Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Elephants in Laos

Chinese New Year vacation in Laos with Penina and Shalom – what a wonderful trip. Too much to write and if I wait until I can put it all together I’ll never get this blog posted so I’ll focus on some of our adventures here and get to the rest another time.

Elephant Mahout Experience

A mahout is an elephant rider – and we took two days in this unbelievably idyllic spot, 40 minutes out of the ancient capital Luang Prabang, to get a close up of the Asian elephant. Not as large as it's African cousin – thank goodness, because they felt pretty big to us. We spent two days with these elephants – first we rode on a howdah, a chair strapped to the elephant’s back with a comfy seat and a security bar. Felt scary when we got on, but little did we know that in the afternoon we’d be riding bareback (actually bare neck) on the elephant’s necks. Noam rode safely with Penina and Shalom but Tal decided to let me and Yoni have the comfy seats and he jumped right in the saddle. Pun intended. He went right up on the elephant’s neck for a downhill descent to the water. See the pictures attached. Later on we found out that downhill is a bit of a harrowing experience, but Tal remained poised. I switched him off for the uphill part. In the afternoon we learned how to mount the elephants – you pull yourself up when the elephant gives you a temporary foothold by raising one leg, and then you grab onto their ear. “It doesn’t hurt them” the mahouts kept telling us, but it just doesn’t feel right grabbing a creature’s ears and hoisting yourself up with all your might. I’ll include a videoclip of Noam, but others of us were far less graceful and refused to have it blogged. So, if you want to see the uncensored version of Shalom and Tal . . speak to me privately. They’ll both say that it wasn’t their fault – the elephants put down their legs before they got a chance to hoist themselves up. And it’s true . . that’s exactly what happened and it’s all captured on video. But it’s quite hilarious nonetheless. Especially for the slapstick inclined.

We also got a chance to feed the elephants some bananas and there's a picture of Yoni up close to the baby elephant - Yoni had actually just put a banana in his mouth and the baby grabbed it . . my camera shutter was a moment too slow.

I was on a mother elephant and her two year old “baby” kept walking around her and between her legs. She got mad when the baby got too far from her and would charge at anyone who got between her and baby. I tried to stay calm, but said emphatically that the following day I did NOT want to ride old mother bear again. Her name was Mei Hamdi (mei means female in Laotian). At one point my elephant rammed right into Yoni and Noam’s elephant (they rode on one elephant together) and there was almost a scuffle. Oi vay!

We learned how to say “go, stop, turn right, and turn left”. I can’t remember any of it now, but Tal says that “bai” is go and "how" is stop - but you have to say it with some urgency, like in the video of Y washing his elephant.

On our second day we woke up very early to ride the elephants again and bring them down to the water for a washing and a good drink. Shalom and Penina decided that they had ridden enough elephants on their first day, so they watched and photographed us. I can’t say I blame them, and I too considered watching from the sidelines when I realized that the early morning ride was going to be all downhill. But in the end I reminded myself that I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to ride an elephant again, and plunged in. I can’t tell you how amazing it was – a real surge of energy, tranquility, fascination, and amazement all rolled into one. Not sure about the scrubbing of the elephant – the mahouts say they need it for their skin – but I have a feeling it’s just as much for the tourists as for the elephants. Regardless, the elephants didn’t seem to mind and as you can see by the pictures and videoclip . . Yoni took his job very seriously.

We slept in these unbelievable bungalows made of teak wood with an outdoor, enclosed shower, all glass front (not the shower, the bungalow!!), and comfortable chairs on the porch – see the pictures of the porch and the beautiful bed with the mosquito netting. When the guide tried to encourage us to leave for our kayaking trip back to Luang Prabang we begged to stay just a few more hours to savour the location.