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Riding an Elephant in Laos

There IS a reason I nicknamed him Bronco

sunny 90 °F

Part of day 3's Elephant Excursion was riding them into the river for a cool, refreshing bath in Laos' heat

I was thinking that I'd see all the temples on Day 2 in Luang Prabang, and take an excursion out of town my last day there. Even though it did not get to all of the temple I wanted, I decided to go ahead and do the Elephant excursion, anyway. There would be more temples in Vientiane. A chance to ride an elephant through the jungle, and into the Mekong River, was something I didn't want to pass up.

me and Bronco

The van picked the eight of us from various hotels, but luckily I was last. As it was, it was about a 45-minute to an hour ride to the tiny hamlet in the jungle where the elephants were kept. Along the way, I saw Laotian village life -- rice paddies, Asian cattle, goats, and tradition homes on stilts. What I'd read about Laos' roads was true. They were windy, in poor repair, and only got worse when we turned off the main highway. Scooters, tuk-tuks, and automobiles jockeyed for position on the roads, all in a hurry to get to the magical, mythical place at the head of the column of traffic.

The cliffs along the river and its muddy brown current

When we arrived, the elephant mahouts quickly started rounding our mounts up in line. They placed a cloth over their backs to cushion the howdah -- a bamboo construction wide enough for two to sit side by side. One couple insisted on riding bareback astride the elephant. They accommodated them, but we'd find out that all of us would eventually ride astride when we took our elephants down to the Mekong to bathe them. They lined them up next to a two-story building where we would mount them. I initially nicknamed my elephant "Buddy," but would later change it to Bronco -- for reasons that will be clear soon. Our's was the lead elephant, and we led the string of four. I shared the howdah with a teacher from the Philippines named Carol. She was a good sport and enjoyed the ride, plus was much better at elephant selfies than I was!

The first portion of our ride was in a howdah atop the elephant's back

We trekked for just under an hour through steep jungle pathways. It was easy to get used to Bronco's swaying gait. The cushioned howdah was comfortable, and I could imagine myself in India hunting tigers on elephant-back. Bronco had an uncanny ability to know which pair of trees he and the howdah could fit between and which he could not. He would resist our guide's lead from time to time, indicating which path he preferred. An elephant's skin is very rough, like sandpaper. Sparse black hairs stick straight up, like a fly's. Bronco flapped his ears back and forth repeatedly, probably to shoo off any insects. I nudged off a huge, black fly a few times with my sandals.

A French couple chose to ride their elephant bareback, as we swayed through the woods

After our ride, we lined up next to the second story of the building and clambered off. It was at this point when I should have taken the guide's suggestion and changed into a bathing suit. A few of the group had better advance information and did so. Instead, I took some pictures of Bronco and the other elephants. They stripped off the howdahs and we remounted bareback. Oblivious, my Spidey sense was not tingling. We slowly made our way down to the mighty, mighty Mekong River. Elephants do not like descending stone steps, by the way. Bronco tried to talk our guide into detouring through a thicket, but his barking commands convinced our mount otherwise. We continued on towards the muddy brown water.

"Do you want to stand up on his back?" the guide asked..."Sure," I replied to the spider, as I stepped naively onto his web...

Once we entered the water, each guide began to smile mischievously. Uh-oh, I thought. Thank god I'd left the camera bag in the van and had given one of the guides my phone to take pictures. I performed a mental checklist. What was I wearing? Wallet in pocket with tons of low-value Lao bills. Money belt, with a handful of US 20's. Hmmm. This could be bad. Riding bareback on an elephant, by the way, is much more precarious than in a howdah. Several times I was sure I was going to lean too far one direction and be pitched into the mud to my undying shame. I held on....for now. Eventually, my guide could not contain his mischievous streak any longer. He stood up on the back of the elephant, encouraging me to do the same. Like a good dupe, I did. At his point he barked out a command to Bronco, who began to shake like a wet dog. I was unceremoniously tossed into the water, as was Carol. The shock of the cool water, along with the realization everything I wore was now soaked, took a few seconds. Finally grieving to a fault, I helped Carol clamber back astride, and then pulled myself up. Fools. Twice more, we were pitched into the water by Bronco's skilled bucking. A few of the other tourists declined to get back atop their elephants. I was a good sport, and forgave our guide every time. Soon, the guides grew bored of our incompetence, and used Bronco to stage a Mekong rodeo. Our elephant was the best bronco, thus I gave him his name. It was fun to watch our tormentors get tossed unceremoniously into the muddy, brown water.

And it is here that Bronco, my elephant, earns his nickname as he shakes us off of his back

Eventually, we remounts for the ride back up from the riverbank. The lunch was a bit of a surprise to all of us. My regular readers know that I can in no way be confused with Anthony Bourdain. Still, it is always good to eat local food prepared by locals. I befriended the village puppies and shooed off the village cats...surprise, surprise! Soon it was time for the ride back home. As a group, we voted to skip the Lao whiskey tasting and power on through. It was undoubtedly a good excursion. It was fun talking to the other travelers, especially the French couple on an 11-month, round the world trip. One day, I tell myself: when I retire, I will take an around the world cruise and finally do my circumnavigation.

Even my seated companion couldn't stay on the back of Bronco when he shook so quickly back and forth

Once back in my hotel, I carefully separated every bill in my wallet and set them in between the slats of the chairs on my deck. The rest of my damp clothes were likewise set outside, quickly drying in the intense! Lao heat. I changed into my bathing suit -- hours later than I should have, obviously -- and jumped into the hotel pool. It felt great to cool down and unwind in the perfect temperatures of the pool. I couldn't resist ordering a big Lao beer (things are cheap here), and savoring the sunshine, warmth, and chance to just sit and let Southeast Asia drift by.

Shopping at the Luang Prabang Night Market

After dinner -- okay, I broke down and had a pizza -- I shopped at the Night Market. I'd been tempted by the gorgeous fabrics, but ended up buying a paper lamp with scenes of Laos village life on its four sides. Luang Prabang was a great stop. There are lots of travelers, so all the amenities are there. It still has that backpacker vibe, I feel. So. It was neat to return to my traveling roots, so to speak. If I were to come here again, I would definitely stay I town. I loved my hotel and it's genuine and unending graciousness. However, there are simply so many hotels in town there is really no reason to stay a 15-minute walk out of town.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:37 Archived in Laos

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Ha! Love to see you getting dumped off the elephant!

by Jenny

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