Last week, I had the pleasure of spending the most amazing day with MandaLao with my Dad. This elephant conservation organisation is based near Luang Prabang in the north of Laos. It offers guests the opportunity to enjoy an intimate and ethical experience with the elephants.
Who started Mandalao?
The organisation was founded by two Americans, Michael Vogler and Kellen Johnson, whose previous trips 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.
What did we learn?
Prasop told us that there are less than 1,000 elephants in both captivity and in the wild in Laos, and they could be extinct in Laos in just 20 years’ time.
He shared with us that his work revolves around three main principles. 1) Promoting elephant welfare so that they can live happy and healthy. 2) Ongoing volunteering and research programmes. 3) Re-introduction programme.
MandaLao 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 as it is cruel. Not only are elephants kept for rides generally left in poor conditions, but the baskets that tourists sit in are terrible for their backs and rib cages. Prasop told us that they are not as big and strong as they look!
We also learnt that elephants help make soil fertile by pooing out leaves in one 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.
What was our day like with MandaLao?
To enjoy a day with the elephants at MandaLao is not cheap. A half day experience cost us $99, including lunch. However, really there is no price on saving elephants’ lives and contributing to an organisation which is not based on profit, but purely elephant welfare.
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.
After an some light refreshements and an interesting and informative talk from Prasop, we popped into some 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 cute locally made holders, rain coats if needed and bug spray/sun lotion.
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 lots 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.
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. 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.
Our guide, Tan, also regularly stopped to tell us about the buffalo we saw or the trees. We learnt so much about elephants but the day was very much about their slow walk, not about us.
We stopped at a ledge to feed the elephants, where, to our surprise, MandaLao’s little baby elephant joined us too! So cute!
The time with the elephants felt so special. The jungle was completely silent and MandaLao restricts the groups to just 6-8 people a session (and only a couple of these a day). This is so that that the elephants do not feel stressed and can spend plenty of time with each other in their stables.
We slowly walked back to the MandaLao base, where a delicious ethnic Laos lunch was awaiting us. Oh, and did I mention the puppies!!
So if you’re considering a visit to South East Asia, I couldn’t recommend MandaLao more. As the conservation centre is run ethically means you can rest assured that your experience isn’t harmful to them.
Also, do feel free to ask any further questions in the comments section below!
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