Lane Xang, or the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, is today known as The Democratic Republic of Laos. During the six weeks we spent there in early 2019, I discovered a country that was not as touristy as others we visited. At the same time, Laos had a particular European sophistication leftover from its days as a part of colonial French Indochina. This sophistication was particularly true in Vientiane and, to a lesser extent, in Luang Prabang. In these two cities of South East Asia, you can easily find french baguettes, cafe au lait, and any number of tasty French restaurants and coffee shops. A replica of the Arc de Triomphe stands astride the main avenue in Vientiane. It is common to find Laotians and many foreigners speaking French. This atmosphere is infused with relaxed tropical ease. It may be that Vientiane is the world’s most laidback capital city.
Beyond the city limits of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos is a rural jungle covered country. For centuries this provided a perfect habitat for the pachyderms that remain the symbol of the country.
Today in the land of a million elephants there remain less than 1000 of these majestic animals. Official estimates number about 800 with half in captivity and half in the wild. Deforestation, habitat fragmentation, human and elephant conflict, and poaching are responsible for the dwindling numbers. Besides being a national symbol, elephants are worshiped in many parts of Laos as an embodiment of Buddha. This has helped in a national effort to re-establish the elephant population in recent years. Several ecological parks for elephants have been established to protect the animals. Marie and I visited one about a two-hour drive outside of Luang Prabang.
At this site, the elephants were not chained, but roamed free and were never trained using the picks which many places use to goad the animal to obey. Instead all commands were given verbally and these intelligent beings responded to this treatment. Rewards of sugar cane or bananas served as encouragement. In this particular reserve visitors could still ride the elephants. Some of the other camps go a step further and do not allow tourists to ride the animals in any form.
The rides consisted of two one hour rides through the jungle and down to the Mekong River. The first trip we rode in a howdah. The howdah is a small wooden platform that sits astride the animals back. We both found this experience just a little disagreeable. Aside from the fact that I can’t imagine it is comfortable for the elephant, the howdah moves from side to side and back and forth with the movements of the animal, creating a sort of motion that is as dizzying as a small boat being tossed around in the ocean. After this first ride, there was a break for lunch for both people and pachyderms. After lunch, we learned the basic verbal commands needed to get our mount to move forward, back, or left or right.
After the morning experience, Marie was still a little queasy and opted out of the afternoon ride. Too bad, because for me, this made all the difference and was the high point of the day.
Riding bareback on this three-ton animal with her massive ears flapping against my legs, I could feel every movement as she gingerly picked her way along the jungle trail. My elephant was named Bella, and she was continually asking for another treat. I would give her a banana, and she would leave her trunk up for more as if to say, “Do you really think one banana is enough for me?” I truly enjoyed this ride. The feeling was very different from the earlier experience on the howdah. I was one with the elephant. We rode through the jungle, forded streams with ease. We picked our way along a mountain pass, and near the end of the hour ended up in the Mekong River, where the Mahout and I gave Bella a well-deserved bath. I never felt that riding bareback on Bella was in any way an abuse of this behemoth. It would be the equivalent of a toddler riding on a racehorse. The experience of this bareback ride on the elephant gave me more love and respect for the elephant, and I feel it should be encouraged rather than prohibited. I hope that one day I may return and find that the population of elephants has responded to the environmental efforts.