Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Elephants, Mahouts and Poop

Craig writes: One month ago today we were standing in line at Perth International Airport waiting to hit the road. Here we are one month and four countries later. Some days it seems like we left yesterday and others like we've been gone for months.

Today we're at Ayutthaya on a three day elephant stay. We're in the country side about an hour and a half out of Bangkok. First thing you see when you pull in is elephants. Elephants every where.  From "tiny" 200kg babies up to hulking 3500kg adults. They have tame ones, artistic ones, fast ones, slow ones, cute as a button ones and stone cold killers that if not for being taken in by the Foundation would be a set of patio stools by now. Pi Om and his wife Pi Lek are the original founders of the Pra Kochaban Foundation established to breed and protect these amazing creatures and try to reestablish the once noble status they held in Thai culture.  They are both still the spiritual heads of the Foundation and reside on the property but it is run by two very able bodied Aussie girls , Michelle and Ewa with two very competent assistants, English Paul and Scottish Neil, plus a cast of Mahouts. On our stay there were two Swiss,Quentin and Lorene, Hayley, a young Melbourne girl and Jeanette from Palm Cove in Calf. USA. Also young Kaizes, a terrific play mate for Charlie, and his great Aunts Carmen and Maria. 

Once we arrived and we're put through a comprehensive introduction and safety briefing we were taken out to the day spot and introduced to our elephants. Christina and Callum were paired up with Rosukon, one of the taller girls here.  She's a gentle and patient forty year old who doesn't mind picking up the pace if given the chance.  Charlie and I had Jumpee, a spring chicken at 30 ,and also one of the taller girls.  Shes a bit shy but sweet as candy and loves a good dunking in the river.

That's Jumpee to my right and Rosukon to Christina's left

Aren't they a bunch of gorgeous girls.
You wouldn't know it to look at it but the place has gone through some major heart ache over the last few years.  A big flood in 2010 did a reasonable amount of damage then in 2011 a major flood came through and all but wiped the place out.  They get patronage from the Royal family but not any money. A bit of sponsorship here and there helps but for the most part they survive on people coming to stay and donations. It is a bit surprising that money is so hard to come by when you look at the importance elephants have played in Thailand's history. Up until 100 years ago elephants in Thailand were considered as important as people. The Buddhist considered them one incarnation away from humans. For over 5000 years it was literally on the back of the elephant that Thailand remained a great warrior nation and a very productive agricultural one. Centuries ago when Cambodia had captured vast tracks of land in the north, the king of the time put together a 10,000 strong elephant army and pushed them back into Cambodia where they stayed. In more recent times the strength of their elephant army drove their quarrelsome neighbours, the Burmese back over the border where they also have stayed.

The compound is a collection of stilted huts made of a very hardy woven bamboo and the roofs are all corrugated iron. The huts have two comfortable twin beds, are air conditioned and have their own toilet and shower. In the open common area sparrows have nested in every conceivable corner and the constant chatter and movement is very pleasant.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner here. It was fantastic
The purpose in being here is not to have an arms length sanitized peak at some lovely big creatures. Give them a little pat on the trunk and head home. For the three days we are here, and others are staying for a week, we are given an elephant to feed, water, ride, wash, put to bed and clean up after.  So, what does an elephant eat. Well it varies a bit, pineapple leaves mostly, ban-yon grass and some rice hay but essential almost anything vegetarian you put near their mouth. Between 100 and 200 kilos per day of it. They'll wash that down with about 120 litres of water.  They only digest about 40% of what they eat so they crap a lot. And yes, that's the clean up bit. Thankfully it doesn't really pong, it's just all plant matter. But still, it is poo and there is a hell of a lot of it.
Up to 200kg a day of this stuff

When the girls get a bath, everyone gets a bath
The morning poop scoop and sweep before we get the girls in from their "bedrooms"
They can overheat so you have to bathe them and wet them down a bit. Every morning before breakfast we have to clean their day area and their "bedroom".  The day area is a big under cover section where they hang out in between taking us for a ride or doing some work around the place.  Their bedroom is not a nice little stable with fluffy pink throw overs  and pictures of a bare chested Elephant Man in a pair of hipsters up on the walls. It's a designated area out in a big paddock where every night they're walked to, secured, given a late night snack and "put to bed". In the morning their walked back to their day room after we've scooped and cleaned it and we then go in with rakes, brooms and tarps to  clean up the mess in their bedroom.

To ride an elephant properly is truly an original experience.  It's like being on the shoulders of a bald giant who has just started an Ashley and Martin programme. Big spikes of sparsely placed hair on top of a huge broad noggin. When you sit on them you literally get your butt right up behind their ears and nestle in front of their shoulders.  You control them by kicking their ears and by using some well chosen commands. Kick right to go left, kick left to go right and kick both ears to go forward.

One happy boy
One happy girl
Christina and Charlie playing submarines
Yeh I know but it wasn't our idea
These are magnificent beasts. They can stand, legs crossed and leaning on a fence like two old friends and chat to each other for hours. When they look at you you can tell their watching you, listening to you, sizing you up and deciding how much to trust you.  The babies often dart out from under their mums to jostle with each other or maybe charge one of the stray dogs. They'll make a show of themselves and then charge back under mums protective trunk. Kane, the youngest baby at about 8 months was a real character. We got to give him a bath on the last day and he was playing up like the typical cheeky kid he is.

Christina squirts Kane up the clacker
Kane falls over in hysterics, that must have really tickled
And, they're very very clever. Peter is the stand out. Young at eleven but already an accomplished artist.  He is the go to elephant for movie roles, commercials and currently the artist in residence. His paintings sell for around 1000 Baht. If I hadn't seen it I would not have believed it. His Mahout places him in front of a canvas and puts a small brush in the end of his trunk which has a tiny little finger at the end of it. Then, with the most delicate of touches he proceeds to put paint to paper. In a matter of only minutes appears before you the unmistakable rump of an adult elephant with two young calves either side.  Wagging tails, blue sky and a field of beautiful multi-coloured  flowers. He is the typical adored artist, a real prima donna.  He loves a compliment and knows when he's getting one. Tell him he's done a great job and he smiles, has a chuckle, lifts his trunk, wiggles his big hairy bum and does a happy dance. He is adorable. I want one. Interesting fact.  Did you know elephants have over 40,000 muscles just in their trunk?  Oliver Stone came here when he needed elephants for the dismal epic Alexander and Jackie Chan used the elephants from here for Round The World In 80 Days. Peter was also the principal talent in a recent Samsung Galaxy commercial.

The Master at work
Peter made a funny.
Yes , no human hand has touched this.
I got woken up this morning about 6am by a whooping Keowe, think I have that right. The male is the noisy one. He's pitch black with bright red eyes and the size of a large cockatoo.  Paul says he looks like Dracula's parrot.  Apparently the cuteness wears off in a week or so and they become quite annoying but as we leave today they'll always be those cute little whooping birds to me. There were only a couple of Mahouts out at that time of the morning, just starting to get the boys and girls going. Getting some ready for breakfast, some getting a hose down and others starting to move some feed around. There was one young boy sitting almost three metres atop a towering Bull who was only about 8 years old. He looked so relaxed and casual up there he may have just as well been riding his Malvern Star down the driveway. Nothing on but a pair of  shorts and a takaw in his hand. That's a small length of wood with a sharp steel hook on the end used to control the elephant. It looks like a medieval disemboweling tool but to the elephants it's would be no more than getting a whack with the wooden spoon from mum.  He rides and controls this massive beast with nothing more than the occasional prod and some harsh words. With that he gets his elephant to move in any direction, sit, stand up, turn left or right, or go and collect and move hundreds of kilo's of feed.

Young fella aboard his Play Station
Our last day today, we leave for the drive back at 5pm. This is one of life's experiences that everyone should do. We all spent some time with our elephants to say goodbye and for me it was a moving moment. I stood in front with my hand stroking her massive trunk and the weathered grey folds of her face. Quietly thanking her for her patience and the opportunity to look after her and to ride her.  I hoped that she liked the small pineapples we found in the pineapple branches that we could give her as a treat and the scrubbing and bath that we got to give her.  The whole time I spoke to her, this un-tethered giant creature just stood there and listened to me and looked me straight in the eye only occasionally dipping her head in what I took to be acknowledgment.  

They are regal, intelligent and beautiful creatures and I hope that the Foundation is successful in restoring the dignity and status to which they are thoroughly deserved.

Christina writes: I cannot recommend Elephant Stay highly enough. We first heard about this amazing place on a documentary "I am Eleven" a film about children, all aged eleven, from all over the world. In the documentary two boys were interviewed at Elephant Stay, a young Mahout in training and a British ex-pat boy with a love of elephants. The documentary only showed glimpses of life in the elephant village, but straight away we put it on our wish list when planning this trip. This experience exceeded all of our expectations. 

The mahouts always had our back
Jumpee could always find something to eat in the strangest of places.

Who's the cutest baby at Elephant Stay?


Girl@peace said...

Hi guys - you are livin' the dream!!! I cannot believe a) how cute baby elephants are and b)that an elephant paints better than I do.


Anonymous said...

Hey Guys!
What a FANTASTIC blog you have! I will be watching... (once I figure out how to get email alerts!) I arrived home today, trying (and failing) to hold back tears as I miss the elephants so much! I've already booked another 2 weeks in June.
Thank you all again for the amazing photos and videos you took for me - and especially to you Cal for getting that awesome one of me standing up on Rumruay!
Best wishes to you all, and have safe travels!
Hayley xx