Since visiting Laos a couple of years ago I’ve been on the lookout for a good photobook of the country but the few that I had discovered were mostly aimed at tourists looking for pictures of the country’s best known sites. It was only a couple of months ago that I came across Songs of Lao from Nazraeli Press. The book was published in 2016 but for some reason I had never seen it until recently.
Songs of Lao was published in association with Friends Without a Border, a children’s medical charity founded by Japanese photographer Kenro Izu. Izu set up the charity after witnessing the suffering of children during photographic trips to Angkor in Cambodia in the mid 1990’s. Working with the wider photographic community and beyond Izu’s organisation was able to open the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap in 1999. As well as providing an extensive range of medical services the hospital also worked with local health care providers to improve the overall standard of both administration and care in the region.
Laos was once known as Lan Xang, the Land of a Million Elephants. Sadly, those days are long gone. Today, the wild population is estimated to be somewhere between 600 and 800 animals, with another 500 to 600 captive, working mostly in the logging industry and, increasingly, in tourism.
In December 2016 we arrived in the old Lao capital of Luang Prabang. Prior to our arrival I had searched diligently online for a tour operator who could provide an opportunity to meet with and observe elephants up close without riding them, but found none. While not wanting to pass judgement on those who choose to ride the elephants, we decided it was not something we were comfortable with.
So we arrived in Luang Prabang unsure if we would be able to meet some elephants. Then, on our first day in town, while walking along Sisavangvong Road we spotted a store front with a sign outside boldly proclaiming NO RIDING. We stepped inside the office of MandaLao Tours and spoke to the Project Manager, Mr Prasop Tipprasert. Fifteen minutes later we had signed up for a tour the following morning.