Last year Luke and I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Elephant Conservation Center in Laos.
There are so many places in South East Asia touting for tourist dollars, claiming to be elephant sanctuaries, when the sad reality is, the elephants are often mistreated and underfed.
I did hours of research, I contacted several sanctuaries, I talked to other travelers who had already been to different places.
I wanted to make sure that if we were going to hand over our money to one of these places that it was actually going to be to an organization looking out for the best interest of the elephant.
We hit the jackpot with the Elephant Conservation Center.
Not only are they caring for and helping increase the elephant population in Laos, they are educating the Laotian people on elephant conservation.
They are helping create a system that will carry on long after they are gone. They are trying to introduce not only care for the animals in this country, but care for the environment and the mark that we all leave on it.
I loved everything about our three days here.
I loved the food we ate, the bungalows we slept in, the people who work here who are so passionate about what they do, and of course, I loved hanging out with these beautiful animals and learning more about them.
Getting to the Elephant Conservation Center
We took a bus from Luang Prabang to Sayabouly for 60,000 kip (about $7.50).
We were picked up shortly after we arrived by one of the guides from the ECC. They took us for lunch, which was included in our package, and then we took a boat from Sayabouly to the conservation center. It was all very easy and well organized.
Read: What to Do in Laos: 30 Day Laos Itinerary
The Lodging Situation for Visitors
We were brought to our little bungalows when we first arrived. It was perfect – very clean and eco-friendly. If you’re looking for luxury glamping, this isn’t it, but it was perfect for us.
All of our meals were included in what we paid for our three-day excursion.
The ECC employ all local Laotian people and all of the meals we had were based around their flavors and ingredients. Nothing was too spicy and we sat at communal tables for each meal with all the other guests and some of the staff.
It was a really great experience and everyone was so kind and knowledgeable.
What I Learned About Elephants While Visiting
Once we were all settled into our rooms, our guide took us to the elephant museum that they have on the premises.
We learned about the different types of elephants in the world and how both the African and Asian elephants are declining in numbers at a startling rate, due mostly to poaching.
We learned that male elephants frequently go on what’s called musth.
They have glands on their temples that secrete a sort of discharge and they become incredibly aggressive. It’s usually when they are looking for a mate, but it can last for anywhere between a week and even more than a month in some cases.
Most of the elephants at the conservation center are female.
Male elephants are usually loners in the wild. They roam and explore on their own. Females, on the other hand, are very social and often live in packs in the wild. The center have done their best to replicate this for the females.
Elephants eat SO MUCH. Literally TONS of food.
The conservation center gives them a large mixture of different plants to give them energy and they even have their own garden where they grow tons of different types of foods just for the elephants to eat.
Who Cares for These Elephants?
There are so many people caring for these elephants both near and far.
Each elephant at the conservation center has one handler, called a mahout.
They are solely responsible for the feeding, bathing, and personal interaction with their elephant. The bond between an elephant and her mahout is a really incredible thing to behold.
There are donors located around the world helping to support the upkeep of the different elephants as well as the center.
Of course, the money you pay to visit the center contributes to the maintenance of the center.
There are several people that work at the center, including a veterinarian who helps ensure both the physical and mental health of all of the elephants that live at the center.
A Day in the Life of an Elephant at the Elephant Conservation Center
Elephants are very social creatures and, like humans, they learn from those around them.
A female elephant wouldn’t know what to do with her young if it wasn’t for watching the older females in the group interacting with their young.
Each morning the mahouts go out into the forest and retrieve their elephants. They bring them to the edge of the lake and the elephants have a bath and a play.
They are then brought to what’s called the socialization area.
This is a huge area that’s been cleared by the center and filled with tires, trees and different types of plants. Each evening volunteers set up the socialization area.
They hide food and build puzzles using tires and crates of wood. Then when the elephants arrive at the socialization area, they are left in their pack to figure all the puzzles out.
Every day, one or two of the elephants are brought to the “hospital” that they have built on the premises.
Elephants are very easily frightened and so in order to get them used to any medical procedures, they pretend to inspect each elephant a few times a week so that if or when something happens to them, they are not frightened by the vet or the medical contraptions.
We were able to sit and watch some of the procedures. The center has built a large structure with wood and bamboo that fits each elephant and makes it easy to inspect their feet (a place where infection is common) and while this is happening, their mahout is there giving them food as a treat.
In the afternoons, the elephants are brought to graze and eat even more, before heading back to the water for one last bath before bed.
The mahouts were often in the water with them in the evenings, scrubbing their backs and making sure they were clean all over.
Then the elephants are brought back into the forest where they are left for the evening to graze.
Some nights, especially when it was raining, we could hear the elephants chatting to each other.
Should You Ride an Elephant?
The last, and most important thing that I wanted to pass along to those that are interested in hanging out with elephants, is that riding elephants on those huge chairs on their back, is so incredibly bad for them.
Elephants are like people, they have very little strength in their backs. Carrying more than 75kg (165lbs) is incredibly painful for them. Mahouts ride on the necks of the elephants where they have the most strength and can carry much more weight.
Mahouts ride on the neck of their elephants because they are strongest there and it is believed that this helps to cement the bond that they have between each other.
Would I Recommend the Elephant Conservation Center?
From my personal experience at the Elephant Conservation Center, I would 100% recommend taking some time to learn more about these gentle giants.
The center allows you to observe what they’re doing without involving you in the way that many of the tourist elephant centers around Thailand and Laos are continuing to do even today.
Instead, this is a place where you can financially support an amazing center while learning a ton about why they are in trouble in the first place and how you can help in the long run.
How You Can Visit the Elephant Conservation Center
We simply signed up through their website, which you can do here.
There are three different options – 2 days/1 night, 3 days/2 nights (this is the one we did), and volunteering for 7 days/6 nights.
It’s not cheap. It is one of the most expensive things we did on our trip through South East Asia, but it was something both Luke and I felt passionate about and we both got so much out of the experience.
Saturday 24th of November 2018
Hello, did you/guests get to interact with the Elephants here (feeding and bathing)? Struggling to figure out if this is just as bad as riding?
Monday 26th of November 2018
Hi Hannah - it's difficult to find places that really are helpful. We didn't bathe them - only the mahouts were allowed with them in the water which I thought was good. They did allow us to feed them but we stood on a platform and then gave them a few snacks. They mostly ate on their own. I think that the conservation center are attempting to do their very best for these elephants, but I also think that they are trying to give people "what they want" and it's a conflict of interest in my opinion. I did this in 2015 and if I could do it again, I would have donated my money and probably not gone to the center. Elephants aren't tourist attractions and each time we participate in something like this, we continue the problem.