Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Olivia Baker
Had I stopped to think about the health and safety aspects of what I was doing, my normal paranoia would have stopped me in my tracks; but rationale and caution seemed no longer relevant.
Koh Samui is a well-known, romantic island broken off from mainland Thailand. I had heard about it being a majestic place; peaceful and relaxing. It is all of those things, but I had never heard about its quirky side: the monkeys that ride on the front of motorcycles with helmets or the local tour guides that plonk random, giant spiders the size of your hand onto you, without asking for permission, so that you can get a closer look. It was this unassuming, but kind, forwardness of the locals that had somehow found me sat on top of an elephant – but not in the metal frame, like other couples sat securely in, but directly on top of the elephant’s head, with no straps or any kind of harness to secure me in place.
The man who was meant to be driving the elephant was sat happily in the seat next to my other half, laughing hysterically as he leaned back and relaxed, resting his crippled foot, which looked as though it had, in fact, experienced some kind of elephant trauma. His smile seemed to be a permanent fixture and he somehow managed to clamber up onto the elephant without any effort and nothing to assist him, despite the limp that seemed to leave his leg as a dead weight.
It was much to his delight to point out the “elephant coconuts” which sat in gigantic, steaming mounds all around the jungle we were touring through. It didn’t take long for us to realise that we weren’t following quite the same path as all of the other tourists; rather we ventured on a free trail of more rugged terrain. Perhaps it was the Samui Slings and Kamikazes that we had been enjoying every night, as we watched trails of giant lanterns that floated like fireflies across the sky, sending wishes of good fortune, that had left us feeling so relaxed and unguarded, but for whatever reason, our caution seemed to have been left behind somewhere else. We waved with goofy grins at the German couple behind us, who looked curiously in our direction, as we headed off into the palms, lurching as the elephant made its way down the rocky embankment to the stream that led to a waterfall up in the distance. It was here that it happened.
The elephant stopped. The little man turned and climbed into the frame, positioning himself between us.
‘You drive!’ the little man said, grinning as he looked at me. I laughed too. He carried on smiling at me. He didn’t move. Suddenly, I realised he was serious. I had never been any good at steering a car, having failed my driving test numerous times, and slightly doubted what my ability to drive an elephant might be like.
‘Go on! Go on!’ he poked me and urged on. It was quite evident that none of the other tourists were being given this same opportunity. I felt rather privileged and found myself clumsily manoeuvring towards the elephant’s head. I draped my legs either side of its ears and was surprised by how prickly and itchy the hairs that covered its scalp were. My stomach lurched slightly as I thought of the parasites that were probably covering its skin, but before I could change my mind and crawl back to my seat, the elephant moved and my body swayed forward. I steadied myself with my hands flat on its forehead and felt relieved that elephant seemed to know where it was going, without me needing to direct it.
I didn’t dare look back or sideways, but just stared straight ahead. The elephant turned and headed up towards the waterfall. As we passed the other tourists who sat safely in their frames, cameras emerged and exclamations of disbelief rang through the trees as we wandered by. The ride was bumpy and on several occasions a foot in a crater between the rocks sent me flying forwards. I kept waiting for the little man to stop the elephant and return to his rightful place at the front, but the laughter behind me and happy conversation carried on for half an hour, until we finally found ourselves at the waterfall. Only then did the little man guide the elephant to a small cliff of rocks and leapt off. I turned slightly to make my way back to the seat.
‘No, no! I take picture!’ the little man beamed. He was handed the video recorder. He looked at it and waved to us, ‘Bye, bye!’ and ran off into the distance. Fortunately, he came back laughing.
‘Only joking! You sit!’ He motioned to my boyfriend to move to the front of the elephant’s head behind me. There we were, neither of us with any idea how to drive the elephant or control it. We were completely at the mercy of our crippled guide, who seemed to take so much delight in our awkwardness and unfamiliarity with the animal. We expected him to take just a quick shot of the two of us: ten minutes passed and we sat, stranded. Neither of us dared to move. At last, the little man returned chuckling to himself and handed us back our camera. I was finally allowed back into the safety of the seat and enjoyed the short ride back to where our journey had begun.
When we returned home, we watched our Koh Samui videos, fondly reminiscing at the beautiful sights. The distinct, cheerful laughter of our Thai friend came onto the audio. We smiled. Then, our mouths dropped as his laughter turned into deep, lustful, groaning noises accompanied by careful close-ups of us on the elephant. Koh Samui: yes, it is a place filled with love of many different kinds.