Riding elephants? How could you not give it a try!
We registered online for a half-day tour (~$42). They picked us up from our hotel in Luang Prabang around 8:45AM, a few other passengers along the way, and drove us down a "new road" (read: a bumpy dirt road) to the sanctuary. Once there, we visited and pet the elephants while waiting for our tour to begin.
We started by taking a boat down the river to the Tad Sae Waterfalls where you can swim, photograph the waterfalls, and hang out for about an hour. There is a separate tour company there that offers you a chance to "bathe with the elephants" for an additional fee (~$13); I ABSOLUTELY RECOMMEND YOU DO IT! Basically, we got to ride an elephant bareback (without the mahout) through the waterfall pools for about 15-minutes or so. The mahout directed the elephant from the shore and took pictures of us with our camera. It was an awesome-fun time holding on to the elephant via a single rope around her neck (no, it doesn't hurt her) as she dove under the water, played with other elephants, and ate branches provided by a mahout on shore. This was the highlight of the experience; bring a swimsuit!
Once our time was up, we headed back to the elephant village via boat and hopped on an elephant with a bench strapped to its back. We think our bench might have needed adjustment because it felt like it was too far forward; we felt like we were going to fall on top of our mahout the entire time. In fact, he spent a lot of time trying to push our bench back because my knees were literally hitting him in the back; it was a rather uncomfortable ride and made me miss our time riding our elephant bareback through the water. After we completed our ride, we bought a single bunch of bananas and fed our elephant before having a tasty lunch (included) at the village restaurant.
Overall, I highly recommend the tour. I didn't see any evidence of abuse of the elephants and our guide told us that the elephants work in shifts for a half day, and then are released out to the jungle for the remainder of the evening. Although the elephant ride on the bench was uncomfortable, I believe it was because our particular bench needed to be adjusted. With that said, the highlight for us was bathing the elephant at Tad Sae Waterfalls.
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