Laotian Branding, or Why I Rode an Elephant in Laos

When I was a pre-adolescent, I attended a middle/grammar school called Frank Antonides School. FAS had all the things a school should have, except a good music program. A violinist, I played the flute and oboe parts in everything, usually as the only “flute” or “oboe” in a sea of boys blasting brass trumpets and emptying spit valves on the floor. One song that I was particularly fond of was a little ditty called the “Baby Elephant Walk.” It consisted of a dainty melody for flute that conjured images of tiny pink elephants parading in a neat line, trunks linked for safety’s sake. It’s either that, or the image of elephants running in herds in the Serengeti, that I have in my head when I think of elephants. Now that I have ridden an elephant, I can safely cast those images away.

Laos is the land of a million elephants, so named because the old Laotian empire of Lan Xang Hom Kao translated into English is “Land of A Million Elephants Under a White Parasol.” Back during the time of that empire, this translation roughly meant, “Mess with me at your peril since I have lots of elephants.” Anyway, Laos’s elephant branding is very strong; virtually everything in the night market has some elephant image on it (including really adorable baby elephant slippers), elephants adorn most of the buildings, and every single tour company (at least in Luang Prabang, the tourist capital of Laos) offers either a half- or a full-day of elephant riding and washing, sometimes in combination with other real-world activities like hiking, biking or kayaking. Given the popularity of elephant-related activities, we decided to give it a shot, thinking if it were weird, we would only have to do it once.

We opted for the half-day tour, which consisted of a taxi to a boat, then a quick boat ride to the elephants, whose pens were located downhill from one of Luang Prabang’s waterfalls. At about 9:30am, we boarded (given its size, boarding seems a more appropriate term than mounting) our elephant and took it for a little walk. For the first 15 minutes, we had a local elephant driver, who sat on the elephant’s neck and told it where to go, periodically threatening it with a truly menacing looking hammer/knife, while we sat, bemused, up on a bench seat. He then invited Rebecca to get onto the elephant’s head, so she clung on for dear life with her thighs as we finished our walk through the pool at the base of the waterfall and back to the river.

After the walk, we “bathed” the elephant, trying desperately not to fall off as the elephant walked into the river and submerged itself in the water. Our elephant was displeased at our presence, so it began to wiggle while underwater and got down on its knees once to try to get us to let go. It worked, and we fell off four times as our Laotian hosts laughed hysterically. The three other people who were with us for this adventure had no problem with their elephant until it pooped during its bath, making them pull their legs out and pray that the elephant didn’t force them underwater into the poop. Our two elephants briefly cuddled and trumpeted their trunks, adding to the uniqueness of this experience, and then after 25 minutes of elephant play, it was over. We were soaked, stunned and happy not to have been crushed between the two humongous animals.

The elephant walking and bathing tour was a strange thing. We questioned the ethics of riding them and felt a little bad about it, considering elephants are wild animals facing extinction (unlike horses, for example). But the truth is that if they didn’t carry around tourists, they would be carrying around lumber (illegally). Plus the elephants seemed to be treated well, except for those nasty training axes, which they only threatened to use while we were there.

Once we decided not to feel bad about it, we reflected on how this activity was completely an invention of tourism. Riding an elephant wasn’t really very exciting; they move slowly, and the little walking course was very short, given how large the animals are. It was basically a pony ride for grown-ups, and I am sure that is where the idea came from. “I know,” said a Laotion elephant owner, “I will charge tourists who have never seen a domesticated elephant before to ride it!” It helps offset the costs of keeping an elephant, and gives local people another opportunity to laugh at gullible tourists. And voila, an entire micro-industry is born that capitalizes on the strength of the Laotian elephant brand.

Now that we’ve done it, we can say that it’s a strange thing to do once in your life. Just remember to hold on tight!

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