Lampang, Thailand – Standing on the side of a highway opposite the Elephant Conservation Centre, I can hear my stomach growling. When I’d left Chiang Mai it was too early for breakfast, and now, two hours later, there’s not a coffee shop in sight.
I hoist my backpack and start the long walk into the compound, meeting up along the way with three others who’ve signed up for mahout training – a two-day certificate program in elephant wrangling.
After filling out waivers and changing into blue cotton suits, we’re each assigned an elephant and a trainer (aka mahout). My mahout, Tiam, doesn’t speak English, but he loses no time before showing me how to climb onto Wanalee, his nine-year-old female elephant. It looks easy when he does it, but for some reason I can’t get my leg up and over. Apparently, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.
Eventually, Tiam demonstrates an alternate mount, and after three or four repetitions I feel like a circus star. Every time my flip-flops fall off, Wanalee picks them up with her trunk and hands them back to me.
I’m still getting used to being up high when the mahouts tell us it’s show time. Down at the river, we find a surprising crowd of 500 Thai soldiers waiting to watch us bathe the elephants. Tiam easily swings up behind me and we head into the river.
Just before giving the command to submerge, the mahouts jump up and crouch on the elephants’ backs. For the other trainees and me, it’s initiation time. The mahouts cackle as we’re dipped to the waist in dirty water. Another command turns the elephants’ trunks into Super-Soakers.
We emerge from the river saturated, and the crowd follows us back to the show grounds. It’s a good thing the elephants know what they’re doing, because we’re just holding on tight as they perform musical numbers, create paintings and demonstrate logging manoeuvres. When the show’s over, we dismount awkwardly and take a bow.
After a much-needed lunch break, we spend the afternoon training and touring the on-site elephant hospital. Sick elephants are brought here from all over Thailand. The most common complaints: land mine injuries and constipation.
At 4 pm, it’s time to ride Wanalee into the jungle, where she’ll graze for the night. It takes us an hour to find a good place with lots of greenery and enough space for her to lie down.
Back at the camp, I’m sore and searching for Tiger Balm. Riding an elephant uses muscles that don’t normally see action. I settle for a Chang beer, and Tiam shakes his finger at me. Thai women seldom drink. After dinner, I retire early to my bamboo quarters and quickly fall asleep.
At 6 am, each of us carrying two long pieces of sugarcane across our shoulders, we’re off to retrieve our elephants. Walking back into the jungle with the mahouts, I begin to sense the repetitiveness of their job, the continuous cycle of care. Wanalee is excited to see us coming with her sugarcane breakfast.
The morning is spent practising commands: moving forward, left and right, playing a xylophone, balancing on a log. This time when the show starts, I’m sitting up tall and waving at the crowd. I can tell they’re jealous of my relationship with Wanalee.
It’s only been two days, but I know many of the tricks she has up her trunk and just how many bananas it will take for her to do them.