Luang Prabang

Published on April 21st, 2013


The Laos Elephant Festival

Lots more where this came from…

Shame, shame, shame on me It’s been nearly TWO MONTHS since I returned from my adventures in Laos, and all I’ve managed to peck about it was a single quick “Sneak-Peek”. LOTS more to tell, but somehow other (multiple choice: a. chores b. dashes to Nha Trang c. life) alas, has gotten in the way.

No more. The truth is, I have TONS of pics and lots more details to share about my two week slip into neighboring Laos to gawk at the annual Elephant Festival.

Then again, it’s not like I’ve not been blathering about the festival at all – check out my “Trumpeting the Elephants” article in Oi magazine (download the .pdf of the April 2013 issue, page 82).  Imagine that – my first byline in an international print mag!

Still, arguably my first pecking loyalty is ever to my digital TL followers, so here ya go – finally, the details (in multiple installments no less) of the TravelnLass’ most recent international caper.

First, a little review/background.  So I had a spare 2 week travel window before I hunkered down to start my new EFL teaching gig here in Dalat.  15 days.  Not long enough to warrant a major adventure in say… India or Japan, but too much to waste on a a domestic jaunt to say… Hoi An or Hue here in Vietnam.  Hmmm, so where to go???

A bit of Googling turned up my answer:  Why neighboring Laos of course!  And furthermore, an annual Elephant Festival scheduled precisely within my 15 day window – kewl!  Only trouble was… further online details of the 2013 festival proved sparse indeed.  In fact, it took nearly two full weeks of roaming TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet forums to even narrow down the exact dates of this year’s festival:  17 – 19 February (a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – not even a Saturday included as one might reasonably expect).  Go figure.

Furthermore, the dearth of online details proved a bit troubling as I could find no info on hotels in the small, dusty town (Sayaboury) where the festival would be held, only that one could (allegedly) catch a bus from Luang Prabang for the 4 hr. trip there.  Neither agoda nor showed any hotels for Sayaboury, and the few hotel names I could unearth had no websites of their own.

Uh-oh – would this be my bed?

The truth is, I’m not usually too concerned with advance hotel reservations when I travel.  But this was after all, apparently a MAJOR Laos event with international attention, so naturally I expected that whatever few rooms there might be in Sayaboury, would most certainly fill up fast. But what was I to do?

What any self-respecting indie traveler would do of course (no, not pack a hammock), I deliberately allowed a handful of advanced days in Luang Prabang in order to deal with the Sayaboury hotel dilemma on the ground.  And as it turns out, it was a good thing I did.

Upon arrival in LP on the 12th, I immediately set my (oh so kindly) hotel staff to work on the telephone to track down a room in Sayaboury for the 3 nights of the festival.  Long story short?  It took two of them nearly a full morning of “full”, “full”, “full”, “full”s, until finally they unearthed a hotel that had a single room available for the trio of consecutive nights. Indeed, as I later learned (i.e. once on the ground in Sayaboury myself) that Laos nationals from across the land had booked verily every hotel room, and stray foreigners without reservations were forced to sleep in seriously squalid homestays (as one Dutch lass put it “a board over a stinky pond under the stars”) else worse – upon arrival, simply hop back on the return bus to Luang Prabang.

The Nokinsy Hotel, Sayaboury, Laos – not bad for the last available room

But happily not I.  For thanks to the persistent souls at Philaylack Villa 1, my hotel in Luang Prabang (highly recommended, conveniently located a block from the river, quiet, a/c reliable wifi and just $15/nt. sgl.) I enjoyed a great room in Sayaboury at the Nokinsy Hotel.  Sweeter still, the room tab was just $20/nt. – shoot, I would have paid TWICE that or more given the scarcity!  Indeed, the first night I benevolently shared it w/ a stray Canadian lad who otherwise would have had to sleep in the street.

Ah but the festival, Dyanne – what about the ELEPHANT festival already?

Yes, yes.  It was spectacular. Just imagine the splendid assembly of 64 elephants (to correspond with the 64th anniversary of Lao People’s Day Army the previous month) all gathered at one grand spot.  Led by their mahouts, many of these gentle giants trekked to Sayaboury from all over Laos – for some it was a week-long slow, lumbering journey.

Dainty lemon and green silk bracelets adorned their gargantuan ankles, and each and every wrinkled gray pachyderm sported all manner of colorful scarves, tassels, and tail ribbons – all competing for “Elephant of the Year”. Likewise, young lasses from each Lao district competed for the coveted title of “Miss Elephant”. This winsome winning pair then had the honor of leading the grand procession that officially kicked off the festival. The parade also featured seven ethnic groups representing the diverse cultural heritage of the Sayaboury district.
Elephant rides were especially popular of course (though I demurred, as the scene seemed just a tad too circus-like as local families and monks alike scrambled into the wooden box seats atop each elephant*), along with a variety of food stalls and make-shift booths including one rickety canvas booth that proved especially crowded with clamoring locals. Asking a few of the eager locals buzzing around the curtained booth just what all the fuss was about – sadly, it turned out they were all paying a few kip to take a peek behind the curtain at a “little person”.

Other festival activities included mahout demonstrations, traditional Buddhist blessings, an elephant “baci” ceremony, a “Buffet for Elephants”, an elephant drawing contest, night markets, live concerts by Lao and Thai artists, and a sound and light show along the banks of the Houng River. Alarmingly, the grand finale of this year’s festival was a dubiously prudent night fireworks display which – not surprisingly – prompted several multi-ton elephants chained to nearby trees to break free and head recklessly for the forested hills.

Nonetheless the Elephant Festival proved most excellent indeed.  And – as a neighbor of my new adopted home here in Vietnam – I may very well make a trip to Laos an annual pilgrimage.

* Instead, I opted to straddle my elephant BAREBACK amid a more serene (nay, elephant-kindly) setting at the nearby Elephant Conservation Center.

Stay tuned for a handful of other posts on my short visit to Laos – my day at the Elephant Conservation Center, a fascinating half-day natural dye workshop at  “Ock Pop Tok”, and my meanderings in and around the lovely town of Luang Prabang.

But meanwhile, I leave you with a scatter of stray pics from the Elephant Festival.  For a full dose of my Laos images, hop on over to my Flickr Laos Album.

First the bus journey…

…along worrisomely winding mountain roads through verdant rice paddies.
Past skipping school kids
Across rickety ferries
Pausing for snacks…
…of crickets – hey, don’t knock ’em til you’ve tried ’em – they actually have a most tasty smokey flavor
(well o.k. but for picking the bitty legs out of your teeth…)
…and all manner of exotic protein (uh, some sort of rodent and birds, perhaps?)

Then the festival itself…

Locals streaming across the river to the festival arena
Yours truly’s requisite TravelnToes in situ, likewise crossing the river
More than 60 elephants tip-toeing along…
Even a wee one following along behind its mother
Plus a parade of Lao colors and culture…

Oh, and lest we forget that…

What goes in…
Uh. must come out! 😉

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About the Author

Off-the-beaten-path travel is my passion,and I’ve always lived life “like-a-kid-in-a-candy-store” – eager to sample as many flavors as I can. Indeed, my life motto has long been: This ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!

10 Responses to The Laos Elephant Festival

  1. Nidhi Joshi says:

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE stay away from things like elephant festivals and elephant treks and elephant camps!! These elephants have all been snatched from the wild at a very young age and put through the phajaan (breaking of the elephant spirit) all so that tourists can watch them perform! Or ride on them!! If you want to see elephants then go to places like Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand or Elephant Nature Park and see the truth behind these poor elephants!! Watch this video and then tell me it’s ok to ride on elephants or watch them being used for entertainment!

    • TravelnLass says:

      Oh I HEAR you NJ, and empathize completely with your feelings on many of the (multitude!) of the commercial tourist-centric elephant camps, etc. (especially in Thailand). But the annual Laos Elephant Festival was founded 7 years ago by, (a non-profit of the highest integrity), specifically to draw attention to the plight of the Asian elephant (who’s numbers are declining drastically and may well soon be extinct).

      Indeed, do read my more recent TL post ( on my visit after the festival to the nearby Elephant Conservation Center (run by ElfantAsia) where they’re doing laudable work in all aspects of elephant conservation.

  2. Looks FABULOUS! I love all the colors and patterns on the ethnic clothing. Can’t wait to read about your day with the elephants!

    • TravelnLass says:

      Yes, it was pretty amazing CH, so much so, I might have to go to the festival every year. And yes, the Elephant Conservation Center, most interesting. I just need to get my butt in gear and peck a post about it.

  3. What a super awesome adventure. I live for your stories.
    I MUST visit Asia.

    • TravelnLass says:

      Yes, quite the adventure Kahleel – and this isn’t even the half of it. I still have many more tales just of this one quick skip into northern Laos. Indeed, you truly should come visit this corner of the world.

  4. I remember hearing about this festival when I was in Laos two years ago. I was in the south of the country at the time and couldn’t be bothered heading north for what I figured wouldn’t amount to more than a couple of decorated elephants. It seems I underestimated the Lao devotion to their elephants. It definitely looks like I missed out.

    • TravelnLass says:

      Oh dear. Yes, elephants are big (both literally and figuratively ) in Laos, and I’d say the festival was definitely worth a visit. But I well know how tough it can be to make such choices while on the trail. Often torn in so many directions, time and money – tough to know what to choose.

  5. Gail Snyder says:

    Terrific as usual. So colorful! Thx.

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