When Blake’s sister Kyle found out we were headed to Elephant Country, she asked us not to ride them. “They don’t want you up there. How would you feel if you had to carry someone around on your back?” We do take your point, Kyle, and you are a far, far better person than we are, but if we see a pint of Graeter’s we’re going to eat it, and if we see an elephant, we’re going to try to snuggle with it and make friends and get it to rock us to sleep at night with its trunk.
And, you know, ride it.
But we’re not terrible people, so we did do our research. Elephant Village Sanctuary, a half an hour drive outside Luang Prabang, is pretty great as far as elephant tourist experiences go. They purchase their animals mainly from logging camps, which is not a cute place to be if you’re a pachyderm. The elephants are put to work in the very industry that is destroying their natural habitat, which is doubly fucked up. The labor is hard, the hours are long, and apparently the animals are fed amphetamines to keep them going, just like Judy Garland.
So compared to the logging camps, toting around a few tourists for 6 hours a day seems to be not so bad. Plus, scale-wise, we imagine it’s sort of like a mouse riding a German Shepherd, which sounds adorable and not that annoying for the dog. But maybe that’s rationalizing. In any case, our half day at Elephant Village was a treat. We met this guy, Maxi, who is almost two. He won’t be separated from his mother at all until he is at least four, at which point he’ll enter elephant pre-school to start to learn some tasks and tricks.
And we rode an elephant which, let us tell you, makes you feel like a total boss. Hannibal, we get it.
An Asian elephant’s skin is rough, which you might imagine, and bristly with hair, which you might not. Their trunks are extraordinarily dextrous, and their eyes contain the wisdom of the ages.
Some things we learned:
-During the American Civil War, King Rama IV of Siam offered to send President Lincoln some elephants for military use. Lincoln replied, “This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.” This definitely needs to be a movie: Operation Dumbo Drop meets Ken Burns.
-Only female and baby elephants live together in herds. The males are lone rangers, and besides little Maxi, there were none at Elephant Village. Just another way that elephants know what’s up.
-A mahout—an elephant’s human teacher and companion—often works with his animal for life, and many of the mahouts at Elephant Village came with their charges from logging camps. These mahouts controlled the elephants just with verbal commands and body language, but we saw guys from other camps with not-nice-looking metal hooks. Maxi’s mahout was an androgynous-looking boy of probably 19, so that was adorable.
-Impassioned climate change deniers are alive and well in Australia. We had one in our group making particularly ludicrous “points” about Al Gore.
-In a partially controlled setting, sometimes Asian elephants coexist peaceably with other animals, such as bears: