Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.
Deep within Thailand, north of the city of Chiang Mai and near the Burmese border, is a Mahout Training School.
Put simply, a mahout is a person who works with elephants (a ‘chang’). At one time there were elephants all over Thailand, but over time, and pressured by deforestation, their numbers have dwindled. Ten years ago there were 4000, now there’s 2500, and most of those are in captivity.
Traditionally elephants were used for a variety of tasks, often transport, and for heavy-lifting, particularly hauling timber. They were also used in battle, with kings mounting the beasts to lead the Thai in war against the Burmese. Now a great number of them are used to ferry tourists around and the few that are in the wild are under threat from poachers.
As a business though, they’re highly prized. Elephants are only owned by those who are considerably wealthy and that’s mostly due to the amount of food it takes to feed them. The going rate for one is a million bhat, and with their long life spans, it’s common for an elephant to belong to a family.
Tumbling out of the back of the van a tired and hot mess, I stretched my legs and tried to get my bearings. We were now a lot closer to the Burmese border, and all around us was thick jungle. I breathed in the fresh air and took in the view, and it was at that point that a baby elephant tugged on my clothes.
I looked down at him, waist high and stronger than he thought. He tugged on my clothes again with his trunk, and indicated that I was wasting valuable time that could be better spent feeding him.
I was handed some bananas, and looked down at the hungry and expectant elephant. Chompu was nine months old, and apparently growing every day. Part of me felt like eating the bananas myself — they were $10 a kilo back in Australia, and I hadn’t tasted one in months — so it was with slight reluctance that I started peeling and hand feeding them to the growing pachyderm, who thanked me by sneezing on me.
Our elephant instructor, Nong, patted the young elephant proudly. “He’s the second baby Chompang has had,” she said, indicating the larger, wary mother elephant who was towering near the baby.
“What happened to the first?” I asked, peeling another banana.
“She ran into the fields and ate fruit with chemicals on it.”
Nong nodded sadly. “Very painful way to die, with poison inside you.”
After lunch had settled rather less painfully in our stomachs, it was time to attempt to ride an elephant. We had managed to choose an elephant training school where they give you neither a basket or a harness with which to ride an elephant — instead you sit across its neck and control it with commands, accompanied by kicking it behind the ear.
“It won’t hurt her,” Nong assured us. “You will feel like a fly.”
“But will the elephant hurt me,” I asked, trying to convey the idea that, while a friend of the animals, my first priority was usually myself.
Nong shook her head and laughed. “BoonChoo is a very gentle elephant. She’s used to people and the only time you need to worry is when she sees a buffalo.”
This sounded like a fact I should pay attention to. I instantly fought to remember what a buffalo looked like.
“What do I do if I see a buffalo?”
“There isn’t much to do, just hold on tight. BoonChoo will run away very fast. But don’t worry, there are no buffalo near here.”
BoonChoo looked down at me serenely as I had the procedure for mounting her described to me again. I’d seen photos of elephants, and viewed them myself from a distance in the zoo, but neither of these experiences really prepare you for seeing them up close. For starters, every cartoon I’ve ever watched has lied to me. They’re not grey and certainly not smooth. BoonChoo was dusty brown, with a mottled orange trunk. Her skin was rough and leathery, caked in dirt, and she was covered in bristly hair. It was like a hairy mountain with a pulse.
The mahout gave a friendly, encouraging smile, and motioned for me to climb the elephant. Gripping her ear and shoulder where I was instructed, and using her knee as a ladder, I scurried up with as much grace as I could manage, which turned out to be about the same as a house brick. Once I’d managed to steady myself on her neck and got used to the new altitude, I noticed that my arm had scraped her rough skin and was bleeding.
My wife, Justine, scurried up behind me and took hold of the rope she’d been provided with. Meanwhile, I got the ears.
Equipped with a rudimentary set of instructions on how to use our feet and yell at the elephant in an obscure Thai dialect, we set off with two other tourists and a few mahout, the elephants gently swaying as they ambled their way down a muddy jungle path.
It was soon very clear that although I knew the commands and kicked BoonChoo behind the ear in the right fashion, I was very much just along for the ride. She was the one who decided where she wanted to go, and that usually involved a tasty looking plant, or passing right underneath a branch that didn’t offer me enough clearance.
What didn’t help the situation was my wife sitting behind me, who had managed to bring the experience of back seat driving to a pachyderm.
“Go left more.”
“I’m trying! Quey, Quey!”
“Left! That’s not left!”
“Don’t you think I know that?! Any more from you and I’m turning this elephant around!”
“Ha! I’d like to see you try!”
Once we were resided to the fact that wherever BoonChoo wanted to go, we went, the experience was quite amazing. There I was, sitting on the back of an elephant, having her spray water at me from puddles that she walked past. In the Thai jungle, with the sun beating down mercilessly. Watching an elephant from the group named DoDo literally tip-toe through the mud. Yes sir, this was the dream. I was having the time of my life, and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“There’s a buffalo over there,” Justine pointed out.
I absently moved us aside to avoid being impaled on a wayward stick of bamboo. “What did you say?”
“Buffalo,” Justine repeated. She pointed over my shoulder into the reeds. And she was right. Not more than twenty metres away there was something potentially buffalo-shaped. I squinted in the harsh sun.
“It could be a cow…” I ventured hopefully.
“It’s not. It’s a buffalo.”
I squinted a bit more. It was distinctively less ‘cow’ and more ‘buffalo’.
“Quey!” I yelled, trying to get BoonChoo to move away from the reeds before she noticed anything.
I covered her leathery ears and whispered harshly to the mahout. “Buffalo!”
The mahout in front of me laughed and continued to groove along to Scar Tissue by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, blaring loudly from his phone. He didn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation. I used my fingers to make horns on my head, in the universally recognised “there’s a buffalo over there” fashion, and momentarily lost my grip on the elephant. The mahout laughed, and waved emphatically in return. We clearly had a failure to communicate.
I remembered the crucial piece of buffalo related advice I had been given, stopped flailing around, and held on tight. BoonChoo sensed something, paused, and looked around carefully. I held my breath and felt her massive head move from side to side. Failing to notice anything in the reeds, she continued to walk on. I gasped in relief.
Moments later one of the mahouts noticed the buffalo and made a frantic hand signal. I waved casually back, and patted my elephant.