"Well he was hopeless, wasn’t he?" she complained. "Couldn’t steer straight, kept veering off in one direction then the other. Couldn’t keep a steady speed either. It was all stop-go, stop-go," she continued. "Then he drops the brake stick and expects me to pick it up for him! And when we pass by the food stall for the second time, just when I need another bunch of bananas, he can’t find his money. Hopeless!"
That’s what Tongbin, a 16-year-old female elephant, probably thought about my skills as a first time elephant conductor (mahout). Tongbin was one of 61 elephants taking part in the annual elephant festival in Sainyabuli, Laos, in mid-February. The elephants had trekked in from all around the region. For Tongbin, it was a week long march from Hongsa.
Tongbin's owner, Kamphan, told me he kept her as a pet. Some pet. Elephants chomp through 100kg or more of food a day. The hand of bananas she’d quickly scarfed down when we stopped at a food stall was just a snack. Kamphan offered to give me a quick lesson in how to drive an elephant, but I’ll need a few more before I’m OK behind the wheel, or rather, behind the ears (you steer an elephant by nudging it behind the ears with your knees).
The two-day elephant festival kicks off with an elephant parade from the town centre down across the river (who needs bridges when you have an elephant?) and then features elephants doing all those standard elephant-like activities: shifting logs around, offering rides to everyone from young kids to elderly monks, picking up money ("just toss a 1000 kip note down there and I’ll show you how I can pick it up with my trunk"). The festival is a moveable feast – it’s been held at a different location each year of its three-year history. This year it attracted 50,000 visitors, the vast majority of them Laotians and their fellow elephant enthusiasts from nearby Thailand.
Tony Wheeler travelled to Laos on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.