How to ride an elephant

When I told Kristen I was going to learn how to ride an elephant she said that I’d reached the point where “you’re just trying to do the most random crazy shit now, aren’t you?” And she was right: a one-day mahout training school was about as out-there an idea as I could come across, and that’s exactly why I wanted to do it. I mean how often do you get the chance not just to take a ride in a buggy on an elephant’s back, but actually sit up the front and direct the beast? Not often I reckon, so I was into it like a shot!

Ban Kiet Ngong is located about 60km south of Pakse, and along with Hongsa is one of the very few places in Laos where elephant rides are possible. The village still has 14 working elephants – far fewer than it used to – that these days are mostly engaged in offering rides to tourists. Most commonly they take people up to the mysterious archaelogical remains of Phu Asa, and the whole experience is a model of modern eco-based tourism that benefits the local villagers while protecting the area’s ecological and historical significance. You can stay in the village too, either as a homestay or at the very basic but cheap village guesthouse (A$5 a night). Or you can stay at the rather more luxurious Kingfisher Lodge on the village fringe, which has two levels of accomodation on offer. No prizes for guessing which I chose…

Kingfisher Lodge is a genuine eco-lodge, not just in (much-abused) name but also in practice. All the bungalows are constructed of local materials and have been carefully designed to maximise natural light and ventilation, thus reducing electricity usage greatly. Solar heating and lighting reduce demand even further, and all the rooms have a very spacious, airy feel. I chose the budget option with shared bathrooms, but as there are only four rooms at this level it’s very comfortable. The only drawback is that the walls are paper-thin, and in the still black night you can (and I did) hear someone farting from twenty metres away. Overall it’s a very relaxing place and the central lodge with bar and excellent restaurant looking out over the protected Xe Pian wetlands makes you feel like you’re in Africa, complete with elephants roaming in the distance.

The other key attraction of Kingfisher Lodge – and this is what drew me there – is their range of activities that are available exclusively to Lodge guests. You can do a two-day trek to remote villages, go mountain biking and more, but the one that caught my attention was the “Elephant Rider School”. Over two two-hour sessions you learn how to direct the elephant and practice your skills by taking a couple of trips through the local area. The “lesson” part of it was incredibly short, as it turns out. The day before I was given a sheet with explanations of the basic commands, and I assumed the first session would largely be spent off the elephant as you (and the elephant) got used to giving the commands. Nope. Upon arrival I was directed to climb up: the instruction “song, song” made the elephant raise one of its forelegs so it was like a footstool, and by hauling myself up with a rope I was soon perched precariously on her neck, almost on her head really. The real mahout and the english-speaking Lodge guide climbed into the buggy that was already strapped on behind me and away we went!

It’s not that complicated to ride an elephant, as it turns out, but definitely requires practice. The command “hoooaay, hoooaay” means go, “how, how” means stop, and you turn left by pressing your right knee to her right ear and turn right by pressing your left knee to her left ear. Simple, eh? It would be if this was a machine, but it’s not. It’s a five-ton animal with food on it’s mind, and lots of it: your average asiatic elephant eats 200-300kg of vegetation a day and drinks 150 litres of water. Once we left the village grounds I spent a lot of time yelling “hoooaay!” while she stood still munching away on the nearest patch of grass, occasionally flapping her ear against my leg as I frantically tried to nudge her in the right direction. But with a bit of perseverance and considerable help from the real mahout we got going, and headed off for a lumbering tour of the wetlands. I gradually refined my voice commands by mimicking the mahout, and over time he had less need to “enhance” my ear nudges with strong prods from his feet. Towards the end of the first session I was told that I was doing really well, but I couldn’t avoid thinking they were just humouring me.

Still once I got used to it it was a load of fun, and rather surreal. There is no saddle at all for the rider, you simply sit on her neck with your legs dangling as low as possible to keep upright. It’s okay to put your hands on her head for support, thankfully, but even so I was still gripping with my thighs for grim life the whole time. After two hours they were on fire, and my bum was thoroughly kneaded by the constant grinding from the top of the elephant’s shoulders as we plodded along. I gradually learnt to nudge left or right by raising my foot and placing it on her shoulder to push her ear in the right direction, and that got good results. My voice commands improved, and by the end of the first session I was more confident but still feeling very much a novice.

Fortunately I had over two hours to go back to the Lodge, have a shower (it was another hot day), eat a sedate lunch and read for a while before session two. Normally this is a tour up to Phu Asa along a wide dirt track, but as they are currently paving the road that was off limits. Instead we headed into the forest, something they very rarely do with newbies like me. Apparently I really was doing okay, because this time around the mahout barely said a word and rarely had to aid my directions. I had a much better feel for my mount and she was responding more readily, and the diversions for a snack were blessedly few. There was a real sense of adventure heading into the forest, and even though we were following well-trod elephant paths I was pleased that my increasingly subtle commands were followed promptly – well, mostly. I even got to the point where I could balance without using my hands, but I kept them close to her head just in case a sudden lurch threw me sideways as it’s a long way down from the top of an elephant. My legs were thoroughly sore though, and it was only with a solid clenching of the buttocks towards the end (no gratuitous jokes here please) that I was able to carry on until the end. Once again my marathon training pays dividends…. At the start I was told that whenever I got tired I could relocate to the buggy to rest up but I never did, and that almost never happens so I’m told. Older people especially find it very hard on hips and thighs, and even the Lodge guide said that he had to take a break after forty minutes when he had his first ride!

School over, I headed back to the Lodge to rest and reflect. And decide that I really like this place and would stay another day – this time in one of the luxury stand-alone bungalows. I simply wanted to have a quiet day afterwards, partly to rest my legs but also just to kick back and relax on the very inviting industrial-strength hammock on the bungalow’s private balcony while reading some Murakami. The budget rooms are nice but not very private, and I was in the mood for some genuine peace. I also needed time to write these posts, something I haven’t had the desire to do for a while. I justified my indulgence by saying that this night was the exact half-way point in my long journey, and surely it’s appropriate to celebrate it in style? But those who know me well will know that I really don’t need much encouragement to splash out on some luxury 😛

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