Pachyderm Infatuation (K)

Trip Start Jan 05, 2010
Trip End May 06, 2010

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Elephant Village

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, February 8, 2010


          Elephants.  What image flashes through your mind when you hear this word?  Perhaps the African savannah in the late afternoon, amber sunlight bathing the tawny grasses, small trees dotting the landscape.  Perhaps you see a herd on the move, slowly painting the horizon with their gentle wildness.  No?  Well, maybe you see Hannibal's war elephants climbing resolutely through the rugged masjesty of the Alps, a fierce army of man and beast primed for Roman conquest.  Okay, how about cartoon elephants running from mice (a myth) and accidentally sitting on and squashing things in their lumbering enormity (another myth - adults elephants do not like to sit or lay down unless they are in water). Wait, I know.  You see Indian Rajahs riding their jewel bedecked Elephas Maximus, draped in colorful tapestreis and trumpeting their princely arrival.  Perhaps an awkward elephant in a room?  Dumbo hallucinating and hiccuping?  How about Asian elephants working in logging camps?

           This one would never have crossed my mind.  Elephants being poached for their tusks yes, but logging?  There is evidence of elephants being used for work in Asia dating back two thousand years.  In Laos, they have been used since the 1850's.  The current situation is this: Some elephants in logging camps lead lives no worse off than a human who grows old early from a lifetime of hard physical labor.  However, many logging elephants are abused - given amphetamines to work longer hours, beaten and malnourished until their use has worn out.  Then they are left in the jungle to starve to death because they never learned to forage.

         Fortunately, clever humans motivated by genuine love and/or profit have realized that elephants loom large in the imagination of Westerners.  They have creatied an entire tourist industry around the elephants, giving them the chance to be employed for something less harsh and demanding - like giving rides to tourists (my weight on an elephants back is similar in ratio of me carrying my wallet or small purse).   Though controversial for many reasons, this concept might be what actually saves the Elephant from imminent extinction.  It is estimated that in 50 years, there will be no more elephants in the wild.  These captive elephants, drawing mindful ecotourism, can serve as a genetic resource if and when the time comes where us humans get our act togehter and preserve the kind of acreage that megafauna like Elephants need.  There are between 41,410 and 52,345  Asian elephants left in the wild (ICUN 2008).   They are classified as an endangered species. 

    The first elephant I rode was blind.  I sat upon a bench secured to her back.  I looked down to the ground.  It looked like a long way to fall.  Tim and I looked at each other then and our eyes seemed to say "ummm, are we really riding an elephant?" And then we were moving at a decent clip, experiencing a jarring side to side motion as Mae Boun Nam, the 49 year-old blind elephant expertly felt the terrain with her trunk. 

         Her trunk stunned me to awed silence.  I was not prepared for the way my breath caught in my throat as I watched the elephants use their trunks like a bionic hand that could do anything. With her dextrous trunk animated by approximately 100,000 muscle units, she was seeking, probing for obstructions on the narrow, steep trail.  Elephants can grip small objects like a single stick of sugar cane with the tip of their trunk and roll it into the perpectual smile of their mouths.  They can curl up their trunks to hold massive bunched of banannas, separating the bunches with suprisingly fine motor coordination. Their trunk is actually a fusion between the nose and upper lip,  They use their trunks to breathe through, smell with, to pick up water to drink (the trunk can hold 8.5 litres), to pick leaves and fruit and to cover themselves with mud, water or dust.  

        The attribute I came to love the most was the way they use their trunk to communicate with each other, via touch, smell and the production of sound.  When they trumpet, the whole world stops.  The sound rumbles along the ground, a vibration like a tiny earthquake.  While watching them interact with each other, I desperatey wished that my ears were capable of hearing infrasound, the method of communtication they use most often with eachother.  We saw two elephants get angry with each other earlier in the day.  Later on, when they saw each other across the river they trumpeted loudly at each other in a tone that sounded extremely annoyed.  It reminded me of two New York City cab drivers shouting at eachother across a road: "Hey screw you buddy for taking my sugar cane!"

        As we crossed  the river our guide encouraged us to begin learning how to ride on the elephant's neck/head. We were doing a training course to be a "Mahout"  - an elephant keeper.  To become a real Mahout you must train for months.  If the elephant has never had a keeper before it takes 2-3 years to train them.  Many elephants have Mahouts that stay with them for their entire lives.  It has been reported that elephants never forget their bond wth a Mahout and display extreme "emotions" if their Mahout dies or leaves them.  As I watched everyones face light up during this elephant ride, I began to realize  more and more what it is about the elephant that compels us. 

     People really love to ride elephants.  Its true.  And not just wild nature lovers (crunchy granolas?) like me.  I'm talking rich business men, jocks, divorced soccer moms, 18 year-old beer-drinking travellers etc.  We all want to ride elephants, bathe them and feed them.  We long to interact with them, these unfathomable creatures who look so different from us but are in fact so similar.  Elephants live in familes like us, live to a similar age as us, reach sexiual maturity around the same time as us, have babies that require an enormous amount to parental investment like us and mourn their dead like us.  And like us, when their family systems break down, their young males form violent gangs that leave pain and chaos in their wake.  

   As I was deep in reverie, some part of me was aware of the many sensations combining to create a whole body expereince.  There was my bare feet against the elephant's skin, skin so warm, alive and leathery and unlike anything I have ever felt before.  I could feel the musculature of her shoulder blades keenly underneath me and my body instinctually rocked side to side wth her predictable gait.  There was the constant movement of her ears against my knees - expressive and functional.  And there was personality as well.  The elephant that I had to train on for the next two days was younger and more willing to listen.  Her name is Mae Auk. I fell in love with her the way a teenager falls -  fast and obsessively.  I learned to communicate with her and give her directions as we rode to her home in the jungle.  There I left her to forage for the night while I slept fitfully in a lodge room, dreaming of ears flapping against my knees and my bare feet fitting so perfectly into folds of warm, dry skin. 

     Morning came and I quickly got ready to pick up my new love from her sleeping area.  My whole body smiled when I saw her again and I tried to tell her how happy she made me in broken Laoatian.  After about an hour, Tim and I took our elephants to the water to swim and bathe.  My elephant loved to dunk underwater and did not deem it neccesary to warn me when she submerged.  I had a hard time trying to climb back on her neck from the water.  Her real Mahout shouted commands at her that I am sure were meant to make it incredibly difficult for me to stay on her and scrub her with soap for her bath.  It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.  For many hours on the last day I stood with my head against her forehead and trunk trying to memorize every detail of being with her.  I gave her treats and touched her face and felt the strangeness of her ears between my fingers.  I did not want to leave. 

     I reluctantly said my goodbyes and left Elephant Village. This place is a good place. It was founded in 2003 by a German fellow who fell in love with this lush jungle valley in the shadow of the Nambo mountain range.  According to legend, this exact site was once home to a settlement called Ban Xieng (which means elephant village).  In the late 1800's elephants were caught, domesticated and trained in this town for entry into the Luang Phabang Royal Procession.  Now they are making a living giving tourists like me perma-grins that I can access at will for the rest of my life. 
      I agonized over the decision to ride an elephant. Is it ethical?  Does it promote harmful tourism?  Does it hurt the elephants?  Are they miserable? I researched for many hours, looking at all sides of the controversy and eventually came to the conclusion that I had to see for myself.  What I saw was a place with only nine elephants who have a personal veteranarian on staff at all times, that only have to "work" 1-4 hours per day to earn their keep.  The rest of the time they are in the jungle, eating and sleeping and pulling trees right out of the ground with their powerful trunks for fun (to eat grubs and yummy roots as well I'm sure).  I found a place that I would say is authentic and mindful communtiy-based eco-tourism. The surrounding villages are kept busy growing the massive quatities of food that the elephants require (170-200 kilos per day) and the Mahouts are young men from the near-by villages that are  happy and proud to have a job as an elephant keeper.

     However, I am sure that there are many elephant camps that are not like this one.  Laos, the "Land of a Million Elephants" now contains only 1600 elephants.  Five-hundred and sixty of them still work in logging camps.  Like Thailand did in 1990, Laos is getting ready to ban logging.  All 560 elephants will lose their jobs.  Elephant tourism seems like a viable answer to rhe difficult problem of so many unemployed elephants that cannot be released into the wild.  Of course, idealistically elephants would live in the wild and not have to "work" for humans at all.  They would have enough land to follow their instinctual migration patterns and their populations would rise and fall in their own rhythm.  But our world right now is far from being ideal.  Will my grandchildren see elephants in their natural habitat?  I hope so.

    As for me, I am permanently marked by this tremendous experience.  I have found myself over the last week closing my eyes and running my hands along her trunk in my mind, looking at those liquid amber eyes and saying "Khaoi Hauk Jao Li Li Mae Auk" (I love you very much). 

For more information about Elephant Conservation and Ecotourism in Laos and Thailand here are some links:{98900D36-A81E-459E-9B0F-45DE229C3821}

P.S.  I apologize for the lengthy nerdiness of this entry.  Hopefully Tim's entries are painting a more well-rounded picture of what we have been up to for the last couple of weeks.  

Coming soon to a blog near you..... Endangered gibbons!  Anceint Khmer ruins!  Monkeys jumping  my head!   Until next time...

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Siobhan on

WOW!!! That's just incredible. Keep writing. I feel as though I'm right there with you. Lots of Love!!!,

Marian on

Hello Hello~ So nice to see the pictures and hear from you both. Thank you for keeping us informed. I feel so happy that you decided to do this adventure!
I'll just keep sending love and 'good vibes'.

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