Before we even got to Laos, we heard about the elephants that roam the border between Laos and Vietnam, and how there are people who trap and train those elephants in Vietnam. Their training in Vietnam, and in truth in much of Laos, is in the logging industry. But often these animals are mistreated in order to gain the results they need. There are also lots of places outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, where you can ride elephants. But we heard about a place in Laos called Elephant Village Sanctuary, where we could ride an elephant that had been rehabilitated, feed the elephants a snack, and even get in the river and bathe the elephant if we wanted to.
We decided, after some research, that we didn’t want extensive contact with the water of the Mekong in Laos, because the river was at the seasonal low, which exposes the local freshwater snails to the sun, and all of their parasites bail out into the water, which significantly increases the chances of picking up a nasty case of schistosomiasis mekongi. We’re adventurous, but not that adventurous. So we decided just to go for a ride on an elephant, with the possibility of feeding the elephant and a lunch at the Elephant refuge thrown in just to round out the day.
While we didn’t actually bathe the elephants, we did cross the river, which was close enough for us. The contraption you see strapped to the elephant is called the howda, which is essentially the seat you ride on, and is strapped across the elephant like a cross between a saddle and a rumble seat. A few pictures below, you can see that the howda has a bar across the front, much like you’d see on an amusement park ride about 20 years ago. That bar is really, really useful when the elephant is walking downhill—it’s the only thing that keeps you from sliding out.
This isn’t where the driver sits, however.
The driver sits on the elephant’s neck, tucking her legs up just behind her ears. This is Lana, playing mahout to our elephant, whose name is Mae Uak. The gist of the directions were sit here, put your feet here, and your hands here. Lana tried grabbing on to the wiry, coarse hair on her head, but was told instead to simply place her palms on the top of Mae Uak’s head for balance.
Lana never really felt that she and Mae Uak came to an understanding (she seemed to be testily flapping her ears for much of Lana’s time in the driver’s seat), but it was nevertheless an amazing experience.
Lana had ridden an elephant before, at a circus when she was small, but this was nothing like she remembered. For one thing, it seemed very, very high up. For another, there was nothing to hold onto, except the top of Mae Uak’s head, which is a bit like trying to hold onto the top of a coffee table—a hairy coffee table.
After we crossed the river, Mae Uak’s actual mahout (on foot, merrily experimenting with all the features on Lana’s camera) suggested we swap places, which was a little exciting. David had never ridden an elephant at all, let alone sat in the driver’s seat. He and Mae Uak got along much better, though at no point did either of us actually steer her. She went where she wanted, with one or two interventions from her mahout, mostly involving her insatiable appetite.
When you are sitting on the elephant’s neck, your sit bones are right above her shoulder blades; every stride of her front legs lifts that side of your pelvis, threatening to pitch you off the opposite side. To counteract this, all you could do was to push on her head with the opposite hand, and try to get into the rhythm of her motion.
Just about as soon as you got the feel for it, she’d veer off, tilt her head down, and rip a large shrub or small tree out of the ground, and munch away on it. I imagine she enjoys unsettling her would-be rider almost as much as she enjoys eating, and who can blame her? We were easy marks for her.
Not that we minded. Once we settled into the motion, and the occasional, mild surprises, we could enjoy the beautiful river valley we were riding through.
Though it looks misty, it’s actually smoke. Not only was it the season for low river levels, it was also the season for farmers to slash and burn for planting. The smoke wasn’t strong enough to be irritating where we were, but it did make for some dramatic scenery, if somewhat challenging to capture.
After our ride was over, we had a chance to get up close and personal with our elephant, and buy her a bunch of bananas as a thank you present. We later learned a bit more about Mae Uak on the website, which explained a lot:
Mae Uak’s character is generally sociable, though sometimes strong-willed. She can be tended by each of the camp’s mahouts, something very unusual in an elephant. She seems perpetually hungry, and if one does not pay attention, she will quickly pull everything edible out of visitor’s pockets. Wherever there is something to eat, her trunk is there, as well. At feeding time, there are constant “trunk battles” for food between her and her herd-mates, the other elephant cows.
Lana bought a bunch of bananas for Mae Uak, and instead of eating them one at a time, she grabbed the whole bunch and shoved them in her mouth at once! Live and learn—hold out one banana at a time.
We shared our tour with a very nice Canadian couple (in our experience, ‘nice Canadian’ is redundant); after dismounting, we also shared an additional bunch of bananas, once we’d learned to mete them out one at a time. Thom was courageous enough to place the bananas directly in their elephant’s mouth (Mae Uak wasn’t patient enough for that—her trunk had the banana before you could say “here…”).
It was a really special day for us, and one we will remember forever as the day we each drove an elephant. Later that evening, we were rewarded with a smoke-enhanced sunset.