2006 Thailand: Dub for Boasri

I worked for a month at an elephant camp. Boasri (water flower) was my elephant. She was rad. There are blog posts (below) and photos in this set. Oh, and chicken fighting.

Click above to see the set.

Click above to see the set.

Dub for Boasri


A few kilometers south of Pattaya, Thailand, there is an elephant (“chang”) reserve called the Elephant Mahout Project (EMP), which provides a safe haven for about 15 elephants and their handlers, or mahouts (“quan chang”), and the mahout’s families. The project was started about two years ago by a big hearted man named Anon through the financial support of his sister and her husband as a way for the elephants to earn a meager living giving rides to tourists and not doing hard labor such as logging or working in a circus environment.

I’ll admit I was never a big “elephant person” but I like all animals, so when I spotted the website’s volunteer section and the EMP I was keen to check it out. As you may have gathered I wasn’t as keen on paying to shovel shit, but once I realized what the project was about, I was fine making a financial as well as physical contribution. The mahouts and the support staff that run the concession stand and souvenir booth are managed separately by a mysterious man and his money hungry wife. Anon and the EMP are a separate “business” and the volunteer money keeps that going. His role is vital in helping the mahouts think ahead on how to market and manage the village, as well as providing medicine and food (for both the elephants and mahouts) when times are lean, such as the three months recently when the mahouts did not get paid their 5,000baht (about $125) wages. It doesn’t help that half of everything the mahouts make goes straight to the director and his wife.

Water is maybe the biggest issue, and it’s heartbreaking to see the mahouts give the giant beast a shower with a trickling garden hose. Elephants need a large amount of water to drink and bath with and while they have barrels filling slowly at night, it’s not a fraction of the amount they really need. We are going to start a large watering station project next week, but Ahnon needs funds to get it going. The idea would be to set up a big “u” shaped area with giant holding tanks that get filled at night by a big pump. Having big barrels of reserve will help the problem enormously.

Boasri (boo-wah-SEE) is a medium sized female, 40 years old, and has a pronounced limp from when she was hit by a car a few years ago. She’s beautiful (“suay”) and we’ve become fast friends, quickly. Elephants speak with body language so now she flaps her ears and wags her tail when I approach, though I’m quite generous with the bananas (“bon”). The other day I bought some peanuts to feed her, because, you know, the whole Dumbo thing has taught us elephants love peanuts, however, they are difficult to get from trunk to mouth, so they’re more frustrating then anything for her. I literally had to stuff them in her nostrils, I think she eat maybe three of 40.

She nurses her right rear leg because of the accident

I ride her several times a day now and am gaining confidence as a volunteer mahout. Her real mahout is Dom, a young, half Cambodian half Thai boy of 22 with flowing black hair, cheerful eyes, and a soothing, high-pitched voice that he uses to sing karaoke or serenade me while I lead Boasri around the village. He’s a good man, and a good mahout, taking care of the family’s two elephants instead of taking a day job in the city. His father, an 80 year old master mahout, has been training elephants his entire life and so he’s the “pa-kap,” or eldest mahout in the village, and Dom is heir to that title.

The village is about the size of a football field with trees that are being slowly torn away by scratching or eating. The perimeter is lined with the mahouts huts, everyone living together, though many of the elephants sleep in the nearby forest at night. The elephants mainly eat pineapple (“saparoot”) stalks which the mahouts cut for them for free (a saving grace) several evenings a week. With more than one elephant reserve around, it’s unclear how long the free pineapple will last.

The mahouts rise at 5am and go to the forest to walk their beasts back to camp. This week the volunteers go to work at 7am cleaning their elephant’s area and then give them a little shower. Following breakfast we go for a walk, shower, feed and clean the area again. Then we rest in the shade until tourists arrive. The little old man leaves one tiny yellow flip-flop behind when he’s on Boasri (Dom rides their other elephant Pompoi) giving rides to Koreans and Turks and Naval flarang on leave from a “booze cruise” tour of “the Orient,” and while they’re away I clean her area of the left over pineapple stems and dung — which means I sweep dirt and I’m sure my dad will read that with jealously because if anyone can understand the pleasure of sweeping dirt he can. Today I left a flower in his flip-flop while he was working. He didn’t acknowledge it, though he can’t speak any english and in fact speaks to everyone like they are Baosri with his little grunting “heya, heya’s.”

I started the week writing that “the work is neither too hard nor too technical” but it’s Sunday now, my first day off after six days of hard labor, so I’m rescinding that statement. In the evenings we stay up late drinking Thai whiskey and singing kareoke. Mix that with the stifling humidity and moving mountains of dung and pineapple (amazing fertilizer) and you start to feel it in the shoulders and back. An added bonus to digging for the Thai is you can capture a quick snack while you’re at it. They like to deep fry the giant beetles before they eat them, though a volunteer Cat was saying the other day a mahout named Boy (pronounced poy) was playing with a giant beetle letting it walk on his hands and arms, then held it over the fire for a few seconds and popped it in his mouth. Boy is tiny and adorable and shy and gay and hard on his young elephant. The younger elephants need to be brought into line, so the mahouts will be more stern with them. There is a young bull who is playful and dangerous and rolls around just like a little eight year old brat. He loves playing soccer though, and I finally got some pictures of him kicking the ball.

Today we observed a sad moment when four elephants were loaded onto a truck and taken south for more stable, yet more stressful work, such as panhandling for money on the street. The reserve is struggling, and the whole thing could crumble at any moment, which is too sad to think about.

Anon drinks a little too much and loves to sing at the bar and flirt with the female volunteers all the while telling them not to get too close to the young, strapping mahouts. It’s a double-standard that has caused some good drama around here, but as the sole male volunteer I’m staying out of the fray. The food is great, and our cook Sri and her husband Chit are attentive and sweet. We stay at the hotel where the EMP office is, and the rooms are giant, with AC and cable TV. I would have died without the AC and the 10 or so mini showers I take a day. There were a few times that I actually had to come in and plan a cool down strategy to get my core body temperature down as quickly as possible before heading back to camp.

Georgia was the one that came up with “air shagging” which was funny enough to jump on my hat. I came up with “I know when to say when, just not in Thai” which was funny but doesn’t have the physical comedy that air shagging has. The dogs around the hotel are sweet, as most Thai dogs are, but the pug especially loves to make an attempt at gaining some purchase with the other’s rears, and when he gets really worked but and the lip stick comes out a little, he’ll involuntarily just shag the air with not dogs around. I have a photo of a three dog shag session which is priceless.

The days have drifted by like waves; you sense them, rythmical, mysterious, each one the same but different. We make further progress with the chang and the mahout and our further understanding of their culture gives way to the pleasure of sharing their community and the Thai staff at EMP. There is always time for fun or drink, which the Thai like very much, and it suits their playfulness. This experience was good for me to spend time with so many Thai men, who were a mystery to me. They are moody with highs and lows that I can appreciate.

I was scrathcing Boasri’s back with the mahout’s controlling hook (“hok”)” today, sort of lounging on her and could sense her raise her shoulder to greet me hitting the the right spot, like having your back scratched with long nails on a hot summer night. To see her shrug her massive shoulder and greet the soothing hook was an encouraging sign that she would “smell my shoes for a long time” which means she is trying to remember me forever. She’s a sweet skittish lady, eats daintly and is easy to love.

In a final note of this first week, if you want to experience what an elephant hide feels like, sit naked on a rattan chair for an hour and then rub your bottom. That’s as close as I can get to the real thing.

Sabade Mi!


(Why Dub for Baosri? Because I would hook my Pod up to Pao’s stereo and play Boasri dub and Zepplin. She literaly would bob her head up and down, no lie.)

Noon, song, same, see, ha, hok, jet, paet, kao, sip…

Mr. Camoon takes a photo

Pao says “wassup?!”

Ahnon and Mahouts at Camoon’s hut

The old man

I have my own broom (“bom”)

Georga and her mahout Pao (“bow”) That’s my hat!

Bonding with our mahouts

Dacoon’s daughter Mon

For this week’s installment I thought I might do a day by day account of life with Boasri. Enjoy. Sorry if this is too much about me…

Day By Day or: A Week with Boasri


It was the first time we played soccer that Mr. Camoon’s dog Dom died. He was wrapped up in a car wheel and in his grief Mr. Camoon showed us criers how it happened. Camoon was dispondent, I hugged him to his surprise, and later while we buried Dom, Camoon finally hugged me back.

Sunday was our first day off in six and it was much needed. Who knew the drama would unfold in so many layers. Money had gone missing from the office, donations Scottish Katie had generated at school, so Saturday night there was tension brewing. Sunday we went to the beach and had fun riding jet skis with Aom, the secretary from EMB who had never been on one. Her peels of delight were great to hear as we crashed through the waves. English Joey had started in on the beer at 9 am and was proceeding to get blind drunk. We headed back to camp to play soccer, the girls giggly about watching the half-naked mahouts get all sweaty. Half way through the game is when Mr. Camoon dragged Dom back, and Georga and I just broke down crying. There’s something about traveling alone that brings out an emotional tenderness, and I couldn’t stop the tears for a bit, fortunately I was away from the game and the men, after a while went back to playing.


Later Camoon and Anon buried Dom and we all laid some flowers, except for Joey was out of his head by now and teasing the young and dangerous bull elephant. I nearly blew a gasket and told him he had to leave, thinking when Anon got over to him he would make Joey leave immediately, instead they started talking. I guess they have a unique bond. Joey then passed out at Camoon’s hut, and while we got ready to go eat, Joey’s girlfriend Cat gets called in to take care of Joey who had started drinking again. A fight between them ensues and at that point I start to leave for dinner with Katie, her mom and Georga. Anon arrives in a truck and we have great BBQ, which you cook at your table on a little grill that has a moat built in to steam vegis. Back at the hotel Anon starts laying into Georga about this or that and I decide it’s imperative to leave the drama for the night and head to bed. Oy is right!



A better day today as the drama was mostly gone, except that Anon was refusing to talk to any volunteers, which was fine, we know our roles and are all getting along with our mahouts. Started clearing the area for the water project, which was hot work. I gave the beetles I dug up to the old man and his wife, who was chewing the red Thai tobacco. I’d love to try and get a picture of the old weathered face with the juicy red teeth. They smiled and thanked me. Dacoon and I went to the giant Tesco store and bought a new football (soccer ball). The afternoons are languid and hot and so we usually sit in the shade and watch the mahouts give rides.

Mroy (im-loy) is the 10 year old baby elephant that is the funnest to sit and watch. Just like a 10 year old boy, he’s brattish and surly and walks with a little kid swagger and will turn abruptly and curiously like a cat kitten chasing it’s tail. And, he likes to play football!

At five we (me and the mahouts, not the elephants) play football, which was fun, but I nearly shattered my glasses. After football we took the elephants (“chang”) to their sleeping areas in the woods about 1km away. Then dinner.

Camoon picked out a new puppy, and named it Fanta…

After dinner I stuffed the computer in my bag and was headed to the internet cafe to upload my first blog entry, but on passing miss Moi’s little beer shop next to the hotel she waved me in and said she wanted to repay the Heineken I bought for her the other day. Moi is darling, with a squishy face that puckers when she laughs. She has severe vertiligo, the loss of pigment in your skin, which is startling upon first meeting her. But she doesn’t seem hung up by it and while she might drink too much, she has an effervescent personality.

About seven young Thais were eating a long slow dinner and drinking beer, so we started chatting and three beers later I was on the back of a motorbike on the way to a “folk song” bar, where one of the guys in our group was going to sing. Two of the Thai girls were cute and giggly, but a third, Nong, was stunning, and I had a good laugh with her. She wasn’t going to go out, but I think they talked her into it, or at least Ms. Moi did. Older Thai women love to push young people together, especially farang (white men) and Thai girls. Nong did give me a ride back home at midnight, but it was casual, no matter what Ms. Moi would have wanted. The folk song bar, which was only a block away, was great. I loved the music, and the handsome singer guitar player is off-set by the absolute freak of nature conga drummer.



Of course the day after I stay out drinking beer is the planned 5am wake up call to go get Boasri from the forest. I was really beat and downright surly. The beasts are huge, as you can gather, and yet they are camouflaged so well, that at night or the early morning they can’t be seen, even up close. We walked out to where Boasri was sleeping and approached cautiously. Just like humans elephants do not like to be woken with a start or by strangers, so even the mahouts approach their elephants slowly.



Boasri appeared like a thought. One second I was looking at forest and the next second, as if my mind had willed it she was standing in front of me. It was an amazing special effect of nature. The light was good, I got some good shots, but Boasri seemed a little out of sorts, maybe she was tired, like me? They had a nice bath in a small pond nearby and then back to camp. Anon came out to say we are not to ride the chang in the water, but Izzie had already been in the water with hers and Anon literally hit the mahout and said it was not to happen. “She could die!” He was mad in the eyes and was reaching the bottom of his particular trip.

I went straight home and slept for an hour. When I returned Boasri had a gash on her head right where the mahouts sometimes hit them with their hook. Dom is a great mahout and not violent, and i understand they need to control their animals and sometimes a spanking is in order. Still, it’s hard to see the effects of that. He said “up” to me, but knowing Boasri was out of sorts and still being tired myself declined the ride for the first time.

The afternoon was better, but still Boasri wasn’t herself. As the old man walked her past Camoon’s hut where Georga and I were resting we started talking about how he didn’t even use a hook, instead, Georga commented, “he had a special synergy with elephants having captured them in the wild for his entire life.” As she was going on about this telepathic notion, he walked her to a tree and I said, “See, he knows to give her a little treat” as he proceeded to break a branch off and give Boasri a few good whacks with it. So much for our understanding of the mahout/chang relationship. =)

After all the drama that had taken place, Anon wasn’t talking to the volunteers anymore and announced to someone that he was leaving tomorrow. My take on him was that he was tired, that it was an emotional drain running the business, and the added stress of trying to get with some of the volunteers when drinking was too much so he needed a clean break to “go watch monkeys for a while.”

We played football at 5pm and I invited Nong over to see the camp and of course the mahout were out of control with the whole “is that your girlfriend?” business, I had to settle them down. After footy we eat a quick super (“gin kow yen”) of green curry and rice, stir fried vegis with oyster sauce, and mango (ma maung) sticky rice for dessert. Best meal to date. Sri our cook is great, very friendly and it humbles me to think that she creates such amazing food in her “kitchen” which is a hot covered corner in the back of the hotel. I’m embarrassed thinking I need a new kitchen. Recalibration of “need.” After dinner we went to pick pineapple (“sapparod”) again, and it was fun but stifling hot. It’s sweaty, dirty work, which fed to deep, delightful sleep.

[sidenote: We taught Dacoon “what’s up!?” and have created a monster. I can’t walk five feet without him yelling “Tony! Whass’up?!” He’s great, only 23 and has a set of 4 year old twins living in Sirin with his mom, and an adorable baby girl, Mon, here with his wife. He ‘s faught in 30 mauy Thai fights and we plan to go to the local stadium to watch some fights later next week.]



Boasri spent the night at camp and was a new girl today. She was happy to see me and I felt comfortable on her all morning. Today may be my graduation in leading tourists around camp on Boasri. The other volunteers have had their graduation, but mine has taken a bit longer I think mainly because Dom is on Pompoi (“fat) while the old man just instinctively gets on Boasri. Either that or the old man doesn’t like volunteers being “official” mahouts. Thai are sometimes difficult to understand, especially with “why’s” and “how’s.”

Anon just said his goodbyes. I don’t have a huge emotional investment with him, I’m sad for him that it came to this, but he will come back recharged, and the camp needs to settle down a bit before eight volunteers show up next week. I have decided to stay an extra week because they can use my help in orienting the volunteers. I won’t be able to ride Boasri, and may feel jealous of the new volunteer that gets close to her. But, Boasri and I have an open relationship, she can love others but just not the same way as she loves me. We’re big like that. Mature. Menyui won’t mind me loving a one ton pacaderm.



It was Katie and Izzie’s last night so a group of us went to the beach, which is a short walk away. Though none of us were prepared for it, we all went swimming, and a night without drama seems unheard of so when Gim pushed Vishay under water, Vishay lost 700 baht of the 1,000 Izzie had given him for being such a good mahout teacher. I stayed behind searching for the money, but after some time dropped a 20 baht bill (about $.50) into the water and when it disappeared before my eyes and I couldn’t find that I knew finding the wad of cash was hopeless.

On my way home I stopped by the bar we had gone to the night before. Still wet from swimming I thought I was getting the evil eye from this group of guys, but Thailand will throw surprises your way, so imagine mine when they invited me to join them. I bought a couple pitchers and we had a great time. They all work different “sections” of the beach. Here’s what I mean: The beach is lined with umbrellas and chairs, and Thai people walk around offering everything from freshly deep fried food, to tattoo designs and mani/pedis. It’s such a typical decadence that makes you love this country. The umbrellas and chair are sectioned off, and so the guys I met work their section of the beach and assured me I would get special treatment if I sit in their section. Imagine, all the fried food I want and shade! Again, the music was good and I’m starting to meet folks in the bar.




Katie and Izzie left today which was sad, but as a seasoned traveler I am better now about goodbyes and don’t get too worked up. Dom is starting to have me do less and less with Boasri, I’m not sure why, but I have been getting to know all the mahouts and spend time with them at various huts or in the shade, so he may feel I’m abandoning him a bit. This is a situation where Anon would be good to have around. Mr. Nipon, Anon’s replacement is great and freidnly and helpful, but not as in tune with the mahouts. It’s unclear whish day will be my last with Boasri.

Football at 5pm, dinner, then off to the folk song bar with Georga, her mahout Pao and another mahout Ho. The band has started thanking me for coming in Thai and all the waitresses greet me with a smile. It’s like a Thai version of Cheers.



I was up a little late again today, which may be contributing to Dom having me do less with Boasri. We’re down to maybe two rides a day. She had her bath (“abnam”) before I arrived today. I’m not that upset by it, I’m here to experience the whole camp and I’m getting along with everyone.

Cat, Georga and I took some time off and went to a giant super store call Tesco. We had a good long, open chat. I rented a motorbike for a week, which will give us some freedom. After we took the chang to the forest Georga and I had dinner at a “romantic” restaurant as the Thai’s called it, though we get along like lost friends. We share a similar sense of humor. She bright, and with it. For instance, the spider that lives behind her toilet is called “Yeltsin.” I got her line of thought in a flash, did you?

After supper we met up with Cat at the folk singing bar and then came back to the hotel for a few more beers. It was a late night, but good and fun and just goofy most of the time. Tribal.



No drinking today. Mellow day, working with the chang, cleaning the area for the water project and working on a volunteer waiver for the office. They hadn’t had any real volunteer orientation, nor a “rules” waiver, which was mostly to cover volunteer mahout relationships. It’s been a problem in the past, because the mahouts are not seen as high-class and don’t get to meet women a lot, then you throw a few beautiful (“suay”) European 20 year olds there way and sparks fly. So, by helping them set some ground rules, they can mitigate the problem a bit.

Early night, knowing Poa’s birthday is tomorrow.





Turns out, while my last day working with Boasri was to be today, it was really yesterday. Welcome to Thailand, man. =) It’s probably for the best that I didn’t get emotional if that was the last time I’d ride her. The kids never had a chance to ride her though, and Menyui will be upset at me for that. I brought them out today, but haven’t gotten them on Boasri. Maybe next week.

I’m staying another week helping with the water project and being an project manager for the new volunteers. Today was Pao’s birthday and we started drinking at his hut at 9am. We had to take a break to eat and drink water (“dunk nam”), but started in again at 6pm after a nap. It was a good party, not all the mahouts, but a bunch, with lots of thai whiskey Sang Som (which is really a sort of rum, right Megan?), mixed with soda water and Coke. I pulled out the iPod and tried to get them moving to some rock and roll. Liz, there’s a picture of us all rocking to Ramble On. We danced, sang, took pictures, Dom kept my glass full the whole night. I finally had to just walk away Steve Fruhwirth style. I was very drunk (“mow mack”), but happy.

Monday was my first hangover…