Vietnam: I Can’t Believe I’m Riding An Elephant

The last time I rode on the back of an animal, it was a horse and I was in Costa Rica with my then 13-year-old daughter. We were on a mother-daughter vacation and she really wanted to go on a horseback riding expedition. I had already sworn off horseback riding years earlier after a disastrous and terrifying ride on a vacation with Karyn in Belize (horses seem to sense exactly when the person riding them is uncomfortable and afraid–and that would be me), but those of you who are parents know how it is. I was willing to stretch beyond my comfort zone– way beyond my comfort zone–to give Eliza the adventure she wanted. I signed us up for the daylong horseback ride.

We rode our horses up a steep jarring mountainous path with a sheer drop to my left. I hated every moment, but did my best to regulate my breathing and tell myself it would be over soon. Out destination was a waterfall and swimming hole and I love the water, so I kept telling myself there would be something good at the end.

When we finally reaching the swimming hole, I immediately jumped in and swam across, the first one in the water. I love water, am a strong swimmer and feel confident with water sports. On a ledge on the other side, there was a rope you could use to climb up to the waterfall and I began to scramble up it. But I was no longer 25 or 35 or 45. I was over 50 and after I’d climbed ten feet or so, I realized I didn’t have the arm strength to pull myself up any further. Nor did I have the leg strength to push myself up through the pulsing water. I was stuck; I couldn’t go up or down and my hands were slipping on the slimy, slippery rope. I let the inevitable happen; I let gravity take me. I fell ten feet into the water and hit my back on a rock at the bottom. I was stunned and knew I was hurt, not terribly, but I was definitely injured, the wind completely knocked out of me. I kept smiling at Eliza because I was a mother first and an injured person second. I eased my body back onto the ledge and sat there for a few very long minutes, trying to regain my composure. Then I swam back to the shore. I got out of the water and couldn’t stop trembling, but I put on a brave face for my daughter.

Then I had to face that horrible jolting ride back down the mountain while in terrible pain. Thankfully it was near the end of our vacation and I got through the next two days on Advil and painkillers, having to minimize the extent of the bruises and the pain I was in for Eliza’s sake.

That was my last time riding a horse, an animal of any kind.

When Judy and I started planning this trip more than a year ago, she said there was a possibility that we could ride elephants while we were in Laos, and I immediately said yes. Who wouldn’t want to ride an elephant? Elephants were not horses. And of all the activities on the trip, I was most excited about this one.

Today is the second to last day for all of us to be together. Part of our group is heading home the day after tomorrow while the rest of us travel on to Cambodia. And it was our day to finally go to the Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort.

Laos was once known as Lane Xang, the Land of a Million Elephants, but the elephant in Laos is now a profoundly endangered species. Some 1,000 remain, of which a little less than half work in the forest industry harvesting timber. (As a sad aside – in the last 30 years, 80% of Laotian forests have been deforested to sell timber overseas).

These elephants live a life of harsh work and eventual abandonment. Former logging elephants find themselves on the margin of an urban environment with no chance of finding adequate food or water, with no access to veterinary care.

The aim of Elephant Village is to save elephants by providing a safe alternative to the logging industry. Unlike some of the other elephant tourism companies in the area, Elephant Village “provides a sustainable, peaceful and most importantly, permanent home to our elephants to be rehabilitated and live out their lives securely, giving rescued elephants a new home where they are free from abusive work. Elephant Village also provides local villagers a better livelihood, so they can stop their slash and burn tradition.”

I was ready.

We loaded into two vans. Eliza and I had the good fortune to sit next to Phat, the guide sent by Elephant Village to meet us. When he asked where we were from, Eliza talked about Boston and snow and he said all Lao people want to see snow. “Is it soft?” he asked.

When I told Phat I was from California, he immediately started singing The Hotel California with a Lao accent. “Is it real?” he asked. He told us that was the song that got him started playing guitar and synthesizer. He is in a band that plays Lao style rock music, “not as hard as rock music in the United States.” I wished we had time to hear him.

During our half hour ride, we learned that Phat spoke four local dialects, as well as Lao, English, Thai and some French. We learned that there are three main ethnic groups in the area: Hmong, Kamu and Laoloum, and that all the groups intermix, with no one group having more power or influence (like the Viet majority in Vietnam).

Phat is 27 and married. His wife is 23 and they have a son who is “3 years, 2 months old.” Phat says he speaks the Kamu dialect with his son. “My mother taught it to me,” he told us, “so I want to teach it to my son. For me, if I forget my mother tongue it would be like forgetting my mom.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “Many Kamut come to town and lose their language. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

Phat’s wife and son live in a village an hour away. They see each other once a week. This is a family situation we’ve run into repeatedly: families living separately from each other because of work, often in the tourist industry. Phat misses his son very much, but accepts that this is how their lives have to be right now.


Our guide, Phat

As we got closer to the Elephant Village, Phat explained that the elephants there have been rescued; they were domesticated elephants, bred while living with humans, to work. Many were injured. One had stepped on a land mine and had the toes of one foot blown off.

Although they work with tourists now, the 13 elephants at Elephant Village (average age about 40 – middle aged for an elephant) have a much better life than they would as working elephants. They have access to a veterinarian, plenty of food – lots of grass, pineapple leaves, sugar cane and banana – water and good care. They spent their afternoons and nights in the surrounding forest on a tether that allows them to travel 70 meters or 240 feet. Phat said, “We have big land for them.” It’s not like being in the wild, but these were never wild elephants to begin with. And the wild elephant population is shrinking all the time.


My first glimpse at an elephant

All the elephants at Elephant Village are females because they’re gentler and better with tourists. Male elephants are sent to another conservancy down in Southern Laos, and are not used with tourists. The only male on the property is the baby elephant that was born at Elephant Village; his mother was pregnant when she arrived. The baby’s name is Maxi and he is three years old. Phat said when he was a little baby, everyone played with him, but now that he’s gotten older, he’s become “naughty” so he has to be kept in a wooden corral. “Be careful with your camera,” he said, “Or Maxi will think it is food.”

Walking over to visit Maxi was the first part of our visit. Our group fed him endless bananas in his enclosure. At one point someone commented, “How can he eat MORE bananas?”

And Joanne quipped back, “I’m starved. I’ve only had 100 kilos of food today.” Elephants we learned, eat between 200 and 250 kilos of food every day–that’s over 500 pounds of food everyday.

We were all happy that he gets out of that pen in the afternoon and spends the rest of the day and all night at his mother’s side in the forest.

Back at the main camp, I studied the sign that told us how to approach an elephant:

1. Always approach from the elephant’s right side. Some elephants have been trained to attack anyone approaching from their left.

2. Call the elephants name and start to move closer.

3. Remain within their field of vision. Never approach from behind or from directly in front as they will not be able to see you and you might surprise them – a very very bad idea.

4. Pay close attention to the elephant’s behavior and continue approaching only if they appear at ease.

Good signs: constantly flapping ears, swaying trunk and tail, and a relaxed expression. The elephant may stretch out its trunk to investigate your smell or check if you have anything edible.

Bad signs: Elephant ceasing motion or staring intently at you as you approach means that they feel threatened and in extreme cases may attack you. Holding their trunk in their mouth reflects anxiety, and blowing or trumpeting can also be a sign to stay back.

5. Once you have approached the elephant the safest place to stand is next to the right leg.

6. Elephants are gentle, but extremely powerful, and should always be treated with respect. Never tease an elephant!

There were instructions about how to mount or dismount an elephant and then this:

Whether mounting or dismounting always make sure you move quickly, as some of the elephants don’t stay on the ground for long!

Correct seating position:

Sit as far forward on the neck as possible with your legs bent and tucked behind the ears, keeping your weight evenly balanced.

Your knees should be at the top of the ears and your back straight.

Your toes should be behind the ears ready to give instructions.

To begin with you can rest your hands on the elephant’s head for support.

If a chain is present, it should not be used to hold onto as it is not securely attached.

By the time we got back from feeding Maxi and taking pictures with him, it was time for us to ride the elephants, two of us per elephant. I wasn’t nervous. I was excited. I teamed up with Joanne, who sang a song about Canada to our mahout, elephant companion, and he sang a song back in Lao.

For the first part of the ride, down to the river, we rode on a padded wooden bench seat that reminded me of a carousel ride or a ski lift. It even had seat belts which seemed odd to me, but when we started going downhill to the water, I was glad! It was hard not to slide out, but the ride was pleasant. The rhythm of our elephant’s steps was slow and lumbering, steady and comfortable. Our mahout had his knees bent behind our elephant’s ears. He wore flip flops and seemed to be guiding her through slight pressure of his knees, shins and ankles and by making gutteral sounds like, “Aiiiii.”

The next thing we knew, our elephant, Maxi’s mother, Kongngern, was in the river, and we were, too. I saw that on the elephant in front of us, Eliza had climbed down from the seat and changed places with her mahout. She was riding on the neck of the elephant! I motioned to my mahout that I wanted to do that too, and before long, I, too, was riding an elephant, across a rocky sand bar and then back through river and all the way back to camp.

The elephant in front of me trumpeted, pooped the hugest poop I’ve ever seen and urinated, all at the same time. I waited with baited breath for it to finally plop into the river. I remembered that when my mother was a nursery school teacher, she’d take all the little three and four-year-olds to the circus, but she never took them to the circus itself; she’d take them to watch the big top going up. I remember that trip to see the circus come to life in a dusty lot, one of my few memories from that age. What I remember most was awe at the stream of urine that came out of the elephant. And now I was seeing it again, dumping right into the river.

It was a little frightening up there on the neck of the elephant, nothing between me and that giant beast. I leaned forward as much as I could and tried to bend my knees as our mahout had done. I pressed my entire thigh, the whole inside of my leg into the elephant as much as I could, so that there was no space between us. I leaned forward and placed my hands on the top of Kongngern’s head, feeling her powerful muscles rippling beneath my flanks. It was exhilarating. All I could think was, “I’m riding an elephant! I’m riding an elephant!”

The traumatic memory from that horrible horse trip in Costa Rica melted away.

Everyone felt equally exhilarated and many people said that the elephant ride was the highlight of their trip. But our outing wasn’t over. We had lunch (delicious) and a boat ride in a low boat on the Nam Khan River to a waterfall about twenty minutes away.

On the van ride home, I could feel some inevitable sadness arising in the group. Tomorrow is our last day all together and there was a lot of picture taking and reminiscing and promises to stay in touch and share pictures already going on. But it’s not over yet!

In the back of my head, I’m already thinking about coming back. I love Southeast Asia. And I’m so touched by the gentleness of the people of Laos, the most bombed country in the world–most of it by our government–I can’t believe their generosity and warmth.

Right now, I’m heading out in a tuk tuk to check out another possible hotel for a return visit . . . further out of the center of the tourist part of town, situated more in the real city of Luang Prabang. I’ll be sorting out whether the quiet of a different part of town, and living closer to the real life of the locals is worth the trade off in proximity to the river and events that we get staying in this hotel. I guess this means I’m already thinking about a return trip.

More pictures of our visit to the Elephant Village below…turn on your images if they’re not on already. And be sure to read the captions. They’re part of the story:


This is truly a poolside bar. See the underwater stools?


An amazing sign to find the elephant present for a group of writers!


The inevitable.


Surya, ever the naturalist, told us this is a teak tree.




Feeding baby Maxi




Elephant hair


Happy kids


My mahout










I finally found the ideal gift for my grandson who still likes potty jokes and is an aspiring writer – a notebook full of paper made out of elephant dung. Here’s how it’s done:


More on paper making.


The book


Interesting read:


Low boat


Loved this sign


The curtain was made of bamboo strips and blue and white plastic strips.


Another great sign


Sleeping son


Sleeping daughter




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