Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jenni and Michael's Elephant Experience - Can I Have One Mum Pleeease???

Getting to ride an elephant is one of the things that I have been most looking forward to on this leg of the trip. After all, how many times do you get the opportunity to  say that you rode an elephant through the jungle in Laos?

We signed up for the 2-day Mahout Experience, run by the Elephant Village. It was less than an hour's drive from Luang Prabang, situated on either side of the Nam Kahn River in a beautiful jungle valley. The Elephant Village is a German-owned operation that buys elephants from logging companies, where they are often mistreated. It's a great concept, because they get a much better lifestyle where they are well cared for, and the company gets revenue from the tourists to be able to provide for the elephants (1.4 tonnes of food a day and a full-time vet does not come cheap I'm sure!) and eventually rescue more of them. There are apparently 560 elephants left working in the logging industry and only 1,600 left in the whole country. They estimate that elephants will become extinct within the next 50 years, except for those remaining in captivity, which is possibly one of the saddest things that I have ever heard.

To get to the elephants we had to take a little boat across the river and then walk to a clearing. In normal weather it would probably only be a five minute walk, however the recent rain made it into a slippery twenty minute trek through ankle deep slush. What would normally be a gently sloping dirt track was turned into a muddy stream. People who wore flip-flops took them off rather than have them lost in the mud. We wore sneakers, and it's true to say that they have never looked the same since!

Mahout actually means 'Elephant Keeper' and we started off the course by learning some of the basic commands like stop, forward, left, right etc. Then we had a bit of a wait around before jumping on one of the elephants and taking her around a clearing. I'm pretty sure that she wasn't really listening to us tourists though, she was just following her mahout around. I think that the elephants probably couldn't hear me anyway, because they don't have great hearing and the mahouts have to shout out their commands about three times really loudly. That does not mean that they are unintelligent however, in fact their intelligence has been ranked on the same level as dolphins and primates, making them one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. You can really see the understanding in their eyes. For example, when you tell the elephant that you want to hop on, they lift up their front leg so that you can use it as a step and if you have trouble getting up they lift up their front leg further to give you a boost!

After Michael and I had a go, we got to go for a ride through the jungle. However, this was just sitting in one of the special elephant chairs called a Howdah. Michael attracted a new friend while we were waiting for our elephant, it was a tiny butterfly. The butterfly happily sat on Michael's hand for about  five minutes before transferring to his hat. He stayed on Michael's hat for probably about an hour in total, even riding part of the way with us on the elephant! It had been raining during the night and also on and off during the day, so the paths were extremely muddy. A couple of times we went up or down very steep inclines and I was amazed how well the elephants were able to keep their footing. You could see them hesitate every now and then, thinking about where they were going to put their feet so that they wouldn't slip.

After that we had lunch across the river, before going back to the clearing and being introduced to our elephants.

My elephant's name was Mae San, one of the youngest elephants at only 32 years old. She was not in a good condition when she was brought to the elephant village. She was underweight, and abcesses and furuncles on the most sensitive parts of her skin showed that she had been stabbed repeatedly with a knife. Also, she had eczema where the logging harness would have sat, indicating that she was pulling logs much too heavy for her. They also suspect that she was given amphetamines to make her work harder. One time, a chain on her harness broke and she fell forward into some branches, leaving her blind in one eye. When I first saw Mae San, I was a bit apprehensive as she was taller than some of the other elephants. I had some trouble climbing onto the other elephant before, so I was hoping that my elephant would be smaller. But when her mahout (Mr Pan) gave the command to let her know that I wanted to get up, I was so surprised when she actually bent all the way down so that she was nearly laying on the ground, making it much easier for me to jump on.

Michael's elephant's name was Mae Boun Nam and she was much older than Mae San, having been born around 1960, making her 50 years old. Mae Boun Nam is blind in both eyes, and uses her trunk like a blind man's cane to feel her way around. She is notorious for always stopping to eat if she sees some particularly tasty branches on the way. Her mahout would yell at her "pai pai!" (forward, forward!), but she would ignore him until she was good and ready. Her mahout, Mr Sao, would sometimes sing traditional Lao songs in the jungle (he had a really good voice!) and apparently Mae Boun Nam sometimes sways her head in time with the music, although she didn't treat us with a display.

We rode the elephants (with their mahouts riding behind us) from the clearing near the river into the jungle where they spend the night. It was an amazing experience, but quite stressful since it took a lot of concentration to stop myself from falling off!

Then we walked back to the clearing and got into the boat which took us upriver to Tad Sae Waterfall, where we had a swim in the clear water at the bottom. On the way back to the boat we caught a glimpse of a solitary male elephant. Then we were taken to the Elephant Lodge where we spent the night. The room was lovely, however it was right in the middle of nowhere, so there were enormous daddy-long-leg spiders, mozzies and all manner of horrible insects filling our room. We even had a surprise visit from a huge rat in the bathroom. Luckily there was a mosquito net covering the bed, however it had some holes in it, which I ingeniously patched up with bandaids from my first-aid kit.

The next day we walked to the jungle to pick up our elephants, before riding them to the river where we scrubbed them down with course-bristled brushes. Mr Sao kept shouting something at Mae Boun Nam which made her lift up her trunk and then smack it into the water, giving us all a good splashing. I later found out that Mae San likes to spray herself with mud right after every bath, so I'm sure that all my good work was for nothing, but it was still great fun!

After saying goodbye to our elephants we were taken across to the restaurant for breakfast before being taken back to Luang Prabang. It was definitely one of my most favourite experiences and I was heartbroken to have to leave, because I'm pretty sure that I could have fit one of the smaller elephants in my backpack to take back home...


  1. Dearest Jennifer How could I possibly say no?? That looks like so much fun. (except for the spiders etc)
    Mum xx

  2. Dear Jennifer,
    Of course you can have one providing it can sleep in your room and you clean up after it. I suspect its little 'jobbies" would be slightly larger than Napoleon's.


  3. I can see a new career for you and I hope you get some more experience in Edinburgh after a large whisky or two! We leave tomorrow for Perth. Loved Paris in the warm sunshine and hope you have plenty of time to visit France. Love M