I only had one day left with the elephants before I headed back to the comforts that Luang Prabang had to offer, but this was the day that I actually got to contribute to the care of the elephants. After spending a couple of days at the Elephant Conversation Center, I wished that we had planned things a little differently and would have gotten the one week experience at the site rather than the three day stay. If we had opted for that option, we would have helped out a lot more because it involved doing volunteer work at the camp after the three days were over. The only problem would have been that I would have wanted to stay there if we had gone for the longer option, so it was probably for the best that we were there for only two nights.
On my last day there, I got to work in the enrichment area. The idea of this part of the camp is to train the elephants to what it means to look for food in the wild. I know this may surprise many people to think that elephants need to be trained how to forage for food in the forest. Shouldn’t there instincts kick in allowing them to find food for themselves? Well, it is not that easy.
These elephants were trained since the age of three to either work in the logging industry, or perform at the tourist camps. They never had to search for food because it was always given to them by the mahouts. They never learned how to be elephants. I was told that the first time a new elephant was left alone in the enrichment area, they would stand there not knowing what to do because they had never been left alone in their live. And even though the goal of the Elephant Conservation Center is to get elephants ready to love out in the wild again they need to work their way up to that point.
Think of it this way. If somebody came to your house, grabbed you, traveled all the way around the way around the world and dropped you off into the forest so you could return back to your natural habitat, how well would you do out there by yourself? It is the same thing for these elephants. They need the time to learn how to survive on their own.
The two elephants that I got to watch in the environment took a little while to get going. They were able to find the food that was closer to the ground rather quickly, but they had a tendency to ignore the food that was hidden in the higher spot. I watched them walk right under some of the more obvious spots wondering why they couldn’t find the food hidden in these spots. I even asked the owner of the place if they has a weak sense of smell because of this phenomenon, and I was told that elephants have an extraordinary sense of smell which is what I thought in the first place. He told me that they just didn’t think of looking up high and this was the whole reason that they went through the process of training them.
He also told me that the elephants at first would start by struggling the various puzzles that were created for them, but after they figure them out, then the became way too easy for them. It required the center to come up with new and exciting ways to challenge the elephants that also simulated what it would be like for them to find food on their own. The elephants we were watching we just starting to figure out the easier puzzles and they still needed to work on finding and solving the more difficult ones.
Even though it was fun to watch the elephants in action, we had a boat we needed to catch to head back to our last full night in the more comfortable parts of Laos. We headed back to Luang Prabang and got a room closer to the center of town. It made for a very nice evening of enjoying drinks by the Mekong river and enjoying an amazing dinner.
It also meant it was the last chance I would get to travel across that wooden bridge that they build every year during the dry season. The bridge did not look as threatening at night, but as soon as we stepped on it and made our way across it, we could really feel how rickety it actually was. There were a couple of holes along the way that came from the continuous use over the last couple of months, but I also knew that the people of Luang Prabang would not fix these holes due to the fact that the wet season was starting soon and the bridge would have to come down anyway.
It was worth it making it across though because there was a wonderful restaurant on the other side that featured the Laos version fondue. It had many of the same features of Swiss fondue such as a nice broth to cook various kinds of food in over an open flame. But the difference came with the vegetables they used adding such things as cabbage, and scallions, and the addition of noodles. The meat was also cooked on a grill rather than being heated up in the broth. Add some of the spicy peppers to the broth and it made for one of the best meals I had while I was out there.
The trip had come full circle, but I felt like a completely different person because of it. A lot of the thanks for this has to be delivered to the Elephant Conversation Camp. I almost felt bad for going back to this life of luxury, but I now could use the new knowledge I gained from the journey to use in my life as I moved forward.
If you would like more information about the Elephant Conservation Center please check out the website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com