It is said that Laos is the land of a million elephants.
The story comes from a long time ago, when the Lao people in the south of the country witnessed what seemed to be an endless herd of elephants crossing the Mekong. If the legend is to be believed, there were enough elephants in this herd to cross the river for three entire days.
However, as beautiful an idea as that is, it is no longer a reality, or even a possibility.
Today it is estimated that Laos has less than 1000 elephants; half of which are wild and half of which are domesticated. Those in the wild are threatened by loss of habitat and, to a lesser degree, poaching. Those that are domesticated are mainly trapped in the logging industry; spending their lives in chains. But recent changes within Laos mean that elephants are slowly being siphoned away from the logging industry, and instead are being picked up for tourism. However this change in life is not always a positive one. Often these ‘rescued’ elephants trade their days in logging to days of being ridden by tourists; a practice that is equally harmful and dangerous to the well-being of the elephants.
Elephant tourism is popular not just in Laos, but throughout southeast Asia. I had hoped to go to a sanctuary in Chiang Mai, however since I was there during the Yi Peng festival, the tours booked up quickly. So instead I decided I would find something in Laos.
I had 5 days in Luang Prabang, Laos and was determined to spend one of them with elephants. As an animal lover and an eco-conscious traveller, I didn’t want to do anything that involved or supported riding elephants. In a country nicknamed the land of a hundred elephants, I figured it would be reasonably easy to find a non-riding program.
But it wasn’t.
As I walked down the streets of Luang Prabang I was greeted with sign after sign of elephant tours calling themselves sanctuaries or reserves, but in big bold writing underneath flaunting the riding programs. Disappointed I just about gave up until I saw a sign that caught my attention. It wasn’t flashy, there wasn’t anyone waving me over, but the “NO RIDING” sign was all I needed to be drawn inside to MandaLao Tours.
About MandaLao Tours
Funnily enough, MandaLao wasn’t intended to be an elephant sanctuary. It was originally going to be a jungle escape for travellers interested in trekking, biking and swimming, with the main draw being it was only about thirty minutes away from Luang Prabang, not 3-4 hours like most other retreats.
And then then they owners; Kellen, Michael, and Markus, met the elephants, and a whole new idea came into play.
MandaLao is a brand new elephant sanctuary and has only been open since September 2016. With the help of project manager Prasop Tipprasert (who has more than 30 years experience working with domesticated elephants) and a team of dedicated Mahouts, MandaLao has quickly become a popular tourist destination for eco-conscious travellers looking for an authentic and positive elephant encounter.
At MandaLao the elephants have about 15 hectares of jungle property to roam, eat, and play. During the day they are free, however the owners did not hide that they do have to be chained at night. Kellen explained to us that because they are domesticated, if they do break away from the property the elephants will seek out humans. Of course in doing so they may come to the wrong people, or destroy the local people’s livelihoods (ie: their rice paddies) along the way. For this reason they are chained at night only; for their protection more than anything else. However Kellen did tell us that this is not ideal and the future goal is to find a way to create a natural barrier.
At this time MandaLao is an elephant sanctuary, but dreams of expanding to include more, potentially even therapy programs in the future. Without a doubt, this company’s passion for the elephants and responsible elephant tourism shines through in everything they do.
About the Elephants
At this time MandaLao has six adult elephants and one baby. The adults are all females and the baby is a male. Their names are:
Kit (male) 10 months old
TongCoon age 34 (mother to Kit)
Mahn age 34
TongCoon (yes, there are two with the same name) age 36
BungUn age 35
BounTem age 33
MandaLao’s elephants were rescued from the logging industry and, previous to being at the sanctuary, had spend their lives working in chains. Today they are happy to roam the land, eat, play and of course meet the tourists; especially if those tourists arrive with bananas.
About the Tour
MandaLao currently offers three different tours. There are two half day options (one with the baby, Kit, and one with the adults), and one full day option. I did the half day tour with the adults.
I was picked up at 8:30am from my hostel by Gum (sounds like kuum), our smiling guide for the day. I was the last one to join our small group of four. The tour maxes out at 6 people, however one of the elephants was unwell so they decided to cut it down to four for a few days in case the elephant wasn’t up to going, but also to maximize the experience for the visitors and not overwhelm the other elephants. The fact that they prioritized the elephants’ well being earned MandaLao a lot of respect from all four of us.
Along the way Gum told us we were going to play a fruit game. He gave each of us a word to remember for when we got to the fruit market. Being as forgetful as I am I forgot within seconds, and ended up blurting out all kinds of random nonsense words to everyone’s amusement until Gum saved me. Turns out my word meant pineapple. Fruity elephant treats in hand (and after nearly taking out Gum’s eye with the leaves on my pineapple) we headed towards MandaLao.
We arrived shortly after 9am to a beautiful, green space. At the lodge we we offered coffee or tea and invited to sit and overlook the river where the early group, the half day baby elephant tour, was getting ready to meet their elephant friends. We all laughed as the baby, Kit, chased after the visitors eager for his feed of bananas.
After watching the other group set off we were asked to sit down for an educational video about Mandalao, the elephants, and their behaviour. Safety tips, advice, and fun little facts about the personalities of these amazing creatures. We were given information about how when elephants are happy they flap their ears and how they laugh (for a hilarious video of baby Kit laughing watch this video).
Safety tips in place, we headed down to the river to meet our companions for the day: three female adults named TongCoon, BounTem, and BungUn. TongCoon was the elephant they were worried about with a bit of a skin condition. However her mahout made a last minute call that going out with us and her elephant friends would be good for her, so she joined us in the end, seemingly happy to be out and about, but her mahout kept a close eye on her throughout the day.
We started off our encounter with bananas; a sure way to win their hearts. With four people and three elephants there were plenty of bananas to go around, but Bung Un got all of mine. I couldn’t stop laughing as she shovelled them in as fast as possible.
Bananas and fruit gone, we took them into the river for a scrub down and a rinse before we headed off on our jungle trek.
We headed into the jungle, following the lead of the elephants. Crossing streams and climbing up muddy hills (if you go, wear good walking shoes that you can get wet!). Gum told us stories and all kinds of interesting facts along the way, and of course the elephants were aways entertaining. I became quick buddies with Bung Un, the one who ate all my bananas. She frequently came over checking me for more but was happy with some pats on the head and stroke on her trunk. She also was very photogenic, happy to ham it up for me and my camera. I loved walking alongside her and, given that flapping ears mean a happy elephant, I’m pretty sure she liked me too (check my adorable video of Bung Un).
About two hours after meeting the elephants we had to say goodbye. A few more elephant hugs, pats, and photos and we parted ways in the jungle. They went deeper for their lunch and we headed back to the lodge, via some beautiful rice paddies, for ours.
Lunch was delicious; an assortment of traditional dishes and fresh fruit from dessert. Again we were offered tea or coffee as we relaxed overlooking the hills, river, and rice paddies in the distance. Around 1:30 it was time to say goodbye to MandaLao and head back to Luang Prabang after an absolutely incredible day.
It is said the Laos is the land of a million elephants. And while this may no longer be the case, a visit to MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary will leave you feeling like you have taken the hearts of a million elephants with you, and that you have left a bit of yours behind with them as well.
A huge thank you to MandaLao for inviting me to visit for the half day tour! Of course, all opinions are, as always, my own.