Dumbo, Up Close & Personal

By Perrin

My mahout trainer and I take Pancake the elephant for a spin

Elephants stomped into my life in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where vendors parade “Dumbo” and “Babar” around bars selling pricey food to feed their 11,000 pound pets.  The elephants slouch under heavy metal chains. Revelers bat their bitty elephant tails and raise cups of Chang beer to the elephant’s mouths.

Anne and I gape.  In a region of small people, these pachyderms impress us as the first beings in Asia to outsize us. Yet despite their innate grandeur, their captors belittle them.

My first move: I shoot a text to my boyfriend in London, imploring him to raise Western awareness in my absence: “Dumbo and Babar abused, need help!”  To which he replies: “What?”

Second move: Anne and I register for a class at an elephant rehabilitation center.

Ignore the beer, eat your greens!

Allow me to explain.  When Anne and I arrive in Luang Prabang, Laos, we find ourselves face-to-face with an enormous plaster elephant. The life-size caricature dangles two-foot plastic tusks out of a store window. They fish for passing tourists.

Anne and I run into the shop. Face-to-face with the convincing storeowner, our eyes glitter at the phrase, “mahout training excursion.”

What?  You don’t know what a mahout is?  Unbelievable.  We don’t either.  Mahouts train and care for elephants.  Through this program, mahouts would train us to become mahouts. This easily outclasses learning to rope cattle at a dude ranch. We glow, knowing that the program’s proceeds help return many Dumbos to their natural habitats.

A mahout playing with a baby

One obstacle stands in our way: food poisoning.  The night before the mini-safari, Anne’s bowels clean house with the thoroughness, music and fanfare of Mary Poppins.  In the morning, I awake to the sounds of birds chirping in the window and Anne groaning on the bathroom floor.

I rushed outside to powwow with our mahout escort.  “My friend is very sick.  Please, please can we reschedule?”  I begin enacting scenes of vomiting in order to side step language issues.

“Food poisoning,” the guide nodded. “Tomorrow.”

These prove to be three of the only English words the guide knows.  As it turns out, the food bug victimizes most tourists within a 25-mile radius of Luang Probang.  The walls of our hotel reverberate with a soundtrack appropriate for Land of the Dead.  Foreigners bond over discussions of ciprofloxacin antibiotics and re-hydration salts.

The elephants await restlessly

Anne convalesces and the next morning, we catch a van to the forest.  I’m still debating which is less comfortable, elephant riding or riding to the elephants.  As our vehicle lurches around mountainous corners in what feels like a three-wheeled sardine can, the 4-year old boy “seated” in front of us bounces helplessly from left window to right.  He looks delighted, but everyone else aboard who has not already been sick, gets sick now.

The ride is worth it.  Mahouts teach our class of eight, beginning with a crash course on elephant language.  We acquire commands such as, “Turn left” (born chhveng) “Don’t do that” (ya-ya) and “Spray water” (boun-boun).  These phrases serve me throughout Laos.

After we master commands, we hop aboard our very own elephants.  Specifically, we  climb ladders onto tree houses and jump from there towards the animals’ backs. Nearly everyone lands appropriately.

Trudging through rivers and mud with ease

Shockingly, the group of five animals, weighing in at a collective 55,000 pounds, move with the grace of the Chinese women’s gymnastic team.  Navigating a two-foot wide path dotted with boulders?  No problem.  Waddling through knee-deep mud while strangers straddle their necks and pull their ears?  Sure. If only the Detroit Lions could dance with similar dexterity, they would be on their way to the Super Bowl.

My big grey bundle of adorableness, named Pancake, has speckled pink ears and a smile the size of the 3-point line on a basketball court.  I hug him as best I can – compared to the size of the guy, it is a tiny hug.  He snorts happily.  “Rock and roll!” I command.  We lumber into the forest.

Anne’s elephant has a more traditional Lao name. We don’t understand it, so we privately dub him Waffle. Pancake and Waffle display an innate rivalry.  Pancake inches along lazily until Waffle tries to snake past him.  Provoked, Pancake charges like a picketer on the White House lawn.

View from above

He moves about as quickly as a running turtle, but he accelerates noticeably nonetheless.  As Anne and I battle a mêlée of thorns and briars that line the trail, the elephants lash their trunks violently, left and right, knocking out hummingbirds, crows and even, I believe, a few small planes.

Finally, we reach our destination, the lake.

Bath time for everyone

During bath time, the elephants shower us with trunk-loads of water.  The professional mahouts scamper across their backs like monkeys, egging them on, chanting “Boun-boun, boun-boun!”

In Southeast Asia, hot water comes with a price tag, and the elephants administered warmer showers that Anne and I have taken in weeks.

Want to go for an elephant ride? Become a mahout? Check out this charity: www.elephantvillage-laos.com.

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About sistersbailey

We are Perrin and Sarah Bailey, collectively known as “The Sisters Bailey”. The moniker was born out of a crazy weekend at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz Fest and it was the first time we had ever been referred to as one unit. We grew up in Alexandria, VA together and then separated for college - Perrin to The University of Pennsylvania and Sarah to Northwestern University – and somehow landed together in New York after graduation. It was in the midst of the hustle of Manhattan that we became friends for the first time in years. Somehow we landed jobs in the same industry - Sarah worked in marketing at HBO and Perrin managed creative digital promotions for her media agency’s main client, Disney - just three blocks from one another. One day we decided to leave our jobs, sell our belongings and travel abroad with a backpack and a collective savings of $10K. The stories of our continuing adventures and those of other fearless travelers are here to inspire you.
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5 Responses to Dumbo, Up Close & Personal

  1. offshore says:

    FUN! I loved Laos – I never knew how long I was going to stay there. We trekked through the greenest of paddy fields and through a few villages stopping for lunch at one, jumping in the nearby river to cool off at another, and flicking the leeches off me. Incidentally apart from the odd insect Ive had no trouble with mozzies in Laos, and Im thinking that Ill come back and stay longer as these villages look in harmony – all the animals live with each other cats chickens dogs pigs ducks without trying to eat each other – the people in the hammocks – looks like life relaxed.

  2. Faraz says:

    Love it! Interesting read. Also, big fan of the Mark Twain quote!

  3. busybee says:

    cool story, did an elephant spray you?

  4. TravelG says:

    I could stay in Thailand forever. You’re bringing me back

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