Elephants in the mist – training to be a mahout.jpg

Elephants in the mist – training to be a mahout

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Meeting our new friends

It was 5.30am and the mist was rising above the Mekong River, swirling about us in the thick jungle in the pre-dawn light. We toiled up a steep slope when our guide stopped, listened and suggested we leave the path immediately. A moment later, we discovered why, as accompanied by the crashing of tree branches, three huge Asian elephants hurtled past, trumpeting loudly in anticipation of their breakfast.

Somewhat shaken by what we had just witnessed, we followed the three pachyderms down to the elephant camp where their mahouts were waiting with sugar cane and hundreds of bananas for their morning repast.

We were staying at the Anantara Resort, which has an idyllic setting in the Golden Triangle area of Northern Thailand. The hotel, which has huge grounds, mainly jungle, is perched on a ridge overlooking the mighty Mekong with Laos and Myanmar on the opposite side. The far-sighted hotel management, in conjunction with the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, has set up a camp for rescued elephants, complete with accommodation for their mahouts and families. At the time of our visit, there were four full-grown beauties plus a seven year old ‘baby’ in residence.

The first task in our day of Mahout Training was to feed sugar cane and bananas to our chosen elephants – called Yom and Wandi – and begin bonding with them by softly repeating their names. These gentle giants consume around 250 kilograms of food per day! While their mahouts took the two ladies for their morning bath, in the nearby lake, we were taught how to wash and scrub the ‘baby’, called Pluem. This was a hilarious, wet and messy job involving a hose and brushes.

Learning to ride

With our guide acting as translator, we now learned to mount the elephant and sit across its neck. The animal obligingly sits down and you either climb up using its front leg as a step while hanging on to an ear or shin up the trunk! Dismounting is much the same but in reverse. Sliding down the trunk is particularly gratifying.

When the elephant stands up, your first reaction is fear of falling – it’s a long way down – but you soon get the balance, straddled across the neck with your legs tucked behind the enormous ears. Mahouts control elephants through a series of physical movements supported by around 70 verbal commands. It is much more complex than driving a car! To go forwards, we learned to nudge behind both ears with our knees and shout ‘bai’.

To stop, squeeze both knees together and call ‘how’. To turn, nudge with your knee behind the opposite ear and shout ‘baen’. And finally, to make the elephant walk backwards, bellow ‘sock’ while rocking your body and kicking your feet backwards. Verbal commands must be authoritative.

With this lesson complete, our mahouts dismounted from behind us and we went ‘solo’ – fully in charge of Yom and Wandi. It was a magical, heart stopping moment and we successfully steered the elephants through an obstacle course. In reality, they probably could have done even better without us on board, but it was hugely rewarding. It was now mid morning and as elephants are not worked in the hottest part of the day, we rode them back to the hotel for a very late breakfast.

Bath time and jungle exercise

Sue learning to scrub a baby elephant.
Sue learning to scrub a baby elephant.

We returned in the mid afternoon to bathe our elephants in the lake. Hopping up on to their necks seemed quite easy now, but I lost a shoe in the process. With one call from my mahout, Wandi skillfully picked it up and passed it back to me over her head using her trunk.

We were now about to discover just how much elephants love water. They waded quickly up to their middles and then with huge sighs, trunk waving, water blowing and some trumpeting, ‘dunked’ right under – sheer elephant nirvana. However, the unsuspecting trainees now found themselves almost completely under the muddy water, much to everyone’s amusement. The mahouts just stand up on the backs of the beasts, but we hadn’t quite reached that level of dexterity! After 20 minutes of splashing and scrubbing, we returned to the elephant camp for a welcome cup of tea and bananas.

Our last task was perhaps the most gratifying of all. As the sun began to dip in the west, we rode these fantastic animals for almost an hour, with our mahouts giving suitable advice behind us, to the chosen spot for their overnight rest and foraging.

By this time, we were feeling quite at ease with the sedate swaying and occasional pause while the elephants spotted and ate a tasty morsel. Suddenly, Sue’s elephant, the old matriarch Yom, powered her way quickly from the back to the front of the stately procession! She wanted to lead, not follow, and it was a gentle reminder of just who was actually in charge! Our elephants were tethered overnight on gigantic long chains. This was to ensure they didn’t wander too far or destroy too much jungle. They can be incredibly destructive to trees and foliage.

And so, filthy dirty and wet but in blissful high spirits, we walked rather stiffly back to the hotel for a welcome shower and a cold beer.

It was unquestionably one of the happiest days of our lives with every magical moment carved indelibly in our memories. If you visit Northern Thailand, then a mahout training day should be the first item on your agenda.

More information

Details on the beautiful Anantara Hotel and its elephant camp can be found via the internet on www.anantara.com, then clicking on Golden Triangle. For more on the Golden Triangle Asian Elephants themselves, the website www.helpingelephants.org gives a fascinating insight into the work of the camps and the foundation that supports them. We have recently heard that wonderful Yom, who is in her 60s and one of Thailand’s favourite elephants, has retired from active duty but stays in the camp keeping her matriarchal eye on the youngsters.