Published: February 17th 2010February 17th 2010
We had an early start again. We needed to eat breakfast, check out of the substandard Spicylaos, walk into town, check into our new hostel, then go for our day at the All Lao Elephant Village, the bus for which left at 8:30 am. Since we didn’t have much time we decided to avail ourselves of the free breakfast at Spicylaos: baguettes and bananas. While we were sitting on the porch eating our bread a small Laotian boy, no more than 3 years old, climbed up the stairs, crawled over Kim, and plopped unceremoniously into my lap. He was warm and smelled like fresh laundry. While nestled in my lap he started rifling through Kim’s cosmetic bag. He pulled out her eyelash curler and tried to crimp the table cloth. Kim took out a bright yellow plastic coil hair tie and put it around his wrist like a bracelet. He was overjoyed. He got up and went back down the stairs to show his grandmother and anyone else in the vicinity his new bangle. Then he occupied himself with trying to pull the testicles of a small cat. The cat didn’t appear too pleased, but didn’t harm the
Still safely aboard
but where's our mahout?!?
boy. The cat merely walked slowly away every time the boy made for a grab.
After breakfast we packed up our things and booked it down the street to our new hostel, The Chitlatda Guesthouse. Our van to the elephant village was waiting for us. We threw our bags down in the lobby and jumped into the minivan. We had booked a day of mahout (elephant rider) training at the elephant village. The day began with an hour and a half elephant ride in a bench seat through the forest. The bench wasn’t as uncomfortable as it looked, but it was really weird actually walking onto the back of an animal that big from a platform at least ten feet in the air. For part of the walk our mahout walked along side, which felt strange. It was rather like riding in the back seat of a car with no driver. When our ride was finished we returned to the platform, climbed off, and went up to the outdoor dining area. We were both given swank denim mahout outfits and after we changed we were told to wait for another girl who was doing the same class as us.
Unbeknownst to us, this girl had just begun her ride. We waited an hour and a half sitting in the dining area and playing with a kitten.
When the girl, Elyse from Holland, finally joined us we ate a quick lunch of fried rice. The director taught us the Lao commands for go, stop, left, right, stop doing that, lie down, stand up, bend knee up, backward, stand close to something, bend head down, and spray water. Then we headed back to the platform. The three of us climbed the stairs then looked at each other to see who would be first to plop down on the bare neck of an elephant. Kim went first, then Elyse, and then me. Elephants are poorly designed animals for riding. There is really no comfortable way of sitting. The neck is sinewy and scrawny when compared to the rest of the animal. The shoulder blades dug into my backside as the elephant walked. I wasn’t sure where to put my feet so they just hung useless to either side. And because the head is fairly even with the neck there’s really nothing to hang onto for balance. All I could do was
place my hands flat on the spongy bristly crown of my elephant. The animal had started walking before I could get myself adequately situated. I was too afraid to shift due to my tendency to fall off of things and elephants are kind of on the tall side. The position I was stuck in though put me at a weird angle and I had to put a lot of weight on my hands.
Elephants are stubborn so much of the time the mahout must shout a command several times. My mahout was again walking alongside. I was all alone in my uncomfortable perch. I didn’t notice the discomfort very much as first because riding an elephant was enormously cool. We started into the forest and I practiced shouting “Pai, pai, pai!” (Go, go go!) every time my pachyderm took a break. I was pleased that the elephant was listening to me as Kim’s pretended she didn’t exist. At one point the other two elephants went right and mine started going left so I shouted “Qoua! Qoua! Qoua!” (right, right, right!). My mount immediately went right and for a split second I thought maybe I had shouted ‘right’ too many times,
like overcompensating in a car, but instead of fishtailing the elephant fell right into line with the others. Kim’s ride sprayed snot on her legs several times during our sojourn through the trees. At one point her elephant pulled a branch off of a tree and hit her in the face with it, causing us all (mahouts included) to chuckle.
About forty minutes into the trek, two things happened simultaneously. Kim’s mahout flew off of the elephant without warning and dove into the thick underbrush beating at the bushes with a stick. Apparently he had seen a snake and didn’t want the elephants to become frightened. You see, the popular myth is very true: Elephants can be spooked by small animals. While Kim’s mahout was flailing in the verge my elephant had decided it was time for a snack and had chosen a succulent vine firmly attached to a tree at my left. She wrapped her truck around it and gave it a tug. When it didn’t give she tried again with a sharper jerk, lowering her head and causing me to slide precariously forward. “Ya ya! Ya ya! Ya ya!” (stop doing that!) I yelled. My aching arms
were feeling weak and had started to shake. I knew that a few more tosses of her head and I’d be flat on my back on the ground. My shouts had caught the attention of my mahout, who had been watching the action up ahead. He, too, shouted the ya-ya command and pushed at my elephant’s head. But, well, she was an elephant. And when does an elephant eat? Whenever she wants to, of course! Mercifully the vine broke away from the tree at last and I could feel the grinding of my big grey steed’s teeth through her skull.
The incident left me shaken and my arms were killing me. I told my mahout that I needed to get into the bench seat that was behind me. “But how to do it?” I wondered. After thinking for a moment, I put my hands behind me and scooted backwards until I was centered on her shoulder blades. I bent my legs up and placed my feet on her head and neck. Then, with assurance from my mahout that I wasn’t going to hurt her, I crab walked backwards into the seat. Again, walking on an animal is just weird.
I guess I wasn’t cut out for mahout work. I’ll keep my day job.
Another fifteen minutes or so we were back at the platform. We all gratefully dismounted and sat down. Our elephants were led away to have their bench seats removed and a well deserved snack. The mahouts then draped chains over the elephants’ necks, which, as the director told us, were to tie the elephants in the forest after their bath so they didn’t raid the neighbors’ gardens. Elyse and Kim got back on their elephants but I still wasn’t feeling very confident. I walked to the river with the director while Kim, Elyse, and the mahouts rode the elephants there. I didn’t want to miss out on the most fun part of the day therefore I climbed back onto my elephant (after the mahout commanded her to lie down) and we waded into the river for a bath. Kim and Elyse were already soaking wet. It wasn’t too long before I was too. After we had reached a certain depth my mahout gave the lie down command again and I had to hang onto my animal’s ears to keep from floating away. It was so
much fun! Our elephants swung their heads up and down spraying us with water and we splashed each other in the cool water. The mahouts were hilarious. They were splashing us with more water than the elephants were. And it was so bizarre being able to feel the giant creature, upon whose neck I was sitting, draw water into her trunk and expel it. I could feel the vibration of it through her head.
We rode the elephants back to the forest so they could settle in for the evening. The whole way back my mahout was teasing me by giving the ‘spray water’ command causing the elephant the swing her trunk around and bob her head up and down. It was highly entertaining until the old girl almost threw me off. I was saved from what surely would have been an injurious fall only because my mahout grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me back up. He didn’t give that command anymore after that but he continued to muttered it to me and poke me, laughing the whole time. Those guys really were a cheerful lot. A couple of times, when we passed through trees, I thought
I would scratch up my legs, but then my girl would fold her ears back, curling them perfectly around my calves and protecting me from the branches. When we arrived at the drop off point my elephant hunkered down and I slid off her neck. As I did so she whipped her ear back and thwapped me right in the eye.
Even though I was uncomfortable and clumsy, I thoroughly enjoyed the day. Being able to touch the elephants, feel their warmth, the way they move, and to experience their behavior and character was an amazing experience. It was well worth the $80USD we paid, which was by far the most expensive thing we did during our entire trip. A minivan picked us up and returned us to our new hostel. We settled into our room and took a short nap. After we were refreshed we ventured out for dinner at one of the many fantastic restaurants in town then strolled around the night market for more shopping.
There are more photos below