Seafood and scenery.
Sunshine and swimming.
People and places.
Massage and mahouts.
These are some of the things which make Thailand so enjoyable.
Seafood and fresh tropical fruit enjoyed for lunch on the beach, or at street stalls where the locals eat dinner opposite the beach, watching the distant lights of fishing vessels against the blue-black sky or a brilliant sunset, out catching the next day's meal.
There is plenty of sunshine to develop a great tan. When it gets too hot, you cool off by moving out of the sun into the shade of a palm tree, or collapse into the water a few degrees cooler than body temperature.
There is an endless stream of people walking the beach, trying to earn a living selling souvenirs, clothing, food and drink, or to provide you with a relaxing massage. And they are all prepared to stop for a brief chat, which usually involves them displaying their brilliant white smiles against their brown complexion.
And the places to see. The seaside and country never fail to impress.
Everything is done at a leisurely pace, and the toughest decision each day is usually what to select for the next meal.
And then there is the opportunity to train as an Elephant Mahout !
I left the seaside and headed north through the rice paddy covered plains, into the tree covered hills which included forests of mulberry where the silk worms are bred and harvested, before moving on to the more mountainous country of impenetrable, vine covered, lush green forests, including palms and bamboo so popular with the elephants.
Along the way, roadside stalls and craft villages were passed, as well as reclining buddhas and ornate gilt and ceramic wats glistening in the sunshine, and the occasional abandoned building rapidly being overtaken and reclaimed by the jungle.
The accommodation allocated was spartan and basic. A ramshackle timber home with thatched roof, rattan covered floors, doors, walls and ceilings, with solid timber beds with thin mattresses that were as hard as the beds. (Mind you, TV and fridges for drinks were also provided.)
But the location ! Wow ! A village where 100 staff, mahouts and their families lived amidst the jungle, where elephants frequently wandered past the porch on the way to or from work. The peaceful atmosphere of placid village life was unbelievable.
After watching the mahouts take their elephants into the local river for a wash, we joined them in the show ground to begin our training. There were four trainees. Davis and Helen Kelly, Linda Ward and myself. We were each allocated a mahout and elephant. My mahout's name was Tid, and the elephant's name was Look Khung.
By giving the appropriate instruction, the elephant would bend its leg so we could first step on the back of its ankle, then on its knee, and by holding on to its ear, heave ourselves up on its back. And there I was, about three metres above the ground, perched on the shoulder of this magnificent docile beast, clutching its neck with my knees up behind its ears, trying to maintain my balance without holding on with my hands as it walked around the grounds.
It was disconcerting to sit so high above the ground, perched precariously on these lumbering beasts, but with the support and encouragement of our mahouts, we quickly gained confidence.
Before long we were giving instructions to have it bow its head so we could climb over the head and slide down the trunk, or drop a stick on the ground and order the elephant to pick it up in its trunk and pass it over its head back to us. Back up, turn left, turn right, lay down on its belly, a whole raft of instructions which the elephants obeyed.
Next, the mahouts and elephants gave a display of their co-operation, skills and abilities before a crowd of tourists who came each day to marvel at these extraordinary fit, lean, athletic, and nimble mahouts and their massive powerful partners. It's fascinating to see these 50kg mahouts controlling 3000+ kg elephants.
Finally, the day's work was over, and we rode the elephants 2 or 3 kms into the jungle over steep, rough, uneven tracks, where we left them for the night.
A delicious dinner was prepared from the freshest of local produce in our hut by the staff, served on a rattan mat on the floor, where we tried to sit cross legged, native style.
Each morning, we would rise at 6am to trek into the jungle, to find the elephants and ride them back to the village. The surrounding greenery was occasionally relieved by a brilliant coloured flower or the iridescent flash of a kingfisher flying past.
After breakfast, we would watch them bathe with the mahouts, before we commenced more training, similar to the day before. Training never palled. It's a fantastic experience to sit atop one of these huge beasts and work with it in a display of co-operation and abilities.
That day, we also visited the elephant hospital where six elephants were being treated. One had a severely damaged foot from stepping on a land mine on the Cambodian border, and another half its trunk surgically removed after being injured by a falling tree in a logging accident. It was good to see that they were being well cared for.
That afternoon as we crossed a river on the way back into the jungle, two of the mahouts instructed their elephants to sink into the water and bathe, and consequently, while they are agile enough to stand and balance on the elephants backs, Linda and I were thoroughly soaked by being submerged with the elephants, much to the hilarious delight of the fun loving mahouts.
On the last night, the mahouts joined us for dinner. Language difficulties were overcome by playing "crazy 8", an amusing card game that had us all relaxed and laughing as Johny mahout delighted in cheating, and the other mahouts enjoyed dealing cards which penalised their trainees.
On the last day, Look Khung created an abstract painting, which I naturally bought.
After we had our final session of instructions, the mahouts told us we were to participate in the parade before that day's visiting tourists.
Imagine my pride and pleasure, sitting atop Look Khung as she beat a drum, leading the team into the parade ground where we put them through the lessons we had learned. A last minute addition to the program, organised by my mahout, Tid, was for me to walk solo onto the parade ground and stand while Look Khung carried in my hat to join me, and gently place the hat on my head.
After a further display of more abilities by the elephants and mahouts, we again mounted the elephants to take a bow and walk forward where the public were able to feed and reward the elephants.
During the three days, I saw different elephants swaying sideways, back and forth, their whole body, head and trunk often swaying almost violently, which is their way of expressing how happy they are. Look Khung was now swaying happily. Was it because she was so pleased with our display, or because she was about to be rid of her heavy, bumbling trainee ?
Finally, the end came when we were presented with our certificates of participation, and had to say goodbye. It was an emotional time as we said goodbye to the mahouts who had given us so much support, pleasure, fun and happiness. I hope to return one day and see them again. It was one of the greatest experiences I've ever enjoyed.
The web site for the program is http://www.changthai.com. There are also pictures from the Mahout Training.
Go here for web site index, including pictures and comments about other destinations, scuba diving, and other activities, or look at details of the 2005 trip or 2006 trip.