Elephants weren't originally in the game plan for our trip. There are too many places where elephants are exploited for tourism, overworked, underfed, and generally mistreated. In Phuket, we saw a sad-looking baby elephant by the roadside whose owner was using him as a photo prop. The majestic animals deserve better.
But then we learned about Elephant Village, outside of Luang Prabang.
Laos was once known as the "Land of a Million Elephants" (from the kingdom of Lan Xang, founded in the 14th century). Today, it would more accurately be called the land of about 1600 endangered elephants; more than one third of those remaining work under deplorable conditions in the forestry industry, where injuries are common and some are drugged with amphetamines.
What happens when an elephant can no longer spend its days toiling for timber? Elephants make incredibly expensive pets: an elephant eats up to 250 kg of food each day. Elephants who can't "earn their keep" often face dire circumstances. Why not just return them to the wild? This has been tried, with little success. Domesticated elephants lose the ability to fend for themselves. Thus, "soon-to-be jobless" elephants may be killed, abandoned to slow starvation, or sold to the highest bidder.
Elephant Village buys elephants out of logging -- most bear scars or blindness from their former employ. In exchange for the relatively easy work of carrying tourists, the elephants are housed, fed, provided with medical attention, and are well cared for. Food is bought from the local population, providing an alternative to environmentally-disastrous slash-and-burn farming practices that are prevalent in the country. Mahouts (elephant trainers) are hired along with their elephants.
We learned the basic commands for directing the elephants and got a chance to ride up front for a scenic tour of the jungle, sitting practically on their heads, legs tucked behind their ears. The hair on an Asian elephant's head is surprisingly bristly; their ears are surprisingly strong; their trunks are amazingly dextrous. And they've certainly learned when to reach for bananas!
After lunch, we walked the elephants into a deeper part of the river and bathed them. B.'s elephant would submerge completely -- we have some photos where you can't see his elephant at all. Without context, it just looks like he's waist-deep in river water. My elephant preferred splashing, slapping her trunk on the water at the mahout's command.
The day concluded with a boat ride to Tad Sae Waterfall which, while beautiful, couldn't compete with our trip to Kuang Si Falls the day before. Early the following morning, we left Laos, hopscotching our way across the globe (LPG - BKK - HKG - JFK) to see our families. While we're living in the neighborhood (which is to say, Asia), I hope we have a chance to return to Laos and experience more of the country.