Saturday, September 29, 2012

Elephants and Friends: Reprint

Back in 2006, my wife and I spent a few months traveling South East Asia. We spent a few weeks of that time at a small elephant rehab center called Elephants and Friends. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience we will never forget. Unfortunately, the facility as it existed isn't open anymore, though there are other excellent and well-respected rehab facilities in Thailand.

I published an article about the experience in Vision Magazine. It's been six years now and the article isn't available online, so I've been asked by numerous people to repost it here.


Elephant Sanuk
Vision Magazine, 2006

“Rich, why are you not strong?!”

The jibe came at me from Juke Nadee, a 22 year-old Thai mahout who was sitting in the back of a beat-up farm truck next to my girlfriend, Megan. We were in the jungle, several miles from the village of Nonghoi, Thailand. At the time, I was 20 feet up an elephant-sugarcane tree in heavy winds, struggling to hack through limbs as thick as my thigh with Juke’s rusty, but shockingly sharp knife. I could hear Megan snicker.

“I think that’s why you have no babies,” he pondered, grinning up at me. I laughed so hard I almost slipped, then aimed the limb I was chopping to fall on him.
L>R Angoon, Boonmi;
Juke, Sidoh; Author, Kaewta

Juke is the youngest member of a small family of mahouts who run an elephant refuge in western Thailand called Elephants and Friends. Founded in November of 2005, the refuge was the dream of Juke’s brother Phot and Phot’s wife Dominique.

In 2002, Dominique Roumdt, a young Belgian electrical engineer, came to Thailand to volunteer at an elephant tourist camp in the city of Ayuttaya, just north of Bangkok. During her first 3-month visit Dominique was introduced to the art of elephant handling and fell in love with it, eventually becoming the first professional female mahout in Thailand. On her next visit the following year she met Phot and fell in love a second time. Four months later they were married.

For several years they worked together at tourist camps in Ayuttaya and Kanchanaburi, despite being discouraged from the profession by Phot’s father Phon, a life-long mahout himself. The life of a mahout in the modern world has been difficult.  In Asia’s history, elephants have been used to build temples, fight wars and have even been worshiped as gods. In the modern age elephants have been used primarily for labor, in particular the lumber industry. When the Thai government banned logging in 1989 in an attempt to curb the rapid deforestation of the country, thousands of elephants and their mahouts were put out of work.  

An elephant’s lifespan is similar to that of a human, living as old as 90 years in some cases. A young elephant would traditionally be trained by both a father and son, as the elephant would more than likely outlive the father. This familial bond and consistency with training was crucial to the life of both the mahouts and the elephants.  Without the lumber industry, elephants that had once been members of generations of mahout families could no longer be afforded and were sold off out of necessity. A mahout’s only recourse at that point was to be hired by elephant camps which sprung up all over Thailand, offering rides to tourists for less than $3 a day, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. Mahouts were often moved from one elephant to the next, breaking the lifetime bond that was once so crucial.

Rich and his wife, Megan, being sprayed by Kaewta
“There are thousands of mahouts in Thailand,” Phot told me, “but very few love the elephants. They want only money now.” Older mahouts are often better, he said.  Younger mahouts today are commonly recruited into the profession when they lose or can’t find a job somewhere else. More often than not they weren’t raised with an elephant, so the animal becomes a means to an end instead of a life-long companion.

Widespread abuse of mahouts by camp owners, as well as mistreatment of elephants by mahouts, turned Phot and Dominique away from the profession and inspired them to create a place where sick, overworked and abused animals could live a better life. They wanted their refuge to be an intimate place where people could come to live with their family for days or weeks and build the same kind of bond with the elephants that they experienced every day.

The refuge began to take shape after Dominique and Phot rescued Kaewta, a 55-year-old female who spent decades being dosed with amphetamines to keep her moving and working in illegitimate logging. Shortly after, Dominique and Phot borrowed money to buy Sidoh—a 20-year-old bull elephant that other mahouts claimed could only be ridden with the use of extreme force—and officially opened the Elephants and Friends refuge. The third elephant brought to the refuge was Boonmi, a 71-year-old female who spent 68 years doing hard labor. At the time they rescued her, she was dramatically underweight, extensively scarred and so ill she wouldn’t stand on her own. Every morning for weeks villagers from Nonghoi came to help lift her up onto her feet. 

Six months after opening, Juke guides Sidoh with barely a word. At bath time he stands on Sidoh’s back like an acrobat, calling Sidoh to sink, roll and toss anyone else who’s riding him that day. And Sidoh revels in it; his name, after all, means ‘playful’ in Thai. Sometimes he will sink slowly into the river until you loosen your grip to keep your head above water and then roll suddenly out from under you. Other times he’ll thrash his massive head from side to side, trunk flailing, until you just can’t hold on anymore. I once saw Sidoh unseat both a guest and Juke with a single toss of his head. He then stood patiently while Juke and the guest, laughing all the while, fought their way back through the current. I took that ride once and felt like I’d been beaten with a stick. Megan rode him a dozen times and always came back for more.

Kaewta happily eating corn cobs, stalks and all.
After years of amphetamine abuse, Kaewta is noticeably slower to take instructions. The first few days went quite well as Phon taught me the Thai commands and how to use the takkor—a dull metal hook with a bamboo handle used to tap or guide an elephant. Several days in, though, she began testing her limits, wandering off the trail to pull down tasty bamboo stalks, stopping suddenly mid-road or running off after fruit scraps left along the roadside by well-intentioned villagers. Riding bareback on a charging elephant that is completely ignoring you inspires you to take your life into account. As days passed I changed how I sat, the tone of my voice, how I guided her with both the takkor and my own feet, and our trust in one another steadily improved. She still didn’t listen sometimes but it was reassuring to know that she was just being stubborn, and not that I was confusing her. I rode her every day after and I miss her terribly. Dominique and Phot were right; if you want someone to build a bond with an elephant, teach them how to be a good mahout.

Even after treatment, veterinarians gave Boonmi only one month to live. My last day on the refuge I saw her trotting happily after a mango held by her kind-hearted mahout, Angoon. When there are no guests interested in riding, it’s not uncommon for the staff to take village kids with them down to the river. One ten-year-old, who we called Mono (Spanish for monkey) because we couldn’t master his name, would scramble up onto her, take Angoon’s takkor and off they’d go. Sometimes he would even mahout for other children. Boonmi would follow his directions down to the river and sink and roll as the children scrubbed her clean; a twice a day spa in a well deserved retirement.

Sharing a bond with elephants may have been the Nadee’s original dream, but just as life affecting is the bond made with the family. Two days in Nonghoi taught us more Thai than weeks we’d spent in the rest of the country. Many of these are important words that all farang (foreigners) should know, like mot daeng (red ant), yoong gat (mosquito bite), chang (elephant) and ron mak mak (it’s very, very hot out).  In retrospect, learning those words in the jungle isn’t very surprising. What touched me were the phrases I didn’t expect to learn, like: kyun jai di (you have a good heart), kidteung (the sight of you makes my heart happy or I missed you), and a phrase I was unable to memorize completely but which Phon shared with us toward the end of our first visit—“When you have a child,” he said over dinner, “you must come back so I can be the grandpa.” The sincerity in his face and the smile in his eyes affect me deeply even today.

If you’ve never experienced a Thai smile you should go out of your way to find one at least once. Often you will see it when asked the question “sanuk mai?”—the closest translation of which is “Did you have fun?” But the English word ‘fun’ doesn’t have enough depth. Sanuk is a way of life where each thing you do should be enjoyed as much as possible. While cutting a truckload of corn in 90-degree heat and oppressive humidity, we never stopped laughing. Juke, an incorrigible flirt, exhibits sanuk in everything he does, from teasing his girlfriend and riding Sidoh, to playing with his son. You can see it in Phot each time he meets a new visitor or talks to an old friend. You can even feel it when you watch his 18-month-old daughter, Areepri—a uniquely appropriate name that means, “loves the jungle”.

Pictures of Dominique and conversations with her friends and family told us she lived sanuk long before she’d ever considered coming to Thailand. I’m sad I didn’t get to witness her spirit myself.

On Sunday March 12th, just one month before we arrived in Bangkok, Dominique fell ill and was admitted to the military hospital in the nearby village of Lat Ya. A history of stomach problems led her doctors astray in their diagnosis and by Tuesday her skin became noticeably jaundiced. Before additional tests could be run she became delirious—eventually losing consciousness—and by 2 a.m., Wednesday March 15th, Dominique Nadee died from as yet unknown liver complications at the age of 27.

Phot is still wading through bureaucratic red tape for the autopsy report.

Phot and Aripree
Dominique’s energy had been the driving force behind the establishment of the refuge so questions as to its future arose. Thanks to help from the US, Australia and Europe, Phot has so far been able to keep their dream afloat. Money has been donated to build a new guest bungalow; volunteers have helped Phot manage and improve the website; and Gary Lambert, a Thai-speaking Australian, has been sponsored by both his employer and friends to help Phot improve his English, as well as teach him the business skills he will need to continue. The most important thing he needs now, he says, is for guests to share the experience they worked so hard to create.

His vision is for the refuge to remain small—no more than six elephants and 10 guests at a time (they currently have room for four)—but guests alone may not be enough to make that happen. To achieve his goal he would need to acquire the acreage surrounding his plot. With that he can grow tall grasses to supplement the elephant’s food supply and provide more space for them during the daytime. Veterinary services are often donated as well, but there may come a time where major injury or illness will tap even a generous Thai vet’s resources. Just as important to Phot is taking care of his staff, providing them with shelter and food, as well as paying them enough so that for once in their lives they don’t have to struggle. Guests are important and welcome, but a foundation is currently being established for those who wish to help and cannot visit themselves.

Before we arrived I was told that Phot was quiet and reserved, unskilled in English and shy with farang. I can only imagine the Thai smile on Dominique’s face if she could see him today. Her choice to leave the comforts of the West and follow a simple dream in the East changed a lot of lives, both human and animal.

I wish I could thank her for the affect it has had on ours.

Sanuk mai?

Sanuk mak mak.


  1. Stories like this doesnt really help people to understand what a complicated work is is to be a mahout, and how much work, during many years, it takes to get the experience needed. In a world where you can go to India and learn Ajurveda in a couple of weeks, theres also people who actually think you can learn the profession of mahout in the same way.

    You cant. And theres no meaning at all giving people the hope that they can. And when understanding this, its time to honor the people who actually can, and confirm their expertise. Myself, IM a php programmer and MySQL database designer. I program dynamic websites. But since 1977 I have also worked and trained almost 70 elephants, including ten wild caought elephants in Zimbabwe, India.

    Now when I introduce myself as a database manager, people give me a certain respect, and understand that in combination with PHP programming, is in some ways a guarrantee that Im not totally stupid.

    But when I introduce myself as the elephant trainer, this is just a funny, interesting thing, but noone understands that it needs an intellectual capacity.

    I can truly say, that of my two professions, caring for, and training elephants, is the most difficault and demanding one, which few people in fact can perform, while you can actually bring most people who can read or write, to become a programmer. They want master the profession, and they will never really become a star, but they can do it for several years, earning some money.

    While caring for elephants is lethal activy for those who doesnt really know what they are doing.

    Please do not make people believe that 25 year old girls from Helsinki can ever learn this after a couple of weeks in a camp. It will give wrong signals. Its a job for a very few talented, and most of them were actually born into it.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments. I also have multiple careers and understand how each garners different levels of respect. As a veterinary nurse having worked in wildlife rehabilitation for years, I agree with you. Learning something, putting it into practice, and mastering it are three very different things. I have the greatest respect for those who train and rehab these amazing animals, and it was an honor to work with them for the few months I did. It's a common reaction when people hear that you work with animals they assume it's somehow easy. Working with animals is intellectual, emotional, and physical in a way few people understand. Satisfying? Absolutely. Easy, or even safe? No.

      To be clear to other readers who may somehow interpret this story the way you have, I don't encourage anyone to believe they can learn elephant handling after a couple of weeks in a camp.

      The facility is now under new management, btw, and more information can be found at: