Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Elephants!! Day 1 of Mahout Training...

So I awoke at 7am, feeling like absolute poop due to the cold I’d come down with from being wet for the last 5 days. I emailed Nalinrat to see if she could move the elephants to tomorrow instead as I wasn’t sure I’d be up for it and as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity I wanted to really enjoy it and get involved. But I kinda had a feeling she may not see the message in time so I got up and packed and checked out anyways just in case. Turns out I was right, and sods law the pickup arrived 15mins early, so I hadn’t packed properly, hadn’t paid my accommodation or checked out so the poor guide had to wait until I’d done it.

Then I just gave myself a mental talking to and told myself to suck it up – you’re not allowed and don’t have time to feel ill when travelling, you better make sure you enjoy these 3 days!

Nalinrat, bless her, got my message after I’d been picked up and phoned the guide and asked to speak to me so she apologised (even though she didn’t have to – I was actually feeling a bit better) and gave me loadsa tips and to continue taking the medicine she gave me last night bless her! Nalinrat is such a selfless, amazing woman, I’m so privileged to have met her and got to know her.

So we picked up another 9 people, a group of 4 Americans, one American girl Devon, who became my Elephant partner in crime, an older Australian couple and a woman from Vienna. Then we had a 45min journey to Baanchang Elephant Camp, so I got a bit of kip in.

When we arrived we were given our Mahout training clothes – denim top and cut-off trousers – I looked well sexy, and told to change. Then we were given an introduction to the park, they currently have 26 rescue elephants, who’ve been bought from loggers, rescued from poachers, circuses, street begging etc, which is an expensive job. To take an Elephant out of captivity and into care, it costs an average 1.5 million Baht (around £30,000), plus the upkeep, food etc. The food for the camp they source from local villages, the Elephants are given free time and the only way to keep them from boredom once out of captivity is creating sustainable tourism. Our Mahout guide taught us about Asian Elephants (they have smaller tusks, more toenails etc than African Elephants).

They have only had one baby born in the camp in the last 8 years, they never force them to mate, if an elephant likes another elephant they allow them to chose and be free. Some of the elephants have come from very troubled pasts and so they have to separate them from the main herd, as they attack the other elephants. There was one female who is 22 months pregnant and due to give birth soon, so she is not allowed to be ridden or walked too much, the Mahouts and a vet are always present at birth so as the mother (they’re normally all first time mothers) don’t get scared and kill their own baby. One of the Elephants is blind in one eye from mistreatment. They only allow people to ride the elephants bare back for no more than half an hour, as riding them any other way or for longer is uncomfortable and stressful for them. There is one Mahout to each elephant and they all have a special bond, for example they can recognise their voice and some won’t take commands from anyone else. You could tell, even though they were chained up by their foot during feeding time (so they don’t trample around while all the tourists and volunteers are there, which could be quite dangerous, imagine 26 elephants let loose on a bunch of strangers to them) you could tell they were treated well, fed well and each mahout really cared for their elephant. They only carry sharp sticks in case they misbehave, as Christ if an elephant went mental it could really hurt you. I never saw them use the stick once during the whole day, which is good as when I first arrived I was a little apprehensive about how they’d be treated, you hear so many bad things and I really hoped I’d chosen the right place.

It was then feeding time and so we chose an elephant; me and Devon chose a baby elephant, 5 years old, who’d been rescued from a circus. We tried feeding him banana’s but he wasn’t having any of it, so then we got some sugar cane and bang, he was suddenly very hungry! So we fed and cuddled him. I got a lot of elephant kisses and snot on me, he also took a particular liking to my left boob, which he kept sucking on, or kissing, I couldn’t quite tell, which the mahout found hilarious. I then fed a few other young elephants and got a few more kisses, and fed grandma who was 74 years old.

Then we were given a talk about how to command the elephants, which would come in useful for our walk after lunch. We were told some basic safety things, taught by the mahouts how to get on and off the elephant (they crouch down and keep a foot out for you to hoist yourself up but you have to do it quickly as they don’t like to be down long) and then we were allowed a try ourselves. I got our mischievous baby elephant we’d fed which was nice, as by now we’d established a special bond, what with the boob touching and all. So we had two goes at getting on and off, and you sit on their necks/shoulders, but the little ones you have to sit on their backs a bit further back as they aren’t able to take the weight yet. And then were taught the main basic commands which were;

Nong Long for ‘lie down’ which enables you to get on and off
Pai, which means go forward
Kuay, which means turn and then you kick your leg against its ear in the direction you want to go (left leg means turn right, right leg turn left)
And then the most important one, Hoy, which means ‘stop’, and you have to press both legs into their bodies while saying it.

So then we had a go at walking them around the enclosure, using the commands. It went pretty smoothly actually but I think it helped that we had the mahouts next to us helping. The older elephant who was blind in one eye, had a funny way of stopping, she would always turn full circle before lying down to let you off or on. We think it perhaps had something to do with her past or maybe because she was blind, she wanted to check her surroundings were safe before lowering herself to the ground. It was funny to watch people get spun around while on her back.

We then had lunch which was amazing, sweet and sour chicken, a vegetable soup, rice and fried chicken. A thunderstorm had also started so we sheltered from the rain while we were given half hour of ‘downtime’ after lunch before our walk through the jungle. Then it was time to jump aboard our elephants and set off on our walk, which was used as a part of their daily exercise. So we left our flip flops behind, and off we set, the walk lasted half an hour and was up some pretty steep hills into the jungle – going down was scary as all you had to keep you on them was putting your hands on their heads, and you couldn’t press too hard as it could startle them. So you’re trying to stay on, not push down on them too hard and keep your balance, plus not allow your legs to tense as otherwise it confuses them into stopping! This is hard work! We also kept getting covered in their constant trunk squirts, which I was telling myself, it’s just dirty water, not snot!

We stopped halfway for a rest and then continued down to the river, where it was bath time!! So in the elephants get, they are playing with their mahouts, squirting water on each other and then we’re given buckets and a scrub brush and told to just get in and get wet! So we did! We scrubbed them down, which is to get rid of any ticks and fleas, threw buckets of water on them, had water fights with the mahouts. We were scrubbing and bathing for at least half an hour and it was so lovely to see them happy, cool and having fun!

That was then the end of day 1, a great introduction to these amazing mammals. We were given towels and me and Devon were shown to our rooms, as we were both staying the night (I was staying for 2 nights). Someone had knicked Devon’s expensive flipflops which she wasn’t happy about, but our rooms were awesome – we had our own rooms, ensuite, it was like a little cottage, with a chillout area on the massive balcony, tea, coffee, water etc. We were told that 4 other people would be joining us later so we both went to shower, I had a little power nap as I was knackered and then woken up by the others arriving – 4 girls from the UK, Esme, Kaytlin, Amy and Sarah, who’d done the trekking and were doing the elephants tomorrow. So we all just went onto the balcony and chatted, exchanged travel stories and drank cups and cups of coffee as we were all so tired, until dinner at 7pm. It’s amazing sometimes how within the first couple hours of meeting people, you feel like you’ve known them for ages and you also have some really intelligent conversations!!

Dinner again was amazing, we had chicken curry, omelette, rice, a spicy chicken and vegetable dish and fresh pineapple for desert. Then we stayed downstairs chatting and messing around until around 9pm when we all called it a night. That’s one of the things I love most about travelling, you’ll be on your own for 45mins and the moment you start chatting to someone, that trip or city excursion or hostel, becomes the best place ever and the people your best friends. Today was one of those moments, meeting awesome girls, with awesome travel stories, of all different ages, having great chats and sharing a memorable day/days together, we’d probably never meet again after this experience, but we’d always look back and say, I had an awesome time, with awesome people – I wonder where they are, what they are doing now. I’ve had so many of those moments on my travels (Song Kran, North Vietnam, Philippines, India etc) with, as someone once put it,  ’24 hour friends’, but sometimes those are the best moments and the best people and it’s all you need, and I hope I continue to have those moments during the next 4 months of ‘travelling’ before working in Australia!

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