I was feeling a little apprehensive about the second part of our trip. We were going to Laos, a country that had been on the wish list for a while. I had done my research, but as always when we go to a new country I felt nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know how things worked, or any of the language (although I will always try to learn some whilst I’m there!). I seem to feel all of these things every time I step foot in a new place, but as I always find out, there is no need to be nervous at all.
We didn’t have long to spend in Laos unfortunately, so we flew in and out of Luang Prabang. We had initially been looking at going to the south of the country to see Wat Phu and the 4000 islands, but time just didn’t allow us to do this. That is on the list for another time!
Instead, we decided to explore what was supposed to be one of the finest cities in SE Asia, Luang Prabang, so exciting! But as always, we had to throw in an extra element! As Laos is the land of a million elephants, I was keen to see if there was some way of incorporating elephants into our trip!
After quite a bit of research, I came across the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC). The ECC seemed to deliver everything I wanted out of an elephant experience, which was an unobtrusive experience, with the elephant’s welfare at its core. It wasn’t that cheap at $205 dollars each for a two day, one night stay…but I can tell you now that it was worth every penny!!
The ECC is in Sayaboury which is a couple of hours outside Luang Prabang. Their aim is to protect and preserve the Asian elephant. As we learnt, numbers of Asian elephants in Laos (and indeed across SE Asia) are dwindling rapidly, due to various factors, including destruction of their natural habitat, being used in the logging (and other) industries and therefore being unable to breed in those environments.
The ECC aims to provide elephants rescued from these environments a safe place to rest, recuperate, breed… and to learn to just be an elephant again through their re-herding programme, which can be observed in their socialisation area.
They also offer the opportunity for the mahouts to retrain in ecotourism and therefore giving them the chance to move out of the logging industry.
Everything to do with our booking was handled in a professional and efficient manner. We opted for a one night, two day stay and paid half of the fee by credit card before we left the UK. After paying the remainder of our deposit in the office in Luang Prabang when we arrived there, we were told to meet outside the post office in LP at 8am the next morning.
We turned up expecting there to only be a couple of other people on the bus, but there were about 12 of us in total across two vans. We were then on our way out of Luang Prabang, through green and mountainous terrain, rice paddies guiding our way! The winding and bendy road to the boat might affect anyone who suffers from motion sickness, but the views out of the window will surely take your mind of it!
We arrived at the pier a couple of hours later and were put on a little boat to take us the short 10 minute ride to the centre.
The views were pretty spectacular and as we approached the shore of the centre, they got even better!
Two juvenile elephants were in the bathing area having a great time…what a welcome! I couldn’t believe it!! Right in front of us…there they were!
We were welcomed by Jozef, the hospitality manager, and shown to our huts. The place is rustic, there is no getting away from it, but they have everything you need.
The accommodation huts are basic but comfortable and clean….and they all have fantastic views to die for! There are hammocks on the balconies to relax in and to soak up those views.
The toilets and showers are in separate huts…this was the bit I was worried about, but I really didn’t need to be. There were plenty of them and they were kept very clean…just watch out for the cobwebs if you need to make a midnight toilet run – take a torch!!
After having a little time to settle into our hut, we were then asked to meet up in the restaurant area where we were introduced to our guide, Mr Lar. He gave us a talk about the centre and what they do and then it was off on our first trek!
We were headed to the nursery via paths through the forest. After about half an hour of tramping up and down the surrounding hills, we ended up at a viewing platform, where we would have lunch and watch a couple of the elephants with a younger one in tow, enjoying the waters of the lake. The visit just got better and better from there. We saw elephants, ate delicious food, got to know each other in our group (we couldn’t have asked for a nicer group of people to share this experience with!), had a talk from one of the vets and learnt about the behaviour and biology of the elephants, whilst observing them in the socialisation area.
We spent about an hour watching three elephants in this area. One of the biologists was also there to observe their behaviour, as they were going to introduce another female elephant into the area.
They were hoping that this fourth elephant, who was quite shy, would be accepted into the group. This didn’t happen however, and she would not go near the other elephants, she disappeared out of sight into the surrounding undergrowth, too scared to approach them. The complexity of their characters became apparent, they are all individuals just as we are.
And it turns out they really are scared of everything! At one point, one of them got freaked out by a bird and trumpeted a warning to the others. The three of them then had to go through a protocol of huddling together, comforting each other, making sure the threat had gone and then reassuring each other that everything was fine!
Apparently this is quite usual and happens a lot according to the biologist! It happened again and this time we couldn’t figure out why…until a plane flew over and the biologist said that it could have been that, they could pick it up way before we would be able to hear it. It was fascinating stuff to learn about the behaviour that we were seeing first hand!
We trekked a lot through the forest that encompasses the centre…something that I did struggle with a bit! I’m just no good at going down steep inclines!! Despite wearing what I thought would be suitable trainers, I still felt like I was going to end up tumbling right down those hills…No-one else seemed to have any issues, so I think I definitely need some trekking training!!
By the end of the day I was exhausted, very hot and very sweaty (the temperatures were soaring in the mid thirties when we were there!)… but it was all totally worth it!
The ECC have a strict no riding policy and I would urge anyone who is looking for an elephant experience to check them out. They seem to have a very sensible and pragmatic approach to the issue facing the elephants in Laos and the rest of SE Asia.
They acknowledge that the ideal would be for elephants to return to the wild where they could live as they were meant to. However this isn’t a reality that would lead to the elephant’s preservation at present and they are therefore committed to working towards this, but finding a practical compromise in the form of responsible elephant tourism in the meantime.
Happily their centre is also growing. Just before we arrived, they had received 13 new elephants who had been on their way to Dubai. These elephants are now being looked after and rehabilitated at the ECC.
I can’t also ignore the fact that the place where the ECC is located is absolutely stunning. The sunset and sunrise we experienced whilst we were there were breathtakingly beautiful. If we had time it would have been nice to stay longer, not just to learn more about the elephants and the work of the ECC, but to take in the surroundings and enjoy some time just being there.
The centre is a very sociable place, with meals eaten communally, and we had a lot of fun getting to know the other guests there over mealtimes. The centre attracts people of all different ages and backgrounds and it was a joy to spend time with them all.
All too soon, our time was up and we had to head back to Luang Prabang. We headed across the lake back to the waiting vans on a different boat this time – and at one point I wasn’t sure we would make it!
Their usual boat was broken so we made the short trip on a smaller version. The boat started taking on water about halfway there though, soaking my daypack! I watched a little apprehensively as the water continued to pour into the bottom of the boat. We motored slowly towards the pier and even the captain looked slightly relieved when we made it there in one piece!
Our time at the ECC was a definite highlight of our trip to Laos. I’m so glad that we decided to incorporate a visit there into our trip.
Information that might be useful:
Cost: We paid $205 each for a one night, two day stay. This included transport from/to Luang Prabang, one nights accommodation and breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can stay for longer than this and can also volunteer with them.
Accommodation: The huts are basic but totally adequate. We stayed in hut 5 which was lovely, beautiful views of the sunset and very close to the bathroom hut at that end. Talking of the bathrooms, they are separate, but again totally adequate and kept very clean.
Food: The food served was delicious and plentiful and they can cater for different diets (there were a few vegetarians in our group). We had curries, fried rice for lunch and dinner, eggs, fresh bread and jams for breakfast. They ask that you bring a bottle that can be refilled with water that they provide.
N.B Try their lime soda – sounds simple, but it was soooo refreshing after a hot, long day, it was the best!!
Tips: Bring a torch! You will need it at night time! Wear decent footwear for hiking up and down and through the forest. Bring mosquito repellent!!