We have just got back from the Elephant Conservation Centre just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we did a 3 day Mahout training course. It was fantastic!
The morning we arrived we met our Mahouts (each working elephant has a Mahout who is assigned to them when they are about 3 years old. They work as a team for life, and the Mahout is responsible for training and looking after the elephant). Then they brought out Wanali, an 11 year old female (Emily's elephant) and Pankod, a 27 year old female (mine).
Then it was straight into training. The first thing they taught us was how to mount and dismount from the elephants. To get up we had to reach up and grab the top of an ear with one hand, then shout "Song Soong" and the elephant would lift it's front leg up so that we could stand on that and pull ourselves up onto the back of it's neck. Then we tucked our knees behind their ears and were (relatively) stable. To dismount we could do the same in reverse or (much more fun) we could swing our legs onto the elephants forehead, holding on to the ears and shout "Tag Long", at which point they would bow their heads right down so that you could slide down their trunk to the ground.
The mahouts went through all the commands that we would have to use in the tourist show later that morning (they put on 3 shows a day to demonstrate what the elephants can do) like sit down ("nung long"), lie down on belly ("Map long"), lie down on side - not a good one to do whilst still sat on the elephant! - ("non long"). They also taught us how to ask the elephants to pick things up and pass them to us, and other general commands ie go, stop, slow down.
After all that hard work we all went down to the lake for a bath which was great fun. They seem to love the water, and promptly soaked us all. If they weren't spraying us from their trunks, they were diving right underwater totally immersing themselves and drenching the Mahout and trainee on their back!
Bathtime was effectively the beginning of the show with a group of tourists spectating from the bank. Then with Emily's Wanali leading the way beating a drum wth her trunk, all the elephants formed a procession, holding each others tails, up to the showground (just like the dawn patrol in Jungle Book!). We took part in the first part of the show doing the simple stuff we had learnt, then the real Mahouts took over and demonstrated the kind of work the elephants did in the (now illegal) logging trade. It was amazing to see the sheer strength of them pushing, kicking and lifting the enormous logs around, and the precision with which they lined the logs up and lifted them into piles.
After the demo, they did a few party tricks - like painting pictures, playing musical instruments, turning taps on and off to get a drink - then the show was over and it was time to get some treats (sugar cane and bananas) off the visitors!
The rest of the day was spent practising and messing around in the water, plus another show then we rode them out to the forest where they spend the night.
In our spare time we went to see the elephant hospital on site where the centre offers free treatment to any Thai elephants. There was also a nursery there with a desperately cute 5 month old and his mother.
We went to collect the elephants from the forest at dawn the next morning, and after brushing them down with leaves took them for an early morning bath. Then it was back to the centre for a breakfast of banana plant stalk and sugacane galore.
The next couple of days followed the same pattern of training, baths and shows and before we knew it we had to say goodbye :o( We had only been there for 3 days but got very attached to our elephants and were so sad to leave. We miss you Pankod and Wanali!!!