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May 18, 2004

Just call me "Mr Mahout"

Within minutes of my meeting Sarah in a cafe, she had asked me, "I'm doing the three day homestay at the Elephant Conservation Centre, riding and working with elephants - it starts on Saturday, want to join me"?

I felt that this was such a strange, unlikely, unexpected opportunity, I couldn't say no. "Sounds great, sign me up"! I laughed.

I came to Lampang fairly randomly. I looked at a map, wanting to go to a less touristy Thai town, and picked out Lampang, two hours from Chiang Mai. In terms of things to do, there were supposed to be a few interesting temples and the Elephant Conservation Centre to visit (I had no idea there was this three day option).

Lampang is a great little town, somewhere that told me how nice a country Thailand probably is - full of night-time life, nice people, odd little markets, cheap food stalls, lovely streets, few other tourists and some wonderful guesthouses along the river. There is, it seemed to me, something special about Thailand, if one can come to a never-heard-of town and still have incredible food, accomodation and smiles.
I am staying at the Boonma guesthouse, a fantastic if strange looking place. Clearly recently built, a small one storey wooden pseudo-Buddhist temple/Thai palace, on stilts, just two rooms above and two below. I am sleeping below, in the cheapo 100 baht room, but I have use of the upstairs main room, to which the posher bedrooms are connected to. This dark wood room is something of a cross between an ancient Thai house and Bruce Wayne's mansion - deers' horns mounted on the walls, odd chests in the corner, photos of important monks behind glass. I wish I had come to Lampang to do something, like write a novel, or prepare an annual report to the directors. It would a wonderful place to sit in beautiful buildings in the heat, think, write, eat nice meals - relax in a way I really feel Chiang Mai was just too crowded to really do.

Yeah, I was relaxing very soon after arriving in the town. Something about very popular places like Chiang Mai, at least the backpacker orientated Thapae Gate area, just set my teeth on edge for some reason. I guess I see all the groups of friends in bars together, and think, "I should be doing that too!", but I don't feel comfortable enough to walk up to the holidaying Brits and introduce myself - "Mind if I join ya? Dan's the name, travelling the game"!
But Lampang is very suited for me.

Coming to one of the appealling cafes by the river, it was empty aside from two other travellers. It's a strange natural law, but in a bar full of travellers, I would have ended up drinking alone - in one with only two other people, I was only expecting it when they asked if I wanted to join them. Missy, from New York, had just finished the three day elephant training experience and had loved it; Sarah, from Bendigo, Australia, was going to start in a few days time. She was travelling for a few weeks in Thailand before heading to Korea to teach English. Not wanting to spend three days with the elephant trainers by herself, and being a naturally sociable person, she asked if I wanted to do it too. It isn't a cheap three days, 4000 baht, about 60 pounds, but, I had to ask myself, when was I next going to be able to work with elephants? I did some financial calculations, and internally oked the expense. Sarah went off to call the centre to book us both in. Wish me luck.


NB Before we go any further, I would like to apologise in advance for the terrible one liner with which I finish this article.

First day - wonder, terror, discomfort, happiness.
It only occurred to me as I was mounting the elephant that I have a strong fear of heights. Why this hadn't seemed an issue beforehand escapes me. As I was a man, the trainers (mahouts) had of course given me one of the biggest elephants, a great momma called Pangcot - I enviously looked down at Sarah's head, several feet beneath mine. To me, Pangcot's face looked like a terribly wrinkled and resigned old woman, only changing her clothes and eating her meals through the goading of the nursing home staff. However, by Thai cultural standards, Pangcot is it seems quite a fetching elephant - very large, a long trunk, five toes on each foot. Sexy.


In case you are curious, one mounts an elephant by shouting the "I'm coming up" command ("Song soong"!), grabbing a chunk of the elephant's loose skin with the left hand and the top of its huge ear with the right. The elephant helpfully cocks its front right leg like a footstool, and I pulled myself up and attempted to get my very inflexible leg over. One rides an elephant sitting on its neck, hands resting on its huge cranium for support, legs secure behind its ears.
Writing the above, it all sounds rather cruel, but while the act of keeping elephants in captivity in general may or may not be cruel to them, the act of riding and climbing aboard seems to discomfort them only as much as I would be from putting on a hat.

For centuries, Thais have trained elephants to help with logging - but now logging with elephants is illegal, in fact all logging is now strictly regulated in Thailand. What to do now with the elephants, who are hunted for both their tusks and the hair on their tails (believed to bring good luck to the eater)? The Centre provides a safe home for them and to keep alive the Thai tradition of training elephants. So the mahouts teach the elephants to carry logs, push logs around with their trunks or with the aid of a harness and chains, drag them behind them. The elephants are also trained to walk along narrow paths, to play musical instruments, and, in a few cases, how to hold paint brushes in their trunks and express themselves through abstract art (500 baht a painting). It is all 30% funded by the government - the rest comes from people like me.
We began our time in the Centre watching the mahouts' regular show - jumping on and off the elephants, getting them to manuever logs, pick up dropped objects with their trunks. The show over, the audience held out sugarcane and bananas for the elephants to snack on. These incredible trunks stretched forward, and the foods were torn out of our hands - even though this was clearly the elephants using a fraction of their strength.
The audience dispersed, and those of us who had signed up for a closer look were assigned steeds. Although, it's hard to think of my elephant as a steed, given that it is unquestionably capable of throwing me off its back and crushing me to pulp with its trunk alone. Perhaps this attitude is part of the reason I am so bad an elephant rider. It is in fact really scary for me to be so high up, with nothing like reins to hold on to - just two soft half domes on the top of Pangcot's head to rest my hands on. Pangcot senses I am terrified, so basically indulges herself, wandering around, tearing apart and eating random plantlife and, when near the drinking tap, soaking both of us in water. I affected a droll expression as again and again she sucked up water into her nose then blasted it over herself (and my face). I am slowly adjusting.


It is amazing how intelligent these creatures are - they are better behaved than many adolescent boys. When it is time to drink, the elephant approaches the drinking tap, turns the small lever 90 degrees with the tip of its trunk, sucks up as much as it wants (including a good amount, in Pangcot's case, to splash around), then switches the tap back off again.

After learning various techniques, we walked the elephants into the forest, where they spend each night, a twenty metre chain keeping them in a fixed area around a solid tree. Each elephant is tied to a different tree every night, so that it always has enough vegetation to munch through.
We retreated to the mahouts' village, which was kind of paradiscal. We were staying in plush wood and cross-hatched straw houses, with hot showers and electric fans, it made me feel happy to be spending all this money if I could live like this for two nights and the mahouts could live like this every night. After some idyllic time to wander around, sit by the little river and relax deeply, the mahouts called us up to join them in some pre-dinner eating and drinking. We hadn't paid for this, this was simply an invitation to their nightly relaxation. On straw mats, a few of them grilled fishes and relentlessly proffered glasses of homemade Thai rice wine. We all sat around - myself; Sarah; a large stubbly Swiss man (Peter), built like the amateur wrestler he was, on a travelling sabatical; his (rather recently met) Thai girlfriend, who was just along to watch rather than ride; and a Japanese man who worked in Bangkok. The mahouts told jokes, the Japanese man translated for everyone, they kept refilling my glass with the violent Thai goodbye water, one brought from his home a tray of spherical mushrooms, with a pot of chili sauce. "One year, one year", he told us. These mushrooms (truffles?) appeared only one season a year, we had come just at the right time - biting into their centre was like biting into cream.
The homestay administrator said, "This is Thai country life, not like what you have seen before, yes"?

It seemed to me at this moment (again) that there is something special about Thailand. The elephant centre was surely a fairly popular tourist destination, these Thai men and women must have seen foreigners come and stay in their "village" week after week. I felt that were this China, Costa Rica, or so many other countries, the flow of two night staying visitors would have dulled any sense of welcome from the people, the relationship would have become utterly commoditised. Yet this felt almost as though we had stumbled on these people in deepest jungle, it felt as if the welcome and happiness was as strong as the day the centre was first founded. It was as if the Thais just contined their lives, and saw foreigners as nothing more and nothing less than welcomed guests.
After the fish, truffles and rice wine, then it was time for the real supper. A group of the Thais, including the girlfriend of Peter (her name was Mam, or as he said, "I call her Mam because she looks after me like me Mam"), cooked up a huge meal of chicken curries, Thai flavoured omelet, minced frog and then a dessert of exquisite fruits. We stayed up and chatted, Mam kindly made some instant coffee for Peter and I, but in the rural darkness, by nine pm the day's riding and eating had exhausted us all and we retreated to our luxury cabins. Right now I am on the verge of sleep before the full day's activities begin at 6am tomorrow. Although this is an expensive experience, there is nothing I can complain about - plus the money is going to a good cause. Night night to you all.


The next day began with aching legs at 6am. My mahout and I collected Pangcot from the forest, gave her a wash in the lake and brought her to the Centre's holding area. Then breakfast, then our training as elephant riders began again.

I was taught a routine of elephant commands. 1) I climbed aboard from the side. 2) Moved my legs to lie in front of Pangcot's ears and told her to lower her head to the ground, and I slid off smoothly. 3) Leapfrog back on to the bowed elephant's head, she stood up again, and I would, terrified, turn myself around until I was back facing forwards and my legs safely secured pushing against Pangcot's ears. There were various other commands, but these first was the only really scary bits for me, the only part where being thrown 12ft to the ground seemed a big possibility.

In retrospect, it wasn't as dangerous as my mild vertigo made it seem - Pangcot had no interest in hurting me or making me fall off. I couldn't help but get philosophical while riding an elephant. There was something so ridiculous about the Thai trainers shouting commands at these intelligent, four or five thousand kilo creatures - were the elephants really intimidated by a man waving a short hooked stick? It seemed to say something about our world, that odd design quirk that allows an organised, ruthless minority to subjugate vast peoples, that allows tiny countries and city states to build empires. Some of it probably was coercion - the elephants were trained and taught that disobediance meant getting their ear tugged with the metal hook at the end of the mahouts' stick - until the connection between the punishment and the stick itself was blurred. The mahouts could drop the stick on the ground and the elephant would pick it up again. Some of it was probably compliance - the elephants accepted the human dictatorship because it brought them food, washing, drinking, medical care. Each afternoon the elephant carried its own chain into the forest, so that the mahout could lock it up for the night. But also, I had flashes that this was also about, well, transendence. We, a crueller, more frantic species were able to boss the elephants around - and they refused to sully their own nature through resistance. In my elephant's eyes I saw glimmers of a being that deep down could not be touched by our shouting, that chose to turn the other cheek rather than plot revenge.
All this philosophising was probably another reason I was so bad an elephant rider. Peter, the most politically incorrect man I've met in quite a while ("Ah, the women are cooking and the men are drinking, as it should be"), seemed to shout like his dominance over his steed was unquestioned. He and I both got the elephant we expected.

Slowly, over the three days, I improved. I learnt to steady myself more and more with my legs, only supporting myself with my hands in patches. I got better at climbing on and off Pangcot, less terrified whenever we plodded unevenly downhill. And it seemed like Pangcot got to like me more. At first she felt a bit reserved around me, like it might be dangerous to come too close, but by the third day, I would come up to her and give her trunk a hug, or pat her vast head, or give her the last of each of my water bottles (she twisted her trunk to face skyward and I poured the water down it). It was a great feeling to see a huge eye looking at me and sense recognition.

Sarah and I also visited the dung factory, where the Centre made the elephants' poo into paper and sold it as souvenirs. We had a chair ride on one of bigger old male elephants around the Centre's grounds. The older elephants weren't suited to be trained for the show, so carried vistors around on strapped in chairs. And, if they had tusks, they were in too much danger from hunters to sleep in the forest, so stayed in the Centre all night.

We also went to the very sad elephant hospital. The staff looked after a baby elephant that was paralysed, pulleys and ropes held it up while it did its best to use its legs. They soaked ointments into the skin of a terribly burnt adult, and treated each morning the front foot of an elephant that had stepped on a land mine. It tugs my heartstrings just to write about the memory of this sad place.

The last morning, us amateur mahouts took part in the show. In front of a mercifully small audience, my mahout helped me through my routine of throwing my stick to the ground and telling Pangcot to pick it up again, jumping on, climbing off, telling Pangcot to walk forwards then backwards. It was the first morning where I felt I was approaching control and calmness over the whole elephant thing, which was a nice place to have got to. The show over, I said a very sad goodbye to my mahout and Pangcot, and went to pack my bags. As I left my room, my mahout neighbours had prepared a huge lunch (chicken soup and sticky rice) and invited me to join them (even though that final day no lunch was included in the course fee). It was a lovely, generous moment and I felt sad to leave these people.

It had been a far more unique, wonderful experience than I had ever expected to find in Thailand's tourist land. The elephant never forgets - and neither would I.

Sarah and I wave farewell.

PS You can see lots more photos on the Centre's own website -
The first photo has Sarah looking back at the camera, the third is me looking rather tense and scared as I leap onto Pangcot's head....

PPS Some of my thoughts re the morality of keeping the elephants in humane captivity versus leaving them in the wild were influenced by the novel "Life of Pi", which has a quite eloquent defence of the former.

Daniel, 18 May 2004, Lampang

Posted by Daniel on May 18, 2004 03:14 PM
Category: Thailand

Well I for one want to know what your going to do about the writing! I hoep you're not going to let one knock-back from the Guardian put you off

Posted by: Richard on May 21, 2004 03:46 AM

well daniel ... "long trunked, 5 toed, sexy elephants" ... dung factories producing elephant "poo paper" ... and "politically incorrect mahouts" receiving their just rewards ...

I am SO with Richard here !!!

You are definitely not the sort to allow the common every day "knock-back" to put you off, so pursue those blind publishers of the world! :)

You have great stories to tell ... !

Posted by: laura on May 21, 2004 12:59 PM

Hey guys, don't worry, am not disheartened, in fact have been hunched over a computer re-editing this very evening... But kicks up the bum to do more work always needed, keep them coming :)

Best, Daniel

Posted by: Daniel on May 22, 2004 11:30 PM

Consultant, n.:
[From con "to defraud, dupe, swindle," or, possibly, French con
(vulgar) "a person of little merit" + sult elliptical form of
"insult."] A tipster disguised as an oracle, especially one who
has learned to decamp at high speed in spite of a large briefcase
and heavy wallet.

Posted by: lipitor on May 26, 2004 07:56 AM
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