Laos was once known as Lan Xang, or the “Land of a Million Elephants”. Sadly, due to poaching, logging and war, the current population stands at a mere 400-or so wild elephants. According to the Elephant Conservation Center in Laos, Laos also has about 450 domesticated elephants: “Most of them are engaged in timber harvesting operations by logging companies and therefore causal to the destruction of elephant habitat. Elephants are contributing to the national economy and a community of about 9000 people directly, depending on revenue generated by their work.“
In contrast, the wild elephant population in Laos was estimated to be 2,000–3,000 in the 1980s according to Wild Animal Protection. Threats to the survival of elephants in Laos include fragmented habitat and human-elephant conflict. As tourism to Laos continues to grow, as has the number of elephant entertainment venues that provide elephant rides for tourists. In fact, take a stroll down the main street in Luang Prabang and you will see exactly what I mean – tour company after tour company offering elephant ride experiences and “Mahout for a Day” tours.
The good news is that there are a handful of elephant conservation-focused organizations in Laos working hard at promoting ethical elephant interaction experiences. Read on for my incredible experience at MandaLao Elephant Conservation in Luang Prabang!
Heading to Laos? Click here for even more Laos travel guides and tips!
Where to stay in Luang Prabang
If you are visiting Luang Prabang for the first time, your best bet is to stay within the Old Town so that you can get around easily on foot or by tuk tuk.
Maison Dalabua is situated a short walk away from the historical center of town and is the perfect place to find serenity in a popular tourism destination. Click here for my full review of the property. The hotel is one-of-a-kind and visually stunning, the rooms are the epitome of comfort and class, and the staff are well-trained, warm and were true ambassadors for Laos. Click here to book your stay at Maison Dalabua!
I also highly recommend Moonlight Champa Riverview, a stunning boutique property just outside the old town in Luang Prabang. The rooms are spacious and the area is extremely quiet and peaceful. We loved the breakfast options and the terrace overlooking the river. The property is a 10-15 minute stroll from the night market/Mount Phousi, or you can also rent a bicycle for no additional cost. Keo, the manager, is always eager to help and available to answer any questions about Luang Prabang. Click here to check current rates at Moonlight Champa, or here to see other highly rated hotels in Luang Prabang!
Visiting Luang Prabang for the first time? Head on over here for 9 of the best things to do in Luang Prabang (and what you might want to skip!)
What is MandaLao Elephant Conservation?
MandaLao is an ethical elephant sanctuary in Luang Prabang that opened its doors in November 2016, and is currently home to 8 adult female elephants and 1 3-year old male elephant. MandaLao works with the WWF and World Animal Protection and is a haven for elephants rescued from the logging industry and riding camps. As elephants can be “owned” in Laos, MandaLao starts by renting the elephants from their owners and eventually purchases the elephants from the proceeds of running ethical elephant tours as well as donations.
The 500-acre property is located about 30 minutes away from Luang Prabang’s Old Town, and is an ideal home for its elephants to roam free – unchained. No bull hooks, no riding, no chaining. With the guidance of their mahouts who use verbal commands, the elephants socialize in their natural groups, play and bathe in the river and eat plenty of bananas and corn (sourced from the local village).
MandaLao offers half-day and full-day tours for tourists to interact responsibly with the resident elephants, and while the elephants may not be able to roam the wild again they are given every opportunity to perform their natural behaviors. MandaLao also works with Lao Elephant Initiative, an organization dedicated to the conservation of the Asian elephant habitat and populations as well as the ethical care of those that remain in captivity. Among their projects includes the promotion of natural breeding and re-introduction of elephants into the wild.
Is Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary ethical? Elephant interaction at MandaLao is largely observation-based. It used to offer elephant bathing experiences, but like Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, river bathing (which is mostly for the benefit of tourists rather than elephants) is no longer “on the menu”.
Some food for thought: according to the World Animal Protection organization, “a true elephant-friendly venue is purely observational for visitors, where the safety of visitors and wellbeing of elephants is not affected by the need to constantly control the animals. The elephants would be managed in humane ways through the mahout who allows a maximum of freedom or through advanced ‘protected contact’ techniques.” For more tips on how to spot an elephant-friendly venue click here.
If you love elephants, I highly recommend adding a visit to MandaLao to your list of things to do in Luang Prabang.
What to expect from your time at MandaLao Elephant Conservation
MandaLao offers several different tour options. We opted for the half day therapeutic trek with elephants and was picked up at 8:30 AM from our hotel to embark on our elephant journey. In total, 8 of us from around the world (France, the U.S., Hong Kong) assembled 30 minutes outside of Luang Prabang’s Old Town for a briefing on what to expect from the day and to learn more about elephants in Laos.
Pasook, the elephant expert who has 27 years in elephant conservation in Thailand, joined MandaLao to help develop its program and care for its resident elephants. He told us about his experience working with elephants in Thailand and his time at an elephant riding camp back home. Pasook has seen first-hand the cruelty and damage inflicted on an elephant’s body and soul at these riding camps, and vowed to do his part to change the industry.
After an introduction to MandaLao’s work and how to interact with the elephants, we were given sunscreen, walking boots and insect repellent before washing our hands (to feed the elephants) and using the toilet. Next, we were led to a boat that took us across the river to meet a few of the resident elephants and were given the opportunity to feed them bananas – did you know that elephants eat between 250-300 kilos of food each day?
After the elephants were fed a hearty breakfast, we embarked on a 2-hour gentle hike with the elephants through the jungle. The elephants, with help from their mahouts, followed us closely as we made our way through the lush forest, stopping occasionally to snack on vines and leaves.
Seeing the bond between the mahouts and the elephants is heartwarming, and walking with giants in their natural habitat is an experience not to be missed – it will fill you with a sense of awe at these gentle pachyderms. It’s best to have some level of basic fitness before you trek through the jungle, but it is not an intense hike and there are plenty of opportunities to stop for water.
When you get back to MandaLao, you will head to the restaurant for a delicious lunch. MandaLao was made aware of my food allergies in advance and was kind enough to prepare some mushroom-free dishes. After one last look at the river and mountains, we were taken to the tour vehicle and dropped off at our hotel.
A visit to MandaLao is one of the best things to do in Luang Prabang, and your time with this organization will give you hope that Laos can someday truly be the “Land of a Million Elephants” once again.
Interested in reading more about ethical and sustainable tourism in Southeast Asia? Click here for 10 things you should know before you visit Southeast Asia!
How to book a trip to MandaLao Elephant Conservation
MandaLao in Luang Prabang is open year-round and you can book tours with them via their website. The half-day therapeutic trek tour costs 100 USD per person and the full-day tour costs 150 USD per person – a 50% deposit is charged to your credit card. The balance can be paid on the day of the tour and MandaLao accepts USD or Lao Kip. This tour fee includes lunch, transport, snacks (for you and the elephants), and drinks – alcoholic beverages are available at an extra cost.
Have you visited MandaLao in Luang Prabang? If you or your friends and family are visiting Laos please spread the world about visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary and avoiding the plethora of riding camps! Ready to book a trip to Luang Prabang? I recommend staying at Maison Dalabua or Moonlight Champa Riverview – both of which are within walking distance to Old Town and the night market. Alternatively, you can click here to see other highly rated hotels in Luang Prabang!
Interested in reading more about ethical elephant experiences around the world? Click here for more sanctuaries, orphanages and parks that you can visit!
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Just so you know, I happily paid to visit MandaLao Elephant Conservation. This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book using these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my website by using these links, I only recommend products or services that I have had positive personal experiences with and think you would love too.