3 Day Mahout Training, Thai Elephant Conservation Center

By: leelefever on June 22, 2006 - 3:13am

I return from 3 days of learning about elephant training more of an elephant lover and with more mixed feelings about the life of the domestic elephant.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers a multi-day mahout training course that enables a tourist to live at the center for 3 days to learn about elephants and elephant training, their relationship with their trainer (the mahout) and general elephant/mahout life.  The course includes accommodation for 2 nights, 5 meals and all instruction for about $125.   Below is one day in the mahout training program.

6am: Awake from our basic bungalow style houses and don our very flattering mahout uniforms- blue denim pants that tie at the waist and a button-down shirt.  I remark that I look like a prisoner.

6:30am: Me, Yuri (from Japan) and Kristine (from San Jose, California) follow the mahouts in pouring rain over a mile into the forest to collect the elephants that had been kept their overnight.  One of the mahouts finds this wicked looking scarab beetle. 

7:00am: The mahout “Tit” and I reach Lu Khan, my elephant for 3 days.  The 50 feet of chain that kept her in place overnight is stretched to the full length and she shows excitement as we approach. much of the vegetation surrounding her is either flattened or eaten.  Lu Khan is covered with dirt that she threw onto herself overnight to cool down and keep the flies away.  Tit has Lu Khan lay down with the command “map long” and he uses his machete to scrape away the dirt and unchains her from the tree.

7:10am:  I mount Lu Khan for the trip home.  During the trek she willfully veers off course to grab some greenery just off the trail.  She is graceful in the mud, taking every step carefully and never slipping down hills.  I think that she is the best all-terrain vehicle ever.


7:30am: Between the jungle and the Conservation Center, we wade through a river for one of her 3 baths of the day.  She completely submerges herself as the mahout and I scrub the remaining dirt off her hide.  I get completely soaked.  It’s easy to tell she loves the water.

7:50am: We arrive at the center and Lu Khan gets fresh water and sugar cane while we scrub her even more.  Tit and Lu Khan disappear and Yuri, Kristine and I have breakfast after a quick change of clothes.

9am:  We meet back at show grounds for training.  I practice with Tit and Lu Khan.  A command of “Song Soong!” causes Lu Khan to pick up her right leg, enabling me to climb up her using an ear and handful of tough skin. “Tag Loong” enables me to slide off the front of her head.  It’s obvious that my commands don’t matter- she only really listens to Tit, her mahout for the last 9 years.  After practice she eats bananas and more sugar cane with me on her neck along with dried bananas.  As soon as I get the package of dried bananas, her trunk appears in front of me, begging for some and breathing elephant breath on my face.  Mmm elephant breath.

9:30am: All the elephants and mahouts (including us students) meet near the back of the center for more eating.  The elephants steal food out of one another’s mouths with no protest. The mahouts lounge on their elephants so comfortably it looks like they could take a nap. I’m not quite so comfortable.  

9:45am: A crowd of spectators gathers near the river beside the center and we ride the elephants into the river for bath #2.  This one is mostly for the crowd, but it doesn’t matter to Lu Khan.  I get soaked again as I do my best to throw more water to clean her hide.  Some elephants spray each other and the mahouts are pre-occupied with a snake that has been sighted on the other side of the river. We appear in many pictures.

10am:  The elephants and mahouts ride through the crowd to the show grounds where they show the crowd a few tricks, how they move logs and some cheesy things like painting and playing music.  The next day I will be part of the show, but not today.

10:45am:  The show ends and I mount Lu Khan while she eats more.  Then more practice.  The elephants are chained by the foot near food if they are not currently involved with the mahout.

12:00 Eat Lunch- Home cooked fried rice.

1:00pm:  We walk to the elephant hospital with an English speaking guide.  I am grateful to have access to him as Tit knows little English and I had many questions.  The hospital has about 10 elephants.  3 with deformities, one with a gunshot wound, a couple in “poor condition”.  The biggest problem for elephants is constipation, which can easily kill them.  Judging from the amount of pooh they create, this is not surprising. We learn that the numbers of Thai Elephants are declining and the hospital does not have the money it needs.

2:30pm:  We meet the mahouts to return the elephants to the park where they stay overnight.  A few lengths of chain is placed around Lu Khan’s neck and she knows what is happening and is visibly excited- ears flapping, tail wagging.  I mount her and off we go.

2:50pm:  It’s time for the 3rd bath of the day on the way to the jungle.  Once again, I get soaked to the bone with a huge smile on my face.

3:10pm:  Tit picks out a spot of the hillside where Lu Khan will spend the night (he uses a new spot each night).  He ties the chain to a tree and also attaches her front feet together with a small amount of chain. She can walk and move around, but not aggressively.  This prevents her from breaking the chain and is the hardest sight for me to bear.  For the rest of the night she will graze in the area until she lays down to sleep, when she will yawn and dream, just like us.  

3:45pm:  Tit invites us back to his house in the mahout village.  His family lives in a modest home that he built himself. I can see through the floorboards to the dogs and chickens below.  In addition to being a mahout, he fixes motorbikes.  He has a proud picture of a young 4 year old Lu Khan displayed on his wall, like a proud father.  Tit repairs a motorbike while we are there.  We walk back to the bungalow and rest until dinner.  This is Tit- notice pictures of Lu Khan in the background.

 This is his house in the mahout village:

6pm:  We meet at one of the homes and start chopping vegetables over shots of home made rice whiskey that one of the mahouts made.  It is red and tastes like cough syrup. We eat a basil chicken dish along with rice and stir fried veggies.  Very good food served on the floor of the open air kitchen area.  After dinner we watch world cup soccer and play cards with a few mahouts before going to bed.

10:45pm: Retire to bed and wait for the rain to come, as it does every few hours. Look forward to waking at 6am to collect the elephants back in the jungle.

The experience at the Conservation Center was very enjoyable and I learned a lot but I have to admit that I feel a little sorry for domestic elephants in general.  My attraction to elephants comes from a feeling that they are like dogs and through domestication have developed a bond with humans that is special in the animal kingdom.  I hate to think about them being mistreated or unhappy.

Though they are very well cared-for at the center, their size and potential for destruction requires that they lead a life in bondage- chained to a tree or the floor consistenly. Being domesticated from birth, this lifestyle is a reality to the elephant in the way that a dog is kept in a kennel or a rabbit in a cage.  I left with the feeling that the elephants at the center are quite happy, but there are many in the country (and world) that are not so happy and it pains me to think of the life they lead.  Thankfully, organizations like the Thai Elephant Conservation Center are working to raise awareness and educate people about the plight of these incredible animals. 

See Also:  Should We Be Riding Around On Elephants in Thailand? 

By: julie (not verified) on September 4, 2006 - 9:15am
hi my name is julie and i was just looking up mahout training online because i just returned from thailand and this site came up. i clicked it because i went to the same elephant conservation center! and then i saw the picture of tit. i was wondering if you know a way i can contact him because i miss him so much. thanks julie bachini
By: Air (not verified) on May 3, 2007 - 7:36pm
Hello,Sawasdee ka I'm Rattanaporn from Bangkok, Thailand. I do like your essay. Even I'm a 100% Thai but I never even try to be the mahout, one day I hope. I'm now working for Angkor Village Resort and Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia as a sales manager(www.angkorvillage.com) and we have 30 elephants. We will have the mahout training course as well in Siem Reap. I do hope that it will be success like in Thailand. Enjoy life and take care!