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Published: November 15th 2009
Our first elephant at the training camp. "Van" was Adrian's elephant on Day 2.
Today is the first day of our Mahout (elephant trainer) course.
There are many elephant camps surrounding Luang Prabang - and the number of elephant camps is growing, despite the fact that elephants aren't native to this region. But tourists love the elephants and so the mahouts bring their elephants down from northern Laos (the word "Laos" means "a million elephants") to give paying tourists a taste of what it is like to be an elephant trainer.
We were picked up by our travel agency, All Lao Travel, at 8:30am and driven to their Elephant Camp, which is six or seven miles outside of town in the countryside. We'll be staying in their "eco-lodge" for 2 nights and to reach that, we need to cross the Nam Khan. While waiting for the boat (pretty much a large canoe), we meet our fellow classmates: a couple (Brenda and Danny) from the Netherlands, a woman from Southern California (we never did get her name), and two young fisherman from Alaska (Adam and Keith). Brenda, Danny, Adam and Keith have signed up for the two day course; we've opted for the three-day course. The other woman is just here for the day.
Getting ready to head off into the jungle.
It's a great group and we enjoy getting to know them during the course of the day.
Let's say the eco-lodge is "trendy rustic". Home for the next three days is a large teak wood bungalow perched high up on stilts. We have two huge queen beds with nice linens and mosquito netting, which we'll need because the area above the door is open (no screens). The bathroom is open air as well and is pretty much one large concrete shower with a Western style toilet and sink in one corner. Not terrible for two days; much better than our accommodations in the jungle resort in Panama last year.
Our navy colored uniforms are ready for us - stylish heavy cotton material, long shorts with an elastic waist and a billowing button-down shirt to match. Straight off the Paris runways.
After regrouping outside and admiring our new outfits, we are shuttled back across the river to the elephant camp. Alas, the elephants (there are 11 in total; 10 adults and one youngster, all female except for the oldest and youngest) are all out working with other tourists so we wait for about 45 minutes until they return.
Elephant caravan in the morning.
When they do, we are able to feed them bananas (one of their very favorite foods, along with pineapples and sugarcane) and then it's time for some hands-on instruction.
We climb a bamboo ladder to a platform about 10 or so feet high and our elephant saddles up next to it. There's a large chair (flat seat with a back to it) tied to the elephant's back and we're told to step on its head to work our way into the chair; we manage to get ourselves settled and we're off! Thankfully we have a real mahout driving this time.
Our elephant takes us for a 45-minute tour of the surrounding dense jungle - up and down hills (it's amazing how they can navigate the path, which is sometimes fairly steep, with such a heavy load on their backs). Totally, totally cool!
The others are riding too and Brenda and Danny's elephant, which is ahead of ours, is farting a lot.
Our mahout rides on the elephant's neck, bareback. We admire his balance.
When we break for lunch, our guide, Sang, teaches us elephant commands. So here's your lesson for the day:
Feeding the elephants bananas.
- Go straight/keep walking
"Bai sai" - Go left
"Bai cua" - Go right
"How" - STOP!
"Tuy" - Turn around
"Ya ya!" - Stop doing (something bad)!
But first you have to figure out how to get up on the elephant. For that, these words are handy:
"Hup!" - elephant raises a leg and you use it to vault up on to its back.
"Joo" - move alongside something (like the platform) so we can get on.
"Map leung" - kneel down (this was our favorite way to get on - you still have to step on their leg and vault on but it's easier than HUP!)
"Luk" - stand up (whoa!!!)
We are advised not to use these words on people.
After lunch, we each got our own elephant and road it bareback. VERY VERY COOL!!!! Here's what it's like:
- You sit on the neck with your legs either hanging straight down on the sides or tucked up under the elephant's ears (harder than it sounds since you don't really have anything to rest your feet on)
- The elephant's skin is very leathery but still soft and with wiry (but not rough)
My favorite - bananas!
black hairs on its head (this is pretty much all you can see of the elephant)
- You brace yourself by putting your hands on the elephant's head, palms down.
It's actually pretty easy to balance, especially if you have a very sweet elephant, like Angelique's. She was just lovely; her name means "Sun" in Lao and she listened well and obeyed every command. She also curled her huge ears (highly sensitive, apparently) around Angelique's legs. So cute!
Unfortunately, Adrian's elephant was more of an independent thinker. Adrian quickly learned the commands How and Ya-Ya. Adrian's elephant thought it was great fun to stop frequently to grab a snack from a nearby bush or picking up a bunch of pebbles and spraying them around (sometimes at the real mahout, who sat just behind Adrian). Adrian's elephant seemed to relish being bad and at one point started whacking the mahout with a bundle of leaves.
Overall, it was great fun. We spent about 2 hours riding the elephants bareback and then we took a short break. Around 3:30p, it was time to give the elephants a bath, something that both the elephants and the mahouts enjoy. We rode
Angelique's elephant was very good at splashing itself.
the elephants down to the river near our lodge. They crossed about halfway (the water is about 3-4 feet deep) and then we learned a new command: "boun boun" (spray water). Very fun! The mahouts had a great time getting us all soaked via boun boun and also by having the elephants dip their heads and entire bodies into the water to cool off. Luckily, with all the moving and spraying and general craziness, we managed not to fall off. This was also a chance for the elephants to fill up on water - they drink about 150 liters per day (just think about that - that's 75 2-L coke bottles).
The elephants turn in early, right after their baths, so we were dropped off at the lodge and the mahouts took them deep into the jungle where they sleep at night. Since we were all soaked, and it was about 95F, we all decided to go upstream for some tubing. Really fun. We got to know our new friends a bit more.
We all talked more at dinner, which was served family style in at a few tables in an open air building near the bungalows, and
went to sleep around 8pm with the usual jungle symphony outside. It was a really great day.
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