That Day I Became an Elephant Trainer – Mahout Lodge in Luang Prabang

When we met up with Jana, she expressed an interest in doing elephant training for a day. I never had a chance to get up close with anything larger than a horse, so the opportunity was too good to pass up. Elephant training camps, now mostly for the sake of tourism, are popular in Thailand as well, but they’re a better deal in Laos. I’m generally concerned with the welfare of the animals, first and foremost, so I found the Mahout (elephant trainer) information center in Luang Prabang (not far from a major intersection where the night market ends) to inquire about the local training centers. If memory serves, we booked with the All Lao service, at the Mahout Lodge. A minivan picked us up the next morning at our hotels to drive us about 30 minutes Northwest of the city.

The overall experience of an elephant training camp can’t possibly live up to one’s expectations, especially after living vicariously through 星なった少年 (English title “Shining Boy & Little Randy), a novel-turned-movie about a Japanese boy who came to Thailand to become an elephant trainer. Mahouts bond deeply with their elephants, and although I only had an afternoon, I was hoping to get a little more familiar with the largest land mammal on the planet.

We were greeted by a man who had been a missionary for many years before coming to the elephant camp and served as our interpreter. There were only four of us in the group: Jana, Alice and myself were joined by an older woman traveling alone, who had signed on for the two-day training camp. The camp itself was split into two parts, where the elephants were kept and the human lodgings on the other side of the river and down the road. We first went to elephant stables to sign in and catch our first glimpse of the pachyderms, then walked about ten minutes to the boat that ferried us across the river. The resort area consisted of an open-air restaurant overlooking the river, some restrooms, some traditional huts (not unlike the kuti from my Temple Stay) and a few newly built luxury rooms nearby for people staying for longer training courses.

We were given denim shirts and shorts, uniforms for the mahout (elephant trainer), then taken back to the shore. Two elephants were waiting for us, with seats mounted on their backs to take us back to the stables. I was a bit disappointed to see the seats, as it was a far more touristy way to ride and the seats are not good for the animals’ backs. Still, I was excited to get to ride my first elephant, and after fording the river, the mahouts who were guiding the elephants let us take turns riding on their heads. I slid up and straddled the massive neck, tucking my knees behind the massive flapping ears. Elephant skin is unlike any material I’ve felt before. It’s incredibly tough, weathered and wrinkled, but at the same time it feels very sensitive and responsive to touch. It’s said they can take a bullet, but can feel a fly landing on them. I could sense the animal beneath the skin and feel the heat emanating from beneath the grey leather. I dug my heels in to keep my balance and cooed a few Lao commands the mahout taught me. Dee-dee, bai dee-dee.

Back at the stables, we went into a classroom to go over elephant etiquette, mounting and dismounting, and some basic commands before walking back and ferrying back to the resort for lunch. I played with a cat who was lounging under the tables and taught a young boy (the cook’s son) to juggle while we waited to be called up to meet our elephants. We once again crossed the river and walked back to the stables. We were assigned elephants and finally got to mount up after watching the mahouts feed them young banana trees. I climbed up on the back of my elephant, whose name now escapes me (Bong-tu?)

The trail wove back through the forest to the river, along a well-traveled path. The trainers told us to use the commands we’d learned to keep the elephants on task, as they were prone to distraction and snacking along the way. Despite my best efforts, my elephant paid little attention to me, and only responded to the mahout who had been padding alongside. I looked down and saw that he had been prodding her with a thumbtack, and found myself a bit distraught over the ethics of the situation.

Riding on an elephant’s head can be a tiring affair, and was grateful for the break when we got to the river to wash our steeds. Bathing is an important bonding experience for Mahout and their steeds, and the real mahouts took great pleasure in shouting “Boon Boon!” to their elephants, encouraging them to either dunk, splash or shower us with river water, which would have been rather nice if if weren’t for all the elephant poop floating around. Still, it was an enjoyable experience, and we rode back to the stables to dismount and bid our elephants goodbye.

this isn't Mohout, this is a statue of the guy who came to Laos to make a monument for Mohout.As a final “bonus,” on the boat back to the resort we floated a little downstream and visited a monument to Henri Mohout, the Frenchman who is generally credited with “rediscovering” Angkor Wat, although it was never really lost to begin with. He died of malaria nearby and was buried by his servants. In the early 19th century, another French guy came to build him a better monument, which was very nice of him, except there was an even more impressive statue of HIM right by the monument. The monuments themselves weren’t much to look at, but the history of Henry Mohout is interesting enough. Our day of Mahout training complete, we changed back into our street clothes and returned our denim pajamas before boarding the van back into civilization.

So, my final verdict?

Pros: Elephants are freaking cool, the resort is quite nice and still getting built up even nicer. the people were friendly and it’s clear they care for the elephants.

Cons: Too much back and forth between the resort and the stables made me feel like the schedule was set up to kill time. They still use saddle benches which aren’t too good for the animals’ backs. There wasn’t much of a menu to choose from.

Bottom Line: If you want to try, a full day of mahout training is definitely worth it over an “elephant ride,” where you’ll probably just sit on a sedan chair on the elephant’s back. The resort would be really nice to stay and the pricing is reasonable. As long as the multi-day packages have different schedules and activities that get you more involved with the elephants, it would be definitely worth checking out.