Caring about the wellbeing of all animals, I was very hesitant about this excursion. How would the animals be handled? Would I perceive the Mahouts (holders) as being cruel to the elephants? What are the living conditions of the elephants like? And so forth.
Our car picked us up at the Katha Jetty at 8:30 a.m. and we drove about 12 km outside the city, past the elaborate red and gold welcome/goodbye gate, whereafter the road immediately narrowed down to one asphalt lane. That elaborate gate was also the boundary for the financing of a two lane road. In fact, there was less traffic thereafter but our driver continued to announce his presence with a constant use of his car horn. A normal custom here, to let all and sundry road users you are coming. Oncoming traffic is always a matter of who gives way to whom, with at least two wheels off road at the critical meetings point.
At some point, the driver turned right onto an unmarked dirt road. It had rained the night before and the streamlet was quite full. No problem for this 6-seater mini bus. Farther into the forest we drove, even over some old railroad tracks that once connected Katha to some point northwest. At some point, we all got off the mini bus and walked the last 400 meters by foot. A wonderful opportunity to really experience the Burmese forest, hear the bird sounds and walk on the the soft, red iron-rich soil.
By the time we arrived at the camp, the elephants were all lined up with their respective mahouts. An impressive sight to see 22 elephants, including several baby ones, all in a row, an elephant welcoming committee. We were greeted by the vet in charge, Dr. ….. who spoke passable English.
He is in charge of the camp, along with the head mahout, to make sure that the elephants are kept in good shape. Indeed, they all seemsed to be healthy and frisky, especially the little ones, escaping the welcoming line and wanting to show off their trickes so they could get bananas as their reward. Our driver had brought 13 kilos of bananas, freshly purchased en route. By the end of the visit, they were all eaten.
The elephants live freely in the forest, but these 22 had been rounded specifically for our visit. Now it was time for the morning bath and off they went with their mahouts to the nearby stream. The stream had been shored up with some teak trunks, so as to form a natural bathtub. In they all went and willingly submitted to being scrubbed and covered with the freshly flowing water. In fact, they seemed to enjoy the procedure greatly. Our little group did, too, watching from the shore and trying to keep dry – no small feat because of all the splashing going on.
After the bath, some of animals showed off some of their tricks – a little one stood on its head, another one climbed a stump and balanced on it. Not too much circus here, followed by the reward of bananas. And not all of them joined in, just a few. In the meantime, three of the adult ones were being saddled to take the four of us on a short elephant walk. A first for us, accompanied by much merriment. It was a short tour of about 15 minutes around the property, which gave each one us an impression of what it is like to ride an elephant. A most rickety experience!
The visit was rounded out by us being offered some sticky rice and a drink as well as the opportunity to buy some handmade souvenirs – a small teak elephant or an elephant bell, also made of teak. I opted for the latter one, because the sound was really quite pleasant – wood clanking on wood. 5000 Kyatt and made on the premises. The veterinary and the head mahout answered our questions.
Meanwhile, the elephants had been unsaddled and the entire group wandered off into the forest again, ridden by their mahouts.
All in all an experience I can definitely recommend.
Current statistics state that there are about 7000 elephants in all of Myanmar – 2000 in the wild, 3000 as property of the government and 1000 in private ownership. This vet was responsible for 4 camps and a total of approx. 120 elephants. He is based in Katha and is in close touch with the head mahouts of each camp, visiting them as needed. In 2015, there had about 700 visitors to this particular camp.