How to Ride an Elephant *Video*

I just spent a couple of days at Elephant Village on the banks of the Khan River in central Laos. The camp and elephant sanctuary was in the shadow of the Namno Mountain range and surrounded by lush jungle. In the early 1800s, the camp was the training site for elephants for the royal possession.

Elephant Village’s mission is to give rescued elephants a new home where they are free from abusive work. As a social enterprise, Elephant Village also provides local villagers with a sustainable livelihood so they no longer need to resort to a slash and burn subsistence.

At the sanctuary, the elephants earn their keep by giving rides to tourists (which is a much easier gig then hauling logs through the forest). In return, our tourist dollars help pay for the elephant’s food and care—which is substantial.

Each day an elephant typically consumes at least 250 kilograms of grasses, bark, leaves, and fruit. (This is more than 550 pounds of food!).

While at the camp, I suffered flea bites, leeches in unmentionable places, and a winged termite invasion. But I also picked some valuable skills — like how to ride and wash an elephant! Here’s a little of what I learned:

How to “read” an elephant

  • Good Signs: Flopping ears, swaying trunk and tail, relaxed expression
  • Bad Signs: Stopped motion, staring intently, trunk in mouth.

How to approach an elephant

  • Always approach from the right side
  • Say the elephant’s name as you move closer (slowly)
  • Remain in the elephant’s field of vision (never stand behind or in directly front of an elephant, since they won’t be able to see you )
  • Never surprise an elephant!!!!

How to ride an elephant:

  • First, tourists never ride an elephant alone – only with a mahout!
  • If the elephant lies down for you, you can crawl on this way – although they are only able to lie down for about 5 minutes so you have to be quick!
  • The elephant may also bend their right knee, allowing you put your foot on her leg and climb up (This very difficult – just watch the video!)
  • The best way is to grab the elephant’s right ear and pull yourself up
  • Mahouts carry a mean-looking metal hook that they use just behind the ear if the elephant starts to run away. (This actually came in handy a few times!)

My Elephant Mae Nam

My elephant’s name was Mae Nam. She is 51 years old and has one baby who is 2 years old. Supposedly Mae Nam is known as the boss of the herd. As the matriarch, she displays more generally male characteristics.

Each elephant is assigned a mahout (or trainer) and this trainer stays with the elephant their entire lives. Mae Nam’s mahout’s name is Ker and he’s been with her for the last 8 years. Supposedly, he’s the only one that can ride her as she’s very particular!

(There were lots of jokes about the elephants reflecting their rider’s attributes…personally, I don’t see it…)

Sanctuary Experience

I had a truly fabulous time at the elephant sanctuary. After several rides around camp the first day, we rode the elephants across the river and into the jungle where they are kept at night. Unfortunately, they have to be chained up so they don’t run away and demolish a village.

In the morning, we set off at daybreak for the hour-long hike back into the jungle to fetch our newfound friends. We the rode them back to the river and were allowed to wash them. (This is a treat because they love to be washed!)

We used stiff brushes, scrubbing the top of their heads and behind their ears. I’m not sure how they got so dirty over night, but the rain probably didn’t’ help.

While washing, the elephants totally submerge themselves in the water (and you too!). They wallow in the water for as long as you let them – usually for almost an hour. Really, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. So much fun!

Help an Elephant!

I’m now enamored with elephants and have total respect of their size and individual personalities. I hope Elephant Village will be able to save more elephants from the logging industry through their adoption program. If you’re interested in learning more about this elephant sanctuary, check out

Tags: , , ,

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 2nd, 2011 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

Join Our Mailing List

Thanks for checking out my global living and giving adventures!

Sign up for my Weekly Update to get a free Charitable Giving Guide and more surprises straight to your inbox. Join the fun!