Though it’s not as visually arresting as the enormous surrounding temples, it’s always the Terrace of the Elephants that captures my imagination when I wander through Angkor Thom.
One can easily envision Jayavarman VII perched there, high atop a platform, watching his victorious army roll back into town, an enormous force that included some of the same powerful war elephants that are carved into the stone base of the terrace. Nowadays, the number of elephants in Cambodia is pitifully small, estimated at just over 200 in captivity and even fewer in the wild.
But it wouldn’t be until I made a trip to northern Laos that I would get a tiny taste of what it must have been like to be a mahout, or elephant driver, in the ancient Khmer empire.
Though there are greater numbers of elephants in Laos than in Cambodia, many of them are consigned to years of hard labor in logging camps because of their brute strength. That’s why some organisations, like the Elephant Village outside Luang Prabang, adopt abused elephants and give them the much easier work of trotting around with tourists on their backs.
Though I knew all this in advance, it still came as a shock for someone hailing from an elephant-less continent to pull into the village and see seven Asian elephants grazing calmly as they waited for us to climb aboard.
My ride for the day was Mae Boun Nam, a one-ton cutie with expressive flapping ears who was rescued after 40 years of work in the logging industry. It wasn’t until I had mounted Mae Boun Nam, along with her regular mahout Mr. Sao, that I realized that she was blind in both eyes. I’ll admit that riding a blind elephant down a tremendously steep mountain path felt a wee bit precarious, but Mr. Sao guided her by bobbing his feet and saying commands, and Mae Boun Nam confidently felt her way along, checking for stumps and branches with her sensitive trunk. And then it was time for me to slide into the driver’s seat, straddling Mae Boun Nam’s neck.
To ride Mae Boun Nam was to have very mixed impressions. One was to be in awe of her immense power; feeling her muscles move under me was a little like riding a large horse until I remembered that I was on her neck, the narrowest part of her.
The other impulse was to give her the same respect that I would an old lady. She was 60 years old, after all, and she had loose spotted earlobes that reminded me of my grandmother’s. I think she would look quite fetching in the rhinestone earrings and pillbox hats that my elderly neighbors used to wear to church in the 1980’s.
Back at the village, I fed Mae Boun Nam some bananas that comprised part of her 200 kilogram daily diet, and watched some of the other visiting barang try to master some basic mahout commands. The seven elephants are trained to follow basic Lao words like “Sai!” for left and “Khwa!” for right. Even so, they’re accustomed to the voices of their usual mahouts, who feed and care for them, and getting them to listen to anyone else can be tricky.
“Pie!” (or “Go forward!”) one determined Englishman shouted with less and less confidence, as his elephant lazily took her time scratching her rear against a tree trunk.
I couldn’t help but feel superior to him since Mae Boun Nam and I seemed to have developed a rapport. As she lovingly smeared mud and elephant saliva on me with her trunk, I entertained fantasies of secreting her back to Siem Reap and keeping her in my front yard. My days of riding tuk-tuks and motos would be over; together, we could stroll around town like real Angkorians.
Just let an SUV try to get in our way!
Eventually, I decided that Mae Boun Nam had a pretty nice retirement plan right where she was and we said our goodbyes. But now when I see the Terrace of the Elephants, I won’t imagine Jayavarman VII. Instead, I’ll fondly remember Mae Boun Nam and my fleeting career as a mahout.