(many many elephants!)
The Elephant Festival, held last weekend in Xayaburi Province of Northern Laos, was the most incredible and fun-filled weekend but also one of the saddest things I have experienced here in some ways. (I will explain…)
My friends Sam, Alexi, Pippa, and I were pretty much the only falang at the festival. This was because the Lao government took over running the festival this year from the NGO that started it a few years ago, and did not post anything about it online. ‘So underground you can’t even google it’–we’re the ultimate hipsters of Laos ;) I asked one of my coworkers why they didn’t post the dates online, and he seemed surprised that I would think that was necessary because, ‘everyone automatically knows it is happening.’ Haha!
The festival is also pretty remote and the trip there and back can only be described as harrowing (especially if you are prone to carsickness or you enjoy living). Laos recently paved some major roads in the south, but they haven’t gotten around to doing the roads up north yet, so 15 minutes outside of Vientiane, the main road turns to dirt. Our driver barreled along through mountain switchbacks at around 100 MPH (I am not kidding), with us bouncing up and down in the back seat like crazy. Instead of ever slowing down, he would just lean on the horn as we went around blind curves. There was no AC and it is 8 hours from Vientiane to Xayaburi. At one point we saw the aftermath of a four-truck collision. Everything made more sense when, on our way back, we were told we would leave at 1:00 pm because that was a lucky time. I think our driver thought that once we were thus blessed he could drive as dangerously as he wanted to worry-free. Anyway, when I tell you that going to this festival for 2 days was WELL worth the road trip from hell, it should tell you how amazing it was!!
The festival was held in a small Lao town at the feet of the Paxang (xang, or saang, means elephant and ‘pa’ means mountain), on a dusty fairground. Our estimate was that there were about 10,000 people there (although the Vientiane Times reported 200,000. Lol.) People came from all over Laos to see it. I hadn’t realized that the festival would be as popular among Lao people as falang–they were just as excited to see the elephants as we were, and everywhere we went I heard little kids saying, “saang! saang!”
We ate traditional Lao food (sticky rice, grilled meat, fresh fruit, and a lot of noodle soup), mostly outdoors at festival stands. At night, we set off a spirit lantern (sending up wishes), there was a Miss Elephant contest, we rode carnival rides, and then everyone at the festival ended up hanging out in the Beerlao tent. We got a lot of stares when we sat down, but it is easy to make friends in Laos and soon everyone was toasting, drinking, singing and dancing together. Everything we did at the festival was touched with the amazing warmth of Lao people. At one point, my friend Pippa and I left the tent to go find a place to use the bathroom. A woman ran after us to take us to her house which was nearby. Apparently she had seen Pippa set her purse down on the ground and was very concerned, so she mimed over and over to her to hold onto it. She and her brother and sister gave us more Beerlao, insisted that we join them for some karaoke, took photos with us, and showed us photos of their trip to Australia (Pippa is from there).
There were no taxis or tuk-tuks in Xayaburi, so at the end of the night, we caught a ride home with a Thai engineer for the Xayaburi dam named “Rifle” and his friends in the back of their pick-up, and they shared their fried crickets with us. Luckily I had had enough Beerlao to steel my nerves to try one. I can now report that they don’t taste bad at all, pretty much like potato chips, but the texture of the legs is a little tickly on the throat.
The next morning we watched the parade of all the different ethnic groups of Laos in their traditional outfits (so cool to see) and the ELEPHANT PARADE!! Laos has around 400 domestic and 300 wild elephants, and 75 of the domestic elephants were at the festival. Most of these elephants work in logging or for tourism operations. After the parade, the elephants were just wandering around (with their mahouts) and you could go for rides on them.
Learning more about the fate of elephants in Laos was really tough. Laos’ pre-colonial name was “Lan Xang”, Land of a Million Elephants, but there are not that many elephants left now. One of our friends works as a veterinarian for the elephant NGO and conservation center that used to run the festival, and he taught us a lot about what is going on now. The government has recently begun rapidly selling elephants to zoos in other countries, including breeding-age females, which are critical for keeping the population numbers up. Poaching is still a problem for the wild elephant populations. He also told us sad stories about how domestic elephants are sometimes treated. Mahouts and elephants have a long tradition of working together for lifetimes in Southeast Asia; it was amazing to see this in action but also heartbreaking to know that sometimes elephants are mistreated and some mahouts did not grow up in the tradition or aren’t trained on how to properly handle their elephants.
So, it was an emotional weekend, but in the end it was so incredible meeting the elephants, and that was magnified by the palpable joy of all the thousands of people at the festival. There is just something about elephants. They’re awesome! Some of their emotions and the way they act seem so similar and recognizable to humans. They were also so gentle–there were thousands of people scurrying around their feet, and they set off fireworks at the festival (which I don’t think is generally recommended around any group of large animals), and the elephants stayed calm and unfazed throughout.