There were ten trainees, on the three day two night training course, and on the first morning we were up by 6-30 am to trek back into the forest with the mahouts to locate the elephants we'd left there the night before. When returning the previous evening, we'd been caught by "fon tok", a heavy downpour of rain, and arrived back in our cottages looking like drowned rats.
This morning we had to don the still wet mahout suits, which although damp, quickly warmed to our body temperatures. In fact, because of the steep climb into the forest, I was soon perspiring.
When riding the elephants back to the village, the mahouts instructed the elephants to submerge as we crossed a flooded swampy lagoon. While they stood on the elephants backs and laughed hilariously, we trainees were seated and inundated in the muddy swamp.
After a hot shower and breakfast, we again donned our wet garb and returned to the showground for more training, followed by a return to the bathing pool in the river which runs through the village. Here we joined the mahouts in bathing the elephants as part of a display for the visiting tourists.
By now, I had nearly run out of clean dry underwear, so decided I wouldn't wear any under the baggy denim suit.
Without being told why, when we rode out of the river, my elephant Look Khung took me up the road among the other elephants and mahouts while the remainder of the trainee group disappeared. Eventually, my mahout "Tid", indicated I was to join them in that morning's show for the tourists.
This was my third visit as a trainee, and as in the first year of training, I led the parade with Look Khung beating a slow rhythm on a drum as we entered the showground.
After a years absence, I'd forgotten the full program. First, the elephants all line up facing the audience and are introduced by name. Some nod their heads, some raise their trunks, but Look Khung bows, which unexpectedly nearly threw me over her head.
Then the mahouts and elephants perform a series of feats, so all round me are slim, lithe, athletic Thais performing tasks with casual ease. And then there was me trying to keep pace with them.
Tid's first instruction was "Ken, get off."
"Hup Soong", I instructed her, and slid down the side, missing standing on her raised leg, and hit the ground with a louder thud than any made by the elephants.
Tid : "Ken, get on".
So I instructed Look Khung "Song Soong, Song Soong". She ignores me until Tid whispers the same instruction in her ear, whereupon she raises her leg so that I may place my left foot on the back of her heel, the right foot on her knee, hold tight tight to one ear, and drag myself up on her back.
Aaarrgghhhh - something went wrong ! She either didn't raise her leg high enough for me, or I didn't get enough momentum in my leap, for there I was, a 100kg lump of lard, stuck like a limpet on the side of Look Khung. Should I slide down in defeat, or keep trying to drag myself up ? And if I drag myself up, will that drag my pants down leaving me "mooning" the entire audience. Suddenly, a firm hand on my buttocks, and a great heave from 50kg Tid, had me atop my mount with my legs spread wide across her shoulders, accompanied by loud applause from the audience !!!
Tid : "Ken. Tag Long".
This means I have to give the same instruction to Look Khung, spread my legs further apart, swing them around over her head and ears and down over her trunk without poking my heel in her eye. Then I slide down her trunk while she bows her head. This I manage to do without pitching forward flat on my face !
No sooner have I accomplished this, than Tid says "Ken, get on". And when I turn around, there's Look Khung with her head still bowed. Now I have to make like an olympic gymnast leaping spread legged over a vaulting horse. This I do, landing on her shoulders, whereupon she immediately stands, leaving me facing backwards.
Tid : "Ken, turn around".
This time I have to make like a ballet star doing a pas de deux from a seated position, and at the same time rotating in mid air.
Next, it's "Nung Long", which is lie down on your belly, with me managing not to fall off. And "Get bon", pick up a stick with her trunk and pass it over her head to me.
Tid :"Ken, get off".
From an elephant on its belly, this is not too hard to do and I succeed without any disasters.
"Non long" says Tid, which has Look Khung lie down on her side with a lurch, while Tid drags me away from being crushed.
Tid : "Ken, get on".
Now this is a tricky move I learned last year training on Princess Patidar. You have to stand on one leg with the other across her neck, so that when she lurches upright, you are dragged upright on her shoulders. First time in training last year, I straddled her neck, and when she stood up I would have been thrown like a projectile from the side of her neck if it hadn't been for the strong grip of a hysterically laughing Jawn, who was then training me.
"Bai", go forward, and we all march around the arena to different positions. "How !". Stop ! Look Khung and I are now at the back of the arena, where Tid indicates I should clamber down and take a seat on a low brick wall.
While other elephants are being put through their paces by their mahouts, Look Khung sidles up beside me so that I may wrap my arm around her trunk to congratulate each other on a job well done.
Finally, our big solo act comes where I walk out to the centre of the arena with my head modestly bowed (actually so the audience can't see my huge, smug grin) and turn to face Look Khung. "Phae", Come I call, and she sedately marches forward with my conical bamboo hat held aloft, to be delicately placed on my head, whereupon I turn and we both bow to the audience amidst loud applause.
After the show, we all mount and walk up to a fence where the tourists may reward the elephants with a feed of bamboo and bananas. From there, it's back to the jungle for the night. As usual, the mahouts cause the trainees to be drenched in the lagoon. But this time, a cannon-ball size piece of fibrous elephant dung floats within reach, which enables me to call out to another mischievious mahout, "Look Lie, a present !", whereupon I heave it at him. - More hilarious laughter all round.
When we reach the area where Look Khung is to stay the night, it necessitated riding down a slope which I swear was no less than 45 degrees. And probably due to the heavy rain and muddy ground, for the first time ever, she slipped. And there I was on a slalom run down a steep slope onboard an elephant ! Except that she immediately regained her footing and we plodded on.
That night we heard the news that a military coup had replaced Thailand's Prime Minister. Whilst back home, my wife Barbara was beseiged by calls from friends and relatives enquiring whether I was safe, in the village the news was almost ignored as we continued more important discussions about mahouts, elephants, and village life. When I later returned to Bangkok, the only comment I heard was from the taxi driver, concerned about the effect on the tourist industry.
If ever you want to have three days of fun and adventure, book the "Homestay" program with Chang Thai.
Go here for web site index, including pictures and comments about other destinations, scuba diving, and other activities, or here for details of the 2005 trip.