Living with Elephants: The Sayaboury Jungle, Laos

Getting there…

I know it's not going to be an easy venture getting to Laos' one and only elephant conservation centre, which is nestled deep within the Sayaboury jungle, but I have a sneaky feeling its all going to be worth it…

The bus journey from Luang Prabang should take around eleven hours, but given my previous experience with the Laoitian transport system, I know it’s best not to be too optimistic, so instead I prepare myself for the worst. Climbing on to the bus, I’m confronted by challenge number one. Imagine this: 30°c. 85% humidity. What can only be described as a shed on wheels crammed so full that its passengers are lined up the middle aisle crouched on tiny plastic stools. Cages full of feathered creatures going frantic in an attempt to escape this nightmare. Flustered kids howling the place down also desperate to flee. And you have to fight your way through this bedlam to get to your seat which is located right at the back of the bus. Well, I couldn't tell you how, but somehow I make it. And then I sit…and wait…for three hours before the driver’s foot even touches the pedal. And that’s just the beginning. But I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to put you off going to the place that I’m about to write a thousand words about! So lets just say that numerous breakdowns later, a jeep ride with some kid who definitely hasn’t passed his driving test, and a precarious canoe trip through swampy waters, I arrive. And when I see what I see, all memories of that horrific journey instantly vanish.

[single_map_place] Elephant Conservation Center, Nam Tien Protected Area, Sayaboury, Lao PDR [/single_map_place]

The Elephant Conservation Centre

As the name suggests, the E.C.C. works towards the conservation and protection of Asian elephants which have been subjected to horrendous lives within the logging and tourism industries. At the hands of these industries, they have undergone unthinkable treatment, having been worked to the point of exhaustion and made to survive in unacceptable conditions. Due to these detrimental circumstances, the elephants have failed to reproduce at normal rates and their life spans have been considerably shortened – as a result their race is under serious threat.

The E.C.C. was launched in 2011 in an attempt to combat this sad situation and has since been running welfare, vet care, breeding and mahout training programmes in the Sayaboury Jungle, Laos. It is run by a team of vets and elephant specialists and relies on the support of various organisations, private donations and us – the tourists.


Why visit?

Rewind to my arrival. This is no exaggeration but as I step out of that canoe, I’m completely overcome by the beauty that surrounds me. On one side, a melting sun turns the vast lake into liquid gold and on the other, rainbow coloured birds sail effortlessly over a rising hill of giant trees that form the wondrous Sayaboury jungle. I’m greeted by a smiling Mr. Ken, who welcomes me with his cheeky jokes and (not so tuneful) tunes. When he shows me to my little wooden cabin I’m ready to collapse, but it’s not bed time just yet – there’s a freshly prepared meal of sticky rice and khao pun awaiting me. Needless to say, I engulf it.

Over the next few days, I get up close and personal with the rescued elephants; learning about them, interacting with them and observing them in their natural habitat. I meet the elephants for the first time in the forest, then I watch them bathe in the lake. I visit the elephant nursery and the hospital and help the mahouts feed and train the elephants. I do some volunteer construction work and get to mount one of the elephants (though just for a few minutes and without any of those big wooden baskets that are so bad for their backs). But by far one of the most unforgettable moments come as I watch the elephants play and socialise from the comfort of my hammock, as if watching them in my own back garden. Wow – what an incredible experience – made even better in knowing that the centre is doing everything in its power to help these elephants. But if you need a bit more convincing as to why you should get yourself there right now, here are a few more reasons:

  • Instead of taking the elephants out of their natural habitats to serve us tourists, the E.C.C. takes us to them – offering us a once in a lifetime opportunity to see how these majestic creatures behave in their own surroundings.
  • You’ll learn about the elephants from professional vets and biologists who take care of the centre and who’ll willingly share their knowledge with you.
  • But most importantly, instead of putting money into the pockets of those who are directly contributing to the demise of the Asian elephant race, your money will go towards a worthy organisation that is working extremely hard to tackle this problem.

Booking your stay

There are a number of packages to chose from that you can book online. These range from between £165 for two days/one night up to £405 for seven days/6 nights. I know that seems a bit pricey especially for a budget backpacker (and I definitely had to sacrifice a few other trips in order to make this one – but trust me, I have no regrets about doing it – it was by far the most rewarding experience I’ve had during all of my travels). I would advise booking early if you know your dates since there is a high demand and limited space. You can follow this link to find out more about the centre and make your reservation – Elephant Conservation Centre Packages.


Know before you go

  • You’ll have loads of time to relax during your stay and there’s no wifi at the centre so take a few books to keep you occupied.
  • Electricity is also a limited resource so take some sort of torch if you want to be able to see anything at all during the nights.
  • The cabins are clean, simple and comfortable but don't expect luxury – the bathroom facilities are shared and you'll be showering outdoors.
  • Remember that this is an animal-centred experience and animals aren't always predictable. Sometimes the schedule will change but only in the interest of the welfare of the animals so please be prepared and don't complain if this happens.

A final word

I love to see the world but one of the most difficult things for me has been seeing the way in which animals suffer in third world countries (often in the name of tourism). In the west, some of us treat our pets like royalty but animals definitely aren't afforded the same kind of respect in less developed lands. This is really hard for me to accept but I also understand that the people of these countries have bigger problems to worry about. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of projects all over the world that have been set up to try to help our little friends and I have listed just a few of them in the links below. What I want to ask is that you please, please, please go the extra mile and do your research before you end up contributing to the suffering of a helpless innocent creature.


Useful links:

Elephant Conservation Centre website – Here you can find out more information about the centre and book your stay.

Travel schedules to and from Sayaboury – Travel information can also be found on the FAQ page of the E.C.C’s website. (Note that there are multiple spellings for this province which can be confusing but in effect it’s all one place).

Trip Advisor reviews on the centre.

Street Animal Rescue, IndiaKathmandu Animal Treatment Centre, NepalSave Elephant Foundation, Thailand – Links to other sanctuaries within Asia helping animals in need.

Sophie Wilmot

Sophie is a seasoned traveller, English teacher and freelance writer who can’t seem to get enough of the world! She has covered six continents and is still going… With the belief that we should never say no to new experiences she has found herself caught up in some seriously dicey situations, all of which have taught her some invaluable life lessons! Through her travel blog and articles, she hopes to share with her readers a little bit of what the world has shared with her.