Learning to drive in Thailand
There are no rear lights, no windshield wipers and you won’t get
much in the trunk except water, but at northern Thailand’s new 5-star
Anantara Resort and Spa Golden Triangle, guests can pass their driving
test – from the back of an elephant.
The 3-day mahout (elephant ‘driver’) training course takes place
in the resort’s own elephant camp, which was set up in conjunction
with Thailand’s National Elephant Institute and its Elephant Conservation
Centre in Lampang.
Course content includes learning basic commands, how to drive an
elephant, river bathing, daily care of an elephant, feeding requirements
and mahout lifestyle. At the end of 3 days a short ‘driving test’
is administered after which guests receive their certificate of
The resort’s 160 acres of bamboo forest, nature trails and river
banks provide an ideal habitat for the elephants, all of which have
been long-time residents of the Lampang elephant centre and have
spent several years involved in the centre’s eco-tourism programmes.
Guests learn their elephant driving skills working with a qualified
Thai mahout and an English-speaking guide, usually the resort’s
own nature ranger, John Roberts, an Englishman with his own mahout
Roberts explains: "The programme is designed for those who
would like to get a feel for the bond between elephant and mahout
and to learn more than just the very basics. Our course is based
on the professional mahout training course, run at the Thai Elephant
It’s certainly not a course for late risers. Elephants and their
mahouts get up with the sun and the course starts each morning at
6.30am. The trainee’s first task is to collect their elephant from
the forest and together with the mahout drive her back to the camp.
The guide will explain what the mahout is doing and the commands
he uses for his elephant.
Once back at the camp, guests are invited to make an incense offering
and blessing to the elephant-headed deity, Ganesh, after which it’s
time for the ‘girls” morning bath. Then it’s off to work; starting
with how to mount your elephant – up the side or leapfrogging over
her bowed head. Once seated behind her ears, the mahout teaches
each trainee the basic movement commands and the trainees get used
to walking up and down the camp, acclimatizing themselves to the
roll and sway of their elephant. The morning course ends at 9am.
The afternoon’s activities start at 2pm, when guests drive their
elephant to the Ruak River for their favourite activity, river bathing.
Trainees are expected to get in the water with their elephant, though
staying on their back out of the water is almost impossible; especially
with Lawann who likes to make sure her mahout is as wet as she is.
Then it’s back to the forest, where the mahouts choose a good place
for their elephant to spend the night, one where bamboo and leafy
snacks are plentiful!
"The elephants at the camp are all used to working with people
and like the best teachers are extremely patient. As with humans,
elephants warm to and trust people over time, so we encourage guests
to hand feed their teachers with plenty of sugar cane and bananas,"
says Roberts. Each elephant eats around 250kg of food per day.
Qualified mahouts stay with the elephant throughout the training
and guests are never required to have sole charge of their mount.
On the third day Roberts gives the mahout trainees a short driving
test; though the testing isn’t overly rigorous. "I don’t feel
too guilty for turning less than competent mahouts out on the streets"
laughs Roberts "There have been no reports of elepant-based
accidents when my students return home. At least not yet!"
On passing their test, trainees receive a certificate of competence,
a new mahout shirt and a mahout hook as a souvenir of their time
at the Anantara elephant camp.
The 3-day mahout course and special packages are also available.