Elephants. Laughs. Connection.

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Every once in a while, you set out to do something, with certain expectations, but the experience turns out to be something quite special, something much more unexpected.

I wanted to spend time with elephants. Something about these giant beasts that fascinates me and makes me want to watch them for hours. I knew that elephant rides were popular in Northern Thailand, but I wanted more than an elephant ride, or to see them in a zoo. After a little digging, I found a place where I could spend a few days with them, to learn more about them, and also to see what a mahout does.

One important thing for me is that the elephants are being treated well, and are genuinely cared for. I know it’s not easy to locate such outfits, for let’s not kid ourselves, dodgy operators exist, not to mention illegal poaching activities still a reality. Some elephants do get abused, or sold as street walkers to perform stupid tricks. Having said that, good operators do exist, and these camps are an important part of the tourism industry, and part of the income does go towards ensuring the welfare, health and the continued growth of the elephants as well as the mahouts and their families.

I found this program via a volunteering agency that have supposedly done their due diligence. I do hope so.

People first

Once I booked into the program, a chap named Noom came to see me, to explain a few things about the program. Noom is outgoing, friendly, smart and has a great sense of humour, and we got along right from the start. An ex-monk (12 years) turned tour agent, he has a deeply spiritual side, and we would often launch into discussions about spirituality and teachings of the Buddha, or the meaning of life, for that matter. I think that’s his calling, to spread the word so to speak. I think he might have been somewhat surprised that although I am not a Buddhist, I do practise, whenever conscious, mindfulness, acceptance, living in the moment and other such things. He refers to the concept of merit, the past life, and the next life etc. I told him I am undecided about the past life/next life thing. After all, aren’t we supposed to live in the moment?! I challenged his beliefs at times, but he always stayed gracious and open.

Serious topics aside, Noom is always up for a good laugh. He introduced me to Pat, a funny man with an infectious laugh and the owner of the eco-cabins where I stayed. And Wan, Pat’s right hand superman who takes himself far too unseriously 🙂 I was the only guest in the property for the first five nights, so they had time and we shared dinners and many good laughs. We joked (a lot), barbecued (a little), and drank Thai whisky (a lot).

Pat speaks fluent French, having lived and worked in Montpellier for years. Understandably, most of his customers are French. He was always apologising for his bad English, but with Noom’s help, Pat’s limited English plus my limited Thai worked a treat.

The last night I was there, Pat had a group of thirty three guests from France. He invited me to join them for dinner. Limited communication aside, it was a fun night with a lot of food, music, hill tribe dancing, Johnny Walker (yay!) and it was nice to get into a bit of a party mode. The thirty three Parisians all work for the same multinational company, Veolia. Apparently, large French companies periodically organise, and subsidise, trips for their staff. This time, they are spending ten days in Thailand. The program for the following day would be to get down and dirty and experience the traditional rice farming method!

Orientation

I got to the camp and was given this outfit. OK. I put it on. I looked like a ridiculous tourist with a hill tribe costume. Then the instructor came, and there were other tourists there doing the same thing, but only I was crazy enough to want to stay for a week.

Getting on and off an elephant is technically speaking not difficult. There are basically three ways to do it.

Method 1: Grab the top part of the elephant’s ear with your right hand, grab a bit of skin with your left hand, say sung (lift), step on the elephant’s leg and crawl on top. Reality: the elephant may not want to lift her leg, or she may not lift it high enough so you’d be scrambling to get on top while trying not to fall off.

Method 2: Stand in front of the elephant and tell her to lower her head. Step on the trunk and as she lifts, get on her back and swing round. Piece of cake, right? Reality: depending on the elephant, she could swing real high i.e. real scary, and you could be sitting with your back to the front of the elephant, and have difficulty swinging round, since she’ll be moving pretty much straight away.

Method 3: My favourite. Tell the elephant to sit down. Then grab ear and skin and hop over. That’s the easiest but she might not always sit (more like a half-way sit meaning it’s kinda high for you to climb over) or sit for long enough for you to get on! Thank goodness the mahout is always there to help, ‘cos frankly, the elephant only really listens to the mahout. Sometimes they listen to you, but hey, it takes time to build a “relationship” with the elephant so I guess I can’t just turn up and command her to do this or that? Plus I think it’s the accent. I mean, when the mahout gives commands, the commands sound like grunts. Only after a couple of days did I realise they were actual words.

Next comes the commands like stop, turn, go, reverse (all combined with some form of kicking, nudging or moving your bottom). So, in addition to the raise leg, lower head and sit down commands, there are only really seven commands in total. Easy to grasp in principle.

Riding an elephant

The most stable, least wobbly bit is the neck so you’d want to sit there. At the beginning it’s kinda scary because you feel like you’ll fall off any minute. There is nothing to hold onto, so you have to balance, go with the rhythm and rock along with the beast. The first day I was shitting myself, and tried to grab hold onto some elephant skin (not much skin on the head!) or lean back when she’s going for the leaves low on the ground. I also tried to hold onto a bit of skin behind me when I got desperate. My body was so tense I got a real good workout, and ended the day with killer abs and sore thighs. I was relieved when I could finally get off the elephant and onto solid ground again.

More elephant riding in the afternoon, but this time through the forest, i.e. up and down and on narrow trails at times. Highlight: going to the river – FUN! I was really looking forward to that. So, together with the other beginners, we hopped on our elephants, and off we went. I was determined to stay on the elephant. No one has ever fallen off and I was not about to be the first one! It got better. I got progressively more relaxed, and did dance to the elephant’s tune a bit. The only challenge now was to stay ON whenever she moves her head around trying to get food, or when she makes sudden moves. The first time I heard her growl (if that is the right word) I was a little concerned, thinking she was pissed off or something, but the mahout said it’s nothing to worry about. I had no choice but to trust him.

De Keu

The next day I got introduced to “my” elephant, Paitoon, baby Dudu, as well as the mahout, De Keu. He is the more senior of the mahouts, and has a quiet and gentle demeanour. I liked him straight away.

De Keu told me he has been a mahout for 20 years. He is a Karen (hill tribe), as are all the other mahouts and staff in the camp. They speak their own language, but also speak Thai, but no English. I pretty much started speaking my very limited Thai straight away after I met De Keu, which made life a lot easier, and fostered a connection with him. He has worked with Paitoon for just over two years and he cares only for Paitoon and since 5 months ago, baby Dudu, as well. I was over the moon to know that I will get to spend all this time with Dudu as well, which is the cutest thing you’ll ever see.

De Keu was always patient with me, and was constantly checking in to see if I was doing ok, asking if I wanted a picture with the elephants, if I wanted a rest etc. One afternoon when I went with the mahouts to the field to “harvest” elephant food, he made sure I was OK, not too tired, not hungry, had enough water, and had a big banana leaf to sit on when I was tired. Honestly, I knew I could say no at any time, and at times I did, but I was prepared to do the work! The last thing I expected was a mahout treating me like a princess. I was a little bit touched. 🙂

Before this, I had never been in a field, never mind cutting crop. It’s hard work, and I have new-found respect for farmers!

Being a mahout is hard work, too, and certainly not an easy life. The hill tribe people are often not educated, and some become mahouts because their fathers were mahouts, or it’s something they can imagine doing. Some do go on to become guides, sometimes illegally at first, or forever, who knows.

A day in the life of

8:00 am: Clean up elephant rest area i.e. pick up poo, place aside for use as fertilizer, sweep, wash hands!!

8.30 am: Give elephants a quick shower (to remove dust from their bodies as they put dust on themselves overnight to protect themselves from insects) and feed elephants.

9:00am: Put seats on elephants and prepare for arrival of tourists for elephant rides.

9:30am-11am: Elephant rides

11am-12pm: Instructions to the tourists who have come for the one-day mahout “course” to learn a little about elephants, how to give commands, get on and off etc

12pm: Lunch

1pm-2:30pm: Elephant rides to the river for playing/bathing

2:30pm-4pm: Break

4pm-6pm: Drive to the fields to get food for the elephants (e.g. corn), load all the crop onto the pick-up truck and bring it back to camp

7pm: Dinner before unloading the truck, feed the elephants and retire for the night

Some elephant facts

  • Pregnancy lasts about 18-22 months. Baby drinks milk/stays with mum for 1.5 years.
  • New borns are around 80kg.
  • Fully grown female around 2.5 tons, male 3.5 tons.
  • Only males have long tusks.
  • Each elephant has one mahout and they form a bond, often for years.
  • The mahouts use a wooden stick with a metal hook at the end for protection and control in an emergency. They sometimes use the wooden end to nudge the elephants.
  • The elephants need about 100 to 150kg of food a day (plant matter, corn, banana, other sweet fruits) hence they are forever eating or trying to get food while walking even though they are being fed.
  • They can run about 20km/hr full speed, but not for long.
  • They can easily carry 300kg on their backs, or pull 1 ton.
  • Asian elephants are around 20% smaller than their African counterparts.
  • There are only around 3,000 wild elephants left in Thailand.
  • 100 years ago there were 300,000 wild elephants. Numbers have declined rapidly from poaching and loss of habitat. This is still a threat.

In an ideal world, I think I would prefer to see these Asian elephants in the wild. Not get close, but just watch from afar, in their natural habitat, which is sadly shrinking at an alarming rate. Having said that, it was also very special to have been able to get close to the elephants, and get to interact with their carers and the others at the camp.

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