Trip Start Nov 30, 2004
18Trip End Feb 04, 2005
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 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
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 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
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