The View From the Back of an Elephant

Riding through a thicket outside Luang Prabang, I had the best seat in the house: high enough to finger a vivid green bamboo canopy, roomy and flat enough that I could put my notebook down and write. In the middle of a river, I stayed dry and watched a fisherman haul a net and a mother bathe her toddler. Mosquitoes avoided me, thanks to the rhythmic fanning of my ride's ears.

I was sitting atop Mae Kham, a stolid and serene 35-year-old Asian elephant that I bonded with during a recent visit to Elephant Village, a camp 14 kilometers from the Laotian UNESCO World Heritage town. Elephant Village is one of a handful of programs in Southeast Asia that rescues elephants from dangerous work like logging and connects them with tourists, who conservationists say are the key to their survival. Some high-end elephant experiences include posh accommodations and spa services for guests.

For me, an elephant trek had obvious advantages over hiking, biking or paddling through Laos's untamed landscape. I visited during the dry season, when rivers wither and temperatures hover around 32 degrees Celsius, and I have a dread fear of snakes. Besides, there was something irresistible about the prospect of cavorting with a fellow mammal 70 times my weight.

Starting was simple: I climbed a wood platform to elephant level, nearly three meters high, and sidled onto Mae Kham's neck. Directed by the mahout behind me, Kham ambled into the forest. Her gray and calamine-pink mottled ears flapped against my ankles, a gentle thwap, thwap. I felt stable on her broad, wrinkled bulk—except when she descended to the Nam Khan River, pitching me forward 35 degrees. On the way back, Kham found a coconut rind, and I marveled at her ability to cradle it gently in her curled trunk until she got home.

After lunch, I practiced with another elephant, the 40-something Mae Uak, that I was to mount without the wood tower. She bent her knee to receive me; I grasped her ear, and managed to fumble onto her neck only because a mahout pushed me up. I worked on steering her by tapping my feet, squeezing with my knees and uttering commands, but I crossed the signals and ultimately confused us both.

The highlight was bath time. Mae Uak waded into the Nam Khan. I hesitated, then slid into the murky brown water and scrubbed her head and ears with a brush. But mostly we played: Uak would plunge her head into the river, leaving only the round boulder of her derrière visible. I would float until Uak suddenly rose, like Aphrodite from the sea, lifting me on her back. Minutes later she'd duck under-water again, offloading me in the process.

Although the elephant experience was fun for me, for Mae Uak and other endangered Asian elephants, it's a matter of life or death. Laos, once known as the "Land of a Million Elephants," has traditionally revered them. Yet only 1,000 wild and 560 captive elephants remain, owing largely to the loss of their habitat.

With barely enough forest to sustain the wild elephants, conservationists say the species' survival depends on supporting the domesticated pool. In Laos, most do hazardous logging; only 20 elephants work in the cushier tourism industry. The country's few elephant-activity tour operators, including Elephant Village, generally offer half-day to two-day programs. Elephant Adventures specializes in four- and five-day treks, starting at $715 per person.

Tourism can make a difference; in neighboring Thailand, depleted forests and a 1989 logging ban left hundreds of elephants (and mahouts) unemployed. Now most of the roughly 1,700 domesticated pachyderms live at elephant tourist camps. Mae Kham and Mae Uak hauled logs for years before they could switch to rides and baths. If other domesticated elephants in Laos can be retrained to charm visitors, too, that could help save the herd.