We’re in Laos, also known as the ‘Land of One Million Elephants’.
Laos became known as this from fabled accounts of a procession of elephants crossing the Mekong River not far from Luang Prabang continuously for three days… meaning there must be at least a million elephants.
We want to learn about responsible elephant experiences.
Years ago large numbers of elephants roamed freely throughout the jungles of Laos.
When ‘teak’ tree milling was introduced, the elephant’s natural habitat shrank alarmingly.
Elephants were needed to drag the timber out.
Ironically; that need, was actually their savior.
Deforestation in Laos has been a major environmental concern since the 1980’s. In 1991 all logging was banned, in hopes of controlling widespread illegal logging and subsequent environmental destruction.
This brings us back to the remaining elephants; now, with little remaining natural habitat and no longer needed for logging.
Elephants are expensive, and expensive to keep.
First they were exploited and badly treated for logging; now it’s happening again in the name of ‘tourism’.
Although many elephant operations and tours are branding themselves as ‘Eco’, ‘Responsible’, or ‘Ethical’, most are falling well short of anything like it. Elephants are still being ridden [with or without houdahs]; and hooks and hammers are still used to train the elephants.
Elephant welfare is still low on the agenda in the majority of places.
As you probably know; elephants are sentient beings.
They’re intelligent, consciously aware and share many of the same emotional feelings we humans do.
We wanted to find an elephant sanctuary that truly respected that, by providing an intimate and caring elephant experience. An insight, if you like, into the hidden lives of elephants.
That’s how we come to find MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary, in Luang Prabang, Laos.
You can read more about our ‘five-hour elephant encounter’ with these Majestic MandaLao Elephants here.
About MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary
MandaLao; the name itself has a beautiful tone. Conjuring up something special and luxurious in our minds… We weren’t disappointed. The MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary lives up to its name in more ways than one.
It’s a real sanctuary, with a difference. It isn’t all about one thing. It encompasses a much bigger vision – both today, and for future generations.
While it provides a fantastic opportunity for the visitor; it’s also about creating a sustainable future for elephants, local communities and the natural world.
MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary is tucked away in a beautiful jungle setting, on the edge of the Nam Khan River – just thirty minutes’ drive from Luang Prabang.
It offers exceptional and highly personalized expeditions.
A truly intimate opportunity to experience ‘the heart of the elephant’ in their natural habitat – while ensuring its elephants have an enjoyable life.
We’re meeting with ‘Michael’ [ManadaLao co-owner] and ‘Prasop’. We want to learn more about the intimate side of Elephants, and the vision of the MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary.
Prasop is the project director at MandaLao.
He’s an intelligent, articulate man who commands a certain presence. He’s so engaging; we can see why the elephants love him.
Prasop has worked with elephants for thirty years and pioneered the ‘Positive Reinforcement Training Method’. This method eliminates the cruel, traditional physical training of caging, and use of hooks and hammers…
A relaxed Prasop starts telling us about the intimate heart of elephants; smiling with every ‘elephant word’ that leaves his lips. His eyes shine when he talks about the mighty elephant; they are his life’s work he tells us.
Heartwarming stories flow and his passion for elephants is a joy to listen to.
Stop here for a few minutes and listen to Prasop…
Prasop tells us; ‘we are one with the elephant – the same, but very different.’
He explains how to understand the ways in which elephants and humans communicate with one another.
Once this connection is made, it’s almost impossible not to see many of our own emotions in them… a life-changing experience with animals so seemingly different than us.
He explains; ‘we are both intelligent beings with the ability to learn, walk the same speed and both have self awareness’. This self-awareness is not common in the animal world; only around ten animals (including monkeys) have it.
‘Elephants have empathy, a sense of humor and lots to teach us – if we just listen.’
We also talk with Michael, one of the MandaLao owners…
Michael shares his background, growing up with animals and the great outdoors… and how his studies, various conservation roles and travel led him to Laos… and the elephants of MandaLao.
Prasop says; ‘it’s the elephants, that has brought us all together…’
Michael tells us;
‘Only a short six months ago, these elephants were in a logging camp. So it’s a massive change for both the mahouts and the elephants. Their life today is a dream, compared to pulling a two tonne log from the forest.
Both the mahouts and the elephants have adapted extremely well to their new lifestyle at Mandalao. They can’t believe their luck; when each day is fun-filled with walking and interacting with guests, bathing and feeding.
There’s no force used; it’s easier to walk with the elephants, than to instruct them to drag a two tonne log from the jungle…’
Michael and Prasops’ genuine love for elephants is unmistakable.
Their quiet unassuming presence with the elephants is truly a joy to watch.
You can see the eyes of the elephants shine in their presence and you can sense the respect and deep connection.
It’s wonderful to learn; not only about elephants here, but also of MandaLao’s vision for the future.
Michael tells us; ‘ManadaLao’s ultimate goal is to protect and preserve, both domesticated and wild elephants, from the abuse that logging and tourism has brought about…’
To do this they are conservation and community minded in all their activities.
MandaLao are also working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF); supporting its efforts to protect and patrol the Nam Pouy National Park in Laos. Currently the park is still plagued by elephant poachers, which is endangering the remaining small wild population.
This protection is critical, as most bull elephants remain in the wild.
Reintroducing domesticated elephants into the wild and breeding is part of the ultimate goal.
ManadLao’s star, the baby elephant ‘Kit’ is an integral part of this.
MandaLao employ local people in their restaurant and employ local guides. They’ve partnered with local villagers to grow vegetables and crops for both the elephants, and the restaurant.
They’re working to create awareness of the ‘positive reinforcement training process’… its adoption throughout the region (and in other elephant-inhabited countries) that will improve tourism and elephant welfare.
Michael’s hope is that MandaLao will be instrumental in altering the tourism of elephants; so the elephants can live more naturally and without force.
Seven elephants currently call MandaLao home; actually we think they probably call it their luxury five star hotel.
There’s the ‘matriarch’ called ‘Manh’; she’s the boss of the herd, the other elephants all follow her lead. Manh is 38 years old and her mahout is 72 years old; he has cared for her since birth… so you can see how they develop such a strong, intimate bond.
Then there’s Tongkhoun (Kit’s mother) age 33, Kit – who’s 17 months old, and four other gorgeous female elephants.
Tonghoun age 40 – yes there’s two elephants with the same name!
Buang Nguen age 53
Boon Tem age 35
Mea Tu age 40
They’re a close, intimate family who previously all worked together on a logging farm.
Now on fifty hectares of lush jungle, with no hard labour – they’re in elephant heaven.
They get to hang out and interact with people, wander in the jungle, bath, and feed in harmony with their natural surroundings where they roam freely.
Kit, the seventeen month old baby elephant also came from a logging camp in western Laos.
Of course, ‘Kit’ is the star of the show… with his galavanting, climbing and sometimes cheeky antics.
Cheeky… but oh so cute!
Now, he’s a key part of MandaLao’s vision for the future.
Normally young elephants are separated from their mothers at an early age and broken by abuse and fear.
In contrast to traditional training techniques, this young one will be trained only with positive reinforcement and will stay with his mother until he’s nine or ten years old.
It’s ManadaLao’s hope that when Kit reaches this age, he may be able to returned to the wild, where most bull elephants remain.
Honestly; it wasn’t hard to tell, at all…
Even before our long-boat hit the shore, the elephants came almost galloping towards us, ears flapping and tails swishing.
If an elephant approaches you with lazy, almost half closed eyes and it’s tailing swishing slowly from side to side, and ears flapping, it’s a good sign this animal is very relaxed.
Elephants are highly sensitive and caring animals. If a baby elephant complains, the entire family will rumble and go over to touch and caress it.
So are the ManadaLao elephants happy?
The answer is an overwhelming yes… we can see it in their eyes, in their interactions, and in their constantly flapping ears.
I’m super excited, like a little kid, grinning from ear to ear – I just can’t wait to touch her.
Watching these gentle creatures welcome us, and interact with each other is nothing short of magical.
We offer them some special treats – a sure way to begin an instant friendship.
Mingling, feeding and touching them, we gained a greater appreciation for just how intelligent and social they really are.
One thing you won’t find at Mandalao is elephant riding, elephant tricks or unnatural entertainment of any kind.
It’s genuinely ethical and intimate.
The truly responsible and non riding elephant experience. Period!
This shines through from their positive reinforcement training methods for elephants and mahouts.
Their education, respect and deep understanding of the feelings and emotions of the elephants are world class; as is their ongoing sustainability for elephant rehabilitation and rescue.
Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary initiatives are ground breaking.
From their support of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in protecting the wild herds in the Lam Pouy National Park, to increasing awareness and promoting sustainable elephant-friendly tourism, to enlisting and supporting local communities through growing crops, employment, and guides.
And then there’s the MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary’s biggest goal…
To return the elephants back to their natural habitats. Giving back the ‘Land of One Million Elephants’ to the Laos people.
No, not one million elephants. But the true right to be called, ‘The Land of Elephants’… A land of elephants to share with the world.
That’s an admirable and lofty goal. Only visionaries like MandaLao have any chance of achieving it.
We not only support their quest, we feel privileged and proud to be part of the MandaLao Experience.
You can read more about our ‘five-hour elephant encounter’ with these Majestic MandaLao Elephants here.
Meeting the elephants for the first time… take a peek at this video
MandaLao Tours offer Five Intimate Tours; four are half day, and one full day.
All MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary tours take you through the mysterious beauty of the Laos jungle with their recently rescued elephants as your close companions.
The journey is a perfect way for these happy elephants to enjoy a walk in their natural habitat after decades of hard labour in logging camps.
And for guests; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, intimate experience to learn from these majestic animals… and a real opportunity to be at one with their calming energy.
MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary guides and mahouts teach us to understand the ways in which elephants and humans communicate with one another.
All tours offer a special introduction to elephant behavior with Prasop – and how we should interact with them. Once this connection is made it’s almost impossible not to see many of our own emotions in them.
As you walk alongside the elephants and crisscross through the cool water you’ll experience a profound sense of understanding, respect, and caring for these amazing animals.
You’ll want the full day ‘Into the Hearts of Elephants’ tour, where you get to spend around five hours with the elephants. Even then you won’t want to say goodbye to your new found friends.
Trust me; you can never get enough time with elephants.
But; if you’re short on time, then a half day will still give you an incredible experience.
MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary provides; water, tea, coffee and special boots for trekking in the jungle, water and mud. They also provide rain ponchos (in case it rains), and of course loads of sweet bananas for humans and hand-feeding the elephants.
MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary provides a unique chance to participate in something entirely new and intimate in elephant tourism in Laos.
The appeal for us is the company vision, the unique individuals behind it, and the potential to change the future of elephant welfare and tourism in Laos and South East Asia.
Our Elephant Experiences were sponsored by ‘MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary’. As always, our thoughts and writings are based solely on our personal feelings and experiences.
More MandaLao Photos…