Posted by: adventuressetravels | January 10, 2012

Elephant Riding in the Land of 1,000,000 Elephants

Riding elephants calls to mind images of colonial India, of rajas riding pachyderms into battle, of the great grey giants crashing through the jungles with intrepid adventurers astride, or maybe the martial arts film “the Protector” with Tony Jaa doing flips off of elephants’ heads.  Whatever the image the thought of these animals never fails to impress.

Coming to Asia, I knew I had to have the experience of riding one of the colossal creatures.   Chiang Mai was filled with tour agencies, but I decided to wait.  After all, I was going to the land of 1,000,000 elephants next, to Laos.

On the slow boat to Luang Prabang, I met a group of backpackers from Spain.  The day after we reached Laos’ lovely city we signed up for a day long Mahout, or elephant rider, training camp.  We decided on the 1-day program which we bargained them down $50 because we had a group.

Meet the Elephants

There were two enormous elephants standing at a sort of gate munching on greenery.  Tien told us that these were female elephants, 30 and 35-years old.  They were fascinating to watch, wrapping their flexible trunks around pieces of food on the ground and stuffing it into their mouths.  The nearest cow wanted her food clean and smacked each branch against the fence many times to get the dust and dirt off before finally deigning to eat.

Elephants are all different, Tien explained; each one had his or her own personality quirks, likes and dislikes.  I’m sure they looked unique to people who knew them.  To me, on the other hand, they all looked pretty similar: large, grey, and wrinkly.

I approached the nearest one.  Her skin was wet leather  left baking in the desert sun to dry and crack.  The tough hide was and covered in sparse coarse hairs.  Looking past sweeping eyelashes into her golden eyes, I couldn’t see the timeless intelligence I had heard so much about.  All of that seemed to be stored in her curious trunk. I picked up a piece of food and offered it to her.  The inquisitive trunk wrapped around the stalk and pulled it from my hand.


We were told to pair up: two people to a howdah, or elephant saddle or carriage.  Our group climbed up the steps of a large mounting platform and waited while mahouts brought one of the great beasts to the platform edge.   Two people climbed aboard one, then onto next, and the next…  Finally it was my turn.  The carriage seemed impossibly far from the platform and the ground gaped beneath.  I should step on the elephant’s back and onto the carriage.  With an audible gulp I swallowed my fear and clambered into the seat.

The elephant’s slow steps rocked the howdah violently from side to side.  Our train of elephants crashed through the jungle, down slopes which felt impossibly steep for such huge animals.  I gripped the wooden edges in order not to slide out when the howdah platform pitched steeply forward.  I felt like the intrepid adventurer exploring the jungles of Asia.  After an hour, we got back to the start of our trek and my fantasy ended.  It was actually quite enough howdah riding for me.  The earthquake-like rolling gait of elephants never seemed to get smoother.

Mahout Training

After lunch was Mahout training.  We had ridden elephants as royalty, as passengers chauffeured in carriages high atop the elephant’s back.  Now it was our turn to really ride the elephants ourselves.  But first, we had to learn the rules.

Mahouts are more than just elephant riders.  They have a strong bonding relationship with their animals.  After all, an elephant never forgets, or so they say.  And they don’t. Elephants remember kindness or injustice for years, Tien told us.  But we were just mahouts for the day; we only had enough time to get a taste of what it was to be a Mahout.

We sat in a semi-circle as Tien taught us how to be real Mahouts.  To control an elephant a Mahout uses voice commands and touch by kicking the ears to go, or go in different directions, or slapping the head to stop.  In the past he used an elephant hook, but hooks and knives still scared elephants through some collective consciousness from what I could ascertain, but these cruel implements are frowned upon and never used at this school.

Real Mahouts

When we came out of Mahout training there were more elephants waiting for us.  For the howdahs it was two people to an elephant but now we each got our own elephant to ride.

Elephants began training at age 5, working at 7 and could be ridden until about 65, but the oldest one here was 40, and most were around 25.  A healthy elephant could live until it was 125, Tien told us.  They were all female elephants with two exceptions, a ladyboy, and a small elephant with tusks.

In Tien’s limited English he tried to explain about Ladyboy; apparently he was male but couldn’t grow tusks and wasn’t completely male.  I didn’t completely understand why this huge elephant was a ladyboy but there was a lot I had to learn about elephants.

The other was a naughty little boy.  I liked him and his little tusks immediately.  The “little” elephant was larger than a draft horse, but the others dwarfed him.  He was just 10-years old, less than half the age of the others.

We were paired up with elephants and before I knew it I gripped one ear and scrambled aboard the naughty boy with my legs just behind his ears.  Luckily he was one of the elephants who did know how to lie down for mahouts to mount so it wasn’t quite such a climb.  Though he was small, riding with just the ears to hold me aboard did feel quite precarious. I braced my hands on his tough rawhide head, the spiky hairs poking into my hands. I had assumed that riding behind the head wouldn’t be as bouncy as in the howdah, but his body rocked with the movement of each one of his tree-trunk legs.

The naughty boy snacked on palm trees along the path and took his sweet time

along the way, but he seemed happy.  Still, I didn’t feel quite right riding such a small elephant.  It seemed almost like child labor.  When we got back to camp an hour later I was more than ready to dismount and asked if I could ride a different elephant for the next leg of our journey.

Water for Elephants

We fed our mounts some treats as a thank you for their hard work:  bananas and sugar cane to tickle their fancy.  Elephants and Laos people even have similar diets.  Both love sticky rice, bananas, and lemon grass.  They do have a bit of a sweet tooth though and love their sugar cane.

Then it was time to go to the river.  Though the Laotian mountain air was chilly we still had to bathe the elephants and get them home for the night.  I wasn’t entirely looking forward to taking a bath with the elephants but at least it was warmer than it had been that morning.

I traded elephants with one of my Spanish friends and climbed aboard Ring, one of the large cows.  Sitting astride Ring’s neck felt much more secure than riding her smaller friend.  She felt solid and like she knew what she was doing.

Heading down the muddy river’s edge Ring didn’t seem more excited about

getting wet than I did, but between me, and the Mahout guide sitting behind me on her back we convinced her to get into the water where the other elephants were submerging their Mahouts, spraying into the air, and enjoying playing in the river.

After a half an hour of bathing the elephants waded across the river to their jungle home for the night.  We dismounted, and floated on inner-tubes back down the river, before taking a little boat back.  We changed out of our Mahout uniforms and then all piled into the car waiting to take us back to Luang Prabang.

Incredibly smart, with great memories, and large enough to easily crush their opponents, no wonder elephants are treasured, loved, and revered as a symbol and protectors of Thailand, Laos, and India.

It certainly can be, and often is better to have these animals working on the soft ground of a jungle setting than on the hard pavement of cities.  In cities they can, and often are hit by cars, streets have collapsed under their weight, and the animals can have any number of accidents.

Here, they bathe daily in the river, are well fed, and have relatively easy lives.  However, I am still not sure that these elephants can be truly happy.  Rather than frolicking in large jungles, the elephants are chained at nights.  Not that an elephant does much frolicking, but the opportunity would be nice.

As interesting and wonderful an experience as spending a day as a mahout is, I think I’ll stick with riding horses.

On a side note, I did not participate in the Mahout training programs in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but I would recommend Thailand over Laos for Elephant riding if money is an issue.  The prices are almost always as cheap or less expensive.  The training course I participated in, for example, was listed as $85 USD, and only after intense bargaining did I get the company down to $50 USD. I did enjoy the mahout training camp I went to, but have heard wonderful things about the programs around Chiang Mai, Thailand.


  1. Like you I LOVED the experience… I just wish I had known what I know now before hand. A lovely lady called Amy posted a few very thought provoking comments under my own post, and I would urge you and your followers to have a look before considering the experience for the first time (or again)…

    They are amazing animals aren’t they?

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