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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.