When travelling through Laos, one of our first stops was the beautiful town of Luang Prabang. I was super excited about stopping here for a number of reasons; the waterfalls, the buffalo burgers, and most importantly, the Elephants. Both Bex and I love Elephants, in fact we're volunterring on an Elephant sanctuary for two weeks at the end of our trip (cannot wait!). You really have to love them to be willing to clean up after them for two weeks in 30 degree heat! I'd been wanting to do some sort of Elephant experience though before then, and was wary about doing so in Thailand given the rather unethical treatment of the Elephants. I'd been told that the treatment was much better in Laos and to go see them there instead. When we got to Luang Prabang, our guide recommended visiting Elephant Village, and we leapt at the opportunity!
We were picked up about 9am and taken about half an hour out of the city and up to a gorgeous little resort. It turns out Elephant Village also has a hotel where you can stay and do a few days with the Elephants. It's probably for the best that we didn't know this beforehand as we would have struggled to resist staying, even with the hefty price. The "village" consisted of a big green courtyard with a feeding station, a small raised wooden deck and a hut with free coffee (which I absolutely took advantage of). There was an Elephant at the feeding station, completely at ease, eating it's way through a pile of sugar cane. As soon as our welcome talk was over I pretty much ran to the Elephant to give it some love and attention. She was so calm and friendly, I couldn't stop beaming!
While we fussed over the Elephant, a member of staff told us about the Elephants they kept there; all female and all rescued. Apparantly females are a lot easier to look after than males! I learnt about how they can communicate through vibrations in the ground, how Asian and African Elephants differ, how they are one of the few animals that appear to be self-aware, how they bond with their children, mourn the loss of fellow elephants, and really feel emotion. As we recieved our talk, the Elephants came back from their morning walk. It was rather impressive to see a line of ten or so Elephants wander through the courtyard! The staff prepared them for riding and we climbed up to the raised deck, ready to board our Elephant.
It was a bit disconcerting to be told to stand on the Elephants back in order to get into the chair. I was so worried I was going to hurt it, which the Mahout (driver) found incredibly amusing as he told me she could handle it. They seem so gentle, you forget how strong they really are! We sat in the little chair at the back and the Mahout sat on the neck and lead our Elephant down to the river. Going down the steep slope to the river was a little terrifying as we felt like we were literally going to be thrown out of the chair, but we survived and the Elephant walked through the river and to a sandbank further ahead.
On the sandbank, our Mahout jumped off and told us we could have a go leading the Elephants by sitting on the neck. It was a pretty scary prospect, given how unstable we felt just in the chair, but we gave it a go! It was an amazing experience! After the awkward climb down to the neck, you realise you have absolutely nothing to hold on to. But it only took a couple of minutes to get used to the movement, and to stop feeling like you're about to slide off sideways. We practiced the commands for "stop" and "go" with mixed results, they could clearly tell we were new to this. When we reached the end of the sandbank, the Mahout jumped back on, but into the chair rather than on the neck and let me continue to steer the Elephant through the river and back to the village! I like to think it's because I was an excellent mahout, and will happily ignore any suggestion that it's something they do it with every tourist!
When we got back to the courtyard they lead the Elephants round to the feeding station where we got to feed them bunches of bananas. We got ridiculously excited by this and ended up buying extra to give to our Elephant. She was so beautiful, we never wanted to leave! But eventually they were led back to the river where they had baths before being taken across to the shelter they live in on the other side. The staff said they never work beyond 1pm, and will only do a maximum of two rides on a morning - just enough to earn the money to keep the rescuse centre running. I was so pleased to see the Elephants were treated decently. We'd heard such horror stories about places in Thailand, but they never once hit them or harmed them or even shouted here. They just spoke to them and walked with them. It was such a wonderful day and made me even more excited to work at the Elephant sanctuary in June! Have you ever worked with Elephants before?