CHIANG RAI – There was something strangely reassuring sitting bareback high above a four-ton Asian elephant in the northern reaches of Thailand. With my legs tucked snugly behind her ears, being on top seemed more comforting than possibly being underneath. Holding on to an elephant’s bristly forehead as she bathed in a slow-moving river was pleasantly contemplative. That my elephant named Ewong was semi-retired and not quite as agile as the rest was just fine with me. It was something of a counter-thought to my fears of having to swim away from a frolicking mass of grey pleats as it wasn’t uncommon for the more juvenile animals to simply lay down and play in the waters as they washed away the last evening’s dust.
Riding a docile 48-year-old former logging elephant at the Anantara Resort Golden Triangle felt more like taking part in something ancient than simply an adventurous stop on the tourist trail; as if that wouldn’t have been enough anyways.
The mahouts are the elephant’s most trusted human companions and their traditions, disciplined lives, and linguistic affinities go back centuries.
“Mahouts as a culture are probably what brought me here in the first place,” said Devon-born John Roberts, director of elephants at the resort, “The lifestyle around them was really what attracted me as much as the elephants themselves.”
Roberts talks with the professorial air of an anthropologist but the passion of an activist. “The mahouts are really the cowboys of the east, because they have a culture and a unique way of life,” he said, “One that is dying out.”
A lifelong commitment
The Anantara resort in Chiang Rai is nestled on the shores of the Sob Ruak River, a Mekong River affluent, which forms the border between Thailand and Burma. Setting out on my mahout adventure in the early morning hours, the mist enveloped the three-hundred-acre resort, which, as a guest, was your backyard and a literal roaming range for the elephants.
A day at the camp began with the mahouts at the crack of dawn walk to fetch the elephants. Then together we walked down to the river’s edge to literally bathe the animals in what was a surreal choreography. The elephants splashed about as their mahouts’ lovingly scrubbed dust and grime from their scratchy, wrinkled skin, while we guests held on for dear life. Unlike us, the mahouts were propped onto the elephants as if they had been sculpted in place.
The elephants playfully slurped up large amounts of water in their trunks and then spewed out their load like giant sprinklers.
One young mahout, K. Khanchai (Khan) Yodlee playfully grabbed a tusk of his nine-year old male elephant, Pepsi, an animal that he has raised since it was a toddler.
“Pepsi is a boy, but he is very good mannered and very happy,” said Khan, “My elephant is like a child, a brother or a member of my family. We are together from the beginning, and I will be with him forever.”
Khan, who is originally from Surin, is from a family that traces its mahout traditions back generations. His great-grandfather domesticated elephants and his father’s generation used them in ceremonies, ordinations, and social events.
A day among cowboys
If this was a taste at being a cowboy it was admittedly a meek but comfortable attempt for me. Half-blind, Ewong had once hauled logs deep in the jungles between Burma and Thailand. My Canadian travel companions – no cowboys themselves but far more animated in their journey – rode the more juvenile elephants Bow, Makam, and Lanna. Those elephants came to the camp after having lived on the streets of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Pataya. They intermittently scratched against rocks or veered from the course to fetch some appealing bamboo shoots or other greenery.
At the camp we learned some of the seventy physical commands used by the mahouts. “How” meant stop, while “Pai” was go forwards. “Map Lung” was the command to sit down, while the elephant would lower her head when she was told to “Tak Lung.”
We were taught different ways of mounting and dismounting, either from the side or a strange motion of being pushed over her snout. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to get used to life from a higher on. One of my facebook friends even commented, “nice car,” on the picture of my elephant.
The mahout-training program turned out to be what amounts to an ad-hoc conservation center that was launched in 2003. The elephant camp literally became an adjunct to the verdant resort. The project originally started with four rented elephants in a partnership with the government-run Thai Elephant Conservation Center. But the resort soon began to rescue elephants from the streets of major urban centers.
Over 30 elephants and double that number of the mahouts and their families now reside on the grounds of the Anantara today.
Mahouts lives have tribal origins
“It took me a couple of years to get to know the Chao Gui,” said Roberts, “For these people, it is a specific calling of their tribal group. The mahouts from Surin are everything about their traditions, which are based around looking after the elephants.”
Centuries ago, the descendents of some of today’s Thai mahouts are said to have domesticated wild elephants. Like Khan’s grandfather, it was these cowboys of sorts who trained the elephants and together went on to develop the country’s logging trails.
The mahout’s tradition of living side-by-side with elephants was passed down from one generation to the next. The mahouts eventually developed into a social and even a linguistic group, speaking their own dialect.
Everything changed after 1989. It was in that year that Thailand instituted a ban on logging elephants, and a generation of mahouts suddenly found themselves unemployed. The animals and their mahouts returned to the once swampy elephant-friendly heartland of Surin, but difficulties at making a living for them resulted in many of them ending up in the noisy streets of Bangkok charging tourists a token for taking pictures with the elephants or having them feed the hungry animals sugar cane or bamboo shoots.
“In the streets, one mahout drives the elephant while two others charged tourists 20 or 30 baht to feed the them, or 10 or 20 baht for a picture,“ Anantara Elephant Camp supervisor K. Prakorn (Seng) Saejaw told me, “They might stay on the streets until after midnight, and this is not good for them.”
Recent laws were introduced to penalize the public feeding of elephants, with interest groups pushing for the regulation of their working hours, a standardization of nutrition, and even mandatory retirement ages for the animals. Roberts, however, laments that waning enthusiasm on the part of law enforcement mixed with the need of the mahouts to make money leaves little hope of success of any legislation.
Looking for alternative incomes
As a result of the ban, the government-run Thai Elephant Conservation Center began to look for alternative incomes for the mahouts, pursuits that today includes an elephant orchestra, elephants that paint, or others showcase their logging skills.
The Anantara resort set up the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation that offers shelter to the elephants. Those mahouts lucky enough to make it here also benefit from a new way of making a living as they offer the training and elephant riding experience to the hotel guests.
“It was completely surreal,” honeymooner Lori Anders Grubsztajn said after a day of mahout training at the resort, “The animals were absolutely massive, but so gentle. They are much hairier than I thought [they] would be, and their hair is much more coarse.
“But we had a love affair, and gave each other kisses before we left.”