Together with new friends Marcus, Marcus and Kai, the four of us hitched a very very late night ride out of Bagan, and set off to the otherwise-unremarkable town of Taunggyi, Myanmar. Although Taunggyi doesn’t have a huge tourist draw, we had heard that there were a number of Teak logging camps setup in one of the world’s few natural Teak forests, and that elephants were being used to illegally pull the downed teak out of the forrest.
We set off from Bagan on a bus, and were dropped off on the side of the highway a few miles outside of Taunggyi at about three in the morning. When the four of us were dropped off, we were tired, and had no idea where we were – but luckily managed to hitch a ride in a pickup truck into town. We got dropped off at a local guesthouse, and after a bit of early morning haggling, managed to find a guy who would take us in his truck the next morning to go find the loggers. Whew, that was a very long and convoluted night, and we finally got a basic hotel room for a quick three hours of sleep.
A few hours later we got up, piled in the back of a rusty pickup truck, and set off for the 3 hour drive out to Myanmar’s teak forest. As we got farther from the city, the landscape became immediately more rural, with farmland starting immediately at the city limits. Central Myanmar’s landscape is beautiful, with rolling hills giving way to massive forests.
After a few hours driving, we finally got to within range of where we had heard the logging camp was. We started stopping to ask local villagers, and finally parked and hiking on foot, found a small dirt trail that lead to their camp -we knew we were on the correct path when we started tripping over elephant tracks in the mud.
The elephant camp is a temporary camp, and the loggers live at the camp along with their wives and entire families. Houses are made quickly and cheaply from bamboo, and are ready to be abandoned or moved in a moments notice. Elephants live with the people, and are cared for like a member of the family. Although in the pictures the elephants can be seen with chains on for hauling logs, I was impressed by how close the loggers seemed to their elephants. Each logger had his own elephant which he rode on all day, worked with, and bathed – a very tight bond.
When we arrived, the loggers were a bit surprised to see us, but our driver had a discussion with them, and they invited us to see their elephants and sit with them for lunch. After lunch, luckily, we were invited to go with them and their elephants out into the woods to retrieve some logs that had recently been cut.
Riding on the back of an elephant going through the woods was a great experience – these elephants are working elephants – they’re usually only ridden on by their handler, and the wooden harness they wear on their backs is primarily meant as a rack to haul food and supplies around the forest. It was a bit of a challenge to stay balanced on the elephant, especially since we were hiking through very steep mountain terrain. At one point one of the baby elephants following us needed a bit of help getting up the steep muddy slopes of the bamboo and teak forest. Overal though, the elephants were extremely sure footed and stable. Although they are large, they were very agile, gentle, and easy to be around.
The amount of wood these elephants can haul is incredible. Our trek through the woods took about 30 minutes, to a point where they had started cutting down the teak forest. Each elephant was chained up to a downed log, and with a bit of encouragement, began to drag it out. The heavy logs left deep ruts in the soft forest soil, and easily mowed over thick bamboo shoots. The logs were dragged down to the creek bed, and then along it, where giant boulders were easily displaced by the huge logs and powerful elephants.
Overall an interesting and fun experience, save for the fact that we were actively participating in the illegal logging trade.