Elephant Conservation Center
Set on the shores of the stunning Nam Tien lake, the Elephant Conservation Center has placed Sainyabuli firmly on the visitor map. It's never been easier to visit as direct minibuses from Luang Prabang arrive here in just two hours or so, crossing a major bridge over the Mekong River at Tha Deua. However, it is important to book well in advance as numbers are strictly limited to 20 visitors per night. The centre is sometimes booked out by educational volunteer groups, so if you are set on a visit here, it's worth making enquiries ahead of time and planning this section of your trip accordingly.
Spread over 530 hectares, the centre offers visitors a unique insight into the lives of these majestic creatures in a natural setting. Life as an elephant in Laos – be it one of the remaining 400-odd left in the wild, forever on the run from ivory poachers, or one of the 400 captive elephants working in logging or elephant tourism – is not much fun. It's hard to say which is worse, giving 20 rides a day overladen with people on your back (the spine of an elephant is jagged and unsuitable to carry loads on anywhere but its neck) or trying to extract trees on dangerously steep mountain slopes. For every 10 elephants that die in Laos, only two young elephant calves are born and will make it into adulthood.
Given these depressing statistics the work of the ECC is evermore vital, paying mahouts a generous salary and medical benefits to come and live at the centre and give their females the chance to breed, and care for their baby; something the average elephant owner could not even consider as their workhorses must be constantly earning to pay for their care (estimated at US$250 per week).
There are now about 30 resident elephants at the ECC. Two calves have been born at the center and one female elephant was pregnant at the time of research, offering great optimism for the future if the domesticated elephant population can be encouraged to breed in a natural environment once more. The longer-term goal is to release the elephants back into the wild in Nam Phoun NPA and research work and trials are already well under way to this end.
Arriving at the centre is a memorable experience as a small wooden boat glides through the green weeds that carpet Nam Tien lake. It's straight out of Apocalypse Now, and as the boat approaches the centre, visitors may see some of the resident elephants enjoying their morning bath. A two-day visit includes a guided tour of the centre and its elephant nursery to learn about the conservation work done here, including the on-site hospital, which works to safeguard the health of the resident elephants and some of the other 360 registered captive elephants in Sainyabuli Province.
If time allows, it's rewarding to immerse yourself in the work of the centre with a three-day stay. This includes the chance to observe the elephants from morning until evening, as they bathe, feed themselves and let loose in the socialisation area (you are able to watch unseen from a treehouse high above and lower observation platforms). Visitors also get the chance to watch one of the veterinary team at the hospital giving a check-up to a pachyderm in the 'medical crush' – a humane wooden structure that allows the carer to examine its feet and body without getting trodden on.
For those with a jumbo-sized interest in elephants, it is possible to volunteer for six days or more, offering an even greater insight into the lives of the elephants and their mahouts, as well as the work of the ECC, and directly contributing to the work undertaken here.
Accommodation at the centre is in basic thatched bungalows that include some electricity after dark to power LED lights for reading. The bungalows also have mosquito nets and a small verandah to relax on during the heat of the day. Bathroom facilities are shared but scrupulously clean. Those on the longer 'volunteer-stay' live in a dormitory.
A newer and more comfortable lodge (additional US$100 per person) offers four spacious rooms all with ensuite bathrooms. This is a good option for small groups, families or guests seeking a little more comfort. However, there is no wi-fi or internet available unless you have your own independent 3G/4G access via a mobile device.
Food and transport from and to Luang Prabang (or Sainyabuli) is included in all packages, with minivans departing Luang Prabang post office at 8am daily and returning from ECC around 2pm. Meals are enjoyed at the welcoming restaurant, which offers a panoramic view of the lake and centre. The food is tasty Lao cuisine and a range of snacks and drinks are available on demand. However, this is a long way from the bright lights of Vientiane or Luang Prabang, so should you be craving something particular or have special dietary requirements, then plan ahead.
The ECC is not your typical tourist elephant camp. It is run by people with a passion for the animals and the proceeds generated from your visit go towards funding the centre and other elephant conservation projects around the country. The only hope for Laos' dwindling elephant population, they are a bright light in an increasingly dark landscape for wildlife conservation in the region.