Mahout for a Day!

Trip Start Feb 04, 2008
Trip End Jan 19, 2009

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I woke up not knowing anything about what was going on that day - this was the day Debbie had arranged for my, delayed, surprise birthday present. Despite having spent the previous evening trying to guess i really had no clue (partly because Debbie had been lying through her teeth!)

We waited patiently outside our guest house to be picked up at 8.30am. In prompt Thai fashion our ride (a new 10 seater minibus, which was at the time definitely the nicest vehicle we'd traveled in since being away) arrived at 9.30 and we bundled in. I wasn't sure how many other people, if any, would be joining us on our adventure but the truck was full and we were the last in. There was an American guy and his Thai girlfriend, a 'European' couple and a Canadian family - The Robertsons!

I was glad we were not alone, i thought it might be a good opportunity to try and bleed them for a bit of info on our plans for the day as Debbie was still tight lipped (and smirking) and the van was frustratingly inconspicuous.
Fortunately there was no need because as soon as we set off the guide in the front seat turned around - don't panic it was the passenger seat - and told me everything i needed to know.

We were off to the "Elephant nature park" where we would spend the day feeding, washing and generally learning all about the true kings of the jungle. Awesome!

The park was set up in the mid 90's by a woman called Lek who has devoted her life to rescuing and caring for Asian elephants. The elephants at the park, numbering 41 at the moment, have all be saved by Lek herself either from working the streets of Thailand's cities as tourist attractions, from the logging industry ( which is now illegal in Thailand, but not across the border in Myanmar (Burma)) or from general mistreatment by their owners.

The struggle to save these animals, which are ironically one of the most revered, iconised and worshiped in this predominately Buddhist country, is made all the more difficult because the government still classes them as "cattle" and so they are treated the same as cows, sheep and poultry in the eyes of the law. This means that even the horrific treatment endured by some, if not all, of the elephants now at the sanctuary would have been dealt with by a small fine or, more likely, nothing at all!

One of the other major difficulties rising out of this legal classification is that the animals are deemed property and therefore nearly all the elephants in Lek's care she has had to buy with hard cash. Being a charitable organisation and, presumably, elephants not being that cheap the funds necessary are not always available and in several cases
the younger animals in her care are being leased from there owners. It is now a race against time to raised the required money to buy them outright before they reach an age where they are of use either for labour or tourism and they are recalled by their owners - most of whom will put them through the traditional training method of the phajaan, also known as "crushing".
This ancient form of training involves trapping the juvenile animal in a wooden cage and, basically, torturing it for several days until it is subservient. Almost all domestic adult elephants in Thailand (2000 animals, about 4 times the current population in the wild) have been through this process.

Anyway enough of this doom and gloom we had an amazing day which i will tell you all about now.

The rest of the journey, about an hour north from Chiang Mai, was spent watching a National Geographic Documentary filmed at the park, and in one of Thailand's national parks, a couple of years before. It was certainly better than looking out of the windscreen - i think i may finally have figured out who The Stig really is!!

We arrived in a beautiful valley having already driven past dozens of elephants heading out for treks with tourists on their backs, they all looked pretty happy and healthy though.

The sanctuary itself is made up of a small collection of huts for mahouts and volunteers and a main building which serves as kitchen, dining room, classroom, a few more bedrooms, gift shop and most importantly a feeding balcony for the animals.

We arrived and were taken up to the classroom along with a couple of other groups, making about 25 people in total, and given a safety talk and an outline for the day - We would get to feed the elephants, then take them down to the river and help wash them, then feed ourselves (a lot), then watch a documentary and finally go back out and help with the afternoon bathing.

I should mention that in addition to the elephants the sanctuary also houses 10 water buffalo, 31 cats and 47 dogs!! The dogs roam free so that no matter where you put your foot there's always one under it.

We were taken out on to the feeding balcony and our guide talked us through some of the individual histories of the elephants, such as...

Max - the tallest elephant at the park and possibly the tallest elephant on record in Thailand. He is 11' at his shoulder, somewhere between 45 and 70 years old and has been at the park since December 2002.
Max has worked all the jobs that an elephant can, from circus performing, to logging, to trekking and street begging, even as a rental elephant for use at festivals, temples or weddings.
On his way home from working as a street beggar one night, Max was hit by an 18 wheel truck and dragged for 15ft, resulting in a broken right leg and other injuries. The broken leg healed improperly leaving Max with a limp, causing him to walk slower. It was then that Lek and her colleagues found him and singled him out for rescue.

Jokia - born around 1960 in a Karen village on the Thai border with Burma. During her younger years, Jokia worked in the logging trade to support the Karen family who owned her. However, in 1989 the logging ban in Thailand left Jokia unemployed. The owners were left with no source of income and the expense of owning a large animal with a huge appetite was too much. Eventually the family sold her to an illegal logging camp. After a few years Jokia became pregnant. She was forced to work her entire pregnancy. While pulling a large log uphill, wearing heavy logging chains, she gave birth to her baby. It rolled down the hill behind her. She was not allowed to stop working to tend to her newborn, to see if it was alive or not. By the time they returned to the baby, it was dead. After that, Jokia refused to work. She was depressed and heartbroken. The mahout used physical threats, but still she refused. Finally the mahout used his slingshot and shot rocks at her repeatedly until she was blinded in one eye. Jokia became resentful and dangerous. She worked for a few more weeks until her sadness and anger overcame her again. She hit out at her owner. The owner decided a completely blind elephant might be more submissive so he shot her remaining eye with a bow and arrow.
Once completely blind she was forced back to work, but the owner's idea backfired. Jokia became very stubborn. She would swing her trunk at people, and not respond to commands.
When Lek first came across Jokia her body was covered with infected wounds and scars from past beatings. Lek tracked down the owner, who agreed to sell Jokia. After an adjustment period, Jokia grew accustomed to her new surroundings and finally made friends with Mae Perm. Although Jokia will always be in a dark world, she now has a friend to protect and guide her - now the two girls are inseparable.

It's amazing watching the Elephants how obvious their individual personalities are. Even watching for just a few minutes you can spot the greedy ones, the grumpy ones and the jokers.

The Mahouts - each elephant has a Mahout (or trainer) who is with it constantly. The animals even sleep outside their Mahouts hut at night - brought out big baskets, each with an elephants name on, containing bananas, corn, cucumbers and watermelons. The baskets are big! the elephants eat several hundred pounds of food a day.
We were told to make sure we only feed the right animal from the right basket and to hold the fruit out towards the elephant and let it approach us with its trunk - else we were likely to loose an arm or be pulled over the edge of the platform (which has happened before!)
They all approached, they didn't need to be told it was feeding time, and started to feel around with their trunks for the goodies on offer. Debbie and i decided to feed Mae Boon Ma. I tentatively held out about 3 bananas as her giant head came through a gap in the railing and her trunk sniffed them out in an instant. I almost did loose my arm as i didn't let go of the fruit quickly enough and had to use my other hand to extract my arm from her trunk! After that we both quickly go the knack and were soon handing out entire bunches of 20 or so bananas and whole watermelons which were disappearing before our eyes.

Their intelligence and the dexterity of their trunks is amazing. Mae Boon Ma seemed not to be that keen on the cucumbers as she kept dropping them on the floor. To encourage her to eat her greens we started to hide cucumbers in with handfuls of bananas or corn. She would take the lot and somehow roll them up the inside of her trunk, separating out the bits she liked and then let the cucumbers drop to the floor again - all in the space of a couple of seconds, amazing!
After 15 minutes or so with the baskets nearly empty feeding time was degenerating into a bit of a shambles. There were about 7 elephants on our side of the balcony and you had to keep your eyes peeled for wandering trunks trying to grab fruit, or indeed whole baskets, that did not belong to them. At one point Mae Boon Ma managed to get a foot up onto the platform and had to be pushed back, with much shouting and exertion, by her mahout.

Once the frenzy had died down it was time to take the elephants down to the river for one of their several daily washes. Having been warned about never walking amongst them or going down on the ground with out the mahouts present our guide merrily jumped down and lead us across the meadow weaving between the animals without a care in the world. On the platform they had been big, stood next to them they were huge! even the babies who we'd seen frolicking and charging around looking all cute were easily 6' and were presumably weighed in tons rather than kilograms.
When we reached the river we hung back to allow the Elephants to get in and get comfortable. When they had laid down we were allowed to get in and give them 'a good going over' with our buckets and scrubbing brushes. First soaking them with the buckets and then trying to scratch as much of the dried mud from their heads, necks and backs - we had to make sure not to stand on their feet side as they could have easily trampled and drowned up by accident upon getting up.
Debs and i were concentrating our efforts on a particularly grubby elephant, trying to avoid the overly vocal valley girls upstream, when a sudden tide of warm water and bobbing coconut sized 'treats' came floating passed us - i guess we should have seen that coming!

After a few minutes the elephants got up and it was clear that our work was done. We backed off and allowed them to get out of the river... where they promptly flicked dust all over themselves! Honestly, i knew they were intelligent but a sense of humour?
The small ones were the worst, immediately charging into a big mud wallow. They wrestled and fought and trumpeted and fell about. They seemed to be enjoying the audience and where constantly trying to soak their Mahouts in mud or steal their hats.
There was a group of Japanese teens sat on a large log next to the wallow and the young pachyderms were making a game of charging towards them, making them jump up and run a few steps back, only to change direction at the last minute. On one occasion they came so fast the the kids jumped up, turned to run and tripped over their seat sending them sprawling. classic!
Like i said, definitely a sense of humour.

When we'd watched the entertainment and the elephants had cooled themselves off we headed back to the centre for a bite to eat. It was a great buffet lunch and i may have embarrassed myself slightly by taking more than i could carry, let alone eat.
Afterward we went to the TV room and watch a second documentary about the park and the plight of the Asian elephants - some of the details of which i included at the beginning of this, mammoth (geddit?), entry.

Next we took a stroll around the park and waded up the river, accompanied by a small pack of dogs, to see the Mahout and volunteer villages as well as a few elephants who we hadn't seen before. Two of these were not at feeding time due to the fact that they were in season and so had to be chained up.

We returned to the centre and finished the day by heading back down to the river for much more splashing, scrubbing and shenanigans. We even got a big, wet, rubbery kiss goodbye from one of the babies!

It really was an awesome day and certainly one we'll remember for a long time.
Thanks Debs x

(now what can i have up my sleeve...?)

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