Most children aspire to be doctors, teachers, or policemen. Micah’s pint sized dream was to be a long haul, big rig, truck driver so he could sleep in the cab. Mine was to attend clown college and join the circus. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than living a train riding, vagabonding life with 100’s of people and animals sporting heavily made up faces and sequins. At the moment, we’ve both got the vagabonding down. Sadly, Micah may leave me behind if I start trying to paint his face before his morning run. I haven’t bedazzled my backpack yet but am one step closer after taking a 2 day mahout (elephant driver) training course near Luang Prabang, Laos.
The Elephant Village in Laos cares for around 16 elephants, all female, that have been rescued from the logging industry, with a vet on staff and a mahout for each elephant.
For Micah's photos click HERE
Micah and I arrived at the village around 10am, greeted by a cheerful guide and an endless supply of coffee and tea. Our guides poor English in combination with the generous hospitality made partaking in the bottomless rations sound more like a demand than an offer. “You will now drink some coffee or tea.” After gulping our obligatory intake of caffeine, we jumped right into our mahout education. A sign next to the training station informed us: never approach an elephant from behind or from the left side; never pull their ears, never tease them with food; never hug their trunks, and the age old important rule of "an elephant never forgets" so don't screw up. They were the elemental basics that I wished someone would have taught my grade school taunters. (My nickname was Dumbo growing up. For the record my ears aren’t big, they just stick out.) We learned the vital command words: Go:“Pie”, Stop: "How”, along with some other less important ones like, lift up your foot so I can climb on you, turn left, turn right- all of which I have forgotten. What more do you really need than stop and go while driving an elephant? It's not like people aren't going to move out of your way.
No one was too anxious to take a test run so I quickly sprung my hand into the air as the first rider of our group. I gripped the top of the right ear as instructed and my dancer instincts kicked in as I stepped onto the offered tree trunk sized leg with my right foot and hoisted my left leg into a near split to get it up and over the elephant. I was ecstatic to discover that my new powerful commands were actually successful in driving this beautiful, massive, giant around the yard. And when the ride was finished, I was unfazed by the elephant burns on my arms and legs after sliding down its rough, leathery skin.
After everyone took a turn, we paired up to take the "ladies" on a trek. Micah must have sensed my excitement because he didn’t hesitate when I asked if I could ride on the head as he rode in the Howdah (elephant seat) with our mahout. My glee soon turned to terror as we started down the riverbank's 50-degree incline to the water. The elephant’s rocky pathway was no more than 4 ft wide and she carefully maneuvered every step as I peered cautiously over the top of her head. Elephants are known to have impeccable balance, but you would never believe that from the view point atop of one. We trekked through the river, back up the bank, and through a small village full of curious, elephant-frightened little faces peering at us from behind trees. We ended back at camp where we were presented with an all you can eat lunch buffet.
After lunch, we met up with another mahout training group as they finished the elephants daily river bath. I watched in horror (I’m not a fan of water), as the professional mahouts belted out commands they hadn’t taught us. Ones that apparently meant splash your rider with water using your trunk and dunk yourself repeatedly so your rider gets soaked. I prayed that I didn’t end up with the one elephant, named Mae Uak, who loved to go under water and sit. The poor rider on her back spent the bath sitting shoulder high in the freezing river, completely helpless as the professional mahout stood high and dry, laughing on Mae Uak's back.
The newly soaked riders said goodbye to the elephants at the riverbank and we were scooped up by the mahouts to trek them into the jungle for the evening. I was the first to get picked up and didn’t think anything of it until my mahout guide started telling me he had many friends married to beautiful American girls like myself. Then I was fired a round of questions: “How old are you? Are you married? How strong is your boyfriend?” I asked him if he knew Casanova and when he said no, I told him to look it up. It was his new name. Micah later rolled his eyes at my naivete in not realizing what was happening as soon as “Casanova” singled me out. (Un)Lucky for me, those were our mahout pairings for the second day as well.
Once in the jungle, the elephants mozied off to rest and play for the day and we were ferried away on a slowly leaking motorboat to some nearby waterfalls. Our day ended with dinner, drinks, and a few rounds of cards. Micah and I were exhausted from all the excitement and ready to call it a night by 10pm.
Joanie scooping water out of our boat
Ending our Mahout training day at Tad Sae Waterfalls
The next morning, we were out the door by 8am to walk into the jungle. Casanova was cheerfully waiting to hoist me up. Once atop, I discovered that the elephant was caked in mud and no longer smelled of the candy appled, popcorned circus dreams from the day before. She stank like…elephant. It was our turn to administer a much needed, icy river bath. The group the day before had the benefit of the hot midday sun. We on the other hand, were welcomed by a chilly morning breeze. I dreadfully lead my elephant into the freezing water, armed with a scrubbing brush and soon found myself sitting shoulder high in the water, shrieking, “I’ve got her! I’m on the dunking elephant!” Shivering in the cold water, I helplessly sat like the training mahout we all pitied the day before. Every once in awhile, Mae Uak would surface and I would frantically scrub as much of her course skin as possible before dunking back under. The only part of her that could be seen was the tip of her trunk bobbing like a periscope out of water.
20 min later, the baths were over and we stood on the shore, shivering, soaked, and wearing the perfume of pre-washed elephant. Correction, I was soaked. Everyone else was only mildly wet from the waist down. We waved goodbye to the girls and hurried off to hot showers and breakfast.
With our mahout training complete, we sat at the top of the river bank enjoying breakfast and admiring the elephants as they gracefully and sure footedly guided the next round of trainees down the incline at the beginning of their first trek. I was in love and made the declaration that I would one day purchase an elephant for the reserve.
But first thing's first. I must bedazzle my backpack.
You can check out information on the reserve HERE. Don't forget to read Mae Uak's BIO. Her name translates into "Seated at the Buffet" as she is known to be perpetually hungry-something we both have in common!
Joanie learning to mount an elephant
Micah mounting an elephant.
Descending into the river
Testing out our new Mahout commands