Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Elephants and their Laotian mahouts. I rode the elephant in the center.
There are many ways to travel across rugged terrain in poor countries that lack paved roads. To reach my destinations over muddy tracks, I’ve ridden in all manner of four wheel drive vehicles. When there have been only paths, I’ve occasionally ridden mountain bikes, motorbikes, and horses. I even rode a camel once. But this one definitely tops them all.

An elephant!

I’m high on the back of an Asian elephant, riding the ultimate beast of burden as it ambles down a jungle trail in northern Laos. Except for the occasional flap of its great ears, the massive animal’s movements are slow and deliberate. She walks slower than I had imagined, but then again, I never imagined I’d ever ride an elephant at all.

My elevated seat is a chair shaped saddle, strapped to the pachyderm’s back. Directly in front of me a mahout in camouflage fatigues sits astride the elephant’s neck. 
Temple mosaic shows royalty rode elephants

Wondering how it feels, I reach down to touch the powerful animal’s skin. It feels thicker than leather; rough to the touch. 

I have a commanding view up here, high enough that I occasionally have to push tree branches away from my face. I have the same vantage point European hunters had as they hunted tigers from atop these pachyderms during the colonial era. King’s of old from this region used them too. Rather than horses, many Southeast Asian monarchs preferred riding elephants into battle. 

Old Laos was once known as ‘the land of a million elephants’, but there are far fewer of them in the country these days. Some remote communities still use them for labor in the lumber trade. Using their great strength, they are trained to knock down trees, and drag logs through terrain too rough for vehicles. In remote regions, there are still wild herds that survive in the shrinking jungles. 

The view from atop the elephant, crossing a river
The trees open up to a river bank, and the mahout climbs up from the elephants neck to take a seat on the chair next to me. He barks out commands, and the elephant steps into the water. Apparently we’re crossing this dark river just as we are. This isn’t the Mekong River but it’s no creek either, it looks deep. 

I want to ask the mahout how deep the channel is, but he doesn’t speak English. The great beast carefully moves ahead step by step, and the water comes up the beasts shoulders. I glance at the mahout, he’s pulled his bare feet up on the saddle to stay dry. Soon the water is high enough that the elephant lifts the tip of his trunk above water, so that she can continue breathing. 

But the water level doesn’t reach the saddle; I remain dry as the beast ascends the far riverbank and emerges from the water. The elephant probably enjoys these occasional dips, since it’s such a hot tropical day. The water drips off her hide, as she continues down a well worn path into a riverside village. 
Friendly local children greet me as our elephant passes through their village

Three petite children run out to watch the elephant lumber through their village. “Sabadee! Sabadee!” (Hello! Hello!) one calls out, smiling as he waves at the strange white foreigner. 

“Sabadee!” I yell back. Another Laotian villager on the ground greets my mahout, who commands the elephant to stop while they briefly chat in Lao. For some reason, he then hands the mahout a long knife. The knife doesn’t have a sheath, and he stows the blade just beneath my seat. I don’t think anything of it at the time, but I will regret this later. 

After continuing on through more jungle, my all too brief ride above this magnificent animal comes to an end. The mahout guides my ride toward a bamboo platform, where I can safely dismount. 

But it’s not as safe as I think. As the elephant approaches the platform, he brushes up against a nearby tree. The tree bumps the side of my chair, right where the handle of the knife is sticking out. In a flash, the knife is wedged out, and cuts right into my leg!

R-I-I-I-P! I hear the sound of my blue jeans tearing, as the long blade cuts at my right thigh. 

"YEOW!" I yell, as I jump to the side. I’ve been cut! That happened so fast, I had no time to avoid it. My mind races, I’m in serious trouble. 

The knife cut a hole in my blue jeans
I lift my knee to look, and I’m both surprised and relieved to see no blood flowing. A long V-shaped hole has been slashed open in my trousers. The skin on my thigh stings, but fortunately it wasn’t cut open. I've been saved by blue jeans! Gotta love that strong American denim. It’s a good thing that I wasn’t wearing shorts, or I would have been cut and bleeding for sure. 

I climb off the elephant onto the platform, and the mahout looks at me blankly. I’m raging at his carelessness, which nearly injured me. I point at the gaping hole in my jeans. He makes no reaction, not saying a word. He knows he screwed up, and now he’s trying to 'save face'.

I mutter a few insults at him that he doesn’t understand, and walk away. No tip for him. 

Seething with anger I climb into a van, for a safer ride back to Luang Prabang. I’m upset that I lost a pair of jeans, but I’m very lucky to have walked away from that knifing without needing stitches. I guess I could call that a really close shave. Literally. 

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