Elephants know right from wrong. Pak Lay, Laos. 1974

Not very many foreigners were visiting Pay Lay back in 1974 and why would they? The nearby Plain of Jars was inaccessible due to the civil war, so there was almost nothing worth seeing; it was and probably still is a sleepy postcolonial backwater. Pak Lay is the sort of place travellers sometimes find themselves in, that provokes one of the great questions that one faces at some stage in their lives; that of “what the f#%k am I doing here?” Also the Pathet Lao had been taking turns with various rag-tag elements of the government’s forces, holding at gunpoint, robbing or kidnapping likely targets that’d come down the Mekong from Luang Prabang on the local riverboats.

So there I was walking down the street of dusty old and forgotten Pak Lay when I saw a guy on an elephant coming towards me.

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The mahout steered his behemoth the side of the road and parked it in front of a shop. He then dismounted and went inside to do some shopping. On the sidewalk in front of the shop were woven palm frond mats with what looked like some kind of root similar in shape to ginger that had been laid out in the sun to dry. I watched as the elephant waited for the mahout to go out of eyesight and then with a quick look around the elephant started to move it’s truck slowly sideways, left and right near the drying roots in a very nonchalant way. The body language seemed to be saying, I’m just swinging my truck; I’m not doing anything bad; I’m not touching anything. After about a minute or so it quickly snatched up a root and ate it, then it returned to the; I’m not doing anything-wrong ruse.

The elephant went through the fake and snatch routine about five times until the storeowner noticed what was going on and started yelling at the elephant, which brought out the mahout with his stick. The elephant instantly flinched at the hullabaloo and stopped moving, bracing itself for a confrontation with the mahout. The mahout walked straight up to the elephant and gave it one sharp rap with his goad, right between the eyes and then barked some words at it. The elephant just took its reprimand meekly and stood quietly in mute compliance. The mahout and storeowner went back into the store to finish their business. After a few minutes the elephant did a quick look around and went through the same the fake and snatch routine again.

The Elephant knew that it shouldn’t be taking the roots but it did, when it knew it could, without getting into trouble. The pilfering stopped when the mahout came back out with the storeowner in tow, carrying his purchases in a rough basket. The mahout mounted the automatically keeling elephant, the elephant then stood up and reached for the basket of goods that the storeowner had in his arms, gently picked them up, raised them over its head and passed them to the mahout who then put the goods in the large basket behind him. The elephant knew the drill.

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I can remember thinking to myself at the time how cool it was to go shopping with an elephant.

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