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The elephant is a central figure in Thai culture. You see the symbol everywhere. There are currently around 2,700 domesticated elephants in Thailand; there’s another 2000 to 3000 wild elephants. Any white elephant born in the country is automatically gifted to the king’s royal herd.

Choosing the right elephant experience in Thailand can be tricky. Some camps force elephants to perform like circus animals for crowds, something that strikes us as wrong and unnatural. At some camps, chairs are harnessed to the elephants so that tourists can ride. At still other camps, elephant rides are prohibited.

We decided on Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Elephant Centre. Here tourists do ride elephants, but they do so bareback. Upon arriving, we switched into alternative clothing and began our duties as elephant mahouts, or caregivers. After learning six basic commands in Thai, we mounted our elephants for a 30-minute ride through the jungle. It’s a good thing that the ride was short. Elephants’ backs are bony and not all that comfortable! Oh, and did I mention, it was a downpour rain. The path was muddy and slick. I was praying that these 5-ton animals were as sure-footed as they looked! After lunch, we rode them to the river for bath time… and kisses!

From Aidan: Mom and I were riding on an elephant named Superman. He was 13. That’s also my brother’s age. Superman lived up to my expectations. He was the fastest elephant. Overall, I think elephants were a little better than ziplining but not as good as cooking class.

From Nathan: When I first got on my elephant, Suriea, I noticed her skin was very rough and hairy. I found that it was a challenge to balance, but I soon got the hang of it and could command the elephant to go forward, backward, left, and right. I had fun riding my elephant, because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The only part I didn’t like was the rain and bathing the elephants, because I got soaked from the waist down.

Because it was raining, I didn’t bring my camera on the ride.  These photos were taken by the guide.