Elephant Riding, The Conscious Way

Before my trip to Southeast Asia, like many others, I knew I wanted to sit atop a glorious giant in all its exotic splendor.  However, I knew the reality of this popular tourism activity is widely rooted in some serious animal cruelty.  If I was going to do it, it could only be in a right and beneficial way.  Thankfully, I found Elephant Village in Luang Prabang, Laos. I was able to learn, care for, ride, and feel good about my experience and sharing it with others.

I did my research.  Elephant Village was by far the most expensive elephant riding organization I had seen, but for good reason.  These animals had been rescued from logging work and cared for in one of very few places that provided an elephant hospital and an on site elephant vet.  These creatures were only available to the public until around noon, bathed, then lead into the jungle within the perimiter of the sanctuary which was very vast. They all had days off and because the cost of spending the day with them was so high, it ensured a stress free environment with fewer people.  The day I went, there were only two other women in my group and we enjoyed a peaceful and personal day with the elephants.

The cost was  almost $100.  That was by far the most expensive part of my entire trip, and some serious $$ for Southeast Asia.  Although I was on a backpacker’s budget, this was the only big splurge I allowed myself.  This money went into feeding and maintaining the elephants as well as educating locals about the impact of slash and burn and teaching them other skills and alternatives on how to earn a living.  Elephant Village even denied the leasing of the land to the government to establish a tourism project!  How cool is that?!  I saw how dedicated they were to the land, community, and elephants, which meant a lot in deciding where I put my dollars. 

All in all, it was a memorable experience. I wouldn’t say to anybody, ‘Don’t ride elephants!’  The important point is to find an organization that cares and is not perpetuating animal cruelty.  There were many places that were ‘no ride’ which I think is great, but I had the opportunity to ride with a clear conscious and know that I was contributing to something positive.  It’s not so much what you do, but how you do it!

Beautiful Strangers

I arrived in Vientiane yesterday.  I wandered the streets with no direction and became very sad.  I had been advised to skip Vientiane and was told, “It’s just another city.”

As I walked the night market, not looking at anything, I thought about all the wonderful people I met in Luang Prabang.  Now, everyone had scattered on their separate ventures, and now here I was wondering why I was there and lonely.

I found an outdoor restaurant and ordered a beer.  As I perused the menu, I looked up into the eyes of an older gentleman smiling at me.

“I saw you there, and you looked sad.  I thought to myself, what can I do to help?  So I smile at you and I see you smile back.  That’s better.”  He tells me in his French accent.

I needed that.  As I devoured my chicken and onion with fried rice dish he exclaimed, “My God, well I know you’re not going to starve!”

I laughed and told him my favorite thing about Southeast Asia is the food.

Soon after he said goodbye, an older couple sat down on the other side of me.  Right away, the gentleman asked where I was from.  He and the woman had met on a Thai island in 1981 and kept in touch through snail mail all this time.  Now, years later, here they were, traveling together.

I told them I had just come from Luang Prabang and the woman said she did too and saw me there.  The man weaved his hands back and forth- the flow of people coming in and out of your life.

I was feeling lost for a brief time in this big city, and these strangers lifted my spirits and made me smile.  You’re only allowed to be sad for a moment here, so keep your glass half full and someone, perhaps a beautiful stranger will fill it.