Friday, 27 January 2012

For the Love of elephants (Part 2) - The Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayaboury, Laos

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

The bungalows of the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) situated on the shores of Lake Nam Tien and set in protected and pristine forest in the province of Sayaboury, Laos.

In my last post For the Love of Elephants, in Sayaboury, Laos I wrote about the inspiring work being done at the Elephant Conservation Centre, work that is vital to the survival of the Asian Elephant in Laos, and to the survival of the centuries old tradition of mahoutship.

A quick recap......I visited the Elephant Centre back in December of last year (2011) and was blown away by the beauty of the location as well as the labour of love that goes into ensuring a healthy future for these amazing animals and their mahouts.  If I was just a little in love with elephants before my arrival I was smitten by the time I left!  

Here in this second post I am going to write just a little of what is on offer at the centre for both the volunteer and the guest, for more detailed information you can visit their website click

There are many possibilities for the visitor at the ECC, basically you can get your hands as dirty as you like (or not).

You can come for the day, stay a week or volunteer and stay for weeks or months at a time. 

Whatever you do you can be sure to have a unique and special experience, surrounded by like minded people (locals and other visitors from all over the world) who care about the welfare of the Asian Elephant and its natural environment.

The centre and its 106 hectares of surrounding forest is a place of stillness, calm and beauty and is relatively isolated. Sayaboury the closest town is a 45 minute trip by Tuk Tuk and boat so don't expect to be popping down to the corner store or dining in restaurants such as those you will find in the town of Luang Prabang, and this is what makes it even more enticing and relaxing. (Luang Prabang by the way is around a four hour drive away).

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The 'zen' bure (as I call it).....take a book with you (or don't), sleep, meditate, or just appreciate the raw beauty of nature from here

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Settle in here with a beer Lao and watch the sun set 

However, have no fear, you will eat well here.....the food at the centre is fresh and delicious. Meals are prepared by local staff in the kitchen attached to the terrace of the main bungalow, and it is here that guests gather to get to know each other, eat and relax.

The dishes are made using the best and freshest local ingrediants and there is always plenty of sticky rice, along with tasty meat and vegetable dishes, soups and noodles.  

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As far as scenery goes it doesn't get too much better than this

Volunteer or be a 'guest'
Volunteer and 'muck in', or come as a guest and learn, observe, relax and contribute.

As a guest you may come for a day visit only or stay as many nights as you wish. Accommodation is in traditional wooden Lao cabins (there are currently six) which sit above the ground on stilts and run on solar power. 

While the cabins are basic, (they consist of a double bed with the mandatory mosquito net) they are clean and have their own private balcony, which by the way overlooks some of the most incredibly beautiful and serene scenery you will find anywhere in the world.

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The toilet and shower facilities are shared and for those who love their hot shower (me)! the centre now has hot water for both the cabins and the dormitory.

A guesthouse consisting of five rooms is in the planning stages at the moment with construction commencing this year sometime. When it is completed you will get to enjoy private bathrooms and one large shared terrace....sounds wonderful and will definitely be my choice of accommodation when I return.

Even if you do have only one day to spend at the centre the program is run in such a way that you will get a great overview of the work being done there as well as taking in some of the most spectacular scenery in Laos.  You will meet with the mahouts and get up close to some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet, the Asian elephant. The trip by boat on Lake Nam Tien into the protected forest where the centre is situated is itself an experience not to be missed. For more info on a 'typical' visit at the centre click here

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Mounting an elephant - A mahout showing how it is done 

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A visitor showing how it is NOT 'done' !

It is totally up to the guest as to how much relaxation time they take for themselves and how many activities they take part in at the centre, however spending time with elephants in an environment such as this is a rare and special opportunity so I imagine most guests are keen to be as close to these animals for as long as is possible (we certainly were)!

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Take your daily exercise in the forest with the elephants and their mahouts

The possibility to spend a  month volunteering at the centre is only possible if you have completed the ECC's 6 day / 5 night Eco Volunteering program. (If after one month volunteering at the center you should wish to extend your time then this can be assessed and will depend on your skills and the centre's needs at the time).

This program however is not only open to those wanting to volunteer for a month (or longer) but open to all those interested in getting closer to the elephants and learning the basics of mahoutship. 

If you decide to join up to this program you will have the possibility of feeding the elephants, helping out at the hospital or another area of the centre,  and assisting the mahouts with their elephants in their daily routine.  You can also extend this one week program to a longer duration if you wish to.

Once a 'long term' volunteer your work will be varied; you could be working closely with the elephants, working in the field, building, painting, gardening or giving a helping hand at the hospital, amongst other chores.

For more information on the Eco Volunteering program click here

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This museum has a view like no other

During my few days at the centre I had the chance to meet and chat with quite a few of the volunteers working there at the time and they were all passionate, enthusiastic and loving their experience.

The volunteer's dormitory accommodation (currently five twin rooms) is located in part of the traditional Tai Lue house that now also houses the shop and museum.

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The museum and shop fit perfectly into the natural environment. They are housed in a traditional Tai Lue house that once belonged to a famous elephant master and was re-located to the centre. 

The museum at the centre is another place to sit, relax and learn. There are books, wonderfully informative panels on the Asian elephant, its history and its significance in Laos (all presented in three languages, Lao, English and French), and soon to be 3D models illustrating the various and changing relationship between elephant and man over the ages.

While spending time in the museum I read everything I could get my hands on, (see below for a list of a few of these beautiful books). Grab one of the books and snuggle up in the old elephant seat now situated on the terrace of the museum, its a comfortable and unique place to relax.

Also displayed in the outdoor area of the museum are artefacts and equipment from a time gone by, including old saddles, training cages, hobbles and logging gear. 

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A favourite meal with the elephants, they're all grown at the centre

No matter how you spend your time at the centre (as a volunteer or as a guest), and no matter what you decide to do with your time when you are there.....enjoy a refreshing swim in the lake, take exercise with the elephants, soak up information at the museum, visit the nursery, enjoy the fun from the pontoon during elephant bath time, or lend a helping can be sure that you are contributing in a large way to ensuring these magnificent Asian elephants, their mahouts and their families all have a healthy future.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

©copyright Millie Brown 2012

Take a peek at some of these gorgeous books I found while I was in Laos. 

A Journey Beyond the Mekong by Ben Davies here  

Au coeur du Laos pour la protection des elephants d'Asie by Helen Segara here 

Laos sur les rives du Mekong by Francis Engelmann, Yves Goudineau, Photography Serge Sibert  here 

If you would like to show your support for the conservation of elephants in Laos you can help by spreading the word and clicking 'f' below to share on facebook, thank you.
These photos are copyrighted, please do not download, thank you.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

For the love of elephants in Sayaboury, Laos

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Arriving at the centre by boat on a beautiful cool and foggy morning. You can just make out the huts to the right in the distance. The area around Nam Tien lake has been the heartland for elephants for many centuries. 

The idea of visiting the Elephant Conservaton Centre (ECC) in Sayaboury, was one of the precursors to me jumping on a plane to Laos.... and I am so glad I did, for so many reasons. One of which was seeing for my own eyes the wonderful work that the people at the centre are doing for the true welfare of the Asian Elephant.

The ECC is a privately run company which works in partnership with the French based not for profit organisation ElefantAsia.

If you want to climb onto a large seat on the back of an elephant for a 'trek' into the jungle or watch elephants 'perform' for endless streams of tourists then this is definitely NOT the place for you.

However, if you would like to learn about how you can help protect these majestic and beautiful animals, and get up close and personal with them without causing them any injury, then this IS your place, and what a place it is.

Arriving at the centre by boat on the waters of lake Nam Tien in the Province of Sayaboury is truly an experience like no other. It is another world, a world of silence and heartbreakingly beautiful landscape for as far as the eye can see. 

You can take the Tuk Tuk all the way from the town of Sayaboury but I advise taking the boat for the last leg..... the journey is too beautiful to miss.

We (myself and friend Gai) left our accommodation in the town of Sayaboury by Tuk Tuk, it was my first introduction into the world of Tuk Tuk transport and I loved it. They are not particularly comfortable nor do they offer you much shelter from the elements, but where would the fun in that be!

We were transferred from the Tuk Tuk to a boat for the last part of the trip to the centre, and I advise you to not miss this water journey, it is spectacular.

Visitors are able to stay at the centre in comfortable cabin type accommodation  instead of making the daily journey (and I will write more on this in my next post). Construction on additional accommodation in the form of a guesthouse will commence this year.

For certain reasons we decided to spend our nights in Sayaboury, (the choice is completely up to the individual visitor and to be honest I wished we had stayed at the centre....happily there is always a next time)! The trip from town including the Tuk Tuk and the boat is around 40 to 45 minutes.

On our arrival we were welcomed by BP (Bunton) our guide at the centre, with the same gentle friendliness that we had grown accustomed to in our short time in Laos.

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BP will look after you well...... be prepared, he loves a joke! 

The centre is currently home to 5 fully grown elephants and 2 elephant calves which inhabit the 106 hectares of protected forest (the majority of these 5 elephants having have come from the logging industry and from the Sayaboury region).

There was clearly much to experience here and much to learn in relation to the various programs being put into action at the centre, and it was more than clear that their work was extremely important to the survival of the ever dwindling numbers of Asian Elephants in Laos.

Cabin accommodation at the centre.....waking up to this landscape is pretty special. 

A little bit of background on the Asian Elephant

The Asian Elephant differs in a number of ways from the African Elephant.  Firstly the Asian elephant is smaller than the African, with their highest point being the top of the head rather than the top of the shoulder as in African elephants. Their ears are smaller and their diet consists of grass, leaves and roots, whereas the African elephant's diet consists only of leaves. (These are just some of the differences).

A major difference, is that the female Asian elephant does not have tusks, this is a positive, as it is the high value of ivory that feeds the ivory poachers and is one of the reasons behind the massive depletion of wild elephant herds in the world.

The Asian elephant inhabits a huge area of southern Asia, including; Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, norther Borneo and Laos, and are found in humid tropical forests or savannah land.

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Some of the wooden huts at the centre. All of them have been transported from other areas of Laos and re-constructed so as not to take any timber away from the forests and encourage logging.

Relationship between the elephants and the Lao people.
Back in the 14th Century Laos as we know it today was known as the Kingdom of Lan Xang (The Land of a million elephants).... and while there were never a million elephants in Laos the Lao people have had a special working relationship with these animals for centuries and the elephant is still their sacred national emblem.

In fact Asian elephants have worked with people for thousands of years and are still used today to pull the timber from the densely forested mountain areas of many Asian countries, areas often inaccessible by any other means.

Elephants continue to be an important part of the Lao peoples working life.  They are integrated into the mahout's (elephant owners) family, and considered an equal family member, staying with them for many many years. 

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The complicity and trust that can exist between man and elephant is touching.

The main employer for elephants still today in Laos is logging. This is a difficult and dangerous job for both the elephants and the mahouts. The mahout and their elephant work together 7 days a week in order to earn a living and many of the elephants are too tired and busy from the work to breed.  Many of the logging elephants can suffer from broken legs, foot injuries, and abscesses, and there is also the ever present risk of death. Malnutrition and physical exhaustion are also a major problem for them.

Female elephants only have 4 to 5 babies in a lifetime, but in order to reproduce they need the time to mate.  The added pressure they face is that their ability to reproduce falls off dramatically from the age of 30.

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A mahout with his elephant and elephant calf at the centre.

Elephant calves are becoming rare in Laos as a mahout is not able to rest his female elephant during her pregnancy and lactation (a cow needs 4 years out of work for one calf). Without a working elephant the family is left without an income.  Additionally, the elephant calf cannot pull logs until it is 13 years old, so becomes a liability. All of this means that the mahout is not going to enable its elephant to breed, which on a social and financial level is easy to comprehend, however, it does nothing to  help the elephant population of Laos.

Currently there is only one birth per five deaths and only 1000 elephants remaining in Laos, with a prediction that by 2060 they will be extinct.

Most of the elephants in Laos are what they call captive elephants (working elephants), the numbers are falling dramatically with only 420 captive elephants left, compared to 800, 10 years ago.

Fifty years ago 70% of Laos was covered in forest, now there is between 30% and 40% forest coverage.

One of the areas where the Conservation centre steps in is to help both the welfare of the elephants and the mahouts.  The centre has come up with alternatives so that the elephants can be taken out of the dangerous logging industry, ensuring at the same time that the mahouts and their family retain an income.

The ECC describes itself as a 'haven for elephant reproduction, lactation, recovery and disease diagnosis'.

Relaxed and happy elephants and mahouts are testament to the success of the work being done at the centre

The centre's breeding incentive program offers these families a chance to continue earning an income from their elephant while it is breeding or looking after its calf. 

They do this by offering the mahout and his elephant a place at the centre where the mahout is paid for the work he does there.  The result being that the  elephant is removed from the dangers of logging and the mahout has the opportunity to be trained in a career in ecotourism through the centre's Mahout Vocation Program.

It is through this program that the mahout receives his training in the traditions of mouhoutship which have been conserved and passed down over the centuries, as well as English lessons and tourism guiding courses, which will all assist him in moving from a career in logging to one in ecotourism.

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The relationship between Mahout and elephant is a close and special one.

The centre also helps the mahouts and their elephants to mate and breed by offering their baby Bonus incentive package.

A mahout who works alongside their elephant in rice farming has the opportunity to accept a hand tractor from the centre to replace their elephant, who in turn goes to the centre to be mated and rested during its pregnancy. 

If the mahout would like to take his female elephant back from the centre after the 4 year period the calf may remain at the centre and continue to earn an income for its owner. (Elephants are privately owned in Laos).

These female elephants receive ante and post natal care from the vets at the centre as well as any assistance required during the actual delivery. The babies also receive much care, (their first two years before weaning are critical to their health).

Importantly, mahouts who agree to take part in the baby bonus program must sign a contract stating that the elephant born from the baby bonus package will not be used in logging.

Walking down through the forest to the nursery area

The mothers and calves are kept in the area designated 'The Nursery' (part of the natural protected forest), and was one of the first areas we visited on our first morning at the centre.

Seeing the elephants and their babies appear and walk down the forest path to the lake where we were waiting for them for our first introduction was exhilerating.......actually, we heard them before we saw them. The trumpeting of an elephant is extremely hard to miss and so much more impressive and emotive when you hear it in its natural environment.

Visitors cannot approach or touch the female elephants and their calves for the safety of all concerned. Naturally the mother elephants can get aggressive if they feel their baby is threatened in anyway. 

We were however only a few metres away from them and both mothers and babies were happy and relaxed and in the company of their mahouts at all times  (the babies were showing off just a little and quite playful with each other which was very sweet to see).

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Picture of contentment. One of the babies takes a cooling shower in the lake.

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View looking to the centre while returning by boat from the nursery area.

The Ecotourism program allows visitors to enter the natural environment of the elephant, and in addition gives them the chance to contribute to the security of the elephant population in Laos, as well as to the continuation of the age old tradition of mahoutship. (Funds received through these ecotourism visits contribute to the costs of setting up and running the education and breeding programs at the centre).

Five percent of the centre's turnover is put directly back into ElefantAsia's conservation projects which assists elephants throughout the whole of Laos, not just the elephants living at the centre itself.

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Bath time at the centre is loved by everyone, mahouts, elephants and visitors.

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Note: (I will write about the various opportunities and activities for visitors at the centre and the accommodation options in my next post).

There is always the chance that 'tourism' may have a negative impact on the local people and the environment, and that is why the ECC state that they are not and never will become a destination for mass tourism. 

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Taking a stroll with the elephants (I'm on foot and not nearly as sure footed as they are).

The ECC also boasts of its own permanent elephant hospital.  Opened in 2011, with construction funded by the Beauval Zoological Garden, France. The hospital is run by a qualified team of in house vets ready to treat any incoming injured elephant or any elephant affected by illness or disease at any time.

Elefant Asia also have mobile veterinary clinics equipped with the necessary surgical tools, medication, sedative guns and microchips.  The team is on call  day or night for emergency missions throughout the country, and are able to reach most logging camps in Sayaboury within the day.  One of the many reasons they may be called out, is to sedate uncontrollable elephants during their period of musth 

Already the mobile service has checked on 400 elephants over the 5 years it has been in operation.

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Baby elephant in mud and loving it.
The work being done at the Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayaboury is impressive and inspiring to say the least.

As well as being a place of immense beauty and relaxation, a visit to the centre provides an opportunity for the 'tourist' to interact with the locals and at the same time contribute to the welfare of mahoutship and the Asian elephant of Laos. 

Take the road a little 'less travelled' and go, you will not regret it for a minute.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

©copyright Millie Brown 2012
If you would like to show your support for the conservation of elephants in Laos you can help by spreading the word and clicking 'f' to share on facebook, thank you.
To visit their site go to -

Millie xx
These photos are copyrighted, please do not download :-)
©copyright Millie Brown 2012

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

My family - by Novice Sichanh

© Copyright Novice Sichanh 2012
Sichanh's family picking rice at their farm
Photo - Novice Sichanh

Those of you who have read my previous blogs regarding my visit to Laos will know that one of my most poignant and special moments was meeting Novice Monk Sichanh.

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Novice Sichanh

Since my departure from Laos and my return home, Sichanh and I have been in regular contact. It is not everyday that you connect with someone as strongly as Sichanh and I did, it certainly is not a daily event for me in any case, nor would I necessarily want it to be. The rarity of special connections only makes them exactly that....all the more special.

When we were chatting the other day he mentioned that he would like to write a story about his family for my blog. Sichanh studies English every night after school for one hour and writing an essay is a great opportunity for him to practice and improve his writing skills.

Only a few days prior to this he had sent me some photos he had taken of his family at their rice farm which is located a few of hours outside of Luang Prabang.

Sichanh does not own his own camera, but waits patiently for the one camera that exists at the Luang Prabang town library to become available, and uses it to the best of his ability when it joyfully becomes 'his' for a couple of days.

© Copyright Novice Sichanh 2012
Photo Novice Sichanh

Not only was I excited that he had taken the time to send these precious photos to me, as well as moved at having had a 'meeting' of sorts with his family,  but I was also truly impressed by his natural ability to compose an image. Sichanh has only ever picked up a camera a handful of times in his 18 years. I hope he has many more opportunities, and in fact I look forward to sharing my love of photography and discovery with him when next we meet.

© Copyright Novice Sichanh 2012
My father Dunagkeo working at our rice farm
Photo Novice Sichanh

My Family
My father's name is Dunakeo and he is from the ethnic group called Lue.  
He was born in 1959 in a small village in the Laos countryside and now he is living in Na Yang in the province of Luang Prabang.

© Copyright Novice Sichanh 2012
Rice farming is very hard work 
Photo Novice Sichanh
He is a farmer and is married, his wife's name (my mother) is Yaz and she is also a farmer and is 48 years old.
They live in a small house in the countryside and have been married for almost 29 years (they married when they were young).
My father and mother have 4 children and my mother is a very kind and friendly woman and my father loves  her very much.  She is quite short and thin and has long straight black hair.

© Copyright Novice Sichanh 2012
My Mother Yaz 
Photo Novice Sichanh

After breakfast they walk to their farm and work there until the evening when they go back to their house.  They work everyday and it is hard work but sometimes they enjoy it because their cousins come to help them and then they can talk about things and joke together.

© Copyright Novice Sichanh 2012
The family resting and enjoying a break from work on the farm.
 Photo Novice Sichanh

Sometimes they plant vegetables on their farm and sell them to make a little extra money for their everyday living.
In their free time, they like to stay in their farmhouse. 

© Copyright Novice Sichanh 2012
Taking a break in the field 
Photo Novice Sichanh

Thank you Sichanh for having shared your family story and photos with us and congratulations on the wonderful progress you are making with your English.

Millie xx

Please note these photos are copyrighted, please do not download, thank you.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Words of wisdom....personal reminders

Here area some Buddhist quotes I have recently found that resonate in some way for me. There are many days I need to remind myself of these thoughts and today just happened to be one of them!

 I thought you might also enjoy them. 

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Pain is inevitable, Suffering is optional.- Buddhist proverb

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Spend some time alone everyday. - Tenzin Gyatso - 14th Dalai Lama

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We can live without religion and meditation,but we cannot survive without human affection.- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

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Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.
And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them. - Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

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Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. - Pema Chodron

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Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die, so let us all be thankful. - The Buddha

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The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. - The Buddha

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You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger. - The Buddha

© Coyright Millie Brown 2012

...and one of my personal favourites (for obvious reasons)!....
Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly. - Tenzin Gyatso - 14th Dalai Lama
Millie xx
©Copyright Millie Brown 2012
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