Elephants at the Maetaeng Elephant Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Eak has been a mahout for twelve years. I have been one for two hours. With my ill-fitted jumpsuit, jumbled Thai phrases, and awkward mounting, it’s easy to tell who the expert is and who the novice is. Eak, on the other hand, is flawless—with his soft blue-jean overalls, oversized straw hat falling right over his left eye, knee-high leather boots caked in mud, and face smudged with dust and dirt, he looks just like what I’d imagine an elephant caregiver would look like. No one would ever suspect that Eak was once a successful computer scientist living in the city who, one day, came to ride an elephant, fell in love, quit his job, returned to the conservation center, and dedicated the rest of his life to becoming an elephant caregiver. He is smiling so brightly and so broadly that I can’t imagine him anywhere other than here.

“What’s your favorite part about elephants?” I ask him, squeezing out my sopping-wet blue-jean jumpsuit and shaking my hair dry. My shoes are squeaking on the dirt path. After a bareback ride through the jungles of Chiang Mai, I’ve just finished scrubbing down my new friend, four-year-old Bet, who has just squirted me directly in the face with his mischievous trunk and left me completely drenched. (This mischievous squirt was after he rolled over and splashed me while I was soaping his back with tree bark, mind you.). Looking behind me, I now see him jumping around with his mom and brother, looking even dustier—and just about as gleeful—as before I washed him. Though I’m soaked and freezing, I couldn’t feel any warmer inside.

One of the mahouts at Maetaeng

Eak seems surprised that I’d ever even consider asking him this. “My favorite part?” he repeats, a hint of mischief in his voice. “About elephants? Ooh. Everything. They’re smart. Gentle. Playful. You can have a relationship with them, and they become your family. They play, they paint, they dance, they snuggle, they say hello, they do everything we do.” If I’d ever had any doubt of Eak’s dedication to his elephants, I was now entirely convinced. This man was born to be a mahout.

As we walk back toward the bridge, I ask Eak a number of other questions. What does mahout really mean? How does one become a mahout? What does he like best about Maetaeng? Are other conservation centers this amazing with the work they do?

Learning to ride during our mahout training

The word mahout, he says, comes from the Hindi mahaut, which literally means “person who rides an elephant.” Traditionally, a mahout starts as a young boy when he is assigned his elephant, who will be his lifelong companion, and he learns to respond to the elephant’s every need through body language, shared commands, and nonverbal communication practices. Today, mahouts are still only male (except for girls when they take our class, Eak says, chuckling) but the boy can now begin at any age. We have mahouts of all ages here, he says. And volunteers, too, who just come to help.

Eak then tells me that he’s torn between what he loves best about his work: it’s a tie, he says, between the conservation aspect as well as the day-to-day caring for the elephants. He tells me about the sad pasts of some of the elephants they have saved through their conservation efforts, elephants like Ms. Thong Bai and Ms. Mai Kam Moon, two lady elephants who spent their early years in the harsh conditions of the unforgiving logging industry. He tells me about some of the uplifting stories, too, stories like Ms. Suda’s, who came to the center as one of the most talented trunk painters in Thailand. Her work on paper, silk, and t-shirts raises a lot of money for the center and helps support the holistic Elephant Clinic. Eak truly admires these resilient creatures, these animals who have been abused, overworked, put on display, and neglected but who are now well-adapted, happy members of the community here.

Playing with–and washing!–the elephants in the river after the ride

But Eak decides he is most in love with the day-to-day care of the elephants: the feeding, the grooming, the cleaning, the nursing, the playing. Only by working side-by-side with them, he says, do you really begin to understand how loving and majestic they are. “Did you know baby elephants take two years to grow inside their mamas before they are born?” he asks me. “And that they breastfeed for three years?” He points to Bet, who is rubbing his head against his mother’s enormous belly. “Your little boy there, Bet, just weaned off his mother, but he’ll stay by her side for the rest of her life. And he’ll stay with me, his mahout, for as long as I live. They live as long as we do, you know.” He pauses and gestures toward the elephant’s habitat area. “As our founder, Mr. Chailert once said, ‘little did I know when I embarked on this journey just what a rewarding and uplifting experience it would be.’” As we walk by the pen, one of the elephants sticks his huge trunk through the fence to say hello. Eak whispers something to the elephant and it slaps a big sloppy kiss on my neck with its trunk. Though it’s sloppy, wet, and slimy, I’m so amazed that an animal weighing more than a ton would delicately kiss a human that I’m not even bothered.

The Maetaeng Elephant Park began in 1996 with only 5 elephants. Today, they have 64 of them, with new babies on the way every day. Their work is truly remarkable.

Special barbeque lunch to welcome us to the park

During the one-day mahout course, we had a delicious barbeque lunch in the jungle, were serenaded by a guitarist, took a lesson in Thai phrases to use with our elephants, dressed in blue-jean jumpsuits like the mahouts do, practiced our commands with the elephants, rode bareback through the jungle, took our elephants down to the river, and played with them while we scrubbed and cleaned them. That’s one of the most beautiful aspects about the Maetaeng Elephant Park—their visitors must be as kind to the elephants as the elephants are to them. If you take the elephants on a ride, you must wash them in the river when you are finished. If they come up to you and give you a polite curtsy, you are expected to greet them with the same level of respect, your hands pressed together, your head bowed down. If they splash you in the water, they will wait for you to splash them back. It’s very humbling, really—Thai elephants are simply practicing the Thai way. Everything is reciprocal, part of a cycle, a moment of karma.

And, like Eak told me that day, “when you select the one you like most and give him a banana, he’ll be a friend for life because elephant never forgets.” If life is a series of actions and reactions, as the Buddhists tell us, Maetaeng is a profound reminder of how we can embody the righteous way.

Our small group left the conservation center shortly after we said goodbye to our elephants, showered, and returned our jumpsuits. We moved on to other activities, flew back to Bangkok, and shortly after, flew home. And though I’ve been home from Thailand for a few weeks now, it is a four-year-old elephant with floppy ears who stays with me. His soft ears, his prickly hair, his too-big feet, his flapping tail, his adorable little curtsy whenever someone greets him with a “Sa was dee!”….

So when I think of Thailand, I think of elephants. I think of little Bet, and I can’t help but wonder: Is he frolicking on his awkwardly large feet in the tall grasses? Sunning himself in the warm Thai sunshine? Getting his ears rubbed by Eak or one of the other mahouts? Spending time sleeping next to his mother? Taking another curious American girl on a ride through the jungle?

Maetaeng Elephant Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand and elephants—as inextricably linked today as they’ve been for the past thousand years. If only girls could be mahouts….

If you are interested in taking a mahout course, you can email the center at info@chiangmaielephants.asia. You can also read all about the elephants, meet the new babies, see who’s pregnant, and schedule your training at their English webpage here: http://www.chiangmaielephants.asia/. A day-long course like we did is 3,500 baht ($114) per person, and they limit their mahout courses to 4-6 people, so it’s recommended to book early. Bring a pair of shoes you don’t mind getting dirty, and good luck!

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Story and photographs by Kristin Mock. A special thanks to Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand for graciously hosting me on this trip and for introducing me to these very special animals.