Laos: Trunk road

By Paul Rush

Laos' Suay people are licensed to take guided tours through the rich Se Pian Biodiversity Area(L). Mahmout Li and Naimoon (R). Photos / Paul Rush
Laos' Suay people are licensed to take guided tours through the rich Se Pian Biodiversity Area(L). Mahmout Li and Naimoon (R). Photos / Paul Rush

The giant pachyderm gives a deep-throated bellow that slowly develops into a long, drawn-out trumpet call. I hope that's a sign he's pleased to see me.

Climbing on to the mounting platform, I scramble into the double-padded seat with my guide. My legs are rubbing against the thick, leathery skin of the elephant's massive neck.

Naimoon is a colossal 40-year-old. He appears not to notice the extra weight on his back. I notice my height above the ground. I also discover that I'm directly behind the elephant's air-conditioning system, as his huge fan-shaped right ear flaps backwards within a whisker of my face.

This is going to be an exciting ride to the ancient temple of Phu Asa. We are starting from Khiet Ngong Village, a short drive from Pakse, a provincial capital in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

It's natural to feel overawed by these giant creatures, but Naimoon seems content. Our mahout, Li, is in complete control of his charge as we trundle across the flat ground to the musical accompaniment of the elephant's bell.

Li's control is soon challenged, however, as we start to ascend the steep hill. They say elephants never forget.

Faced with a steep incline, Naimoon applies lateral thinking to the problem and zigzags up the road to lessen the angle of ascent. He won't be dissuaded from this course of action, even with the judicious application of Li's lightweight whip. Li finally prevails and we slowly and laboriously ascend the hill.

Every two minutes Li lets out a strange "harrumph" sound from deep in his throat to remind Naimoon that he's the boss.

I'm conscious of the constant murmur of the jungle all around us. Buzzing dragonflies dart overhead, cicadas hum in concert and there's a constant chirping and flapping in the jungle canopy.

Evidence of elephant life can also be seen - piles of dung, broken tree branches and large footprints in the muddy ground. Everywhere I can smell the fresh, damp, champagne air of a jungle morning.

Li is the elephant's full-time driver, handler and keeper. He has worked with elephants for 35 years and was trained by his father, who was adept at capturing young elephants in the wild. The method used was to lay out loops of buffalo hide rope on the ground to lasso a leg and then lead the animal back to a village enclosure.

The mahouts live, work and play with their charges in a symbiotic relationship. The daily regime is quite demanding, as they have to feed and wash them and get to know their personalities. Some are sweet and demure and others are stubborn, aggressive or just plain grumpy.

After an hour of plodding, we breast the hilltop and see the remains of the ancient Phu Asa Temple. At the centre is a crumbling mound of slate that was once a building. Around the rectangular perimeter are dry stone columns that stand 2m high and are topped with mushroom-like capping stones.

Some Lao people venerate Phu Asa as the fortress of an ancient king. Others regard it as a sacred hill and place of ritual. Still others believe it was a stadium for training warriors in horse and elephant warfare, as it's a wide open area of smooth, flat rock.

On the return journey we see a stately elephant of mammoth proportions approaching with a mahout and two tourists. He is striding majestically across the hill as if it's a pleasure to visit the holy place. He needs to have a heart-to-heart talk with the reluctant Naimoon.

Beyond the dense forest is a striking view of Khiet Ngong Village and the nearby Se Pian Biodiversity Area. This valuable wetland is a secret Eden that is home to 51 species of birds, including the rare giant ibis and sarus crane. It's a premier eco-tourism destination and the Suay people are licensed to take guided tours.

The Suay have had a centuries-long relationship with elephants, using them as log-haulers and earthmovers in the fields and forests. Laos was once called the "Land of a million elephants". Numbers have decreased rapidly as forests have been felled and villagers have cultivated more land. At last count, the national total was 800 wild and captive elephants.

This village has government approval to hold 15 elephants, but even those lead a precarious existence with the conflicting demands of food supply.

Wild elephants have no hesitation in taking control of rice paddies and cropping areas around the village. Night-time visits to home gardens are common. This uneasy coexistence will continue as long as income can be derived from tourist trekking operations, which are undertaken in the cooler November to April period.

Before we begin the descent to the village, I'm given the opportunity to take the reins. The problem is that while sitting astride Naimoon's broad neck, I have no means of maintaining balance. Experimenting with ear-tapping and knee-thrusting, I manage to encourage a shuffling gait, but only because the ponderous animal knows he's homeward-bound.

Stopping suddenly in mid-stride, he refuses to budge. I summon up my best 'Harrumph' and knee-jolt an ear, but the elephant knows he's won. Li assumes his position of control and reaches for his secret weapon: a sharp prodding stick. Whenever Naimoon gets grumpy and uncooperative, a good flourish of the stick is guaranteed to alter his demeanour, as it does now.

The big elephant is wise and wily, and he now resolves to have the last laugh. As we pass over a rock pool, he dexterously siphons litres of water into his prehensile trunk and sprays it all over his body - and us. It's a natural reflex action for an overheated elephant, but I think he planned this one with an ulterior motive.

At the end of the ride, he's led away to his grazing land and given some sugar cane and bananas for extra energy. As we part, I lift my palms together in a gesture of prayer and bid him farewell. Like the good people in his village, he has lived through turbulent times in Laos' recent history but still manages to keep his elephantine sense of humour.

FACT FILE

The Phu Asa elephant ride can be booked in advance at the visitor centre in Pakse or in the town of Champasak.

The ride costs US$12 ($18), this being the currency tourism operators like to receive in Laos. The US dollar equates to 8500 kip, the local currency. A walking tour over the same route takes three to five hours and costs US$15, including a guide and water.

Kiet Ngong Village is also the starting point for nature walks, bird-watching and trekking into the Se Pian Biodiversity Area. There is a basic guest house outside the village and also accommodation in Pakse and Champasak.

* Adventure World offers a range of tailor-made packages to Laos. Phone (09) 524 5118. The company will launch a new "Mysteries of the Mekong" tour in 2010, visiting Laos and Cambodia.

* Cathay Pacific flies from New Zealand to Bangkok. Phone (09) 379 0861.

* Bangkok Airways flies from Bangkok to Siem Reap. Phone (09) 969 7600.

- Herald on Sunday

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