Monday, 23 January 2012

Washing Elephants in Ban Phapho

I love elephants (really-love-them- think-they’re-amazing-can’t-get-enough-of-them kinda love!) and spending time in Asia means you get to see a lot of them, which is great.  But, you get very few opportunities to be up close to them unless you seek out an elephant trek or some other such touristy tour.  From my experience, these places are usually run with the aim of luring in as many foreigners as possible, making as much money as they can, while the welfare of the elephants is often not high up on their list of priorities.  I had read that in the small town of Ban Phapho in South Eastern Laos, elephants are still used as working animals and, seeing as I’m a bit baloobas about elephants, I decided to go check it out for myself and see if I could have a less touristy nelly experience.  I was in Tat Lo at the time, so the journey wasn’t crazy long and I got to Ban Phapho at about 5pm, just before some of the heaviest monsoon rain I’d ever seen!  I had a surprisingly tasty dinner of fried sticky rice with veg and egg, arranged to take an elephant for a bath the next day and then hit the hay in preparation for my big day!
Bounhome Guesthouse, Ban Phapho

I was up early to have something to eat before my elephant and her mahout arrived.  As I was polishing off the end of my breakfast I heard them coming through the trees and then there she was, all saddled up and ready for me! The place I was staying, Bounhome Guesthouse, had a nelly platform out the back that you could climb up onto it and be level-ish with the elephant’s head, making getting on and off a bit easier.  The elephant was called Ton Ban and was only three so still relatively little and still learning but she was incredibly responsive to her mahout, Ing.  He perched himself comfortably on the seat, leaving me to sit on her neck with my knees tucked in behind her ears, let out a bit of a groan (whether it was Lao or just a noise I don’t know!) and off we went.  I’ve always thought that Asian elephants’ ears look so small in comparison to African elephants.  When I was sitting on Ton Ban though, I remember thinking to myself that she had really big ears.  With my legs dangling down, my toes only barely came to the bottom of her ears.  But then when I got off, I was shocked to see that they still looked so small.  African elephants’ ears must be huge!
Ton Ban and Ing Arriving!

Off we went down the road for about fifty metres and then veered off into a paddy field.  Ing didn’t have much English but I gathered that we were walking in some kind of special elephant corridor, and that although there was rice growing where we were walking, it had all gone to seed so we weren’t doing any damage.  Ton Ban was in nelly heaven, chomping her way through the rice, pulling up massive chunks at a time and giving it a good thrashing before stuffing it into her mouth!  The scenery was spectacular, endless paddy fields and a backdrop of mountains, covered in that mystical looking low-lying cloud, totally untouched and unspoilt.  There were no other people to be seen, no animals, no houses, no roads, no nothing, just the three of us and the sound of Ton Ban sloshing through the water.

We came to a little rocky hill which Ton Ban strolled up ridiculously sure-footedly.  Up on the hill was another platform, so we got off to admire the view.  Sticky rice, sticky rice and more sticky rice as far as the eye could see!  Ing hadn’t had his breakfast so he’d wanted to stop to eat but first he went off, machete in hand, to get some bamboo for me to give to Ton Ban.  She was delighted so she was!  She munched on her bamboo, and Ing and I had goat rolled in basil leaves with sticky rice.  With eating out of the way, we jumped back on and off we went, off the far side of the hill, through more paddy fields and passed a couple going about their daily business in a dug-out canoe.  
Ton Ban Lovin' her Bamboo!

After about an hour, the guy who owned the guesthouse I was staying in materialised to take some pictures of us.  We stopped to take off Ton Ban’s saddle and then brought her to a pond so we could wash her.  This was the part I’d been waiting for!  It was amazing to be sitting on her as she ducked and dived underneath the water, with often nothing about water but her periscopic trunk.  Ing gave me an industrial strength scrubbing brush to get some of the mud off her and I got stuck in, lovin’ every second of it.  I was up to my neck in the water at times but I couldn’t have been happier, given half the chance I would’ve spent all day in that little muddly pond scrubbing Ton Ban!  

After we'd given her a good aul scrub, we put the seat back on and started walkin' back home.  When we got back to the guest house, i climbed down, said my goodbyes and watched as Ing took the seat off Ton Ban, through a bit of a lead rope around her neck, jumped on his moped and burned off, Ton Ban running along behind him!!  The whole day was amazing and easily one of the highlights of my time, not just in laid back, chilled out, Laos, but in Asia as a whole. 

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