In my research on Laos, I read that one could take a mahout course and learn to ride an elephant. That sounded like fun, but of course, it couldn’t be uncomplicated. My research turned up reports of abuse of the animals, and I looked into this issue and into which elephant sanctuary or camp would be the most ethically-run organization. Some animal rights activists voice concerns about the exploitation of these wonderful animals, saying that no one should even ride an elephant at all.
Unfortunately, with the decline in habitat and reduction of jungle acreage, along with illegal trade in ivory and animal parts (primarily for Chinese traditional remedies), the wild elephant population is in decline. Working elephants, those which have been used for logging and construction, are being replaced by machines. They live a long time and they eat a lot. A LOT. Elephants can be very destructive of vegetation and crops. They can be quite dangerous to people. What to do with these retired working elephants? Idle trunks can be the devil’s workshop…
One way to help them is through eco-tourism, or elephant tourism, if you prefer. They get protected habitat and food, and care, and tourists pay to visit and learn about them. And yes, ride them. Some elephant sanctuaries don’t allow visitors to ride them, only to observe them from a distance or from the ground. But given their size, I really don’t think that it is a physical hardship. Certainly we expect more of horses (relative to their size and weight) and nobody really thinks of banning horseback riding. It is an ethical issue you can wrestle with and decide what you want to do.
I selected the Elephant Village Sanctuary. Since the time that we were there, the original German founder of the place sold the operation to a pair of Lao partners, and I can only vouch for what we experienced in December 2015, and we were satisfied with the treatment we saw. And it was a blast!
We did the One Day Mahout Experience. And I told Bill I wanted him to jettison his 17-year-old-boy I’m-too-cool-for-this attitude and throw himself open to the fun. I mean, how often do you get to touch and sit on any animal this huge, beautiful and amazing?!
We learned the Lao commands for left, right, forward, and stop. I can’t remember them now, but they are not words I have had much call for since. Then we each got a chance to clamber on and off an elephant. It is not as easy as the Lao mahouts make it look! I took a video of Bill on his inaugural ride. They move very deliberately, ponderously. Their skin is so thick and wrinkly rough. The hair is coarse. You sit above their shoulders at the neck, and again this seems much less onerous than the way people ride on horses’ backs. More like having a toddler ride on your shoulders.
Then howdahs (wooden seats) were saddled up on the elephants and we boarded via a thatch-roofed platform. I really did not want to sit perched up on a seat like a maharani (a little hyperbole here), so they let me sit in the mahout seat (bareback on the elephant), and Bill lounged in the howdah seat. The line of elephants and their luggage (us) lumbered down a path to the Nam Khan River and through the water to a shoal in the middle of the river. Our mahout guides are well-experienced in every kind of phone camera and took copious pictures for everyone.
After that we fed the elephants. At the feeding station, you’re on a raised platform at elephant head height, and those guys are very adept at grabbing bananas out of your hands. At one point I was getting frisked by two prehensile trunks at the same time. It was then that I saw that our elephant had a huge round cyst by her jaw, as big as a bowling ball. The head mahout explained that elephant surgery is difficult and risky, and so they were letting it be for the timebeing.
We had our lunch, and then came elephant bathing time, which was fun, but I have no photos because I was not going to take a chance on my phone taking a plunge.
Next activity was a longtailed boat ride across the river to where they keep a couple of baby elephants with their mothers nearby. We cooed and fed them bananas.
Then we were taken by the longtailed boats to a place of waterfalls and natural pools for a swim. The water has coated everything with limestone, so that instead of being slippery as you might expect, the pools and walls were very grippy.
Bill promptly dove in. Me, I played in the grippy waterfalls. The water was perfect.
Several years before we went to Laos, I read this fantastic book by Vicki Croke called Elephant Company, about a British man who went to Burma in 1920 and learned to train elephants and used them during World War II. Highly recommended!