Two elephants among trees
Animals,  Eco-tourism,  Laos

Elephant encounters on elephant terms

Mahn and Mohn are mother and daughter. They were separated after Mohn was born, and sold to two different riding camps in Laos. Two years ago they were reunited at MandaLao, where elephants rescued from tourist camps and logging can find sanctuary. There they are offered a new life where their needs come before those of visiting tourists and local farmers. We spent a morning walking with the pair and learning about this very different elephant camp.

Like many people I love, and am fascinated by, elephants. I have learned however that not all the opportunities offered for tourists to interact with them are designed with the elephants in mind, and are to be avoided. During a recent visit to Luang Prabang we were privileged to visit a nearby elephant sanctuary, MandaLao, which is very different.

Elephant bathing
Elephant bathing at MandaLao

Tourists who visit MandaLao can and do interact with the elephants, but on their terms. The philosophy is, don’t train elephants to entertain people, train people to entertain elephants. By simply meeting and walking with the tourists the elephants can continue to search for food themselves, as is natural, and can keep walking, which they need to do for their digestive system to work properly. MandaLao pays riding camps a rental fee to bring the elephants here. If they bought the elephants outright the chances are that the owners of the other camps would simply buy new ones to replace them, but by renting them they give the camps an alternative income. The aim is to model to other elephant camps that it is possible to earn money while not requiring the elephants to do anything that doesn’t come naturally to them.

And it is working; a nearby camp recently stopped offering elephant rides and now operates in a similar way to MandaLao.

Our visit

Driving out of town we passed an area where a high-speed railway is being built by the Chinese, which will link Kunming to Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and on to Thailand. The Lao government clearly believes this will be a positive development, but people locally aren’t happy about it. Some have had to move out of their homes as their land was compulsorily purchased, and there are fears it will bring too many visitors to the town and result in over-development – large hotels, casinos etc. It also made the road very bumpy (I read a silly Google review of MandaLao which marked the experience down just because of this road!)

Man by a notice board describing MandaLao
Our guide at MandaLao

Arriving at the camp we were served coffee and met the Thai project director, Prasop Tipprasert. He chatted to us for some time about how he came to be here. He used to work with elephants in Thailand, using them on his tree farm. Then he became aware how quickly their population was declining and realised that he wanted to do something to help. Because so many people rely on the elephants as a source of income, he knew it would not be easy to convince those people to simply to stop using them for tourist rides, logging etc.

Instead he had to devise a way in which the elephants could do what he described as ‘friendly work’ – work that didn’t interfere with their natural needs to eat and walk, as those tourist-pleasing activities sadly do. Riding, for instance, restricts their ability to search out the foods they need for a varied diet (ideally, he told us, they should eat 200 different plants) and also makes them far too hot and puts too much weight on their backs.

Walking with the elephants

After our chat with Prasop we were given special boots to wear (we were to find out why later!), sun-tan lotion and insect repellent to use if needed, and aluminium water bottles in carriers. We walked down to the riverbank with our guide and were ferried across in a small wooden boat.

Landscape with river and mountains
Crossing the river at MandaLao
Man wading across river
Crossing the river at MandaLao

On the far side we met our companions for the morning, Mahn and Mohn – two of their 13 elephants. We helped to give them their breakfast treat of bananas and then set off across the fields to the forest, followed by our new friends.

Elephants being fed by four people
First meeting with the elephants at MandaLao

Mahn and Mohn recognised each other when they were reunited at MandaLao, and are now together most of the time. Eventually however the team here hope that Mohn might be able to be released into a national park, as she is probably young enough to learn new ways and will hopefully breed and produce babies to help grow the population.

We hiked with the elephants through the forest as they hunted for food, had dust baths and later drank at a pool.

Elephants enjoying a dust bath
Elephants enjoying a dust bath
Elephants by a pool
Elephants drinking, MandaLao

The mahouts never use sticks here. As the manager had told us, they don’t use a carrot and stick system, only carrots, or rather bananas and sugar cane, to reward good behaviour. So the elephants set the pace throughout our walk, and we simply went along with them – stopping when they stopped, walking when they walked.

This was a super experience and I hope their ambition of setting this example will produce results, as it seems to be doing.

After a couple of hours we said goodbye to Mahn and Mohn and left them to continue their walk with just the mahouts for company. We made our way back to the river, wading through several streams to get there (hence the need for the borrowed boots, I realised) and across farmland.

Vegetable patch with mountains beyond
Fields at MandaLao

We crossed back over the river to finish our visit with a delicious lunch cooked mainly from produce from MandaLao’s organic garden. It was a chance to relax and reflect on a wonderful morning, happy that we had by visiting made a contribution to the admirable work being done here.

I visited MandaLao in 2020


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