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The Mahout and I

By Camille Gullickson

Lilly and I only had a second to size each other up before I was thrust up around her neck. I admit, my height is a bit on the short side at 5’4”, but I had never felt as insignificant in my life as I did at that moment. As she rose up from her kneeling position, my heart leapt into my throat, and I quickly shifted my weight forward and desperately braced the top of her head for balance.

“Wait!” I cried as she began lumbering forward. “I…I changed my mind. I want to get off.” For a moment I wanted to slap myself for this embarrassing display of insecurity, but after all I was riding an elephant—bareback—for the first time. I have quite a bit of experience in the equestrian realm, but elephants are a whole different reality. Not only did I not have a saddle, bridle, or any other means of controlling her or keeping my balance, but I also did not speak the hill tribe dialect her mahout used to communicate with her. I just hoped that the mahout, a 5’ tall Karen man who followed behind us on foot, had complete control of the 7,000 pound beast as we ventured off into the jungle.

Pom an assistant at Elephant Nature Park, was reassuring. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Lilly is slow, and so we chose her for you.” On that note, feeling slightly more confident about the whole thing, we set off on an adventure that I will never forget.

I had wanted to visit Thailand for many years, because I love the cuisine and have heard amazing stories about the country from friends and relatives who have been there. But one of the greatest draws was visiting a place with elephants. I have always loved elephants, and as soon as I found out I could have a unique personal experience with them at Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, I set about planning my trip.

There are endless ways to have an elephant encounter in Thailand—from feeding the begging elephants in Bangkok to watching elephant shows at one of many tourist camps—but it was important to me to find an experience that was reputable and that would directly benefit the elephants rather than exploiting them. So, while searching the Web, I stumbled across a website for Elephant Nature Park and began reading about their unique program. Elephant Nature Park was founded in 1996 by a local woman, Lek, committed to creating a sanctuary for working elephants. She is also committed to re-planting trees in the nearby forest, preserving the cultural integrity of the surrounding area, and educating visitors on the plight of endangered species. The more I learned the more I wanted to visit this amazing place.

Asian elephants have been tamed for domestic purposes for nearly 5,000 years, and in Thailand they have played a crucial role in local culture and society. However, Thailand’s elephants face increasing threats of extinction, and domestic elephants are presented with even greater challenges. Although wild elephants are protected under CITES (The Convention on International Trade of Wild Flora and Fauna) and IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), domestic elephants are only protected under the Draught Animal Act (under the Ministry of the Interior), which essentially means that they are only afforded the same protections as cows and mules. To make matters worse, although the ban on logging in Thailand in 1989 was an important step towards improved environmental protection, the result for working elephants was that they were suddenly unemployed. Their mahouts, desperate to feed their elephants and their families, turned to the tourism industry for livelihood. All too often, elephants are overworked, abused, malnourished, and even drugged with amphetamines so that they can put in longer hours.

Elephant Nature Park offers fee-based tours that are as short as one day and volunteer experiences that are a minimum of two weeks. All of the proceeds directly benefit the elephants. My husband, Aaron, and I settled on the three-day “Elephant Education Special” tour. On the first day, we were picked up at our hotel in Chiang Mai by a van full of day-trippers, and our first stop was at a local market where we helped load elephant snacks into the back of a truck (bunches of overripe bananas, papaya, melon, and squash). After that, the van headed out of Chiang Mai and up into the neighboring mountains, and in less than an hour we were at the park.

When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by a young Australian woman named Michelle, as well as at least a dozen dogs and several of the 14 elephants. (In addition to saving elephants, Lek has also taken in more than thirty of Thailand’s street dogs, and a number of cats.) A pack of laughing mongrel dog faces greeted us at every corner. (One of the dogs, “Dog #2,” was our favorite.) After a delicious lunch, we spent the rest of the day bonding with the elephants, from bathing them in the river to hand-feeding them. After dinner those of us who were staying the night were shown to our rustic thatch huts. We were lulled to sleep under our mosquito netting by the hum of insects and the gentle clanking of the elephant’s bells.

The next morning, we followed the same routine, except that after lunch four of us departed with six of the elephants and their mahouts to camp at Elephant Haven. At Elephant Haven, located in the neighboring mountains, the elephants are turned loose to graze in the forest. As Lilly and the other elephants carried us across a river and then slowly began the ascent up to the Haven, I took in the lush jungle and peasant farmers from elephant-back, and couldn’t help but feel as though I was in the middle of a surreal dream. The smells and sounds were intoxicating.

When we arrived at the Haven, we found that our accommodations were even more rustic than the first night, for the camp shelter consisted of a simple thatched-roof, and not much else. Nonetheless, the mahouts prepared an amazing Thai dinner for us, and they even ground their own curry pastes with mortar and pestle. They also attempted to make our bed as comfortable as possible, with a quilt on the ground and a mosquito net to cover us, but I barely slept a wink with the hard ground underneath and the strange and overpowering jungle noises keeping me awake. Dog #2, who ran all the way from Elephant Nature Park to the Haven to join in on the fun, dozed off just as soon as he nosed his way under the mosquito net and curled up on our blanket. 

The next morning, after breakfast (tea, toast, and fresh tropical fruit), we headed off into the foliage with the mahouts to retrieve our elephants. The elephants do not have any bindings, but they do have small bells around their necks so that they are easier to find. (However, apparently they are so intelligent that they are aware of the bells’ purpose, and they stuff them with mud and leaves so that they can’t be found!)

While trekking through the foliage to locate our elephants, we were given strips of saffron monk’s robes, to be tied around a tree of our choice in order to protect it. Presumably, if an illegal logger encounters a tree with this blessed cloth around it, he will not cut it because it would bring misfortune.

 Later that afternoon, as our van headed down the dirt road through the lush farmland and towards the bustle of Chiang Mai, I felt a pang of sadness, but I was certain that my time with elephants was not over.

 Helpful Tips

For more information, or to book a tour, visit the Elephant Nature Park website at www.elephantnaturepark.org/. Prices range from $65 for a day trip to $199 for a three-day, two-night “Elephant Education Special” tour. Prices include air-conditioned transportation, admission fees and tour of the park, meals, and accommodation (if you are staying on an overnight). You can also apply for volunteer positions for one or two weeks. Additionally, if you book other travel arrangements through their website, a portion of the cost will benefit the elephants.

When to Go

Thailand is hot and humid year-round—temperatures generally fluctuate around 27°C (80°F). The peak seasons are August, November, December, February and March, and secondary peak seasons are January and July. The best time to visit overall is from February to March.

 Getting There

The park is located just outside of Chiang Mai. You can arrange to be picked you up at your hotel in an air conditioned van when you book your tour. Alternatively, you can meet at the Gem Travel Office in downtown Chiang Mai, located near the Chiang Mai Night Market, at 209/2 Sridorn Chai Road.

Camille Gullickson has spent her 20s exploring 12 countries as well as living and working in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York City. She currently works for the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

 

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