An Interview with a Farang Mahout
This interview is with an aging American-born woman who learned to become an elephant mahout. She explores the politics of being a foreign woman in a trade dominated by Thai males, her deep love for elephants, and the idea that she will have to leave this line-of-work one day.
I had just returned to Ayutthaya after the torture of teaching at a Korean language school. I celebrated this new found freedom with a boat ride around the city. After a few hours of boating down remote canals my legs itched for a piece of land. While climbing out of the long-tail boat I immediately stumbled into a 50+ year old woman who was riding an elephant. It was Mook the mahout, a local legend. This adventurous woman, who speaks four languages fluently, has worked with animals across the globe. She had been a track rider and stable supervisor for 30 years while in Singapore. After a trip to Thailand in 1996 she was exposed to the world of elephants on Koh Samui and decided to train them instead of horses. The intelligence and grace of elephants is what intrigued her. Since then this German-born American has handled elephants in Phuket, Pattaya, Kanchanaburi, and Ayutthaya. She is a friendly and down-to earth person, so it didn’t take long before a friendship was sparked between us. After a few months she finally consented to the following interview.
Ken: How did you find your way to becoming a mahout?
Mook: I didn’t actually start working with elephants until 1998. My chief instructor on all elephant matters was my husband. He is of the Kui tribe that originates in Cambodia. These were the people who started catching, taming, and training elephants during the wars between Siam and Burma. Many of these people settled in Surin.
Ken: What are some of the elephants that you have worked with?
Mook: My youngest baby was a tuskless bull called Marway. After I taught him to play the harmonic he realized that he could pick up objects with his lips. Marway got such a kick from this discovery that he would pick up and hand me cigarette packets, ice cream wrappers, and plastic bags. Another baby was a 2-year-old female named Niknoi. She would take money from tourists for bananas and put it in my pocket. One day she was so eager to eat bananas that she grabbed the wallet of a tourist and stuck it in my pocket, instead of waiting for him to take out 20 baht. My face went red! There must have been 60,000 baht in his wallet. I didn’t teach this elephant that trick.
There are some adult elephants that are special to me. One was a 43-year-old female named Shiree in Pattaya. She generally didn’t like women and even slapped a mahout’s mother. Yet for some reason she took a shine to me. I would take care of her whenever the mahout was occupied elsewhere. This caused some problems since they don’t accept female mahouts in Pattaya, but more about that later. Another female shaded me from the sun while I was taking a nap in the grass. Anyone that came near would have been slapped since she was protecting me.
Ken: What is more difficult to take care of: an elephant or a horse?
Mook: Horses are beyond a doubt much more difficult to train. Biologically, the horses are at a distinct disadvantage. They are prey animals, meaning they panic easily and risk injuring an leg when propelling themselves to escape. Elephants panic, too, and there is no stopping four tons of running elephant, however they are extremely flexible and stop when they sense danger is over. An elephant is neither prey animal or a predator, so it has few natural enemies. The intelligence of elephants can’t be underestimated. They comprehend what I want much more quickly and effortlessly.
Ken: What are some of the difficulties that you have had as a female mahout in a male-dominated profession?
Mook: There are some facts that can’t be ignored. The two hands of a woman don’t have the same strength as a man. Also, women tend to react much slower than men during a crisis. Every now and then there will be one woman that stands apart from pack and outdoes men in the same situation, but this doesn’t help women that work with elephants. Elephants that attack people or other elephants are off limits to women, simply because a woman doesn’t have the physical strength to control such an elephant. Also, for some reason unknown to me, there are many elephants that don’t like women. The aggression of another elephant, or my elephant panicking, can put tourists’ lives at risk. That’s why many camps in Pattaya and Ayutthaya won’t allow women to give tourists rides. A very frustrating situation for me, especially when I have the right elephant to do the job.
Ken: Have you had many problems as a farang doing a traditional Thai occupation?
Mook: Asian culture is ancient and many beliefs and customs are similar from country to country. Westerners, as a whole, have problems understanding this. When a taboo westerners tend to question why. Westerners tend to criticize that which they don’t understand. Within Asian societies such things are understood without lengthy explanations. Because of this trend, many Asians are not willing to share with westerners as they would with other Asian ethnic groups.
Ken: Have you ever considered switching careers as you get older? Why not teach English instead, since you would earn more money than a mahout?
Mook: Switching careers has never occurred to me. Thailand has been my home for over eight years. I wouldn’t hesitate to take Thai citizenship if I had the opportunity. Even when I am too old to work with elephants directly, I will certainly be involved with helping them and giving people a better understanding of them.
Ken: But haven’t you had dangerous experiences with elephants in the past?
Mook: I have fallen off a big elephant in Ayutthaya when she turned on a dog at lightning speed. I’ve been charged by a big female on Ko Samui, because she was afraid of the umbrella that I was carrying. In Ayutthaya I got slapped on the neck by a female who had already killed several people. I was lucky she didn’t grab me or trample me. I just had a major headache for two days. A large bull that had regularly threw things at people just missed me by a few inches. The same bull charged me when I opened the chains on a female elephant in the jungle. Had he not been tied up, I would have been as dead as a doornail.
Ken: What is something that you would change about how elephants are taken care of in Thailand?
Mook: The exploitation and greed of elephant owners is certainly on top of my list. The fact is that all over the world there is abuse wherever domestic animals are located. With elephants, people have learned to make money with no regard to their welfare or the welfare of mahouts. Finding experienced mahouts these days is getting more and more difficult. Hard work and low salaries – not to mention that society as a whole looks down on mahouts – are factors why people don’t want to do this kind of work anymore. If owners cared more about mahouts as well as elephants, the quality of life would improve all around. The other thing is elephants in Bangkok. Elephants simply don’t belong in the city. Visitors can help by alerting police whenever they see elephants roaming the streets of Bangkok.
Ken: I hear that you have switched to a new elephant camp recently?
Mook: I now work at the Taweechai Elephant Camp in Kanchanaburi. I am pleasantly surprised by the way elephants are treated, by the cleanliness, and by the patience of the Karen mahouts here. The elephants sleep in the jungle where they belong and more than half of them are not tethered to a tree. The elephants are only required to work occasionally. Some mahouts have been with one particular elephant for over ten years. Eco-tourism has given these elephants a new lease in life and has provided jobs. The children of mahouts all go to school, and elephants can take a break when there is no business.
When I spoke with Mook once again shortly after this interview, she was still mourning the death of another female mahout – a Belgian woman who had also married a Thai elephant trainer. The Belgian expatriate died suddenly due to a severe case of hepatitis. I asked Mook if this were not a good time for her to get out of the business. It was getting more frustrating to work with three-ton animals at her age, and being a woman it was difficult to work in the prize areas where she could get the best tips. Thai mahouts resented the competition from this farang that could speak fluent English, German, Thai, and other languages. And in the end, mahouts generally endure very harsh living conditions. Mook could not even imagine a life that did not include elephants. Thailand has become her spiritual home. This feeling is a curse shared by many westerners, since we have a sense of belonging to a country where we can never truly belong. Nevertheless. Mook spoke about these animals with as much love as she would have for her children. She intends to stay with the mahout life as long as possible. In this process, she has touched the lives of many expatriates living in Ayutthaya.
Mook is presently living as a Buddhist nun at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (Ayutthaya, Thailand).