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From the Ground: New Two-day Lamine Village Trek Near Inle Lake

By Nicole Long and Jay Austin

We wanted to introduce our new Kalaw to Lamine Village Trek, near Inle Lake in Myanmar.  This two day trip to Kalaw allows guests to get outside of the main tourist areas, but doesn’t require a lot of time commitment. The trekking portion of this tour is light in activity (only about 3 hours long) and allows access to nature and the picturesque countryside. Kalaw is at a higher elevation so the temperatures will be cooler and comfortable for trekking. This tour provides opportunities to connect with locals and witness traditional, simple lifestyles. This is a great option for families as it includes a train ride and elephants!

Note: For guests who want more, this itinerary can be extended a day with an additional day of trekking and another night in a village homestay.

Itinerary:

Kalaw: Trek to Lamine Village – Day 1

After breakfast, you will be transferred by van to the starting point of your trek. From here you will walk about three hours to Lamine, a Pa O Village, located about 10 miles from Kalaw. Explore this village where you will meet friendly locals and observe their traditional lifestyles. You will see the farmers hard at work as they plant or harvest wheat, ginger and a variety of other crops. Lunch and dinner will be prepared by your local trekking team and you will overnight in a village homestay.

Kalaw: Lamine Village to Inle Lake – Day 2

After a enjoying simple breakfast prepared by our team, stroll about the village to observe the local morning activities, before you will meet up with the car for your to transfer to Inle Lake. On the way, stop by at the villages for plantation of regional products. The drive takes approximately 3 hours to Inle Lake and once you arrive, check in to your hotel and enjoy a free afternoon.

Photos by Andrea Ross

Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center

The elephants enjoying their evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By: Courtney Ridgel

Day 1: The Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center, located in rural Sayaboury, Laos, was hands-down one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been.  My journey there began when I piled in the Center’s van at the Post Office in Luang Prabang, and met the other travelers who would also be visiting.  Coffee and croissant in hand (which are phenomenal in Laos), I sat comfortably and watched for 2-3 hours as the stunning countryside rolled past – steep verdant hillsides with wild jungle interspersed with teak and rubber tree plantations, rugged cliffs, rice terraces snaking up riverbeds, small wooden villages and large brown rivers.  When we arrived in Sayaboury, we were greeted by several local villagers who helped us with our bags onto a small ferry, which carried across Nam Tien Lake.

A small local village floating on the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Nam Tien Lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

When we arrived, we were met by Lar, our guide for the duration of our stay, and he took us to check into our traditional Laotian stilted bungalows, before we all sat down together for a traditional Laotian lunch.  The Center is really a small village – the mahouts, guides, gardeners, farmers, cooks, veterinarians, biologists, cleaning staff and boat drivers all have the option of staying in their own small bungalows at the center, or of living in the town of Sayaboury and commuting by motorbike.

Looking up at the bungalows from the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
One of the traditional bungalows overlooking the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Traditional Laotian dishes – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

After lunch, Lar led my fellow travelers and I to see Annabelle, the resident biologist at the Elephant Hospital where she explained about caring for elephants, elephant health, and the plight of the Asian Elephant in great detail.  There are currently around 400 wild elephants in Laos and around 450 domesticated elephants.  However, logging with elephants was recently banned by the Laotian government.  While this move was made to protect elephants from the hard labor and potential abuse, many of the mahouts who own the elephants now find themselves in a position where they cannot afford to keep caring for them properly.  The elephant hospital at the center is open to any mahout to bring in their elephants, and the center actively works to promote elephant breeding in an effort to protect the aging and dwindling population.  We also had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Museum to learn about the history of elephants in Laos, and their symbolic and economic significance.

Annabelle, explaining elephant healthcare – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
My fellow travelers heading to the Elephant museum – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Inside the elephant museum – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

In the late afternoon, the resident mahouts and elephants came down to the edge of the lake for their evening bath and we were able to simply be present in the moment and soak in the beauty of it all.  I was amazed that there were no boundaries or fences – between myself and these very large and beautiful creatures, and was quite surprised when one of them came directly out of the water and walked up to greet me.

Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

After their bath, we were introduced to each of the elephants and their mahouts, and listened to their life stories – all of the adult elephants had worked hard in careers like logging before arriving at the center.  We learned that elephants are traditionally paired with a single mahout for life, and as such, would almost be considered a member of the family.  Being a traditional mahout is a dying profession and their skills and wisdom are traditionally passed down orally father to son, with years of training.  Mahout children are traditionally raised among elephants.  As Laos modernizes and there are fewer and fewer men (never women) choosing to pursue this path in life, many domestic elephants are not being as well-treated.

Lar introduced us to each of the elephants and their mahouts – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Clambering up a tall feeding platform, we had the opportunity to feed the elephants sugar cane as a treat.  As evening advanced, the mahouts led the elephants back into the jungle for the night, and we settled down for another home-cooked Laotian meal and chatted amongst ourselves.  Jozef, the Center’s Sales & Marketing Manager, ate with us and answered our many questions.

One of my fellow travelers feeding the elephants sugarcane. Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Feeding the elephants sugarcane – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

There are kayaks available for guests who would like to paddle out on the lake, but I enjoyed meandering about the center and taking in the stunning views, before settling into my hammock with a book on the porch of my bungalow.

Nam Tien Lake is very peaceful, especially in the evenings – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Relaxing at my bungalow -Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Day 2: After breakfast the next morning, we headed into the jungle, hiking up and down the steep and muddy trail to reach a different area of the lake where the elephants bathe in the morning.  They splashed themselves with the water, so that it would seep into the creases in their skin and keep them cool through the hottest part of the day as they forage in the jungle.  After the elephants felt satisfied, they meandered out of the water to interact with us.  (I kept forgetting to duck out of the way of the flapping ears!)

A young elephant and his mahout making their way to the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
My fellow travelers and I headed for the lake to see the morning bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
The elephants enjoying their morning bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
We had the opportunity to simply spend time with the elephants in the calm of the morning after their bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Some of the elephants head to ‘Enrichment’ where they solve puzzles and are rewarded with treats to keep their minds sharp and inquisitive, as elephants can grow unhappy and depressed when bored.  The rest were led to ‘Socialization’ – a large paddock of natural jungle where the elephants are allowed to roam freely and forage as a herd.  We hiked up the hill to watch from above from a series of observation platforms, and Annabelle joined us to explain the various elephant behaviors we observed.  She also explained the importance of elephants to the Laotian ecosystem – elephants are naturally quite destructive, clearing paths through the forest which allows for new growth, and they have inefficient digestive systems, so as they forage and travel, their feces replants the seeds of many native plants.

My fellow travelers observing the elephants in the valley below from one of the viewing platforms – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
The elephants foraging naturally in the jungle as a herd – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
A mother elephant teaching her juvenile calf about foraging in the jungle – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

With reluctance that we eventually headed back to the water’s edge, but were rewarded when we had the chance to watch the mothers with young babies come for a bath.  The little ones splashed and played in the mud before their mothers and their mahouts led them back into the forest. We settled down for a delicious Laotian picnic lunch, before the ferry carried us back around the peninsula to the Center where we checked out of our bungalows (some travelers stay longer…), bid Lar farewell, and rode the ferry back to the road for the scenic drive back to Luang Prabang.

A mother elephant and her baby – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Baby elephants must practice and learn to use their trunks to drink – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Spending time with elephants in their natural habitat, watching them interact and nurture their babies is an incredible experience all by itself, but learning about their importance in the local ecosystem, and their tenuous hold on long-term survival as a species, was eye-opening.  Equally meaningful to me, was getting to learn about the vast knowledge the mahouts have and to witness their unique bond with these beautiful beasts.  Elephants are sacred creatures in Laos and I can certainly see why.  Visiting the Elephant Conservation Center felt like getting to star in my own Discovery Channel adventure, and my time in Sayaboury will always hold a special place in my heart.

A mahout quietly observing the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

 You too can visit the elephants in their natural jungle home!  Click this link to see the two day Elephant Conservation Center Discovery Tour, which can be combined with any larger itinerary.

 

From the Ground: New Mey Chrey Floating Village Tour

Photo Credit: Jay Austin

Mey Chrey is one of the only year-round floating villages in Siem Reap Province. This village, unlike many others, is made up of purely Cambodian residents making it one of the most authentic displays of Cambodian ‘floating’ culture available. When putting this tour together, we focused on finding a family our guests could visit and interact with in order to avoid the voyeuristic way that most tourists currently see this and other villages like this in Cambodia. This tour is designed to spread the money brought in by tourism a little further into the community.  Guests will have the opportunity to purchase snacks from local shops and to be paddled around by their new local friends to get an in depth look at day-to-day life in this kind of village.  This experience is unique as most tourists visit floating villages on large boats and don’t have the chance to meet the residents of the village.

Dana’s Mondulkiri Adventure

mondulkiri-hills-2
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

By Dana Di Labio

Pchum Ben falls in September each year, and most Khmer people spend the holiday visiting the temples (wats or pagodas) to honor their ancestors, make offerings, and receive blessings from the monks. We took the opportunity to head to Mondulkiri, a province in North Eastern Cambodia that was a full 10 hour bus ride from our home in Siem Reap. So kindles, ipods and books at the ready, we set off in our 11-seater minibus, ready to face our holiday. Aside from one of us forgetting her shoes (a serious problem when embarking on embarking on a jungle trek!), the journey north to the small town of Sen Monorom was largely uneventful. Although it was dark and quiet, it felt safe and we could see the edges of mountains, jungles and forests.

mondulkiri-hills
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

A staff member from Tree Lodge met us and drove us to the hotel in the back of a pick-up truck to the wooden lodge. We were introduced to the couple who run the lodge – Mr. Tree and his wife, who spoke English well, but allowed us to practice our questionable Khmer. After stuffing ourselves with some fried rice and noodles, Mr. Tree led us to our small wooden bungalow – a ‘family room’, which had 3 double beds squashed in together. It felt rustic and cozy; we each had our own mosquito net and a shared hot shower – all for only $15 for the night! (The Lodge also had a supply of leftover shoes we could borrow, which luckily meant no jungle trekking in Birkenstocks!)

mondulkiri-elephants
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

The next morning, bright and early, we headed off with Mr. Tree, and a group of around 20 others. We got into the truck again and drove around 30 minutes to just outside the jungle, where Mr Tree dropped us all off and instructed us to follow the path until we reach the ‘Jungle Lodge’. He drove the car down the hill and into the jungle. A walk of 20 minutes or so brought us up and down a few muddy hills (it was the rainy season after all), to a small wooden hut with canvas sides overlooking the forests and misty rivers. Mr. Tree met us at the hut and introduced The Mondulkiri Project:

mondulkiri-elephants-3
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

In October 2013 the Mondulkiri Project signed an agreement with Bunong indigenous elders from the Putang Village and the Orang Village. They agreed to end logging in a large area of the beautiful Mondulkiri forest near Sen Monorom, in order protect this beautiful forest and the plentiful wildlife here. As the population of Cambodia grows, the demand for rice also grows, so more and more of the forest is being destroyed to make room for small rice farms. The Elephant Sanctuary experiences and jungle trekking is designed to help to bring income to the Bunang indigenous people while protecting the native habitat of Asian elephants and other endangered species. As part of this agreement, The Mondulkiri Project started an elephant sanctuary with 7 retired elephants who are free to wander through the forest. All of these elephants have been rescued from other provinces, where they were treated unfairly. In the future, Mr. Tree explains, he hopes to start a natural breeding program to help with the long term survival of elephants in Cambodia. Currently the elephants are all female, so the project is trying to raise money to buy a male in order to breed.

After the briefing, we started off into the jungle to meet the elephants. We fed them bananas and learned that there is a trick to doing so – you should hold out 1 banana towards the end of their trunk, while hiding the others behind your back – otherwise the elephants steal the whole bunch! The elephants seemed very at ease around us, and Mr. Tree emphasized that we should let the elephants lead the interaction. After our banana supply had been depleted, we walked back through the rain in our nifty multi colored rain ponchos, across a rickety old bridge. Just as we were crossing, one of the elephants named Princess came bounding through the river and decided to give herself a mud shower. She led the way for us and we followed her into a clearing, where we were joined by several other elephants. We played with them, fed them some more, and marveled at how peaceful they seemed. We headed back to the hut, clad with mud and rain, and sat down for a delicious lunch of rice, vegetables and fish soup. A celebratory beer or two was also a necessity! After a little relaxing, we headed back off into the jungle and down to a river, where we were told we would be able to bathe the elephants. Some of us scrubbed the elephants with long brushes, whilst the others fed them bananas.

mondulkiri-waterfall-1
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

When we returned to the hut for the evening, and were introduced to our guide for the next day – Leung. He and several local Khmer women cooked up a delicious feast for our dinner. We ate on the wooden floor, by candlelight, and spent the evening chatting with Leung. He is from one of the tribal villages, on the other side of the jungle, and he leads the guided treks for the Mondulkiri Project. He told us that we would finish our trek in his village and he explained about his religion – a form of Buddhism that entails ritual animal sacrifice. We played cards, drank bamboo rice wine, and retreated to our hammocks for the night.

mondulkiri-waterfall
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

After breakfast the next morning, we headed off on our 18 kilometer trek. Luckily, the weather managed to stay dry for the whole day, as we hiked over tough terrain, steep hills and had some very slippy moments. Eventually we decided to just succumb to the mud and stop trying to stay clean and dry! We stopped at 3 waterfalls along the way, and at the first we jumped off the top of the waterfall into the cold water and hung from the tree branches. The second waterfall was enormous and soaked us in spray, and at the third waterfall, we trekked behind it into a cave where we sat to eat our lunch of rice and vegetables.  As we continued on, Leung pointed out different kinds of plants, flowers, frogs, insects, and various mushroom breeds.

Finally, around 8 hours after we took off, we arrived in Leung’s village, exhausted and muddy, but beaming with pride. (Leung told us he does this trek 4 times per week!) He introduced us to his family (he has 8 brothers and sisters, which is quite common among the 43 families who live in this village), and his family have several pigs and lots of piglets, chickens, cows and buffalo. There were some young children playing football just down the path, everybody stopped to say hello to us and offered us rice wine. Leung told us that they all rear animals and share the meat among the families. He said that whilst he has his immediate family (who all live in a small wooden house, with an old retro caravan attached!), he feels as though the whole village is his family, as they have all grown up together.

mondulkiri-trekking
Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

When it came time to say goodbye to Leung and the village, it seemed strange after such a meaningful and intense 24 hours getting to know him. While we all trickled back to our office jobs and city life, Leung would stay on the edge of the jungle in his hill tribe village, perfectly content to guide more jungle trekkers. Although we loved the elephants, and the trekking and the camping experience was so much fun, I would recommend this trip simply for the experience of meeting Leung, an uncomplicated 21 year old guy, with so much love for the jungle and keen to share his devotion to his beautiful home and people.