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Riding the River: Elephants & Slow Boats in Laos

Our van slipped and slid across the deep, red mud of the road as we wound our way along the Nam Song River toward the Elephant Village outside of Luang Prabang, Laos.  The flattened dirt roadway, still under construction, is part of a multi-year project to improve the greatly lacking infrastructure outside of town.

We eventually turned from the unfinished roadway to arrive at a seemingly boutique, thatched-hut camp plastered with plaques detailing the plight of the elephant in Laos.  Once dubbed the ‘Land of a Thousand Elephants’, Laos is currently home to only 1,600 of the mammoth creatures, 560 of which are working under harsh conditions in the logging industry, many forced to move heavy timber down from the steep mountains for transport.  The Elephant Village, home to 9 elephants, buys older female elephants before they’re abandoned and left to die or simply killed.

This was our big splurge.  After reading reviews touting how well the elephants are treated, we paid nearly $100.00 US each, outrageous by all Laotian standards, for a day-long Mahout experience. We sipped our welcome drinks, distracted by the excitement of what was to come, while lounging beneath a beautiful thatched roof cabana overlooking the chocolate-colored Nam Song River.  We simply couldn’t contain our excitement.

The massive and graceful yet brutally powerful animals were within sight, working with other visitors who arrived shortly before us.  After what seemed like an eternity, we were called to the training area to begin our mahout experience (mahout is the name given to Laos elephant trainers).   We watched the ginormous creatures lumber toward us as our guide plainly laid out the command words we must know.  “What’s stop?” the tiny, overly-energentic guide named Joy questions.  “Uhhhhhh,” is the only sound that left my mouth as my focus was not on our training lesson but rather on the magnificent creature drawing near.  Again, he reviewed the terms, and again all I garner from his repetition is ‘Pai’ means go and ‘How’ means stop.  I also zeroed in on how to approach the elephant – always from the right as many of the animals are trained to attack those who come toward it from the left.

Frozen and overwhelmed by the bizarre beauty of the animal in front of me, I couldn’t move.  I was called as the first to test my new-found knowledge of elephant riding, but something stopped me in my tracks.  I dug deep to overcome the sudden fear inside and moved toward the elephant.  Suddenly, my anxiety disappeared and I somehow drew from the lesson I ignored as I reached my right hand high above the elephant’s eye and grasped its strong, thick ear.

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First Attempt at Elephant Riding

As I did the elephant raised its massive, thick leg – the circumference easily that of both my legs combined.  It was exhilirating.  The old girl created a perfect step, and I lifted my leg to place my bare foot upon her leg, hoisting myself upward toward her neck only to fall short.  I desperately clung to her side, my arms feeling as though they were nearly disconnected from their sockets.  With all my strength, and a boost from the small, constantly-chattering guide, I pulled myself onto the elephant’s thick neck and tucked my knees behind her strangely soft ears.  “Tell it to go,” demanded the mahout already on its back.  I blanked.  I was so overwhelmed by excitement at the thought of sitting freely on the mammoth creature I could hardly bring my mind to focus on anything else.  “Pai,” he shouted as the giant began to lumber forward.  With each step I shifted from side to side grasping tightly with my legs, my hand firmly planted in her sporadic yet thick, coarse hair growing atop her head.

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Elephant Village, Laos

“What’s left,” the mahout asked as we approached the thick jungle ahead.  “I don’t know,” I mustered still flustered with excitement.  Knowing what to do without being told the elephant hung a left and headed back toward where we began.  The initial training ride couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, but it felt like an eternity.  Dan climbed on the animal next with the air of a true pro and an honorable student and started shouting commands.

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Nam Song River, Laos

It wasn’t long after our training session that we found ourselves in a lengthy, narrow, wooden boat crossing the muddy river to meet a new group of elephants for a ride through the thick jungle.  We waited patiently in a thatched-roof, bamboo tower as our elephant lumbered to us.  I slid onto her thick neck while Dan took a seat atop a bench strapped high upon her back.  Rain began to gently fall as we made our way along a narrow dirt pathway, our elephant stopping every few feet to wrap her thick trunk around shoots of green leaves to pull them toward her mouth.  Our mahout walked through the jungle alongside us and pulled giant teak leaves from the trees folding them into makeshift hats secured together with a stick.  The traditional Laos farmer hats made us look like ridiculous reincarnations of Peter Pan sans tiny, green tights, but they did the trick to keep the soft rain off our heads.

I dropped the camera down into the open hands of our mahout who wandered alongside us voraciously snapping photos as we meandered through the thick, green growth of the jungle – our elephant stopping periodically to pull the vibrant green leaves from nearby trees and shrubs into her mouth tucked beneath the powerful trunk.

We eventually slid from the elephant’s back into the same raised tree-top tower we launched from, and climbed back into our narrow, wooden boat.  This time the boat labored against the current to carry us upstream for a dip in the shockingly cold yet beautiful, crystal waters of the Tad Sae Waterfalls.

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Tad Sae Waterfalls, Laos

The water rushed atop foot as we carefully made our way across the smooth stone that served as the launching point for each waterfall.  Clinging tightly to nothing more than a rope dangling from a nearby tree, we each flung ourselves from the rock and plunged into the fast moving waters below.

Already wet and still clad in our bathing suits we returned to camp for our final duty – bathing our elephants before they’re released for a little rest.  I once again tugged the elephants ear, placed my foot firmly upon her leg and without grace pulled myself to her neck.

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Headed to the River for a Bath

“Pai,” I shouted as my elephant began to follow Dan’s to the river.  The rainy season had turned the somewhat steep path to the raging, muddy river into a treacherous downward slide.  The elephants took their time, each methodically searching out the safest spot to place their foot, and weight, without losing control.  The manner in which they sought out a strong footing and executed each move with a sort of grace only an animal of its stature could exhibit was simply astounding.

I can’t say I wasn’t scared as the giant mammal plunged into the river.  “Brush,” the mahout perched behind me demanded as he handed me a thick bristled brush.  I dipped the brush into the dirty water and began to methodically scrub the elephant’s head, ears and side.  Let’s be honest, the bathing ritual was truly less about cleaning the animals and more about the amazing experience, but attempted to fulfill my duties by at least giving her a good scrub down.

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Bath Time in The Elephant Village

With one hand firmly planted atop her head and the other dipping the brush into the water, my elephant slowly lowered her head and body into the water leaving me scrambling to hold on and fearing I may be washed from her back.  A squeal, unlike any other ever to leave my mouth, rushed out.  “What is going on,” I asked as I looked back at my mahout for help.  He simply smiled.  After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was no more than a solid minute, my elephant resurfaced pushing my body up out of the water.  I picked up my brush to continue scrubbing but not before she sank back into the chilly, rushing waters of the Nam Song River again.

The elephants nearby, including Dan’s, were busy raising their thick trunks into the air and spraying their riders or each other in an effort to play.  Unfortunately, my partner was busy lounging below water’s surface to participate in any games.  As the elephant pulled her head from the water yet again, my mahout helped me to my feet.  I couldn’t believe it – there in the muddy waters of the river, I was perched precariously on my elephants back balancing as if I was a member of the circus.

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Circus Act

The elephants eventually ascended from the river and back to camp just as gracefully as they had descended into the cool waters.  I slid off one final time and watched the mammoth creature slowly make her way back into the jungle, amazed by her power, her adaptability and her willingness to work beneath the orders of human handlers.

The next day the bothersome buzzing of the alarm pulled us from bed well before dawn.  We wiped the sleep from our eyes and only half awake wandered the beautiful tree-line streets of Luang Prabang toward the center of town.  We, like dozens of other tourists, had come watch the daily morning ritual of the giving of the alms.

Each morning as the sun begins to turn the sky a dusty red dozens of orange-robe clad monks line the streets marching through in a peaceful procession as they gather rice and other food from locals and tourists alike.  Most locals scoop portions of sticky rice into their outstretched alms bowls before pausing to pray with the monks who in turn bless those lining the street.  It’s a scene unlike any other.  Unfortunately, pushy tourists have become a big problem, and while they may be well-intentioned, they can actually disrupt the ceremony when trying to participate.

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Alms Giving, Luang Prabang, Laos

We opted not to give, not because we didn’t want to open our hearts and wallets for the young monks collecting food for their daily meal, but because frankly it just didn’t feel right.  Something about it felt fake, and as I watched a group of tourists happily snapping photos of themselves with a tripod and a timer while they heaped portions of sticky rice into the bowls of waiting monks – I knew the decision we made was the right one for us.

Still, it was exhilarating.  We walked through the deserted streets of downtown past shuttered shops and trash left behind from the night market the evening before.  But, something led me to believe we missed it.  The dozens of men in orange robes roaming were no where to be found.  We pushed forward farther into the old part of town, the french-influenced buildings still abandoned and awaiting a shop keep to open their old wooden doors.

“There they are,” I whispered excitedly as a group of monks hurriedly crossed the street.  “Follow ’em!”  We set off across the empty street in hot pursuit.  It felt as though as I were in the fields of Oklahoma patiently and quietly awaiting the quail or in the bayous of Louisiana with a line in the water ever so silently waiting for a bite.

We found a small group of locals perched atop straw mats with sticky rice in hand awaiting the arrival of the monks.  Without speaking a word, we stood in awe across the street as a group of young monks made its way toward the locals.  Forming a perfectly straight line, they slowly snaked their way alongside the Laotians who hurriedly scooped small fingerfulls of rice into their sterile metals bowls.

When the last young monk, his orange cloth swallowing his body, made his way through the alms giving line.  The monk paused, praying with those gathered to give.  With one hand stretched into a vertical position against their foreheads the locals poured a thin stream of water into the street as they prayed.

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Watching the ritual of communal giving and the inspiring spirituality unfold before my eyes was something I’ll never forget.  I can’t seem to get past how open and giving the Laotian communities can be.  It’s an example we all should follow.

The sun quickly rose and along with it the mercury.  We packed our bags, stacked them in our laps inside the smallest tuk tuk we’d encountered thus far.  The lawnmower-sized engine labored under the weight as the tuk tuk climbed from the town to a small, bare, cement building sitting atop the deep, muddy waters of the Mekong River.

Upon setting foot in Laos weeks before, we made the somewhat careless decision to exit the country via a two-day cruise in what they call the ‘slow boat’ from Luang Prabang to the Thailand border crossing Hue Xi.  I clung to the old wooden railing lining the thin, hole-laden steps as I made my way down the steep hill side to the waiting boat below.

The old lengthy wooden boat was lined on both sides with ripped, pleather seats ripped from old vans and cars.  With our knees jammed into the seats in front of us and our hips sliding helplessly to the ground as the spring beneath our seats had long ago lost their support.

We knew what we were in for – nine hours of a slow climb upstream each day for two days.  As the boat set out, the excitement quickly faded.  The young monk, no more than 10 years old, seated diagonal from us could only keep us entertained so long.

We gazed upon the beautiful, rolling green mountains that dominated the skyline and provided a stark contrast to the chocolate colors of the muddy Mekong.  For two days we glided gracefully past small villages left behind long ago by the modern world.  The Laotians who live there have little more than the bamboo walls and thatched roofs of their homes, a communal water spigot most often provided by UNICEF and a few articles of clothing.

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Children Watch from the Riverbank

Children, their faces and clothing marred by dirt, played alongside the river or in the hills above.  Young men on small paddle boats skirted the shores of the river checking fishing traps or laying new ones.

We were completely at ease.  With absolutely no where else to be and no one to connect with, we simply relaxed and enjoyed the beauty of the immense mountains swallowing the river ahead.  As the sun fell from the sky and tucked itself behind the peaks, the boat pulled to the river bank in the small town of Pak Bang, Laos.  Nothing more than a stopover for locals and tourists on the slow boat, Pak Bang boasts a handful of restaurants and a dozen more dirty hostels.  Following the advice of a couple we met in Luang Prabang, we pushed through the men and women at the dock, each pointing us toward their hostel, and instead climbed the hillside to a group of bungalows overlooking the water.  At $15.00/night these bungalows were some of the nicest in town.

Restless but ready for day two, the next morning we made our way back to the river and once again sank into the old car seats lining the boat.  Still enamored with the beautiful scenery, I stared out into the open waters and the fields beyond.

Day two led us past more fisherman and children as well as  groups of young monks bathing and brushing their teeth in the dirty waters of the Mekong.  The serene, surreal experience of seemingly floating through another time was the perfect ending to an eye-opening immersion into Laos’ primitive culture.

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Young Monks Bathe in the Mekong River, Laos