Thailand (Living Among Elephants)

I quickly learned the secret of bathing an elephant in a river——namely, move quickly to avoid getting squished. With brush in hand, I stood a little more than waist deep in the brown water of the Moon River just outside the town of Ban Tha Klang in eastern Thailand. Tangmo, a female adult elephant, and seven other elephants were getting their twice weekly scrub down in the river from their handlers, known as mahouts (pronounced ma-hoot), and from four volunteers living among the elephants that week in a sustainable ecotourism endeavor known as the Surin Project.

Tangmo’s mahout, Dong, directed me on which parts of the elephant to scrub. The elephant’s skin felt like thick, weathered leather, albeit slick from the water. The hairs on her back and head stood up straight and were soft to the touch though they didn’t really bend. Tango had knelt down and was enjoying the vigorous scrubbing by Dong and myself as we applied some muscle to her back, sides, head, ears and trunk.

In a state of seeming pleasure Tangmo, whose name means “watermelon,” submerged herself briefly in the river. I could feel her body against my legs, and when she started to roll over against them I felt a brief sense of trepidation that I would be steamrolled by a multi-ton pachyderm. I quickly backed off as Tangmo’s large, grayish-brown body emerged from the water like a submarine. Dong, a young man who has spent most of his life working around elephants, seemed amused by my momentary sense of dread.

The Surin Project is one of roughly a dozen elephant-related projects under the umbrella of the Save Elephant Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Chiang Mai in Thailand’s mountainous far north that’s focused on providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population. Its M.O. is to expand self-sustaining ecotourism operations fueled by international volunteers who take part in programs aimed at benefiting the elephants and local communities.

Asian elephants are Thailand’s national symbol. In olden days they were used by cavalry forces in warfare; in more recent times they were beasts of burden for the timber industry used for hauling trees out of the jungle.

It was logging, along with agriculture and a growing human population, that reduced the elephants’ natural forest habitat and their numbers. Statistics vary, with one source estimating that Thailand’s population of wild elephants dropped from the low six-figure range at the turn of the 20th century to roughly 3,000 today, while the population of domesticated elephants has declined from about 100,000 to about 4,000 during that period.

Captive elephants require lots food and water, and to pay for their upkeep some owners have resorted to using them for panhandling on the streets of Bangkok and other cities, providing rides in trekking camps or performing in circus shows. Animal rights proponents say all three options cause mental and physical duress to elephants, and organizations such as the Save Elephant Foundation have created sanctuaries or other ecotourism options to give elephants a better life, as well as provide economic incentive for mahouts to keep their charges off the streets and out of trekking camps and circuses.

The Surin Project is located in Ban Tha Klang, a small town deep in the countryside surrounded by rice and sugar cane fields, grazing water buffalo and a smattering of forests. It’s a place where elephants and people live side-by-side, and where it’s common to see elephants walking around town with their mahouts seated atop them.

Cutting Cane

The volunteer experience at the Surin Project is a minimum six-day stay entailing daily interaction with the elephants and their mahouts through chores and other activities. The accommodations were rustic: rough-hewn, bare-bones wooden homes on stilts that were rented out to the project by local mahouts. Small, adjacent buildings provided facilities to take bucket showers and to use no-flush toilets that required pouring buckets of water to flush down the contents. Soiled toilet paper was dispensed in a trash receptacle.

I arrived late-afternoon on a Monday in late November after a roughly six-hour bus ride from Bangkok. There were three other people at the project during my week there——an Austrian woman who lives in Munich and who was on her third visit to the project, and two German teenagers on extended multi-week stays during their gap year between high school and university. They spoke good English and we got along well, which made for a good group dynamic.

Chores are rotated on a daily basis, and on my first morning after a prepared breakfast of pancakes, eggs and fruit at the thatch-covered dining area, I climbed on the back of a pickup truck with a few mahouts and we drove several miles outside of town to a sugar cane field to harvest food for the elephants. Sarot, the lead mahout, handed me a machete and in decent English explained the proper technique. It was fun whacking away with the machete as I cut the base of the canes and threw them in a pile with the cut side furthest away, making it easy to grab a large bunch and hand it off to the mahouts loading the canes onto the truck. (That said, I wouldn’t want to do it for a living.)

After about 15 or 20 minutes the pickup was loaded high with sugar cane, and we jumped on the pile and held on to the side rails as we headed back toward town, but not before taking dirt roads through a forested area where we dumped sugar cane at designated places along the way.

Later that afternoon, the mahouts and volunteers took the elephants on a leisurely stroll through the forest (of course, all strolls involving lumbering elephants are leisurely), where animals stopped to munch on the canes that were dropped off that morning. The elephants seemed happy. And why not? It’s a great life, as long as their owners keep them in the program.

Pachyderm Personality

The Surin Project isn’t a sanctuary where elephants are owned by a private entity and allowed to run free in a protected reserve. That type of setup occurs in another Save Elephant Foundation operation up north near Chang Mai. Rather, it is a partnership between the Save Elephant Foundation and Surin Province to incentivize local owners of elephants and their mahouts (some mahouts own their own elephants) to improve the welfare of their elephants in return for a monthly salary to support the mahouts and their families.

As part of the deal, mahouts agree to not use a bullhook on their elephants (bullhooks have long been used for training and disciplining purposes), to allow the elephants to move about without chains and to interact with other elephants for periods of time each day, and to participate in activities with the volunteer tourists. Volunteers perform daily chores including planting and cutting sugar cane, building enclosures for the elephants, cleaning out poop and sugar cane chaff in the enclosures, and accompanying elephants on their walks and bathing them in the river.

The up close encounters with elephants enable volunteers to look the animals in the eye, get a sense of their individual personalities and gain an even greater appreciation for these magnificent creatures beyond what motivated volunteers to participate in this program in the first place.

Some of those pachyderm personalties particularly stood out. There was Saifon (“rain”), the youngest of the group at seven months, who like many youngsters was playful and curious. I enjoyed the game she played when she would put her head against my thigh and push against it with a good deal of force while I pushed back. And during the afternoon walks through the forest, when the older elephants walked freely and were guided by the mahouts’ voice commands of “ma!” (move!), Saifon was tethered to her mother, Maliwan (“jasmine”), because she always wanted to venture off and explore. All the while, she had a mischievous look on her face as she surveyed the terrain beyond the trails and tried in vain to venture off on her own.

The most interesting relationship dynamic existed between two females (the entire group was female)——Wongduean (“moon”) and Nonglek (“little sister”). One afternoon toward the end of the daily walk the two got separated when Wongduean’s mahout took her along a different route. Nonglek became upset when she realized her friend wasn’t there, and what began as rumblings of discontent turned into full-fledged anger when she blared out ominous trumpet sounds and began to run toward where many of us where standing. The ground shook, and we tore a path toward the building where we ate our meals, which overlooked a small lake. Nonglek chilled out when she saw Wongduean and her mahout coming down a path toward the lake, and both elephants ran into the water and behaved like they were really happy to see each other again.

The Hook

On the whole, mahouts aren’t lining up to take part in the program. “It’s quite hard to get mahouts to come to the Surin Project because they’re used to working with the elephants with hooks,” said Ocha, a man who appeared to be in his early thirties and who oversees the Surin Project. “They care about the elephant’s welfare, but their culture came from the hook.”

The hook is evident throughout Ban Tha Klang, home to the Gwi (also spelled Kwi, Kuy or other renditions) people who have a long history of elephant husbandry. The Gwi live in a wide swath of Surin Province, along with scattered pockets in eastern Thailand, northern Cambodia and Laos. The Elephant Study Center was established in Ban Tha Klang to provide employment for mahouts who had left the province to wander Thailand with their elephants in order to make a living by street begging. Various reports put the number of elephants affiliated with the center at roughly 150 to 200 elephants.

Despite its official, if not studious sounding name, the Elephant Study Center appears to primarily be a tool to promote elephant tourism in Ban Tha Klang and the surrounding region. There is an interesting museum that documents the Gwi culture and its interaction with elephants, but the main game in town is a circus where elephants paint pictures of trees, spin hula hoops on their trunks and dance to loud, uptempo music as they roll their head back-and-forth to the rhythm of the music, among other activities.

The audience——mainly Asian but with a smattering of Westerners——ate it up during the one show I watched as they whipped out their smart phones and tablets to take pictures. Some tourists handed baht (the Thai currency) bills to the elephants, who grabbed them with their trunks and curled their trunk up to the mahout who sat on their necks, who took the money. (The picture below is of two circus elephants walking past my lodging at the Surin Project.)

After the daily circus shows, some tourists climbed aboard elephants and took rides through parts of town while perched in a two-seat contraption on their backs.

A Better Life

Critics decry the exploitive nature of the circus, claiming the tricks are taught by using cruel training tactics aided by the hook. And, they say, elephant rides are harmful to an elephant’s back, and that elephants can sometimes be physically abused as part of the training to get them to become willing taxis.

Such cruelty——and I witnessed it while in Ban Tha Klang——is deplorable and heart wrenching. But condemnation of these practices alone doesn’t fully address the conundrum of what to do with the several thousand privately owned elephants resulting from Thailand’s cultural and economic legacy.

The mahouts——or whoever owns the elephants——need to do something with the animals to get money to feed and shelter them. There’s not enough room in Thailand to just let them run free. Self-sustaining elephant-centric ecotourism is one solution, but more needs to be done in that area to put a meaningful dent in the situation.

I saw first hand with the Surin Project that its elephants have an envious life compared to their compatriots in Ban Tha Klang who work in the circus. The project began in 2009 when the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization approached the Save Elephant Foundation to help develop responsible elephant-based tourism at the Elephant Study Center.

The Surin Project, which is apart from the center, can support only 12 elephants at a time. When I was there it had just seven participating mahouts and eight female elephants (Maliwan and Saifon were a two-fer).

Ocha said four mahouts had left in recent months before my arrival because they could get more money at elephant trekking camps. He noted the Surin Project had recently boosted the salaries to make it more appealing to mahouts.

According to Ocha, mahouts’s monthly pay at the Surin Project was 15,000 baht (roughly US$470) from the Save Elephant Foundation and 10,800 baht (about US$340) from the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization.

During the time when they’re not on walks, socializing with other elephants or getting bathed, the elephants at the Surin Project are housed in spacious shelters where at night they are tethered to a pole by a chain that was shackled to one front leg. But that’s better than other elephants in Ban Tha Klang, who typically lived in flimsy shelters with both front legs chained. Still others were double-shackled and chained to a tree, which left them exposed to the hot sun for a good part of the day.

And when walked around town or visiting a watering station (such as in the photo below), the elephants often carried a chain that was wrapped around a leg or two.

In the fading light one early evening while making the short five-minute walk to the project’s dining area, I passed a group of teenagers in a yard who were trying to force a young elephant to do some kind of trick. Their training methods included the use of the hook, and the animal responded with angry, low-rumbling grunts and cries of anguish. It was a disconcerting scene.

Lodging for Surin Project volunteers was on the edge of town not far from the circus grounds, and we essentially lived among the villagers and observed the daily rhythms of life among the Gwi.

Families with an elephant——or elephants——kept them on their property. At night when I nodded off to sleep, I heard the rumbles and occasional trumpet blasts from nearby elephants, including one pachyderm who incongruently, and humorously, sounded like a screeching monkey. Clucking chickens and barking dogs also added to the soundtrack.

I noticed some of the non-project elephants chained in their enclosures or to trees in the yards occasionally spun their heads as they stood in place, seemingly a reflex action from being trained to spin hula hoops around their trunks or dance and sway to obnoxious uptempo dance music. They resembled a person with an uncontrollable neurological problem that caused their heads to turn and twitch.

My appreciation for the Surin Project grew the more time I spent there and witnessed the juxtaposition in circumstances between “our” elephants and the non-project animals. Every afternoon the project’s elephants where taken to a forest clearing to eat sugar cane, move about freely and socialize before heading out on a nice long amble through the forest. Toward the end of the walk the mahouts took the elephants into a lake for a quick soak.

It was satisfying to see the elephants get some pleasure from life. But during the daily walks we passed a few elephants double-chained within enclosures or to trees. And there were a few elephants chained to trees on the opposite shore of the lake where the Surin Project elephants took their dip . . . I wondered what those shackled elephants thought——if, of course, they “thought” anything——as they watched the Surin Project elephants bathing in the water and living the good life.

Changes Coming

The Surin Project was nearing the end of its then-current phase by the time I departed Ban Tha Klang for Cambodia in early December. A large sign posted at the circus proclaimed that “Elephant World . . . Only One In The World” was due to open in town on March 13, 2017. From what I was told (I’ve been unable to verify this through subsequent online research), Elephant World is to be a huge elephant-themed tourism extravaganza, evidently with some Chinese financial backing. A field near where the Surin Project was based on the outskirts of town had already been cleared, and large trucks hauling construction supplies occasionally rumbled down the dirt road in front of the Surin Project meeting area.

The Surin Project itself was slated to move to a new location on the outskirts of Ban Tha Klang to make way for Elephant World. The new site will remain close to the forest but will have a new platform for meals, as well as new housing for volunteers. I recall them saying there would be flush toilets.

Ocha told me via email that as of late April the Surin Project had moved to interim facilities while the new buildings were being built, and that Elephant World had yet to open. Also, one of the mahouts and his elephant had left the project since I departed, while another mahout who had earlier left the project came back with his elephant.

While the Surin Project had several social activities that brought mahouts and volunteers together (such as the “mahout Olympics” consisting of silly yet fun games where the losing side got their faces powdered with baby powder), the language barrier was such that I couldn’t talk to the mahouts to get a sense of what their life is like, how they feel about their elephants and of being mahouts, why they joined the Surin Project and whether they viewed it as a long-term option.

Other than Sarot, who speaks functional English, none of the rest spoke any English. Most of them were shy around the “farangs,” or foreign volunteers, and seemed to be quiet by nature. But two younger mahouts in particular——Paen and Champ——were very boisterous. Some of the younger mahouts fiddled with their cell phones while walking the elephants through the forest, proving once again that cell phones have taken over the world.

Sarot was a kind man in his late 40s. He said his father and grandfather were mahouts, and he had been a mahout for about 30 years. The elephant he had for a “long, long time” died four years before, and he’s been unable to replace it.

“I have no money to buy a new one,” he said, noting that a new elephant costs 2 million baht (about US$64,000). I asked where do people go to buy an elephant, and he replied there’s a list of elephants who are put up for sale by their owner.

Sarot has one son and two daughters, and he said his son works as a mahout in northern Thailand. He added that he likes the mahout lifestyle and wants to keep it going. “Being a mahout is not hard work. We enjoy taking care of the elephants.”

But he noted that if the government didn’t pay the mahouts as part of the Surin Project, the mahouts would take the elephants to the city for street begging or go to trekking camps.

On the morning of my departure from Ban Tha Klang, I sat down with Ocha to get his take on the Surin Project. Specifically, I asked if he thought the project has achieved a desired level of success.

“Not yet,” he replied.

I asked him to define what “success” would be for this project.

“We actually don’t know what success would be. We’re the only program in Thailand to work within the community. It’s not like the other ones that work in a camp. Chiang Mai has its own area, it’s land the government can buy. The government can’t buy the land in this area——it’s difficult. They own the elephants in Chiang Mai. Here, we don’t own the elephants; we work with the people in the community.

“For now, we take it step-by-step,” he added. “We’re in the process to get more elephants.”

If You Go

I found out about the Surin Project through Globe Aware, a Dallas-based outfit that has volunteer vacation experiences around the world. The menu tab on its homepage lists its various volunteer opportunities. The Surin Project cost $725. The cost of getting to Thailand was on me.

It was only after arriving in Ban Tha Klang did I learn of the full extent of other elephant-centered volunteer activities in Thailand under the umbrella of the Save Elephant Foundation, of which the Surin Project is part of. You can book a volunteer vacation through them, as well.

I can’t speak to the new facilities at Surin Project 2.0. While the lodging evidently will be more modern, the food will likely be the same. Ocha and a helper oversaw the meals. Breakfast often consisted of pancakes, eggs and fruit, with coffee. Dinner included yellow curries with potatoes and tom yam mushrooms, pad thai, spicy drunken noodles with basil leaf, spring roll and crispy pork with Chinese kale. The meals were authentic, home-cooked Thai food, and they were quite good. For lunch, my fellow volunteers and I hopped on the back of a pickup truck——usually accompanied by Thub, one of the camp’s dogs——and were driven to one of two restaurants just outside of town. We alternated between them, and both served hearty, satisfying Thai fare. Lunches were included in the overall price of the volunteer experience.

I’m glad the volunteer group included only four people during my time at the Surin Project. As mentioned, we all got along well and that helped make for an enjoyable experience. I was told that 12 volunteers were expected at the project for the week after I left (including my three compadres who all remained during the subsequent week), which was good for the project’s finances but would’ve afforded a less intimate experience for me.

Looking back, I can’t say I saved the world or the elephants during this roughly one-week volunteer endeavor. Then again, it was only a week, so what did I expect? That said, my time in Ban Tha KIang living among the elephants and their handlers in a location that is practically smack dab in the heart of Southeast Asia was one of the most unique experiences of my life. It was entirely worth the money spent and the effort to get there——and then some. I’d like to think I contributed to the elephants’ well-being . . . however small that contribution might’ve be. But big things are made of little things, and if enough people spend time at the Surin Project that could be a whole lot of “little things” adding up to something substantive. Based on the Surin Project’s Facebook page, it appears the project is still going strong.

I’m happy for the elephants at the Surin Project, and in a perfect world I hope they can stay there forever.

Comments (3)

  1. Marina Klammer

    Dear Jeff,
    thank you giving me the possibility to see “my 3rd home” with your eyes. Your pictures are so amazing and I loved to read your description. Thank you for sharing with me.
    The only thing I want to add is the following: Why not recommend to book the project direct via the homepage of Elephant Save Foundation? It is much cheaper (13.000 Bhat which is approximately around 410 US Dollar) than via an organization. Maybe people would stay longer if they do not pay the add on for an organization like Global Aware and all the money goes to the project 😉 (
    All the best from munich!

    • jschleg

      Well, you just did the job for me (regarding Save Elephant Foundation) . . . thanks. Though I did mention above that SEF is also a go-to place to book a stay. Regardless, the name of the game is for interested people to get to the Surin Project no matter who they book the trip through.

  2. sharon

    Both the writing and photos were wonderful and took me into a whole new world. I need to read it again to truly absorb all you shared and will sometime soon. What a marvelous experience! And what a wonderful thing for you to experience elephant life as it exists there and to take part.

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