There are certain experiences that words just can’t justify, no matter how hard you try. Riding on the back of an Asian Elephant in Laos is most definitely one of those experiences. It was one of the most thrilling, awe inspiring, and memorable moments of the trip. Even now I just can’t capture the moment, but I will try. On our last day we decided to splurge on something that I had wanted to do for quite some time, which is to see some elephants and learn how to train them. We spent the night before debating the cost, the safety of the animals, was it for a good cause, and things like that. The very name Laos means “the land of a million elephants,” but that is far from the truth now. There are about 500 wild elephants, and a few thousand Working elephants left in the country. Elephants have been used for work for thousands of years. The elephant’s controllers are called mahouts. In the past they would be used for everything; bulldozers, tree removal, and even fighting wars. Just imagine how amazing it would be to see ten thousand armored elephants charging into you on the battlefield. Sadly though, their days as work animals are ending, and some people would probably think it’s better for them. But when an animal goes unused, they either end up on the streets begging with their Mahout for money, or starving to death. It’s the end of an era. Tourism though is helping in a big way, by keeping the elephants and their mahouts working, it’s actually saving the elephants. Now that does not mean every elephant ride is good for them, there are plenty that mistreat the animals as they do in zoos. That’s why it’s so important to do your research ahead of time. It is essential to check out the elephant first. Does it look gaunt or sick. Are there visible scrapes, bruises, or scars on them. Do they have enough space to move, do they ever get wild forage. Look into where they are kept at night, all these things are clues to how they are taken care of. The last thing you want is to be contributing to the problem. Lucky thing for us, our research paid out, and Elephant Village was everything we had hoped for.
We drove an hour out of the city, down some newly made roads, passing massive earth moving equipment. Ironically, a couple decades ago the earth moving equipment might have been elephants, instead of bulldozers. The road to China was being enlarged, for the shipment of animals, goods, food, and everything you could think of. We turned down a dirt road that led to the elephant sanctuary. It’s near impossible to not get a shiver of excitement up your spine at the sight of a full grown pachyderm. We walked down a path through a gorgeous tropical garden, overflowing with flowers and palms. There were signposts everywhere, describing the history of the area, native plants and species, elephant behavior, and just about everything there is know about the elephants. We were all told to go and wash our hands thoroughly so not to take a risk with getting elephants sick. Then we were off to our first lesson, and an introduction to our new friends. We formed as semi circle around as a large, pregnant elephant was brought up to us. She was gentle, and we were given some basic commands for getting her to drop down to here knees, lift a leg up, lift a trunk, and so forth. After a half hour explanation of everything, we were given the chance to get on the elephants back and ride around a circle with the Mahout. We all got to try, and while the others were riding, the instructor was giving us more history on the elephants. Each of the elephants here are given names, and in general, their entire history is known. There are nine elephants currently at the sanctuary.
I don’t know if you have ever climbed on to an elephants back, but it is no easy thing. You grab the back of its ear, which is incredibly sensitive, so be careful where you grab, step on the elephants uplifted knee, and give the command for up. In which case you get a boost, and then you sort of throw your leg over this large, wrinkly back. As you can imagine, this is not so easy for everyone. A few people needed an extra shove by a few of us to get them on the elephants back, but everyone got up eventually. It was amusing to see everyone struggle so hard. Yvonne has forbid me showing the pictures of her triumphant climb to the top. I have no idea why because she got up quite gracefully. The first thing I noticed was that everything I thought I knew about elephants was wrong. I figured their skin would be rough and hard, like sunbaked mud. But it was actually incredibly soft and tender, wrinkly sure, but not dry at all. And the hair that all stuck out at weird angles like a wire brush was actually soft too. With both your legs behind the elephant’s head, all you can really see is the top, and a bit of his trunk. So you can’t really see what’s going on in his eyes. His ears are also very soft, as they flap back and forth on your legs. They flap their ears too cool them selves off, because their veins run through them, then to the heart. A natural, built in air-conditioning system for them. After the initial warm up, we got off and learned some more about the noble steeds. They have an in-house veterinary full time to take care of the elephants. So we got to meet him, and learn the ins and outs of his job, and see some of the tools they use.
Now was the fun part, taking a tour on the elephants. We did not have to mount from the ground this time, there was a lovely platform making our life easier. Baskets were placed on top of the elephants for the “tourists” to ride safely, while the mahout road on the back controlling them. Our mahout, Mr. Lat, was awesome, telling us all about his life, working with the elephants, and his excitement to still be able to work with them. Our big girl was Mae Rai kham, a gentle sweet 36 year old elephant. We went down a steep hill to the river, which was part of the national park. The basket would make large ponderous motions swinging back and forth on the back, and on the hill, I felt like we were going to tumble head over heals into the river, elephant landing on top of us in some sick and disgusting pile. But there was never any fear in our guide, nor in the elephant. This was just a normal day for them. Our elephant paused at the water, seeming to be a bit undecided if she wanted to take the plunge or not, but then with a few tentative steps, we were in the water. Looking back the rest of our group made their way into the water, with looks of fright and amazement on all their faces. Once everyone was in we made our way to some islands. Our Mahout jumped off the elephant, and had Yvonne climb down and guide the elephant, giving instructions from the ground. I have to say, Yvonne was an excellent driver, though I was glad we would not be doing any parallel parking with our new friend, not with out a rear view mirror anyway. Next it was my turn to guide our big girl, so with a little funky maneuvering, Yvonne was back in the basket, and I was in charge. Truthfully, I think the elephant was on autopilot, because all my commands were met with a splashing of the water and a bit of indifference. Mr. Lat was great though, taking numerous pictures like he was Jacques Cousteau himself. I had our lady bring us out on the other side of the river, where we climbed a steep embankment, and I had to tell her that she was not allowed to steal the fruits from the neighbors garden. But you try to tell a two-ton elephant not to eat a pepper and see how well you get by. So our Mahout had to jump back on and take control before a fence was knocked over and elephant lunchtime began. Our initial elephant ride was about an hour long. At this time it was lunch, and we sat down and had a lovely meal of Laosian food. It was relaxing sitting on a veranda overlooking the river, meeting our fellow tourist from all over the world. Some were working here, but always dreamed of riding the elephants, while others were only on vacation. All and all though, it was great group of very interesting people.
After lunch it was time to bath the elephants, something they thoroughly enjoy. Minus the giant baskets, we were bare backing it with out the aid of any harnesses. We each had our own elephant, and we made the exciting trip down into the river again. At the bottom we were all given brushes, and taught the commands for the elephant to take water in their trunk. We had the elephants get down on their knees so that the water was up to their shoulders, and we began scrubbing, and scrubbing, and Scrubbing. Damn, these are big animals. They loved it, splashing water, spraying them selves, like a built in carwash. I was swimming around trying to clean behind his ears when a floating island passed me, just nearly missing me. Elephant poo, although not too stinky, is really not something I really want to be hit with. So a quick dodge got me out of the path. But really, who cares, we were swimming with elephants, how great is that. The entire experience was better than anything I could have dreamed of. After the elephants got their baths, we took some last pictures with them, rewarded them with bananas, and than took a shower ourselves. Now it was time to just relax in the pool as the elephants went into the jungle to forage for themselves. Nothing like having nice cold beer after a day of being Mahout Mike.
I can’t help but think of the amazing people who give up their “normal” lives to start something different, like an elephant sanctuary. The original founder of Elephant Village is Marcus Peschke. Working though the politics of any country can be difficult, but for a foreigner, it must seem like climbing Everest. But in the end, because he took the leap, he created an amazing place which not only saves elephants, employs local villagers, helps the economy, but also educates people from all over the world about the plight of elephants. And hopefully, they take what they learned home with them, and educate others. In the end, it’s the elephants who benefit. I am going to end this with my favorite sign at the sanctuary, because it is how I want to live my life.
Life Style Entrepreneur
An individual that creates a business with the purpose of altering their personal lifestyle and not for the sole purpose of making profits. A lifestyle entrepreneur focuses more on the life rewards provided to people that enjoy and have a passion for what they are doing. There is a possibility that the business will do particularity well since the individual has a passion for what he is doing.