Home to the largest elephant population in Laos – as well as a stellar conservation project working to ensure their survival – remote Sayaboury is one of our favorite places to get up close and personal with these gentle giants.
Sayaboury (also spelt Sainyabuli, Xaignabouri, and just about every other way you can imagine) is the only region to the west of the Mekong River, which makes it isolated by even Lao standards. Here, a complex mix of ethnic minorities still follow lifestyles unchanged for centuries: the Khmu producing rattan and bamboo; the Hmong mixing herbal medicines; the Tai Lue weaving silk and cotton, and the Lu Mien farming sesame and corn. Meanwhile, even deeper in the mountains, the semi-nomadic Miabri move camp each week in search of food, and the little-known Phrai respect an ancient taboo against using metal. It’s a rural landscape rich in folk tales and traditions, but for most tourists there’s only one main reason to come to Sayaboury – and that’s elephants.
Laos was once known as Lan Xang, or the “Land of a Million Elephants”, but sadly that’s no longer the case. Due to a combination of deforestation and poaching, there are thought to be only 800 left in the country – and only about half are wild. Without intervention, the entire elephant population of Laos will have disappeared by 2060.
Thankfully, there are people working to buck this trend, and you’ll find some of them at the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center. Supported by the charity ElefantAsia, the ECC takes in rescued and retired working elephants with the aim of rehabilitating and releasing them into the wild wherever possible. As well as taking care of 34 resident elephants, the center runs a drop-in veterinary center, provides employment and training for local mahouts, and hosts an elephant museum where visitors can learn about conservation in Laos.
A stay at the ECC is your chance to interact with the elephants in an entirely cruelty-free setting, and to get to know one of the world’s most intelligent, sensitive and remarkable animals.