After almost a week of rural Laos, Luang Prebang is a surprise. It is an old French colonial town – so remote that it took longer to reach here up the Mekong from Saigon than the journey from Paris to Vietnam. The climate is kind; the rivers are gentle; and there are plenty of temples for the pious.
There are few French expats here how – though there is a small, thriving community of Australians and New Zealanders running restaurants and hotels. The backpackers pass through, spending their days in a kayak or caving, and their evenings in the bars. And there are tour groups with suitcases who wander into the night market and barter for woven pashminas.
And me – well, I rode an elephant. Well, I would, wouldn’t I? I did my homework – I could have spent a day learning how to be a mahout, but was warned that some of those elephants work all day, every day. Elephants doing the shorter rides can rest from the afternoon heat. (I should add that I’ve met people who enjoyed the mahout training and felt the elephants were well cared-for.)
My guide arrived to take me – on a motorbike. Which was, um, interesting, and a little bumpy in places. I hadn’t expected a boat along the river to the elephant sanctuary, but – that was fine, too. The elephants wander through the jungle close to a waterfall. I lingered, taking in the music of the waterfall, and the astonishing milky-blue colour of the water. The air was sweet; butterflies hovered; the occasional bird twittered.
And so to the elephant. I clambered (there is no elegant way to get on an elephant) into the wooden seat on its back, and off we lumbered into the jungle. We’d not gone far when the mahout asked, ‘Would you like to sit on the neck?’ Well, wouldn’t you?
Elephant hide is rough, the consistency of wrinkled feet of octogenarians. And covered with tiny black hairs which are not-quite bristles. Where a horse’s head perks upwards, an elephant’s dips down – and so the line of sight is automatically down towards the ground beyond. I sat firmly upright. (There is nothing to hold on to but a loose bit of rope around her neck.) She flapped her ears, and for a wonderful moment I thought that was to hold me on – no, she was ascertaining that this was a complete novice on her neck and turned for home. The mahout shouted a bit and she trundled on her way.
Elephant shoulders are bony things. With each stride her shoulder blades swung from side to side, and her huge muscles rippled. Not being over-padded in the bottom department I felt every stride. When she veered to the side I thought I’d fall into jungle mud. When we went down the riverbank into the water I thought I’d topple over her head.
And when it came to getting off – that involved throwing myself onto the platform. (Though I did better than the lass behind me, who needed two men to lever her off!).
It was time to go home – I felt every throb of the diesel engine in the canoe, and don’t even think about the potholes on the motorbike.
But when can I do it again …