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.
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.
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.
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.