Being a Mahout With The Chaing Mai Elephants

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Went on a day trip to train elephants with the mahouts. There were 6 of us and it was a lovely group, Drove 1 hour north of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The elephant camp was in a really nice peaceful setting amongst rice fields, hills and jungle. First our guide gave us a talk and then we all changed into the mahout uniform, and we wandered around all the elephants making friends with them all by feeding bunches of bananas and sugar cane. The oldest was 60 and the baby was 3. The baby gave us each a special introduction, one by one we stood next to him and he put out his trunk and blew us kisses on our necks. It really tickled.

Then we took it in turns to go through all the instructions we had learnt on the elephant. To get up I had to say “Songka” and the elephant raised her right leg which I then stepped onto. I gripped the top of her ear with my right hand and the back of her leg with my left. After saying “Soong”, she raises the leg higher, and I hoist myself up onto her back and sit on her neck with my knees behind her ears. To move forward I say “Pai” and kick with both feet (you don’t kick hard at all, it’s more a tap). We were given a stick with a hook on the end which is blunt and they are never hit with them, the hook end is used gently. To turn left the hook is placed by the right ear and given just a small pull to the left, and the right leg gives a small kick and the words “Pe pe pe” are said and she turns. Reverse this to turn right. To stop, the hook is gently placed (never dropped) on top of the head, both legs are squeezed together and I said “How”. To go backwards the hook is placed on the forehead with a small pressure pulling back with the words “toi toi”. When just walking the stick is placed across the head and we place both hands on top of the head to steady ourselves. To get down I say “Songka”, she lifts her right leg, I hold onto the ear, stand on the leg with my right, swing my left over, and drop down. I needed a helping hand to be hoisted up every time as I was the shortest and they are so huge.

We were then all assigned an elephant each and I had the one we had just trained on ‘Bingpo’. We then went for a trek through the jungle for about 1 1/2 hours in a line with the mahouts walking beside us on the ground. This is the elephant’s daily exercise. They eat so much – 200kg of food a day, and they were munching away on everything during the trek, pulling at trees for a snack, and all you could hear was a chorus of “pe pe pe pe” from everyone trying to get their elephants back on track. I was really lucky as Bingpo was so good and happily mooched along, only getting distracted a couple of times. I was laughing my head off at the poor girl in front who had the most stubborn and unruliest pick of the bunch. It was just so amazing to be trekking through the Thailand jungle on these beautiful creatures, and sitting and riding the way the mahouts do on the neck, with the huge ears flapping against my legs amongst breathtaking scenery. Bingpo was such a gorgeous girl – I fell in love with her.

We stopped halfway for a break and the mahouts took them off for a snack, then we continued along tougher terrain of rocks and steep hills of mud, but the elephants took it steady, carefully and methodically choosing their footing and balancing their weight, we just held on tighter with our legs. They were like delicate ballerinas, and far steadier than I could ever be.

When we got back it was bath time, so the elephants got into the mud pool, and we got in too and the mud was up to our thighs. The mahout threw buckets of water over Bingpo and I scrubbed her down with a brush all over and she was loving it. I then climbed onto her back so I could get to her head and neck, she especially loved being brushed behind the ears, then when we were done she stood up with me still attached, so when we got out the mahout just got me to swing my legs over the top of her head, she lowered her head for me and I just jumped off. It was the best day, can’t believe I was up so close and personal with these amazing animals. What a fabulous job the mahouts have.

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