While we were in Southeast Asia, one of the experiences that Lee and I really wanted to have was to ride an elephant. I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like to sit atop one of these enormous beasts as it clomps through the jungle. We got to check this travel wish off our lists for the first time during a day trip from Bangkok, but after our initial elephant encounter we weren’t satisfied.
It had only been a 10 minute circular walkabout and the elephant we had ridden on looked so tired and bored that we felt sorry for it. We felt rushed in and out of the place and we really didn’t feel like we had a chance to connect with these beautiful creatures, so we kept an eye out for another possibility for an elephant tour.
A couple months later we were in Laos. I fell in love with peaceful, quiet, tranquil Laos and it’s ability to make me feel like time just didn’t exist. I could have spent longer there, enjoying fresh and simple meals on bamboo terraces overlooking the Mekong and strolling along dirt roads in my flip flops with the hot sun on my back and local children waving and shouting hello to me.
We got lazy in Luang Prabang and ended up staying there for over a week, deciding to extend another night at our guesthouse every morning rather than move on. While we were there, along with enjoying the night market, temples and great food we also took the opportunity to try another elephant encounter.
A Laos Elephant Encounter
We booked our elephant adventure with Phone Travel in Luang Prabang. The experience included a ride with the elephants through the jungle and a chance to swim with them in the Mekong.
As soon as we arrived, we could tell that this elephant encounter would be different than our last. The elephant camp had a much more welcoming atmosphere and the handlers (mahouts) seemed to be truly affectionate toward these creatures. They spoke to them, stroked them and played with them and the elephants looked happier and healthier as a result.
We climbed up into the chair high atop the elephant’s back via a platform and set off into the jungle. Riding an elephant feels somewhat like the gentle swaying back and forth you experience when riding a horse, but it is a much larger exaggerated motion. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not so bad – unless your elephant goes downhill. Or gets spooked.
Which is exactly what happened. One of our guides was riding a baby elephant. (He looked ridiculous, a tall and lanky guy with a huge wide brimmed hat astride this awkward little elephant.) The rest of the elephant party had stopped in a clearing to take photos, when the little one wandered off into the forest. Something must have startled it, because it let out a little trumpeting squeal and started running toward the rest of us. I’ll never forget the image of the bewildered Laos guide with the floppy hat bouncing up and down at full speed on the little elephant, holding on for dear life.
Of course, this set off all of the other adult elephants and they start to panic, trumpeting and getting ready to make a run for it. Helplessly trapped on top of a ten foot tall wild animal, I gripped Lee’s arm in a split second of fear and adrenaline. “This is how we die,” I thought, “trampled to death by a herd of elephants in Laos.”
However, I only panicked for a few seconds because the skilled handlers knew exactly what to do. I don’t know how a handful of young guys calmed down a freaked out herd of elephants so quickly, but soon enough everything was back to normal. I was impressed by the control they had over these enormous creatures.
Going for a Swim
When we got back to the camp, it was time to take the elephants for a bath in the river. This time we got to ride them bareback, feeling their coarse hairs and wrinkly skin beneath our bare legs. Swimming with these big creatures was probably the coolest part of our elephant encounter and an experience that I will always remember.
Playing with elephants in the Mekong was like having huge living rafts to climb on in the water. You could crawl up onto the elephant’s back and ride around on it, but if it chose to go for a dive you were definitely going with it! The female elephant Lee and I were riding preferred me – she would let me sit on her back for as long as I wanted but as soon as Lee tried to climb up – she would shake him off so that he went flying into the cool water!
We were amazed by the way that the young mahouts would leap from the back of one elephant to another. At first we were worried that this would hurt the animals, but then we realized that for a 6,000 pound creature, a 110 pound Laos guy landing on its shoulder would feel like nothing at all. The mahouts were agile and gentle, playing with the elephants as if they were enormous puppies.
After our swim, the elephants lumbered back up to the camp for a much needed break and after posing for a few more photos, we settled down for some lunch. This elephant encounter in Laos was one of my favorite experiences in our entire 10 month Southeast Asia trip and it gave me a deep appreciation for these beautiful and gentle animals and the mahouts that care for them.
Have you ever been on an elephant encounter? Would you like to go? Share your stories with us in the comments.