For starters, let me say if you really abhor the idea of an elephant working at all, although it is a sanctuary, this isn't the place to go. But it is a wonderful place, with great elephant rides, "learn to be a mahout" and feeding experiences. Most of the elephants have been rescued from years toiling in the logging industry in the North of Laos. They are all female, and vary between about 20 and 45 years old if I am remembering correctly. With their long term mahouts, they have been rented on long term (5 year renewable) leases to live in Elephant village. So, compared to the tedium and heft of logging, riding tourists around is a major life improvement for the elephants. Of the various places in the region that have elephants available for tourist interaction, this place is head and shoulders above the rest, far more humane, the animals look well cared for (veterinarian on premises, though his english wasn't sufficient for the questions I had of him), the mahouts are personable and gentle, and they seem to have all aspects of the environment in mind.
The ride itself was great fun, and though I've ridden elephants in Thailand and elsewhere, this was the most fun I've had on an elephant. The mahout allowed us to change places with him, and ride on the elephants head/neck (though his constant banter to the elephant emphasized who was really driving!). At one point he hopped off, and took tons of photos for us (our cameras). Then there was the option to purchase a snack (bananas) to feed our elephant with more photo ops.
There is a self guided information tour which you can peruse at your leisure, with lots of written information (elephant facts - like they eat 260 lbs of food a day a piece, and are the least efficient animal in terms of food processing, with about 40% of intake passing through unchanged. The up side- they sell nice elephant dung textured paper and paper products! Also sobering to comprehend the cost of properly feeding and caring for elephants, which is one argument for their preservation in a tourist attraction ). There are a number of benches, and sun gazebos where one can rest or eat.
The mahout mini training course looked like great fun- I think it's 2 days, and you get to bathe your elephant in the river... but no time for that this time around...
The vegetarian buffet lunch was ok. Nothing special, but varied asian choices.
We booked this trip from the states, with a full day including the Tad Sae waterfalls and a kayak trip, and the cost was quite reasonable. If you book directly with the resort, or through their lodge, I think you can swim in the adjacent pool for free. Otherwise it costs $7/person.
The biggest challenge is the road to the village, which is unpaved, bumpy and dusty or muddy, depending on the weather.
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