Centuries ago, the kingdom that made up much of modern-day Laos was called Lan Xang.
In English: “Land of a Million Elephants.”
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!]. On research, 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.
Feeling very grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time learning about these awesome big animals, and especially to share that experience with our boys.
The Elephant Conservation Centre
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. It truly felt special to be out so far and somewhere so peaceful.
We had an amazing three days at the Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayaboury.
There is no elephant riding, no tricks, and no activities set up for entertainment-tourism; it is literally a sanctuary set up originally as an NGO and now with partial funding assistance and support from the Laos government. 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.
I felt lucky that we made the plan to come here and meet up this time. Being here with extended family made that even more special.
Albeit the woven huts we slept in did not even have fans (it was far from power except the daily three hour generator power ration) and we were sweltering in heat in the high thirties…
But it somehow all fitted in and made for a relaxing retreat and escape from anything busy; literally living at the pace of the elephants for a few days…
A homestay in Ban Lae
If you are looking for a way to experience a glimpse into Laos culture, than the best place to do that is out in a village. You don’t have to go far; Ban Lae village was only about an hour from Luang Prabang, but felt so far removed from the city it felt like stepping back in time!
We had a great couple of days with Kham, from Laos Homestay, who introduced us to rural Laos life. We went swimming in the river, net fishing with local fishermen, visited the village school, took part in an alms giving ceremony, and met elders in the village who showed us around.
For both Gavin and I, one of our most memorable moments of Harry on the trip, was watching him netting on one of the Mekong feeder rivers, with our host Dad, who didn’t speak a word of English.
Harry just took to it; he loved it, and they spent most of the day on the river together.
He was so determined to master casting the fishing net, that he kept trying and trying until he got it.
When we left the homestay, the family presented us with gifts, and were so touched by Harry’s genuine passion for fishing and for learning to net on the river the way that they do it.
A village version of Alms Giving
We really wanted to share the experience of alms giving with the kids, and it was a great choice to take up the opportunity in the village; a different experience to the modernised alms ceremonies we have experienced in other Southeast Asian cities.
It was an early start, as we set off at 5:30am from our homestay and walked through the awakening village to the small buddhist temple on the riverbank.
The boys were excited to be waved and welcomed by the monks we had met the evening prior.
For full disclosure; Oscar ate most of his sticky rice offering before it even got to the monks… but that aside, it was a cool experience and a beautiful morning to be up and about in Laos!
Visiting the school
The teacher in me is always curious for any opportunity to experience how other cultures and countries practice education and play.
Harry came with me into the new entrance classroom in the small primary school at Ban Lae village.
The children were just as excited to meet us as we were them – they even seemed to appreciate my singing of the ABC’s!
Kuang Si Falls and the Bear Rescue Centre
Have you heard of the beautiful black Lao Bears?! 🐻
Lao bears, plus the slightly larger Moon Bears, are rescued and homed by the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, in Luang Prabang. You actually pass through the Rescue Centre on the walk to Kuang Si waterfalls, so it is doubly worth the visit. The centre has been set up to educate people, locals and tourists, and to protect what is fast becoming an endangered species.
The organisation covers a lot of ground for snare patrol, and monitors the wild bear habitat and population, so that they might be safely released back into the wild.
We didn’t even know about Kuang Si waterfalls before arriving in Luang Prabang, but were very pleased to find it. And, it was well worth the near-failed attempts at haggling over the price of a tuk tuk to get us there!
One challenge in Laos?
Laos was easy! Are we allowed to call the heat a challenge?!
We did have one day at the homestay where the kids were in need of an afternoon sleep but it really was just too hot. There wasn’t power where we stayed in the village homestay or at the elephant sanctuary, and on a muggy afternoon it really is near impossible to cool the kids enough to sleep.
Where to stay
For a great hotel within a budget price range; Visay Guesthouse was awesome (quad. room $73 NZD per night, including breakfast). We stayed the first few nights in Luang Prabang there, and ended up going back for the last three nights, PLUS renting an extra two rooms for my sisters to stay in. It was great value, with a decent sized quadruple room and private bathroom. They staff were amazing, and were able to answer questions about anything, plus point us in the right direction for the different sights of Luang Prabang. We were very appreciative of the free drinking water, and enjoyed a great breakfast each morning. They even loaned us courtesy bikes to explore the town on.
For a mid-range hotel accommodation with a swimming pool, the Jasmine Hotel was beautiful. We stayed here for three nights when my family first arrived. The location is central to town, and in easy walking distance of both the main markets. Breakfast was beautifully presented, and came with the option of a fresh fruit juice or smoothie – a great start to each day!
Luang Prabang was an easy town to navigate as a visitor. We walked some days, and other days used the courtesy bikes we were loaned by our guesthouse (the boys fast became confident doubling on the parcel trays!). Gavin and Harry hired a scooter one day, and went back out to Kuang Si waterfalls for a swim.
Aside from walking, bicycling, and/or scootering around, it was reasonably priced and easy to flag down one of the brightly coloured tuk-tuks.
- Average daily spend: $85 NZD ($56 USD)
- Average accommodation: $76 NZD ($51 USD)
If we went again we would…
I don’t think we would change much about our time in Laos! We spent 12 days in and around Luang Prabang and that worked out really well for us.
We really didn’t know much about Laos before we came; not that it was once known as The Land of a Million Elephants, or that it had real black bears and such a gentle pace of life, and calm friendly culture.
Exploring some parts felt like stepping back in time, while in others the influence of the old French colonies was still apparent (and made for tasty baguettes and croissants!). An exciting mixture of scenery, culture, wildlife, food, and people.