Biggest ride of your life

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 July, 2010, 12:00am

Dear Travel Guru,

It seems like every time my family goes on holiday we end up in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My mother loves the shopping and my father loves the golf. I think Chiang Mai is fun, too, but I need something new and exciting to do there besides hanging out at the pool.

In the market for change

Thanks for your letter. Chiang Mai has a great climate, the people are friendly and the food is great. But if you're bored, enough is enough. Then again, perhaps you aren't looking hard enough. Take a walk on any of the streets that are popular with tourists and you will see signs for all kinds of interesting things to do - massage courses, cooking courses, one-day treks, and a lot more.

'A lot more' includes a three-day (two-night) course on how to become a mahout. Mahout is an Indian word - from Hindi - that means someone who looks after or rides an elephant, usually both. That might seem like a pretty big job. But with some expert help - from a real Thai mahout - you will be surprised how much you can learn in a short time, and how much fun you will have doing it.

Travel Guru

It's a hoot

Of course, if you want to make elephants your career, you need to spend a lot of time with them. But that doesn't mean you can't take a crash course in one of the world's most fun jobs.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is the place to do it. It's in Lampang province in the north of Thailand. That's only 70km - or just over an hour by road - south from Chiang Mai. A driver from the centre will even come and pick you up from your hotel in town.

The first thing you will do is take a ride on an elephant. That involves climbing up into what looks like a little tree house. The 'saddle' on an elephant is called a howdah - that's an Indian word, too.

You will learn how to properly take care of an elephant and how to feed them, among other things. When you have completed your mahout training course, you will receive a certificate from the National Elephant Institute.

Enjoy the show

Some people are - understandably - nervous the first time they ride an elephant. But you don't have to leap into a mahout course. The Elephant Conservation Centre has elephant rides daily from 8am to 3.30pm. If you're not quite ready for a ride, you can watch the mahouts bathing the elephants in a pond at the centre at 9.45am every day.

After bathing, the elephants put on a show. If you object to performing animals, try to remember that these were once working animals. When the Thai government made logging illegal, it put them out of work. Now they demonstrate the work they used to do - hauling logs - for tourists and make a living for themselves and their mahouts. Perhaps after a morning with the animals - some of them have even learned to paint and play musical instruments - you will want to spend more time with them and become a mahout yourself.


1 Bring long trousers for riding the elephant - and preferably clothes you do not mind getting dirty or perhaps even a little scuffed or torn. Elephants have hairs like toothbrush bristles.

2 It's Thailand - bring sunglasses and sunscreen.

3 Be prepared to get up at the crack of dawn on days two and three - the schedule starts at 6.30am.

4 On top of the money you pay for the course, do not forget to give your mahout instructor a tip of at least 500 baht (HK$118) - your tip will mean a little less work for the elephant.

5 Don't panic. You have to hold on tight up there, especially when elephants are going up or down hills. But these elephants are trained to have human passengers, so there is nothing to worry about.