02.05.2011 - 04.05.2011 28 °C
We were very excited and relieved when we arrived at the ‘All Lao Elephant Camp’ and found such a nice establishment where the care and welfare of the elephants was obviously priority one. We have heard many instances where travellers (especially in Thailand) have had sad encounters in these sorts of camps where the elephants were just used as a performing ‘middle-man’ between the tourist’s wallets and the camp.
The elephants at this camp work around 6-7 hours a day where they take tourists for gentle rides through the surrounding jungle and along the river. Then they are hand washed and taken deep into the jungle where they spend the night (on an ankle chain 50m long – so they don’t wander off!). The elephants seemed happy (especially after the logging life they were used to) and the Mahouts seemed genuine in their care and respect for their 5 tonne friends.
^^ Playing with her food
On the morning of our first day we rode Chocolate for an hour through the jungle on her specially designed seat. During the ride we spotted a large (2 meter), black snake slithering up the hill next to us. When Chocolate’s Mahout spotted the snake he removed our seats safety rail and leapt fearlessly off her neck and sprinted up the hill. A few quick, powerful, well-aimed strikes later and our Mahout had secured dinner for him and his family. Although I had to spend the rest of the ride with a huge black snake curled up next to me.
^^ Chocolate's mahout with his dinner in the bag
After our ride with Chocolate we took a short boat trip across the river to our accommodation for the next two nights. We had a private bungalow with a huge open-air bathroom, very nice!
^^ Our bungalow
^^ On the boat crossing the river to our accommodation
On our way to lunch we were lucky enough to witness a battle between a large spider and a Tarantula Hawk (spider wasp). The wasp was metallic blue with bright orange wings and antennae. The battle was quick and ferocious but with a well-placed strike from the wasp, the spider became paralysed and at the mercy of the flying predator. The next step of her plan was to drag the spider to a prepared nest where an egg would have been laid on the spider’s body. When the larva hatches it will eat its way into the spider’s abdomen and feast. The larva will avoid all the vital organs for as long as possible, in order to keep the spider alive and fresh. Once it has consumed enough it will pupate for a few weeks before tearing out of the spider as an adult wasp. Pretty cool and a real privilege to witness the battle, although I wish I had my camera!!
After lunch we headed back over to the camp classroom where we learnt and practiced the different commands for the elephants. After feeling confident that we could remember the commands (all in Laotian) it was time to test us. We were terrible haha. The elephants responded to us sometimes, but most of the time we were saying it wrong or not firm enough and needed help from the Mahouts (who were following closely on the ground) to stay on track, so much fun though! We were riding them on their necks for the first time and surprisingly for such a large ‘seat’ it required a fair amount of balance – much harder than bare back riding a horse.
We walked our elephants down to the river and gave them a good bath, which was a bit of a magical, intoxicating experience. It is really hard to describe, but being able to be so close to such huge, intelligent, gentle creatures and spend the day with them is really heart-warming, weird I know but I felt a similar feeling when spending all day with the dolphins at Sea World a few years ago… enough of the soppy shit. One of the commands for the elephants when you are in the water is ‘Buon Buon’, the result is a big spray over their backs – right where we were sitting. Kirby’s elephant could do it really well and she was completely drenched with elephant-trunk water. My elephant though never learnt this command properly and instead of spraying water up at me she would just dive down deep to the bottom of the river. Literally I would be sitting on her neck and her Mahout would laugh and say ‘Buon Buon’ at which point she would drag me down with her to the bottom. At one point we were in deeper water and when she dove I put my hands above my head and my outstretched fingers were at least 50cm below the top of the water. A really odd situation, I never imagined I would ever be diving to the bottom of the river on the neck of an elephant in the middle of Laos.
^^ You can see her carrying the 50m chains that will keep her safe in the jungle overnight
^^ Diving down
^^ Completely under water, only her bum sticking up!
After they were adequately clean we walked them into the jungle where they would spend the night. Once again we were the ones commanding them down the tight jungle path. I know that when riding a horse you have to be firm or they will keep pulling off to the side to gobble up a delicious patch of green grass. Well my elephant decided it wanted to veer off the path, and little old me trying as hard as I could, could do nothing about it haha. Literally my elephant pulled down a 5 meter tall tree while I was on her back trying to dodge the falling big branches. That was when I realised how powerful these creatures are; she snapped that tree like a twig and is well capable of lifting over 300kg with her trunk alone!
Our first day here was awesome!
On the second day we retrieved them from the jungle and took them for a bath – they were soooooo dirty, like they had been rolling in the mud all night! We had breakfast and then started our walk along the river to where we would have a picnic lunch with the elephants.
After they enjoyed their lunch of pineapple shrubs (with full pineapples) we just hung out with them and slowly made our way back to the place where we wash them – all the while the Mahouts were following us along the bank, with a fishing line in the water. We gave them a good bath again and they were off to the jungle – another days ‘hard’ work complete .
^^ Listening to her noisy guts
^^ Having lunch
^^ Lunch with the boys
That afternoon we got the boat to drop us 15 minutes upstream and we floated back down the river on our tubes (around an hour) admiring the locals fishing and working along the banks.
^^ Floating down the river with elephant mountain behind us
That night we hung out with our guide Yee. He told us how he was a monk for several years before he reached enlightenment. Now he is a guide while he saves money to go to school to become a teacher. He was happy to spend time with us teaching us about Buddhism and its values, the most sensible religion I have encountered. He was our guide for the whole three days and if you find yourself doing this same adventure I definitely recommend asking for Yee to be your guide.
On our last day we got the elephants from the jungle and gave them a good scrub. After their bath we had to say goodbye (which was a bit sad), we had had such a great time with them and will always remember them and their gentle, kind personalities. It was a real privilege spending so much time with them, and I’m glad they are no longer working like slaves carting timber all day.
^^ Got to scrub all the mud off her - soooo dirty!
^^ Buon! Buon!
Just after we said goodbye lightning cracked through the sky and the heavens opened up, didn’t matter though as we were already soaked from the bath (The water-proof camera was invaluable during the last few days – thanks mum & dad). We then did a few hours kayak through some rapids back to Luang Prabang, where we indulged in a much needed 1hr massage for $4, first time being sore from riding too much elephant haha .
If you want to indulge in this amazing elephant experience it will set you back $155 per person. Not bad for 3 days!
An interesting thing to note: we met a couple on the last day who informed us that they had just purchased their prescription glasses in Vietnam for $35 – where they were quoted $700 in Australia! Also they met a man who got a full mouth of dentistry work done (veneers) in Thailand for $8,000, he was quoted $45,000 to get it done in Australia.
Next time you have to buy new prescription glasses in Australia just spend the same amount of money and have a holiday in Vietnam. Same goes with dentist work, can’t wait until I need a filling , yay for holidays!