Khao Yai National Park – Thailand’s oldest and with an excellent reputation worldwide – was used in part for filming of the movie The Beach. I arrive with high expectations and opt to stay at a guesthouse out-of-town and near the entrance to the National Park.
The guesthouse has a resident guide to the National Park known as the “Birdman.” To visit the National Park, I along with seven others climb in the back of an old utility with a canopy for shelter; the Birdman is up front with the driver. The Birdman’s passion for the park’s fauna and flora has no boundaries – Thailand’s answer to Steve Irwin!
The Birdman will suddenly jump out of the utility while still moving, with telescope in one hand, tripod in the other, shouting and pointing to something seen in the surrounding jungle. His ability at spotting the wildlife is incredible; magnificent hornbills with their beautiful colours, elusive deer and my favourite – the gibbon monkeys. The gibbons look so relaxed, chattering excitedly as they swing gracefully through the trees, at times directly above us. Birdman’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and eyesight is impressive, any visit to the park without his presence would pale in comparison.
Just on sunset, while still within the park boundary, a small herd of wild elephants – including a mother with baby – emerge from the jungle to cross the road in front of our vehicle. As we drive slowly past, I feel a little vulnerable in the back of the utility, dwarfed in comparison to these huge beasts, almost close enough to touch.
Incredibly only 100 metres down the road, another small herd of elephants has appeared from the jungle. We stop the vehicle and watch as they spread across the road blocking our progress. I’m stunned at our proximity to these magnificent creatures – I could never have dreamed of such an encounter – especially outside of Africa.
As we soak up the moment, a male from the herd in front of the vehicle stares defiantly in our direction. As if to emphasize its annoyance at our presence, it trumpets loudly. There is little doubt he’s the alpha male, with a striking pair of tusks he’s considerably larger than his peers and now has his ears spread wide to further pronounce his colossal presence.
Suddenly he starts to move in our direction, walking at first before breaking into a trot, his actions – ears flapping and cacophonous trumpeting – displaying complete aggression. The mood amongst us quickly changed, where only seconds before we were gesturing excitedly at the scene before us; the atmosphere was now one of mild panic and fear.
The driver, now uncomfortable with several tonnes of angry elephant heading in our direction, starts reversing the vehicle back down the road. With our attention directed to the rear of the vehicle, we suddenly realise the mother from the initial herd we had passed, had also broken rank and was charging toward us!
The vehicle skidded to a stop. We’d become the meat in an elephant sandwich!
It was like those cartoons you saw when you were a kid; two characters running towards each other and as they continually cut from one to the other, you’re waiting for the big collision.
Strangely, yet understandably we had not noticed a Thai man on a motorcycle beside our now stationary vehicle. We may have felt vulnerable in the vehicle, but it would be terrifying on a motorcycle. He seemed to confirm this by abandoning his bike and literally diving into the back of the utility at our feet, looking up at us with both thanks and fear. I hardly felt like his saviour, as I myself was deliberating whether to exit the vehicle and run into the surrounding jungle, but with less than an hour of daylight remaining, did not seem a wise decision.
The distance between us continued to narrow, the ground shaking from their immense lumbering steps. The air filled with the sounds of their enraged trumpeting competing with the ear-splitting screams and panicked expletives emanating from our vehicle.
Without warning, the driver accelerated towards the bull elephant bearing down from the front. We were playing chicken with a bull elephant! At approximately 2.5 metres high, perhaps 4-5 tonne, and two large long tusks protruding forwards, he was showing neither hesitation nor a reluctance to back down.
The screams and shouting from the back of the vehicle had stopped, that point where fear grips the throat and no sound is possible, our fate seconds from a determination. The distance between us seems too close – adrenaline beating a hole in my chest – my attention is drawn to the tusks looking like giant curved bayonets. With collision imminent, the driver suddenly swerves to the left, and the elephant thunders past us, a blanket of fiery grey close enough to touch, four giant legs each strong enough to cause untold destruction to our vehicle.
Pausing at a safe distance down the road, we babble like kids overdosed on cordial, heart rates off the scale. Incredibly our two aggressors are now calmly inspecting our Thai friend’s discarded motorbike, recent events seemingly already forgotten. As I watch them quietly merge back into the jungle, I question the accuracy behind the old adage – “an elephant never forgets.”
Photo credits: law_keven, the other picture belongs to the author and may not be used without permission.