Its 6pm and our eclectic group of bizarre adventurers from across the globe is gathered here at the Elephant Con
servation Centre (ECC) dining room for a simple Lao-style dinner. The setting sun distracts us as we watch the reflection on the lake of a glowing orange orb above the hills, but gradually the conversation begins to flow: French, English, Danish, Dutch. Four middle-aged Australians on a motorbike tour of Northern Laos have already consumed a number of beers and there’s no difficulty hearing their discussion of the challenges of Lao drivers, while an English family with two somewhat recalcitrant teenagers attempt to find harmony and an elegant French couple on a fortnight’s holiday of Laos and Thailand tell me of their plans. Several young Danish and Dutch volunteers laugh and tell stories, kindly embracing the English teenagers within their group, while a retired French photographer discusses the challenges he has had today with finding appropriate materials for his current project building a bread oven for the centre with a young Belgian architecture graduate who is volunteering for 3 months on building construction and maintenance before starting a Masters at Edinburgh university. We have all been brought to this place by a desire to spend time with this most extraordinary of creatures, the elephant, and our joy in doing so is evident on the faces of all. Meanwhile, as we know from having watched them depart with their mahouts two hours previously, the elephants themselves are also eating – pegged in the jungle on 30m chains so they can graze through the night – for as we have already learnt, elephants need to graze for 17 hours out of each day.
The ECC was set up by a group of French and local people in 2010 through ‘ElefantAsia’, a non-profit organisation working in Laos to reverse the decline of the Laos elephants. Laos is known as the ‘land of a million elephants’, and elephants have a strong significance in traditional and religious culture here, but in reality numbers are becoming critically low so ECC acts as a breeding, research and advocacy centre, funded in part by tourist visits such as my own. Tourists come for either a two-day one night visit, or like myself opt for three days and two nights.
Now that I am here at the centre, the challenges of the journey here become insignificant. The ride from Muang Nam to Sayabouli was far better than the previous day, and having made an early start, buying a bunch of bananas in place of breakfast, I had covered the 38km of rolling contours to arrive soon after midday in Santibouli. On the way I had emailed the ECC to ask about staying or visiting and on arrival in Santibouli was disappointed to receive the answer that it was not possible: I needed to book well in advance. I booked into the ‘Santiphan’ Guest House and found the ‘helpful English speaking person’ I had read about on Trip Advisor was notable by his absence, as indeed were many shop and restaurant owners.
It was not until I was invited by a mildly inebriated young man and his friends to join them for a beer at their party behind the closed Tourism Office that I finally realised that today was a public holiday for International Women’s day, and these were some of the employees relaxing on their day off. Well, I think they were, with their 10 words of English and my 5 words of Lao, communication was fairly basic, but the beer was cold and friendships were cemented. On continuing my walk around the town, I passed a group of 3 couples and other family enjoying a meal together ( and of course some Beerlaos) on their terrace. Once again , I was invited in and plied with several helpings of a superb spicy noodle casserole while Beerlao flowed freely and these hospitable hosts toasted their wives, compared their children with photos of my family, and I became a permanent part of their records through enumerable joint selfies, frequently posing in my hat with flaps, a source of huge hilarity that my children would no doubt understand.
Sayabouli had turned out to be the most hospitable of towns, but with no likelihood of seeing elephants, the prospect of several hot and dusty days on difficult roads no longer excited me. I decided to head to Vientiane by bus, and the next morning was on the road early looking for the bus station when I decided to have one last try at phoning the elephant centre. “Is there any chance of joining your one or two day programme today?” I asked without much hope. But there was, and an hour later, I had cycled to the centre’s boat pier, and was waiting by the strange weed-filled lake, once again counting my blessings once again on how things on this extraordinary cycle ride had turned out.
Elephant numbers in Laos have declined rapidly over recent years. There are now 500 domesticated elephants in the country, mostly in Sayabouli province used in logging, with a certain number in tourist camps around Luang Prabang and other centres, and it is thought a similar number remain in the wild. For every two elephants born, there are ten deaths, mainly because of the huge cost of allowing a working elephant to become pregnant. Elephants are pregnant for two years and then suckle their young for a minimum of a further two years, and so the cost of the feed and care while unproductive and out of work becomes prohibitive to an average elephant owner. At the Elephant Conservation Centre however, in an effort to support breeding, mahouts are welcomed at the centre with their pregnant or calved elephant, and not only are all the elephants’ feeding and vet costs covered, but the mahout receives a salary, and can stay until the young elephant is big enough to be sold or trained for work. Currently there are two ‘visiting’ mother elephants with young, one six months old and the other just a few weeks old; I could have spent my whole time just watching the young ones play in the water under the watchful care of their mothers – check out the pics!
What a wonderful experience. Dad would have loved to visit the ECC and especially to watch elephant podiatry!!!
Travel safely – see you soon. xx