Living with Elephants in Thailand

Ok I’ve been copping some flak about my absence from the blog world of late, but in my defense, Wi-Fi in certain parts of the world leaves a little to be desired… and with my ‘spontaneous’ schedule, when I DO get Wi-Fi momentarily, priority usually goes to me organizing somewhere to sleep for the night, or arranging more formal modes of transport than hitchhiking (which as every Australian knows can have somewhat dire consequences #belanglo).

So here I am to make up for lost time and fill in a few of the blanks of the last few months. Let me start in Thailand, at an Elephant Park in Chiang Mai….

I had the wonderful experience of staying here for 3 days as a special treat for my birthday. While I had initially hoped to go to a refuge for Elephants and fulfill some kind of altruistic desire, my lack of Wi-Fi meant I missed the window to secure this spot (next available spot some 3months later!) so I ended up at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) on a 3-day homestay.

While I’m not sure what my experience would have been at the refuge,  I LOVED the experience that I had at TECC and would highly recommend it to anyone who has a soft spot for these amazing creatures.

TECC allows you to spend 3days immersed in the centre, learning about the elephants themselves and the life of the Mahouts – the amazing men who train and care for the elephants. Each spends many years living with their elephant (who often live as long as humans) developing a special bond with their animal, who is not only their means of income, but also part of their family.

TECC allows you to learn the commands associated with directing the elephants, along with the daily care and also teaches much about the practical use of elephants in the Thai countryside. The park invites tourists in each day to also enjoy a glimpse of this world, but as part of the homestay you are literally up close and personal with the animals– even participating in the daily demonstrations. TECC is about teaching the community, rather than ‘performances’, so steers away from any circus like stunts and the elephants generally seem to lead a rather pleasant existence, despite being in ‘captivity’.

The mahout I was assigned to work with, Noot, has been with his elephant Prachuab for the past 9years – a beautiful and spirited 32 year old elephant. She loved the attention and companionship of almost every elephant at the centre, although had a few special relationships and would actively seek these elephants out at every turn.

On the first day we were taught the basic commands of dealing with the elephants and learnt how to climb on (*command to lift leg* and grasp ear as you try to throw your other leg over the top of a ~2meter high animal…. No easy feat, but my mahout was ever patient in giving me the extra boost that was undoubtedly required), climb off  (either by climbing down the same leg, or my personal favourite, sliding down the trunk), sit down, lie down, pick up any item that has been dropped, walk, stop, turn, drink, and drink +spray (which was essential to know in the waterfights that ultimately ensued during bathing times.

Each morning would start with an early rise to collect the elephants from the forest hillside, where they are given relative freedom to roam overnight. Despite ultimately being chained (which I am told was to protect the elephants from any altercations between themselves) they are still given some 50-100mtrs of freedom to roam about at their leisure. The mahouts live in a village nearby with their families and are always on hand should their elephant ‘call for’ them in the night (apparently each trumpet is distinctive, although I failed to recognize the difference in my short stay). After collecting the elephants, they would be brushed down, fed and bathed. Bathing was undoubtedly my favourite time with Prachuab. She LOVED this pastime, especially when allowed to bathe with her closest ‘friends’. I was near deafened on more than one occasion as she bounded into the water to join her best friend Prathida. It always amazed me that one moment I would be atop a 3.8tonne elephant and next would be shoulder deep in water as Prachuab literally disappeared beneath me, sometimes staying underwater for much longer than I though was physically possible.

After the morning bathing we would continue with the elephant down to the centre where they would be fed more (they eat some 200kg a day, so their appetites seem insatiable) before we would change to clean (and dry) mahout outfits before reconvening for the park open and the start of the demonstrations. More bathing+waterfights, followed by ceremonial parade into the arena where the demonstrations on elephant capabilities in forest work would begin. This process was repeated in the afternoon, before returning the elephants to the forest.

After this was free time to wander the centre, which also included a nursery and hospital (they are the only centre that has the capacity and training for hospital work, so many elephants from around Thailand are sent here for treatment. Once such elephant still being treated, sadly lost much of its foot after stepping on a landmine several months ago)

All in all, this was a truly amazing experience to have the opportunity to work with such beautiful and intelligent creatures. Noot was a quietly spoken, yet friendly and modest man who took great pride in pointing out his home in the village to me, as well as telling me about his hopes for his two daughters. It is a humbling experience to have an insight into the simplicities of their world and something I will always treasure.