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Learning to drive in Thailand at Anantara Golden Triangle

09 Jul 2012

There are no rear lights, no windshield wipers and you won’t get much in the trunk except water, but at northern Thailand’s luxurious Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa, guests can pass their driving test in just three days – on the back of an elephant.

The three-day mahout (elephant ‘driver’) training course takes place at the resort’s on-site Elephant Camp, which was set up in conjunction with Thailand’s National Elephant Institute and its Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang (situated some 600km north of Bangkok). Anantara’s 160 acres of bamboo forest, nature trails and river banks provide an ideal habitat for the 32 elephants, all of whom have been rescued from the streets of Bangkok and other major cities in Thailand to participate in the resort’s eco-tourism programme. The resort’s resident elephants are all experienced mahout trainers – and full of personality.

Course content includes learning basic commands (pai=go, baen=turn and the all-important, how=stop) in order to drive an elephant, as well as river bathing and learning about the daily care of an elephant, their feeding requirements and a mahout’s lifestyle. At the end of three days a short ‘driving test’ is administered, after which guests receive their certificate of mahout competence.

Guests learn their elephant driving skills working with a qualified Thai mahout and an English-speaking guide, quite often the resorts own Director of Elephants, John Roberts, an Englishman with his own mahout certification. 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.”

It’s certainly not a course for late risers. Elephants and their mahouts get up with the sun and sessions start each morning at 7am. 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, it’s time for morning ablutions (for the elephants that is). Then it’s off to work; starting with how to mount your elephant – up the side or leap-frogging over its bowed head. Once seated behind the elephant’s ears, the mahout teaches each trainee the basic movement commands and the trainees get used to walking up and down the camp, acclimatising themselves to the roll and sway of their mount. The morning course ends at around 9am.

The afternoon’s activities start at 1:30pm, when, during the dry season, 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 and not getting wet is almost impossible; especially with the more playful amongst these pachyderms. 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 second day the mahout trainees become elephant veterinarian trainees as they enjoy a guided session with Cherry, the camp’s resident vet.  Cherry will be able to answer all trainee questions on how to keep an elephant in tip top condition, as well  as taking guests through a health check with their elephant, where they will learn how to check the pulse, body temperature, weight and overall body condition, and patch up any cuts and scratches.

On the third day guests choose between a workout on the playing field to test their knowledge learnt in a game of elephant polo, or a tour of the camp’s silk weaving project entailing silkworms to finished product, giving the mahout wives their own source of income as they keep 100% of the profits from their wares which are available for purchase at the Elephant Camp and in the resort boutique. Having been entertained by one of these activities, a short and not particularly rigorous driving test follows to complete the course.  “I don’t feel too guilty for turning less than competent mahouts out on the streets,” laughs Roberts “There have been no reports of elephant-based accidents when my students return home. At least not yet!”

On passing their test, trainees receive an elephant dung paper certificate of competence and a monogrammed mohom mahout shirt as a souvenir of their time at the Anantara Elephant Camp.

In addition to the three-day mahout course, other special packages are also available. Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa is located 60km north of Chiang Rai’s international airport. For enquiries and reservations, please call + 66 (0) 5378 4084 or + 66 (0) 2 477 0760 or email For more information, visit

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18th Floor, Berli Jucker House,
99 Soi Rubia, Sukhumvit 42 Rd.,
Bangkok 10110, Thailand

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