BY John Borthwick

Thailand’s urban jungles are full of curious creatures, but the outdoors have even better ones (usually with four legs), not to mention close encounters of the elephant kind.

Elephant Elegance. “These elephants are regarded as Thai government employees,” says Englishman John Roberts, head elephant honcho at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp Resort near Chiang Rai where the chang are on loan from the National Elephant Institute at Lampang. John and a team of Thai mahouts teach guests the basics of riding an elephant bareback, solo. I sample their Mahout Experience course, first learning to gently dig my heel in behind the elephant’s ear, meaning, “go left,” and so on. Other prompts are verbal, such as “bai” (forward) and “sok” (back). With one word in her delicate ear, my elephant, Lawan rolls elegantly forward like a stately ship of the jungle. I slip her in reverse with a confident “sok”, and then back again into forward. Sok and roll!

Elephant Ethics. Scores of tourism operators across the country offer elephant rides, usually a rocking, reeling, rolling ride aboard a wooden howdah seat; however, these are now seen as eventually damaging to the elephant’s spine and progressive resorts have eliminated rides. At Elephant Hills tented camp near Khao Sok National Park the highlights are about getting close-up and almost personal with your elephant, by chopping food and hand-feeding it, and then by hosing and scrubbing Jumbo down. They’ll woof as many pineapples and bananas as you pass to their eager, dexterous trunks. Meanwhile, hosing down an elephant — it’s like a pachyderm car wash — is unexpected fun for both parties.

Elephant Hills Luxury Tented Camp pride themselves on being:

the most responsible and sustainable Soft-Adventure Tour Operator in Southern Thailand. We do not only respect and value our elephants (hence there is no elephant riding at Elephant Hills!), but we also take excellent care of the environment

Buffalo Boys of Chonburi. The humble buffalo is the star of Chonburi’s unique, annual Buffalo Racing Festival. Just getting four kwai to point in the same direction at the start of each race is an event in itself. Then they’re off! Clouds of dust rise as they stampede down the 150-metre course with spindly jockeys hanging onto the haunches of their thundering mounts. The crowd goes crazy. The winning buff gets a bucket of water. So do the losers. The festival is authentically Thai rather than tailored to tourism, with plenty of local music, dancing and food. Beauty contests, of course, for both buffaloes and girls.

Tiger, Tiger, Snoozing Light. The Forest Monastery, aka “Tiger Temple”, in Kanchanaburi Province is the only Buddhist temple in the world where you sign a danger waiver before entering. Here you may pat very large and tranquil (if not tranquillised) tigers that are tended only by skinny Thai teens and perhaps a monk. “Compassion nurtures the world,” is one of the precepts here, and compassion — or it chemical cousin — has the giant moggies in a state of Zonker-like relaxation. I am led over to pat several big cats that hardly acknowledge the attention — for which I’m grateful, because the handler dude seems expert mostly in operating all models of digital cameras. Trophy photo done, I’m outta there.

Pukka Chukkas. “Does the elephant hold the mallet in its trunk?” asked a friend before I departed for Thailand’s annual elephant polo tournament — a perfectly good, dumb farang question. In fact, two people ride the elephant — a Thai mahout and behind him a polo player wielding a two-metre mallet and calling instructions. The Kings Cup Elephant Polo Tournament is a four-day pukka sahib extravaganza, featuring Thais, Brits, Nepalis, Pakistanis, Argentineans and more. The Australians, for instance, distinctly lacking elephants at home, have been known to practice perched on hay bales in the back of utes; the Germans have done likewise, but much more seriously (of course) on Hummvees. Competition between the teams is fierce as the elephants thunder towards the goalmouth — but still the question arises: are the mahouts in cahoots?

Too much monkey business. Never get between a mob of macaques and a free feed. The Lopburi Monkey Festival is strictly for watching, not participating. Each November at an ancient Khmer temple in Lopburi, monks lay out huge feasts of fruit and vegetables. Some 600 macaques from the surrounding forests swarm in like barflies to birthday party. Initially the gluttonous simians are held at bay by stick-wielding monks but once they’re allowed in, they ransack the piles of food, forgetting entirely their hard-learned table etiquette. Meanwhile, if you’re at Prachuap Khiri Khan on the Gulf coast, skip the kleptomaniac macaques that mug tourists on Thammikaram Worawihan temple hill. Keep going south of town to the Thai Air Force base where the Einstein-faced langurs are lovely and perfectly un-larcenous representatives of our forebears.

Elephant Authentics. Thailand’s most authentic chang event is the annual Elephant Roundup in Surin. Here I meet four elderly mahouts, known as kwan chang, quiet, dignified men who are the last tamers of wild elephants. In their youth — several are now octogenarians — they would enter into the jungle “armed” only with magic amulets and tattoos to capture elephants for logging work. Many of their companions did not return from the hazardous quests. With elephant logging phased out some two decades ago, the jumbos are brought together here in Surin each November for a grand and colourful festival.

Jumbo Footnote: You’ll still see young elephants paraded through the tourist zones of Bangkok and elsewhere. The mahout sells over-priced bananas to well-wishers, who feed the animal and then grab a photo opp. The elephant in fact is often an orphan and is further traumatised by the traffic and crowds. Thai animal welfare agencies ask visitors to boycott entirely this form of exploitation.