Tag Archives: mahouts

Part II: Chiang Mai


It started out as a vacation; we just needed to get away.  It turned into a life-changer.  Here’s what happened to me and Virginia for three and a half weeks in June.

All of my posts began as emails from Thailand to my incredibly talented and loving daughter, Layla (think I’m only saying that because I’m her father?  Check out her website www.laylaangulo.com then come back here and apologize).  She not only house-sat for us, but six days after we left had to deal the death of our 21 year old Persian cat, Luna, who took the opportunity to spare us from the ordeal.  I loved her dearly, but she was my wife Virginia’s animal soul-mate.

She was one special creature.  I dedicate this journey to her, as her death made me look more closely at my own life.  Thank you, my dear Luna.  And, as always, I know you don’t care.  I’m doing it anyway.

June 8, 2011

Chiang Mai

How Are You?

Heeeeey Sweetheart,

We just got back from a massage and are feeling more relaxed.  We’ve gotten one every day, either body or foot.  Are you doing okay?  We know you have been through a hell of a lot and are so grateful you are there and have taken such good care of all the details.  We hope you are now doing some fun stuff just for you!

We really broke down yesterday.  In a hotel room.  In a foreign, strange place, Chiang Mai. We thought we were prepared for Luna to pass, but when we got your email, we could not contain ourselves.  At 21 years old she was ancient by all cat standards, but the reality was she was gone.  It was  tough to face.


Never in my many years could I ever conceive this much pain over a pet.  I have secretly scoffed at others for such a reaction.  A cat.  A, stereotypical, eye-rollingly (un) common house cat.  But the lesson I know I have been given to gnash my teeth upon is this:  wherever you choose to place your love – and my love was often reluctantly given but it was an ultimately futile attempt not to love her – when it comes to the end, ready or not, you damn well better expect to dig down deep into your normally placid existence and…deal with it.

Luckily, we could not spend that much time dwelling on her death.  We had to go be mahouts for a day.  It was just what we needed to help deal with the first phase of our grief.

We were led by our guide, Somboone, a hill tribesman who comes down from his mountain village for a month or so every year to do guide work and then returns.  Somboone is from the Karin tribe, an indigenous people of Southeast Asia who have lived for thousands of years in the mountains, and is a farmer with a family, but not married.  He was considering becoming a monk and his manner bespoke his consideration.  With excellent English and being the kindest of souls, he took great personal care of us.

We were driven up into the mountains, about 40 kilometers beyond Chiang Mai’s city limits, to an elephant sanctuary.  But before we got there we had to stock up on goodies for the elephants.


We didn’t just ride the elephants like the other tourists, we learned the commands and practiced them on the elephants; go right – kwah!  go left – Sai!  Back – Toi!  Forward – Pai! Stop — Yoot!  Let me up — Youk kah! – holding the ear and skin of his leg that they bend and you use as steps to hop up onto his back!

We used long hooks to pull them (they aren’t sharp but you have to pull or with their tough skin they don’t feel anything).  We shopped before we got there and got about 50 pounds of fruit, chopped it up and fed it to them – check out the videos at the end of the blog!

With V on one and me behind her on my elephant, we rode them up a long hill to a large gazebo on stilts, high enough so we were just above the elephants, who could look into the gazebo and get more fruit.  They snaked their trunks through the open rails and vied for more pineapple, watermelon and young bamboo shoots.

The work to ride and get them there was hard, but the thrill of riding atop one of these majestic animals was worth it.  “Chang!” That’s elephant in Thai, but it is not only the name of the animal, but the spirit, in fact the deity that rules all the attributes of the largest mammal on earth.  Chang.  I love the word and everything it conjures.  I could not stop saying it, often at the most inappropriate moment, the whole time we were there.

(Of course after the excursion ended and we were stateside, my granddaughter, Aisha, and I would spontaneously burst into song, “Chang, chang, chang!  Chang of fooooools!” after Aretha Franklin’s famous song.  And of course Aisha was singing it about her Big Bamboo, which is what she calls me.)

All this was done with a group of young French tourists and a crew of half a dozen real ‘mahouts’ – or elephant men.  They were totally bonded with the animals and know everything about their charges.  They hug and play with them constantly.

While taking a break in the gazebo — the humidity was near 100% and we were all drenched in our own sweat — one of the guides gave us lessons on how to survive in the jungle.  He also demonstrated how to start a fire with a knife, a bamboo sliver, and a small pile of dried elephant poop.  Took him all of three minutes to start a blaze you could turn into a camp fire.  The mahouts collect all of the elephant dung and sell it to a vendor in town, who makes elegant elephant writing paper with it.  Who knew?  Don’t get me started on all things poop, elephant and otherwise.


The experience of being with the elephants — we later rode them to a river and bathed them with hard scrub brushes as they lay on their sides in bliss as we scrubbed them and they shot water at us with their trunks! — was extremely therapeutic.  At the end of a long day of training, feeding, riding and washing Chang in the river, we were spent but grateful.


V and I took a moment aside from the other day-mahouts, and spoke privately to our elephant and told him about Luna’s passing.  We asked him to tell her that she is in our prayers and to please tell her we love her.  And when we looked into those huge, brown, and very intelligent eyes of Chang, we had no choice but to believe he heard, understood, and passed our message along to Luna.

More later, but I have to stop here and go recover myself again.  Love you!  DAD

http://www.flickr.com/photos/65172967@N05/5944238919 show_info=no/in/photostream




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