Do you speak elephant? An Irishwoman’s Diary on perfecting the ‘nop’ in Laos

For Mae, life is her permanent buffet. Forever vacuuming my pockets and neckline, her trunk transfers 250kg of bamboo and bananas daily

For Mae, life is her permanent buffet. Forever vacuuming my pockets and neckline, her trunk transfers 250kg of bamboo and bananas daily


In Laos, my “foster” elephant eats shoots and leaves, then dumps me in the river. The first instant I met my elephant Mae Uak, I gave her a “nop”. Why, I’m not sure. In Laos, a “nop” is the respectful greeting you make when meeting anyone or dropping alms in monks’ bowls. You nop guests, nop to say sorry, nop if “nopped”. Also, it’s hard to hug Mae.

So when in doubt: nop. How? Bow briefly with hands chest-high in prayer, adding toothy grins, and repeat: Sa-bai-dii or “How are you?”

We’re in Elephant Village, near the photogenic “Trail of Falls” of Hua Sae, a tropical paradise. A rollercoaster Jeep ride took us to this sanctuary for knackered nellies, where we’re interning as “mahouts” or minders.

Mae and minder Wae teach us to feed, humour, pacify, inject, shampoo, converse, and swim with her. It’s near Luang Prabang, heavenly city of temples and markets where the French left behind a) bread, and b) coffee, and c) wine: another reason to love laidback Laos.

Lao elephant culture is woven into the ancient kingdom’s fabric literally, even hems of graceful pha sim skirts. Yet Lao people complain nopping is dying, the young have lost respect for elders – and no wonder elephants are dying out.

This doesn’t stop elephant tourism at the fork of Mekhong and Nam Khan rivers, where we’re on our college field trip under Prof Chuong Chung, a Vietnamese ex-pat with a passion for noodles. We spend our free time sampling noodles at night markets and joking that we’re making the world a better place, a noodle at a time.

But this Mae Uak’s a cranky dame, constantly noshing bamboo. Wae apologises with fresh nops. Elephants understand 400 commands, but reply only in grunts. For Mae, life is her permanent buffet. Forever vacuuming my pockets and neckline, her trunk transfers 250kg of bamboo and bananas daily.

Land of “Lotus Eaters” to French colonials, Laos was once “Land of a Million Elephants” – Lan Xang – and afternoon naps. Elephant Village was where the royal elephant army quartered, but starved after royalty was deposed 40 years ago.

Elephant numbers are down by 90 per cent throughout Asia, but here they’re really out of luck – a couple of hundred survive, with many sick. Sceptics recoil at elephant tourism, but the pricy business of rescuing elephants gets an education here.

A victim of the CIA “secret” war in the late 1970s, Laos was “no-go” until the 1990s, while still-active “bombies” littered Laos, and mutilated elephants and people.

Vientiane’s Cope museum commemorates this. (Mystery writer Colin Cotterill donates royalties from his Dr Siri series to Cope.) Until Thailand’s Friendship Bridge spanned the Mekhong two decades ago, Laos was on life support. Roads non-existent; electricity occasional. Now it’s on steroids, like all Southeast Asia.

Yet Luang Prabang remains the ancient, unspoiled, sleepy, temple-tipped, mysterious ex-capital it always was.

Out at Elephant Village, a dozen elephants chomp in stalls, rescued from rodeos or teak forests, emaciated or traumatised.

Getting to the sanctuary meant 36 sleepless hours for Wae, who sat on Mae to calm her in her bumpy truck. Three more are blind in one eye and one lost a bit of foot to bombies. All are worm-riddled; now I’m running around with a jumbo hypodermic, trying to penetrate Mae’s resistant bum. Do elephants hate their day jobs?

This “eco-tourism” is controversial, along with “howdah” seats. Well, they do get testy, admits Wei, and hate loud noises – but it’s not like the bad old days, when Mae and parents performed in rodeos or rolled logs.

Some come from Vieng Ghiaw in Sayaboury near the Thai border, home to Tai Lue, minority people who work the teak forests and hold elephant festivals.

Getting there means a long boat ride or elephant trek. Their stilt-houses have verandahs above stalls, so mahouts can step straight onto the elephants.

Time to ride Miss Mae. Wae shouts “Seung, seung!” (“Knee up!”), shoving my foot onto her raised knee and throwing the other over her neck, so I can cling to her bony, bristly forehead. Mae’s reward: bananas. Mine: I get to shout “elephant” for “slow”, “stop”, “right”, “left”, (hou, piu, sai, kwa) and we descend into the river for scrubbing.

Wae is laughing as I disappear underwater, still shampooing her. Mae adores water, sucking water through her trunk and showering me, then submerging us both while kicking. It’s her rodeo past, and she misses it.

“When do I do her nails?” I joke. Turns out we do scrub her nails.

Nearby, a young elephant is frolicking, kicking his hind heels as a boy clings onto his ears. How could you not love elephant slapstick humour?