Southeast Asia must have stock in elephants. They put their images on beers, clothing, bags, jewelry, and a place isn’t a backpacker destination if it doesn’t offer at least one experience with an elephant. You can ride the elephant, walk it, swim with it, take a meditation course designed around the elephant, play chess with it, or maybe even add it as a Facebook friend. My choice was to bathe with the infamous elephant, as that seemed the most intimate and native-like (although give me that elephant’s last name and I surely would have friend requested it).
I was in Luang Prabang, Laos. A sweet looking girl with flowers in her hair pedaled by a middle aged couple in linen pants on their way to a cafe. The loudest noise I heard was birds chirping and stress seemed far away as I sat on a bean bag and sipped my mango smoothie. It was a mild, lovely place, and it made me want to do something to get my adreneline pumping. One choice was going to the bowling alley/disco that served your choice of poison after the government enforced curfew of 11pm. The other was a kayak, waterfall, and trekking tour with the option of getting to know an elephant. Elephant it was, as I’d never been any good at bowling and the whole idea seemed a little too “Footloose” to me.
I booked the trip with Green Discovery and the next morning I was trekking though small villages with our Laotian guide, Soi, explaining village life along the way.
“If a man wants to marry a woman, he comes at night and kidnaps her. She cries and cries and the family follows, but then the husband gives them money and they go home,” he said as we passed huts with chickens pecking around them. Definitely didn’t sound like every girl’s dream wedding. Soi continued to steer us through the impressive jungle, as my friend Piro giggled, “You guys. It’s like we’re in Jurassic Park.” Thinking someone should talk to the guide, I began asking Soi questions about his life. I found out that he used to be a monk.
“I’ll become a monk again when I am old, ” he said as we passed through trees planted in a line, “I will have food and be comfortable, but I am happy living in Luang Prabang. When I first came here, there was one hotel. Now there are many tourists and so much to do.”
I wondered if he ever had traveled outside of Laos.
“No, I want to, but a passport is very expensive. Six hundred US dollars!”
A passport for an American costs less than two hundred dollars. Soi had become quiet again so I changed the subject by asking him the name of a purple flower that bloomed onto our path.
“Uhhh purple flower,” he replied with a shrug.
After Soi accidentally led us to the wrong side of the river, we were finally put in red, beat-up kayaks by some men who had been sitting in trucks on the other side. We began to paddle our way to Tad Sae waterfall. This was not the adrenaline rush I had been seeking, seeing as it was January and the Mekong waters were low and slow. Luckily, the elephants were more than ready to get my blood pumping.
We dragged our boats up on the dirt slope and my friends Sharon, Piro, and I bought tickets for elephant bathing. Sharon and Piro were immediately pushed upon a noble looking beast by a small Laotian man who was in a hurry. My elephant was short and had an attitude. He refused to kneel down so I could get on him and so his trainer applied (what I hoped was) slight pressure to the elephant’s ear with a metal hook. I hopped on the broad back and was fascinated and freaked out by the sharp bristles of hair. The massive muscles rolled back and forth underneath me as the trainers led us to the pool of water under the waterfall. My elephant kept trying to walk off the path and I had to use thigh strength that I didn’t know I had in an effort not to fall head first off of him onto the cement. Some people think they can communicate with animals. I’ve never been able to, but in those first few minutes with the elephant, I heard him loud and clear.
He did not like me.
He did not like having to carry me around.
He was going to try and kill me.
The water was slightly chilly as my elephant and I ambled in. In my dreams of this moment, I had thought I would have a loofah that I scrubbed my new best friend, Elephant, with as he showered me with water and we laughed about the good times. Instead my elephant decided to dive in and submerge his whole body underwater.
This surprised me. I hadn’t known elephants were hairy so how was I supposed to know they swam like fish? To the spectators watching, it looked like I was slowly drowning by myself, but in reality I was trying to keep my feet on the elephants back so I didn’t lose him.
“Hey everybody”, I waved to the crowd above where my friend Margo took photos, “I swear there is an elephant under me!”
Meanwhile, Piro and Sharon sat high and dry as their elephant strode through the water and they fed him bananas. Sharon laughed at me.
“Get back on your elephant, c’mon just do it!”
What was my elephant doing down there? Was he trying to kill me? I laughed nervously, swallowing some water, and yelled to the trainer, “I can’t control this elephant!” in hopes that someone could get my elephant to act like an elephant. The trainer, who was crouched like a tribesman behind a bush with his hook, just stared at me.
My elephant realized he wasn’t a fish and came up for air. He noticed the banana feeding and began encroaching on Sharon and Piro’s elephant’s territory. Their trainer, out of exasperation, gave me a banana to feed my elephant, who put his trunk over his head and suctioned it out of my hand. He continued to do this even though I no longer had any bananas and it was almost like he was looking at me with the thing and deciding how best to suck my head off. This is when my elephant, out of nowhere, decided he wanted to make some babies.
My elephant sidled up to the other elephant.
“Guys, he’s crushing my leg, seriously, he’s crushing it!”, said Piro his voice rising with concern.
We were in front of a small waterfall that went over a rock ledge into our pool and the elephants moved alongside it. Piro’s elephant could tell romance was in the air, wanted no part of it and swam away. Yet, my elephant wasn’t going to take no for an answer and quickly followed. Sharon fell off in the bustle and I grabbed her arm and pulled her onto my elephant so she wouldn’t be crushed by the mounting that was about to take place.
“Hannah, your elephant is insane! Holy crap, is he having sex? Is that what he’s doing right now? WHAT IS HE DOING?”, Sharon screamed as my elephant put his front legs up on the other elephants and began moving back and forth. We all screamed together and Piro jumped off his poor elephant, that was practically pinned down.
“Piro, don’t you leave us! PIRO!”
Piro just treaded water and looked us in amusement. The trainers yelled and hit their hooks on trees. I felt like I was in some fucked up version of the Coliseum.
Sharon and I kept screeching as my elephant repeatedly tried to mount and was continually thwarted by his victim.
“This is way closer than I ever wanted to get to elephants Sharon!”, I wailed.
She yelped and fell off, leaving me alone with a rapist elephant. The trainers began to do something, beside their fruitless yelling, and called my elephant away with some food (apparently hunger was the more important natural urge). I clung to its back, hoping that this elephant “bathing” was over. I heard clapping and looked up to see tourists, taking pictures and laughing. I needed a beer. Preferably one without an elephant on it.