Page 2 - Schooled as a Mahout on the Mekong

Schooled as a Mahout on the Mekong - Page 2
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Elephant Sanctuary

From above, her head was a massive object. The skin is rough to the touch and heavily wrinkled, populated sparingly with coarse black hairs. There are two large lobes to the head, one on each side with a slight depression in the middle. As she began to walk with me on her back I placed my hands flat on her head and tried to imagine her thoughts.

When I declared myself comfortable, it was time to take off into the jungle, with a trained mahout riding shotgun behind me. Words are truly inadequate for such an experience. You could place yourself hundreds of years in the past and the moment would be the same, man interacting with what was once a wild animal but who chose to live in peace with a former adversary. Strange how this has been the case for both whales and elephants, the largest creatures on both land and sea. Twice she stopped to trumpet and paused afterwards as if listening. Later the mahouts explained that they can hear each other’s calls from several miles away and she was talking with another elephant.

At one point Surus stopped, and with no effort at all, uprooted a fair-sized banana tree with her trunk as though she were picking a dandelion. She expertly stripped it of leaves and feasted on the sweet bark. How fortunate is man to occupy the same planet as such enlightened animals?

After many miles and hours on the back of Surus it was graduation time. I was sent off down a new jungle path that we had not traveled before, and when we reached a clearing I saw the trail went down a steep and very muddy incline. With no encouragement from me, Surus began our descent and I trusted that she knew what she was doing. She slowed her pace and picked her steps carefully, sliding twice but never losing her footing. It was only half way down that I saw the trail terminated at the very swift-moving Mekong River. I estimated it was flowing at about seven knots, great for a sailboat, but frightening for a novice mahout. No one told me we were actually going into the Mekong.

River Swimming With an Elephant

Without hesitation, Surus plunged directly into the river, and I was relieved to find the water level just below my feet. She moved steadily out into the current like an armored tank, and it was a good two hundred yards to the opposite shore when the bottom dropped off.

I was not paying attention to direction, allowing Surus her head, and she wandered off course, past the shallows into deeper water.  Suddenly we fell like a roller coaster and the water was up to my waist. It took a second before I realized that Surus was swimming, and that we were both fine.  Elephants are wonderful swimmers despite their bulk and even though Surus’ head was now underwater, she adroitly used her trunk as a snorkel, continuing on like a living breathing submarine.  She negotiated the river easily as a jungle trail, the current being no problem for her powerful strokes. She was quite at home doing this and her calm nature allowed me to take in the moment for what it was: one of those terrifying but exhilarating moments when your brain goes on autopilot and you cease all rational thought.

Elephant riding in the river

It was one of those moments when you wish everyone you have ever known could see what you are doing, and it was one of those moments that will return to you in your final seconds on earth as a life defining highlight. I was in the middle of the MEKONG RIVER, RIDING BAREBACK ON AN ELEPHANT! I wanted to scream with joy.

I shifted my body weight and told her to move left, and within seconds we were back in water shallow enough for her to walk on the bottom. She found a slight rise on the opposite shore that she could negotiate, but before climbing up, she raised her trunk and sprayed me with a couple gallons of water, a playful afterthought and a reminder that I had let her stray off path. Did she go swimming on purpose? I like to think so as she was that intelligent. I think she did it to remind me that I was supposed to be in charge and had let my mind wander so she took over.

The afternoon was spent bathing her and getting sprayed as I found out she was as playful as a small child. I was scrubbing her back with a long push broom when she found one of my sandals and played keep away for several minutes.

Just as most nations have now switched from whale hunting to whale watching, many are also coming to terms with their elephants in bondage. Both Thailand and Laos are phasing them out as work animals and more and more places are offering classes such as I took or simply taking people for rides on these benign behemoths.

Before places like Elephant Village popped up, these animals were kept chained and subjected to hard physical labor until they were unable to continue. When they became aged or unable to work, most were simply let loose. Unable to provide for themselves after a life of slavery, many wandered into cities where they were hit by cars or shot by police for being a menace. Under international pressure, circus elephants are no longer performing tricks for audiences.

Now, animals like Surus will never again be chained or mistreated. She will live out her days being tended to and loved, and most importantly, among her own kind.


For more information on the sanctuary in Laos, see the Elephant Village website. For more on the debate over the role of elephants in tourism, see this rundown on the Adventure Travel Trade Association site.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at

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Related Features:
Thai Voluntourism for All the Wrong Reasons by Gillian Kendall
Picnicking at the Ruins of Angkor by Michael Buckley
On Safari in Sri Lanka by Michael Buckley
Riding the Bamboo Train in Cambodia by James Michael Dorsey

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