This day will be remembered as one of the highlights of my life; a never-to-be-forgotten experience, and all positive. I fell in love. (I hope she’ll forgive me for not remembering her name, but after all it WAS a only a one-day stand.)
From what I’d seen during my solo travel through South East Asia so far I’d decided there was no way I was going to patronise the “elephant tourism” industry. The way I’d seen elephants and other animals treated in these countries dismayed and angered me. Elephants are used relentlessly to transport loads of tourists on their backs in the extreme heat, back and forth all day long, their mahouts (trainers) striking them with hooks on the end of long sticks to get them to obey their commands. It was sickening.
Soon after I arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos, I discovered one company who appeared and claimed to be genuinely “saviours” of elephants and after many questions and reading of their literature, decided to book a tour with them.
My tour guide was a sweet and lovely local lady named “Phorn”. At 8.30 am the next morning we drove in a minibus for about half an hour (15 kms) over rough, unsealed roads to the “elephant village” which was situated in a jungle valley on the banks of the Nam Khan River, in the village of Xieng Lom.
There were 5 of us in the group and upon arrival Phorn gave us an informative talk on the vision and purpose of the Elephant Village, the layout of the area, including their own “elephant hospital” and our schedule for the day.
First Time Riding an Elephant
To begin our first experience of being on top of an elephant, we climbed onto a platform and then onto the elephant, onto which was strapped a Howday (wooden seat). I shared my seat with a French girl and the mahout who was sitting on the elephant’s neck, took us a for walk around the park grounds and then down the hill to the bank of the river.
(A mahout is a “person who rides an elephant”. A mahout is assigned one elephant at the village, and they form a bond, the mahout remaining it’s “keeper” throughout the elephant’s life).
Note: A fully grown elephant can carry up to 150 kilograms on its back. Their spine is not designed to carry more. A Howday, (saddle, or platform) weighs approximately 100 kg. The combined weight of passengers, howday and mahout is heavier than a large elephant should have to carry and is likely to cause painful sores, callouses, and irreversible damage and osteoporosis to the elephant’s spine if subjected to such treatment for long periods of time, and often. Elephants used in the tourism industry in South East Asia carry this type of weight all day long, in almost every instance of elephant riding and trekking. I wasn’t aware of the this at the time, and feel really bad about it now.
The only saving grace, if there is any, is that the ride using the howday at this location, takes place only once a day and lasts for perhaps 30 minutes. I’ve written more about the subject of what to look for and consider on another post. If riding an elephant is on your bucket list, or if you know anyone else who hopes to in the future please have a read and pass on the information.
I admit to finding the experience a little scary. We were sitting so high off the ground. Although there was a wooden bar across the front of our seat, at times it felt like I could be jolted out over the top. We took the elephant down into the river (or did she take us?) walking upstream for a while, and left the river to walk through the village where some of the local Xieng Lom people lived and worked. During this ride, the mahout instructed us to change positions. What? Yes! Change positions while this animal is sashaying from side to side! Oh well, I thought, at least if I fall off I’d fall into the water. I changed position with the mahout: he moved up to sit in the howday while I, at the same time, moved onto the elephant’s back and slipped demurely (not) onto the elephant’s neck.
Returning to the compound, it was now reward time for our elephants. We were given the opportunity to purchase bananas with which to feed these hungry ladies.
Now that we’d had a taste of what it’s like to be an elephant’s back it was time to try it without the howday. We each had turns at climbing on to the same elephant, while it walked around the compound. This elephant wouldn’t “sit” for us, so we had to stand on it’s bended knee and climb up, by holding the top of one of her ears. An elephant’s ears are very sensitive and it’s important to hold them at the top where they’re less sensitive, and to be as gentle as possible using the ear for balance only. It wasn’t easy to swing my leg over her back as I was afraid it tug on her ear. The mahout had to give me a helping hand (or rather, a push on my butt).
The walk was scary at first, but I soon got the rhythm and balance. This time I folded my legs, the way they do, with my knees resting on top of the elephant’s ears.
Time to “dismount”. This girl wouldn’t sit down, so I had to slide down her leg.
Now to my favourite part! Taking the Elephants down to the river and giving them a Bath!
After a buffet lunch of stir-fried vegetables, curried chicken and rice, it was time to take the elephants bathing in the river. What a magical experience this was! My elephant this time was much larger and she was a darling.
The mahout sat behind me (such balance they have, and so supple!) as we walked down the hill to the river. It didn’t escape my notice that one side of the path fell sharply to the river, with loose earth as it’s foundation.
Earlier in the day we’d been taught the language and actions that the elephant’s respond to when wanting them to start, stop, turn right, and turn left. The actions are very similar to riding a horse really, using pressure with our knees to communicate which way we want it to turn.
At the bottom where the bank meets the water the ground was steep and uneven, caused by the frequent entering and exiting the river by the elephants.
Very soon after entering the water my girl sank to her knees and I too was submerged from my thighs down in the river. It was exhilarating for me and I hope the same for my elephant! The mahout had handed me a brush on the way down to the water and I was now able to wash the river water over my elephant and scrub the dust off her, scrubbing her head and any other part I could reach. She was loving it and so was I.
Occasionally, I suspect at the mahout’s instruction, she would thump her trunk on the surface of the water, causing a big splash, wetting me all over and I was laughing and squealing with delight.
We spent approximately 20 minutes enjoying our time in the water and before it was time to leave, I stood up on her back. It was one of the happiest days of my life and will remain in my memory forever!
Upon instruction from the mahout the elephants knew it was time to leave the water. My girl arose, and began to walk out. I was scared I’d fall off as we were going up the muddy bank because we were the 3rd to leave, and I could see that the bank had become increasingly muddy and slippery as each elephant trod over it with her wet, heavy body. My fears were unfounded. My elephant was slow and very careful. I was in love!!
I knew My Darling had had a good time. On the way up the hill she FARTED!
It raised a dust storm! The mahout covered his nose while I cracked up laughing.
Back at the camp this beautiful gracious elephant sat and enabled me to dismount in a more “elegant” fashion.
I’ll spend more time with elephants in South East Asia, but next time I’ll do it differently. I’ll become a volunteer!