Monday, January 16, 2006

Now for the rest of the story...

While Brian nicely covered the basics of our Mahout experience for the kids, I thought I'd throw in a few more anecdotes. As we've mentioned before, we try to get a feel for the culture when we can and we have a horror of contrived or overly packaged tours. So we were cautiously optimistic when we saw this new "test" package. Basically, you go and hang out with the mahouts for a day, including all the elephant feeding, washing, handling and sleeping on the floor in a mahout hut, bookended by a visit to a pretty waterfall and kayaking back to town when it was all over. Though it could have been contrived, it sounded better to us than trekking to waterfall (on foot or on elephant) with all the other tourists and then heading home.

Things that didn't make Brian's story for the kids:

-- Riding an elephant is more difficult than I thought. I grew up on horse back and kept expecting that muscle memory to kick in. But it actually took me a pretty long time (much longer than Brian) to get comfortable on the elephant. I think part of it is that you are sitting on the elephant's neck up against its front shoulders so the entire motion is the side to side of the front legs. This made it easy to overcompensate and lose your balance. Whereas on a horse, you are on its back between its sets of legs, so while the motion is side to side, it is also back and forward and diagonal and is easier to adjust to.

-- Elephants are SLOW. (that is, except when they're being fast...which we had NO desire to experience.) The trip back from the falls which took 1.5 hours would only have taken 50 minutes if we had been walking. And when the mahouts would walk next to the elephants they had to walk pretty slowly, unlike walking with horses who are trail riding, for instance.

-- About 40 minutes into the walk back from the falls, we came to yet another fork in the path. These elephants respond to vocal "left" and "right" commands (like sled dogs) and the mahouts barked out a "left" ("sai"). Despite this, the elephants turned right and headed down the other path. Things like this had happened already, and the mahout would just bark it again/louder, tap the elephant with a stick and/or tug on its ear. However none of these actions had any effect this time and both elephants started speeding up down the trail. So picture this: Brian and I are sitting on the elephants' necks, hanging on not quite for dear life, but certainly with enthusiasm, the mahouts are stuck behind us between us and the seats, and they're yelling at the elephants, reaching around us trying to get the elephants' attention, and generally laughing with that sort of 'oh shit' nervousness. Eventually they were able to maneuver so that both Brian and I could climb past them back on to the seats so that they could get serious with the elephants. At which point the elephants said, oh right, the boss, and turned around. In the end, probably not much danger but it DID get the heart rate up and moving. (And made us hesitate just a bit when they wanted us to switch back onto the neck again. Let's just say I was pretty happy when we eventually pulled up into camp.)

-- Going in the water with the elephants was fun. The first time it was just to give them a drink of water before putting them to bed. While Uae mostly just drank, Mae Son seemed to alternate drinking with spraying down her sides and back (and therefore Pan and me). We got quite wet and given how hot it was, it was quite refreshing, as long as you didn't think about the fact that your shower just came out of an elephant's nose.

-- We also took the elephants in to the water to give them a bath on Friday morning. We had been warned that we would get wet, so we both zipped off our pants legs. Mae Son went in to drink for a while, then Pan urged her farther and farther into the middle of the (admittedly pretty shallow) river. She seemed to be turning the wrong way (against what he was telling her) then all of a sudden she sat down in the water, so that only her heat and neck were out. Pan was hollering, so I couldn't tell if she was supposed to be doing that are not. My first thought was "oh god, she's going to roll around in the water" followed by "oh well, it's easy enough to just push off of her in the water and float/swim away." Evidently though this is what Pan was telling her to do and they just like startling the tourists. So though sadly, sadly we have no pictures of this, you can imagine me hanging on to the top of her head and trying not to slide into the water while Pan used a long scrub brush/broom to clean her off. Then when he wanted to clean her head, he had me move back so that I was standing/crouching on her back while he stood on her head and scrubbed that. Once she was clean we got back to normal positions and headed back to camp.

-- Thursday night was really neat because we just sat out under the stars and had dinner with our guide and talked and talked. He is Hmong, and we were able to ask him all the questions that we had from our trek that we couldn't communicate to our guide on that trip whose command of English was a little shaky. We talked a lot about life in Laos and learned a lot from him.

-- As we made sure and tucked our mosquito nets under the mats that we had laid on the mahout hut floor, we had to laugh at the futility of it, as there were pretty big gaping holes between the bamboo floor slats themselves.

-- We discovered that we ended up not having the FULL mahout experience Friday morning when we headed out to pick up the elephants from their night-time tethering. Evidently the guys had been hitting the Lao Lao hard and heavy in the village the night before and Brian's mahout mentor had barely helped him up onto Uae when he disappeared into the brush for a noisy and extended bout of puking. Brian decided he'd pass on that part.

-- After we had helped bring the elephants in Friday morning and get them clean and fed and ready to carry tourists on a new day, we said goodbye and thanks to the elephants and their mahouts, then headed over to the lodge to get ready for kayaking. We spent the next 4 hours paddling down the Nam Khan past villages and villagers. It was relaxing and refreshing, especially when Brian and I discovered how bad we are at steering a kayak at the top of the only class 2 rapid (the rest were class 1 since it's the dry season) we faced. We toppled out after the first drop and experienced the rest of it from a slightly lower and wetter perspective, trying to remember to keep our feet forward and legs bent, to hang on to our paddles, and to avoid as many of the rocks as possible. Dong gathered us and our stuff up at the bottom and we continued on the rest of the way.

All in all the experience lived up to our hopes. While it's impossible to be completely untouristy, this was different and bare bones enough to make us feel like we had to work to earn it, and it was nice to just be one on one with the elephants and the mahouts.

Looking forward to our next outdoor adventures in southern Laos.



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