Elephant Experience

January 11, 2010


Kathleen, Mick, Michael and I sat down to our yogurt (which is all we could safely digest) at cafe Joma and one of us finally admitted that we half regretted signing up to ride elephants on our day off. After trekking up and down mountains and sleeping on cement, all we really wanted to do was languish in a cafe along the Nam Khan and pet dogs. There are countless elephant trekking agencies along the main street. Elizabeth told us about this specific one which really is a legitimate elephant sanctuary. The elephants were being mistreated by local farmers. Now they work for the non-profit sanctuary giving scared tourists rides into the Khan. They are well-fed and at night they are allowed to wander freely around the hillside. Given the level of unregulated adventure we’d had the past week, we assumed we were going to be straddling the necks of angry bull elephants as the charge through prides of lions and slash through the jungle with machetes in the dark. We picked up an older Danish and Italian couple en route. Our guide, Sai, was soft spoken and kind just like everyone we’d met so far. He explained a few things about the elephants and I picked up every other word. “You understand?” he asked. We all nodded and murmurred yes, but we were still utterly confused. By the end of the half hour ride we knew the Dane’s life story, all 70 years. Michael asked Sai if there were any monkeys around and his long response basically amounted to a “no.” Unconvinced that he’d expressed his question plainly enough, Michael gestured some inscrutable sign language and articulated, “From Luang Prabang… where is the nearest monkey?” as if Sai could produce a map with little monkey icons on it. Even Sai laughed at the question, but we really did want to know where the nearest monkey was.

me_elephant2The sanctuary was beautifully outfitted. The bathrooms were like something out of a Ralph Lauren paint chip brochure. They brought us to the open field where a smattering of dogs exposed their bellies to the sun. Sai shoed them away saying that the elephants were scared of them, but they moved over a foot and rolled over again with a perturbed sigh. Sai showed us a sign with the commands for left, right, stop etc. We poured over them trying out all kinds of pneumonic devices to memorize them since we were going to be left in the jungle for hours on our own with these giants. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of writing the commands on our hands. I still have Kwa on my right hand and Sai on my left. The Dane was the first to volunteer to mount the elephant. Sai shouted, “Hop!” and the elephant bent one leg for him to step on to hoist himself up. We all took turns on the elephant, testing out our recollection of the directional terms. We were all a little uneasy but said things like, “That was pretty comfortable” and “After a while I felt pretty stable.” Then it finally became clear that we were going to do the longer trek sitting on baskets strapped to the elephant’s back. We finally admitted our relief.

Elephant Sanctuary in Luang Prabang

We climbed a platform and alighted the baskets. It felt a little touristy and even a bit imperious to have the Lau mahout straddling the neck while we sat on cushions and lumbered through the water into the nearby town. The sound of amplified Lao ballads was coming from the town square decked out with orange and yellow balloons. “Party,” our mahout said. It turned out the villagers were singing karaoke and they were pretty good. Children waved from down below then suddenly decided to scream and shake their hands in excitement at the sight of the elephants.

When we got back to the sanctuary, they politely announced that it was lunchtime for us and for the elephants. We lazed on canopied decks overlooking the Khan and considered getting a cocktail, confident in the fact that this experience was going to be easier than expected. All we knew was that the next part included washing the elephants in the river, a waterfall, and a boat trip. They called us into the field again and there was a commotion over by the slate tables. I looked over and saw nothing but 70-year old Danish flesh. If the Dane hadn’t told us everything yet, he was determined to show us everything. He’d stripped down naked and slipped on a bright yellow Spedo. In Lau culture, this is just not done. Maybe he didn’t read that chapter in the guide book, or maybe he just insisted on exporting a little bit of Denmark over here. The Lau mahouts, Sai included, were amazed. Some pointed and covered their mouths. A few of them yelled to each other in Lau expressions of shock which might have been something like, “Why didn’t he do that in the Ralph Lauren bathroom?”

Elephants Sanctuary in Luang Prabang

And then the next shock came: we had to get back on the elephants necks and take them to the river. My mahout shouted “Song!” and the elephant got down on both front elbows for me to get on. I was making universal noises of fear and my mahout laughed and repeated, “It okay. It okay.” We started for the river and my mahout even stood up on the elephant’s back. We started for the steep hill that lead to the steeper descent into the river and I was sure I was going to roll headlong in front of my elephant. I’m sure I left sweat marks on his wire-haired head. I heard Kathleen say, “I’m glad we didn’t go for that cocktail.” We glided into the greenish water and I convinced myself to relax and enjoy scrubbing the giant gray mass with a bath tub scrub brush behind his pink-spotted ears. Suddenly my mahout yelled a command that sent the elephants head plunging into the water. And I went along with it. I panicked and held on for dear life. I imagined falling off and getting pinned under it’s giant foot. I assumed it was safe but then I saw a big round ball of dung float by like a small island and decided to stay on the elephant. I finally managed to get back on top of the elephant and said, “No no no more!” to my mahout, but he shouted the command again and this time I was fully submerged and entirely lost contact with elephant’s head. I struggled not to swallow any water because I was paranoid after watching all those shows on cable about contracting parasites that procreate in your brain. I somehow managed to yank on the poor elephant’s ear to lug my water-logged self back to a seated position. Everyone applauded. I took an elegant bow to make up for the fleshy flapping struggle they just had to witness.

Elephants in Luang Prabang

We managed to make it back up the eroding hill to the field and we soon headed out in a long tail boat to a natural waterfall. Kathleen said happily, “Hey, that’s a tupha!” I was so happy to have the opportunity to use my new vocabulary. It was beautiful. It’s funny that my first instinct in seeing natural beauty like this is to say it looks man-made, like an amusement park. A Japanese man suddenly whizzed above us hanging upside-down on a zip line yelling something in Japanese. A bunch of Japanese girls posing coquettishly for pictures giggled. One of them had a shirt on that said, “It’s party time. Let’s dress up!” That’s just the innocently celebratory statement that seems to typify my southeast asian experience.