“You’ll have to jump, she won’t listen to me,” came the inspired words of the mahout. I was somewhat dubious of clearing the space between the rickety platform and the leathery back. The giant eye looked me up and down, and then gave me a mischievous wink. I figured it was only a matter of time before the platform would collapse, so I took my chances. This was my first experience with elephant rides, over a decade ago. Today, visitors to Thailand are no longer required to content themselves as pachyderm passengers with no control.
Beyond those flirty eyelashes are intelligent creatures with their own thoughts, memories and even a sense of humour. These old souls form a unique bond with the mahouts that guide them – and this world is now accessible to visitors of the National Elephant Institute (formerly known as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre), a division of the Forestry Industry Organization, in Lampang. Working with these clever creatures is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most tourists.
Homestays and mahout training courses help people to get closer to elephants and learn more about the mahouts’ way of life. The homestay programme has been going for approximately five years and has become especially popular with foreign visitors. “There are about 100 participants each month coming from the UK, Australia, America and other far away destinations,” says Wilawan Intawong, Homestay Coordinator. Visitors can choose to stay from just one day, up to three days and two nights.
The institute tries to provide each customer with their own elephant for the duration of the programme, however, sometimes guests must share if there is a large group. “There are only 10 elephants in the homestay programme at this time,” says Intawong. “We only use the best trained elephants to ensure the safety of our customers.” The 50 or so elephants at the institute are raised ‘semi-wild’: they work at the centre during the day and are returned to sleep and feed in the jungle at night.
Homestay guests sleep in one of three rustic homestay bungalows, each with three bedrooms – one for the mahout and two for guests to share. The open-air common area and kitchen come together to form an ideal space where the group can cook with the mahout and everyone can get to know each other in the evenings. “We have many guests who say the accommodation is too comfortable,” chuckles Intawong. “They are looking for a rougher experience – but they all have a good time anyway.” Other activities include: watching the mahouts as they make woodcarvings of elephants, visiting the Elephant Hospital, learning how to make elephant dung paper, and participating in the elephant show. “Many homestay participants become repeat customers in following years,” says Intawong, testifying to the quality of the programme.
A slightly different, but equally exciting programme is provided by the Mahout Training School, which was established to train real mahouts – not just tourists. Today, the centre receives significant interest in mahout training from visitors, who can take part in programmes lasting from one day to one month. Mahout trainees sleep at the school and in the jungle with their elephants. The school allows those interested in experiencing the life of mahouts and elephants firsthand to do so in a natural but relatively safe environment. Guests not only learn how to ride an elephant but also how to care for it. One of the most important aspects of the course is learning elephant behaviours and commands used by the mahouts. Mahout trainees learn actual commands in Thai so they can communicate with their charges. Intawong says “It takes about three days to learn all the commands, but putting them into practice might take longer.”
“There are typically two mahouts to each elephant,” says Intawong. The word for ‘mahout’ in Thai is kwaan, and there is a kwaan kaaw (neck mahout) and kwaan theen (foot mahout). She explains, “This dates back from the logging days, when there was one mahout on the elephant’s neck to guide it and another by its feet to coordinate the movement of the timber.”
There are no women mahouts at TECC, and in fact, Intawong has never seen a female mahout at all. She says, “Being a mahout is like being married to the elephant, and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have a [human] family.” Mahouts form a deep bond with their elephants, spending the majority of their lives with them. When the elephants are chained in the jungle at night and one of them cries out, that elephant’s mahout can distinguish its voice from all the others and will go to its aid.
A mahout at the centre for 20 years, 55-year-old Pbun is now working with his third elephant since the age of 15, when he first started training to be a mahout at another village. He says, “I wake up at 5am every day to collect my elephant Tantawan (‘Sunflower’ in Thai) from the jungle and then bathe her.” Tantawan, along with many other elephants at the centre, has the important task of giving rides to tourists and other visitors. She works a few times a day, taking turns with the other elephants and finishing at 3.30pm to head back to the jungle. Mahouts at the centre only get four days off per month to go back to their hometowns. “Being a mahout is fun, but it takes a lot of dedication and true love of your elephant,” says Pbun.
Thai Elephant Conservation Center
KM 28-29 Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway
Hangchat District, Lampang 52190
By Chantana Jasper