After leaving our packs and the bulk of our travel gear at the guesthouse in LPB, along with Myles’ ashes to watch over them, we arrive in Elephant Camp, which proves to be all that it promised and that I hoped it would be, and more. The people who conceived the camp have organized it very well and it exists as an extension of the village it is located in. Camp workers and their families live on site or in the village on the Nam Khan River banks, where children bathe in the afternoon and women pound their washing. The elephants are berthed for the evening in the jungle surrounding the village. The cabins are beautifully sited, and everything has been laid out in a way so that it does not feel like a tourist venue as much as the home of a tribe of elephants living in a well considered, ecologically respectful environment, in a typical Laotian farming village.
The elephants range in age from the very young to grandmothers in their seventies. They are well trained and very present. Immense. Gentle. Personable, to a degree. Diffident. Even skittish and shy. They actually hear and respond to verbal commands from strangers with atonal accents, who can’t even hear no less make the sound in between the “b” and the “p” that the Lao speak. Sohng! Sohng! we yell and the elephants respond by lifting their immense forelegs such that we three immense American men, each weighing over two hundred pounds - people they’ve never met before - can use the elephant’s right knee as a stepping stool, to then pull on the cartilaginous tops of the elephant’s ears with our full weight (which apparently doesn’t phase them) in order to swing up onto the elephant’s neck and ride. Pbai! Pbai! we “command,” Go! Go! And, amazingly to me, they do go.
The elephants take their every step and place their every foot down carefully and considerately, their ability to see the uneven ground quite poor. When you ride bareback on the elephant’s neck, your knees tucked in like a jockey’s high knees behind the elephant’s ears to help brace you, the souls of your feet warmed by the elephant’s mass, you hands pressed in behind the elephant’s supra orbital ridges for balance and support, you can feel the upper aspect of the elephant’s scapulae rising and falling, rotating up and down as they walk, right rear, now right front, left rear, now left front, right rear, right front, left rear, left front, the rhythm of their shoulders massaging your sitting bones, rolling your shoulders as the elephants roll their shoulders.
The elephants wade cautiously through water above their bellies as they cross the Nam Khan with you on their bare backs. They submerge their trunks and their immense heads completely under water, something I cannot envision any land mammal other than humans doing, holding their breaths for a very long time, and then, snorting to the surface, splashing and dunking you, rising up and down almost oblivious to your weight, urged on by the joyous and encouraging shouts of the mahouts. Maybe even laughing. Certainly appearing to be having a very jolly time.
I marvel at the elephants, from their amazing feet and toes to their miraculous trunks, how they can take huge thick pineapple stalks and leaves and crush them with their feet before stuffing them into their mouths where they briefly chew and grind them into swallow-able form, giving roughage new meaning, the sound of the crunching sweet and moist, the action of their tongues pushing their dinner deep into their throats quite visible. How they can take a snout full of tiny rice grains and literally blow the grains into their mouths. How they stand almost weightlessly.
The Thai mahouts who spend the day with the elephants are knowledgeable, playful, and mostly patient. Sam and Loren each have a wonderful time. Bruce has a wonderful time. And although it is a little weird at night, alone in the silent dark of my bungalow, it is an adventure, and how is one to feel on an adventure after all? In this regard I am reminded by the silent starry night that it is not God I see in the elephants, but that God is the elephant, as god is the pineapple plants the elephants thrive on, the cigarette-smoking mahouts who ride them, and even you and me.