Learning to speak ‘elephant’

Learning to speak ‘elephant’

“Seung seung” I say. Slowly the elephant lifts her front leg and waits patiently. Her huge brown eye looks steadily into mine. I can’t quite believe it but my elephant is giving me a leg up! These beautiful, intelligent animals can learn up to 150 voice commands. The mahout nodded and reached for my hand. Placing my foot on the elephants leg I was hoisted onto her bare neck, her skin warm and spongy against mine. We move slowly and deliberately, gently rocking from side to side as she lumbers through the jungle.

Elephants wading through the Nam Khan river in Laos
Wading through the Nam Khan river in Laos

My elephant for the day is called Mae Gong Gnun and is 42 years old. She’s a resident at the Elephant Village Sanctuary and Resort which rescues injured and mistreated elephants. She and the mahout sitting behind me have been working together for 7 years. It takes 3 months of training for a mahout to bond with an elephant and only verbal commands are used to control these magnificent beasts.

We approach the Nam Khan river. “Pie pie” says the mahout, which is elephant for “move forward”. Mae Gong wades in, the sparkling water swirlinging around us under a cloudless sky the colour of faded jeans. Her ears flap against my legs. “That means she’s happy” says the mahout.

Couple ride elephants along the Nam Khan river in Laos
Elephant Village was the first place in Laos to ban the use of the heavy ‘howdah’ and now all visitors ride on the neck

After our trek we give our elephants their daily bath. Mae Gong sinks into the water dunking me in with her. We rub their heads with scrubbing brushes. Some of the elephants squirt water through their trunks showering themselves and each other. It’s a real ‘pinch me’ moment.

Giving elephants a better life

Sign for Elephant Village

If I were an elephant I’d like to live at Elephant Village. Located on the banks of the Nam Khan river in over 100 acres of pristine Laos jungle, the sanctuary is overlooked by a stunning mountain range. An on site vet ensures that the animals are taken good care of and treats the injured elephants that are brought in, many of whom have stepped on landmines or been overworked in the logging industry.

Elephant Village was the first place in Laos to ban the use of the elephant seat or ‘howdah’ as it’s kinder to the animals. They also limit each elephant to just three hours working with tourists each day after which they are allowed to roam freely in the jungle. Once the animals reach the age of 60 they are retired.

View of Nam Khan river from the Elephant Village sanctuary
Gorgeous view across the Nam Khan river from Elephant Village sanctuary

Planning a trip

Elephant Village is just 15km outside Luang Prabang so it’s an easy day trip to make from the city. We did the ‘1 day Mahout Experience‘ which also includes lunch and a boat trip to the Tad Sae Waterfall. At £75 each it’s not cheap, as you would expect from somewhere that actually cares for their animals. However having read horrible stories about elephants being mistreated in Laos we were happy for our money to go to such a worthy cause.

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