Mahouts in training

She may have been 51 but she didn’t look a day over 30. She was breathtaking – long legs, toned back, full head of thick black hair. I guess it’s no surprise – vegetarianism has its health benefits. Even more remarkable, in her younger years, she was forced into slave labor. From the break of daylight into the late evening she carried a crippling amount of weight on her beautiful shoulders at the mercy of relentless Lao loggers. She was abused and tortured so much, in fact, that she is now blind in her right eye and has only 20 percent vision out of her left. Her name was Boun Nam. She was our elephant.

Boun Nam’s days are brighter now, thankfully. She’s no longer a working elephant. Instead she takes tourists on rides, lets them bathe her, and is fed daily. Seizing the opportunity, Nick and I hung out with Boun Nam in the jungle just outside of Luang Prabang.

The elephant lodge is home to nine rescued elephants. Thanks to decades of poaching, Asian elephants are largely endangered. We’ve been told that there are a few wild herds left in remote parts of Thailand and Laos, though they are an extreme rarity.

Our first day at the camp, Boun Nam and her Mahout, our guide, Nick, and I trekked out to the jungle where we pitched a tent and prepared the campsite in which we would live for the next few days. Typical Southeast Asian dry season, the weather was hot and humid. As we sweated and kicked up the chalky dirt with our shoes, Boun Nam was sporadically regurgitating watery snot into her trunk and then spraying it onto her dry cracked skin. We always knew when it was coming because it sounded like she was hocking a lugey the size of a punching bag. She’s probably from China.

With our guide leading the way, Nick and I ventured into the forest to collect food for our lovely Asian lady. Elephants love to eat. In fact, they spend most of their days doing so. Apparently their digestive tracts suck for efficiency – they digest only about 40 percent of an average of 500 lbs of food daily – so they’re inevitably shoveling heaps of vegetation into their mouths every chance they get.

With the help of our guide’s rusty machete, we sent two giant palm trees crashing to the jungle floor. (Normally, we’d side with the hippie tree huggers on this one but palms grow astonishingly fast in the Lao climate. So chill out, they’ll grow back.) We then cored the tree by sliding the blade up the length of the trunk and tearing off its outer layers. We were left with several giant, cylindrical tubes that we would carry back to camp for Boun Nam’s afternoon snack.

Something about feeding elephants is deeply satisfying. Nick and I watched as she contently chewed the squeaky flesh of the 20 juicy freshly cut cylinders of palm. Boun Nam coiled her muscular trunk around each succulent piece, pressed it into her tiny mouth, and continued to grind her huge elephant-sized molars as the juice poured from her lips. When she was done, she moseyed over to the jungle’s edge and continued feasting on grass and leaves until bedtime.  

If you’re anything like me you’re probably dying to know about their poop – volume, consistency, smell, composition. Well, to start, elephants poop a lot. It’s almost as if their intestines are connected directly to their esophagus with a straight shot to their asshole. Although that’s not quite how their anatomy lines up, we found that Boun Nam pooped at least every couple of hours. It’s impressively large and doesn’t smell as pungent as most animals’ (again thanks to diet).  It was so grassy and fibrous that I think Nick and I could have eaten it, Bear Grylls style, and sustained a pretty healthy existence. Of course we didn’t. Just saying.

Boun Nam means “lucky water” in Lao. We found it not so lucky that the first time we bathed her in the river she took a big poop in the water next to us. But once the current took ahold of her massive grassy floater we were able to bathe her properly.

With a firm command from her Mahout (her constant companion and guardian) she submerged her body into the river leaving only the top of her back exposed. We climbed aboard, brushes in hand, and proceeded to merrily scrub the dirt from her head and body. She was most certainly in elephant heaven.

After bath time it was back to camp. With another firm command she lifted her leg to help us climb aboard her shoulders. Riding an elephant isn’t as easy or romantic as it sounds. It kind of hurts, actually.

I had the ideal seat, on her neck, while Nick was usually performing a balancing act while straddling her back. Either position was an abdominal workout and made for some pretty sore limbs and private parts, details withheld. Those hairs are bristly. We’ll leave it at that.

By the end of our training, we were riding alone with Boun Nam, yelling out commands in Laos; stop, left, right, sit, poop etc. She probably followed them twenty percent of the time.

For every tour they book the elephant lodge buys one square meter of forest, further preserving it for future generations. Perhaps one day these magnificent beasts will make a comeback or, at the very least, increase their numbers. Thanks to organizations like this, Asiatic elephants like Boun Nam are happy, healthy, and sheltered.

Our three days of mahout training were an all-around success. No matter how raw our thighs or achy our tailbones, hanging with our amazing elephant was a uniquely Lao experience. We knew we would make unforgettable friends on this trip, we just didn’t think they would weigh over two tons.