Elephant riding: fun for humans, torture for elephants
Last year, I was talking to a fellow traveler about things I wanted to do and mentioned elephant riding. He then told me more about it – the process of “crushing the spirit” that is used to make elephants rideable, about how their backs are not meant to be ridden, how conditions at many elephant riding establishments are below par. I did a lot of research, and was immediately convinced that elephant riding was not for me.
Finding an elephant sanctuary in Luang Prabang
For our trip in Southeast Asia, we wanted to see if there was an elephant sanctuary we could visit that was focused on ethical treatment of elephants. One that has a strong reputation is Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, but this was booked up for the days we were there.
Near Luang Prabang, MandaLao is a new elephant sanctuary that opened at the end of 2016 that strictly bans elephant riding. Their TripAdvisor presence was small yet positive, and their website hit all of the right notes about sustainability and ethical treatment. We contacted them, exchanged some messages to get a better feel for their approach, and booked the Therapeutic Trek, which has a maximum of 6 people per day.
Beginning of the day
The trip started with a pickup at our hotel and a 30 minute drive out to their property, which overlooks a river (and where you can see the elephants from upon arrival.) We met one of the people working there who came to Laos from Colorado. He told us more about their elephants, most of whom (except their baby elephant) were employed in the logging industry for years, which is really tough work for the elephants. He also talked to us about treatment of the elephants and certainly hit all of the right notes.
The elephants go on only one tour per day and all the tour groups are small, giving them more freedom. The mahouts do not use hooks (as is common in Laos) to work with the elephants and the mahouts are only supposed to use positive reinforcement. This is especially important for the baby elephant they are raising. We were also told that the adult elephants have put on significant weight after arriving, since they were previously on Lao government rations.
Our time with the elephants
After meeting the staff, we were suited up in special boots for water and brought down to meet the elephants, where we ended up spending a total of around 2 hours with the elephants. Our group of 6 was with two elephants for the tour, their ages 35 and 40, and two mahouts. It all began with giving us bananas to feed the elephants, and they don’t stop at 1! Feeding the elephants banana after banana was a theme for the day.
Next up was the best experience of the day – bathing the elephants. At first, I wasn’t sure how heavy to go with the water but the mahout encouraged us to throw as much on as possible, at all parts of the body, and said the elephants love it. The elephant made what seemed to be a laughing noise towards the end, or at least that’s what the mahout said. I could have just bathed the elephants all day, it was a great (and very wet!) time. Afterwards, the elephants were hungry (as always.)
Next up was a walk through the jungle with the elephants which lasted over an hour, stopping at various points to give the elephants more bananas and sweet potatoes.
I think each of us must have fed the elephants at least 50 bananas each, and at no point did it the elephants get full. We may have posed for a photo (or 20….or more) with the elephants as well.
Thoughts on elephant tourism
Overall, this was a really fun experience and being with elephants up close in a way that seems positive was great. This was a highlight of our time in Laos. Of course, the bigger question is if sanctuaries like MandaLao with tours are best for the animals. There is no doubt that this is better than a riding establishment. Everything seems positive – the treatment of the elephants, the large amount of room to roam, the positivity.
On the other hand, is this a better experience for elephants than being in the wild, especially for elephants that have lived their lives in captivity? Of course, a world with only wild elephants seems more ideal, but there are harms there too – lack of food and predators are both issues. I’m not best equipped to answer this question, but it’s certainly something to think about. Ultimately, having tours and the human interaction allows MandaLao to have money to feed elephants, and while the tour isn’t cheap ($99 USD), it’s very personal, and the costs likely need to be that high to maintain high standards of treatment.
The MandaLao staff seems to have good intentions for the land and making it more sustainable, and they seem genuine in their intention to give elephants a new and better lease on life. Ethical questions will always remain around captive elephants, but if you’re going to have human interaction with elephants, the way MandaLao does it is amongst the best you’ll find, and certainly the best in Luang Prabang (all of the other nearby establishments have riding.)
Info for visiting Luang Prabang
Getting in: Luang Prabang International Airport is 10 minutes outside of the city center and has flights from Laos and neighboring countries, including cheap AirAsia flights to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. You can also take a bus from other parts of Laos or take a multi-day boat ride to Luang Prabang on the Mekong River from northern Thailand.
Hotels: We stayed at Villa Oudomlith and the Aspara Rive Droite. Villa Oudomlith is comfortable, a good value (around $35 a day), and has a great location in central Luang Prabang. The Aspara Rive Droite is pricier but has great rooms, a pool, and is a very short boat ride from the main part of the city. For other Luang Prabang hotels, visit TripAdvisor.