Hobbes (kitling) wrote,

Travel Diary - Days 9-11 - TECC

Today was the reason we were in the north of Thailand. We headed to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) for a three day adventure with elephants. This place came highly recommended by friends as the place to go for elephant adventures. They are home to a free elephant hospital and provide a living for elephants, mahouts and their families. Elephants and mahouts were significantly impacted by the banning of elephants in the timber industry, forcing them to resort to tourism for a living. This post got really long, so you may need some time to read it.

TECC is set up in several parts. The main bit offers elephant rides, an elephant show where elephants perform doing tricks including painting, playing music, throwing balls around, etc. There is a baby nursery were you can pay to buy bunches of food to feed the elephants. There was a museum that was closed for repairs. There was a factory that makes elephant poo paper and there were lots of shops selling souvineers. I would have pretty much turned my nose up at this point. This section is entirely about making money and getting the elephants to perform tricks for the public didn’t sit well with me. There was no talk about the elephants as majestic creatures, no talk about conservation efforts or the good work the hospital does.

They also offer ‘mahout training’ and this was what we had wanted to do. You spend time living with the mahouts and their families. You learn the basic elephant commands and follow round the mahout and do what he does, this includes cleaning up elephant poo. However, the mahout training was booked out, so we signed up for a ‘jungle trek’ instead which was the alternative offered to us.

On the first day we rocked up at the venue, early in the morning, and promptly got lost. After some futzing around we finally ended up at the mahout training school. They couldn’t find our booking, they did not seem to know how much money we still had to pay. They had received Tina’s request that we get specific elephants however. We were introduced to Mango – our guide, he spoke some English and was essentially our translator for the entire three days, he followed us around and told us what to do. He had another English student called Joe who he was training, and Jo followed us around as well, his English was quite poor.

We then joined a group of students who were from an International School in Hong Kong who were doing a version of the mahout training, and why things were booked out. We were given a talk about the elephants personalities and an introduction to the basic commands, which were in Thai, so we needed to learn some Thai. People had their elephants assigned, although we were given the two elephants that Tina had requested. Bear was assigned an elephant called Jumpui – he was a huge tusker who was 42 years old. I was given Prathida, she was 19 and about 12months pregnant. We were shown how to mount the elephant. If you have trouble getting up, this gets fairly undignified with your mahout pushing you up. We then rode around on the elephant a bit practicing the various commands. Things like go forwards, turn, stop, pick up the thing I dropped, etc. Really though, I’m pretty sure the elephant mainly obeys the mahout.

Getting on an elephant is not graceful.


But once you are up there, they will pick up things you have dropped

Or get bored of picking up things and turn on the tap for a drink instead.

We then got taken up to the main bit of the complex. Here we got to watch the elephants bathing, watch the elephant show and learn how to make elephant dung paper.

Elephant painting

The elephant poo paper was actually fairly fascinating. They get the dung, dry it, bleach it, dry it, rinse repeat three times. Then they dilute the poo, which is naturally very fiberous, and spread it on thin sieves, which are then set to dry and turn into paper. As we were with the school group still, the cries of ‘eeww’ from the children being asked to mix elephant dung with water and spread it on the sieves was very funny.


We were shown the hospital and the elephant nursery. Then it was back to the mahout school to ride our elephants down to the lake to bathe them. This involves getting very wet.

Feeding the elephants at the elephant nursery

Bathing the elepants

We then were sent off to the resort, as even though we had booked homestay, they were full with the school group, so we were sent to the resort.

The next morning we were up nice and early for a sunrise swim with the elephants, then breakfast, and then a jungle trek.


Riding an elephant is like nothing else you have ever done. I’m glad I’d spent all that time cycling, I needed the leg strength. You sit on its neck, with your knees up behind its head. Elephants are hairy and I found the hair itchy. They move and you move with them, they are tall and powerful. It is very different from riding a horse, but the same balance and ability to move with the animal that you get from horse riding comes in useful. You feel top of the world and riding into the jungle on an elephant is a magical experience.

We rode approximately 6km into the jungle and arrived at a mahout camp. The brochure said that this was a camp site used by mahouts working in the logging industry, but I am pretty sure it was custom built. It comprised of a series of bamboo platforms on stilts with woven palm leaf roofs. There was a fairly basic toilet block made from asbestos sheeting with a tap in each toilet room. There was a camp kitchen and log tables.



The camp kitchen

I think this is the bit that would have been more interesting if we had of been part of a larger group. No one else was booked on the elephant trekking so it was just me and Bear, our two English ‘guides’, the two mahouts and two housekeeping staff, a guy who ran the BBQ and a woman who cooked all the other food. We felt well and truly out numbered, we tried to offer to help with any of the preparations, but were told we didn’t need to help, and there was more than enough people to set up. So we sat around while lunch was cooked, we tried to wander off to explore a bit, but were told not to wander into the jungle, which limited our exploration area.

We were asked if we wanted to have lunch with the staff, or by ourselves, so we opted to join the staff. This bit was more fun, everyone sitting around on a mat in the kitchen eating with fingers. Food was rice, meat and some greens. You grabbed a leaf and wrapped the rice and meat in it. They didn’t do so great at vegetarian. I got a fried egg to go with my rice and greens.

We then all had a nap.

That afternoon we went on a walk to a small waterfall. There was some hiking through the forest, then we came upon a waterfall. It was a fairly small trickle. But the pool water was cool and fresh and swimming was an option. As the only girl, I wasn’t stripping down to my underwear like everyone else did however.


We came back to the camp site, there was some more sitting around relaxing. I’m glad I brought my Kindle.

Then the mahouts started making things out of bamboo. These guys didn’t speak much English, so it was largely pointing at things and demonstrating through action. We were encouraged to help with this bit, however I got a bit annoyed when Bear was asked to help with the tasks that involved chopping and sawing and I was asked to take the pieces down to the creek to wash them. I noticed throughout the experience that Bear was asked to do a lot more things than I was, including cleaning up elephant poo, much less was asked of me, and when I offered I was told no need. I wonder how much of this is gender related, or how much was Bear’s mahout seemed younger with more of a sense of humour and more willing to make him do things. For example he seemed to find it really funny to get Bear to sweep up around the elephant while gesturing at me to take photos of Bear cleaning and pushing a wheelbarrow.


The things out of bamboo turned out to be two serving containers, two cooking containers, a shot glass and two cups. One of the cooking containers was a long thick bamboo tube. A woven bamboo net was placed inside the container. Water was placed in the bottom of the bamboo tube, then the net, then rice, so it became a steamer to make sticky rice. This was placed on the fire to cook. The other tube was for boiling water for hot drinks.

BBQ Pork and Sticky Rice on a camp fire


Then a bottle of ‘thai whiskey’ was brought out, and everyone started doing shots. Much banging on the table and shouting of ‘bong’ which was the command for the elephant to drink.

Food was served and given it was pretty dark by this point, despite being early, everyone went to bed.

The next morning we woke up fairly early. I have to admit sleeping (or lying awake in a bamboo hut) listening to the sounds of the jungle was pretty damn awesome.

Breakfast was eaten. There seems to be some belief that westerners require a western breakfast. We got jam and toast, while the others had rice and eggs and leftovers. I think I would have preferred rice.

Then we got to follow our mahouts into the jungle and collect our elephants. This involved hiking through the jungle quite some distance until we found mine. She had a long chain trailing behind her and once she came to us, the mahout gave her a command and she pulled at the train with her trunk until it coiled up neatly and could be slung around her neck. Bear’s elephant was somewhat closer to the campsite.

We loaded up the elephants with baskets to carry their gear. Then we climbed on the elephants and headed back through the jungle to TECC. Bear’s elephant is a big fatty. It was kind of amazing to see just how much damage he had done within the radius where he was chained up over night. Every piece of bamboo and lots of greenery with the radius had been either broken or eaten. One the way home he kept wandering off the path to pull down large trunkfuls of bamboo. This seemed to frustrate his mahout, my mahout seemed to find it hilarious. I got some nice photos of bear and elephant disappearing into large clumps of bamboo.



We returned to TECC, washed the elephants for a final time and then were presented with certificates. I am assuming they are the same certificates the mahout training students get, and they were a lovely touch, but may have felt more earned if we’d done more mahout training, rather than just ridden around on elephant a lot.


Mighty Elephant Mahout!

I know I seem a bit critical of aspects of the experience. It was chaotic, it did feel poorly organised and bits felt quite awkward. But I had been warned to expect this by Tina, which made it a lot easier for me to relax and just go with the flow. I have slight control freak tendencies and I really did not feel in control for most of this experience. That said, overall it was entirely worth it. There are definitely things that could have been done better, but nothing topped the awe inspiring experience of riding an elephant into the jungle and bathing with them was also pretty awesome.

I was disappointed we didn’t get to do the mahout training with homestay due to them being booked out, having heard such praise of the experience. But I am very glad we opted to go with the elephant trekking camping experience. I would definitely consider going back to do the mahout training at some point in the future.

If I haven't posted enough elephant photos - there is a whole set on flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/29033702@N03/sets/72157637499327086/

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