laos elephant festival

I had heard about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos from Cara, a friend we had traveled with for a few weeks. Volunteering at this center had been one of the highlights of her trip and she strongly recommended it. While reading up on it I came across the annual Laos Elephant Festival that was going to be held in Sayaboury on February 17-19. Since the conservation center was a little pricey, and this festival had been started by them, I thought it sounded like a great alternative and something we were fortunate enough to be in Laos at the right time to see! They forecast over 80,000 people and 60+ elephants — and for a town of only 16,000 people this should be quite the show!

Elephants decorated for opening ceremonies and headed for a quick meal before the show.

Elephants decorated for opening ceremonies and headed for a snack before the show.

Other than that, it was almost impossible to find much information online about this event. Once we reached Laos, it quickly became clear that the internet is not the way information spreads in this country. It had by far the worst internet of any of the seven countries we have been to. I had to actually search out (online, of course) the one cafe in each of the two major cities where we could get internet that seemed faster than a dial-up modem. I may have also chosen the wrong phone carrier, as Unitel was by far the slowest cell data we have had in a country.

From the Laos Tourism webite:
Sayabouly Province is the natural choice to host this growing event that also aims to raise awareness about the need to protect the endangered Asian elephant, which has played such a vital role in Lao people’s livelihoods, culture and heritage. After an opening ceremony, a procession of elephants enters the host village through a bamboo arch. The elephants bathe and are blessed by monks, with participants making merit in a baci ceremony, before with the election of the “Elephant of the Year”. Then the entertainment begins: pachyderm performances, musical concerts, outdoor films, dance shows, and fireworks displays in a carnival atmosphere that includes elephant rides and a “Fun Fair”. After the second day’s procession and religious ceremony, mahouts round up their massive mammals for a day of elephant entertainment and visitor education capped with the crowning of the elephant of the Year. For an even more authentic experience, visitors can book a village home-stay.

I think it should have been a warning sign that there wasn’t a lot of information online about the Elephant Festival, but what little I found hinted that the main events all happened on the first day and that planning for a Laos festival generally comes together in the last few days, so it shouldn’t be surprising to not find much information online. With that in mind, we set out from Luang Prabang on the 16th so we would be there just in time for the big start on the 17th. It has expanded from a two-day event into a week-long production that includes a trade expo and games like you might find at a county fair, but the elephant activities all occur towards the end.

As we arrived in Sayaboury, with no place to stay, it quickly became clear that all of the guesthouses were fully booked. This part was actually handled extremely well by the organizers. The tuk-tuks all knew to drop us off at a central hub where several people were coordinating homestays in the surrounding villages. As we waited our turn (which was usurped by an angry traveler who was yelling at the homestay coordinators about how agoda had allowed him to book a room that didn’t exist — maybe he will appear in one of Lisa’s future people you don’t want to meet posts), I read through the timeline of festival events and it quickly became clear we were in town a day too early — the opening ceremoney and main activities were not going to start until the 18th. We then got setup with a great homestay that was in very close walking distance to all of the elephant activities.

Mahout bathing his elephant; photo by Lisa

Mahout bathing his elephant; photo by Lisa

Here’s the thing about Laos homes — the most important component is apparently their speaker system. As we rolled up to our homestay, they had two massive speakers on the porch blaring some local jams. It appeared we were at the “party homestay,” about which all of the others in our shared pickup had a nervous laugh, not knowing what lay in their own futures. We would later hear from our ex-pat ultimate friend Stew that this is key to Laos households, and often comes before a TV. We would encounter it elsewhere throughout the country, even in small villages. As we got situated in our house, the family had left it to their 14-year old daughter, Kaoh, to handle all communication with us. She was very eager as well, equipped with a phrase sheet that the homestay organizers had provided and a couple English-to-Laos dictionaries.

Meeting her would turn out to be the main highlight of the weekend. She accompanied us to dinner the first night and also helped organize some bikes we could all three use to ride around the countryside and explore neighboring villages. Communication was difficult, but as we were leaving she told us she loved us and was sad to see us go!

Closest thing to shave-ice I've found.

Closest thing to shave-ice I’ve found.

Anyway, back to the festival — we headed out to see what it was all about. The only thing happening was the trade fair and Elephant rides, but for a huge annual festival, hardly anyone was in town. We saw some elephants bathing in the river, which was also the popular watering hole playground for local youth. I found something resembling shave ice, with condensed milk, syrups and several gummy toppings thrown in the mix. I was feeling a bit down because we had come all this way and it didn’t look like the Elephant Festival was going to deliver an exciting experience.

On the 17th, we borrowed some bicycles and headed on a loop through neighboring villages with Kaoh. There wasn’t much else to do, the only thing on the agenda that day was elephant rides and a “Miss Elephant” contest. We weren’t sure whether it was going to be filled with elephant or human contestants. Turns out it was humans, and we quickly left. Not before witnessing some really awkward slow-walks across the stage, however. The festival was turning out to be a very local scene, clearly intended mostly for a Laos audience (as it should be, but it was still striking how little we fit into everything as tourists). We resolved to wake up early for the opening ceremony and then try to catch some transport back to Vientiane.

Off-road mountain biking with some one-speed cruisers.

Off-road mountain biking with some one-speed cruisers.

On the 18th we woke up at 6:30am so we could pack up and head to the elephant yard for the 7:00am opening ceremonies. As we arrived, heavy fog filled the field, the stands were mostly filled and hundreds of performers were lined up and ready to perform. Little did we know, however, that this festival would be operating on Laos time. As I went to investigate the bus situation around 8:30am, thousands of Laotians were still streaming in. Around 9:30am the opening ceremonies started, but by this point, we had already burned out from standing around and wandering the festival for the previous couple days. We enjoyed some photography time while the elephants were prepping for the parade, then watched the majority of the procession before heading to catch our bus. The one lead I had on a direct bus to Vientiane failed to pan out, when everyone I asked (including the post office) had no idea what I was talking about.

So I decided to head back a different route than we had come, through Pak Lay. And although it shaved several hours off of the return trip, and came with some beautiful scenery, there was a price. The first leg of the journey would be about three hours of riding in a songthaew (two benches in the bed of a pickup) while the second would be about five hours in the last row of a minivan, four people to a row, on some of the roughest unpaved roads which had us nearly smacking our head on the ceilings multiple times.

Practicing a routine for the opening ceremony

Practicing a routine for the opening ceremony; photo by Lisa

Upon our return to Vientiane, we dropped by happy hour and ran into our ultimate friend Stew one last time. He had gotten our message about whether we should head through Pak Lay, but we had never heard back. “Yeah… by the time I got that message, you were already in Pak Lay. I looked at the map, but it was definitely too late to help you by then.” He knew what we had experienced as the roads turn to dirt in less than 30 minutes from Vientiane as you head West.

I’m a big fan of planning and finding these events that are unique to our time in a country. So far, however, I’m only one for three in them actually being a positive experience. This was mostly a bust, and it doesn’t help that both Lisa and I have feelings of sadness when seeing animals like this tamed and being put through a show, rather than living their lives free in the wild. In Hoi An, Vietnam we had waited around for several days expecting to see the lantern festival which turned out to be almost no different from every other night in town. The one festival highlight, however, was Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur, which I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to post about someday.

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