A Wild Elephant Ride

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I’ve been back from Laos for exactly a week. The most common question I’m asked is: “What was the best part of your trip?” That’s a terribly difficult question to answer. There are at least 10 different answers, ranging from spending time with my step-daughter, to reconnecting with my old college friend, to traveling through rural Asia for the first time in over 16 years, to returning to my old stomping grounds — Beijing, to creating many unique memories in Luang Prabang, some of which I have already discussed on this blog. Here, I answer this question very narrowly.

I’ve already written about the Mekong River, Laotian food, and the impressive Buddhist influences in Luang Prabang. These are memorable parts of my trip that I will not soon forget. However, if I had to choose just one day among the 10 of my vacation to remember and cherish forever, it would be the one spent at the Elephant Village, an elephant sanctuary and tourist destination dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of Laotian elephants.

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It’s difficult to impart the unique combination of exhilaration and fear that I felt riding on Mae San, a 35-year-old rescued elephant (read her story here).  Erin and I started out the hour-long ride on the bench atop the elephant — we had to mount by climbing up a platform and then jump onto the 10-foot tall animal! After a brief walk on level ground, Mae San, under the guidance of a Mr. Pan, purposefully headed downhill toward the river. We knew then that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, each wrapping both arms around the bench, holding on for dear life during the descent.

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Shortly after crossing the river, our guide jumped off and asked if one of us wanted to sit directly on Mae San. I turned to Erin who wildly shook her head “No!” So…I volunteered. To call it a “mistake” would indicate that I wouldn’t do it again if asked. I am truly glad I did it. It was amazing, terrifying, and wonderful, all at the same time. Had I known that I would be scared for my life nonstop for 40 minutes, that my quads would shake and pound uncontrollably for at least half of that time, or that the wiry hairs on Mae San’s head would feel like coarse sand paper filing the skin off my ankles ahead of time, I might have responded to the question exactly as Erin had. As it turned out, I am very glad that I was both blissfully ignorant and naively brave when the question was asked.

With the above said, I’ll let the photos that Mr. Pan and I took of this experience speak for themselves.

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Elephants have a long history in Laos and the current situation for the animal there is dire.  As I mentioned in my last post, the original name for much of what is now Laos (including the entire Luang Prabang region) was Lan Xang, which means “one million elephants.” The name indicates how prolific elephants used to be in the area. Today in Laos there are less than 600 elephants in the wild and just over 400 domesticated ones. Read more here.

Why have they essentially disappeared? Of course, many elephants fell victim to the ivory trade.  More info can be found here and here. And, many others were over-worked in the logging industry. Because female elephants are easier to domesticate, elephant cows did nearly all of this logging work. Under the stress of hard work, most became unable to reproduce. The Laos government reports that only 33 of the country’s elephant cows are under the age of 20 and thus safely able to reproduce.

After our exhilarating elephant ride, before our afternoon of kayaking, we boated up the river to see some nearby waterfalls. We were extremely fortunate on our way back down river to catch a glimpse of “Maxi”, a rare male elephant born at the Elephant Village last May.  Maxi is expected to have an important role in repopulating his species. Fortunately, the sanctuary we visited is just one among many organizations dedicated to protecting and repopulating elephants in Laos and neighboring countries.

Needless to say, visiting Elephant Village and riding Mae San are experiences I will never forget.

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Land of Golden Buddha

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Even though I am now safely and happily back home in Vermont, there are a few topics related to my recent trip to Luang Prabang, Laos I’m still researching.  One of them is the prevalence of Buddhist temples and monks there. Of all of the items I posted on Facebook during my trip, the photos of monks in saffron colored robes were the most “liked.”

It turns out that the city of Luang Prabang gets its very name from Buddhism. Luang means “land” and “phra bang” means “golden Buddha” in Lao. It was changed to this name more than 300 years ago, after Cambodia gave a gold statue of the Buddha as a gift to the city. At that time, the city was the center of Buddhism for the entire region.

According to a Luang Prabang legend mentioned here by USESCO, “the Buddha smiled when he rested here for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful capital city.” In case you’re wondering how they knew Buddha had stopped by, one of the temples built into the mountainside has Buddha’s footprint on display!

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The type of Buddhism in Laos is unique. It is an offshoot of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition which is the oldest Buddhist branch and considered to be the most conservative. There are over 150 million followers worldwide of the Theravāda Buddhist branch.

In Laos, however, Buddhist beliefs are intertwined with native Animism.  One prevalent element of Animism is the idea that there are spirits that influence health and prosperity. Many of the offerings the Lao make at Buddhist temples are accompanied by requests to these spirits to make a positive influence in their lives or to reverse something negative. There are Buddhist statues of countless varieties, each with a different meaning.

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It is estimated that 65% of the Lao population is Buddhist.  And, when you take into consideration the Animism component, closer to 90% of the population are “nominal adherents of both Buddhism-Animism” (more info is here).

Shortly after our arrival in Luang Prabang, I was so excited to capture this photo of two monks walking down the street in front of our guest house, thinking that it was a rare sight:

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Little did I know that monks are quite literally everywhere in Luang Prabang. There are 32 Buddhist temples and more than 1,000 monks that serve the city. Because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the temples are in excellent condition and most have already been restored to their original condition.

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Perhaps the most incredible experience from my entire trip was the morning I took part in the procession of the monks. Called “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, all of the monks that serve the local temples leave their temples before 6am and walk through the main streets to receive alms from the devout who line the street.

According to an article on About.com by Michael Aquino: “The ritual is done in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks. The monks walk in meditation, and the almsgivers reciprocate with respect by not disturbing the monk’s meditative peace. For hundreds of years, the ritual has cemented the symbiotic relationship between the monks and the almsgivers who maintain them – by feeding the monks and helping the laypeople make merit, tak bat supports both the monks (who need the food) and the almsgivers (who need spiritual redemption).”

Due to jet lag, I was awake every morning before sunrise. Therefore, walking the 3 blocks from our guest house to watch the procession was a no-brainer. Before I was even able to register that I was in the right location, I came under the powers of an authoritative and industrious local woman who directed me to take off my shoes, sit cross-legged on a mat, and pay 50,000 kip ($6.25) for sticky rice and crackers to give the monks.

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After giving alms to three groups of monks, I was out of food and decided to put my shoes back on and take photos of the rest of the procession.  Within half an hour, I had seen at least 10 groups of monks stream past, with no end in sight.  Satisfied that I had both observed and taken part in something really special, I sauntered off in the direction of our guest house, in search of a strong cup of Laotian coffee.

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Doing research for this post, I discovered that the original name for the entire Luang Prabang region was Lan Xang, which means “one million elephants.”  That is probably going to be my next topic. Stay tuned. 

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