On February 4th we got up early and took a taxi out to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) to begin our 3-day mahout course. We were a bit skeptical of the affair as email responses from TECC had been slow and somewhat unclear, only even getting booked firmly (though things might have worked out by email) when we managed to phone them. If the course was similarly organized it could well suck. Luckily this was not the case at all. IT and bookings may not be a strong point but once you get to the actual facility and start the course they know exactly what you are doing, accommodate your every need, and are generally fantastic. In our case they quickly reshuffled the three day course into two full days and one very short morning to accommodate our need to leave early on the third day. This was great as we'd expected to simply miss out on a bunch of stuff from day three.
After a few days at TECC we generally agreed that the Thai Elephant Conservation Center is awesome, doing great work to save the elephants, WAY better than the Maesa camp, and generally extremely highly recommended. Particularly the mahout courses!! Although their main website only lists 1-3 day courses they also offer 10 and 30 day courses for 35,000 and 100,000 THB (at time of writing) respectively. This allows you to do stuff like ride into the jungle, camp out, ride around some more, and generally build up a much more extensive degree of elephant mastery.
We arrived a little early, before the staff, at the public entrance for day visitors and had to wait around a bit before anyone showed up. Shortly a covered pickup truck showed up, we piled into the back, and headed to a small cabin where we agreed to the usual "we can do anything to you and be liable for naught" document, gave sizes so they could get our mahout outfits, and specified our food needs so they could ensure our menu was palatable.
Next we headed to our cabin to get changed into the mahout outfits. The cabin was quite nice, rather better than we expected in fact. It has a nice big fridge full of water, hot water, and firm but comfortable beds. Hot water was unfortunately available through a "heat on demand" electrical device so if you turned the hot all the way on too much water to be heated on demand flowed through and you only got warm. However, if you backed off the water flow they it became hot.
After figuring out the shower we got into our mahout outfits. Mahouts wear pants with a waist that would fit an elephant. The excess fabric in the waist is folded over and held in place by a strip of cloth tied around the waist.
After getting mahout outfits on we walked down for breakfast at the nearby restaurant, where we were told our elephants and mahouts would meet us. "Our elephants" ... has a nice ring to it! Pavan loves elephants and was pretty excited.
The first elephant to arrive was Pavan's. Named Boon-mee, it appeared walking up the street with her Real Mahout, Wen, astride. Each elephant has both a Real Mahout and an Assistant Mahout. The Real Mahout is very much the boss.
Last to arrive was Rod's elephant, Satheep, with Real Mahout Sak. The elephants and mahouts proved to fit us quite well. Pavan's mahout was very careful and attentive and her elephant was pretty calm. Rod's mahout was much less attentive, leaving Rod and the Elephant to sort matters out more often. Rod's elephant was a young male who seemed a bit more willful than Boon-mee so at times a stubbornness contest between the two ensued when decisions such as whether to turn left vs. stop to eat bushes came up.
Once the elephant arrived it was immediately time to try being a mahout. The first challenge was boarding; even kneeling an elephant is fairly high off the ground!
After review it is time to apply what you've learned ... or so you might initially think. Elephants are boarded and ridden in a circle (via turn commands, etc) at the training circuit. However, the elephants are 90% just following their Real Mahout; if the student rider tries to go any direction but "towards Real Mahout", who is typically walking ahead of you at this point, the elephant pretty well ignores you. Riding the elephant is awesome anyway.
Elephants support boarding from the side via leg-ladder.
A little grazing time/steering practice later and we were ready for complex maneuvers in formation.
It's hot in Thailand and (as previously noted) elephants are self-cooling. Everything else in the area, including mahouts, cools as well.
What better way to de-elephant than by having the elephant lower it's head so you can hop off directly over the front?
That ended our first day of elephant riding. One more full (very full; stuff from day 3 was shuffled onto the end of day 2) day to go, then a quick morning elephant ride the next morning, then an early departure by taxi for the airport to head for India on February 6th!!