Posted by: Tommy | May 30, 2011

A trip to the Elephant Village

In the first couple of weeks of the trip, one of the things that came up was “How many different types of animals do you think we’ll ride during this trip?”  I know that’s a really weird thing to talk about, but when you’re spending 24/7 with someone – especially with lots of time on trains, buses and waiting in airports – you talk about some really strange stuff.  We decided at the time that the number was probably 3 – thinking camel, horse and elephant.

It hadn’t worked out that way so far.  We rode camels around the pyramids and Anna rode the ostrich in Oudtshorn, South Africa, but that was it.  In India, there are quite a few places to ride an elephant, but we weren’t willing to pay any of them.  And not because I’m cheap – well, not entirely – but mostly because the care of the elephants didn’t seem good enough.  One place that offered an elephant ride for $5 had an elephant with a giant howdah (that’s the platform you can sit on) tied on its back and a giant chain tied on its leg.  The elephant was confined to tiny (for elephants) area inside the grounds of a temple.  At the Amber Fort in Jaipur, India, elephants carry tourists up the sides of the steep mountain to the fort.  These elephants looked particularly unhappy with their task.

And then we came to Laos and read about the Elephant Village.  The Elephant Village is a project that rescues elephants from the Laos logging industry.  They currently have 11 rescued elephants, all female, that have been given a much better life.  Elephants that come from logging are usually too tame to survive in the wild, so the Elephant Village feeds them, provide them with medical care and protects them from predators (mostly other humans, elephants don’t really have natural predators in the wild).  To pay for their food and medical care, the Elephant Village offers “Mahout Training” to tourists.

Mahout is the Hindi word for elephant driver.  The mahout, in Indian culture, is the guy who rides and controls the elephants that are used in the Hindu festivals and in other jobs (logging, carrying tourists up mountains, carrying the maharaja on his tiger hunt).  Each elephant at the Elephant Village has their own personal mahout who treats their elephant like a member of the family.  The mahouts have years of experience before coming to work at the Elephant Village – teaching the tourists is a much higher-paying gig than most of the other mahout jobs.

I decided that I would love to support the mission of the Elephant Village – and I’d love to ride an elephant.  Since you’re doing “mahout training” instead of “riding on an elephant”, you actually get to ride bareback, sitting on the head and neck and using your feet and knees to command the elephant instead of sitting on the howdah, just riding.  According to the brochure, you’d have a few minutes of instruction, followed by an hour-long riding/training session.  Then lunch, followed by bathing your elephant.  Then a boat ride to a local waterfall.  We left at 9 and were to be back between 3 and 4.  This seemed like a fairly vague timeline and was actually a concern – in Vietnam, the tourist stuff we did gave you exactly what was promised in the brochure, usually in a way that wasn’t as enjoyable as the brochure made it sound.  The Elephant Village brochure and itinerary didn’t sound that great to begin with – a few minutes, then an hour, then a bath could easily translate into “sit on the head for 2 minutes, ride in a howdah for 45 minutes, stand around and watch the mahouts bathe the elephants and let you pat them occasionally- but we decided to do it anyway, since the Elephant Village had a reputation for helping the elephants and it would be fun to ride, even for a just a few minutes.

Partly due to the vagueness of the brochure and the numerous duds among Vietnam tourist activities, Anna decided she’d rather spend her money on a 2-day scarf-weaving class instead of 1 day riding with elephants.  Luckily for Emily and I, Elephant Village turned out to be a prime example of “undersell, overdeliver” and definitely a top 5 experience so far on the trip for me.  I just wish Anna had been there to share the experience

The camp is about 30 minutes outside of Luang Prabang.  Emily and I were picked up first at 8:30.  We then headed over to two separate hotels and picked up the rest of our group for the day, 2 couples.  We rode in relative silence all the way to the camp where our guide, Get, walked us through another brief outline of the day’s activities.  When we got out of the van, the view was stunning.  Laos is an incredibly green country and Luang Prabang is set between 2 rivers, so the scenery everywhere is great.  But the setting for the Elephant Village takes it to a new level.

picture of landscape

After a few minutes studying the mahout commands, a smallish female elephant was brought over for us to practice commands on, one at a time.  To get up on the elephant, you say “Seung!” and the elephant bends her front leg, allowing you to grasp her ear at the base and step up (using the foreleg as a stepladder).  It’s not the easiest thing to do – I was the tallest person and still had trouble – you don’t want to pull too hard on the ear, but Get also cautioned us about making sudden moves (like falling off or excessive flailing) and scaring the elephant.   Once you get up, you are supposed to put your knees together and slide as far forward as possible.  This puts your weight on the elephants head, rather than its neck, and allows it to walk easier.  With your feet lodged just behind the elephants ears, you use them to communicate.

To get the elephant to go, you tap with both feet and say “Pie!”.  To turn right, you tap with you left foot and yell “Kwa.”  To go left, you tap with the right foot and say “Sai.”  The all-important stop command is How!, combined with leaning back and squeezing with your knees.  And that’s pretty much all they told us.  On our first training ride, we rode individually around the compound yard, maybe 30 yards out and back, with a mahout behind us giving us instruction.

It was funny to watch – nearly everyone’s face made the same progression – starting off looking rather uncomfortable, then a little uneasy heading out – then you’d just see their back for a while as they rounded a building.  And then they’d pop out on the other side of the building with a gleeful smile and just beam all the way back to the group, riding confidently all the way back.  Once we got back, Get would hand up some sugarcane and we’d “thank” the elephant for the ride by feeding her a little treat.

That pattern held for 4 of us – Emily and a German girl never quite reached “beaming” on the first time around.  Emily was actually pouring sweat by the time she returned from the short initial ride – she was terrified.  She was thinking it might be a “one time was enough” ride for her.  The German girl was even worse – her husband/boyfriend had clearly made her come because she never wanted to ride in the first place.  She didn’t appear to be having any fun the entire first ride.

We’d hardly spoken to anyone in the group to this point, but as people finished their rides we couldn’t wait to hear about it.  The everyone started getting to know each other – and I was excited to find that, of the other 4 people, 2 live in the States – and one of them is from Texas.  She’s lived in California for 30 years, but she was born in Houston and spent 5 important years there, so she’s a Texan in my book.  Brigitte and Andre, we learned, are married professional photographers traveling for 6 weeks to celebrate their 50th birthdays.  We hit it off and would spend a lot the day talking with them.

After completing our first “training session” – a term I use very loosely – we were paired up and boarded an elephant with a small howdah.  We’d get to ride in the howdah for a while, then switch with the mahout and each get a turn “driving” from the front seat.  Our mahout, Nam, was very relaxed.  So relaxed that he took a call on his cellphone in the first 10 minutes of the ride and let the elephant lead the way.

After about 20 minutes, Nam stopped everyone (he was the lead mahout) and told us to switch drivers.  He climbed to the back of the elephant and let me (Emily wasn’t ready to ride up front yet) slide onto the head.  For the next 20 minutes, I guided (well, sort of – it’s not easy to guide something who’s nose weighs more than my entire body) our elephant through the jungle, over mountainous terrain and along the Nam Khan river.  Emily decided that she’d give driving another shot, so we swapped again and I was back in the howdah (which was fine with me – I was having trouble keeping my knees up after 20 minutes).

But instead of just switching places, Nam (our mahout) asked Emily for her camera.  And then he jumped off the elephant and walked off.  Now it was just Emily and I, alone, riding an elephant through the jungles of Laos!  Nam walked around us, taking tons of pictures with Emily’s camera.  He got some good ones – and Emily did just fine driving the elephant solo.

After another 20 minutes (all alone, Nam never got back on board), we returned our elephants to their stalls and spent some time feeding them bananas.  Selling bananas is another way the Village raises money – they sell bananas (making a profit, despite selling them for $.50/bushel) and then you feed their elephants with the bananas they sold you.  Brilliant.  We were able to get some really nice close-up photos – plus I got to meet one really greedy elephant.  I gave her half my bananas, but she kept trying to take them from the other elephants I was trying to feed.

After feeding the elephants, it was time to feed ourselves.  We sat with Andre and Brigitte and had a great time.  They are really fascinating people and have stories that probably make them the most interesting people at every “normal” party or event that they go to.  At lunch, we learned that they now own their own high-end remodeling design business, but before that spent years in Hollywood.  Andre’s primary gig was doing hair (he’s worked on Russell Crowe, Salma Hayek, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock and lots of others).  Brigitte, before becoming a photographer, was an actress.  We’d find out later that she was once the primary love interest for MacGyver for 2 episodes before female fans of the show protested, wanting Richard Dean Anderson to remain available.  See, great stories.  The lunch hour passed too quickly and then it was time to wash elephants.

We’d done “elephant bathing” in India when Sarah was visiting and so I had very low expectations.  In India, the trained handlers had the elephants in the water and were washing them.  We were allowed to come close and take pictures and occasionally pat the elephant.  But this was nothing like that.  We changed into our swimsuits and were told to leave everything behind.  Get offered to carry cameras and take photos, but otherwise everything had to stay behind.  We were each assigned an elephant and climbed up – I had no idea we’d be back on the elephant, riding for a third time.  I chose the largest elephant and was riding at the front of the herd again.

It was the coolest feeling, sitting atop this massive elephant, shirtless, looking out over the river, the jungle and the distant mountains.  I felt very alive at that moment.  It took 15 or 20 minutes to ride all the way to the river.  And we never stopped to get down – we just rode them all the way down a ramp and into the water, never stopping until the elephant was in to their eyeballs.  The elephants seemed to really enjoy being in the water, continually submerging and then popping back out of the water and occasionally filling their trunks and blowing big gulps of water into their mouths.  And the whole time, I’m sitting on the back, scrubbing away with my brush.  It was incredible.

As the sixth elephant, bearing the German girl who’d finally gotten back on an elephant (she opted not to drive during the hour-long riding session), got to the water, Get came around with the cameras and stood on the bank, taking pictures of everyone.  My mahout had me move the elephant around so Emily and I could take some pictures together.  Everyone was laughing and yelling, having a great time – rather than some forced tourist activity, this felt like a real connection with the elephants.  The elephants would occasionally dive down, soaking each of us to the neck and then pop back up and lift us clear of the water.  I’d look around occasionally and see each person, fully engaged with their elephant, not looking at or caring what was going on around us.  Joyful is really the best word to describe the bathing.

After 20-30 minutes in the water, it was time to head back to camp.  We never dismounted, sitting astride the elephant (we did move to the back during the bath, and I think Brigitte got to stand up on hers) for the whole bath and then riding it all the way back to camp.  We tipped our mahouts and then headed out in a small canoe for one of the 3 waterfalls that are well known about Luang Prabang.  All we could talk about was how amazing the day was – we would all have been thrilled with the day if it had ended with the ride before lunch.  The bath was even better than the ride, and on top of that we were taking a boat ride to a scenic waterfall.  It was great.

The trip to the waterfall was fun – Emily and I spent more time talking to Andre and Brigitte (the German couple spent their time talking to each other) and swimming at the base of the falls.  We stayed for about 45 minutes and headed back to the camp, arriving at 3:15.  Get asked the group if we’d rather swim in the camp’s swimming pool or head back to town.  We all decided to head back (Emily and I wanted to rent motorcycles and cruise around Luang Prabang before the shop closed – it would be Emily’s last chance).  Get looked surprised by this, but said he’d have the van ready in 10 minutes.

During that 10 minutes, Brigitte went over to take some pictures of the pool area.  She came back and showed us her pictures and the 4 of us decided, unanimously, that we probably shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to swim in such an idyllic location.  We just sort of wandered over to take a few more pictures, saw that there was a bar in the pool and all jumped in.  The Germans wandered over and jumped in as well and soon we were all lounging contentedly in paradise with glasses of Beerlao.

Andre really wanted to know where the day ranked among our 7 months of travel – ultimately, I decided it was probably 3rd or 4th, but certainly in the top 5.  The Elephant Village had everything I could have hoped for and is helping Laos make a strong case for “favorite place we’ve been so far.”  We made plans to meet Andre and Brigitte for Emily’s farewell dinner that night and headed back to the hotel, a full hour after we were supposed to leave the camp.  The Elephant Village definitely exceeded my expectations – another fantastic day that stands out even on this fantastic trip.

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Responses

  1. So what is the top five now? Does this rank higher than all you can eat ice cream? Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. Tommy, looks like it was feel like a big kid day. Everybody should check out the photos of the elephant trip at the flickr.com site. Great fun. Really felt like I was there, too. Or, I really would like to be there. Maybe on your next trip.

  3. JEALOUS!!!!!!! (And sad for you, Anna, since you weren’t there.)

  4. Tommy, you have captured the day so beautifully with the way you described it!. That day was the highlight of our trip and meeting you and Emily and then Anna that evening made that day even more special! I have read your entire blog and am enjoying following your adventures around the world. We are big fans!
    Can’t wait to see what you are up to next!
    Brigitte and Andre

  5. Another amazing story and so beautifully written. I’m not so sure about a motorcycle ride?!?!!!! xoxoxo, Kita


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