Mahouts work with elephants in Southeast Asia, and when I was recently at the Anantara Resort in Chiang Rai, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn a few tricks of their trade. The Anantara is host to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, which rescues and rehabilitates elephants who have had difficult lives. At the Centre, the resident elephants help visitors like me get to know them better by patiently allowing us to train as amateur mahouts. We were assured that the elephants don’t mind – and I think the bananas we fed them certainly helped sweeten the deal.
My morning of mahout training started when our motley group of wannabe elephant handlers accompanied the real mahouts to wake up the gentle giants, who were patiently waiting for us in the forest. After the elephants had a quick bath in the river (we stayed on the dry riverbank and watched), they allowed us to climb onto their broad necks. That’s right, we rode the elephants as the real mahouts do – not in a basket chair but up near their heads!
For about two magical hours, I felt like a real mahout. I discovered how to climb onto my elephant (it wasn’t graceful but I did it!), learned some basic commands and, best of all, found that a gentle tap with a banana on my elephant’s forehead made him reach his trunk up to take the treat from my hand!
At the conclusion of our training, we dropped off the elephants at their daytime home at the Centre and thanked them with sugarcane and more bananas. It was the most memorable experience of my trip and I highly recommend that adventurous visitors to Chiang Rai try it!
– Christina Stubbs