Just got back from the elephant camp and what a fantastic experience! The camp itself is beautiful with lots of information on the conservation of elephants and lovely sala's and shady areas to sit in and of course the views are beautiful. The group for the mahout course was limited to 8 and we had a good group of 4 Australians and a Dutch couple with us.
The first thing you do after a quick briefing is to take it in turns to have a go on the back of an elephant. You sit on its neck and the mahout is walking alongside you but you are meant to give the instructions. You quickly learn Phi for forward and Hough for stop! The biggest challenge for me was getting up there, it really is a long way up (or down again)!! The elephants are taught to hold their right leg up for you to make it easier. There is nothing to hold on to and you have to hold on with your knees bent behind their ears.
After the practice session you went is pairs on one of the elephants but with the seat (houda) which felt like luxury. The ride was into the river and through the countryside and local villages. After lunch it was then time for all eight of the group to have a jungle trek with the elephants to take them back to the area where they sleep. After a short boat ride and walk we met the elephants all with their mahouts. There was then a very speedy selection process of who went on which elephant and beofre you knew it you were off on the jungle path with your elephant.
Neil went with the elephant and mahout who we had been with that morning and I was with Mae BaeKhan who was 36 years old. All the elephants are female and have been rescued from hard labour and bad conditions in logging camps. Neil's had been particularly badly treated; they suspected she had been given drugs to make her work harder and had lost her sight in the one eye. Mae Baekan and her mahout had been together for 20 years, longer than he has been with his wife. I think they both realised that I felt out of my comfort zone up there, even if it was wonderful at the same time and she kept wrapping her ears round my legs which felt very comforting!
After taking the elephant's back we had a walk back and then a boat ride to a waterfall for a swim. In the evening we were taken to the local village where we were all invited for some beer and the local snack which is river weed cooked with sesame seeds before heading back to dinner and a chance to swap stories of the day as well as travel tales or tips with the other group members.
It was a really early start this morning as we had to hike back up the jungle track to meet our elephants and their mahouts. Seeing the elephants appear out of the early morning mist was quite magical. They are so huge but gentle and soulful at the same time. After another scrabble up onto Mae Bhakhan we had a fairly long ride to take them to the river for bath time. The ride was so peaceful and I felt more relaxed on her back then the day before. Mind you, I know I've not missed my vocation as a mahout, they are soo nimble and good at balancing and that is not me! A love of the elephants wouldn't be enough unfortunately. Bath time was great fun and you got to give them a good scrub which they all obviously loved. Funny though how the mahouts stayed dry, crouching on their backs while we all got soaked.
It was really quite sad to say goodbye at the end and but we thanked our elephants with some bananas and they were then off for the next group. I think this has to be one of the highlights of the trip so far and certainly an experience I won't ever forget.