Trip Start Nov 30, 2004
Trip End Feb 04, 2005

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Flag of Thailand  , Lampang,
Tuesday, December 14, 2004

"We march from here to there,
and it doesn't matter where...

Remember the Jungle Book?  Just returned from three days in the jungle training to be a mahout, an elephant handler.  The program is available at Thailand's National Elephant Institute.  It's sponsored by the government and promotes the preservation of wild elephants.

We took the early bus from Chiang Mai and arrived about 9:30am, just in time for the elephants taking their morning bath.  I was so excited I got right up front and got sprayed with water.  They follow with a morning show for the audience.  Basically they show how to mount an elephant (no saddle or anything), the basic commands like lying down and show some of the tricks they can do (like pick up logs with their tusks).  After wards, people in the stands can feed bananas and sugar cane to them up close.  It's a little touristy, but creates awareness for the public and provides funding for the care of the elephants.  Many of the elephants were injured by landmines along the Burmese border.  The institute provides them with a safe environment and medical care so they can rehabilitate and maintain some semblance of their lifestyle.  It also protects them from poachers who would kill for their tusks.  At first we thought the elephants were being used in a circus environment.  But it ends up being a great lifestyle when you consider where these elephants came from.

After lunch we change into a loose fitting mahout outfit.  Our first training is at the dung paper factory.  Andy asked if I was really going to participate.  I laughed and said it's just to view.  Wrong!  They actually convert elephant dung into paper by hand and expected us to contribute.  It goes like this:  cleaned -> boiled -> hydrogen oxide added to sanitize -> spun and colored -> softener added -> measured into 1/2 kilo balls -> diluted in water -> spread evenly onto screen -> left to dry.  I just watched.  But really I wanted the full experience so I got down and dirty and had my hands in elephant dung (sanitized!).  Another first and pictures to prove it.

Our next training is with the elephant.  My mahout was named Tet and my elephant was Lukon.  I mounted Lukon right off the bat.  It's a little shocking to be up just like that.  And now I'm looking at the world from 12 feet up.  Then I dismounted.  Tried it from the side and then the front.  Also learned other tricks like walking backwards and doing figure 8's around the trees.  The best way to describe it is like a mechanical bull in first gear wayyy up in the air.

After the pm show, we take the elephants out to the jungle for the night.  It's almost a two-mile trek.  We go along paths, across lakes and through the trees.  Eventually we chain them up for the night and walk back.  It's not that hard staying on the elephants.  But you do use different muscles.  My hips got moved in some different positions.  I'm walking differently now then before.  Upon returning to our hut, we learned how to make Thai food.  The first night it was vegetarian for dinner.  The second it was fish baked over coals.

The next morning we're up at 6:00AM to get the elephants.  Walk to the jungle and ride them back. A little exercise that wakes up everybody for breakfast.  Then the elephants get a bath and assemble for the morning show.  After lunch I actually went back to the elephant dung factory and learn how to do it right.  My paper ended up being really 'lumpy' not smooth.  The second day's training was at the hospital.  We saw the elephants receiving treatment for accidents.  One was found after being trapped by a fallen tree.  Its trunk had become infected so was amputated about mid-length.  Now it needs to be fed by humans in order to survive.  The number of wild Asian elephants in Thailand is pretty low - about 40 if I remember correctly.  So they also practice artificial insemination to help preserve their future.  2PM is the afternoon show.  After wards we train on the elephants again.  We're getting to know them pretty well.  Today when we take the elephants to the jungle, the mahouts command them to stop in the middle of the lake for a bath, with us on them!  It was pretty fun.

My elephant likes to eat.  He's always hungry.  He also likes to walk along the side of the road, even along steep embankments.  That made me a little nervous.  The institute says they match trainees with elephants according to size.  I think they matched us by personality.

The final day, the mahout trainees actually get in the morning show.  I rode Lukon into the arena in front of about 100 people.  We went through all the commands we usually do.  This time, all the other elephants go off to the side and Tet, Lukon and I stay in the center.  Lukon stays center rear while Tet and I walk to the front of the stage and turn around.  Lukon walks towards us, picks up a hat off the ground and gently puts on my head.  It's pretty weird having an elephant trunk wrapped around your head.  But I have to admit, Lukon is pretty adept with his trunk and put it on perfectly.  There was a British film crew filming that performance so it may end up being broadcast somewhere in the UK.

It was an amazing experience, being that close to such a huge animal.  I never had much affinity for elephants before.  But I do now.  They're smart animals and quite nimble too.  You can see the different personalities in each one.  I don't think I've ever bonded with a wild animal before.  And they are still wild.  At one point, a dog came by and barked at Lukon while I was riding him.  He let out one of those roars and jolted to the side.  It took about 3 hours after checkout to finally leave.  Will probably go back again.

Our last day there was part of Chiang Mai Motorcycle Week.  About 200 motorcycles pulled up and visited.  Nothing new for Asia.  What Andy and I didn't expect to see was black leather jackets on Harley Davidsons.

At one of the shows, Andy and I were in the audience wearing our mahout outfits.  A Thai gentleman started talking to us.  He was very friendly and liked practicing his English.  At the end he invited us to stay with him in Bangkok during our next stay there.  We accepted.  His business card had a picture of him in a white military uniform with wings.  We couldn't tell if it was navy or air force.  Being as the writing was all in Thai, we waited until we got back to our hotel to get a translation.  It turns out he works for Parliament.  Don't know where this will lead but looking forward to finding out.  Andy says he just runs into good luck.  So we've ended up riding this train together longer than we expected.

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