Felix, all skin and bone and five-stone nothing, is doing a Mowgli with Dodo – big and hairy and four-tonne something. The only thing they have in common is their age.
Now Felix is making quavering “ooah!” noises, and Dodo has sunk on to his terribly huge, terribly wrinkly knees. Boy and beast slide slo-mo into the brown-tinged river with a sickening splash.
Swimming with elephants – it’s meant to be cultural immersion, not muddy river immersion. At least, that is what our hotel’s innovative family programme claimed. Yet this isn’t quite the sort of dolphin equivalent, touchy-feely stuff that I had envisaged.
The side of my brain that deals with logical processing should be reassuring me that our trainer, Pat, is right, and that our elephants are mere gentle giants. Pat’s helper even has a protective arm over Felix. But try telling this to the bundle of mummy neurons, urging me to snatch my son out of the water, give him a quick shake dry, and then leg it back to the hotel.
Not that I’m hating this, or indeed our surroundings – Hang Dong, Chiang Mai’s rural backwater, is a true Joseph’s coat of visual brilliance. Soft green paddy fields marked out with teakwood trees give way to narrow lanes criss-crossed with pink cassia, flappy banana plants, and the dazzling yellow blossoms of Thailand’s national tree, the Golden Shower.
Pat runs his elephant farm from here, a sort of rehab centre for old circus hands, where seven lucky leviathans enjoy some approximation of life in the wild. And we’re the lucky tourists trying out own “life in the wild” experience – learning to be a keeper for a day.
So far, it’s all been “extreme elephant” authentic, from the morning health check – mobile ears, twitchy tail, all good signs apparently; seven firm cannonballs of poo broken open and sniffed – to the arm-aching brush-down and muddy river bath.
And then came the first heart- thumping moment. Bareback riding. No nice basket-weave saddle box. Not even a cushion. Not even a step to hoist us. And high up, too, close to the beast’s stubbly, slopey forehead.
Felix is admirably sanguine, and even I soon settle to what is a slow buttock-pummelling pace, and swiftly appreciate our high-view plod along pretty village lanes. Pat, however, has other plans. “That’s the easy bit done. Now we go off-road,” he says. “Watch out for swinging branches that might hit you in the face. And the last bit gets very steep.”
We have a scribbled list of elephant words on our arms – “pai”, meaning “go”, and the all-important “how!” for stop.
The descent, through tangled branches and sappy plants, many of which seem to serve as the elephants’ equivalent of car sweets, is exhilarating. Silence, apart from the snapping sugar cane twigs, gives way to the whisper of crickets. And then we are in our jungle glade, a village meal of sticky rice and leaf-wrapped bits and bobs all laid out on a banana palm, and Felix is happily shoving leftovers on to Dodo’s mucousy tongue, and urging me to join in.
Later he declared it the best day of his life. But all our days in Thailand had an intensity about them. I had initially wondered whether the Dhara Dhevi – our extraordinary hotel, modelled on an old hill settlement – could fulfil its promise of cultural immersion; my doubts were soon allayed.
The best news is that it can also offer an antidote to adolescent crabbiness. A horribly early morning, after a horribly late night, and Felix had woken in classic grunt mode. So I packed him off to see Kai, a Muay Thai kick-boxer, all pumped-up muscles and souped-up smiles, and gentle, encouraging instruction.
Muay Thai is the country’s hugely popular indigenous sport, and even carries that essential teen element of global cool. And Kai is a professional player, which impressed Felix no end. Kai called out the commands, while his assistant, the exquisitely named Kittipong, took the blows. It was all good fun, and as Felix began to master the jabs, punches and kicks, his sulks changed to smiles.
Time for me to slip away to the spa for my own bit of therapy – a traditional Thai massage. Like our elephants, it offered an extreme-sports version of pampering. Something akin to how I imagine our tabby would feel, doing his “kneading dough” wake-up technique on me.
The next day we planted bundles of green rice shoots in a muddy paddy field, alongside Boonchop, a beautiful albino buffalo, which divides its time between churning up the soil bed and giving children piggy-back rides.
We also sampled a kids’ cookery course – sadly, the inevitable chocolate-based kiddie menu, rather than instruction in noodle cooking – and Chiang Mai’s night market, where I tried to teach Felix the fun of haggling, but gave up in the face of his wallet-brandishing and enthusiasm for tat.
Our last evening, and we visited the Chiang Mai Night Safari. About 20 minutes drive from town, at the Doi Suthep National Park, this is the controversial project of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister. Here, indigenous species share “savannah” space with imported rhinos, giraffe and zebra – all a bit Disney-tacky, but made hilarious by our sweet guide’s bafflingly incomprehensible commentary. It was pure Dr Seuss. “See the weerry beautiful schlerry,” she urged. “Admire his ping nosh.” Pink nose I presume, though what a schlerry is remains a mystery.
Above all, it was this sweetness – in gentle contrast to our full-on elephant experience – this underlying benign Thai ethos, that most affected Felix. Before we left the UK, I had warned him that neatness and tidiness were important for Thai people, and that public displays of bad temper were viewed as temporary insanity.
Felix brushed his hair without prompting. He changed his T-shirts without prompting. And he performed the Thai greeting, the hands-together “wai”, to everyone he met. Even babies.
I also knew Thailand had worked its magic, when he turned to me and said: “Imagine being home… drizzly rain, dirty streets with chewing gum and cigarette butts; people swearing and pushing and shoving.”
Need to know
Audley (01993 838100, www.audleytravel.com) offers a two-week tailor-made trip, including Bangkok, excursions to the national parks, ancient capitals and the far north, with bed and breakfast accommodation and three nights at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, from £2,400pp. The cost includes flights from Heathrow, domestic flights and private transfers. Children’s activities can be booked through the Lanna Kids Club at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai (www.mandarinoriental.com). Elephant Owner for a Day (www.pataraelephantfarm.com) costs £110pp.