|Over the years of our involvement with elephants, we have had the opportunity to come to know a young mahout and follow his path to adulthood. Khun Sommai Petchakia, age 29, was born in Baan Ta Klang from a lineage of generations of elephant owners and mahouts. We thought it would be interesting to get his view of life and follow his activities as a young mahout.
First of all, Khun Sommai is wiser than his years. Three years ago, the author was preparing to take a penalty shot in a King’s Cup elephant polo penalty shoot-out. It was against a team of the best elephant polo players in the world. To put that exercise in context, even seasoned players freeze as spectators watch you sit on a tall elephant, all alone with a long stick to hit a small ball some distance into a net. Khun Sommai came up to me and said in Thai, “Have a cool heart before you swing and you have already scored.” His advice worked then and ever since in penalty shoot-outs. The key is to transfer that thought process to everything we do.
Below is an image of Khun Sommai riding an elephant in his own village. When we first went to Baan Ta Klang, he came out of his house to greet me as we rode past on elephants. In fact, we knew many of the villagers from previous contacts either in the Golden Triangle or in King’s Cup tournaments all over Thailand. It was then we all realized we had come home to the heart of the elephant culture of Thailand.
He is in a close-up below as a youngster on the second elephant from the left. The elephant/mahout attachment begins when the children and elephants are both quite young with the expectation they will be together for the rest of their lives. Their mutual bonding relationship is remarkable.
A mahout’s day starts by bathing the elephants, cleaning up their surroundings and by feeding them. Khun Sommai’s family has three elephants ranging from a youngster to an adolescent and a mature bull. The newly-born calf below, Plai Sankham, needed some help getting up. Plai Sankham is now three years old and growing like a weed.
Khun Sommai is shown below on his elephant, Plai Sankaew, leading a wedding procession. Plai Sankaew is thirteen years old.
Khun Sommai’s father has a mature bull elephant named Plai Sakbai and father of the other two elephants in the family. Khun Sommai transports Plai Sakbai in a massive ten-wheel truck to various villages for Buddhist ceremonies.
Another pageant is the annual Surin Elephant Roundup that reenacts elephant capture in the wild and the history of elephants in warfare defining a significant portion of the history of Thailand. Accordingly, Khun Sommai plays a role in Buddhist ceremonies in the area as well in the portrayal to the Thai people of the role of elephants in their history. Clearly, pride in the history of the mahout, Kui people and their role in Thailand is reinforced. Moreover, funds generated from the ceremonial use of Khun Sommai’s family of elephants supplements the family income.
Therefore, we have one family with three elephants which is not uncommon in Baan Ta Klang, home to some 300 elephants. One of the more interesting things about Khun Sommai and his fellow villagers is their outlook on life. They view the elephants as an integral part of their family as have their people for many generations. Khun Sommai says he makes sufficient money by taking the family elephants to events in other villages such that the elephants and his family are quite content. Moreover, he says, if his elephants are well and happy, he is happy. Clearly, government elephant subsidies make this existence marginally feasible but additional income makes it enjoyable.
The Elephant Story has no intention of disrupting hundreds of years of elephant culture in Baan Ta Klang but rather to provide educational and career optionality for the children and to supplement veterinarian care for their elephants. Moreover, improved lives for the people enhances the sustainability of their elephants. In any case, we might all learn a bit from their view on life. By the way, a “cool heart” is the first step in Buddhism and mindfulness training to bring everything into clearer focus.