Elephant Riding in Laos

I am a notorious animal stalker. From penguins in New Zealand to koalas in Australia, I’ll go out of my way to see anything with a cute mug and a coat of fur or feathers. And then I’ll probably coo at it until it gets annoyed with me and scuttles off.

When I got to Laos, nicknamed “the Land of a Million Elephants,” there was little doubt as to what the next adorable object of my affection would be. Hayley and I decided before we’d even reached the shore in Luang Prabang that we’d spend one of our days there on an elephant trek.

With Mr. Pan and Mae San.

There are many, many elephant tour companies to choose from in Luang Prabang. Their offices are all crammed onto Sisavangvong Road, and I’m sure there are bargains to be had by comparing companies. But we decided to pay a bit more and book our visit with a very cool organization called the Elephant Village.

The Elephant Village “employs” nine elephants, all of which have been rescued from the logging industry and nursed back to health. The idea is that these elephants now have access to quality food and veterinary care, “paying their way” by working a few hours a day giving rides to tourists – comparatively light work when you consider the constant physical exertion required of them in their former lives. The organization also hires locals to work on site, buys the elephants’ foods from the farming communities surrounding the camp, and preserves the stunningly lush jungle site the camp occupies. For about US$36 per person, your ticket ends up feeling like quite a steal.

After our elephant for the day, Mae San, lumbered up to us, Hayley and I crawled one by one into the little wooden seat perched on her back. Our mahout, the giggly and good-natured Mr. Pan, sat on Mae San’s shoulders and, with a few pats and a couple of quick commands, took us bobbing out into the jungle.

“You see where I’m sitting? You see where my knees are?” Mr. Pan asked me, about five minutes after we’d set off.

“Yes,” I answered immediately, apparently sensing there might be some sort of quiz later and desperate to ace it.

“And you see where I put my hands?”

“Yep.”

“OK, now we switch!”

I thought for a moment I’d misheard Mr. Pan, or that he’d gotten some of his English verbs mixed up. I sat unflinching on my little wooden throne until Mr. Pan was on his feet atop of Mae San, making it clear he intended to occupy my seat whether I was in it or not.

In order to picture me switching places with Mr. Pan, I’d like you to imagine the most awkward person you know. Think about what would happen if you asked that person to crawl forward on their hands and feet, but stealthily, like a panther. On a waterbed. That’s pretty much how I felt maneuvering myself down onto Mae San’s neck. I wasn’t sure exactly where to step without hurting her, how to grab hold of her thick skin, or whether it was even possible to keep my balance with the constant shifting thud of elephantine right foot in front of left underneath me.

Just like riding a bike. Or, if you’re me, much, much easier than riding a bike.

Needless to say, both Mr. Pan and Mae San were total professionals, and before long I was hugging my knees around Mae San’s neck, calling out monosyllabic instructions for “straight ahead” and “stop here” and “turn left.” Each time she took a step I could feel her enormous shoulder blades shifting beneath me like tectonic plates; every time she sauntered down to the river and leaned over for a drink, I could feel myself tipping forward, holding on for dear life and laughing at the same time.

And I must say, out of all the animals I’ve tracked down, zoomed in on, and tried to somehow non-verbally convince that we should be friends, Mae San seemed the happiest about it.

Snack time with Mae San.

Of course, the bananas probably helped.

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8 thoughts on “Elephant Riding in Laos

  1. Mae San was amazing! She was blinded in one eye during a logging accident in her previous life but was still so sweet. I saw some really sad-looking elephants giving rides in Dalat, Vietnam the other day and just visually the difference between them and Mae San was incredible.

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    • Hmmm it’s hard to remember exactly how long it was… I think they picked us up at our guesthouse around 9:30 a.m. and dropped us back off around 3:00. And that was just the half-day tour!

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