A Different Way of Getting Around

Finally in its full form, our elephant post!

“It’s easy! Just yell ‘song’ so he’ll lift up his leg, step on it, then grab his ear and pull yourself up!” the spry mahout said as he hoisted himself easily up on top of the elephant. Easy for him to say as he may have been a hundred pounds dripping wet.

So began our mahout experience, a one day hands on elephant riding and driving experience at Elephant Village, an elephant rescue project outside Luang Prabang. One by one, we approached the elephant, some more cautiously than others, and tried our hand at scaling the elephant. Theresa, while apprehensive on approach, scaled it easily sat proudly on her elephants head while taking a  loop around the open field.

My turn was next, and I saddled up to the side. I got a leg lift, put my foot on it and felt it sag a little. I grabbed the ear and tugged, half expecting it to give as well, but the elephant held firm. I pulled, hard, enough to get my other arm around the elephant’s neck, but I’d lost my upward momentum, so I just kind of clung there. Eventually, I sort of managed to wrestle my legs up and around, not nearly as gracefully as Theresa had done, and found myself sitting on top of an elephant, looking down its truck to the world below. She didn’t even seem uncomfortable with this huge mass sitting on top of her head. Taking stock of my surroundings, I noticed first how high up I felt, but then more about the elephant. Her skin was very leathery and her hair on the top of her head very prickly. Her ears flapped wildly and slapped against my legs as she tried to cool herself. The “seat” itself was surprisingly comfortable, there was a nice saddle like place to sit along the neck. And before I knew it, she was walking, swaying me from left to right.

I did my best to lead my elephant around the field’s loop using the commands we had learnd for left (sai), right (quay), go (bai) and stop (hau). For emphasis, this went with knee forward on the opposite ear, though in reality, the elephants merely took them as guidelines. Any patch of bamboo or stack of pineapple leaves (their main food at the village) they stopped for or changed course to get to. Any hill was met with a long pause at the bottom as well as at the top. I started to wonder what made people want to use the elephants for work since they certainly didn’t seem very efficient. I guess being able to carry up to 1400 pounds means you’re allowed to go slow. Finishing our elephant driving tour (and putting away a nice buffet lunch), we next had to bathe our elephants. We led them down to the water down some steep hills that gave you the distinct feeling you were about to tumble down the elephant’s trunk. We persuaded them to step into the murky, fast-moving river with loud “bai!” calls and got soaked as the settled in. Some elephants sprayed water with their trunks over their backs but never submurged. Mine, however, was no such wimp. Her favorite thing to do was completely submarine to the extent I was freely floating before lifting back up, making it very difficult for me to stay on the elephant. Repeatedly, I was scrubbing with the brush (seriously, we’re paying to do this hard labor?!) only to find my elephant disappear and myself start to float away. And she could stay down there an impressively long time.

Cleaned and well exercised, our elephants were done with work for the day (they eat up to 16 hours a day!) and it was time to say goodbye with one last tour around the field. We fed them bananas and pineapple grass to reward them and bid adieu to the gentle giants.