Rumble in the jungle
Clouds of dust dance in the early morning light filtering through the canopy as our pick-up races to conquer the hill. Jolted in the back of the truck, I'm finding it hard to believe that less than 24 hours earlier my transport had been so much more sedate. Perched on an elephant's head, I had unwittingly ended up a star in the mahout training school event at the Laos Elephant Festival.
This year's Elephant Festival takes place from February 18 to 20 in Pak Lai (also spelled Pak Lay), a small, scenic community on the Mekong River that comprises a mix of French colonial homes and traditional wooden Laotian buildings. Organised by the charity ElefantAsia in conjunction with the Sainyabuli (Sayabouri) provincial government, the inaugural event took place in 2007. Sainyabuli is home to about three-quarters of Laos' 500 domesticated elephants and a good deal of the estimated 1,000 remaining in the wild.
The festival is an opportunity for travellers in Laos to divert from the usual destinations in the central and northern parts of the country to visit far more remote areas and get into closer contact with real Laotian life. Reaching the festival involves a boat trip up the Mekong River to Tha Souang. Swallows dart over the waters as we pass small settlements sandwiched between the banks and the steep, forested slopes. The boat struggles with low water levels, which Laos blames on damming by the Chinese upriver. At Tha Souang, we transfer to a songthaew (literally 'two benches') truck for the ride over the hills to Hongsa district.
Arriving in the village of Viengkeo on a Friday evening, it becomes clear that although the festival is a tourist draw card, for the locals it is as if the circus has come to town, and the party is well under way. We are billeted in homestays while the locals enjoy the food stalls and try to win prizes at the fun fair by shooting targets and throwing hoops.
The next morning, we wake to the rhythmic clanging of wooden bells as the elephants plod past our window. The opening ceremony is about to begin. The ceremony is attended not only by 40 or so pachyderms from the surrounding districts, but also ethnic minorities in their traditional costumes.
At the elephant of the year contest the stakes are high, with the prize of a new motorbike up for grabs. Judging takes place on Saturday morning, with the presentation on Sunday afternoon. Selection is based on the elephant's condition, rewarding the mahout who best looks after his animal.
'The elephant, one of the defining components of Asian heritage, is today under threat,' says Sebastien Duffillot, one of the co-founders of ElefantAsia. 'In response to these concerns, the Elephant Festival has been organised to raise awareness of the need for action to protect the Asian elephant as part of the vital cultural and natural heritage of Laos.'
Highlights of both Saturday and Sunday morning are the elephant logging demonstration and the elephant bath. For most of the giants in attendance, their day job is in the logging industry.
Ostensibly environmentally friendly in that elephants can be used for selective logging, the industry has in recent years been gaining steam. This has led to overwork and injury to elephants, and a low birth rate of domestic animals. During the demonstration, the working animals' three main functions are on display. The most important task is dragging the logs with a chain. Then they move them by lowering their head and pushing with the trunk and front feet. Finally they lift and toss the logs.
At the elephant bathing, it's hard to stay dry with up to five tonnes of animal trying to squeeze into the pool to cool down. Two ducks appear quite perturbed by the invasion of their territory, but the elephants pay them no heed.
Generally, it quietens down in the afternoon, the heat saps the energy of both humans and beasts. Things liven up again on Saturday evening with a fireworks display, concert and magic show. The performers are top-rate and the young magician is accompanied by a camp assistant and a beauty to perform the usual tricks with doves and rabbits.
There is considerable overlap between the events on the Saturday and Sunday, with often just a slight name change. But one event on Sunday morning is different: the mahout school.
'Do you want to ride an elephant for free?' asks Giles Maurer, another of ElefantAsia's co-founders.
How could I refuse? The next I knew, I was sitting on the head of an elephant with an expectant audience of a few hundred. An A5 piece of paper was thrust into my hand with some Lao commands and their English translation.
First, you notice that you are very high up, and it's a long way to fall. I then realise I am quite safe; my elephant knows I'm there and she isn't going to hurt me. Equally, however, she isn't going to do as I say. Bang goes the figure-of-eight I was meant to be guiding her around. Elephants take their time to ponder commands, and then only do them if they so wish.
That evening, at my homestay with the Somchit family, they perform a baci ceremony to prepare us for the journey ahead. Two elders lead the chanting and place chicken, rice, whisky and banana in a bag. The villagers tie pieces of string around our wrists before we share a meal. Whether this fully prepares me for five hours on the back of pick-up truck along dirt roads back to Luang Prabang, I'm not sure.
Pack your trunk
How to get there: Pak Lai is accessible from Vientiane by boat, car or bus. Alternative routes are shown on www.laoelephantfestival.com
Where to stay: visitors to the festival can choose homestays, which are best booked in advance on the website. There is also a limited number of basic guest houses in the town, which are also listed on the festival's website.