You can sense their presence in the tangled jungle. The ground trembles. Branches crack. Snorts and grunts vibrate through the air. Then across the riverbank three majestic beasts appear with grace and ease.
All creatures are magnificent, however the elephant is simply awesome. Beyond their sheer size, intelligence, and social structure, their capacity to experience a range of interwoven human-like emotions is extraordinary. Humans do not corner the market on emotions. We could learn a thing or two about empathy, sympathy and compassion from these noble creatures.
While staying in Luang Prabang a day trip took me north, along the banks of the Nam Khan River, to MandaLao Elephant Conservation. MandaLao is a 200 acre park promoting the humane and ethical treatment of elephants across Laos and beyond. There are no elephant tricks preformed here, no rides or exploitation of any kind, only education and loving care are offered.
MandaLao came into being last year by an enterprising American, Michael Vogler. The day to day operation is run by an elegant Thai gentleman named Prasop. His thirty years of experience working with elephants was apparent during his morning talk.
Prasop explained the plight of modern elephants and the efforts that are being made to protect them. He discussed their social structure and that elephants are highly social creatures, needing much attention and care. Each elephant at MandaLao is assigned a keeper, called a Mahout. These young boys bond with their elephants, gaining a deep, almost spiritual relationship like no other. The mahout become the eyes and ears of the elephant, detecting illness or injury.
After a brief orientation I slipped on a pair of lightweight, deep tread boots, ready for the day’s muddy hike. I was accompanied by husband Robert, and a mother and daughter from Wyoming. We crossed the river on a long-tail boat, to meet our jumbo companions for the day: Grandma, mom and baby Kit, a bouncing, inquisitive and willful 2 year old male.
Our trio of pachyderms led us into the jungle, through rice fields and along a river’s edge. Kit splashed and frolicked through the water, wrestled with logs, scratched himself on boulders, and he mimicked what mom and granny did. I felt so insignificant next to these imposing creatures. They seem to carry the wisdom of the ages within their soulful, deep-set eyes.
With ears flapping, Kit made his presence known. Somehow he knew he would one day grow into an impressive male, carrying on his noble lineage. But first, he needed to stop and nurse.
Lao people have always had a deep connection with the elephants that roamed their land. Laos became known as “Land of One Million Elephants” but sadly their population has dwindled to only 3000.
The good news is the population is no longer in decline. Conservation efforts towards elephants are increasing across Southeast Asia. The exploitation of these beasts is finally being addressed. Animals are being liberated from logging camps, taken off the streets of Bangkok as tourist attractions, and rescued from the wild when orphaned. Some are even being prepared to go back into the wild, while others stay in sanctuaries with their mahouts.
Can you imagine a world without elephants? I can’t. I want my grandson to see these awe-inspiring animals in person. I want him to feel their magnificence, and be humbled by them. I will support organizations like MandaLao Elephant Conservation, www.mandalaotours.com and continue to spread the word about the humanitarian efforts that still need to be implemented.
There is so much in our world that needs to change. Where does one begin? If one wants change start with educating yourself, followed by setting an intention, then putting that intention into action.
If we all took a little action, change would follow.
Live in color,
Is life nothing more than a game of roulette?
Is one’s destiny determined by a serendipitous spin of the wheel? Who decides where the bouncing ball of life will land? Will it come to rest in the pocket of privilege, hardship, health or sickness?
Returning home from Southeast Asia, questions arose for me, like steam off a morning’s pond.
This past month I stepped out of my comfortable bubble once again, onto the exotic soils of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The change in culture is jarring, but my past excursions readied me for this sensory jolt. An acute awareness of my surroundings was heightened upon my arrival. The auto-pilot I habitually run on was switched off; I instead opted for the fully engaged manual mode.
When traveling, I usually head to one of two places to get a sense of my surroundings: the countryside, or the water. For my first outing I chose to explore the countryside of Laos.
My starting point was Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site located in Northern Laos on the banks of the Mekong River. At the break of dawn I headed out of town, due west, on a busy, barely paved road. My route meandered through both grassy fields and depleted rice paddies. Being the dry season, rice paddies lie dormant. The rains begin in May flooding the paddy fields, which remain saturated until September.
I left a cloud of dust in my wake as my drive took me through rural terrain, a route few tourists consider. I was in my happy place, the odd woman in a marvelous and alluring culture. I passed lanky, sun-kissed fisherman as they dotted the shallow river bank casting their handmade nets into murky water. I stopped for a closer examination and found barely a handful of bait-size fish wiggling in a leaky bucket, the haul for the day. The beaming smile of the fisherman said it all, he was proud of his catch.
Further down the road I encountered a typical Lao village. Wooden houses, what we may call shacks, sat on stilts that lined the road. Hammocks attached to the underside of the main floor, swung between the stilts, offering cool shelter from the dry season’s sun. Children played without a care while a mother looked on, tending to a bubbling pot, resting on an open flame.
I passed a Buddhist temple where the community gathered for some sort of festival. A strange non-metered melody filled the air. The elders sat in a cluster, while women showed off their intricately designed weavings. Over a loudspeaker a greeting was directed to me, “Hello,” I nodded my head in respect and responded, “Sabaidi” the local greeting. A smile and a sabaidi became my calling card.
My Western eyes saw a humble and meager existence, yet the residents seemed rich. Not rich in a material sense but the rich in spirit. Giggling children ran barefoot with sticks, creating games as they went along. Not one child was crying, or seemed fussy, neglected, or lacking attention. Oh, do we have something to learn from them.
Continuing on my journey I passed women in the fields tending to their crops wearing conical shaped straw hats. Fun fact: Did you know the conical shape is designed so the hat may be dipped in water, then worn to keep cool. I stopped at a plot of ripe eggplants, the exotic variety, the ones I can only find in Chinatown. These bulbous, green eggplants were carefully being picked by hand. Once again I was greeted with radiant smiles.
I found life in this region to be modest, yet not without challenges. Intermittent power light the villages, a long dry season makes farming arduous, while the wet season brings floods. It is a land both of wealth and need — a land of contradictions.
This is where my questions arose.
When a new being is born to this earth, who decides what soul lands where?
I guess I won the lottery in being born in one of the richest countries, to loving parents that could indulge me. But what about the children that are born in a rice paddy, or in a war torn country? Is it by chance or divine plan their lives begin with such hardship? I suppose that is one of those unanswerable questions. My koan for the day.
It is through travel that my veil of privilege is drawn back. Standing on unfamiliar ground I realize how fortunate I am, and how I have an obligation to share my experiences. It is my task to document these encounters for others to consider. There is some insight to be gained from every person that crosses your path, the Lao people are no exception. The resilience of the gentle people of Laos was apparent, the acceptance to their fate was admirable. They became my teachers, I was their student.
Remember that game of roulette? As the ball of life spins on the revolving wheel, bouncing from one pocket to the next, where one’s destiny lands will forever remain a mystery. Acceptance of that destiny, whatever it may be, was my lesson.
As the sun sank into the hazy horizon my days excursion came to an end. I returned to Luang Prabang thinking, take nothing for granted. Be grateful for where you are, and for what you have, for what you have is exactly what you need.
And this was just my first day in Laos!
Live in color,
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