The elephant express

High in his sedan chair, Ewen Bell makes gentle progress through forests and remote villages.

Once known as the ''Land of a Million Elephants'', Laos is today home to little more than 1000. Half roam wild in the forests, half work in the logging industry and a select few carry travellers looking for the path less travelled.

On the floor of a farmhouse, we chat with the head mahout, Mr Peng. It has taken two days to find this village, travelling by Mekong riverboat and then a dusty songthaew (a shared taxi bus) over the mountains of northern Laos. From here we will travel by elephant for four more days, until we return to the Mekong River.

The farmhouse is built on stilts in case of flooding, so the elephants peer into the living room and occasionally feel around the window with their trunks, in search of treats. Outside, a pig pen erupts in squeals each time the elephants wander too close, soon followed by the sound of chickens taking flight to avoid being stomped.

We have a baby elephant in our team who is small enough to wander beneath the stilts and bored enough to chase the chickens for the fun of it. He's a 600-kilogram puppy.

My new friend for the journey is far more relaxed. Her name is Mei Kham Di, which translates as ''the Good Gold''. Our caravan is made up of domesticated elephants that have found new employment after a career in logging.

Our first day of trekking is a short one, with an afternoon of riding to accustom us to the practical realities of pachyderm transport. Getting on and off without a large set of steps takes a little practice and it'll be a few days before any of us have achieved it with grace.

As we leave town by road, the village houses are soon outnumbered by rice paddies and after a short section of forest our trail cuts across another valley of fields.

The cool time of year in northern Laos starts about October, so the rice has already been harvested and just the dry stalks remain. Even these prove to be appetising elephant snacks. They eat all day by grazing as we walk, sometimes paying more attention to the grazing than the walking. My mahout lets out yells of protest when the progress is too slow but it takes some convincing once Mei Kham Di has the scent of a favoured bush.

By late afternoon we reach our overnight village, Ban Thene. Elephants usually look forward to a bath in the river before settling into the forest for the night. Upstream the women of the village are washing their laundry and children are washing their hair. Downstream our elephants stride into the deep water and start rolling about. Most elephants make a playtime of it but Mei Kham Di sits scornfully while the mahout splashes cool water over her ears, neck and back.

Every evening we have the option to camp in tents by the river or stay with a family in the village. Our chef arrives early to prepare a hot meal and we are joined for dinner by the dignitaries of the village. Ban Thene is familiar with elephants but new to tourism, though with a little help they've organised mosquito nets and warm blankets for the night.

Winter in Laos is not cold but the early mornings can be chilly and misty. Convincing Mei Kham Di to start her day with a bath takes more effort than it did last night and I might have to restrict my own bathing habits to the warmth of late afternoons as well. Both my elephant and I just want to get out of the river and grab a bite to eat and with at least six hours of riding ahead of us we make an early start into the forests.

Our caravan would be easy enough to spot from a distance, with six elephants rolling single-file along the rivers and mountain trails. The rattan baskets perched up high make it impossible for us to hide. As we make our way along the river, our entourage draws onlookers from farmhouses hidden in the foliage.

At a clearing, a group of children comes out of hiding and races up to make friends, carrying fishing nets and covered in mud from the knees down. They wave to the riders but really they just want a closer look at the baby elephant.

Pachyderm progress is measured by hours rather than kilometres. Clambering down a hillside or stepping through rivers can slow the caravan. Walking speed for the elephants varies according to their load, with a more gentle pace employed when a precious cargo is riding on top. Even in low gear the elephants are difficult to match when walking alongside; their long strides are far more effective over flat terrain or through pebbled streams. Elephants are remarkably quiet as they move through the forest, careful with every step and only audible when they strip a bamboo tree or have something to say.

Their ability to move without a noise defies their size. The mahouts make more noise, in fact, as they try to keep the elephants on course.

At times the trail ahead dips steeply downhill and my privileged vantage point so high off the ground turns into a precarious cage. The elephant might know we won't tip over but I'm not so sure. With my face tilting directly down towards the trunk and my legs dangling without purchase, I am well outside my comfort zone.

Earlier in the day my mahout had fashioned a crossbar, a length of bamboo cut to size that gives my hands something to grip on my sedan. After a kilometre of unrelenting progress downhill I am incredibly grateful for that simple bit of timber.

When the gradient eases we find ourselves in the nexus of a narrow valley. Our trail is in fact a shallow stream bed that tumbles gently down the slope, so we travel for another hour with water under foot and banana palms for shade. My elephant grabs at least 10 varieties of leaf along this stretch, pulling in vines, leaves and bamboo stalks from high and low like a forest buffet.

Eventually our little mountain stream merges with a wider mountain stream and for the last hour of the day we follow a broad watercourse into the village of Nam Thap. These are Khamu people, one of the ethnic minorities live in the remote forests of Laos. Last year, electricity generated by the current flowing down the river was connected to the village.

There are a few light bulbs but no television and our cameras are greeted at first with suspicion rather than excitement. Foreigners are a curiosity in remote Khamu towns, but the elephants are celebrities.

We have a local guide to translate for the children but also a veterinarian to translate for the elephants. Bertrand Bouchard has been working with ElefantAsia for a year, responding to emergencies and distributing support kits to mahouts. The organisation was founded in 2001 by two French philanthropists aiming to train mahouts to better manage their elephants when working in the logging industry and to encourage the unique culture that has been preserved in Laos.

A working elephant provides income for an entire family. Logging in Laos is still dominated by elephants, a process of removing selective timbers and moving on.

Domesticated elephants are highly skilled for this style of work; the mahout earns money for his extended family and the forest is treated with care. It is regarded as a sustainable industry ecologically, culturally and financially.

We pass a few pockets of logging during the third day of riding and Bouchard, our roaming veterinarian, points out the evidence of how elephants perform the hard labour. It's difficult for me as a visitor to discern the impact of this kind of logging.

Our trail for the day runs alongside or through the river, with flowing water and a shady valley to keep us cool.

From here our camp for the night on the Mekong River is less than 20 kilometres to the north and hundreds of travellers every day follow that route. In these wild forests to the east of Hongsa, however, the rivers are too shallow for tourist boats and the trail too rough for songthaews.

People who live here have to walk to get anywhere and a few choose to walk with the elephants. This is the path less travelled: overgrown with elephant snacks and lined with droppings.

It eventually arrives back at the Mekong River, where our boat awaits us.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Thai Airways has a fare to Laos for about $1680 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. You fly to Bangkok (about 9hr), where you change to Bangkok Airways for Luang Prabang (2hr). Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

Elephant trekking there

ElefantAsia's five-day elephant-trek package, including return boat rides out of Luang Prabang, costs $3740 for a family of four, with one elephant for each person. All profits go towards educational and emergency-response programs for elephants. ElefantAsia also organises the annual Laos Elephant Festival every February; this year it's in Paklay on February 18-20. See elefantasia.org, greendiscoverylaos.com.

Riding elephants is a contentious issue but it is not good for a domesticated elephant to be out of work. When treated with respect and given the chance to work, an elephant will be happy and healthy.

See helpingelephants.org.

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