequent snacks.

Tip, not exercising portion control


“Manop,” I call to my elephant’s mahout, “I’m scared.” I realize as I’m saying it that I’ve never spoken these words aloud to anyone. Manop looks surprised. He hasn’t been in my head for the past half hour. “No scare,” he says. “Do this.” He blinks his eyes (One of which is missing – elephant accident???). I do as he instructs, and try to slow my breathing and center my mind. I recall the calm state I was able to achieve when I took my first dive. I thank God, Buddha and Krishna for yoga breathing. I follow the adage “don’t look down.”

I slap Tip’s ears with my feet and say “Bai, bai.” I tilt backwards, breath in and out, focus my vision straight ahead into the middle distance. I’m at a tipping point – literally and emotionally. I will either keep this shit together or I will be a news story.

Not sure how we got pole position….

I’m not writing this from a hospital bed, so yes, I made it to the bottom safely. Of course, I miss my elephant like she was my child, and I can’t wait to ride her or one of her siblings again. Our journey was rewarded by one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The food was excellent, the setting sublime, but the relief at being alive and in one piece is what made it most delicious.

Fresh dragonfruit, sticky rice, other manna I was too exhausted to recount

Linda, Manop & Tip at the end of the trail.

And then we got to meet the babies.

Patara Elephant Farm is a conservation and breeding facility in Chiang Mai, dedicated to the health and preservation of elephants. If you are in northern Thailand and want an authentic, rewarding elephant experience, please look no further. It might have been the most challenging, but it was also the best adventure I’ve ever had in my life. At least until Loy Krathong….


The purpose of being in Thailand with a group of photographers on this particular week was to take part in and capture the events surrounding the annual Loy Krathong/Yee Peng Lantern Festival.

Loy Krathong ceremony at Wat Chedi Luang

Occurring around the middle of November and coinciding with the full moon (!), Loy Krathong and Yee Peng are rituals intended to give blessings to Buddha, to cast off bad luck, and to wish for good fortune in the year to come. The festivals are observed with the release of floating or flaming lanterns, the festooning of temples, houses and businesses with candles, and fireworks popping from dusk ’til dawn.

The celebrations take place over several days throughout Thailand, but are most spectacularly observed in the city of Chiang Mai. Here, you can watch the “Khom Loy” — large rice paper lanterns — rising above the city every night before the full moon. The beginning of the week sees a smattering of happy lights, which grows in number every day until the festival, when hundreds of lanterns drift across the horizon into the dark sky, each one a floating wish.

Khom Loy, ready to fly

Our group — photographers, instructors and my fella, who I was lucky to have with me on this journey — would be going to the Coachella of lantern festivals — the Mae Jo launch, where thousands of lanterns are released simultaneously in one starry mass. It seemed well worth the tricky ride, long walk and  hours of wait on the crowded grounds of Mae Jo University, trying to not knock over a friends’ (or stranger’s) tripod, sustaining ones’ self with pork balls and chili-squid potato chips.

Pork balls, which are balls of ground pork, not the other things

Lanna Kathina Ceremony at Mae Jo


We’d practiced all week with our cameras. Shooting a field and sky full of brightly-lit lanterns against a black sky amidst chaotic movement would be a challenge — not to mention the additional hazard of waist-level torches and occasional (unintentional) combustion of four-foot tubes of rice paper lit with a kerosene-soaked fuse.

Setting afloat a Khom Loy takes a bit of care. It’s at least a two-person job, and you need to protect the paper skin from the fuel cell until the “balloon” fills with air. When it starts to tug at your fingers like it wants to set sail — that’s still too soon. Your lantern might float for a few feet, but then it will tip precariously, the flame will lick the paper, and the whole thing, including your accompanying wishes, one supposes, ends up as flaming embers in a nearby tree or photographer’s hair.

Like riding an elephant, balance is required — another tipping point, between lofty wishes and a disappointing flameout. The moment to release is when the wire frame starts to get uncomfortably warm and the lantern billows and bobs like a balloon, which is probably how long it will take for you to get that wish just right before you set it to sail into the night.

Of course, my fellow shooters and I were also trying to find the balance between getting the perfect capture and being present in the experience. In the end, I think we all managed to achieve both. It was both moving and meditative, being preceded by a long period of chanting and prayer by the assembled monks, and exuberant and life-affirming, with even more moments of hopefulness and joy than there were lanterns in the sky.

I lost and then found my fella in the joyous swirl of the crowd. We had a moment of connectedness below the stellar display, then we sent off our own lantern. Maybe with enough Singha we’ll reveal to each other our hopes for what the next year will bring – and maybe it’s all already in motion.

Like balancing on the back of an elephant, or lighting an equally durable and ephemeral rice paper lantern, life also has its tipping points. Small moments occur every day — how much of this do you need (Work? Money? Attention?) and how much of that are you willing to let go (Bad relationships? Self-recrimination? Denial?). Larger moments sometimes require leaning so far forward or tipping so far back that you don’t know if you’ll manage to stay astride, afloat, un-singed.

Perhaps we should try to live like elephants — keep your eyes forward, test the ground before you step, eat healthy, surround yourself with family.


People have asked where my next adventure will take me. I don’t have any “exotic” trips planned, but that doesn’t mean I’m staying put. I find myself on top of another hill, but this time, I’m exhilarated at the possibilities on the road ahead. I will lean back, take a deep breath, and step surely onto the path. I trust my elephant.


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