Learning to Train an Elephant in Thailand

An Elephant Training School in Chiang Mai, Thailand

By David Rich

The author almost falls off his elephant, Piajaub. Photos by David Rich
The author almost falls off his elephant, Piajaub. Photos by David Rich

I can identify with kids who hunger to join the circus. Personally, I’ve always wanted to boss around elephants. When I stumbled onto the website for a mahout school an hour south of Chiang Mai, Thailand, I knew I’d found my ideal backup profession: elephant trainer supreme.

I grabbed the Elephant Conservation Center’s first available three-day course, arriving with half a dozen excited students: a young German couple, Dutch sisters, a miniature Japanese girl and me.

Supat, the course manager, escorted us to our home-stay quarters and handed out schedules listing the 14 basic elephant commands, none of which I could begin to pronounce. First hurdle: darn Thai elephants only speak Thai.

A Good-Natured Matriarch

We donned baggy pants and spiffy shirts in bright blue denim, instant mahouts-in-training. Then came the big moment, an introduction to “our” elephants. I solemnly shook Piajaub’s trunk and she shook me down for bananas.

Piajaub was a good-natured matriarch, 72-years young, a feisty 5-ton behemoth of a blimp with a nose for trouble. Her occasional sudden gallops and frisking of fellow elephants were attributed to out-of-kilter hormones.

Uta, the German woman, and one of the nearly identical Dutch sisters drew elephants that relegated them to living on gray submarines. When bathing, their elephants would sink, leaving them soaked to the tops of their frazzled blonde heads.

Still, Uta loved every minute, wearing the widest grin for three straight days. The Japanese girl was assigned a near-baby elephant making them the cutest matched set. And we were off to the races.

First assignment, second hurdle, demand song soong and climb up the big-gray skyscraper from the side, onto the horny hairy head. When I’d pronounce song soong correctly, Piajaub would lift a huge front leg as a step stool. I’d leap and she’d lift, half tossing me onto her back.

A mahout-in-training clowns with a ball of bleached elephant dung.
A mahout-in-training clowns with a ball of bleached elephant dung.

The Fourteen Commands

The execution of song soong assumed the immaculate coordination I‘d never had, affording a plentiful opportunity for repetition. Next came tag long, jumping down over her lowered head. Then non-long, instructing Piajaub to lay down, requiring a scramble to avoid her sprawling on top of me. Every day we’d practice and repeat our 14 commands, sometimes to good effect.

On the first trek into the jungle, we quickly learned the most repeated command is bai, which means “GO.” The jungle to an elephant is like a chocolate factory to a Willie Wonka kid; every jungle bit is luscious, edible and available.

An elephant the size of Piajaub devours 200 kilos (440 lbs.) of fodder a day, an enormity of leaves, bananas and sugar cane. The Conservation Center’s fifty-elephant results are reams of elephant dung paper.

Making Elephant Dung Paper

Our next assignment was the joy of making paper. Fortunately, the near-National Basketball Association-sized dung had been bleached and washed before, up to our elbows, we re-molded it into 400 gram (one pound) balls. We remixed the pure fiber with water and jell and swished it onto screens for drying into elegant papers tie-dyed into a millennium of pastel hues.

An elephant draws an elephant with a mahout on board.
An elephant draws an elephant with a mahout on board.

The only downer was visiting the elephant hospital. About half the bulky gray patients had stepped on landmines littering the Thai/Myanmar border. The more unlucky half had become constipated. Landmine wounds eventually heal but a bowel-constricted elephant is often on the shortlist for the big tusk depository in the sky.

Elephants play so well together and with their mahouts that they become big gray dust bunnies. Our last duty at night, after trekking into the jungle, and first in the morning when retrieving our charges, was to bathe the elephants.

For the elephants, bathing was pure relaxation and playtime. For mahouts-in-training it was dodging exuberant trunk showers and playing submarine while attempting to avoid bobbing paper-wannabees.

An Evening’s Bliss of Munchables

The evening jungle trek ended with chaining our elephant to a tree surrounded by an evening’s bliss of munchables and dirt to roll in. On the trek in we’d bob high through the green morass and snarl, chains rattling, as our elephants galumphed majestically through the foliage. Sitting on the chain loops branded our butts like Cheerios strung across a bowl of milk.

The work of an elephant Picasso
The work of an elephant Picasso

In the mornings we’d tote in 10-foot (3 meters) sugarcane treats to begin the jolly giants’ day in a good mood. First, we’d unhook the chain and bark, “Non long.”

When the elephants played dead, sugarcane clamped in their jaws, we’d whomp them with bundles of branches to dust off the night’s accumulation of dirt. Then we’d mount up and galumph off for the splish-splash of their happy morning bath.

Show Time for the Tourists

Every day was showtime for the tourists flocking worldwide to the Elephant Conservation Center. I sat with Supat as he busily clicked his eight-megabyte Canon Digital camera at what must have been the thousandth time he’d watched the show.

Utterly curious, I asked why he was still so enamored of elephants. He lowered the camera a split second and said, “Because they’re so danged smart.”

Supat was right on, illustrated twice daily at showtime. Four elephants have formed their own jazz band, working on improvisations with marimba, gong, drums, cymbals, and percussion, tutored by a jazz aficionado from New York City two weeks a year.

Budding Picassos pen bouquets of daffodils and abstracts. One precocious big gray chap produces a meticulous self-portrait with mahout perched on top. The elephants are unaided in their art; the mahout’s only role is to dab paint on the brush.

Raising the Blue Flag

The drummer for the elephant's jazz combo
The drummer for the elephant’s jazz combo

The daily shows begin with a baby elephant raising the blue elephant flag. The elephants gently place a hat on their mahout’s head, kick around a log, stack logs, balance on logs, play a concert, paint and generally cavort like kids in a chocolate factory.

The mahouts-in-training put their elephants through routines: grab a floppy ear and jump up their sides, sliding off over their trunks, backing up their elephants and dropping spikes for the elephants to retrieve.

On the third day those who don’t flub will receive their diplomas, graduating to full-fledged mahouts.

Several nameless mahouts-in-training never properly learned the impossible-to-perfectly-pronounce Thai commands.

Though Supat patiently took us through the unfamiliar words, after days of drill some of us necessarily turned inventive. We memorized the show-time routine followed faithfully and perfectly by our brilliant elephants, a mental crib-sheet for graduation.

A Three-Day Smile

As we stood in the spotlights before the cheering crowd and accepted our diplomas, we realized that we, along with Uta, had been smiling for three straight days. Far more than qualifying in a backup profession, we were the world’s newest and happiest mahouts.

When You Enroll in the School for Mahouts: there is usually a month’s wait, and sign up. Supat has posted great photos and detailed descriptions of the various programs offered at the Elephant Conservation Center.

The three-day course, including excellent Thai home-cooking, is $100, all-inclusive. Plus Supat, photography-nut extraordinaire, provides each graduate mahout with a DVD of 1200 photos. These candid shots immortalize their happy little group for a reasonable $12.50. Sign up for a three-day smile.

Should You Ride an Elephant in Thailand?


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top
Skip to content