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The Virgin Mahout

© Rodney Bolt
Unedited copy.
This article may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s permission.
It may not be downloaded or digitally shared.
For permission to publish or reproduce this story in any way, please contact Rodney Bolt via the Contact page on this site.

The Virgin Mahout

The barman winked, and offered me a bottle of rice whisky in which glinted a coiled cobra. A real one, long dead. Without a flinch I accepted the drink. My James Bond moment. I was feeling cocky. It’s not many visitors to Thailand who have just driven an elephant single-handed.

The Anantara Baan Boran resort in the Golden Triangle, in the far north of the country, offers courses in how to become a mahout (elephant handler). There’s a three day course, which results in a Certificate of Competence, or a single morning lesson to give you the rudiments. I had opted for that.

True mahouts take years to build up a relationship with their elephants. Their animals can perform complex tasks, in response to murmured instructions and the softest nudges. But over a morning you can pick up a core of basic commands.

The Anantara elephant camp is designed along the lines of traditional mahouts’ villages found in the hills of northern Thailand, from the days when logging employed most of the country’s elephants.

A ban on commercial logging some years ago put large numbers elephants out of work. Many ended up in illegal logging camps, where they were subjected to all manner of abuse, including force-feeding of amphetamines which enabled them to work long hours but lead to addiction and death. Others found themselves in cities, appearing at weddings and in festive processions, but generally poorly looked after.

The Anantara camp works in close association with the government-run Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, rescuing and caring for the animals. “Our primary concerns are elephant health, welfare and happiness,” explained camp co-ordinator John Roberts, an Englishman who wandered in to the Golden Triangle some years ago, and has stayed on with the elephants ever since. “Activities here give care and employment to animals that might otherwise lead terrible lives.”

Learning to be a mahout means a very early start. My wake-up call came just after dawn. The Anantara resort is situated high on a sliver of land overlooking the point where the Mekong and Ruak rivers meet, with views into both Laos and Burma. I peered out of the window. Mists rose from the Mekong valley, making the infinity-edge swimming pool appear part of the cloud tops. The surrounding forest was alive with exotic squawks and chirrups. As the sun warmed dew-damp vegetation, it released clouds of butterflies.

We bumped along a dirt track from the hotel to a clearing in the forest. A few wooden houses on stilts edged an open compound with a large pond. Hens pecked about in the sand. A mahout poked at a fire, filling the air with fragrant wood-smoke.

From the bamboo thickets on the hills around us came the sound of banging, as if someone were knocking on the jungle door. “It’s the elephants,” said John, “letting us know they’re hungry.”

Taking a few sticks of sugar cane we climbed a steep muddy path, negotiating dollops of elephant poo, to fetch our steeds. The elephants followed their mahouts back downhill for a bath – first a dusting with green bamboo leaves, then a scrub and a frolic in the pond. Then it was time to begin.

My elephant’s name was Lawan, a pretty creature with pink freckly skin on the frills of her ears and a tuft of bristly black hair on her head. John taught us “song soong!” – the words that instruct the elephant to raise one foreleg. Using Lawan’s knee as a step, and with one hand clutching the top of her ear, I hauled myself up to sit astride her neck. A nudge of my foot behind the ear would be part of the method of telling her to turn.

Suitably seated, we learned the commands for ‘forward’, ‘turn’, ‘backwards’ and ‘halt’. There was an uneasy moment when I confused the instruction for stop with reverse, and nearly did for Lawan’s mahout, who was watching carefully from behind us. But within a couple of hours I was managing a shaky slalom between wooden posts beside the pond. Finally I was allowed to take Lawan on a solo trip, back up the hill to the hotel for breakfast (my breakfast). I have never pulled up outside a lobby in greater style.

The rest of the morning was spent in the spa. If you think horse-riding without practice leaves you sore, just imagine what straddling an elephant does to your thigh muscles. After a good kneading and steaming, though, I was ready for a quick trip to Laos.

A loophole in the law allows daytrips to both Laos and Burma without visa formalities, and the Anantara organises tours – to villages in Burma and by long-tail boat across the river to the Laotian island of Don Sao.

For an hour or so I explored the island market, where silks, lacquer-ware boxes and carvings were on sale for a fraction of the price in Thai cities. Then the barman at an open-air bar caught my eye – and offered me that whisky with its coiled cobra.

© Rodney Bolt
Unedited copy.
This article may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s permission.
It may not be downloaded or digitally shared.
For permission to publish or reproduce this story in any way, please contact Rodney Bolt via the Contact page on this site.