Burmese Elephant Camp


My house in Rangoon

When I was five I lived in Rangoon, Burma.


That year we took a trip up the Irrawaddy River on a boat that had a small cabin area, but was mostly open-air, with people packed onto it like sardines. We travelled to an elephant camp on Lake Indawgy, about 120 miles southwest of Myitkyna near the Chinese border.  The boat stopped occasionally so people could get on and off which gave us a chance to visit a village or buy something from peddlers. We quickly decided exiting the vessel wasn’t worth the trouble because we had to either wade off the boat or try our luck on a treacherous plank.


There were six people in our group and everybody dined with the British captain in his private dining room except me because I was too young to be allowed to sit with the adults. All I remember eating were vanilla wafers and Lipton’s dried tomato soup. Yum.


At elephant camp, we stayed in tents and slept on cots with mosquito nets. I remember it was miles to the outhouse – at night we had to go with a flashlight down a rutted mud road—very scary for a five year old!  We watched timber being cut by workers and then hauled by the elephants into the river where it flowed downstream. The elephants all wore wooden bells that were hand-made and had a unique melody. At night the elephants were left to wander the forest, and in the morning the handlers could find their elephants from the sound of the bells.


While kids in the States were probably learning to ride their tricycles, one afternoon I learned to ride an elephant. In order to get up onto its back, we climbed onto its knee and then to its shoulder and up its neck, behind the ears. We were supposed to go down the same way. My mother was impatient and decided it would be quicker to slide down the back, instead of waiting her turn for the elephant’s knee. You should have seen the look on her face. Elephants have long, stiff hair that stung her as she slid down. The highlight of the trip was one of the elephants had just given birth to twins and we spent hours watching them play.

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Elephant Camp

I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when I wrote this essay…

Elephant Camp

I went to an elephant camp in Burma.  In this camp there are about 90 work elephants kept in a teak forest.  They make expensive furniture out of teak.  They also make the frame of ships out of teak wood.  The elephants are used to either push or pull heavy teak logs to the river where the logs then float down to the city Rangoon.

When I went to elephant camp the thing I most enjoyed was riding an elephant.  You sit in a wooden box and you sort of sway from side to side and you could get seasick if you rode for very long and were not used to it.  Most of you must think that elephants don’t have hair but my mother soon found out that they do have hair because she slid down the back of the elephant instead of climbing down on this head and front knee as she should have and the strong hairs stuck to her pants.  These hairs are black, they are about four inches long and they are very strong.

We fed the elephants the fruit from the tamarind trees.  Tamarind is an acidy brown fruit which the elephants like very much.

Each elephant has its own care-taker and rider called an oozie in Burmese.  This man feeds and takes good care of his elephant.  He also carves out of wood a bell which the elephant always wears around his neck.  Every night the elephant is set free to find food in the forest.  In the morning when the oozie goes to find his elephant he knows which one is his by the sound of the bell his elephant is wearing.

We spent four days at this camp up near the China border and we learned much about elephants and teak wood.