Elephant trekking in Laos

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First published 28th December, 2008

Elephants are the quintessential poster child for tourism in Southeast Asia. If you've opened a guidebook or two, you know that the gentle giants figure prominently in the tourist scene and are featured attractions in almost every corner of the region. For most of us, a generic ride atop one of the massive mammals isn't quite what we're looking for in terms of making meaningful memories. Fortunately, there are a host of other options that promise a closer look into the lives of the peaceful pachyderms -- but do they deliver?

When I saw the description for Elephant Mahout Camp, I was hooked -- no pun intended (though they do use the tool and that wasn't my favourite part). But I was hooked. And I'm not an elephant person. I'm not not an elephant person, but I've never had more than a passing interest in the creatures. True, I've always loved animals -- I was the kid that wanted to be a vet and convinced her mom to take in enough stray pets to create a buzz in the neighbourhood, but usually my preoccupation centred on the furry and cuddly domesticated kind that could be found in my hometown of Los Angeles. But one small paragraph changed all that and instantly I felt the sting of my 29 elephantless years. Do I want to learn the secret language of the elephants? Do I want to experience their jungle habitat firsthand? Do I want to be part of their sacred bathing rituals? Yes! Yes! And yes!

Elephant trekking out of Luang Prabang

There were a number of companies that seemingly offered the same package with slight fluctuations in price. Because I'd elevated my Stay Another Day guide to biblical proportions, I took their recommendations as gospel. It endorsed the work of Tiger Trail's Elephant Village, outlined how fees are spent, and explained what the organisation does to cultivate this as a sustainable form of tourism. Perfect -- an altruistic travel opportunity!

Despite my convictions, I hemmed and hawed about signing up. First, it was expensive. At over US$100 a pop, its price tag alone was enough to deter backpacker-me. That was a 5-day budget! That was a really luxurious hotel room! That was 22 Thai massages! Second, I was closing in on the end of my time in Luang Prabang -- the end of my time in Laos -- and I wasn't sure I wanted to spend my last two days roughing it with the elephants. In the end though, the promise of secret animal language proved too tempting and I fell asleep that night poorer with visions of Dr. Doolittle dancing in my head.

The morning of, I woke up before the alarm -- and it was early! So not me. Got to Tiger Trail right on time -- also not me -- and waited... And waited some more… I could have been to Joma and back with some much-needed caffeine! I was beginning to have my doubts -- I'm sacrificing coffee! Bagel sandwiches! Finally we set off. About an hour later, we arrived and were shown to our rooms -- very plush. I'd expected glorified camping facilities, though I must add that they were not completely wildlife-free… more on that later.

Our guide, "Ear," and a small boat would transport us from "civilization" to the much-anticipated elephant fantasyland. Over the course of the short journey, Ear explained that the relationship between elephant and mahout is cultivated over many years and that some assign it greater importance than that between husband and wife. After all, he explained with a grin, "elephant and mahout spend more time together."

Our boat pulled up to shore and a short walk through tall grasses and up a steep hill led us to the camp. The previous group was finishing up and returned the six elephants to their assigned spaces, chained to trees. I shrugged off the first of several uncomfortable inklings that my money was funding an elephant amusement factory and eagerly awaited the first event of our extravaganza: the generic elephant ride.

It wasn't as mundane as I'd expected. Climbing onto the back of a mammal weighing in at approximately 4,000 kilograms and reaching over three meters in height feels anything but normal. Two-to-an-elephant, we sat perched atop their massive backs on special benches that lifted us even further into the jungle sky. As we set off, my Los Angeles-bred mind couldn't help but compare the experience to that of driving an SUV… and it dawned on me, that for centuries, that is what the elephant has been for the jungle -- nature's SUV. Petrol free! Though they do eat close to 200 kilograms of plant matter per day. Ours pulled a small tree from the ground to snack on without so much as a pause.

On the way back up to camp, I was invited to ride bareback on the elephant's neck -- a task that proved harder than it looked. Not only did it require an intense amount of thigh strength that I wasn't sure I had, I was also dodging trunk spray and occasional unruly foliage. I'm not always as aligned with nature as I fancy myself to be. That afternoon, each of us would guide one elephant back into the depths of the jungle where they are left to roam and eat until morning. Each had a length of chain draped around its neck that lent an ominous jingle to the slow and rhythmic rocking of the ride. This time we were all straddling necks, the elephant's real mahout comfortably balanced on backs behind us, barking orders and poking when necessary.

By this point, we'd learned about 4 words in "elephant" -- go, stop, left, and right -- and I'd used exactly none of them. While it was reassuring to have the mahout directing right behind me, I had looked forward to communicating with my elephant, Mae Kham. I wasn't sure what I wanted to tell her, but go, stop, left, right -- even if I had gotten the opportunity to use them -- weren't exactly the words I'd had in mind.

So I've neglected to mention the worrier in me. Despite all rational thought to the contrary, I was convinced that during my trip through Southeast Asia, I would end up a statistic sombrely referenced in any future write-up of whichever exotic location finally claimed me. This excursion was no exception. Throughout, I was pretty sure that this was it: I was going to die on (or falling off of, or being trampled by) an elephant. So I was not the best candidate for any unplanned diversions.

Elephant trekking out of Luang Prabang

Halfway through our ride into the jungle, my elephant took off into what felt like a sprint, though I'm sure it was more of a jog. My mahout yelled at Mae -- Stop! Stop! -- as she charged out of the elephant line and away from the herd. I was absolutely terrified and was sure we were headed deep into the wild where we would inevitably get lost and then eaten by tigers. But before my imagination could slip too far, Mae promptly changed course and jumped back in line, a few elephants ahead. My mahout was in hysterics behind me. I tried to laugh it off as my racing heart caught its breath.

The mahouts took over for the final leg, leaving us with our guides to trek back to the boat. The elephants would be chained to ensure they stay within camp boundaries, and though I understood it, I didn't like the idea of their wandering constrained. Ear explained that unless the chains are used, the elephants could fall into abusive hands. And when it came down to it, I liked that a lot less.

I settled into bed that night worn out and anticipating the morning when we'd get to bathe the elephants. I decided to get a bit of work done in bed before lights out. That was when I noticed that the wildlife situation had gotten out of hand. While the rustic beauty of the rooms was charming, the rustic construction was less so. There were dozens of portals though which insects and bugs of all sorts could scurry in and stay for the night. Very little work got done as I swatted moths and eluded flying beetles. Eventually I had to cry uncle and turn out the lights that were calling to them. Once the bugs settled down and stopped ricocheting off the mosquito net, I was able to drift off and enjoy the quietude of the country.

Early the next morning we set off to retrieve our elephants. We rode them down to the river and glided into the murky water for their morning bath. At this final stop, we really caught a glimpse of their playful side as they sprayed themselves, each other, and us with water. We scrubbed their rough skin with brushes that scraped off the caked on mud and dirt. Of all our interactions, somehow this felt the most authentic, and I finally experienced the closeness and connectedness to nature that I had been after all along. As I brushed Mae's ears, her head, her back, I felt the vulnerability of us both in this relatively safe encounter. Here was this tremendous animal -- so gentle -- and relatively tiny me, representing a force somehow more powerful. I realized that even if I didn't get the in-depth mahout understanding I was hoping for, I was contributing toward her well-being -- directly, by bathing her, and indirectly through my 22 sacrificed Thai massages. My donated time and money would help ensure she isn't brutally enslaved like so many other elephants in the Southeast Asian jungle.

Then all too soon, bath time was over. We rode them back to their posts, fed them some bananas, and said our goodbyes just as the next group came up to the camp. The rest of that day, we had the option to trek or canoe. Our group chose the former and journeyed on foot through a couple of indigenous villages. While the experience was a powerful one, it too had the feeling of spectatorship as we peeked into schoolhouses and rundown abodes.

All in all, I reflect on the experience as a positive one. The only caveat lies in the voyeuristic quality that seemed laced throughout the two days. But isn't that the case all over? It is the travellers' dilemma -- how do you get an authentic look at something when it often is your presence that compromises its authenticity? At the very least, I can look back knowing that my dollars are helping create a sustainable kind of tourism. And I got to bathe an elephant. That's pretty cool.

Elephant trekking out of Luang Prabang

About the author
For Travelfish, Charly Paap has found the best pizza in Nakhon Ratchasima, sampled sunsets in Vientiane, washed elephants in Luang Prabang and shrugged off dodgy motodops in Sihanoukville. She's currently writing freelance in LA, but we eagerly await her return to Asia.

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Read 10 comment(s)

  • Charly, I had a similar experience in Thailand. Yes, the 'engagement' in water makes the 'journey' so special.

    My understanding is that the Thailand water-borne elephant 'experience' can only be had at/from the town of Pai (near Chiang Mai).

    There are several operators, with the most advertised offering less than the competitors. And, the price there is a fifth of yours.


    Posted by Dr Bruce Moon (TF user - brucemoon) on 3rd January, 2009

  • In Pai they have elephant treks and water sports with the elephants. Women love it, elphants love it. Men won't admit to having anything to do with it.
    I did the treks with elephants and did enjoy it. The mahouts beat the hell out of the elephants with a switch. I tried to set the mahout up with my exwife it could have been benificial for both.

    Posted by Daniel Kallick on 5th October, 2009

  • Charly,

    I must say I enjoyed reading your article about the elephant trekking...it was informative, well written and very amusing. Am considering a similar experience just concerned as you were about the ethics involved.

    Shame about the comment from Daniel re his ex wife. Odd point to make I thought. Hope you are "healing" dear boy

    Posted by Anne Sommerfield on 24th January, 2010

  • maybe Mr Kallick should consider not traveling so much when he has NEVER paid a dime in child support, as he is a dead-beat dad.
    It is by the grace of God that he hasn't been thrown in jail for failure to pay LCS. I know this, for I help take care of the son he abandoned. loser.

    Posted by tim on 20th February, 2010

  • I love your story. It's such an engaging read. I have always been fascinated with elephants and eversince I saw a documentary on mahouts, I've wanted to know what it was like to be one. Thanks for letting us know what it's like--even for just two days.

    Posted by Mabel on 21st July, 2010

  • I'm sure elephants have better things to do than you making them give them rides all day long. Whats wrong with you people. It's elephant slavery.

    Posted by ying on 3rd December, 2010

  • I went to Khao Kheow Open Zoo for the elephant ride...we went in to the jungle which was hilly for at leaast 30 min....it was exciting ...

    i go the tour information from the www.journeytothejungle.com website

    Posted by Hari Dass Kumar on 28th January, 2011

  • We did the "Elephant Explore" Tour last May 2010 and visited the Elephant Village in Luang Prabang and it was a great outdoor experience. This was easily the most expensive activity on our itinerary but it was worth it. We even purchased souvenir T-shirts to support the cause of saving the elephants.

    Posted by Frankie Tubiera, Jr. on 8th December, 2011

  • Hiya. Charley (and Travelfish), your trip sounds great, but you've missed a big part of the story.

    Just wanted to let you guys know that I recently found out that any kind of elephant riding is encouraging a cycle of animal abuse. A long-time tradition in the Thai culture, the Phajaan, or "The Crush" is the training method elephants undergo to become a part of the tourism industry. Not going to detail it here, but apparently any elephant who lets a human on its back has gone through this process.

    It amounts to brutal torture.

    Most people who ride elephants are animal lovers and have no idea about this process...which is why I'm leaving a comment so hopefully more people will become aware. I'm not some crazy hippie activist, I'm just someone who thinks needless suffering should be stopped. I actually rode an elephant myself when i was really young. When I told my mom about how elephants are "tamed", she didn't even believe me at first.

    You can google it, or here's a National Geographic article about it: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/10/1016_021016_phajaan_2.html

    Please, if you love animals, don't ride elephants and don't support this industry.

    Posted by Alex on 23rd September, 2014

  • I completely agree with the above comment by Alex.
    Yesterday I went to the Elephant Nature Park (www.saveelephant.org), north of Chiang Mai, an elephant sanctuary. We were shown a film of the phajaan - most distressing. I managed to find this (thank goodness for the internet) which I'm sure will put people off riding/trekking/elephant tricks http://phajaan.webs.com/
    Why not just go and see these dignified characters behaving as nature intended?

    Posted by charles on 26th November, 2014

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