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.
Mr Tipprasert, our driver and our guide, Lan, collected us from our hotel in the morning and, after stopping at a local market to buy some fruit for the elephants, we arrived at a clearing overlooking the Nam Khan river where our tour began. But first, tea and an opportunity to talk to Mr Tipprasert about elephants, the project, and much else besides. Originally from Thailand, he told us about a project he founded with Chiang Mai University to train ‘therapy elephants’ to work with autistic children. (There is a good article about the project at the NBC News website.)
Soon after, our group — four visitors and our guide — walked down to the riverbank where we boarded a boat for a quick trip to the other side. Here we took in the view while waiting for the arrival of the elephants. Moments later they appeared with their mahouts: Kit, an 11 month old male, Thong Kuhn, his mother, and Mahn, the matriarch of the group. Well used to the procedure, the three lined up behind a wooden fence while we tried to keep the supply of bananas moving at speed.
I was surprised by how soft their skin was, having expected it to feel much tougher, thicker. I was also struck by the contrast between the gentleness with which they reached out to us with their trunks and took the proffered fruit, and the sense of strength in those trunks when I didn’t get my hand out of the way in time and found it firmly gripped by Thong Kuhn. Thankfully, she released her grip sufficiently for me to get my hand back. Being the mother of a year old calf she’s probably used to clumsiness.
When the baskets of fruit were empty the elephants walked down to the river. The Nam Khan river at this point is wide but shallow and we were able to walk out into the river with our orange plastic buckets and get both the elephants and ourselves thoroughly soaked. Water and mud feature heavily during the tour but MandaLao provide socks and shoes with attached gaiters for everyone.
After bathing it was time to head for the forest. The first part of the trail passes through communal farm land, where residents of the nearby village of Xieng Lom grow crops. The mahouts are busy on this part of the trail ensuring the elephants resist the temptation to reach across the fence and sample the produce. One of the biggest challenges of protecting the elephant population in Laos, or anywhere else, is managing human — elephant interactions. Having watched the elephants foraging in the forest it’s easy to understand how much damage they could do to vital crops in a very short time if they were given the opportunity. MandaLao’s response is to work closely with the local community to ensure that the opportunity doesn’t arise and to share the benefits of elephant tourism with the community.
Once past the farm land, the trail heads into the forest along the Huay Nok stream. We walked and watched and admired as the group criss-crossed the stream, the two adults slow and stately, Kit, the calf, sometimes hiding behind his mother, sometimes careering around with the curiosity and energy of youth. At one point we stopped on some high ground above the stream while the elephants stopped in the stream below us, trunks reaching out. More bananas appeared and then disappeared into the elephants.
Eventually, too soon, our trek was over. The elephants and their mahouts wandered off deeper into the forest, while we walked back to our starting point where Mr Tipprasert was on hand once more to answer our questions, while we enjoyed a lunch of Lao traditional food prepared on site using locally grown organic produce.
In short, an unforgettable experience. If you are going to Laos, don’t miss it.
MandaLao is a relatively new business and the project is still under development. When we took our trip in mid-December 2016 tours had only been running for around six weeks. You can find out more at the MandaLao website, and follow them on Facebook.