Laos              
Honsa working elephants
           

In the mountains around Honsa, according to locals, there are a hundred elephants still working on dragging trees from the forests.

But do not expect to see them without a lot of effort and a little expense for a 4WD to take you to where they are working.

For us, it was an all-day trip that started at the local coffee supplier ... to buy a gift for the people who own the elephants.

Then we made our way through the low areas until we started the climb into the forested areas on a track that, at times, took our breath away.

There were beautiful views ... but, also, the state of the tracks tested the 4WD and the driver in the punishing ride. At times we clawed our way up 60 degrees, getting to the top and able to see nothing but the sky before plunging down the other side.

Eventually we reached the small camp, semi permanent with some families, where the elephant handlers lived during their work in the area.

Maybe 50 men, women and children were there in a few wood-built homes and nearby one of the elephants grazed in a forest clearing; the other elephants had been left three hours hike away in the forest ready for the next day's work.

Our arrival caused immediate interest and there was a conference among everyone there the falangs wanted to see elephants working. Should they hike up to the elephants or should they see the elephant skills in the village?

We opted for the latter. This was the destination of the logs from higher in the mountains: we could see the way the elephants worked without six hours of hiking (probably more: we would never keep up the pace of these tough mountain people).

One of the men went off and shortly returned, his elephant trailing along after him like a friendly dog. They went down to the area where they prepare the elephants for riding and got him ready.

The elephant, a bright 22-year-old, was harnessed and gave a good demo of his working life his mahout riding him and controlling him with knee pressure and noises. It was a partnership of man and elephant, movements without force.

They dragged a huge log, like any working day, and worked it into place and then unchained it a thoroughly impressive operation with the elephant instrumental in freeing the chain before the elephant was returned to his field. We gave him a bunch of bananas, one at a time, for his trouble.

As we prepared to leave on the trip down, some of the men asked if they could ride in the open back of our 4WD ... yes, of course, a pleasure. Well, a pleasure to be able to give them something, though less of a pleasure for them in the choking dust. But it did get them back to their families for an unexpected visit.

On the way down, we diverted to the elephant people's village. Maybe a hundred homes straddled a rise that could have been called a small hill on flat ground but here it was just another undulation in the mountainous terrain.

On the outskirts, young men were busy sawing huge logs into thick planks. They used large hand saws, one man on each end.

Then the homes formed the central area and as we got out of the 4WD to see the people and their village, the people came out of their homes to see the falangs.

We walked through it; and everyone watched us, as curious about us as we were about them. As I walked back, I photographed a couple of the men and turned the camera around to show them their pictures on the camera's screen.

That started a stampede that completely broke the ice and we spent the next half an hour taking and showing photographs and letting the villagers have a go with our cameras and showing the others what they had taken.

Then we started the long ride down to Honsa, picking up women who had been working in the forests and giving them a lift to their homes.

For a trip to see elephants, we had met a lot of interesting and friendly people ...

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