Wild Elephants Couldn't Drag Us

Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

For once, I'm excited to be woken up.

It's 2:30 in the morning and the quiet flashlight-wielding man outside our tree house has just made my heart beat fast: "Da xiang," he says. "Da xiang."

Dan and I put on our shoes and coats and tiptoe outside onto the moonlit concrete and metal catwalk 30 feet above the jungle floor. The guard is at the end, just over the stream, and he points his big flashlight into the pond. We see them: Wild elephants, the point of our trip to Xishuangbanna.

They're quieter than I expected, prepared by a life of cartoons and circuses to hear them trumpet and stampede all the time. But these three, a family I suppose of a mother and two brothers, quietly stand elephant-ankle-deep in the bend of the creek sucking up water and shifting their great grey weight from one side to the other.

"This is the coolest thing I've ever seen," I think to myself.

The ten or so other tourists, like us staying in small tree house bungalows in an Ewok-village-esque complex, come a few moments later and we all add our small yellow flashlight beams to the guide's big one. Their whispers get so loud that I'm afraid the elephants will run away (one woman even receives and answers a cell phone call--who's calling her at 2:30 in the morning when she's supposedly on vacation?) but they stay. 

The elephants are about 75 feet from our vantage point on the catwalk. The moonlight and the rain-forested hills on either side of the creek make them look small, like toys, when the guard pulls his flashlight beam away.

They mosey closer, onto the stream bank and finally right below us, about 40 feet away, where they start to strip saplings of branches and leaves and scratch their rough grey hides on a large fallen log. Here, you don't really need the flashlights to see them, as the moon is bright enough. We use the flashlights still, as we're trying to catch some photographs. The other tourists get off a few flash photos, which pisses us off but doesn't seem to bother the elephants too much.

Dan and David and I watch them eat and drink and scratch, enraptured.

The other tourists stay about 20 minutes and then go to bed.

The elephants go back to the river and then disappear for a while. We walk down the catwalk the way we hope the elephants have gone, hunting with our flashlights and trying not to think of horror movies as we move in and out of the shadows of the trees. Other than our occasional boot scraping, the only noise in the jungle is the chorus of frogs who squish and croak and burp, sometimes in unison, so loudly I thought I wouldn't be able to sleep earlier.

We see no more elephants on our walk, so we go back to our tree houses just in time to see the elephants reappear. This time, the other tourists stay to watch only about 15 minutes, and then go, leaving us alone with the elephants just before the medium-sized one meandered his way over to where the catwalk met the hill. Dan and David ventured nearly a trunk length away, before a guard came out of the night to say that was close enough.

This time the mother and her two sons (the males have tusks, apparently) stay for hours. The rhythm of the frogs' chorus makes for hypnotic watching. The elephants go between the bank and the river, washing down their late night meal with cold river water, and pausing in the middle for another long scratching session. Dan and I watch them until almost 5 a.m., when we realize we're tired and freezing cold. We fall asleep again, wearing all our clothes and under four blankets, hearing the elephants soft footsteps just under our tree house. One lets out a shrill trumpet just before dawn, and then, they disappear back into the jungle.

Our elephants and our tree house were at the Sanchahe elephant reserve, a park that reportedly has about 20 elephants. Sanchahe is about an hour north of Jinghong, Xishuangbanna's capital, on the road to Kunming. We had staff at a local western-food cafe call to make the reservations for us in the tree houses and spent about two days in the park. Most visitors only come during the day to see the performing, captive elephants who eat bananas and play football, but we're really happy we were able to stay in the reserve and see the wild ones too.
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Where I stayed
Sanchahe Elephant Reserve

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