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Sayaboury – Elephants and Elephants!

24 Oct

Sayaboury is located some 4 hours southwest of Luang Prabang via a rough and largely unpaved road and this mean machine was packed to capacity (at least by my standards although I suspect by Lao standards it wasn’t close) for the trip down…

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There were quite a few people sitting in the aisle on little plastic foot stools as well as several guys perched up on the dashboard. It wasn’t the most spacious of seating arrangements or the most stable as my seat wasn’t bolted down to the frame. Thus my seatmate and I had to readjust it every 20 minutes or so which was often good for a laugh. Apparently he worked up quite an appetite with those readjustments because when our bus paused for a ferry crossing he waded out into the rising tide of vendors and returned with a bunch of oranges and a bag of highly prized chili fried bugs. He was gracious enough to share both with me thus presenting with the perfect opportunity to eat my first bugs of this trip. It looked like there were both worms and crickets in the bag. I went for a few crickets and I’m happy to report that they were quite delectable. In fact, I might have considered getting my own bag if I was certain my stomach would be as pleased with them later in the bus trip as my mouth was when I was eating them.

There doesn’t appear to be much to Sayaboury which probably explains why very few tourists make it down that way. But I didn’t make the trip to see the town. I made it to see some elephants. And those elephants were out at the Elephant Conservation Center which is reached via a 20 minute tuk tuk ride from the bus station followed by a ten minute skim across a lake in a lowrider wooden canoe with a dragon tail motor. Here’s my view on the way out to the Center…

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The Elephant Conservation Center was founded by a pair of elephant loving Frenchmen and is run in partnership with Elephant Asia. As you might have deduced from the name, they are involved in a variety of conservation efforts on the elephant’s behalf. They provide veterinary care at the Center and in the field for elephants working in the logging and tourism industries. They also have a program whereby they will pay the owner of a pregnant elephant to bring the elephant to the Center to have her baby rather than terminating the pregnancy. The payment is designed to offset the owner’s loss of earnings during the whopping 22 month gestation period and for the first year of life during which the baby doesn’t leave the mother’s side. Since a pregnant elephant requires such a lengthy maternity leave and since room and board for an elephant is costly, most owners would rather avoid a pregnancy which is bad news for a species with a rapidly declining trunkcount in Asia.

They also host paying visitors at the Center as part of their education and awareness efforts and this visitor was very stoked to be the subject of such efforts. If their intent is for people to experience just how magnificent and intelligent and affectionate and graceful and powerful these animals are then they certainly hit the mark with me. They’ve always been amongst my favorite animals but my time with them in Laos took things to a new level.

In residence at the Center during my stay were two injured elephants, two mother elephants and their recently born babies and two elephants that are permanent residents. I spent 3 days and 2 nights out there and stayed in an awesome little bamboo hut right on the lake. Generally I’d take to the hammock whenever spending time at the my hut…

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When I wasn’t there I was trekking around in the forest with the mahouts to retrieve the elephants as that is where they spend most of their time and most of that time, in turn, is spent eating as the average Asian elephant eats 250 kilos of plants per day. Here’s one of them in action…

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I also got the chance to ride a few of them in the style of a proper mahout…

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Kind of like Tarzan… except with a plain white t, cargo shorts and trainers instead of a furry loincloth. It was amazing to feel their strength, grace and agility from up there.

And one afternoon we trekked deeper into the forest to see the mothers and babies from across a small pond. We weren’t able to get any closer as it apparently isn’t safe for anyone but the mahouts to do so at this stage.

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We also were able to hang out with the elephants for their twice daily baths in the lake which was really fun. Two of the females are best buds and both of them really love the water. One afternoon they simply refused to get out of the water when the mahouts began calling them. They moved further and further offshore as they played with each other with obvious affection. It took quite a bit of doing by the mahouts (most of whom couldn’t swim thus making the task even more difficult) to eventually get them back on shore. The mahouts are generally able to keep good control over the elephants but you could tell that these two were simply having too much fun and knew that there wasn’t much the mahouts could do to put an end to it.

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Everyone out there is doing great work and I would highly recommend a visit for anyone with the slightest bit of interest in these totally magnificient animals. Here’s a link to their site…

http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com/

I should add that the food was tremendous (especially the larb and the chili paste) and we had a sunset cruise on the lake on a strange old boat that looked like a mix between a pontoon and a mini-tugboat. Here it is bogged down in some lakeweed earlier in the day…

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We cracked open a few cold foamers (Beerlao!) and had a grand old time diving off the railing along the bow as the sun set. Here’s me early in the voyage with the Center barely visible over my right shoulder and I’m probably thinking about how awesome elephants are…

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And with that, we’re out of here…

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