Saturday, 5 May 2012

#18 Learn how to be an elephant mahout (trainer)

Like many things in Asia, the training to become an elephant mahout was pretty fast. We were given approximately ten minutes to learn the six commands we needed to control the elephant before being told to jump on an animal which was about 100 times the weight of us.

My sister and I had initially discussed whether we should do something with the elephants in Chiang Mai. Obviously we were keen to see them, but we were also wary about their well-being and didn't want to go somewhere where we would see them being mistreated. When we came across Chiang Mai Elephant Training Camp, which is managed by Earth Eco Tour, it felt like we had found a place which combined the elephants' welfare with their owners need to earn money to care for and feed their animals which can eat up to 600kg of food a day. The centre limits the number of visitors to 15 a day and when we arrived we discovered that we were actually the only people there. I'm still not sure whether that was a good thing, as at least no one witnessed what happened that day but, on the other hand, it would have been good to see if other people shared the same fear as us.

After changing into out attractive blue outfits - again, what's with the outfits? - I volunteered/was volunteered by Sarz to go first. Command number one was "Sung" which made the elephant lift its leg to form a kind of step. The pros can obviously then just swing their own leg over the elephant's head. Unfortunately I am nowhere near that flexible and had to be quite unflatteringly pushed from behind by two people. My first three thoughts when I finally managed to sit on the elephant's head were:

1. I was very, very high.
2. I was very, very small.
3. I was very, very scared.

I wanted to get off immediately. There was nothing to hold onto except the elephant's head and even though I knew that Pitoon (which was her name) was trained to listen to people all I could think about was that if she wanted to a) throw me off or b) run away, there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to stop her.
Not the most glamorous start to the day.
But I'm on!
I thought I'd better get on with it though so in what I hoped was a commanding voice I shouted "Pai" (Let's go) and nudged Pitoon behind the ears. She set off, although whether it's because she was listening to me or just because she felt like it, who knew? As we got to the end of the path I changed my command to "Quay" which Pitoon resolutely ignored and continued walking forwards. Mild panic set in as my mind kept filling with thoughts about my crazy horse in Bolivia ( and I strongly suspected that if anyone was going to be put on a crazy elephant it would be me. Luckily the trainer stepped in and managed to avert me being whacked over the head by a tree branch. We started heading back and I was so relieved that I'd soon be able to get off. Unfortunately that wasn't the plan and instead I had to lead Pitoon to some giant water butts where she filled her trunk with water and sprayed both of us as she threw it over herself to cool down.

Shower time.
Eventually, when I was soaked to the skin, it was time to head back and after telling Pitoon "How" to
stop I had to wiggle my bum and shout "Jalong" so that she would put her head down and let me slide off the front of it. I had never been more glad to feel my feet on solid ground.

Surely the most unflattering shot I've ever had??
I then saw my poor sister waiting for her turn, so obviously had to say to her "Don't worry, you'll be fine. It's really fun", rather than what I actually wanted to say, which was "aaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!" (Although she did tell me afterwards that she knew I was lying, as she could hear how much my voice was shaking as I'd been shouting the commands.) Sarz pretty much had the same first experience as me and after shouting "Jalong" she threw herself off Pitoon without even waiting for her to put her head down and had to be caught by the trainer and our translator Beir. She couldn't stop shaking and we ran to the bathroom for a conference where she said: "I think we've made the wrong decision. I don't think I like this." Even though in my head I was also panicking I tried to do the big sister thing of reassuring her: "No, no, don't worry, we'll be fine." Even though I was not entirely sure that was true.

Have you stopped shaking yet?
We headed back out to try again and the second time was actually a bit easier as at least we knew what to expect and the third time was better again. Then we got to feed the elephants some bananas and it was so funny to watch them practically inhaling the fruit, snatching it from us with their trunks and putting it in their mouths before instantly stretching their trunk back out for the next one. There was also a cute baby called Chumpoo who was naughtily always trying to get more from us. It was hard to resist giving them to her though as she was so cheeky.

Cheeky 'little' Chumpoo.
We were both quite relieved when it was time for lunch and we had a chance to relax. Lunch was at a nearby family's house and they'd prepared a real spread for us, although we found we couldn't eat too much after the stress of the morning. Over lunch Beir explained to us that all ten of the elephants at the centre were owned by different people. The farmers used to use them to take things like sugar cane into the cities where they sold it. However following numerous accidents on the crazy roads, the government had banned elephants from the city centres. While safer for all involved, this left families with a huge animal which can live for up to 80 years and needs to be fed 500 - 600kg of food a day. This is why things like elephant trekking have become so important in the area.

In the afternoon we set off on an elephant trek, much to the amusement of the locals who came out of their houses and stopped talking to their neighbours in order to watch us pass by. It must have looked so funny to see two tiny white girls trying to control two huge elephants who seemed to decide on a whim whether or not to listen to us. One moment we'd be walking along merrily and then next they'd see a tree they wanted to eat and they'd be off and no shouting of "Bai" could get them back on track.

My elephant Jokia was the worst, as she was mum to Champoo so, like any mother, all she cared about was making sure she could look after her baby, which meant eating as much food as possible so she could produce enough milk. Sarz was back on Pitoon who was (slightly) better behaved. When we were walking on the flat ground it wasn't too bad and we could actually take a moment to enjoy the ride and appreciate how amazing the elephants were but going uphill or, even worse, down hill was pretty scary. At least on a horse you have reins to hold on to but on an elephant you just have to lock your legs and straighten your arms and hope for the best. I could hear Sarz screaming behind me at one point as we came down the hill. The trainers all thought we were hilarious. The elephants are their pets and they don't understand why anyone would be scared of them. I guess it's like the equivalent of someone being scared of your pet dog in England. So their mantra was always "No problem lady. No problem." Easy for them to say.

Note to self: Elephants don't come with brakes.
I think the thing about growing up in Europe is we're quite used to people explaining what's going to happen next. Especially when you're doing something new for the first time you need that person to reassure you and tell you what's going on. But even though Beir was brilliant, she and our trainer were very much from the laid back school of training. So when we got back to the camp they walked miles away to have a cigarette and left us on the elephants, not telling us that now was the time for them to graze before we headed to the river. Sarz and I therefore spent what felt like hours, but was probably just about 15 minutes, trying to make them turn around to go back to the camp. The elephants (who were obviously a lot smarter than us) knew that this was their time to eat and were having none of it and marched off wherever they felt like. Jokia was also very hot so kept picking up huge scoops of dirt from the ground and throwing it all over her back, and me. It was at this point, soaking wet from the sprayed water, filthy dirty from the mud and rocks that were being thrown at my head, that I decided I wanted to get off. And it was one of those moments, you know when you're crammed on the tube in London or you're stuck in a lift with loads of people and you think "I need to get out now" and it needs to happen that instant? I shouted across to Beir to ask whether I could get off but I think something got lost in translation and she called back no, as we were heading to the river next. Which is how I found myself completely trapped on a huge elephant. It was at the moment that a) the panic set in and b) the photographer who was following us around decided to start getting some close up shots of us. So there I was covered in mud and dirt, tears streaming down my face and a man papping me from behind a tree. Now I know how the celebs feel on a bad day.

Just what you need when you're having a breakdown. Now I know how Britney Spears felt.
Luckily Sarz saw my face (which afterwards she said actually looked quite funny) and in a reversal of big sister/little sister roles took control of the situation, shouting at the trainer: "She needs to get off - now!" Fortunately he then understood and made the elephant sit down so I could get off. Shaking, and very embarrassed, I then walked to the river with Beir, while Sarz braved it out on Pitoon.

Actually washing the elephants in the river was the highlight of our day. They absolutely loved cooling down and we scrubbed their backs and threw buckets of water on them, while Champoo, besides herself with excitement, threw herself around, almost squashing us all in her enthusiasm. It was also a chance to see how gentle and gorgeous the elephants were close up, without the fear of being thrown off them.

Bath time!
Gorgeous girl.
I managed to man up a bit for the ride back and then, after a final snack for the elephants, our day was over. On the way back we discussed the trip and agreed that although it had been terrifying in parts, it had also been brilliant. But I guess that's the thing with travelling, sometimes what feels like the scariest parts of your trip turn out to be the best.

#18 Done, with a little help from our friend.


  1. Although traumatic for you at times, this is your funniest piece so far. SJ and I have had a really good laugh, easy for SJ to do at a distance :-D Take care Mum xx

  2. What a great read. It's great following all your adventures. Sending you both lots of love. L N E & L xxxx

  3. Awww Em! This is my favourite of all your posts. I can just imagine you up there getting soaked and pelted with rocks... not funny at all! Can you bring Chumpoo home with you?!? xxxxx

  4. Thanks all. It is really funny looking back at it now! Not sure how house trained Chumpoo is Jen, but hopefully we'll see some baby pandas in China. xxx