The Laos Elephant Festival

Laos Elephant FestivalAs luck would have it, we were in Laos during one the country’s biggest events…The Elephant Festival. Eles are the symbol of Laos but their population and role in society are dwindling with the country’s modernization. To bring awareness to the elephant’s plight and simultaneously celebrate this cultural icon, the non-profit ElefantAsia started this festival in 2006. It happens each year at the end of February in the Sayaboury province so with our serendipitous timing we decided to rent a motorbike and attend what turned out to be one of the greatest events of the HoneyTrek.

 

Can you take a motorcycle from Luang Prabang LaosWe heard the roads from Luang Prabang to Sayaboury were super rough with a couple river crossings in between so we stepped it up from our normal 50cc Yamaha moto rental to the Harley of China: The Zongshen 300. We strapped down our packs, put on our windbreakers and wrapped our faces in scarves for one long and dusty two-hour ride.

 

Rice paddies of LaosDespite the bumps in the road, the trip through this section of eastern Laos was gorgeous with lush green rice paddies, charming villages, jagged mountains and rushing rivers (one of which we ferried across on a barge).

 

ElephantAsia Festival LaosWe arrived to Sayaboury and the town was buzzing. Food carts lined the streets, families were picnicking in the grass, and elephants were bathing in the river. We were jonesing to join in the excitement but first needed to find a place to sleep. We pulled into the Elephant Festival Center hoping to get any lodging recommendations and amazingly enough they had a whole system set up to pair visitors with host families! We stayed with an adorable family of three, just walking distance from the fair grounds.

 

Anne Howard, Debbie Gersten, Scott D Spethman, Ali Zaazou and Mike Howard at XayaburiAdding to the fun, our buddy Deb came to the festival with her lovely friends Ali and Scott. We assumed there would be a bunch of tourists attending but we were thrilled to see the crowd was overwhelming Laotian coming from all parts of the country to celebrate and represent their tribes in the festivities.

 

Time for an Elephant Bath in LaosPart of the reason of setting up ElefantAsia was to make sure the health of the country’s working elephants are up to snuff. All the elephants in attendance get a check-up and their mahouts get counseling and tips on how to better care for their pachyderms.

 

Mike washing an Elephant in LaosBetween checkups and rides, the mahouts would take the elephants in the river to cool down and clean up. When Mike saw the right opportunity, he asked if he could help. The mahout nodded yes and Mike stripped down to his skivvies and scrambled up the elephant’s back. He did his best to hold on and scrub down nature’s largest land animal as it dunked in the river and wielded its trunk like a squirt gun. It was one of those magical seize-the-moment experiences–wet underwear be damned.

 

River Children of LaosNow that Mike was already soaking wet, he figured he’d jump in with the dozens of children playing in the river. The local past-time is to do flips off the bamboo bridge and try not to get swept under.

 

Ladies of Laos ElephantThe festival was pretty mellow on the first day but by night it was in full swing. We cruised the fair grounds, playing carnival games, eating local treats, and watching the series of events on stage. This was a national beauty pageant—how gorgeous are these ladies?!

 

Lantern Festival LaosThe evening closed with a breath-taking lantern ceremony. They called people up from the audience to light the wick beneath these white paper shades and watch the heat send them soaring. Hundreds of lanterns took to the sky, glowing like stars while those on the ground looked up with delight. We’ll admit, we’d actually seen this lantern-liftoff done in other parts of Southeast Asia and never wanted to condone the liter it creates but for this cultural event, we made the exception.

 

Laos Elephant FestivalThe next morning we got up bright and early to watch the parade get underway. Literally thousand’s upon thousand’s of performers from around the country, dressed in the traditional costumes from their tribe or region, were lined up in front of us. Almost better than the actual procession was watching them practice their dance moves and chitchat with us as they waited to enter the main stage.

 

Laos The Elephant Festival SayabouryThe parade began and it was like a flood of color, pattern, rhythm, and dance rushing towards us. Some performers had dance routines with flags, scarves, or sticks and others just marched to showoff their spectacular costumes. WATCH THIS VIDEO to catch a glimpse at the parade in action and Mike bathing the ele.

 

Laos Elephant FestivalThe parade continued with performances and competitions in front of dignitaries, but to us the main event was all about hanging out with the locals. From helping a mahout bathe an elephant to taking selfies with Hmong dancers, we felt so lucky to hang with Laotians at one of the country’s greatest festivals.

 

The Laos Elephant Festival Slideshow

**Click any image to open slideshow. Keyboard arrows (← →) to change photo. Esc key to end slideshow**

14 thoughts on “The Laos Elephant Festival

  • May 12, 2014 at 10:01 pm
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    Now THAT’S what I call a festival! Thanks for sharing the photos are stunning as always! great post

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    • May 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm
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      thanks for the love on the photos @worldjourneys:disqus , glad you liked them. The festival was amazing….so much local color and great people.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 12:04 pm
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    Serendipitous timing, for sure!! LOVED this festival and being there with you both!! Good times and amazing creatures.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 12:18 pm
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    That is so very cool. Makes you think that in the world, somewhere, at all times, there is something amazing going on. The goal is to be there and you were. I have spent some time in Laos and absolutely love the country.

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    • May 13, 2014 at 3:21 pm
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      @TimocFTSB:disqus , you are so right….we think that exact same thought all the time….and we add in the fact that “in the world, at all times, somewhere there are amazing acts of kindness”….and SO many more than the few horrible acts the news media shares with us in order to sell more advertising against our fears.

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  • May 13, 2014 at 8:26 pm
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    Laos Elephant Festival just Fantastic Michael, just awsome Anne. Thank you for
    allowing us to tarvel along with you two on your beautiful journey!
    Hugs from The Stolfi Family (all 14 of Us)

    Reply
  • May 14, 2014 at 2:53 am
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    Mike, This looks absolutely amazing. To think that the festival was started to help the elephants…I love it. As always, your photos are amazing and make me want to buy a ticket right now!

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    • May 24, 2014 at 12:55 pm
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      Buy that ticket, Corinne! Laos was great and catching this festival made it that much more festival. It’s every February if you’d like to go! So glad you enjoyed the post!

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  • May 16, 2014 at 9:55 pm
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    What an amazing experience! I love that Mike was actually able to wash an elephant. That’s pretty awesome. When I traveled there last year, I found the people in Laos to be some of the warmest and friendliest people. It sounds like you had a great experience!!

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    • May 24, 2014 at 1:14 pm
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      So true about the people of Laos–they couldn’t be nicer! The festival was amazing and the elephant bath totally made his day (or year). This wasn’t a tourist thing where you line up and do it, Mike just asked, dropped his shorts, and hopped on up. I’m still kicking myself I didn’t get in…you always have to go for it!

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  • June 24, 2014 at 9:38 am
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    wonderful..when you get time please come to kerala,india.

    Reply

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