06 April 2013

Homestay with the Elephants at Thai Elephant Conservation Center, Day 1 of 3: The Really Big Show and Bath Time.

The car came to pick me up at my hotel around 7:30am on Monday, April 1st: no joke. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center was about an hour away and the program started promptly at 9:00am. I was so excited about this experience that I was unable to sleep, so I was a bit tired when the big day came!

Once I got to the center I was rushed into my bungalow, told to put my suitcase away and to change into my mahout clothes. Then I was taken down to the training ring immediately.

Within 30 minutes of arriving, I was riding my elephant Wanalee.

Before I get too far into my time with Wanalee, I think it's important to say that my entire Spring Break was planned around my stay with the elephants. Originally I was going to try and do this trip during the Chinese New Year holiday back in February and go to India for Spring Break, but it felt too rushed. So once I found out there was an opening for the Homestay Program during my Spring Break, I planned my entire trip around this experience.

The Homestay Program at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center is designed to teach people--both children and adults--about the basics of caring for, riding, and the conservation of Asian elephants. Paid for and organized by the Government of Thailand, the center limits the program to 12 guests at any given time. So I feel honored that I was able to take part.

Three rustic bungalows are provided as housing for the Homestay guests. And three meals per day are provided at no extra cost. Most of the staff housing is also along this strip of bungalows so it feels like you are really in the heart of the Conservation Center community, which consists of about 200 people (from mail person to paper maker, mahouts to school children). My elephant's mahout, Tiem, lived in my bungalow right behind me. So I felt super lucky that he was right around the corner at all times. And like clockwork, every morning at 6am he would bang on my door and wake me up for the day. 

I likened my experience here to being on a dude ranch, like in City Slickers. It was almost exactly like that only without Billy Crystal, and instead of a coffee grinder we had dogs. (Being on the back of an elephant when she sees a dog can be a bit startling, to say the least . . . )

A mahout is a "keeper of an elephant". Elephants in Asia are like horses in the United States. Some of their handlers are nice and some of their handlers are mean. It's like with any animal or pet really. However, the mahouts at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center were quite good, and really loved their jobs and their elephants. 

I have to be honest, though. I am a bit biased, as I had the very best mahout at the center as my trainer. Tiem was so kind and gentle with Wanalee. Most of the mahouts carry bamboo sticks with metal hooks on the end of them to encourage their elephants to do what they need them to do (they rarely use them, but they carry them all the time). But my mahout only used his voice to speak to Wanalee. And he never spoke very loudly at all. He could stand behind a tree and speak commands in a conversational voice and Wanalee--about 20 feet away-- would do exactly as he said. 

Tiem's been living at the Conservation Center for 20 years and has been with Wanalee since she was one month old. He really looks at her like his pet and takes expert care of her. He will sing her name out to her, shouting, "Lee, Lee, Lee!" It's really very sweet.

Once I was taken to the training ground I was taught how to get up onto the elephant, three different ways:

1. Get onto and off of the elephant by asking her to raise her right, front leg.
"Song soong!" (Get up.)
"Hup soong!" (Get down.)

2. Get onto and off of the elephant from the top of her head.
"Tag long!"

3. Get onto and off of the elephant by asking her to lay down on her side.
"Non long!"

As part of the homestay program, we were an integral part of two performances that happen for tourists coming to see the elephants. These performances introduce the elephants to the tourists and teach them about the history of elephants in Asia. Along with showing the audience the above on and off commands, I also did a cute little performance with Wanalee. I stood in the middle of the ring and she would walk over to me from about 50 feet away and place a mahout hat on my head. Then we would bow together (she curtsies, I bow) and walk away and out of the ring, with her trunk on my shoulder as if we were old school chums. She was so gentle when she put the hat on my head . . .

Before the morning and the afternoon show, we would bathe the elephants for the tourists before parading them into the show grounds. And again Princess Wanalee was in her glory! She loved to be in the water and play tricks on me and the other elephants in the water. Tiem would simply say, "Mahout hot!", and she would raise her trunk up and spray me. If he would say "Boom, boom, boom!", she would slam her trunk into the water creating the most amazing and giant splash ever! Who needs a water park when you can play with elephants in a lake? Occasionally Wanalee would dunk so far under water for a long time. I was surprised she could stay under for so long! She absolutely loved to take baths, and it was so much fun for me to be a part of!  

Once we paraded in and did our performance, we would meet with the audience afterwards so that they could feed the elephants and talk to us about our experience. It was neat to meet people from so many different parts of the world! All here to learn about elephants!

After the last performance--after the audience left--we would bathe the elephants again before retiring them to the forest for the night. I would say that the elephants were in water probably around 90 minutes per day. Plus there were constant sprinklers spraying down on the elephants in the show grounds. They really do a good job trying to keep the elephants as comfortable as possible, especially during the hot season which has just begun.

The job of a mahout is not a clean one . . . 

Up next? Early mornings and afternoons with Wanalee, and learning how elephant dung paper is made.


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