In recent years, Laos has become notorious as a backpacker’s party destination, when once it was better known as the Land of a Million Elephants. Today, there are fewer than 500 elephants left in the wild, but the country’s vast jungles are home to incredible wildlife and remote tribes. All the more reason why travelers should party less and respect more.
Elephants are a contentious issue in tourism. While everyone wants to ride an elephant, this can cause unnecessary harm to the animal and should be avoided.
If you want to see elephants on your trip to Laos, watch them in the wild. Find a local tour operator that knows where you’ll be able to see these friendly giants in their natural habitat, and book in a tour.
Elephants are losing their habitats because of excessive logging and clearing of land for agriculture. In response to this, many elephant sanctuaries have opened, funded largely by tourism, to protect the elephant population. You’ll come across plenty of elephants at sanctuaries and rehabilitation facilities such as the Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayaboury or MandaLao, near Luang Prabang.
Before you visit a sanctuary, make sure you’ve done your research.
There are around 15 elephant sanctuaries in Laos, however, not all can be considered ethical. Find out how the sanctuary is financed; if it has income from multiple sources such as donations, conservation programs as well as tourism, it is less likely to be using the animals as its single source of income.
Ask if there are veterinary staff available or legitimate efforts for rehabilitation/’rewilding’. Elephants displaying unnatural or humanistic behaviors (such as painting or dancing) are unacceptable, as the elephants have to be aggressively trained to perform these tasks.
Whether you’re considering visiting a sanctuary or booking a tour with a tour operator which involves elephants or other animals, dig deeper, find out where the tour goes and how the animals are kept. Use social media and travel websites like TripAdvisor to see what other travelers are saying about the various sanctuaries and organizations. Your exciting travel experience shouldn’t come at the expense of wildlife safety and welfare.
We all like mementos of our travels, but we should be aware of the impacts purchasing non-ethical keepsakes can have on local communities. Avoid buying souvenirs derived from animal parts, including claws, paws, teeth, ivory and pelts. The same goes for eating a dish made from endangered animal parts, regardless of whether it’s a cultural experience or not. It may be cultural for a Laotian person to forage from their forests, but to create demand for endangered species threatens wildlife as well as cultural practices.
Travelers should remember that items such as these are not merely found on the forest floor but are supplied by hunting or poaching activities. The treasures found in Laos’ extensive forests should be preserved, so don’t participate in this illicit activity which is part of a larger and persistent problem. Wild animal products are flowing out of Laos at an alarming rate, although not explicitly from tourism.
Instead, buy souvenirs that support local producers and artisans. This way, you’re giving back to the community during your travels. Look for the Luang Prabang handicraft label which identifies products created by local artisans. Since 2012, this program has helped travelers identify local products, and supports local producers against a flood of Chinese imports. Items with the label are produced traditionally and ethically, using traditional techniques and non-chemical products.
Laotians are predominantly Buddhist, so be aware of local sensitivities; dress – appropriately when visiting a monastery, and don’t touch the monks. Knowing and understanding more about communities you visit will make for more harmonious social interactions between travelers and the host community.
Seek out local operators that are transparent about where your expenditure goes to make sure your money stays with local people. Visit rural homestays, purchase locally made traditional handicrafts or produce, and try your best to engage with and buy from local people.
Spread your dollars to support rural areas or conservation projects, for example you could go trekking with a local guide in the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area, or participate in authentic, educational activities centered around traditional life. In Luang Nam Tha, look for responsible tour operators, such as Phou Iu Travel.
Use social media and TripAdvisor to see what other travelers are saying about a particular tour – how much engagement is there with local people (or with minority groups), what did the traveler learn about the locals, did they feel their trip benefited the community? A good example would be Forest Retreat Laos.
Travel with a reusable shopping bag, to help cut down on single-use plastic bags, avoid products made of or wrapped in plastic, especially in rural communities which often don’t have adequate waste disposal schemes.
Travel with reusable cutlery, and buy a Steripen or a Lifestraw water filter bottles. This will mean you won’t need to buy bottled water, which will save you money in the long run, and you won’t be contributing to the plastic waste problem.
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Here are some things to consider before you go elephant riding on your next trip.