Home » Ethical Elephant Experience in Luang Prabang, Laos: MandaLao Elephant Conservation

Ethical Elephant Experience in Luang Prabang, Laos: MandaLao Elephant Conservation

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending the most amazing day with Mandalao Elephant Conservation Centre with my Dad. I had been curious to find an ethical elephant experience in Luang Prabang, and I eventually stumbled upon Mandalao. This wonderful place offers guests the opportunity to enjoy an intimate and ethical experience with the elephants. I spent the morning with them and thought I’d write about my experience for others, so read on to find out more!

An ethical elephant experience near Luang Prabang
Walking with the elephants at Mandalao

Ethical Elephant Experience in Luang Prabang at Mandalao

In this post, I’ll share some key information on who founded Mandalao, the centre itself and of course, how our day was with the elephants.

Who started Mandalao?

The organisation was founded by two Americans, Michael Vogler and Kellen Johnson, whose previous trips to Laos had inspired them to create change. We didn’t meet these guys but we did meet the Project Director, Prasop, who told us all about his work with elephants. He has previously set up an elephant conservation centre in Thailand as well as working with the WWF and the National Park Service. His love, knowledge and care for elephants is incredible. He has spent more than 27 years working with elephants, and is proud to share that there are now 1,000 more elephants in the wild in Thailand than 27 years ago. He told us he has no plans to retire until the numbers of elephants in Laos are growing too.

Meeting the elephants at Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary
Feeding the elephants at Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary

What did we learn?

Laos used to be known as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ however, Prasop told us that now there are less than 1,000 elephants in both captivity and in the wild in Laos. Elephants could be extinct in Laos in just 20 years’ time.

He shared that his work revolves around three main principles and activities:

  • 1) Promoting elephant welfare so that they can live happy and healthy
  • 2) Ongoing volunteering and research programmes
  • 3) Re-introduction programme

MandaLao currently has 9 elephants, most of whom have been rescued from the logging trade and from tourist activities, such as elephant riding.

Elephant riding is completely prohibited at Mandalao. When elephants are used for tourist rides in other locations in Laos, they often live in poor conditions too. Furthermore, the baskets that tourists sit in on top of the elephants are terrible for their backs and rib cages. Prasop told us that elephants are not as big and strong as they look, and the baskets cause huge pain and discomfort for them. If you want to understand more about this, then make sure to check out Barbara’s excellent post on the debate surrounding riding elephants here.

Elephants, when left to freely roam, contribute positively to the local ecosystems. For example, we learnt that elephants help make soil fertile by pooing out the leaves they eat in the same day, whereas nature takes much longer to break down the same amount.

Elephants also graze on the creepers which hug the trees. Removing these helps trees grow taller which in turn brings more rain which is good for the environment.

An ethical elephant experience near Luang Prabang
Getting up close to the elephants at Mandalao
Ethical Elephant Experience in Luang Prabang, Laos: MandaLao Elephant Conservation
One of the mahmouts playing with the elephants

Our day with MandaLao

The team at Mandalao allow small groups of guests to come and see the elephants which helps with education and also contributes towards their conservation.

A half day at Mandalao cost $99 per person, including lunch. We booked onto the ‘Therapeutic Trek’ half day, and were picked up promptly at our guesthouse at 8.30am in a comfortable air-conditioned van. 30 minutes later we arrived at the Mandalao property. It is home to a lovely organic farm, a restaurant and offers beautiful views over the river Nam Khan.

An ethical elephant experience near Luang Prabang
Arriving at Mandalao
An ethical elephant experience near Luang Prabang
Looking out over the view of the river by Mandalao
Mandalao Elephant Experience
Plenty of chill out areas


After some light refreshments and an interesting and informative talk from Prasop, we popped into some fabric boots. The team provide these boots to keep your feet clean and to also protect against any bugs etc in the jungle and in the river. They also provide water bottles with locally made holders, rain coats if needed and bug spray/sun lotion.

Elephant experience near Luang Prabang
Beautiful views in every direction
Mandalao Elephant Experience
Welly boots on, and ready to go and meet the elephants

Washing and feeding the elephants

When we were ready we headed down to the river. We clambered aboard a tiny little wooden boat to cross to the other side where three giant elephants greeted us. Huge baskets were provided full of food and we had plenty of time to talk to the elephants, feed them and take photos. Then we gave a bath to them, using buckets to splash them down. It was wonderful to watch the play with each other, and also the mahmouts.

Ethical Elephant Experience in Luang Prabang, Laos: MandaLao Elephant Conservation
The tiny boat to get to the other side of the river
Washing the elephants at Mandalao
Washing the elephants
Elephant encounter at Mandalao
Helping with mahmout to wash the elephants

Jungle Trek with the Elephants

After this, we headed into the jungle for a slow jungle trek alongside these giant beauties. Each elephant is guided gently by a local mahmout and they walk at their own pace. The elephants stopped when they wanted and played with trees and each as the pleased.

No hooks or aggression are used on the elephants. It is simply voice and if they want to stop and scratch or look at a tree, then no-one hurries them on. It was such a slow and pleasant morning, with so much time to wander with them and stroke them.

The elephants only do one walk a day.

Elephant encounter at Mandalao
So huge!
Elephant encounter at Mandalao
Feeding my new friend!
Meeting the elephants at Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary
Meeting the elephants at Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary

The Guides and Mahmouts

Our guide, Tan, also regularly stopped to tell us about other animals we saw en route, or to share interesting facts about the local environment from the trees, to the birds and the bugs. The mahmouts each had such an evidently close relationship with the elephants, it was magical to watch. They only spoke local dialect.

Ethical elephant experience in Luang Prabang
Playing with the elephants

At one moment, we happened to stop at a ledge where, to our surprise, Mandalao’s little baby elephant Kit joined us too! So cute. The team are planning to introduce Kit to the wild in the next couple of years.

Ethical elephant experience in Luang Prabang
With my Dad and some of the elephants
Ethical elephant experience in Luang Prabang
Meeting the baby!

The time with the elephants felt so special. The jungle was completely silent and Manda;ao restricts the groups to just 6-8 people. This is so that that the elephants do not feel stressed and can spend plenty of free time socialising with each other.

After around 2 or so hours with the elephants, we finally headed back to the centre for some lunch. We enjoyed a delicious fish and rice dish with the rest of the group and the mahmouts.

So if you’re considering a visit to South East Asia and looking for an ethical elephant experience in Luang Prabang, I couldn’t recommend Mandalao more.

If you’d like to know more, visit their site at www.mandalaotours.com or drop the team a line at [email protected] Also, do feel free to ask any further questions in the comments section below.

If you’re spending a few days in Luang Prabang, make sure to check out my guide to all the best things to do and see in Luang Prabang here.

Disclaimer: This visit to Mandalao and Luang Prabang was entirely paid for by myself. There was no involvement from the tourism board or a hotel. This is an independent guide.

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  1. Cia Black
    January 3, 2018 / 7:01 pm

    More places such as these should exist. What a great and wonderful experience that must have been, to be with them in such a safe and natural surrounding for them. And whoever took the photograph amazing job.

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:31 pm

      I agree! And thank you – well it was my Dad, so I’ll let him know!

  2. Jodi Major
    January 3, 2018 / 8:00 pm

    WOW!! What an amazing experience. I didn’t know that riding elephants is not safe for them. They are beautiful creatures!

  3. January 4, 2018 / 3:00 am

    That sounds like an incredible experience! I had no idea elephants were still being used in the logging indusrty, how sad. I’ve considered leading a wellness retreat and incorporating one of these experiences. Thanks for sharing!

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:29 pm

      I know, it’s crazy. We are fairly sheltered from this! Sounds great, you should! 🙂 x

  4. January 4, 2018 / 3:58 am

    Wow this looks like such an amazing experience! I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be there

  5. January 4, 2018 / 5:55 pm

    Oh wow what an incredible experience, it looks absolutely beautiful there and I can only imagine how incredible it was to get so close to the elephants! Even more special you got to spend the time with your dad too 🙂

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:28 pm

      It really was so beautiful! And thank you, I know! Great to do such special activities with a parent! x

  6. Cleo
    January 4, 2018 / 6:14 pm

    The land looks so amazing! I’d love to travel to go to the Mandalao Elephant experience, they look so relaxed!

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:27 pm

      They were happy elephants and enjoy so much freedom 🙂

  7. Liz
    January 4, 2018 / 6:24 pm

    this is amazing!!!!! I’m so glad you got to experience something like this! I hope I can do the same some day!!

  8. January 4, 2018 / 7:32 pm

    Glad to read about all the efforts they are making towards elephant’s wellbeing and stopping tourists from riding them. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    ❥ tanvii.com

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:26 pm

      You’re welcome, and thanks so much for your comment! x

  9. Karrie Frost
    January 4, 2018 / 7:40 pm

    What a great experience. I enjoyed your pictures and learning more about them. Elephants are beautiful and need to be protected.

  10. Alaina-Lee Monster
    January 4, 2018 / 8:01 pm

    This sounds like such an amazing place to visit. I had no idea elephants were on the verge of becoming extinct. So sad since they are such a majestic and beautiful animal. Thank goodness for the amazing work from conversations like these!

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:25 pm

      I know, nor did I! It’s so terrible but so glad there are places like this in existence 🙂

  11. January 4, 2018 / 9:12 pm

    You have some amazing pictures here! What an incredible experience! It’s great that the conservation focuses solely on the health and well-being of the animals.

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:25 pm

      I agree! It was so special and really pelased I can share this with others!

  12. Josselyn Martinez
    January 5, 2018 / 1:05 am

    More places such as these should exist!!! Wow i’m so in love with this experience you had and I def want to have it myself

  13. January 5, 2018 / 6:26 am

    While reading your post and watching all incredible pics of elephants I am reminded of similar elephant conservation program I witnessed when I visited Masai Mara in Kenya. You did great.

    • February 6, 2018 / 7:24 pm

      That’s so great to hear that there are successful similar projects in another desintations! I will have to visit there myself too sometime 🙂

  14. Beola Lawal
    January 5, 2018 / 1:06 pm

    Wow, that’s an amazing experience. I enjoyed reading your article and the pictures are so beautiful!

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