For the last two months in Thailand, I had rejected any offer of riding, seeing, touching or feeding any elephants. I had saved myself for today! I had spent considerable time researching the kind of elephant activities that were on offer in Chiang Mai and it was actually in Phuket that I came across a blog about ‘Woody Elephant Training.’ I was instantly sold on the idea, the photos looked fantastic and there was none of this hideous sitting in cages on the elephants back while it goes in circles for 11 hours a day. In this one day (up to 3 day) activity, you are taught the Thai commands for controlling the elephant, how to ride bareback, how to feed, care for and bathe the elephant. By the time the morning arrived I was SO excited. It was only a 1hour journey in the Sangethaew where we got the chance to meet our fellow Mahouts and the all important Woody, who tried convincing us that he 47 – he had us going for a while! We soon arrived in the most beautiful jungle setting, away from traffic and all other civilisation. We were at Woody’s family home that looked out over the thick forest and a lake; I could see why he was a happy chappy.
Woody, The Man Himself
After changing into our sexy navy Mahout uniforms, we gathered around the table on the picturesque balcony for the low down. Amongst jokes, Woody told us some interesting info about his elephants – they were once logging elephants for starters and he had a bought them for around 22 thousand Baht each, around 15 years ago! When they first arrived at their new home, they were completely untameable and it took a great deal of training before people were allowed to interact with them. He told us about how other companies hide the fact they use hooks to control the elephants from the tourists, because they know tourists don’t like to imagine the animal being abused in any way. But he didn’t want to lie to us and he assured us that the hook is essential for training the elephant, and that in the early days it was necessary to use the hook to inflict small amounts of pain, so that the elephant is always aware who is boss. Without the use of hooks, elephants would have no fear and they would pose considerable danger to people. And it would certainly never be possible for strangers to ride them. Now they are trained the hook is never used against the elephants in an aggressive way and the elephants are never aggressive towards people. Instead the hook is used just as a threat and it also aids in manoeuvring the beast, much like a horse and a whip – same same but different. He also told us that they do want to be free and as much as he would like to let them roam the land as they once did, he can’t allow them. All the land is owned, by farmers in particular and if the elephants repeatedly venture onto their farmland, destroying their produce and livelihood then they will be shot. If the elephants break free from their chains and stray onto other land then Woody punishes them by giving them no affection, only food and water for two days and he says that this is a good method of teaching them, as elephants like human affection. And he finished with “and if you think you love elephant more than me, you crazy” the elephants were really part of his family.
Next we needed to learn the Thai Commands. Armed with pen and paper we wrote down what we heard:
Yop Kaa – Lift foot up Soon – Higher Bonsoon – open mouth Yut – Stop Baai – Let’s go Qua – Right Sai – Left Toi – Back
The Commands, In One Ear Out the Other
I wrote them on the back of my hand, I knew I would forget them once I was up there!
Next, it was time to meet those faithful pachyderms. They….were…HUGE! I know it’s a stupid thing to say, of course they are, they are elephants! But wow! Woody introduced us to them all, but unfortunately I can’t remember their names, they were all in Thai. He then hacked up some sugar cane and it was time to try the “Bonsoon” command. I walked over “Bonsoon” and the elephant opened its huge mouth, I couldn’t see any teeth, just a giant slobbery tongue. I had to place the sugar cane at the back of its shelf like tongue and my hand got covered in slobber. Its tongue wasn’t rough like I had expected, it was entirely the opposite, it was as smooth as the inside of my cheek. I then got a massive kiss on the face from its trunk, its skin felt like bark. It was an amazing feeling to touch an elephant for the first time. Everyone got kisses and love from all the elephants and return they got their favourite sugarcane treats. They are so gentle and well behaved and when I looked closely into one of the elephants tiny eyes, I could see it was looking back in an accepting way.
After feeding, the elephants were freed and they began to take up certain formations so we could give them a hug, while Woody took photos – two of them even made a seat with their trunks and lifted me up into the air! Next were kisses from two elephants at once and they draped their giant trunks like arms over my shoulders. It was great, and the elephants really didn’t seem to mind the attention, in fact they seemed to love it! I think this had to be among one of the best experiences of my life! It was now time to try out the commands.
My First Elephant Hug
Meeting the Elephants
An Experience of a Lifetime
Of course I was directed, with Ste, to the largest of all the elephants. It towered above me as I took its ear in my right hand and some skin in my left. I kicked at the back of its leg with my left foot “Yop Kaa” I shouted with the instructor and it bent its leg backwards and raised its knee up. I put my left foot onto the back of its knee and my right foot on the front “Soon” I shouted and it raised its knee up and with considerable help from my instructor I managed to slither and hoist myself up. I was SO HIGH! I shuffled down onto its neck, as far forward as I could, until my knees were touching the back of her ears. She then handed me the hook from the floor with her trunk…how convenient! The first lesson was to practice the stop command – so left hand on the elephants head, simultaneously bring the hook down gently onto the elephant’s forehead “YUT.” It was difficult to get the correct amount of force when bringing down the hook, in no way were we supposed to hurt the elephant, just make it aware of the hook. Next was turning her full circle to the right – so left hand goes flat on the head, with the right hand reach the hook to the side of the head, right next to the ear and pull to the right, while kicking with the left leg “QUA!” I shouted and the elephant did as I instructed and when she had circled 360 degrees “YUT” and she stopped….of course with some help from the instructors.
The command for turning left was the same as turning right, except the opposite way round and calling ‘SAI.”
It was all very well being able to turn my elephant left and right, but I wouldn’t be getting very far very quickly without the forward command. I jumped back on board, getting up was a little easier this time! First I reversed her – the hook is placed lower down on the forehead while shuffling the bum backwards “TOI” and then came forward – place the hook flat across the top of the head, kick the ears with both feet and shout “BAI” These are the basics of riding an elephant.
It was time for the pachyderms to have a rest and so we broke for lunch. There was a great spread awaiting us on the balcony, but I think everyone had lost their appetite! Maybe they were nervous about riding elephants? I wasn’t nervous, just excited! I couldn’t wait for lunch to be over so we could get out there. I recited my commands which were still going in one ear and out the other. We were given straw hats to complete our look and then it was time.
The Elephant Doesn't Look Impressed
Just Chilling in the Shade
Measuring the Elephants Height
Needs some Palmers on This Leather Skin
Loving the Attention
It was two people to each elephant and each elephant had one guide. We now had the second largest elephant and Ste was up on top first and perched on the back which meant I was up second and first to ride! Once we were all seated we took off into the jungle. The path had been trekked a lot and so it was clear, we weren’t forging a new path which was probably a good thing for us beginners. It is surprisingly easy to balance on top of an elephant, I mean its head is just HUGE and its neck is equally a wide and plus I really really didn’t want to fall from that height. We rode for half an hour before stopping at what can only be decribed as a wooden dilapidated shack, on stilts. Climbing the crumbling stairs to get up was more dangerous than riding the elephants. Woody prepared more sugar cane and palm stems for them to eat and they stretched their huge trunks through the holes in the woodwork to steal some food. Woody also had some tamarind seeds and so he lit a fire sing bamboo to cook them for us to try; pretty chewy like burnt popcorn.
Palm Stalk, The Elephants Loved it
Cooking Tamarind Seeds
Our chariot awaited and Ste was in the driving seat this time. I think he was little nervous at first, but he soon got into it. The sun was shining and there we were, plodding through some open jungle with the hills rolling into the distance. It was so peaceful up there almost like a dream. The wind sighed around us lifting our hats from our heads and casting them into the bushes, luckily the elephants were there to pass them back up.
Heading into the Jungle
Woo! The Silly Hats Make you Ride Better
Fully Fledged Mahouts
We plodded down to the river, where the elephants were fed once again and then it was bath time! The elephants lay in the river on their sides and it was our job to give them a thorough scrubbing. My elephant really looked like it was loving this life of pampering and she lay perfectly still even when I washed around her eyes, her long eyelashes collecting the droplets of water. After a good half hour of scrubbing it was water fight time and I sat on her back and when the instructor gave the command she hosed me with an entire trunk full of cold water. I was wetting myself with laughter and when Ste jumped on she continued until there wasn’t an inch of me that was dry! Being drenched by an elephant is something that doesn’t happen everyday…we then had a water fight and the more we splashed the small elephant with water the more it soaked us back, but we ended up grabbing its trunk and aiming it in each other’s faces! Who needs a water pistol when you’ve got an elephant super soaker!
Rub a Dub Dub
Elephant Super Soaker
A swim in the deep lake was sadly the last event of the day and by now the sun was starting to set across the lake. Our elephants followed in a line down into the lake and every time our instructor shouted a command it submerged itself entirely under the water. Good job it was warm, the water was up to our waists! Everyone was in hysterics as we bobbed around and did an entire circuit of the lake. My elephant’s skin felt much softer now she had been the water and as she emerged her skin was glowing in the dusky light. The bristles on her head weren’t so sharp now also.
Getting Soaked in the Lake
Nice and Clean After Her Dip
It was nearly time to say farewell and so we posed for a soggy looking group photo. There was one last laugh to be had as an elephant swirled it trunk around me and lifted me into the air! AMAZING! It truly was an amazing day. I was so sad to leave, knowing there are no opportunities in the UK to do things like this – too dangerous? Too boring…I dragged my aching legs into the Sangethaew. I couldn’t wait to share my experience with mum and dad.
Can't Say Ive HAd This Happen Before
I Hope She Doesn't Sprain Her Truck