Trunk call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

Climbing onto a bare-backed elephant is the easy bit. Grab an ear in one hand and a fistful of flesh in the other, step on the animal's foot and thigh and throw yourself across its back, which seems larger than most Hong Kong apartments. Staying on is more difficult.

Sitting between shoulder blades that roll like a gentle swell, it feels, at first, like trying to balance on a ball - a 3-metre-high, 3-tonne ball. Slipping from side to side, with your knees tucked behind the elephant's ears, your groin stretches like a rubber band and your hips feel on the verge of dislocating. Even worse is the animal's wiry hair, poking into places no elephant hair rightly should.

'The mahouts all get the itchy bottom,' one worker at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre assures me, and for the first time in three days I feel as though I'm one of them. We share a rash, if nothing else.

In northern Thailand, 30km north of Lampang, the centre is the country's premier elephant training and preservation facility. Established in 1992, it is home to about 50 beasts, operates the country's first and foremost elephant hospital, holds daily tourist shows and stables more than half of Thailand's royal elephants. It also conducts live-in courses, offering visitors the opportunity to live and work as a mahout, or elephant keeper, walking in raw and walking out with a raw hide.

For three days I'm apprenticed to Ta, a mahout of 10 years' standing. Look Khang, a 15-year-old wrinkled beauty, is his elephant, and briefly mine too. Together, we are Dumbo and Dumber.

Working beside us are a host of mahouts, real and make-believe. Stockbrokers Aaron and Jack are experiencing a bull market of a different kind while serial mahouts Jens and Hannie are on their fourth stay at the centre.

Jens is what one might call an elephant groupie. On each visit to the centre, he has worked with the same animal - Jojo - and no sooner are they reunited than he's cooing Germanic words of love into Jojo's ear. Back home in Germany, he has two paintings 'created' by Jojo and household conversation is apparently dominated by the pachyderm. 'Every night he talks about Jojo,' says Hannie.

Our days quickly slip into mahout routine: we rise before dawn to bring the elephants in from the forest; practise the 14 Thai commands that will make us fluent in elephant-ese; and train for our role as performers in the tourist show on our final day.

Our first public outing as mahouts comes a lot sooner, though. In a soupy brown lake (with floating balls of elephant dung that bear an unfortunate resemblance to croutons), we must bathe our elephants before a small grandstand of tourists as a wet warm-up to the show.

Astride our charges' necks we splash into the lake, whereupon Ta issues the command I least want to hear: map long (lie on your stomach). Look Khang suddenly disappears into the lake, leaving me neck-deep in water, clinging grimly to one of her submerged ears and fearful of bumping into a crouton. Behind me I hear Ta chuckle. Standing high and dry on Look Khang's back, he has enjoyed my soupy baptism.

Evenings at the centre gain a ritual familiarity, with Jens' infatuation becoming as hot as the dinners. On the first evening, he tells us of his impending retirement plan. Hannie, nine years his junior, will continue to work while he will spend six months a year in Germany with Hannie and six months in Thailand. 'With Jojo,' he says.

After dinner on the second night, Jens pulls out a laptop computer (he has arrived with six suitcases of gear) and plays us a DVD documenting his last visit to the centre. The cover of the DVD shows Jens hugging Jojo's trunk. The hour-long screening reminds me of a wedding video, but with more kissing and cuddling. 'You didn't see the beginning,' Jens says to me when the DVD ends. 'Do you want to watch it again?' I make polite excuses.

Each elephant eats more than 150kg of food a day, which the centre cannot afford to supply, so the animals spend their nights in the forest. Riding them into the jungle each afternoon is a journey that can be fraught with trouble. One evening, beneath a fiery setting sun, a pair of dogs appears on the road and there is pandemonium, the elephants squealing their displeasure and stamping their enormous feet. Look Khang, which means 'spinning top', lives up to her name and whirls about, performing in her own elephant rodeo.

Day three is show day, though it begins like the others, with a knock at the door at 6am, about three hours after the roosters have begun to crow. Twenty mahouts pile into the back of a pick-up truck and drive out into the forest, where we left the elephants last night.

In the peace of early morning, Look Khang seems almost pleased to see me, giving a contented purr as we dust her down with branches. She gathers up her chains and we begin the hour-long amble back to the centre, wandering through streams and into the bathing lake, indulging in our favourite command, baan baan (spray water), a phrase that has given us the power to order water-cannon fights. This morning, only Aaron's elephant can be bothered, shooting a trunkful of water over Jack.

After a final bath together - we're very close, Look Khang and me - it's showtime. The elephants line up in single file, trunks wrapped around the tail of the animal ahead, and we parade into the showground to face the centre's biggest crowd in the three days we've been here.

The elephants are introduced and the show begins. Song soong! I shout in chorus with the other mahouts, and Look Khang raises her front leg for me to climb onto her back. Tag long, we shout, and she bows her head for me to hurdle aboard.

As the show progresses, each elephant goes through its paces - painting, balancing on logs, playing the xylophone, pushing logs about in a display of their former forestry skills - before it's time for Look Khang's party trick. I march to centre stage and Look Khang ambles towards me, holding Ta's pith helmet high in the air with her trunk. She places the hat on my head (along with a foul blast of breath) and we turn to face our adoring fans. Together, we take our bow.

At the show's end, sitting masterfully atop our elephants, we lumber towards a feeding area in front of the grandstands. As showgoers feed sugar cane and bananas to the animals, one man slips me a few notes of money. Was I that good? Or that bad?

Beside me are Hannie, Jens and Jojo.

'Are you coming back next year?' I ask Jens.

'No, the Maldives,' Hannie quickly answers.

'And maybe here,' Jens says, his hand going to his heart. 'My Jojo.'

Getting there: Thai Airways ( flies from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai via Bangkok. Buses from Chiang Mai to Lampang stop outside the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. The three-day mahout training course costs 8,000 baht (HK$2,000) per person. See