Laos, a small landlocked country in Asia, has historically been called Lane Xang — the Land of a Million Elephants. Sadly, today there are less than 600 elephants left in the wild. Most of the elephants you find in Laos now are domesticated animals, many (rather cruelly) used in the forestry and timber industries.
(This was the flag of the Kingdom of Laos, from 1952-1975.)
Laos has a long tradition of domesticating elephants, and many elephant handlers (mahouts) have begun using the elephants to attract tourists and provide jobs for the local economies.
(Current flag of Laos)
This brings me to one of the most fun things you can do anywhere in Asia: RIDE AN ELEPHANT! There are several places in the country where you can easily ride an elephant without a lot of travel: the Elephant Village Sanctuary near Luang Prabang, for example, is highly rated, and just outside of this UNESCO World Heritage Site city.
Before you go, however, make sure that you check out the places: not all mahouts treat their animals well. Make sure that the place you pick has a good record of caring for their animals: plenty of feeding times, rest times, and bathing times! (You have to see these creatures in a river!)
(Time for a bath!)
Some other questions to ask: do you sit on the elephant’s back, or in a specially-made seat (called a howda) made of rattan, strapped to the animal’s back? (It’s better for the elephant if it doesn’t have to carry you AND a howda.) How many people do they make the elephant carry? Many places put two people in the howda, which is really not good for the elephant. When you add in the mahout, that’s three people for that animal to carry. Do the elephants get a rest between “trips”, or do they just keep on carrying tourists all day? (They need rest and feeding regularly throughout the day.)
We chose to go to the village of Kiet Ngong in the far south of Laos. Also called Ban Kiet Ngong, this is a remote place that is only accessible by four-wheeling over a VERY bumpy, long dirt road. Approximately 50 km south of the town of Pakse, it really is in the “middle of nowhere!”
(View of the village of Kiet Ngong)
But there are several reasons to make the trip. First of all, the scenery is gorgeous. Kiet Ngong has mountains and jungle all around, and a population of less than 500. The village is on the edge of the Xe Pian National Protected Area, 2,400 square kilometers containing a wide range of habitats and species. It’s an especially great place to visit if you like to see (and photograph) birds!
There are many other activities in which you can take part while you’re here. How about a dugout canoe ride through Xe Pian’s wetlands? Or a hike up Phou Asa mountain to visit the local temple ruins (and get a great view of the countryside)? The great thing about Kiet Ngong is that all the activities are organized by the local community, and the money benefits all the villagers.
(One of the sights on the trek up Phou Asa!)
The first thing you learn about elephants is that they are BIG. Yes, you’ve maybe seen one in a zoo, or on TV, but until you’re standing next to one, you have no idea just how massive these creatures are. How about 8-10 feet high and weighing around 6,000 pounds? Trust me, they are big!
The mahout spends most of his life with his elephant. The only time they are separated is at night, when the elephants sleep in the jungle, where they can also forage for food. A good mahout will only use hand and voice to direct the animal: no whips or hooks will be used in a caring environment.
When you get to Kiet Ngong, you check in at the Visitor Information Center. This is where all local activities are organized. They give you a short introduction to elephants, what to expect and so on, and then you meet your mahout. He takes you to the platform that you climb up to board your elephant! (I regret to say that ours had a howda and they put two of us on top, but I didn’t know much about elephant riding that first time: I’ve learned a lot since then…..)
The ride itself was amazing! Our elephant took us on a jungle trail to the local river. It was supposed to be just a slow, gentle ride to the river and back. However, OUR elephant turned out to be an extremely competitive lady! (If you’re wondering why I’ve got no pictures of the actual ride, read on!)
(This was a picture I took at the beginning of the ride. These are called stupas, and are erected for deceased family members or as offerings. They’re really cool!)
We were in a line of three elephants, and we were in the middle. After a few hundred yards, our elephant apparently noticed that she was not in the lead, so she decided to take steps to rectify that situation. She started walking faster to catch the elephant ahead of her. THAT elephant noticed what was happening, so she also started walking faster. Our elephant decided to take matters into her own feet, and started RUNNING! I don’t know if you can imagine what it’s like, on the back of a running elephant, trying hold on and laughing at the same time, but I’m here to tell you: it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life!
(Here’s our little racer and our mahout, getting ready for the race!)
The good news? We were all OK AND our elephant won the race! It only lasted a few hundred yards, because once we took over the lead, the other elephant lost interest, and our little lady was allowed to lead the parade for the rest of the trip.
Our mahout told us, when we were taking a break at the river, that our elephant wouldn’t let any other elephant in front of her, and that once in a while she had to reassert her place in the clan. He also told us that she always was aware of the people on her back: she made sure not to run through areas where her riders might get not knocked off, for example. I don’t how true that all was, but one thing I do know: we didn’t fall, and we had aGREAT time! (I could almost swear I caught our elephant smiling at the other elephants when we reached the river!) (Cut up banana plants: the elephants love these!)
This was a fun thing to do. After the ride, we followed the elephants to the feeding area, and we got to help feed them. It was a great experience, being able to handle and get close these beautiful animals. If you can find a place that treats its animals well, this will be a highlight of any trip to Laos!