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About Stewart McFarlane

DR STEWART McFARLANE IS A WELL-KNOWN SCHOLAR of Chinese Religions and Buddhism, and a teacher of Chinese Martial Arts. He was Director of Asian Studies at Liverpool Hope University until his retirement in 2004. He now lives in Thailand and works with rescued elephants.

Dr Stewart McFarlane

Dr Stewart McFarlane

He first trained in Wing Chun kung Fu as a student, with Hong Kong students in 73-74 at the height of Bruce Lee’s fame, and the Wing Chun/Jeet kune Do craze. After finishing his degree he joined the Soto Zen community (Order of Buddhist Contemplatives) at Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland.

In 1975 he was studying Chinese at Durham University one of his Chinese teachers was Rose Li, a very good Yang style t’ai chi teacher. He trained with her from 1975-77. When he started lecturing at Lancaster University, he trained in Wing Chun under Sam Kwok, his teacher Yip Chun & eventually with Lo Man Kam in Taiwan. (Yip Chun is Yip Man’s son, Lo Man Kam is Yip Man’s nephew, Yip Man was Bruce Lee’s Wing Chun teacher in Hong Kong.) He also undertook training seminars with Master Wong Shun Leung from Hong Kong; he was Bruce Lee’s friend and training buddy in Hong Kong. He sadly died in 1997.

Lancaster is a major centre for Goshin jutsu, a Jujitsu based style taught by Bill Rankin, and so Stewart trained there for a few years. In about 1990 he returned to T’ai chi training with Nigel Sutton (Ch’eng Man Ch’ing style), and Tan Chin Ngee of Singapore, and continued his training with him in Taiwan). By this time he had developed a degree course module at Lancaster University in: “RELIGION CULTURE & MARTIAL ARTS” which was hugely popular, and attracted a large number of students from all over the world, including a number of good martial artists.

Practicing T'ai chi at Boroughbridge, England
Practicing T’ai chi at Boroughbridge, England

His main University research focus and writing is in the areas of religion & martial arts, Buddhist ethics and conflict resolution, and religion & environmental values. In 1993-4 he spent a year sabbatical in Taiwan, researching the traditional martial arts & values of Sung Chiang Chen ritual troupes, some of these findings are described in “T’ai Chi ch’uan. Wisdom in Action” pp32-36. He is an initiated member of one of the troupes. During the same year and during many subsequent visits to Taiwan he has continued training in T’ai chi and Wing Chun.

Sung Chiang Chen performers at a festival in southern Taiwan.

Sung Chiang Chen performers at a festival in southern Taiwan. © Rich Matheson, see

In 1995 he was asked to form a security team of martial artists and conflict resolution specialists, to help provide the security protection for his Holiness the Dalai Lama, which they did from 1996 to 2004, whenever he visited the UK. In 1997 he made SHADOW BOXING ON THE PATH TO NIRVANA, a 4-part documentary on the spiritual dimensions of Martial Arts, produced by the BBC WORLD SERVICE, travelled, extensively for that and had the chance to train with some of the world’s leading martial artists, such as Dan Inosanto (Bruce Lee’s friend & colleague (JKD & Philippine martial arts), Stephen Hayes (Ninjutsu), Mary Heiny (Aikido), Bob Frager (Aikido), Lily Lau (Kung Fu). Jimmy Wong (Tai ji), Master Shih Yen Tzu of the Henan Shaolin Temple, and a number of very good Chinese T’ai ji masters in Malaysia.

He left Lancaster in 1998 and went to Liverpool Hope University, and was Director of Asian Studies there until 2004, when he was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, and took medical retirement. It is a chronic condition involving over production of inner ear fluid, which damages the hearing and causes massive vertigo attacks along with balance problems He was out of action for 3 years with Ménière’s; but managed to control most of the symptoms using Qi Gong exercises, T’ai chi Ch’uan and some medication. He is again able to train every day again.

He finds that the climate of Thailand and regular contact with the elephants, are highly therapeutic. He speaks and reads Thai and is now a regular contributor as a lecturer at the Siam Society in Bangkok and a number of research and cultural centres in Thailand.



I retired in June 2004 after 26 years as a University Lecturer. I was still only 50, but had developed Meniere’s disease (an inner ear problem) which caused dizziness, uncontrolled vomiting attacks and increasing deafness. The extreme symptoms settled down after a few months of not working, and I was able to consider travelling again. I was actually glad to be out of the University system and its increasing bureaucracy and failure to focus on real learning and academic values.

I coped with the considerable loss of earnings by selling my house and reducing my needs, by sharing in rented accommodation, and simplifying my life generally. Using the car less, walking a lot and when well enough, cycling.

I have always travelled and spent a lot of time in Taiwan in the 1990s on scholarships and Visiting Professorships. Later I worked for my University on student recruitment and research links in Taiwan, China and Malaysia, so I was ready to travel to East Asia again, as I always feel comfortable and welcomed there. I speak Chinese (Mandarin), Malay and some Thai.

I travelled in Thailand on my own for two and half months in 2005, and loved it. I stayed in Ayutthaya, the former capital just north of Bangkok; for the temples and history, visited the National parks in the North East (Isaan) for the walking and wildlife. I also stayed on Koh Lipe, a remote island in south Andaman Sea, doing some T’ai chi and meditation, and some snorkelling.

The real attraction of the Gap Year for Grown Ups scheme was the Elephant Mahout project, as I love animals and had always wanted to work with elephants. The month long Thai Explorer, preceded the month at the elephant camp. I chose the tour because it included parts of Thailand I had not visited before.

The Thai Explorer was a new experience for me as I had never been on a group tour.

Map of Thailand showing some of the locations visited

Map of Thailand showing some of the locations visited

It was a highly efficient way travelling and seeing different parts of the country. Travelling on your own is rewarding and sometimes exhilarating, but it can be hard work. You need to keep your wits about you: getting directions, looking out for the right bus or truck, getting dropped at the right stop, finding places to stay; and on one occasion in Isaan, helping to push the bus out of the bus station to bump start it.

Compared to all this, the Thai Explorer was convenient and easy, with all the above eliminated, but also with some loss of spontaneity and less interaction with local Thais. I didn’t really use my Thai until I got to the Elephant Camp. The high point of the Explorer Tour was trekking, elephant trekking and rafting by waterfalls in inflatable dinghies in the remote area of Umphang in western Thailand near the Burmese border. I could happily have spent longer there and done more of the above.

As it was we did about a day of each activity. Staying at the school in a remote tribal village in Umphang was another highlight. We slept on the floor and got to meet the teachers and the children who displayed their dancing skills for us. The day after we did an elephant trek through the jungle hill country, and that was outstanding. I elected to ride on my elephant’s neck all the way, so after four hours I was completely bow legged.

They are sure footed and very skilful at keeping balance up and down the slopes on rough terrain. At the end of the trek the elephants wade through deep river, and get a chance to cool off.

“Touch” the guide on the Eco Explorer Tour remained with us throughout and he was excellent. He is well informed on – and really concerned with – wildlife and nature, as well as being helpful and funny. He made sure I always had vegetarian food at meal stops, and was very clear about the itinerary each day. If anything the tour tried to pack too much in, and the travel became a little wearing. But Thailand is a huge and diverse country so there is a great deal to see and do. My own preference would be to spend more time in Umphang and not bother with the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

I shall certainly return to Umphang when I return for longer term stays in Thailand. It is a very quiet and unknown, and most Thais never visit there. I got on well with the other members of the Tour group, particularly an elderly couple. They were all very happy with the trip although the younger ones griped a bit about the accommodation on the island of Ko Chang in the final week, because it wasn’t on or near a sandy beach as described in the itinerary. I thought it was fine; it was on a rocky headland with a pebble beach. I actually preferred it because it was quiet and out of the way.

I think we were there because it was a Thai holiday for that week on Ko Chang so all the popular tourist resorts were booked. I rented a scooter and explored the inland walks and waterfalls on Ko Chang. As well as going to the temple most days. I also did two days diving. I really enjoyed the island. There are some quiet and more remote parts, as well as bars and tourist beaches. The temple monks and regulars were very friendly and happy to let me meditate and do offerings at the Wat whenever I visited.


Tai Tong Elephant Camp

The month here was outstanding. I was quite surprised at the location, a semi built up area on the edge of Jomtien which is just south of Pattaya. So it wasn’t a remote jungle location. Since the camp depends partly on income from tourist rides, being near Pattaya is a commercial advantage. All the mahouts and most of the elephants come from Surin which is the main elephant training and trading centre in east Thailand (Isaan). Most of the mahouts speak little English, but they are helpful and friendly like all rural Thais. We had an English speaking guide and two English speaking students on work experience to help with the training and orientation.

Stewart with Ting

Stewart with Ting

Most of the elephants are rescued from street begging or illegal logging. Most of the camp’s elephants are very docile females. Some have traffic injuries or other disabilities. Many elephants which have been rescued from cities are deaf. My elephant is deaf in one ear and with impaired vision on one side due to a cataract. My elephant is a 45 year old female called Pung Ma. She is quiet and steady, and like all of the 21 elephants at the camp, a real individual character.

She is however extremely smart, and quite lazy. She noticeably would speed up if she knew I had a supply of fruit for her. She was fine in traffic but did not like the noise of a single truck or motorbike if it surprised her. So if you are riding her you have to be on the lookout for anything which might surprise or spook her.

During my month at the camp I saw elephants using tools i.e. sticks and brushes to scratch themselves. I also saw them manoeuvring to get more food. This was especially evident when volunteers were riding them. The elephant would deliberately slow down and amble up to food piles to help themselves. It also appears that elephants have friendships and enmities amongst themselves.

When an elephant she liked came to visit, Pung Ma would offer her pineapple plants with her trunk. When an elephant she didn’t like got close she would move her pile of pineapple plants away from the visitor and prevent her sharing. She was also very gentle with the hens and chicks which wandered around her feet. If they were around she would avoid throwing her food around, which she usually did as a habit. She was very gentle with children and toddlers around the camp and would stroke them with her trunk. She greeted me every morning with her trunk, whether I had food for her or not, so I like to think it was genuine affection and not just cupboard love.

Stewart with Ting

Stewart with Ting

She was always more obedient in front of an audience, preferably with cameras. Once on her way back from overnight grazing, the mahout and I stopped to give her a drink and wash at a pond. He told me to give all the commands as he washed her down. As a crowd of tourists and villa residents gathered to watch and take photos, she responded instantly to my commands, patted the children and performed immaculate bows on one knee with her head down and trunk coiled.

The tourists assumed she was my elephant and I was an experienced mahout; but it was really down to Pung Ma’s showmanship. She has clearly been used to performing in her past and still gets a buzz from showing off.

One very impressive tusker (mature male elephant) was rescued from Phuket after the Tsunami. No volunteers were placed with male elephants, as they are too unpredictable. They were hoping to get him breeding with some of the females. But so far none is yet pregnant despite his efforts. Females are only fertile and interested in breeding once every two years and only for a few days. Their gestation period is almost two years, so it is a slow process.

I loved the camp which is a series of very basic Thai village style huts where the mahouts live and their elephants have their plots usually with some tree cover near the huts. The camp is about three acres with open country to two sides. So it also provides the routes for short elephant treks for the tourist. Most of them are walked to bush or wooded areas to graze and rest overnight, which means an early start (6 am) to collect the elephant, brush off the dust, walk her back and give her a drink and shower back at the camp.

A series of stand pipes and water butts serve as the drinking and shower stations, so you either hose down your elephant or throw buckets of water over with some help from their trunks. You end up soaked and muddy, but with a clean and watered elephant. Their basic food at the camp is pineapple plants, which are gathered by the mahouts from the field after the fruit is harvested. The elephants get through a pile of these every day, so twice a week mahouts and volunteers pile into a truck to go out to the pineapple fields to gather more.

This is a night-time job, starting about seven and getting back with a truck load of pineapple plants, hands scratched, and covered in dust, at about eleven. It is hard graft but very enjoyable. The elephants are out grazing on grass and leaves at night in the open country or woodland near the camp.

Getting used to your elephant takes about 4 to 5 days, and starts with you just leading her around, talking to her and bribing her with bananas and anything else she likes.

I made regular trips to the market or superstore for cheap bananas and apples. Frequent bribes helps get them used to you and are good for training in the early stages. Learning the basic commands sufficient to ride and control them takes about 9-10 days. All commands are given in Thai, though mine liked to be patted and told “good girl” when she did well.

At Tai Tong Campsite

At Tai Tong Campsite

Pung Ma was very well behaved, if slow, and I was taking her out for rides with tourists on board after two weeks. Other chores throughout the day include keeping their feeding area clean, sweeping up elephant shit and waste food. Putting their riding baskets on and off, and keeping them cool and watered.

They get overheated and irritable and even sunburnt if left in direct sun too long, and their water intake and skin condition need to monitored. An essential skill is learning to get on and off your elephant from the ground by balancing on her leg and getting her to raise it so that you can climb up and throw a leg over her neck. If the elephant decides she can’t be bothered and puts her leg down, you are left stranded and slowly slide to the floor. So you really have to concentrate on her movement and whether she is paying attention to your commands.

I have trained many dogs over the years, and would say that elephants are more intelligent than dogs; and are certainly more devious and skilful at manipulating the people around them. This make them great fun to work with as well as very challenging. As a result of recent publicity about elephant attacks on people, usually fatal. I have been asked if they are dangerous. Working with domestic female elephants which are well treated is not dangerous, provided you remember just how potentially dangerous they can be. You should never tease them with food. If you have food for them you give it in an orderly and consistent manner. By all means let them do a favourite trick to earn a treat, but not to the point of endless repetition. You should never disturb a sleeping elephant.

You identify a sleeping elephant by its lack of movement and the fact that its trunk will be completely relaxed with the tip coiled on the ground. They usually sleep standing and often have their eyes open. Working elephants need down time to sleep, rest and graze; and should be left undisturbed at those times. You always make sure they are watered and bathed and not left exposed in the sun for long periods. You should not approach an elephant form behind without letting it know you are there. Their vision is poor, so you should speak to them when approaching them and approach from the front but not directly in front as their binocular vision is also poor.

You gain an elephants trust and confidence by talking to it, taking care of its needs, including bribes and treats, and being consistent in your commands. Many elephants like music and being sung to. Pung Ma even liked my off-tune renderings of “You’ll never walk alone”.

Cruelty, such as hitting, use of the spike with force, and inconsistent commands are unacceptable. A disciplinary slap or tap with a stick is not cruel if the elephant is misbehaving, e.g. stealing plants and trees for someone’s garden. They are more obedient if you carry a stick. Directional commands when riding can be reinforced if necessary by gently prodding behind the ear with the stick. But force is not to be used; and damaging the ears by hitting and spiking is unacceptable. Some of the reported elephant attacks have been the result of vicious treatment by bad mahouts, against which the elephant has retaliated.

That in my view is self-defence. The elephant which charged into the crowd and killed a teenage British tourist at another camp in Pattaya four years ago was the result of the elephants being overworked in the tourist shows, coupled with the fact that the tourists behind the girl were teasing the elephant with food. The elephant charged through to get at the food, and the girl was crushed. I would say this was due to the irresponsible and cruel use of elephants in shows, and idiotic behaviour by tourists in the audience. Tai Tong elephant camp does not stage elephant shows and only allows short rides, with a limit of two tourists and the mahout on each elephant.

I saw no instances of cruelty to elephants at the Tai Tong camp. Another obvious rule is that you should be very wary around male elephants. They are normally fine, but periodically they come into “musth” when they suffer a testosterone surge and can be unpredictable and dangerous. The best clue as to whether a male is in musth is the attitude of the female elephants to him. If they are wary and avoid him, then so should you. Also look out for stress signs such as repetitive swaying and trunk swinging, making lunges at people and elephants, and a thick discharge flowing from the glands below the eye.

Elephants are naturally sure footed and capable of great gentleness, but you should always concentrate when working around them and be aware of their body language and any surprise noises or movements which might spook them.

I got on well with Mr Tong my Mahout, and was getting used to his Surin accent by the time I left. He is a typical rural Thai, kind and gentle, a good Buddhist, and very keen on Thai boxing. I gave him impromptu English lessons during the day, and he reciprocated with Thai lessons. I also gave help with baby minding duties, as his baby granddaughter lived next door. His son and daughter in-law also worked at the camp. Like most rural East Asians, they do not believe in leaving babies to cry, so they have to be picked up, comforted and carried until they go back to sleep. If Mr Tong and family were busy with the elephants I would be the baby minder.

The work at the camp is quite physical but not relentless and there are many opportunities to sit around and chat, do some informal language work, and in my case, do some T’ai chi. This amused the elephants and the mahouts. Mahouts are very poor, so any opportunities to get free food such as mangoes, sweet potato type roots, and even dung beetles and beetle grubs to eat are welcomed.

As a veggie I was able to refuse the grubs and dung beetles, but the roots and unripe mangoes with chilli and sugar were delicious. As well as treating my elephant to pineapple, bananas and apples throughout the day, I would buy the mahouts a supply of beers at the weekend to drink while they watched the boxing.

Stewart with tigers at Kanchanaburi

With tigers at Kanchanaburi

Traditional Thais, especially those in rural areas still revere elephants as manifestations of the Hindu deity Ganesha. It is accurate to say that in Thailand Ganesha is seen as a Buddhist deity, because the majority of Thais are Buddhist. Contact with elephants is seen as lucky, especially on lottery days, when villagers will offer fruit to an elephant in order to touch its trunk for good luck. Fortunately for the elephants there is a major lottery draw every week. There were specific rituals performed at the camp by the senior mahout. These are ancient pre-Buddhist protection rituals, involving the offering of alcohol, a cooked pigs head and flowers at a small altar at the centre of the camp. They are for the protection and blessing of the volunteers, and are performed at the beginning and end of their stay. I saw one senior mahout take a mouthful of alcohol and spray his elephants head with it. This is an ancient protection and purification ritual used in shamanistic traditions throughout Southeast Asia.

Volunteers do not live at the camp but stay in a very comfortable guesthouse across a field from the camp. This is also the admin HQ for Eco Explorer Tours. Meals are taken at the guesthouse and are very filling, varying between Thai and western menus.

My favourite is Thai red veggie curry with rice. I loved working with my elephant and mahout at the camp; and will certainly return in course of my travels in Thailand.


Future plans and general reflections

I shall return to Thailand in May in order to really get to grips with the language, and get to know the country a lot better. My vague plan in the future is spend winters in Thailand and summers in the UK. I shall get a flat or apartment and sign up for Thai language classes, as I want to read and write Thai as well speak it. It is not an easy language as it is tonal and complex, but I enjoying learning. I feel at home there as it is a Buddhist country and I get on well with the people. I plan to do more trekking and T’ai Chi training; and if my health permits, volunteer work.

I shall be visiting to some of the children’s projects such as the Pattaya Orphanage to see if I can be of use there. I also want to go to other elephants camps in jungle areas in the north, as well as attend the Elephant Festival in Surin in November. I have no real interest in staying in the UK during the winter. Providing I can see my grown up children and my mother from time to time, I plan to spend as long as possible in Thailand. My mother and younger sister are coming out for a visit in September, and my older sister is planning to come in November. Living in the UK is too expensive and the weather in winter is bad for my health. But at least my health problems have allowed me to spend more time there, years ahead of the normal retirement age.

Thailand is not a paradise; though some of the islands and highland forest areas are idyllic and very quiet. Many cities are badly polluted and badly planned. There are problems of crime, vice and political corruption just as in the UK. I think now that people in general in both countries expect their politicians to be dishonest and corrupt, because the politicians, both British and Thai, are so persistently lacking in integrity.

I do think that the Thais are more open and less hypocritical about it. Ordinary Thai people are kind, friendly and approachable.

Despite economic growth and the flourishing of consumerism, it seems to me that they are not as materialistic and shallow as the majority of English people. They are certainly kinder and better mannered than people in the UK. I attribute this partly to the Buddhist background. Buddhism still exerts a strong influence. This is generally a positive thing, and is an advantage for me because they respect my being a Buddhist, whereas there is still a tendency in the UK for people to think it weird or strange to be a British Buddhist.

Often if they are Christian, they feel challenged (by the competition?) and defensive. In Thailand, they are delighted, particularly when it is clear that you understand temple etiquette and how to interact with, and make offerings to monks. Thais are culturally conditioned not to show anger or strong emotions, even in difficult and stressful situations. This does make them easier to get along with socially or in minor interactions than most British and Americans. I am not saying here that Thais are less stressed, it just that they don’t display extreme emotions publically. Their culture, under the influence of Buddhism, values calmness and control. Losing your temper and displaying anger are regarded as signs of weakness and social or even moral failure.