Published: February 22nd 2009February 22nd 2009
I woke up at 5am on Thursday, to catch the right bus to the Elephant Conservatory. Adam, the hotel owner at Tri Gong Residence, drove me himself to the bus station at 5:45am and made sure I bought the right ticket. After waiting to 7:10, the bus finally left for Lampang. The conservatory is on the way from Chiang Mai to Lampang and after a couple dozens of Thai pop karaoke videos and an unscheduled stop for reportedly a bad tire later, I was dropped off on the side of the highway next to the Conservatory. Somehow I did manage to arrive at the check in center on time for the start of the course, 8:30am. We changed into our denim mahout suits and walked to the elephant show grounds, where our elephants and mahouts were already waiting. Most of the group were staying 3 day 2 nights, but I am only doing the 2 day 1 night course. Like the travelers in Chiang Mai, the gang was quite diverse, with Philipino girl adopted into an Italian village now living in Syndey and dating a British guy, to a half-Thai, half-Icelandic girl living in Seattle dating a Lebannese who also speaks
Just before heading to the grounds, we got a slip of paper listing the elephant commands in Thai plus some tribal dialect. The very first minute that we met our elephants and our essentially non-English speaking mahouts, we climbed on. "Song-song" was to climb up on the side by the elephant raising one front leg and you grabbing on the ear and step to climb up. "Tag long" was to have the elephant bow her head and you slide off the front, and then, with a running start, jump up the elephant head from the front like a pummet horse. No need to say, the first couple tries everyone was half pushed up the elephant by the mahout. A mahout is an elephant trainer who is paired with the elephant long-term. You get the same elephant and mahout for the whole stay. My elephant is the oldest girl, 29, and 18 months pregnant (normal gestation 22 months) with her third baby. Apparently the mom often rejects the baby and kills them at birth, which makes absolutely no evolutionary sense. But my Singkan apparently was a great mom, and her last baby is not 4 years old, half-grown and
very cute. The elephants live much of the same life span as we do, weaned off milk around 2-3, start mating (here at the center anyways) around 15, lives to 70 and even up to 100, except they walk in the first or second day. In any case, we were very quickly able to climb up and off and make them pick up the mahout stick and sit and lie down - until after the initial elation, we all realized that the elephants never listened to anything we say but rather the mahout just beside us. Nevertheless, this sure beats sitting in an elephant basket by stepping on the head from a raised platform. Next on the agenda is bathing. Sounds very hygienic until you see the head-sized elephant dung floating everywhere in the water that we are just about to go in. And "in" is very much the word, as the elephant completely dips into the water with you riding on the neck and you scoop up the water to make sure all of her is "washed". Better yet, many of them sucks up the water with the trunks and make a rain of shit-water. Soaking wet and now
"cleaned", we head up to the performance. Before that, the two pregnant females get a lab draw - with something like a 16 gauge needle on the backside of the ear. Imagine the poor vet tech trying to find a vein on the flapping elephant ear!
After the phlebotomy, it's time for the show. We are apparently part of the show, at the least ride on the elephants and parading around part. When it comes to more complex tricks, we become the audience (but of course we sat amongst ourselves away from the real audience, since we are professionals now). Little did we know that we would be doing this same show twice a day. Soon we should be asking for wages. The afternoon is much the same and when finished with the show, we take the elephants to a valley 10 minutes away, where they sadly gets chained in the front legs to a tree. Apparently if they were given the freedom to roam more freely, they would attack each other, as in this little group, the elephants have their friends and their enemies.
Returning to our huts in mid-afternoon, everyone was surprisingly exhausted. Riding elephants takes
more energy than I thought, or maybe it's the climbing up part. We visited the elephant dung paper factory, the first in the world I hear. Would be a crappy job being the one boiling elephant dung to make paper. We already had quite up close and personal experience with that dung water...So we hang out and nap in the afternoon, while the hosts make dinner, which was simple and very good. Supat, the lead host/elephant PR guy, is wonderful and tells us all about the elephant gossip of which girls all want the same boy, JoJo (the biggest male in the group). There are about 50 in the camp, and only about ten of them perform. The rest are "taxi" elephants for rides and some are retired in the forest. There are 45 camps in the Chiang Mai region, most of them private, owning 2000 elephants. There are 2000 more wild ones in Thailand. Supat is a talker, and I learned things from how much an elephant cost to how much regular Thais pay for hospital visits.
Next morning we collected the elephants - they actually gather up their own chain with the trunks, and back to bathing
and shows. Before taking off, we visited the elephant hospital and baby elephants. One of the babies, 17 months old or so, playfully slapped me in the face with his trunk. Gladly he's not bigger. The little ones, not yet trained (they begin to train them at 3 years), don't know their own strength. In any case, I got a certificate of mahout training before leaving, which I'd be sure to hang next to my board certifications and graduation certificates in the office someday. Supat had also taken over 1000 pictures of all of us during these couple days and loaded onto CD, so now I have 1000 elephants pics to spare.
Took the public bus to Lampang. Sat in the back with the monks, who promptly shifted over as to avoid accidentally touching me on the ride (monks are forbidden to have any physical contact with women). 30 km and $1 later, arrive in Lampang, a little town that I have absolutely no orientation and too short of a stay before the train (5 hours) to buy a map for. So I caught a songtag with a bunch of people to the "center", and got dropped off whereever the last person got off. Walking around in the sun with all my stuff (this is why 4 shirts is still too much to bring), finally found a internet cafe with A/C. It's filled with 14 year olds playing video games, so it must be pretty cheap. So I managed to comfortably pass 3 hours in Lampang before the train ride back to Bangkok.
...where I'd be living large again...(leaving for Bali in the morning, but will write about the short urban Bangkok stay later)