We took a public bus (with reserved seats) from Yangon to Taungoo. After arrival, we went on a bicycle tour of the city. This was the first time I had been on a bicycle in probably 40 years. They say that you never forget how to ride a bicycle. That is only true to a limited extent. OK, I didn't fall off, but I was very unsteady, especially since I had a 8 kg (18 lb) camera bag on my back. But I did manage. We visited the local market. We bought lots of bananas in preparation for the visit to the elephant camp the next day. Bananas are a favorite treat for the elephants. We also visited another Buddhist pagoda.
Back at the hotel, we discussed with the owner of the hotel, who organizes the tours to the elephant camp, what I should do there. He suggested that I not go with the mahouts to find the elephants, it might be to difficult.
The next morning we left at 5:00 to drive to the elephant camp. I got there just when a couple of the mahouts started their trek into the bush to find their elephants. I decided to go with them after all, I didn't think it would be too difficult for me. I had been hiking in the mountains in Arizona for a couple of months, so I thought I was in good enough shape. As it turned out, it was a great trip. We hiked into the bush for about 1.5 hours, the first 30 minutes wading along through a creek, then up and down through the bush. When we found the elephants, I was given the choice to either walk back, or ride back, bareback, on one of the elephants. Guess what I decided to do . They had tied a heavy iron chain around the elephant, so I had something to hold onto. The mahout, a young man of maybe 18-20 years, was sitting on the head of the elephant, I was on the back of the elephant. The ride back was fantastic, I enjoyed it immensely. It was a bit difficult to stay on the elephant at times, especially when we were going downhill. My legs were hanging down the side of the elephant, pressed on the chain, and I was sitting on the bony spine of the elephant. At the end my legs were bruised from the chain, and my butt was sore from sitting on the bones on the back of the elephant, but I had a great time. The ride back was a bit less than 1 hour. We then watched the mahouts bathe their elephants. They were then brought back to the village to get ready for the days work. The elephants work only about 2-3 hours in the morning. They are then free to go into the bush on their own, wherever they want to go. In the morning the mahouts follow their tracks to find them again, which is how my day began. The elephants wear wooden chimes, so you can hear them once you get close enough. This makes it easier to find them, since you can't see very far in the dense bamboo bush.
Once back at the village, the working elephants are outfitted with a harness that trails heavy chains for pulling logs out of the bush. In order to make it a bit easier for me on the elephant while watching the other elephants at work, they had outfitted my elephant with a wood frame. This gave me something to hold onto, but I was still sitting on the back of the elephant, this time with a thin straw mat, which did not much to make it more comfortable. The wood frame made it a lot easier to stay on the elephant when she walked up and down the really steep mountain sides.
Once the elephants were ready for work, we rode them into the bush to a tree that had been felled earlier and cut into logs about 2 m (7 ft) long. The heavy chains from the harness were wrapped around one of the logs, and the elephant pulled the log back to the village.This was heavy going, especially when the log had to be pulled up a steep slope. The elephants were grunting loudly when they had to pull really hard uphill. After about 1½ hours of work, everybody went back to the village. At that time we rewarded the elephants with the bananas. I had bought two bunches of bananas. My guide had one of the bunches. He had just removed a banana from the bunch to feed it to one of the elephants. Smart as the elephant was, instead of taking the banana, he grabbed the whole bunch with his trunk from the other hand of my guide and pulled hard. The guide tried to hold on to the bunch, but of course the elephant was much stronger, so the whole bunch of bananas went into the mouth of the elephant and was gone in a flash. It was funny to watch. Fortunately, I had two bunches, so the other elephants got some reward as well.
The domesticated elephants are paired with a mahout when they are weaned. The mahout then trains the elephant for the work in the bush. I watched a little pit of the training, where the mahout tried to teach the elephant to stand on a tree stump with all four legs. This teaches them to be able to balance and to find good footing in the bush. Another teaching objective is to have the elephant walk on a log across a creek. Elephants finish training around 8 - 10 years of age, depending on how smart the elephant is. The elephant that I was riding on was a female, about 7 years old, so she was still too young to actually do the work in the bush. The elephants then work for some 30 years. After that they retire and go back in the bush on their own. From what I understand, they still hang around the village and come back frequently.
All pictures are © Dr. Günther Eichhorn, unless otherwise noted.
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