As 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.
We 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.
Despite 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).
We 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.
Adding 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.
Part 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.
Between 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.
Now 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.
The 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?!
The 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.
The 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.
The 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**