Elephants for Beginners

by Carmen Phinney

Escape to the East

Of all the stories I have about my recent travels in Southeast Asia, I think the most compelling is about elephants. The Anantara Resort in the Chiang Rai district in northern Thailand is a truly charming hotel that is also home to an Elephant Mahout training program. (A mahout is someone who works with and tends an elephant.)

I found myself—somewhat to my surprise and consternation—getting up on a huge animal without anything to hang onto except its ears. My elephant was 17-year-old Jennie, and her owner of 10 years was Det, the happiest singing mahout you could ever meet. Early in the morning, we (the tourists) all trekked to the top of a steep hill to bring the elephants down to a training area closer to the hotel.


We were then pushed from behind (literally) by the mahouts until they managed to get the clumsy tourists sitting on the necks of their assigned elephants. We then had to go downhill for quite a distance, for the duration of which I was utterly convinced that I was about to pitch clean over Jennie’s head.


We actually took part in three elephant mahout training sessions that day. The first involved a ride down the hill I just mentioned, followed by instructions on several ways to get onto an elephant’s back. One method involves leapfrogging from its trunk onto the back of its neck. Should you succeed, you are then facing the wrong end of the elephant, and must turn around without falling off.

An equally impossible way of getting on an elephant involves straddling the elephant’s neck after you’ve actually gotten it to lie down. Then, said elephant has to get up, which it does by sort of rocking back and forth a bit while you hang on for dear life.

The other things the mahouts teach you is how to make the elephant go (“Pai, Jennie, Pai!”), and turn (“Ben, Jennie, Ben!”), while kicking the opposite ear of the direction in which you want to go. And, finally, stop (“How, Jennie, How!”), while squeezing the animal’s neck with your knees. I seriously doubt that Jennie would have gone, turned, stopped or done any damn thing I wanted her to if Det had not been there.

After a breakfast break, we hosed down two of the baby elephants—actually, we all got a bath. That afternoon, we got shoved back atop our elephants (“Pai, Jennie, Pai!”) and trundled off to the big elephant’s bathing pool, where we all went in—the elephants over their heads and the mahout wannabees hanging onto elephant ears for dear life again.

Actually, taking a dunk in the pond was fun, and not nearly as scary as being on top of an elephant on dry land. Finally, I rode Jennie back to the entryway of the hotel and slid off over her forehead as if I knew what I was doing. I loved the experience, and my favourite T-shirt (a fundraiser for Think Elephants International) is now one that says “If it’s not about elephants, it’s irrelephant.” Ha!

Want MORE places to experience amazing Thai elephants?

Elephant Nature ParkA volunteer project for rescued elephants, located outside of Chiang Mai.

Thai Elephant Conservation Centre & National Elephant InstituteOffers volunteer opportunities, mahout training and trekking programs, and is located close to Lampang.

Mai Sa Elephant Camp and Mae Taman Elephant CampThe experience includes watching the elephants bathe in the river, riding the elephants and riding a bamboo raft on the river.

Patara Elephant FarmOffers visitors a chance to get up close to the elephants, bathe them in river and ride in the jungle. Groups are small and intimate, and the farm is generally one of the top-rated experiences in Chiang Mai.

ELE (Elephant Life Experience)Learn about elephants, and experience riding bareback as well as on a bench-like seat. You can also paint with the elephants.

Elephant Hills Luxury Tented CampA great place to stay, especially if you have children.

Explore India and South Asia all month long with our special series, ESCAPE TO THE EAST!