The word mahout derives from the Hindi words mahaut, which literally means “person who rides an elephant.” Traditionally, a mahout started as a young boy when he was assigned his elephant, who would be his lifelong companion, and the boy would learn how to respond to the elephant’s needs through body language, shared commands, and nonverbal communication practices. Mahoutship was once a highly honorable position in traditional Asian societies, but modernization has brought drastic change.
Many mahouts in Chiang Mai – Thailand today are ethnic people – Karen or other minorities from Myanmar, a country that has been experienced in violent civil war for over many years. Refugees who flee across the border are required to remain in holding centers where they are barred from paid employment. As a result, many people make the illegal decision but help them to leave the centers and seek out the jobs most Thai citizens avoid.
Working as a mahout is one of these jobs. Despite the fact that these young men, often just teenagers, act as the sole barriers between wild animals weighing three to five tons each and the thousands of foreign tourists that interact with them every year, mahout is considered a low-skilled, low-paying, low-status profession. There are no training standards.