Trumpeting the Elephants

Both a celebration and awareness event, the Laos Elephant Festival is held annual to honor these gentle giants…

It’s extolled as the “land of a Million elephants,” but despite this enchanting moniker, the unfortunate reality is that the number of these lovely mammals in laos has dwindled to less than 1,000. Current figures estimate just 400 wild elephants and another 420 or so domesticated ones remain in the entire country.

Since 2007, the annual Laos Elephant Festival seeks to raise awareness for the plight of these noble animals which traditionally figured so prominently in Lao daily life. Founded six years ago by the non-profit group ElefantAsia, the goal of the festival is “to draw the public’s attention to the endangered status of the elephant, while acknowledging and celebrating the ancestral tradition of elephant domestication and the mahout way of life.”

The three-day festival has been held in different regions of the country, with festival attendance growing significantly each year (200,000 this year alone, comprised mainly of laotians, but with an increasing number of foreign travelers). This year saw ElefantAsia hand over the reins to local and provincial lao authorities, and the 2013 festival was held in Sayaboury – a four hour bus ride from luang prabang.

As you would expect, the highlight of this year’s event was the splendid assembly of 64 elephants to correspond with the 64th anniversary of the lao people’s Army Day in January. Led by their mahouts, many of these giants trekked to Sayaboury from all over laos, some taking up to a week to make the long slow, lumbering journey.

The entertainment combined an eclectic mix of cultural events, a beauty pageant and circus sideshows. The pageant had Laotian women and elephants vying for the title of “Miss Elephant” and “Elephant of the Year,” respectively. Contestants were adorned with colorful scarves, tassels, ankle bracelets and tail ribbons, and we mean the elephants of course. The charming winning pair had the honor of leading the grand procession that officially kicked off the start of the festival the next morning. The parade also featured seven ethnic groups representing the divercultural heritage of the Sayaboury district.

Other activities included mahout demonstrations, traditional Buddhist blessings, an elephant baci ceremony, a “Buffet for Elephants,” an elephant drawing contest, night markets, live concerts by lao and Thai artists, and a sound and light show along the banks of the Houng river. The grand finale was a fireworks display that, not surprisingly, prompted several multi-ton elephants chained to nearby trees to break free and flee to the forested hills.

When to go

Dates vary, but generally sometime in mid-February.

How to get there

From Luang Prabang there are two regularly scheduled buses daily: 9am and 2pm, though for the festival, buses are often added, starting at 7am that depart when full. The bumpy four hour journey includes a ferry crossing and costs LAK60,000 (US$8) each way.

Where to stay

Nokinsi, Simenang village

Singles with air-con starting at LAK170,000 (US$22)

Tel: (+856) 74 211 017

Sayananh hotel, Simenang village

LAK100,000 – LAK150,000 (US$13 – US$19)

Tel: (+856) 74 211 116

There seems to be no hotels with websites in Sayaboury, so securing advance reservations for the festival can be difficult for foreigners, but a must.

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