Staying at the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos.

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Centuries ago, the kingdom that makes up much of modern-day Laos was called Lan Xang.  In English that translates to, “Land of a Million Elephants.” Well, the name ‘Lan Xang‘ definitely doesn’t stand to suit the dwindling elephant numbers now. There are an estimated 800 elephants remaining in Laos today – 400 in captivity, and 400 left in the wild. So when we found out about the Elephant Conservation Center, we jumped at the chance to visit.

Why did we choose Laos?

My Mum had cycled to an elephant sanctuary in Laos three years ago, and floated the idea of meeting us there this time; my sisters too. [One of the best things about having an adventurous family is that you never know where you might next meet up… An elephant sanctuary in Laos sounded like a great place to meet!].

Harry and Granny, meeting an elephant.

A scary future for elephants in Laos

The elephant numbers in Laos, and other Asian countries, are decreasing at a rate of about 1 birth for every 6 deaths – a scary statistic.

The elephants that come to the centre have typically been rescued from the logging industry. Work in the logging industry is dangerous and often with low pay, elephants and their mahouts are badly overworked.

We also learnt about the length of pregnancy of an elephant (almost two years!), and the challenge this creates in the sustainability of breeding elephants in Laos.

The centre is able to support some owners by providing care for their animal and the mahout if they want to breed their elephant in sanctuary. A female elephant is unable to work during gestation and lactation, lasting around four years. And a calf is not usually ready for work until around the age of 12 years. This is a long time for an owner to be without income, and hence privately owned elephants are rarely bred in Laos, severely threatening the future numbers.

The Elephant Conservation Centre

There are many places that are set up as a home for elephants across Asia. They are known as ‘elephant sanctuaries’ or ‘rescue centres’, but in honesty we had already decided to avoid even looking into any during our travels. Some reputations aren’t good, and as sad as it feels to acknowledge it – there are some places that have a history of mistreating both animals and staff.

But we found out about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury through my Mum, who had already been there and spent time as a volunteer.

There is no elephant riding, no tricks, and no activities set up for entertainment-tourism. It is literally a sanctuary set up to educate people about and protect elephants in their natural environment. And instead of being set up in an urban tourist area, in this case visitors must travel TO the elephants so they are undisturbed in their protected area.

The ECC was set up originally as an NGO and now receives partial funding assistance and support from the Laos government. This is important to their transparency as a sanctuary and sets them apart from other private set ups.

The ECC has been operating for nearly 20 years and now manages 34 elephants on 6000 hectares of tropical forest.

A male elephant at the Elephant Conservation centre in Sayaboury, Laos.
A male elephant at the ECC, Laos.

Our stay at the Elephant Conservation Center

Arriving at the centre was exciting even before getting to the elephants – you have to transfer across Nam Tien Lake by boat! We made the transfer across the lake and arrived at the conservation centre to settle in to our cabins before lunch time. However, there were still no elephants in sight…

This was the start of an amazing few days, albeit starting out slowly. Highlights over the next days included watching mother elephants with their babies, setting up obstacles and hiding food for the elephants to find, learning about the veterinary programme set up in the centre, and meeting some of the mahouts.

The elephant nursery

We checked in to our bungalows on day one and hiked over the hill to a waterfront shelter on the lake for lunch. This is the edge of the elephant nursery set-up. It felt a bit luxurious to be treated to a picnic lunch while overlooking baby elephants bathing and playing in the water! Because elephants have such a long gestation period and nursing time (up to four years total gestation and nursing!) this is a crucial part of supporting the future of elephants in Laos. At the time we were there the centre had two elephants in calf, and two with young babies.

To ensure the viability of the Laos elephant population, young female elephants need to be involved in a breeding programme. With elephants deaths per year in Laos currently registered at 6 deaths per 1-2 births, it is a scary statistic considering the challenge of time and finances in breeding an elephant. The programme at the elephant conservation centre is designed to raise awareness in the mahout community about the benefits of a breeding programme for elephants in Laos, offering incentive, housing and board for mahouts and their elephant.

Watching baby elephants from a respectful distance.

Visiting the vet clinic

This was an interesting part of the stay for all of us. We watched one of the elephants having their feet checked and trimmed (kind of like a horse getting it’s feet filed by a farrier). It’s quite a process to get an elephant into a safe enclosure and to have them lift their foot onto a barrier strong enough to support their weight to do routine checks!

Inside the vet clinic we learnt about the elephants in the programme and the challenges of breeding. This was a little bit much for the kids to understand but they did enjoy seeing the size of an elephant skeleton…

The ‘Elephant Enrichment Programme’

We loved this part of the sanctuary programme. The ECC has set up a specific area of the park to give the elephants mental stimulation and challenge them in as close to their natural environment as possible. We helped to gather branches and fronds the elephants eat, carried it up to the enrichment area, and then had fun hiding it all around. Like hide-and-seek for the elephants!

The boys were in their element with this and got creative thinking of different spots to hide the food. We lifted the kids up the trees, and moved rocks and branches to hide it all. Then we hid out the way on a viewing platform and just watched the elephants play and enjoy working to find their treats. A cool experience!

Meeting the mahouts

A mahout is an elephant rider, trainer, or keeper. The elephant conservation centre has a Mahout programme set up with the goal of preserving traditional mahout knowledge. Because Laos is an oral culture, knowledge is passed on from generations through speech, with limited preservation in written documents. As work in the elephant industry declines, so increases the risk of loosing information that has previously been passed down through generations. It was interesting to learn this and to understand how the programmes extends beyond the elephants to their handlers, families and the community as well.

A mahout with his elephant at the Elephant Conservation centre in Sayaboury, Laos.
A mahout with his elephant.

Getting there

Hanging out (literally) at an elephant sanctuary that is reached from Luang Prabang by a 2.5 hour road journey and followed by a boat ride, must mean it is somewhere pretty special, right? Well, this place is so far from civilisation there is no town or village in sight.

Transport leaves Luang Prabang post office at 8am by minibus and departs from the ECC returning around 2pm. 

Collecting food for the elephants at the Elephant Conservation centre in Sayaboury, Laos.
The boat to get to-and-from the centre.

And yes, it definitely feels special to be out so far and somewhere so peaceful!

Find the Elephant Conservation Centre

Accommodation at the Elephant Conservation Centre

Accommodation at the centre is basic, but fitting. The impact on surroundings is considered, and accommodation is provided in traditional bamboo bungalow huts overlooking the lake. There are shared bathrooms (even biodegradable soap and shampoo is provided!) and all meals are catered and shared in an open air, communal dining hall.

Note, there isn’t power at the centre site, however a generator runs for a few hours every evening. The huts are comfortable albeit very hot in summer, as there isn’t a fan available in the room without power connected. This wasn’t a big challenge but worth noting, especially if you are visiting with kids.

Accommodation at the Elephant Conservation centre in Sayaboury, Laos.
Every bungalow has it’s own balcony and hammock.

Somehow it all seems very fitting for accommodation in such a special place. It makes for a relaxing retreat and escape from anything busy; you can enjoy literally living at the pace of the elephants for a few days…

Where to stay in Luang Prabang

Visay Guesthouse is a great choice for Luang Prabang on a budget. A quad room costs $73 NZD per night, including breakfast. The staff are amazing and able to answer questions about anything, plus point you in the right direction for the sights of Luang Prabang. We were very appreciative of the free drinking water refills, and enjoyed a great breakfast each morning. There are courtesy bikes available to explore the town on.

Jasmine Hotel is a beautiful mid-range hotel with swimming pool. We stayed here for three nights when my family first arrived. The location is central to town, and in easy walking distance of the markets. Breakfast is beautifully presented and comes with the option of a fresh fruit juice or smoothie – a great start to each day!

Read more about Laos

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