Elephantstay is a fantastic way to get hands on experience and make a real difference in the lives of old elephants. Stay in an exciting, innovative, working elephant village dedicated to conserving elephants, only an hour north of Bangkok in Ayutthaya.

The program involves living with, caring for and learning about elephants. You learn the basics of being a mahout: every day you ride, feed, water and bathe your elephant in a nearby river. The elephant assigned to you during your stay truly depends on you to take care of them. You are given a female elephant because males, despite their age, can be dangerous.

During your stay, you are given a comprehensive guidebook on topics ranging from caring for your elephant to riding techniques, elephant commands as well as elephant facts, history and culture. The minimum stay is three days and two nights; most don’t stay longer than two weeks, but three Budapest zookeepers recently came for a month.

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Thailand has a rapidly aging elephant population. Elephantstay’s goal is to buy and retire old working elephants. It costs 600 baht a day to feed an elephant. Then there are the costs for the mahouts, medicine and the cost of running the Elephantstay program.

Partners Michelle Reedy and Ewa Narkiewicz run Elephantstay; the former’s official title is Operations Director, the latter, Communications Director (Ewa is actually a photographic-based artist with a degree in Fine Arts.)  How did they get here? Well, Michelle was senior zookeeper at the Melbourne zoo who longed to work with elephants. Not finding the opportunity in her native Australia, she chose to look elsewhere and the pair made their first trip to what became Elephantstay just after 9-11. Back then, it was where the elephants of the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace & Royal Kraal were kept. Michelle then used the Alfred Dunbavin Butcher scholarship she received from Zoos Victoria to return and learn how to train elephants in Thai techniques.

The pair went back and forth a number of times over the next five years, before deciding to commit to Elephantstay for good in 2006 when Laithongrien Meepan, head of the Prakochaban Foundation (see sidebar) asked them to start up the Elephantstay program to help care for the older elephants. They had been looking for a feasible program to commit to in order to make a living and help elephants at the same time.

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So they set to work writing the handbook, setting up the website and building accommodation for guests. The first guests were David Adams and his film crew who were making the documentary, “The Last Mahout”. The first year was difficult due to monsoons and heavy flooding (all the guest huts are built on stilts above the flood line) and Michelle admits if it hadn’t been for Buddy, their Australian stump-tailed cattle dog, they may not have made it (they couldn’t face putting him in quarantine for 9 months if they returned to Oz). But persevere they did and people started booking.

Morag O’Hanlon, a Canadian who trains horses for a living described her experience at Elephantstay:  “Elephants are way too cool.  They are very big….yes…I know, you had heard that somewhere before, but I tell you, it’s not until you are perched up there with no tack to hang onto that you realize quite how big. However, they move slowly and carefully and it’s amazing how safe you feel.

“I wanted a ‘hands on’ sort of an elephant experience. The idea behind the Elephantstay program is to give a whole herd of big ol’ mama elephants a useful retirement, doing a job that is well within their physical limits. The ‘old girls’ live a pleasant life when too aged to be used for temple tours, etc. Each enthusiastic Elephantstay newbie (like myself) is assigned an elephant (one of the old girls plus a knowledgeable cheerful ‘in control’ mahout).  The newbie is allowed to muck out, feed and water their elephant with supervision. The highlights of the trip are the twice daily ‘romps’ to the river.

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Michelle Reedy & Ewa Narkiewicz (above)

“Once in the morning and again in the afternoon, each newbie gets on his/her elephant (with mahout) and the old girls take a gentle toddle to the waterside, which is about a 20-minute meandering graze away. Down a concrete ramp, a tummy tickling duck down elephant head first, and you are in the water riding your elephant! Now it gets fun and exciting, the elephant very gently and carefully lowers and raises itself below water (dunks you) and it feels all very exciting and pleasantly safe, as the mahout who is now standing behind you on the island left by the elephants back protruding above the waterline, grabs your t shirt and anchors you in place. Of course, by day two, I was ready to dispense with the mahout - maybe next time…

“Between ‘toddles’ there is lunch and The Baby Elephant Show. The baby elephant gang rule the yard and everywhere else that they venture.  They are mischievous, unruly, spoiled rotten, cuter than you could ever imagine and probably by far the best thing since sliced bread.”

Elephant Painting School

Michelle and Ewa created the Elephant Painting School to employ elephants in a positive and sustainable way. The elephants in the school range in age from ages 4-13. These young artists' styles range from abstract to expressionism. These talented artists paint for 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon when school is in session. The school provides creative and mental stimulation as well as quality time with their mahouts.

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The Prakochban Foundation

Elephantstay operates under the PraKochaban Foundation, a registered non-profit organization, founded in 2005 by Laithongrien and Romthongsai Meepan. It was set up to help and conserve the Thai elephant and to encourage the culture of nurturing elephants. Your participation in the program directly benefits the welfare of elderly elephants.

Laithongrien (Pi Om) bought his young daughter a young baby bull named Namchok when she was young and this brought home to him the plight of the elephant in Thailand, igniting a passion to create a sustainable future for the elephant in modern-day Thailand. He and his wife Romthongsai (Pi Lek) then established the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal in 1996. Pi Lek specializes in educating and entertaining Thai people about elephants. She liaisons with local government and businesses promoting elephants and the issues they face.

Using all their personal fortune to this end, the Meepans live modestly with the elephants, personally supervising the elephants and their welfare every single day. They are 100% dedicated to giving elephants living with humans the best possible life and prevent predictions of the extinction of the species from coming true.

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The Meepans are the largest private elephant owner in the world with over 150 elephants. Pi Om is the foremost world expert on captive elephant breeding, having personally bred 37 calves successfully in only 9 years through natural breeding. His expertise extends to training, unique nutrition development and meeting the special needs of elephants of all ages, character and temperaments including successful retraining of elephants that have killed people, to live in free contact with humans. Pi Om personally researched and started a farm to grow special food for elephants.

He specialises in training elephants for films, including work with Jackie Chan and Oliver Stone. In addition he trains elephants for theatre productions that include re-enacting elephant fighting during war time. He was the consultant on the Blue Elephant, Thailand’s first animation feature. He also advises government departments on elephant problems. This includes advice and solutions for street elephants, and wild elephants that have been injured and require relocating and rehabilitation. Most importantly, Pi Om encourages the development of mahouts and staff. He works unendingly to raise the status of elephants and their keepers to the noble position they once held in Thai society.

Elephant Stay needs help to deal with flooding

Ewa Narkiewicz interviewed after the recent flooding said, “We are in disaster mode; the flooding has meant evacuation of us all as well as the elephants. We spent the last three days wading through rising water carting stuff into the huts, hopefully the water won’t get higher than in 2006, when the water came to just a couple of inches short of the floor of the huts. We have been working until mentally and physically exhausted. The mothers and babies are in the Kraal, some of the dangerous elephants are up near the Kraal, and the water hasn't reached to the road yet. The other elephants are about a mile down the road, where they went in 2006.

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“We have already had to turn away a number of people, over 300,000 baht so far, so it has been devastating on all fronts. Last time we were out for 34 days, this time we are praying it won’t be for so long. As soon as things are settled and everyone is relocated, we are going to try and run the program in a modified form as we can’t afford to keep sending away people and losing out on so much income.

“Pi Om mentioned he was going to take Boon Seuhm, Natalie, Plai KonKha and some other killer elephants to Bangkok to see the Prime Minister, as this state of affairs is unacceptable. What the government and so many people don't seem to realise is Pi Om could easily sell all his problem elephants and just keep the ones that are easy and make money and then we would not have to worry about a thing, but of course he won’t do that. Close to half the elephants don't make any money at all yet they need to be looked after by people who know what they are doing and need to be given a life that is safe and secure and where they will get the care they need and deserve.”

www.elephantstay.com

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