Guys, I love elephants.
Like, I really, really love them a lot. And let me just tell you they don’t feel the same. They wanted me OFF of their backs immediately if not sooner. Luckily they’re easily swayed to your favor with a bunch of sugar cane or a bushel of bananas. The way to an elephant’s heart is the same way as to a man’s: through their stomachs. So with a hand full of kip I tried to buy an elephant’s love for an afternoon. But it would take more than a few bananas to make these elephants love a human.
When we first got to the Elephant Camp outside Luang Prabang, down a dusty road, around a mountainside, and across a muddy bridge, we were taught elephant commands, introduced to a bevy of wrinkly, grey beauties, and told that the elephant’s favorite part of the day was bath time because they love cooling off in the water.
I can’t speak for the elephant’s but I think they just hate everyone at the Elephant Camp in general. Southeast Asian people don’t treat their animals well, domestic and non, and the elephants, it seems, were no exception. It was less awkward than Tiger Temple, but that’s another story entirely. (See how I foreshadow like that? Damn I’m good.)
The elephants are large. I know this. You know this. They’re gigantic. They could sit on us and murder us, but they choose not to because they are docile, gentle giants. And so they let us, tiny predators, jump on their backs, strap literal benches to them, ride on their heads, prod them with poles. I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable. But the mahouts (Laotian elephant trainers) have absolutely no problem yelling, kicking, pinching, poking, and, in the case of the river, literally jumping on top of them to get them to perform for the white tourists who come to see them in hordes.
So, we rode them, fed them, laughed and took photos and then it came time for bathing. I had to put on that gorgeous navy blue men’s shirt because my bathing suit was too sexy (I know it wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I took it as one), and we headed down to the river to wash our elephants. We walked down a steep hill into the river and the elephants, every single one, immediately took giant dumps in the water. Turds the size of a baby, just floating past your legs, brushing up against your thighs. Lovely.
And then I became the most uncomfortable I was all day: my mahout asked me if I wanted to get wet. I mean, I’m in the water aren’t I? I’m in my bathing suit? “Yeah,” I said, “Sure. Go for it.” And then he literally started jumping on top of my elephant, jumping up and down, slamming his feet down into her little adorable wrinkles yelling, “SHOWAAAAAAHHHH! SHOWAAAHHHH!” And shower me she did. After some light coaxing (this is blatant sarcasm), she splashed me again and again, I’m assuming to avoid more jumping.
“Whoa!” I said, alarmed. “Don’t hurt her! It’s okay. I don’t need a shower,” I said to the mahout. “It’s okay,” he assured me, “she likes it”. Forgive me, but I don’t know anyone or anything that loves being jumped up and down on being screamed at to perform for some asshole white girl with a Facebook album agenda. I felt really bad. Really, really bad. Because these elephants really are so cute. So gentle. So nice. They don’t deserve that.
The photo looks so happy, right? Just a girl and her elephant having the time of their damn lives in the beautiful Laotian countryside. In reality, though I’m smiling, because you could throw hot wax on me and I’d still be all smiles with an adorable elephant showering me in a river, I’m actually very emotionally uncomfortable because I can tell the elephant is physically uncomfortable, as well as probably emotionally ravaged by its circumstances.
So, I decided I was against elephant camps. Why don’t they just free them? Let them run free in the wild where they belong!? Why these horrendous camps?!
And the answer is devastating. The elephants have nowhere else to go. Elephants are with killed when found in the wild, their tusks used for carved ivory, their bodies stuffed and sold to collectors, or they are enslaved and brought to work in the jungles hauling lumber. Elephant camps, as shitty as they are, are the best lives these animals can hope for. How much does that suck?
It’s incredibly sad to me that elephants are kept alive and healthy purely for tourism. If we stopped visiting elephant camps, if we boycotted them or shut them down, the elephants would be killed, or released into the wild to die at the hands of native people or hunters, or be recaptured and brought to haul lumber through the countryside. I really hate that.
And so, I like to think my elephant splash fight wasn’t all bad. At least my elephant got to cool off and take a dump in the river. At least she got all the bananas I could afford. At least she’s relatively safe.
I’d like to urge anyone who visits an elephant camp in the future to make sure it’s as humane as possible. Go somewhere the elephants only work a few hours a day, where they alternate elephants, where the elephants seem unafraid of humans. If the elephants are being forced to work all day, in the heat of the sun, over and over again for the amusement of tourists, don’t be that tourist. Just leave. Go somewhere else. You’ll be glad you did when your elephant splash fight is genuine and organic. You shouldn’t need a mahout jumping and screaming on your back to make your elephant want to play with you. They should feel safe and loved, not scared and abused.
Splash on. But splash responsibly.