As I mentioned in my last post, after a last minute change of plans, I decided to skip Ayutthaya and Sukhothai and head straight to Chiang Mai. I left from Kanchanaburi very early in the morning and once in BKK managed to find tickets for the sleeper train from BKK -> Chiang Mai for the same night. Usually these need to be booked a couple of days ahead but I went there around 10:30 am so there were plenty of seats available.
Since I reached Chiang Mai I did nothing, and I am not exaggerating, for the first 3 days. I found 3 really good cafes one street up from my hostel which served delicious veggie food so I didn’t have to go too far for my basic needs. I’ve been very happy just eating delicious and healthy veg food, drinking smoothies, reading, sleeping and catching up on my blogging. Yesterday though, I decided to go for the Mahout training. According to wikipedia a mahout is a person who rides an elephant.
The only memory I have of being in close proximity to elephants is when I was visiting my cousins in a very small town called Pen in India. There was this giant animal standing in the middle of a tiny road. He was with his trainer and seemed very calm and no one was particularly worried and people were just watching it, patting it and walking away. Me? I was rooted to my spot, I could not go past it (and I needed to if I wanted to get home). I was this tiny little thing, less than 10yrs old, and he was just so big! What if it “lost it ” just as I tried to go past? I could not risk it. After a while, my cousin who had already walked past it, lost his patience, came and grabbed my hand and made me cross the road.
Fast forward 20yrs….Our day started with a 1.5hr drive to a near by village, in a pick up truck converted to a jeep with 2 rows of seats at the back. The back of the jeep was open and there were no seat belts. We were told that the last 30mins of the drive would be slightly bumpy. Slightly bumpy! Ha. More appropriate would be to tell us that there would be no roads at all. It was more like off-roading at the back of an open jeep with no seat belts on! And yeah, we were going uphill. But somehow we found humour in this drive and ended up laughing throughout the “slightly bumpy” drive.
After we stopped, we had a quick 10min walk down to the village and we could already hear the elephants trumpeting. Our guide, who was the owner of the center and trained the elephants himself, told us that the animals are letting us know that they know of our approach. When we came to the clearing we could see them wagging their tail and flapping their ears, as they could see their trainer and could smell the bananas that we brought for them! The smallest 2 elephants were actually doing sort of a dance by making an 8 in the air with their head! It was the most incredible welcome to the Mahout Training Center! The first thing we did was to feed the elephants their favourite food, banana and sugar cane, so as to “become friends” with them. When we were preparing their food they stood with the trunks up and mouths open, ready to eat. Lol Feeding them was, well, icky and a bit scary. Scary coz I was wondering what would happen if they closed their massive mouths on my palm and icky coz they have this big slippery and sticky wet tongue that you have to touch when you put food in their mouth. As if that wasn’t enough, the baby elephant gave us a sloppy, muddy, vacuum cleaner type “big suction” kiss on our cheeks! Haha
This baby, the naughtiest one of the lot, loved playing with the trainer. When the trainer got on the baby’s back, he pulled the trainer’s slippers off with his trunk. After a few seconds, he lifted his trunk in the air to return the slippers to the trainer in return for a banana! LOL
Once we befriended the animals we changed into our mahout training clothes, fed them more food and learned the basic commands for our elephants, which we would need for our ride later on. Our guide was very sweet and extremely chatty so he gave us a lot of info on how he started his “family”, the importance of elephants in Thailand, their behaviour and about the life of the mahouts. Apparently, the king of Thailand loves elephants. He is the first one in the world to have started a hospital for them and the animals receive free care/accommodation/medication when they are ill. In the past, warriors used to ride elephants to war which gave them a distinct advantage over their enemies and hence the king is partial to these animals.
The elephants are extremely intelligent and can become very possessive of their mahouts/trainers. For eg, if they see their trainer playing with his dog they will push the trainer (which happened to our guide because of which he ended up with lots of broken ribs). This display of “jealousy” is the reason that most mahouts are single men. If they are seen with their partners it could be very dangerous for the mahouts.
The elephants sleep for around 3hrs a night and eat 10% of their weight in food every day! So Asian elephants who are 3000kgs eat 300kgs of food and drink 200litres of water and African elephants which are much bigger and heavier would eat 500kgs of food!!
It was already lunch time at this point. After a heavy meal of fried spring rolls, Pad Thai, papaya salad (which we made ourselves) and some fresh fruit it was time to go for a ride on the elephants. Now, I’ve heard a lot of stories about why you shouldn’t ride elephants because they are mistreated and tortured. But the training center I went to was different. Our guide, the owner, said he takes the longer process of training the animals. They use no knives or whips to train them, which can take as little as 2 days but make the animals more prone to lashing out unexpectedly. The animals at this centre were trained with….take a guess…..bananas! Lol. It takes 6 months to train them with food and love and gentle treatment but the animals then love you back. Anyways, getting onto the back of the big elephant was scary.
And they are so hairy! Their hair is more like toothbrush bristles and the mahout clothes weren’t thick enough! So after getting used to being so high up and then getting used to feeling like you’ll fall with every step the animal takes, you had to get used to the hair pricking you all over your bottom. But it was incredible to ride on them, see them in their natural habitat, just going for a walk, up rooting bamboo trees with their trunks to feed on it and following their mahouts who were treating them regularly with sugar cane.
After a bit more than an hour the elephants made their way back to the starting point and after we got off it was bath time for them.
First, the animals are left to themselves in the pond as it’s “family time” and no tourists or mahouts are allowed to interfere. There were 5 animals with one family of mama, papa and the baby. The 3 kept playing amongst themselves, splashing water on each other, rolling around in the pond but the other 2 didn’t join in coz they too knew it was family time for the other 3! When this was over the family started playing with the other 2 elephants and the mahouts and only then were we allowed to step in to the pond with them. Turns out it wasn’t just them who would get a wash! We were treated with regular jets of cold water from the baby elephant too!
After this we enjoyed more kisses from the baby, had some fruit and tea, said goodbye to our mahouts and elephants and made our way back to Chiang Mai.
I know this is a long post describing the day in a lot of detail but it was one of the most incredible experiences of this journey. To see these massive animals, displaying so much intelligence, so many emotions and love and to see them treated with so much love and respect was simply heart warming. It’s something that I will never forget and I highly encourage anyone visiting Chiang Mai to go for this training!