We’re at an Elephant Sanctuary in Luang Prabang, Laos; sitting in a teeny, tiny long boat, just about to hit the shore and embark… when a couple of five tonne elephants excitedly approach along the water’s edge. They’re absolutely huge, towering over our boat as we beach…
I freeze; this is like a dream…
Snatching a few deep breathes; I quickly grab my camera and peer through the lens at her.
She looks directly back at me, and silently asks;
‘Have you got bananas, please…?’ (She had good manners at least!)
Her rugged, strong trunk stretches right out to me… sniffs deeply, makes a gentle snort; and then she curls her trunk around my offering of sweet banana.
As you can well imagine, I was a little apprehensive in the boat.
But soon I relax and I’m so excited to see and touch her up close.
This could be scary with such huge animals; but in reality, it was entirely different. The elephants approached me naturally, with no fear – as though I was one of them.
Laos is known as ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’. It became known as this from fabled accounts of a procession of elephants crossing the Mekong River not far from Luang Prabang. They continuously crossed for three days… meaning there must be at least a million elephants.
If you travel to Laos; you know you’re going to ‘have to’ get up close and personal with elephants.
As you probably know; elephants are emotional and sentient beings.
They’re consciously aware; special – just like you and I.
Arriving in Luang Prabang, Laos; Des and I decided to have an elephant encounter here, rather than in Thailand. Laos seemed quieter than Thailand, plus it’s the low season.
Somehow, Luang Prabang just felt right, and the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ reputation reinforces our decision.
We dislike big crowds, and the show-piece ‘made for tourists’ kind of stuff. We prefer to seek out unique, authentic experiences whenever we can. We knew what we wanted; we just didn’t know if it existed. We weren’t quite sure what we would find until we started our elephant encounter research. We were adamant with our criteria; we didn’t want to ride, support abusive treatments, see tricks, or any other unnatural behaviors.
It had to be an ethical, elephant encounter experience, or nothing at all – period.
All this proved to be a tough challenge. Actually finding a place that didn’t exploit the elephants with riding and mass tourism abuse was difficult.
Our criteria led us to MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary; a conservation and community minded company with a grand vision for elephants, Laos and the world.
We immediately knew we were in the right place.
And so it was; at MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary we began our intimate journey of discovery into the almighty and mystical elephant.
Before we get to embark on our big adventure; excited anticipation takes over.
Thoughts race through our heads…
How close can we get to the elephants?
Can we touch them; or are they dangerous?
Would they stampede us? …
How do you play with an elephant; and what do you say to an elephant…?
I’d encountered elephants just once before; in Sabi Sabi National Park, Africa. A wild herd came dangerously close to us, and charged one of the jeeps. It was a very scary experience; not something I’d like to repeat thank you!
Elephants are big and powerful animals… so how do you interact and play with them?
Sounds hard, right?
No; not at all…
Our adventure day begins with a short scenic drive to the Elephant Sanctuary.
Before we even set eyes on an elephant, we know we’ve come to a tranquil and peaceful place… you can just feel it.
With freshly brewed coffee, we sit on the veranda overlooking the river, there’s elephants out there somewhere.
We chat with Michael [co-owner] and Mr Prasop [Project Director] and learn about elephants, and the MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary.
We listen intently to Prasops’ introduction to elephants and elephant stories. This man, lives, breathes and loves elephants. He’s spent thirty years studying, training and intimately interacting with elephants.
Prasops’ an articulate, gentle man; very knowing and very engaging… we can see why the elephants love him.
It’s not long before we see movement across the river… it took several faltering heartbeats to identify the mammoth – this great grey lump in the distance…
To say we’re excited is an understatement… we’re about to spend five hours in the company of elephants; in their natural habitat.
They’ll be our special friends for the day.
Yes; five hours with two female elephants… and not to forget ‘Keum’, our fantastic local guide.
Keum has worked with elephants for twelve years. Looking at him, I said; ‘You must have been very young when you started work…?’ Oh yes, in his perfectly self-taught English, he said… ‘I was twelve years old when I started work as a mahout’.
Keum was born and bred in the local village where MandaLao is situated adding to the very ‘local’ experience that we love.
There’s an obvious tight mutual bond here at MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary. Everyone loves and respects the elephants; and the elephants seem to love and respect everyone.
We kit up into our special ‘elephant trekking boots’ and long-boat across the river. Along with Keum, we’re joined by two of MandaLaos’ ‘mahouts’ who look after these elephants.
It’s gratifying to see the close bond between our mahouts and their elephants.
These two big girls are a little younger than us.
‘Mea Tu’ who’s forty years old, is the bigger and more gentle one. ‘Boon Tem’ who’s thirty-five, is a little more feisty and spirited you might say.
Mea Tu, the big-eared behemoth saunters up to me. Close enough for me to count the wiry black bristles stubbing her forehead. Her great, grey-coloured eye peers at me… set like a knot in ancient, fleshy, slate-grey wood.
She turns sluggishly, lumbering her five tonnes of weight closer and closer… eventually extending her trunk to see if I have any goodies for her. I watch in awe as the second elephant, lumbers in and joins her in the quest for sweet bananas.
I’m totally memorized; I can’t work out if I’m scared or amazed…
My thoughts are interrupted by her trunk…. rolling quickly towards me. Then without uttering a single word; she said… ‘More bananas please.’
Both our girls extend their massive trunks toward us like hands; inquisitively sniffing and interacting with us. Two trunks reaching forward, accepting our treats… there’s no chance of hiding bananas from these two girls.
One little banana is just teaspoon full; I imagine she would rather have the whole bunch… but I’m enjoying watching how she uses her trunk to scoop the bananas up out of my hand.
So it’s one by one, for now.
Her trunk is fascinating; a fusion of nose and upper lip – certainly her most versatile tool.
She’s using it for breathing, smelling, touching, grasping, and sounding.
She has two nostrils in her trunk through which she breathes. She can suck up to fourteen litres of water into these nostrils… then blow it into her mouth – wow, amazing.
She usually drinks up to two hundred litres of water a day, but can go up to four days without water if necessary. With their amazing sense of smell, elephants can smell water from five kilometers away.
I’d say her trunk is the most amazing body part in the whole animal kingdom!
So once done with feeding our girls; it’s off to the river for some water fun.
Our elephant friends love to play in the water; swim and snorkel too. After a quick splash around, they just stand there, with ears flapping… waiting for us to wash them down.
They’ve become pretty accustomed to their five-star luxury life at MandaLao. I think they’re looking for the spa package with a face massage today!
Elephants have no sweat glands in their skin, so bathing and wetting down is very important. They dust their skin by tossing dirt over themselves and by wallowing in mud.
Armed with a little black bucket, I attempt to splash them with as much water as I can muster. The mahouts smile and join in; clearly they’re much better at this than me. Soon enough it becomes an all-on water fight between everyone and now we’re all wet!
Bathing, wallowing, and dusting removes parasites, cools the skin and applies a layer of protective dirt; providing a natural sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
Splashing and washing done… it’s time for some daily exercise through the jungle.
Feeding and Bathing action on this Video…
We’re not sure who’s taking who for a walk here… the girls lumber off down the path with mahouts in tow. They seem to know the way well enough so we’re happy to follow.
We wander aimlessly past the corn fields and the organic garden… with the girls happily snacking along the way.
Sauntering along, with ears flapping and swishing tails – it’s all in a day’s work for these elephants… they seem pretty happy with this luxury MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary life.
We follow our new found elephant friends deeper into the jungle.
Winding and snaking along the muddy river bank, before being swallowed whole by thickening trees, and overgrown bushes. All along the way they would stop as if to say;
‘Do you have any more bananas for me?’
Oh well they said; we’d love a tickle or a hug instead…
There’s a special little spot on the side of their face where they enjoy being tickled, their mouth opens up and their eyes sparkle – so cute.
We continue on through the jungle, walking beside the small stream. Our elephants keep ducking back in and out of the stream, and frequently stop to engage us.
Watching them move their massive bodies is a real treat. They seem to gracefully glide through the bush in slow motion… splash about in the water, and then they’ll stop for a back rub against some trees – all so cute.
Keum’s guiding style is gentle and unobtrusive. He’s always there; waiting for the appropriate moment to quietly tell us more about his beloved elephants. Every time we stop, we learn more about these amazing animals.
Whilst these girls get their treat food from us – that’s just pre-dinner nibbles. They eat foliage, roots, fruit and bark and are capable of uprooting entire trees as they forage.
Elephants need lots of time in order to feed. It’s not a five minute job to find and eat two hundred and fifty kilograms worth… yes that’s what they need per day – they often eat all night.
So while we sit down for our jungle picnic lunch, the girls and their mahouts go off to their own special lunch spot too.
More jungle action with the Elephants on this video…
Keum unpacks our jungle lunch; all beautifully prepared by the restaurant at MandaLao. A simple picnic of Lao traditional food, along with some sticky rice and dipping dishes. As the name suggests, this rice naturally sticks together… so it is easy to roll into small balls, dip into food and eat with your fingers – in traditional Lao style.
After our fill of sticky rice the mahouts show us how the elephants responds to their verbal commands. With just a few words, our elephants back-up, and descent slowly to ground level – amazingly agile considering their size and weight.
The close bond and affection between mahout and elephant is obvious… In the video you’ll see our mahouts getting onto the elephants necks, they do not ride. It’s merely to show us how they used to mount them.
Dark clouds roll in as the mahouts finish up… the jungle gets darker, and the first big drops of rain begin to fall. Soon it’s a torrent, and it’s time to don our ponchos.
This is the rainy season after all; and we had been lucky with the day’s weather so far. So now there’s plenty of water and mud around, and the elephants seem to love it…
My feet were submerging into the moist and muddy ground. I felt like a kid again, with mud squelching between my toes. Of course the special boots stopped the mud actually getting in; but it felt so good all the same.
The last section of our adventure is through a beautiful teak forest. As more rain falls, little streams of water begin washing all over the forest floor – all adding to the atmosphere…
So here we are; all alone with giant teak trees, majestic mythical elephants, and elephant people – all very beautiful and surreal.
We walked beside the elephants and chatted… watching their every move, just as they watched ours.
It was wet and muddy, and deep in the Teak Forest – but so special.
With ears happily flapping and tails swishing, our special bond formed.
It’s like we had become one.
Prasop had told us about this special moment earlier in the day.
All I can say is; it’s intimate and magical – something you’ll never forget and neither will your elephant.
Walking in the Teak Forest Video
All too soon our five wonderful hours end and we must bid farewell to our new friends.
Some goodbyes are harder than others…
With their ears were flapping continuously; they were just as happy as us.
Both girls wrapped their trunks around my arms; an intimate embrace, and some special words.
It was playful, happy and sad.
This goodbye was oh so special… and nobody wanted to leave.
Until we meet again, the girls must head off deeper into the jungle for their night time feeding…
Video – Saying Goodbye to our new Elephant Friends…
Returning to the restaurant for hot coffee and bananas, we reflect on our deeply satisfying day… wet and exhausted, but super happy with our intimate MandaLao Elephant Encounter.
I frequently cast my mind back to our magical elephant encounter; reflecting on how lucky we were… first to discover MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary; second to enjoy such a magical time with them and their elephants.
Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary provides a unique chance to participate in something entirely new in elephant tourism in Laos.
A true ethical elephant encounter.
The appeal for us is the Mandalao vision and the potential to change the future of elephant welfare and tourism in Laos and South East Asia.
If you ever find yourself in Luang Prabang, Laos ….get in touch with MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary for an extraordinary and genuine ethical Elephant Encounter.
Our Elephant Encounters were sponsored by ‘MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary’. As always, our thoughts and writings are based solely on our own personal experiences, and views.
1) The closest living relative of the Elephant is – somewhat surprisingly – the Manatee (we’ve swum with them in Belize).
2) Male and Female Elephant poop is different; the boy poop is in a ball and the girl poop is kind of separate if that makes sense.
3) The average elephant eats 250kg of food daily and drinks 150 litres of water
4) You can establish the height and weight of the elephant by the diameter of the footprint.
5) Elephants are social creatures. They sometimes “hug” by wrapping their trunks together in displays of greeting and affection.
6) The elephant trunk is an amazing piece of kit. It’s an extension of the nose and upper lip; containing no bones and up to 150,000 muscle fascicles – making it incredibly dexterous.
7) The trunk can hold up to 8.5 litres of water, lift loads of up to 350kg, crack a peanut shell without breaking the seed, and act as a snorkel when the elephant is underwater.
8) Elephant skin is very tough and thick, but surprisingly sensitive; an elephant can react to the touch of a feather on its hide.
9) The Elephant skin has no sweat glands, so wetting down and bathing is important.
10) Elephants don’t have fantastic eyesight, but they have an excellent sense of smell – as many as four times as good as that of a bloodhound.
11) Elephants are excellent swimmers, and have been recorded swimming distances of up to 50 kilometers and for periods as long as six hours – without touching the bottom!
12) Elephant family groups are among the most close-knit of any animal society, and are generally only separated by death or capture. Females live in matrilineal groups with one leader, while males live either alone or with other males. Male Africans can live in large groups, while male Asians tend to prefer solitude (their largest recorded group was seven).
13) Elephants are one of the world’s most intelligent animals, and one of only four animals in the world that are thought to exhibit self-awareness. The others are great apes, bottlenose dolphins, and Eurasian magpies. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that.
14) Elephants are the only species of mammal other than humans to have a discernible death ritual: they “bury” their dead with dirt and leaves, stand vigil over the “graves” of their loved ones for many hours, and family groups may never regain their structure after the death of a matriarch.
When I found out about their death ritual, I remembered long ago seeing a man in Africa who befriended and saved some African Elephants.
Known for his unique ability to calm traumatized elephants, Lawrence Anthony had become a legend with the wild herd. The formerly violent, rogue elephants, destined to be shot a few years ago as pests, were rescued and rehabilitated by Anthony, who had grown up in the bush and was known as the “Elephant Whisperer.”
‘Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.’
– Lawrence Anthony; the Elephant Whisperer
When Lawrence Anthony died suddenly, two herds of wild South African elephants slowly made their way through the Zululand bush until they reached his house. For two days the herds loitered at Anthony’s rural compound on the vast Thula Thula game reserve in the South African KwaZulu — to say good-bye to the man they loved.
We know that elephants mourn their dead much the same as we humans do. The elephants came and mourned their human friend, just as though he was one of them – family.
But how did they know he had died?