Elephant riding is a popular activity for tourists in Thailand, but we waited until Laos for our elephant encounter for a few reasons. First, it’s much cheaper in Laos. Second, we wanted to be with elephants in their natural habitat, as opposed to a few minutes in the city. Lastly, we wanted to spend a full day with the elephants and learn a little bit about how to train them as a mahout!
We chose to do a 1-Day Mahout Training with Elephant Village Sanctuary near Luang Prabang ($99 per person). Mahout training tours can go up to a week, but we only did 1-day due to budget restraints. After scouting out several agents in town, we settled with Elephant Village for their great reviews and organization, but most importantly, their focus on saving elephants. Once known as the land of a million elephants, there are now only a bit more than 1000 left in Laos. Elephant Village rescues elephants from abusive work in the logging industry and provides easy work for elephants as rides or mahout training for tourists. The elephants are taken care of in the sanctuary with lots of food, veterinarians, and freedom to roam in the jungle after half day’s work.
“Mahout” is the word for elephant rider/trainer. Usually a young boy in a family of mahouts gets assigned an elephant, and he and his elephant are bonded for life. We began the day learning some simple directional commands. For example, to go forward was pronounced “pie,” left was “sai,” stop was “how.” When giving direction to the elephants, we had to repeat the sound twice and loudly. So to tell the elephant to go forward, we had to say “pie pie!”
We then learned how to mount and ride the elephant like a mahout, by sitting on its neck. First, I said “seung seung!” to the elephant, a command for lifting up its front right leg so it can be used as a step. Then, with right foot on the elephant leg, right hand on the ear of the elephant, the mahout already sitting on the elephant’s back pulled me up by my left hand so that I could swing my left leg around the elephant’s neck. It was harder than I imagined because the elephant was really tall. Using the same training elephant, each of us mounted and rode the elephant around the circle of the camp while practicing the directional commands.
I couldn’t believe I was riding an elephant directly on its neck! It was so, so cool. When I first mounted the elephant, I was sitting too far back that it was unstable and I thought I was going to fall off. That made me nervous. Shifting forward on my elephant seat helped, but it definitely takes practice to get used to balancing on the elephant with not much to hold on to. The giant animal’s body shifts and rocks as it walks, albeit slowly. Depending on the elephant, it may also turn its head to look around, so you have to go along with it.
Getting off the elephant (“how how!” to stop) was also unsmooth. First, I swung my left leg all the way around while holding onto the neck of the elephant with my left arm. Then I had to gently lower myself down to the ground because even fully stretched, it was still a significant distance from the ground. Good thing our tour guide was there to help us get on and off by lifting us a little bit.
After the short circle in the camp with the training elephant, we went on a 3km ride on bigger animals in the herd. This was the more usual elephant ride using a howdah (a chair strapped to the elephant’s back) and getting on from a tower that’s as tall as the elephant. The three of us (Carlos and I on the houdah, the mahout on the neck) headed down towards the river. Along the way, our elephant had to take a short bathroom break. She paused, turned her bum towards the side of the path, and let out what sounded like a full shower. When we moved on afterwards, we saw the pool of bubbliness plus some large round muddy grass balls (her poop!).
The path down the river was pretty steep, which we could really feel on the back of the elephant. We held on to our chairs and grabbed a tight hold of our stuff. At least the elephants were always slow and steady. When we finally reached the river, the elephant stepped in and slowly moved towards an island. I’ve never crossed the river this way! The current in the river was strong, but that didn’t seem to bother the elephant at all. All the elephants grumbled at some point, and it was so loud and long that we first thought it was the sound of a motorboat passing by.
On the island, our mahout jumped off with our cameras to take photos for us, as did all the mahouts. The elephants seemed to know the path to go, even without its mahouts on its necks. The world looked different from so high up. Sitting on the elephant (either neck or back), we only saw its hairy head in front of us. But once in a while I would look around and see the other tourists on other elephants, and it reminded me that I must have looked just like them!
All the elephants eventually made their way back to the camp. We rewarded our elephant after the ride with a bunch of bananas, which she gladly took with her trunk, faster than I could split each individual one off!
Visiting a Baby Elephant
In May of 2013, one of the female elephants in the camp gave birth to her first child, a baby male elephant! His name was Maxi, short for Maximum Gigantus. Sequestered in a camp on the other side of the river, we went to pay both mommy and baby a visit.
Little Maxi was the cutest thing. He was absolutely adorable. Everybody loved him. He was one-eighth the size of his mom, but still weighed 200kg (440 lbs)! Maxi looked small, but he was really strong already. I’m sure he could tackle any of us to the ground. That’s partly why he and his mommy were surrounded by a wooden enclosure.
Maxi has been a naughty little baby elephant. He used to be allowed to roam free with visitors, but he did bad things like kicking, tackling, or taking the belongings of his visitors. I got a small taste of this when Maxi tried to pull on the strap of my bag through the enclosure. Maxi’s mom was also unhappy having so many strangers around her baby son, that the enclosure made things better for everyone. They were only there for a few hours of the day, during which time they were constantly fed. Before coming to the enclosure in the morning they took a bath, and after the few hours they get to roam free in the jungle, so I don’t think they felt trapped at all.
Maxi and his mom received so much love and attention from every visitor. No one could get over just how cute Maxi was. Showered with trunk pets, bananas, and tons of photos, Maxi and his mom were definitely the most popular elephants in the entire camp. It was hard to say goodbye.
Bathing an Elephant
After a buffet lunch with river views, we prepared to give the elephants baths! This time we each got our own elephant to bathe. My elephant was much bigger this time around than the training elephant in the beginning of the day, but she sat down for me so that I could climb onto her neck more easily.
I was pretty nervous about the ride down to the river because it felt really steep sitting in the howdah during the previous ride. When you’re sitting on the elephant’s neck, there really isn’t anything to hold on to. Besides putting your knees against the back of their ears and your hands on their head, there isn’t much else you can attach yourself to besides keeping balance with the elephant’s movements. I was scared of losing my balance while the elephant walked downhill and falling forward to my death. Fortunately everything worked out fine. Besides a few moments when the elephant turned its head a bit quickly, I managed to stay on.
The bath itself was so much fun. Even though it was more of a water playground than a cleaning session, I did scrub the elephant’s head, sides, and back. The mahout occasionally instructed my elephant to inhale water into its trunk and then spray it on its back, getting me all wet, which was really fun.
Some elephants were more wild than others. Carlos bathed a gentle one that sat calmly, while another tourist looked like he was in the rodeo as the elephant bucked him and slapped the water. Regardless, everybody and their respective elephants had a great time cleaning and playing together. Elephants love being in the water so I’m glad we got to share in their fun time of the day.
Tad Sae Waterfall
Our day finished with a visit to the beautiful Tad Sae Waterfall. It was a relaxing end to the day, starting with the boat ride to the waterfall. The river was so still, like a mirror. There was nothing around except jungle and the breeze. It reminded me of scenes from our two-day slow boat.
When we got to the waterfall, we understood why it was a big deal. In the middle of the jungle appeared a wide waterfall of many levels. We’re both used to seeing tall waterfalls with one long drop to the bottom. Tad Sae Waterfall was like a carpet of water cascading over endless levels of rocks. All the rocks have been smoothed into round humps over the years. The water was a clear, light turquoise, reminding me of Lake Louise.
Some parts of the waterfall would level off into a shallow pool, perfect for a dip. The water was a bit cold, and the falls were stronger than I anticipated, but it was a very beautiful swim. While Tad Sae was a smaller version of Kuang Si Waterfall, it was the first one we visited.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day. Our mahout training was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we will never, ever forget. Bye elephants!
For more pictures of our elephant adventures, please visit the gallery!