Trip Start Jun 25, 2011
85Trip End Dec 24, 2011
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Its half half 9 in the morning when we are picked up by our guide, Lei, for the next 3 days that we are to spend camping in the jungle with an elephant and a mahout (what their human keeper is referred to as). Lei is almost like a Lao jungle savvy chav (he would be a bouncer if he lived in the UK that's for sure), complete with skull tight, peak tipped up baseball cap; by chav we don't mean the new-style US ghetto fabulous chav, we mean the old school reebok-classic wearing 90's chav. We're excited.
We have a private car to take us the 40 minute journey to Elephant Village, aimed as a kind of sanctuary for ex-logging elephants from various parts of Laos, and established about 10yrs ago by a German guy.
On arriving we immediately see 2 elephants kept at the camp to help 'train' tourists how to ride them without a seat strapped to their back; i.e
Nevertheless we are both shoved unceremoniously up onto an elephant with Mahout atop already and go for a little walk around the village's 'yard'. Now, riding an elephant looks quite easy, but we would like to take this opportunity to say THAT IT IS NOT. As you are on its neck, the rise and fall of the moving legs below rock you unpredictably from side to side and although their ears are really tough, it is not instinct to grab them in order to hold on. On top of this you are on top of one of the biggest mammals living and regardless if they mean to or not they could crash you or one of your limbs just by misplacing a step.
There isn't a lot of time to contemplate this however as we are ushered onto a boat for the short journey across to the other side of the Nam Khan in order to meet our very own elephant for the next 3 days and her (all the village elephants are shes) Mahout.
Once across we see some normal sized elephant like that we just road on
We're offered to ride MeiKamKoun to camp, an hours trek away, but both of us are a little startled by her so we say we'll walk behind instead and she can just carry our stuff!
The walk takes us through into the jungle and the clearing we come to an hour later has a hut on stilts, one on the ground for cooking and a squat toilet shack a way away on the other side of the path. Its really something and this is where we will be sleeping and eating for 3 days. Even better is that the site sits right next to a fast running river, upstream from which we can see small rapids.
We have a brilliant Lao lunch of vegetable rice wrapped in banana leaf, before Lei, Bhan and the two guys looking after the site begin putting up our tent. All 4 of them will sleep in a space half the size of this tent. And without a tent. Meanwhile Mei KhamKoun, who is tied to a tree, starts to show some character. And getting quite bored she starts to strip down the bark of the tree she is tied to and eat it, scratch her bum on a branch and finally throw the wooden basket that is acting as a bin, all over the camp with one touch of her trunk
Once the tent is up and the bin cleaned up, it is time to bathe the elephant. This involves us getting on Mei KhamKoun for the first time, and her walking into the water. We both feel like we are going to fall off as she makes her way down some mud into the water. Claire asks Bhan if she can get off. He says no.
Once in the water, Bhan jumps on as well and tells her to lay down (by screaming 'Mep!') when she does we start to throw water over her. It is evident to us by now that Mei KhamKoun has a strong character and does pretty much what she wants until Bhan has screamed loudly enough. So when she starts to get up, quite out of the blue, Jo goes flying off her back into the water. When Jo turns around she is faced with a fucking elephant's face, so she swims for shore.
Jo is helped back on and we finish bathing her. (We are under no illusion, by the way, that the elephant is completely able to bath herself and that this is definitely just done for tourists) She then gets out of the water with us still on her back, and walks for about half an hour into the jungle where we say goodbye while Bhan takes her to wherever it is she sleeps.
Back to the camp and a swim in the river, with its low level waterfalls to act as slides and strong currents to panic in once the fun of the slide is over
Before dinner Lei and Bhan play cards and we drink Lao La. Claire drinks when Bhan loses and Jo does when Lei loses. This is fun at first but then Claire and Jo wonder when it will stop. Aparently when all the Lao Lao is gone. The guys are drunk (quickly I might say!) and get a little bit friendly with arms around our shoulders and at one point, Claire's lap is Lei's pillow. We feel a tad uncomfortable but put it down to the booze. We make an early departure at 8pm and go to sleep in our tent to the pee-inducing sounds of the waterfalls around us.
Breakfast at 8am is continental with eggs, bread, jam and coffee. After a short walk to collect Mei KhamKoun from the jungle, its time to give her another bath. This time we wuss out and tell Bhan we would like her to get in the water before we get on her. She seems a lot happier with this and gets in the water a little easier. This time in the water, Bhan gets her to walk around the pool, (by shouting "pie! pie!") which she seems to enjoy and so do we. She then gets out of the water and instantly covers herself in dust, as she does every time we wash her
We then follow Lei into the jungle and watch him cut banana trees down, peel them to the 'good' bit that the elephant like to eat, and we carry them back to camp. They are quite amazing and smell really nice and look like marble pillars.
Once back at camp they are chopped down to size and we hand them one by one to Mei KhamKoun as she folds them into her mouth and chews. One or two pieces aren't stripped down enough for her liking so she does it herself and throws away the 'wrapper'. Claire also gets on her neck to hand her food from above.
We have another swim and then lunch of rice, fish and vegetables. The men are really sweet and sit around us as we eat, topping up our plates and flicking the ants off of the sticky rice, (which is wrapped in a huge piece of material and heated up each day.) Other people doing 1 or 2 day tours arrive on their elephants for their lunch. There is one couple with two little girls who we get chatting too. They are European but living in China for work, the mother is nice and down to earth as we talk about how lucky the kids are to experience Asia at such a young age. They have a female tour leader who jokes with us about Lei being cheeky and is contemplating doing the three day camping tour as a guide herself.
When the other tourists leave with their elephants it is clear to us that Mei KhamKoun wants to go with them
That afternoon its time to wash her again. As she has every time she gets in the water, Mei KhamKoun releases her bowls and the big straw -like turds bounce around in the water. Lei and Bhan have been drinking Lao Lao all afternoon, so are pretty tipsy. When we are in the water with Mei KhamKoun, Lei thinks it would be hilarious to climb up an over hanging tree, jump off of it and try and push Bhan off of the elephant. Of course, this pisses the elephant off hugely and she stands up with a trumpet, throwing everyone off of her back apart from Claire who is holding onto her neck for dear life. She starts making her way out of the water as Claire looks down to see Bhan, Lei and Jo still in the water trying to catch there breath. Jo just has time to mouth, 'stay calm' to Claire as the elephant takes her for a little walk. Claire manages to get off of the elephant once she has calmed down
That evening the guys run out of Lao Lao and Claire and Jo pretend to be oblivious to the hints that we should buy them some. This means that the rest of the evening is much more chilled and we laugh when they replace Lao Lao with river water. One drinks so much, he retches and runs back for more to prove himself. Boys will be boys. Bhan teaches us more helpful Lao and we go to bed, peeing quickly when we spot a scorpion in the toilet.