Hop on board an elephant for the drive of your life

Learn the art of the mahout on a special course in Thailand. Andrew Spooner gets to grips with Lawann - five tons of sugar-obsessed pachyderm
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The Independent Travel

A gentle morning mist rolls off the Mekong river and into the verdant hills of Laos, Thailand and Burma. I'm on my balcony at the luxurious Anantara Resort soaking up a spectacular view of the Golden Triangle - the point in northern Thailand where these three countries meet. At this hour, 6am, the sun has just begun its lazy crawl over the steamy, misty jungle.

A gentle morning mist rolls off the Mekong river and into the verdant hills of Laos, Thailand and Burma. I'm on my balcony at the luxurious Anantara Resort soaking up a spectacular view of the Golden Triangle - the point in northern Thailand where these three countries meet. At this hour, 6am, the sun has just begun its lazy crawl over the steamy, misty jungle.

I've a strenuous morning ahead - it's my final day on the Anantara's mahout training course, a four-day exercise in which hotel guests learn to ride and control an elephant at an elephant conservation project that is co-funded by the resort. Today, I'm doing my "driving test" and my first task is to climb one of the surrounding hills and search the thick bamboo forest for a 26-year-old female elephant called Lawann (which translates as wild jasmine).

I'm suitably dressed in very muddy jeans and T-shirt - the remains of days of mahouting. Lawann, my training elephant, is delightfully playful and frustratingly wilful and I'm not particularly confident that she'll prove pliable enough to get me through my test. However, I have learnt a few sneaky mahout tricks. Not least the power I exert over Lawann when I control a hoard of sweet and irresistible sugar cane.

Lawann is the youngest of the Anantara's four female elephants. Yom (59) is the gentle grand dame, and the inseparable pairing of Tantawan (44) and Champen (46) completes the line up. The three elder elephants began life as working animals (in tin mines and logging) until they were bought by the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre which co-funds the project with the Anantara.

As the leading elephant conservation organisation in Thailand, Tecc is on a mission to improve the lot of the nation's elephants. It runs the National Elephant Institute (www.thailandelephant.org), a free elephant hospital and the leading research organisation in Thailand. The centre keeps a very close eye on the Anantara camp and is planning to use it as a standard for ideal treatment of elephants in small camp environments. The guiding philosophy is to allow tourists the chance to interact with the elephants and gain a greater understanding of the conservation needs of these amazing beasts.

Trying to get Lawann down the hill to the mahout camp requires more than understanding. She has an insatiable appetite for the succulent green leaves sprouting from bamboo stems and every attempt to steer her away proves futile.

Perched up high on Lawann's neck, I deliver my redundant instructions via a series of knee squeezes, cries and shifts of body weight. Eventually, after much coaxing, Lawann offers some forward momentum though her lengthy proboscis, eager for food, continues to dart into the foliage. "We feed each elephant 1,100 sticks of sugar cane and 500 huge bunches of bananas per month. That's not including the eight hours' grazing they get per day," explains John Roberts, the tall blond Englishman in charge of the Anantara's elephant camp. John clearly adores his charges and is soon handing out bananas to each elephant in turn. From Tiverton in Devon, John used to work at a safari camp in Nepal but couldn't resist the charms of both Thailand and his gang of female elephants. "Working here is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says.

My second mahout task of the day is to give Lawann a bath. This is a wet, mucky and utterly enjoyable process. Lawann is so eager she trots over to the patch of sticky mud that surrounds the hose and plonks her bottom down expectantly. I'm soon giving us both a soaking and Lawann a thorough wash. Elephants are appreciatively tactile and each pat, nudge and blast with the hose elicits an affectionate response from Lawann.

After a lengthy scrub, it's time for a snack. Lawann is more than familiar with the routine and makes straight for a large pile of sugar cane just behind her day-pen. We catch her just in time and secure her with a rope to a large wooden post, the sugar cane just out of reach.

As John and I stand discussing my impending driving test, Lawann grabs my wrist tightly in her trunk and drags me in the direction of the sugar cane. "Cheeky thing, isn't she?" says John. As I bend to pick up the cane Lawann becomes animated and dances from foot to foot like an excited puppy. "Don't give in to her so easily," says John as I make to hand Lawann the snack. He makes a loud command - "Dang dang" - and this enormous creature bends down and lets out a short trumpeting sound as I hand over the piece of sugar cane.

Several massive bunches of bananas and a couple of dozen giant sticks of sugar cane later, Lawann's breakfast is complete. It's now time for the serious business of my test. First, I have to climb back to my steering position on Lawann's neck.

On my first day of mahouting, I had fully expected John to pull out a ladder to ease my ascent. "Stand side-on to Lawann, grab her ear where it joins the body and give the command 'Son sung'," he instructed. Lawann lifted up her front leg and I tucked my right foot into the fold behind her knee. Then, as I clumsily heaved myself on top, she pushed with me up her leg. "See? It's just like an elevator," said John, as I sat clutching on to Lawann's ears staring nervously down at a 10ft drop.

After three days with Lawann all fear has dissipated and I climb on board with far more dignity. I'm completely relaxed as I sit almost on the top of her head, holding on by pressing my knees together. It's the knees that are my steering wheel as each command - pai (go forward), baen (turn), sock (go backwards), how (stop), move, you bleeding elephant (last resort) - is followed by a directed squeeze.

John leads Lawann and me towards a set of traffic cones set up in the middle of elephant camp. I easily steer Lawann through them with gently nudging knees. Next, I have to walk her in a straight line for about 50 metres to a circular track. My route takes me close to the sugar cane store. Predictably, Lawann makes a lunge straight for the grub. Now, as you can imagine, it's hard to steer several tons of hungry elephant away from food. Thankfully, John notices my plight, runs ahead, grabs a thick rod of cane and hands it to me. "That'll keep her attention," he says.

Lawann is inch-perfect around the circle, in both directions, and I complete my test with a flourish. John utters the dismount command - "tak lung" - Lawann kneels and I slide off her forehead. "Well done," he says. "You've completed the test." Without a word from either of us, Lawann grabs the sugar cane from my hand and gives me a long, knowing elephant stare.

Mahout certificate in hand I walk back to the resort filled with pride and wonderful memories. I will miss Lawann's naughtiness and beguiling charm but most of all I will miss feeding time.


How to get there

Five nights at the Anantara Resort & Spa Golden Triangle, Hua Hin (00 66 32 52 02 50; www.anantara.com) starts at £689 per person, based on two sharing, including flights to Chiang Rai, via Bangkok, transfers and room-only accommodation. Book through Travelmood (08700 664556; www.travelmood.com/independent).

The three-day mahout course costs THB10,000 (£140) and includes four hours of tuition per day. Book through the hotel.

Where to find out more

The Tourism Authority of Thailand ( 0870-900 2007; www.thaismile.co.uk).