Early morning elephant commute
We didn't hear them coming at all.
A 20 minute drive from Luang Prabang brought us to the elephant village where we spent the next two days. We'd done a lot of research before choosing the Elephant Park Project. Like almost everyone, we love elephants. And the idea of seeing one close up, touching it, appealed to both of us. But humans have a history of interactions that put animals on the losing end of the stick, and we didn't want to participate in anything that would be detrimental to the animals. We'd heard horror stories about long distance elephant treks and elephants "trained" to paint pictures for tourists and were determined not to participate in any kind of situation that required the elephants to perform or carry heavy loads. We obviously didn't want to contribute to any capture or trade of elephants so we looked for a project that worked with rescued elephants. In the end we chose to participate in a "mahout experience" by the above named sanctuary endorsed by Adore Animals.
There are no wild elephants living around Luang Prabang anymore. Domestic elephants are used, and used harshly, in logging operations and all of the elephants at the Elephant Park Project were rescued from
lives in the logging industry. Most arrived at the elephant village with physical and psychological injuries, many blind in one eye from accidents that occurred while skidding logs. Some were given amphetamines to make them eat less and work harder. All of them were undernourished. Our guide told us that every elephant's physical appearance has changed drastically since she has arrived at the village where there is a full time veterinarian on duty and many local and international experts working to bring them back to a healthy state. They put on weight from a steady diet of healthy grasses, sugarcane and fruit.
We know there is no simple answer to lack of habitat, which is the defining reason elephants are disappearing from wild spaces. They require an enormous amount of space, as they forage for food all day long. For the elephants in Luang Prabang, even if they could be rehabilitated and released, there is nowhere for them to go - no more wild spaces where they won't be in danger of following their noses into a village or farmer's field and a dangerous situation. And, they are expensive animals to keep, eating up to 136 kilograms of food
She wouldn't stop reaching for snacks.
I think she was trying to maintain her figure.
per day. If the mahout cannot rent out the elephant for work often they both go hungry. The bottom line for these domesticated animals is each one needs to earn her keep in some way.
The Elephant Park Project offers a good solution. The elephants get a shorter work day and a much lighter work load, plenty of good quality food to eat, and proper health care, the mahouts earn wages, and the public is educated. At the village their work day starts at 6:30AM and ends at around 2:00PM or 3:00PM every day, with a lot of rests and water baths and feedings in between. No elephant is ridden for any longer than 20 minutes or so at a time and much of the interaction is beside the elephant, either bathing her, feeding her by hand, or simply stroking her. The activities are low impact for the elephants but still bring an income large enough to pay their mahouts and buy all of the high quality food they need to survive. They don't perform tricks and no bullhooks are used - in fact the only thing we saw the mahouts use to guide the elephants were their knees,
feet, and voices. The village also offers many of the locals -who are truly dirt poor - an opportunity to work with the animals and their local resources in a different way and to earn a decent wage. One of the tenets of the village is to pay living wages to the people who work there.
The village is where the elephants "work". It has a feeding station so tourists can buy bananas and hand feed elephants and where piles of banana leaves, sugar cane, and other grasses are piled all day long, a veterinary space, a small pool of water and several buildings that cater to tourists - restaurant, gift shop, information center etc. After their work day ends the elephants are taken across the river to their home in the forest. There they chill out with their mahouts away from tourist, and eat some more.
When we arrived in the afternoon we were introduced to the elephants we would work with and their mahouts and were taught how to "board" an elephant and how to ride one. To climb on top you put one foot on her bent front leg, grasp the top of her ear
and haul yourself on top. Or in my case you put one foot on the leg, grasp the ear and have the mahout pull you by your underarms while your husband puts both hands on your butt and pushes with all his might. If I had to describe my technique in one word it would be "elegant." The best way to ride an elephant is high up on her neck with your knees right behind her ears where she can easily support the weight.
The first time on top was pretty overwhelming - from that height the elephant felt even bigger and taller. I could not believe the sheer mass of her head and was barely able to straddle her neck. The flesh was cool and pliant and gave off a warm, grassy smell like a cow. The top of her head was sprinkled with coarse, prickly hairs so I was happy I wore long pants. When she vocalized I could feel the sound reverberate right through me. The elephant I was on vocalized a lot, especially in the water or when she was with another elephant. She trumpeted and blew raspberries and made a sound like a slow
deep growl. The mahout spoke to her in a low voice constantly while tapping her sides with his feet. The village is built on the bank of the Nam Khan so the elephants are in and out of the water all day long. In the river she blew bubbles and sprayed herself (and me) with the fresh water. I looked over at Matt on another elephant and could see his smile was as big as mine. You cannot be near these animals and not feel happy.
Most of the first day was spent learning about and getting to know the elephants, stroking them and feeding them bananas and sugar cane from the feeding station. The tips of their trunks are incredibly mobile and with them they can grasp either side of a tiny banana and pop it whole into their mouths. You can go through an entire bunch of bananas in seconds as they throw them back like mints. I gave up and just started giving away entire bunches.
That night we stayed in the jungle lodge on the banks of the river about a 10 minute walk from the village. Our guide Sack gave us flashlights and
accompanied us. Since it's low season we were the only tourists there and it was extremely dark and quiet on the trail. As we were walking we heard a shot and I asked Sack where it was coming from. He told me the local hunters were out. We didn't see one monkey our whole time there and when I asked Sack about it he said they stayed far away from the villages. It was another reminder that many people still live hand to mouth here and most hunt for whatever they can find. When I asked Sack earlier what they did with the elephant carcasses when one died he said they gave the flesh to the locals. Both animals and people live very close to the edge in the villages.
It was pitch black when we got back to the room and I rushed to the bathroom to brush my teeth but came up short when I found a scorpion in our bathroom sink. Matt to the rescue with a glass and a magazine. I crawled onto the bed to recover and noticed a large hairy spider clinging to the INSIDE of our mosquito net. Ah the joys of
Discovered on our morning walk back to the village from the Lodge. Wait. We passed it at night in the dark?
a jungle lodge!
The next morning Sack took us across the river on a long boat where we walked up a dirt path so we could meet the elephants and mahouts on their way back from the night time camp. We climbed onto the elephants and I noticed that they (and now we) were covered in red dirt from the dust baths they had given themselves overnight. Once again I was overcome with this feeling of joy. There is something truly magical about elephants. We rode through the forest in silence interrupted only by bird song and the soft murmurings of the mahout behind me. The elephant seemed very relaxed. Something I hadn't thought of before is how quietly they move through the forest. They are so big but make no sound at all with their footfalls. It's eerie watching these large animals move through the bush silently.
It only took 15 minutes to reach the river where the elephant I was on didn't hesitate before plunging in and walking to the deepest part, she knew what was coming. When she was ready she laid down in the water and we slid off her sides and started scrubbing
with a hard bristled brush and splashing water all over her body. She helped out with her trunk, blowing bubbles and spraying. Matt and I agreed that this was our favourite experience of the two days.
That was the end of the official trip. Totally soaked, and already sweating in the heat, we sat down to breakfast. A note on the food in Laos - it's delicious! In the previous post I mentioned a couple of great dishes we tried in Luange Prabang; here at the village we were served what they called "river weed", fried and accompanied by a dip made of buffalo skin and chillies - sounds gross, tastes incredible - it was definitely a culinary highlight. After breakfast we spent some more time at the feeding station. By the amount of trunks accosting me it was clear I had been remembered as the woman who gave away bunches instead of individual bananas.
The tour offered either a guided hike through the forest or a kayak trip down the Nam Khan river which would cover part of the way back to town. We thought it was too hot to hike and a trip down the Nam
Khan would be a great way to see the villages built on the banks. It was a quiet, lazy paddle interrupted by smiles, waves and "sapaidee!" when we passed village children playing in the water. We floated by fishermen on long boats,women gathering river weed and a man playing in the water with his tiny baby. Normally we would have loved it but the river was low and slow and it was so freaking hot under the sun that it was all we could do to hang on till the end. As you can see from the photos I covered myself up with every available piece of clothing I had.
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