How to Give an Elephant a Bath
The sun was just rising over the Laotian jungle. Mist still blanketed the Nam Khan River. It was cool out. The sun glowed through the mist, providing an eerie morning.
We walked down the uneven, dried mud stairs to the river. At the bottom, we literally hopped from land onto a flat bottom boat. There were six of us in the group. Once each of us was seated, the driver cranked the engine. It roared to life, piercing the silence of the morning. He motored us over to the opposing bank. Water lapped in through the duct-tapped hole near the bottom of the boat.
The boat hit the bank with a thud. One by one, the passengers disembarked. With a wave, the boat driver took the boat further downriver. The guide met us on the bank. His name sounded like North, though I’m sure it was spelled much differently.
“Follow me,” he said, a smile creeping at the sides of his face.
Into the jungle we went. Birds called to one another. The monkeys hollered. Wind rustled through the trees. Far in the distance, a trumpet from an elephant. Goosebumps ran up and down my arms. The walk seemed to go on forever. It was never-ending. Very few words were exchanged between the group. Sunlight spilled through the foliage above. I realized that the birds had stopped cooing. The monkeys ceased their chatter. The jungle was quiet.
There was a sudden crash, followed by a trumpet. An elephant lumbered out of the morning haze. Towering over us, the gentle giant continued to munch on its bunch of grass. Following behind her were her friends, one elephant for each visitor. On their necks sat the mahout, or elephant trainer. He is said to be the only man who can control the elephant.
Mae Uak, my elephant, wandered over. Her ears were dotted with white spots, meaning she was a very lucky girl. Looking at her, I uttered a Laotian command. To my ears, it sounded like nothing but random noises. To her, it meant ‘lift up your leg’. She propped it up like a step; putting my foot on her raised leg, I grabbed the top of her ear, and pulled myself up.
Though I had been on and off of Mae Uak for the past two days, I was still hesitant grabbing her ear for support, even though both my mind and the mahout had told me an elephant’s ear was strong enough to be grabbed. With much awkward clambering, and the help of the mahout, I was sitting on Mae Uak’s neck. The ground was a long way down.
On top of her head and down her neck were prickly hairs. They scratched up against my legs. With another command, Mae Uak started her trek towards the river. It was just about that time. This silly girl was going to receive a bath.
The elephants meandered in line. Every now and then, one of the long, rough trunks would reach out and rip vegetation from the trees. They never stopped eating. Besides the nagging thought that said ‘If you fall off, the elephant will squish you,’ it was a relaxing journey. I patted Mae Uak’s head every now and then, wanting to let her know I thought she was the coolest thing ever.
We broke free from the jungle, and onto the muddy bank. Still in their somewhat straight line, the elephants wandered into the river. Mist still blanketed the river; as the sun continued to rise, the mist thinned. A cool breeze blew. Monkeys still howled. Birds still sang. Water splashed up around my dangling ankles. I held onto the top of Mae Uak’s ear tightly, not wanting fall off. How tragic that’d be.
The water rose and rose, to the point it was above my knees. There was a whole elephant under me too. The mahout said something. Apparently, it meant dive, for the elephant completely submerged herself. The water rushed up to my neck. She stood back up. The mahout tapped me on my shoulder with his rubber slipper. I turned; he shoved a scrub brush in my face. I reached to grab it. In the process, I slipped, and started to fall off of Mae Uak’s neck.
“No! Crap! No, no, no!” My hands flew around and grabbed her ridged back. Hanging in that awkward position, I heaved myself up. Looking around, it seemed as though no one in the group had noticed my fall. Good. We were going to keep it that way.
Scrubbing behind her ears, on top of her head, and down her trunk, layers and layers of caked mud came off. She could get herself really dirty in a day. She continued to dunk herself, I scrubbed. Every now and then, her trumpet would erupt with a geyser of water, luckily never in my direction.
Everyone laughed. We splashed each other. The elephants dunked themselves. There was nothing more fun and so exciting than giving this lumbering giant a bath. When the time came to lead the elephants out of the Nam Khan River, even they seemed sad. They enjoyed receiving baths as much as we loved giving them one.
After wandering out of the river, both riders and elephants dripping wet, we had to clamber off of our new friends. Luckily, gravity makes it much easier getting off an elephant. Sadly though, if getting on gracefully is hard, getting off an elephant gracefully is next to impossible. After landing on my butt, and wiping off the red dirt, I went over to pet Mae Uak’s trunk. It was rough.
Her round eyes stared down at me. There was something so calming about her presence. I looked into her eyes, wondering what she had seen in her time. What she had heard. I wondered what she was thinking.
As we walked away from the tethered elephants, I thought to myself, “I will never forget giving an elephant a bath at sunrise, in the Nam Khan River, in Laos.”
The Fine Print
While in Laos, we did an overnight at a camp called Elephant Village. Just outside of Luang Prabang, the camp is something of a sanctuary to abused elephants. The volunteers go out and rescue the elephants and bring them to the camp, where professional vets treat the elephants. They come from all over, everything from tek farms to tourist side shows. The camp is extraordinary, taking in mahouts and their elephants and their families.
There are a few different programs to educate visitors on elephants, ranging from half days to two-day trips. My family and I spent two days at the camp. While there, we became mahouts, learning mahout commands, what the elephants like to eat, and hiking around the beautiful jungles. A lodge offers great sleeping if you do end up spending the night.
The groups are usual pretty small, no more than 10. The breathtaking Trail of Falls is only a short boat ride away; literally just that, you follow a trail of waterfalls through the thick jungle. The crystal clear, blue pools are open for swimming, too.
To learn more about Elephant Village, check out their website (http://www.elephantvillage-laos.com). Take it from me when I say you won’t be disappointed.
Austin Weihmiller is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program.
All photos courtesy and copyright Austin Weihmiller.