A Less Royal Occasion: Turning 50 on Elephant Back

George celebrated his 50th birthday by driving a bull elephant up a steep mountain to an Aka village.

Not since my good friends, Fred Jenkins, Susan Haines and Salli gave me my surprise 40th birthday have I ever seen such a party as was my 50th.

True, it paled only a bit to the King of Thailand's 69th birthday a week earlier—but he has 19 years on me.

The long boats took us to a Karen Village where we climbed aboard our elephants and began our trek into the mountains—but not before Cassidy got a local fashion lesson.

Cassidy tries on one of the traditional women's hats of the hill tribes.
The day before my birthday we left on a three day trek. We started by taking long boats up the Mei Kong River river.

We climbed atop our elephants and lumbered out of the village. After a few hours we came to the end of the trail, a 10-foot high rock over a creek. In turn our trekkers each stepped off and the mahout led the elephant away so another could get in position. I was the last, and just as I

was stepping off I accidentally gave the signal for the elephant to move. The result was a fall that scraped my shin and broke my wrist. We splinted it with bamboo and continued on, climbing the hot and steep mountain for the next two hours, arriving in a Lahu village at sunset.

We spent the night there with one of the nine hill tribes in northern Thailand perched alongside the border of Burma. I slept out on the bamboo porch, under the stars, and was the first to wake in the gray dawn when the roosters and pigs of the village began their morning calls.

After a brief breakfast and a round of "Good Mornings, and oh yea, Happy Birthday" from our trekking partners, we began my special day with a grueling, torturous steep uphill climb. Several hours and several gallons of sweat later we reached the top. Cool breezes carried the many smells of the forest and repowered us for the downhill climb. We passed through another Lahu village. On one porch an ancient woman in bright colors played a haunting, strange tune on a bamboo flute. Chickens, dogs and pigs scattered as we walked through the village. A young boy played on bamboo stilts.

The Elephant Convoy
Salli is pleased high above the jungle floor on her elephant seat.
The family of the bamboo and thatched hut where we spent our first night prepares an incredibly tasty dinner over the open fire pit inside their home.

Farther down the valley trail we came to a waterfall where most of the crew rinsed off in the cold water before the last part of the trail to a dirt road that led to a wayside where we had lunch.

Because it was my birthday wish, I arranged to hire two elephants for Salli and me, the girls and our French friend, Patricia to make the final trek up the next mountain to the Aka village where we'd spend the night (cost was 800 baht, or $36 US). The rest of our crew took off hiking while our two elephants were prepared. Soon a giant bull, the largest we'd seen, was led by his mahout out into the creek and up to a bridge. His head was placed against the giant teak plank ten feet above the creek, and I was signaled to walk out across his head and neck to the seat. Salli joined me while squealing and hyperventilating, and the mahout deftly climbed aboard his perch on the neck.

With a stern signal our elephant glided backwards, turned and drove up the bank. We waited for the second elephant to load the girls and Patricia, and then rode through the village, across a creek and into the forests. It was a magical moment. The sun was low, the air refreshing, and the forest rich in a million shades of green. Everywhere birds sang, crickets chirped, and beneath us our elephant breathed through his snorkel nose and flapped his ears to cool.

George gets ready for his elephant trek.

This was my birthday! And I'm on a elephant crossing the highland jungles of Northern Thailand--my wife beside me, my children on another elephant behind me--and me with a broken wrist. But heh! You can't have everything.

The trail seemed to end at a wall of trees, vines and giant leaves. Salli whispered to me "Is this the place where they rob us?" No sooner had she said this when the mahout turned to me, motioned to the giant gray neck, and then slid off. I was going to "drive" the elephant.

Broken wrist or not, nothing was going to stop this dream come true, and I painfully scampered across the loose, wiry folds of flesh and took my commanding position—my legs tucked in behind his ears and my one good hand fixed on his head.

It was then I discovered that this circus trick is not as easy as you'd think.

There is nothing to hold on to--good wrists or not--and it's impossible to wrap your legs around a neck as thick as the Alaska Pipeline. Plus you sit on two massive shoulder bones that rise and fall with each step, causing the thick, loose flesh to feel like a rug on a well-waxed floor.

It was also then that I discovered the trail. No wonder we couldn't see it. It was only a few feet wide and it went straight up--and it was nothing but slippery mud. Before I could tell Salli that there was no way we were going up that the elephant's shoulder muscles began their churning, far below his tree trunk legs lifted and we began up the slope, me desperately chanting "balance, balance..." and Salli cursing like a sailor.

For the next hour we climbed, often times through brush so thick we had to fight our way with hands and feet despite our altitude on top of the elephants. And then the slope became still steeper, the elephants, having to stop and breathe heavy, snaking its truck high to get to the cooler air.

Samantha drives the elephant behind us. With her in the seat are Cassidy and our French friend, Patricia.

At one point we came to a wall, red mud eroded on one side and a very steep cliff on the other, and in between a slippery mound only 18 inches wide. The elephant placed his head against this wall which nearly brought mine face to slime with it too. "There's no way," I said, "unless the elephant is going to use his trunk to wrap around a tree and tow himself up."

But instead the elephant slowly raised his trunk and carefully explored the trail with the precision of Helen Keller reading Braille. And then, apparently satisfied, this giant animal rose, causing us to nearly fall backwards, and climbed that slope like a tractor. When we had made it to the top we turned and watched the second elephant, this one ridden by Samantha in the same way as me, perform the same miracle. While we watched, our breath held, our elephant's ears flapped hard against my legs and deep, powerful breaths exploded out his trunk. And as soon as the second elephant had reached us, our elephant let out an elephantine fart that I'm sure could be heard by most of the villages in the region--followed quickly by the sounds of disgust from our daughters downwind.

We continued up the mountain and finally could see the top. Even the elephant was pleased. We wound through a forest of giant lilacs and soon could see the first thatched roof hut of the village. Our trekking partners were already assembled, as well as a dozen of the village children and women.

Our mahout shouted some orders, slapped the elephant with his stick, and we were suddenly pitched backwards as the elephant slowly sat then sank to his belly. Salli needed help climbing out of the sedan and falling the final five feet. For me it was a bit easier, and as I continued to mumble "hell of a birthday," I unwrapped my legs from the ears and slid down one side to the ground.

Our guide, Utz, was smiling broadly, and as I told him this was the greatest birthday gift of all, he laughed and said there was more to come.

Part II of George's 50th Birthday:

The Aka village was much different than the previous villages: cleaner, happier, more pride and wealth. Perched atop its steep hills, the bamboo and thatched houses were more spacious and home like. Here in this village many of the older people showed the tell-tale rotten purple teeth and gums of beatle nut eaters.

We were shown to the home of the village chief and his attractive wife and children. The others in our party were led to other homes. Several of them gathered with our family on our porch and drank beer and cokes hauled in for the night. As the sun set and first stars filled the skies, Salli and the girls began the gift giving ritual. A remarkable letter documenting the key events of the last 50 years researched and written by Salli's sister, Randy; a great card from their parents; a hoot of a card from my family--and then my actual gift (now remember, we're on a very tight budget, we're living with only our backpacks, we're on a strenuous trek, and I'm impossible to get things for anyway)--it was a forest green t-shirt with large gold letters saying "Long Live His Majesty the King." The best part was they bought this and got a 30 percent discount after the King's birthday.

I whipped off my sweat stained shirt and put it on just as a Utz arrived to lead me into the night. With village children marching along with us, we paraded through the village--me, at two meters (6'6") a giant amongst these small, graceful people. At a clearing a bamboo fire was burning, and through the flames and smoke stood five women dressed in black leggings, dresses and head dresses, all spangled in beads and tin.

George and family, as well as Fiona pose on our porch

I stood for a moment admiring them when Utz explained "for your birthday." At that moment they began their ancient songs and dance, and soon were dragging me in to join. It was so amazing, so very magical that even my broken wrist no longer throbbed and ached. I was actually celebrating my 50th in an ancient ritual, with people from another world, a much different world.

After three dances, swept away by the incredibleness of it all, I was moved to go all the way, to give back to these wonderful people something of lasting value. And so, with the help of Salli, Samantha, Cassidy and our Australian friend, Fiona, we reciprocated and taught them to sing and dance our ancient ritualistic song and dance, the Hokey Pokey.

Aka village women prepare to sing and dance around a bamboo fire for my birthday.
George (he's the taller one) teaches the Hokey Pokey.

Later, with the Milky Way spread across the evening sky and the fire burned to ashes, I sat on that mountain top with a few of the women, mute because we did not share any words, but fulfilled because we'd shared much more--and I marveled at the wonder of my life and the remarkable birthday I'd just had. I know it was not as spectacular as the King's the week before, but I also knew that he could be no more contented and pleased than I was. It was a helluva birthday.

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