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Interact with Elephants in Thailand
I traveled to the National Elephant Institute in Thailand for a taste of real life with elephants. Later, elbow deep in elephant dung, I realized that I had gotten my wish... and then some.
A giant stone archway stood before us, guarded by the statues of three mild-looking Asian elephants. We had arrived at the National Elephant Institute, a huge national park 90 minutes by bus south of Chiang Mai, Thailand's northern capitol. Also known as the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, the Institute was established in 1991 to protect and care for the endangered Asian Elephant, a creature both revered and abused in Thai culture.
Booked for a "One Day Mahout Training" course - mahout means "elephant handler" - we had traveled to the Institute for a genuine taste of life with elephants. It was an experience we were unlikely to have anywhere else. Though nearly every travel agency in Thailand boasted "elephant trekking" as a feature of most day tours, visitors typically got little more than a short pony ride in a basket atop a sad looking elephant. We wanted to bond with the elephants. We wanted to interact with the stately creatures and gain their trust. We wanted to get our hands dirty.
Later that afternoon, up to my elbows in mustard yellow elephant dung, I realized that we had gotten our wish. It didn't get much more personal than this.
This was how our morning as mahout trainees went: We hitched a ride into the main camp with some camp workers piled in the back of a pickup truck, all clad in the heavy denim pajamas that would become our official mahout uniform.
Squishing the dung through our fingers, we watched as J.R. swirled a lump of gooey dung in a bucket of water, breaking it up into a thin, fibrous liquid. He then emptied the bucket onto a framed piece of screen, tilting it so that the liquid spread evenly over the screen, and carefully lay it in the sun.
"And in a few hours," he told us, brandishing a dried screen, "you have dung paper!"
The morning consisted of "mahout training" Unsure what exactly a "mahout" was and how that involved interacting with elephants, we allowed our English-speaking guide, J.R., to explain.
Mahouts are trained elephant handlers. They traditionally pair up with a single elephant for life, an arrangement that ensures that each is dependant on the other for employment and survival. Typically employed in the logging industry until the practice was banned in 1989, mahouts and elephants alike have suffered the loss of income from logging. Now employed by the Institute, some of these mahouts utilize their skills to help conservation efforts and educate visitors about the elephants.
We met our first mahout after hitching a ride with some denim-clad workers headed for the camp's center, about 2 km from the tourist information building at the entrance. J.R. spoke fluid English and was to be our guide for the "Mahout Training" day we had arranged through the travel agent in Chiang Mai.
Food and shelter for these two-ton mammals does not come cheap, and organizers have had to invent ways to insure the steady flow of funds to the Institute. One creative solution has been to offer opportunities to tourists like us who desire an intimate but eco-friendly experience with these awesome creatures.
Another way the Institute supports itself is through "Mahout Training" and "Home-stay" packages offered to visitors like us. For $33 each, we had the unique opportunity to get up close and personal - and dirty - with our own personal elephant for the day. I met my elephant, Sat-tit, after a brief discussion of our itinerary with our English-speaking guide, J.R. Wearing our supremely attractive training uniforms - baggy denim pajama pants and a parachute-like jacket - we gathered nervously at the show ring and waited for our elephants to be brought out.
My petite girlfriend, Dawn, was the first to be introduced to her elephant. Big as he was, I thought, okay, that's not too bad. I can handle this. Then came Katie's elephant, a slightly larger, medium-sized elephant to match her medium-sized frame. Detecting a pattern to the matches, my stomach began to flutter since, at 6 feet tall, I was clearly the grande in our trio.
When Sat-tit arrived on the scene, our reactions were surprisingly understated.
"Whoa," Dawn observed. "He's a big one."
Towering above the other elephants, Sat-tit was an undulating wall of gray flesh welded together by a maze of leathery creases sparsely covered with spiky hair. Like a crazed mountain climber shunning ropes and safety harness, the tiny Thai mahout who was to become my guru uttered a fluid command, grabbed hold of Sat-tit's ear and grinned down at me from his perch aboard the giant elephant's head before I could say, "What the--?"
Seconds later, he stood on the ground next to me and motioned up, towards the head of the elephant. Uncomprehending, I stared at him as he motioned a few more times. Finally, I understood that I was to mount the elephant.
What, no introduction? I thought. No saddle? Where's the stirrup?
Never one to back down from a challenge - and unable to say "no thank you" in Thai - I tentatively grabbed an ear, mumbled "Song soong!" and scrambled for traction as my feet slid fruitlessly along Sat-tit's abdomen and obligingly uplifted leg. Firmly on the ground again, I watched carefully as the mahout motioned Grab his ear firm! You no hurt him! and scampered on and off the elephant's back a few more times to prove his point.
After much exertion and inelegantly hurling myself at his shoulders, I finally succeeded in mounting Sat-tit's massive body. Atop this lofty perch, I felt a temporary surge of confidence. With his boulder-sized head clenched between my knees, I marveled at my minor accomplishment. I was high above everyone! Now all I had to do was hold on!
"Hap Soong!" the mahout commanded, shattering my confidence as he motioned that now I would have to climb down! Playing at the up and down game for most of an hour, I was at last left alone aboard Sat-tit, subject only to the elephant's will and the confines of the show-ring. As he ambled towards a large water trough, a great river of urine erupted beneath me. Large colonies of ants were washed away as my elephant relieved himself and I hurried to pull my legs up and away from the backsplash.
In 2002, Princess Galyani of Thailand took the Institute under her patronage, providing some relief to the financial burden of feeding and caring for the 2-ton mammals and their handlers. However, fundraising is still a problematic and ongoing process. The Institute puts on an elephant show twice daily, where the mammoth residents display their various talents at painting, log-pushing and even musical performance. Though more interesting that the average circus-style performance, the Institute's real draw is not these rehearsed shows but the one-on-one time with the elephants. Being elbow-deep in elephant dung or bruised and battered from encounters with your new pachyderm friend may not sound like your ideal vacation, but let me advice you: try it. Try it. I wouldn't have traded a single sweating, stinking moment of it.