Elephant Bathing in the Mekong

Luang Prabang, Laos is a magical place. Young monks clad in orange robes saunter along the misty sidwalks, while visitors on bikes amble the streets in search of which wat they’ll tour next.  Though it is touristy and backpackery, it manages to keep its small town charm through its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which places restrictions on development and growth.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

The main strip is chock-full of small operation tour agencies offering day trips to the Tad Se Waterfalls, Pak Ou Caves, and bus cheap fares to Vang Vieng (imagine the debauchery of Apple River tubing multiplied by one thousand – like lots of people die, every year). We spotted many companies offering elephant bathing trips in the Mekong River. Elephant riding was not something high on my list of Southeast Asian activities. I had mixed feelings about the treatment of the elephants, and imagined it would be like riding the camel at the zoo. You know, like you might as well be on a donkey. Having done pretty much everything else in town, we decided to give it a go anyway.

Downtown Luang Prabang

We departed town early in a twelve passenger van, and in true SE Asia style, we packed in at least thirteen. We drove a half hour to the elephant sanctuary, and don’t get me wrong, I use the term sanctuary very loosely.  Along the way we introduced ourselves to our fellow elephant adventurers. Among us was a Canadian taking a sabbatical from her fancy corporate job, a 30 year old Indian/Canadian heir traveling on his wealthy parents’ dime for a few years now, a Dutchman and his girlfriend who took themselves way too seriously (they all do), and an adorable couple from Manchester who loved to party.

We arrived to a farm like setting along side the Mekong river, deep in the Lao jungle. There were a few random guys hanging around the place, messing with the monkey on a leash, and smiling at us suspiciously and/or encouragingly. It one of those travel situations I finds confusing, concerning, and slightly thrilling. One where you can’t help but imagine the headlines in your hometown newspaper. Local man suffers from rare jungle infection after monkey bite, or Wayzata ’99 grad trampled by domesticated elephant while seeking cliché backpacker adventure. The most concerning, but also adorable, element of the situation was the twelve year old boys that not only managed the elephants, but seemed to be running the whole operation. These boys were mahouts, or elephant trainers.

boy mahout with hat

Boy mahout in red

We warily climbed the stairs up to the elephant boarding platform, and each boy brought a saddled elephant along for us to climb aboard. Our young mahout ushered our elephant, Om, to our sides, and offered for one of us to ride directly on its neck. I eagerly agreed. It was like riding bareback on an enormous prickly horse. Joe climbed into the saddle chair, and after the others mounted, we were on our way. The boys walked along, and the elephants followed, guided only by a familiar path, trust in their young mahouts, and a thin string. We ambled along the path as the boys played like young boys do, kicking elephant poop towards each other with mischievous giggles. I pondered how we’d placed our lives in the hands of these powerful creatures being tamed by mere boys.

elephants on path

We returned to the camp where the mahouts removed the saddles, and we were told to change into our bathing suits. I found privacy to change in a dark and inexplicably wet outhouse, and tried to squelch the newspaper headlines quickly forming in my imagination. We once again climbed aboard our elephants, this time no one had the comfort of a saddle.

Waving from the elephant's back

Om and the other elephants followed the young mahouts again out of the camp and toward the river. Did you every trail ride horses? Every ride on one of those paths that had a bit of a steep incline, where you were a little worried the horse might fall ass over head down the hill? Ever have those thoughts on a two ton elephant? The path to the river was steep.

Elephant walking down steep hill

We safely made it to the river, and to our surprise, the elephants marched right in. It was a good thing they did, before I had a chance to decide if I really wanted to swim in the Mekong River. I have a hard time swimming in Leech Lake, where I’m very familiar with the local fauna (leeches). Had I thought about it, I probably would have declined the opportunity to swim in an unfamiliar, cloudy, tropical river speckled with the occasional elephant poop floater. But sometimes adventure finds you right?

elehants on the banks

The elephants dipped their enormous trunks into the river, stretched them over their heads and sprayed us like flies on their backs, Mekong river water soaking us mouth to toes. I really was too excited to care. The boy mahouts giggled with glee. They motioned to the elephants to lumber further into the river, so only the tops of their heads and tails were above the surface. We were in waist deep atop our elephants. I felt like a kid, nothing has thrilled me like that since I was twelve. The seven of us, men and women alike, squealed with excitement. I heard the boys chattering and pointing towards something slithering in the water. We look ahead and saw a snake in the river about twenty feet away. Now, normally I would have panicked, I think we all would have panicked. We didn’t, we just looked at the snake, and decided these twelve year old boys would safely take care of it. They wouldn’t put us in danger, right? I guess I didn’t know the Lao word for poisonous anyway. The snake slithered past us toward the shore where one boy hooked it with a stick and flung it into the bushes.

We quickly turned our attention back to our elephants. Our boy shouted a command at Om who then suddenly twisted his enormous elephant head to the side, bucking J and I into the river. Again, the boys giggled with glee. The other elephants followed suit, and we all found ourselves swimming in the river, desperately and hilariously trying to climb back aboard the enormous beasts before we got bonked in the head with floating elephant poop. Once back on, the boys motioned for us to attempt to stand precariously on the elephants’ backs. Of course we do, because why stop now. Again the newspaper headlines streaming. Local woman drowns in Mekong while pretending to be circus performer. I made it up for a second before Om twisted his head, and again tossed me into the water.

elephant tossing us off

Joe getting tossed off

This all continued until the boys decided it was time to head back to the camp. The looks on all our faces were probably akin the looks on kids’ faces when mom tells them to get out of the bathtub because it’s a school night, and your toes will turn into raisins if you stay in the tub any longer. On our elephants’ backs we ventured back up the hill. There we debarked, smiled at our new found elephant friends, thanked our young guides, and soaking wet, climbed back into the van.

returning to camp

the group

Each of us had traveled enough, and been screwed around with enough in foreign countries to know that despite it’s thrill, this adventures was far from pure. They boys were probably paid little if anything to work long hours on hot days, and the elephants probably shouldn’t carry the weight of two grown adults. The monkey was leashed to a tree. But each of us let that go, just for a while. I saw the joy on the boys’ faces. I watched them drive those elephants with a word, never once laying a violent hand. There was a deep connection there. Wrong or right, we enjoyed ourselves. There are bigger problems in the world.

Have you been to Laos? Have you every stretched your comfort boundaries while traveling? Have you every only realized the danger of a situation in hindsight?

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