On a quest to learn the ways of the Laotian mahouts, Henry Alford discovers that few experiences offer a lesson in humility like learning to ride an elephant.
Travel + Leisure, Mahout Lodge, Laos
Zachary Bako
| Credit: Zachary Bako

When you’re sitting on an elephant’s neck, you see him differently: 4½ tons of quivering muscle, capable of reducing all within his reach to dust-breathing rubble. Which is exactly the vibe I’m getting from Bonsou, a.k.a. Lady Boy, the 56-year-old bull I’m riding through the woods near an elephant lodge in Laos. Bonsou is blithely tugging vines and saplings out of the earth like a bored socialite rejecting fabric swatches. Honda, a giggly former monk, is teaching me to be a mahout, or elephant herder, and tells me that the command for “Stop that!” is, strangely, “Ya, ya!” So I yell this counterintuitive instruction, sure that I have woken up on Backwards Day.

Suddenly the bored socialite stops his idle ravaging. But then he won’t start walking again. Honda, seeing my frustration, tells me to yell “Pai, pai!” to make Bonsou continue down the trail. That the command is pronounced “pie, pie” seems propitious: who doesn’t love cake’s less formal sibling? Finally, some six pai, pais later, Bonsou heeds my pleas, and starts slowly thundering forward.

Laos used to be known as the Land of a Million Elephants, but now, because of hunting and habitat loss, it has only about 950 elephants left, 450 or so of them in the wild. That said, the elephants in Laos fare better than they do in neighboring Thailand: 68 percent of Laos is covered with forest, as compared with 37 percent in Thailand, where a 1989 logging ban put the thousands of elephants who’d been hauling logs out of work.

And so my boyfriend, Greg, and I have come to the All Lao Elephant Camp & Mahout Resort just outside Luang Prabang for its three-day mahout course. One of several such lodges in the area, All Lao was founded in an effort to preserve both the species and the mahout legacy. We’d first spent two relaxing days in Luang Prabang, a sleepy river town along the Mekong filled with colonial town houses, considered by some to be the bestpreserved small city in Asia. Then we’d settled into our rustic accommodations at the lodge—a wooden bungalow on stilts, its beds covered with mosquito netting and its bathroom walls partly open to the jungle.

The lodge has 12 elephants, ranging in age from 13 to 56; each has its own mahout. To reach them, we took a brief voyage by longtail boat across the Nam Khan River. They stood in their wooden pens, as if awaiting adventure.

For our first ride into the jungle, Honda and two mahouts helped Greg and me climb into a howdah, or wooden seat, tied to the back of one of two elephants. The mahout assigned to each of the two elephants sat on his charge’s neck, in front of the howdah; I tried to study these young men and their rakish style for pointers. My mahout, Mr. Seng, wore flip-flops and could swing his legs to either side of the elephant’s head, or over it, with total ease; I vowed to become as loose and confident and kicky.

Thirty minutes into the walk, Honda said that Greg and I could get off of the howdahs—which, frankly, had felt a little tame, a little Merchant Ivory—and switch places with our mahouts. Keeping my legs stretched over the 30-inch-wide, tough, bristly hide as we rumbled along the path asked much of my inner thighs; I felt like I was straddling a leather ottoman during an earthquake. For balance, I clutched first Bonsou’s neck, then his back, and then, as I’d seen one of the mahouts do, his ears. When we dismounted, some 40 minutes later, I was sure, given Bonsou’s girth, that my legs now resembled a wishbone.

When we returned to the lodge, we fed the elephants, handing them large bundles of bananas, sugarcane, and cuttings from pineapple trees. Though Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, they can still easily put away 300 pounds of food a day; I was happy to be, as they say in Overeaters Anonymous, an enabler.

“It’s time for washing now,” Honda said, helping Greg and me back onto our elephants. The mahouts sat behind us. As we trundled five or six minutes through a small village down to the river, I asked, “Any instructions for washing, Honda?” He said, tersely, “You are sitting on the elephant’s neck and waiting. The elephant takes a shower.” It is possible that I have never laughed as hard in my life as I did in the next 15 minutes. Our elephants delicately edged into the river, the waterline coming to, alternately, their chin or just under their eyes; then, responding to their mahouts’ yells of “Boun, boun!” the elephants snaked their trunks out of the river and proceeded to blast our faces with powerful torrents of water.

That night at dinner in the open-air dining pavilion, another of the lodge’s guests—a middle-aged Australian man—said to me, “We heard your screaming all the way through the jungle.” I apologized, and attributed my elevated decibel level to blissful excitement. Dinners in the pavilion, which consisted of simple Laotian dishes and usually a beer, were a good time to compare notes with other travelers. Everyone I spoke to was entranced by the elephants. One guest, though, was anxious about his soap having been mysteriously moved several feet in his bathroom during the previous night. “Mice,” Honda explained (the guest had imagined a “soap monster”).

Day two was very similar to day one, without the howdah portion of the ride. I practiced my balance. For lunch, Honda spread a blanket out under a stand of teak trees and produced a series of plastic baggies filled with delicious cold dishes: sautéed morning glories with garlic, fried fish, a pepper-and-tomato-omelette, rice.

On the trek home, my writer’s notebook fell out of my pocket along the trail. Without breaking stride, Bonsou, some 15 feet behind the elephant I was riding, picked the notebook up with his trunk and handed it to Greg. Greg grasped the notebook, but Bonsou, unwilling to let go, then brought the notebook down to his own mouth. “Oh my God, he’s going to eat my notebook!” I yelled. But then Bonsou lifted the notebook back up and let Greg take it. Relieved, I looked over at Honda, whose thin frame shook with laughter.

On our last day, Honda gave us a choice of riding to a Hmong village, rafting and inner-tubing on the Nam Khan, or going to a waterfall. We chose the third. Getting to the Tad Sae waterfall took 40 minutes by car and then five minutes by longtail boat; upon first seeing the scalloped, too-perfect, five-foot-tall limestone mounds and walls over which the water tumbles, I declared the whole thing a fake; but gradually I realized that some things that look like theme parks are in fact Mother Nature. After happily swimming and splashing about for a bit, I decided to ride one of the waterfall’s four elephants for hire. Whereas Bonsou’s nickname is Lady Boy, 13-year-old Kham Sun is called, fittingly, Naughty Boy. I rode him into four-foot-deep water: easy enough. But once in the water, he proceeded to shake and rattle and roll like a dog trying to dry itself, gently hurling me into the water. I spent 10 wickedly fun minutes trying to clamber back on; once I was aboard, I shortly thereafter fell off again. Imagine a surfboard tied to a bucking bronco; then position the whole thing in a swift-moving current. When, finally remounted, I rode Kham Sun out of the water, I saw Honda on the shore, applauding. This little cowboy had become a cowman.

Henry Alford writes for Vanity Fair and the New York Times.