Trekking Along the Nam Khan River in Laos

Determined to get a little hiking in, I book us a 2-day trek through Laos that will end at an elephant sanctuary. (I am perhaps even more determined to see elephants). We depart early in the morning with 5 other travellers, driving a short distance while eating breakfast, and then zipping along the river to reach the start of our trek.

All the details: White Elephant trekking tour in Laos

Cost: We paid about $110 each for our 2D/1N trekking tour, booked the day before departure at  White Elephant Adventures in central Luang Prabang. This price covers transport to and from Luang Prabang, all meals, one night of accommodation in a remote village, an English-speaking guide, and a number of activities.

Getting there: Take a bus from the Laotian capital Vientiane to Luang Prabang. The journey costs about 50,000 Kip, takes anywhere from 8-14 hours, and can be booked at the bus station upon arrival.

What to do: On the tour, you will hike past remote Khmu villages; kayak along the Nam Khan River; visit an elephant sanctuary; and have the opportunity to bathe an elephant in the falls. There are also options to include ziplining and other activities for an additional cost.

Top tips: While this is definitely more of a walk than a hike, make sure you are prepared with appropriate footwear! The $5 shoes that I purchased to replace the sneakers that I lost (in hip-deep mud on the way to Laos) fall apart in about 20 minutes, and I spend the next 6 hours flopping around hopelessly, seriously contemplating walking in socks.

We trek through a number of remote villages, sharing some of the fruit from our lunch with the local children we meet. Finally, we finish our day in a Khmu village, where we stay in a bamboo dorm-style room, sleeping on reed mats underneath mosquito netting. Our guide cooks us an excellent meal while we all exchange stories over long necks of beer.

After trekking for a few more hours this morning, we reach the river again, this time hopping into kayaks that have been waiting for us. We paddle several hours (or, in my case, go through the motions of paddling for several hours so your partner thinks you’re contributing) until we reach the elephant sanctuary, where we spend the afternoon bathing the elephants and handing snacks into their outstretched trunks.

Now, I did a lot of research on elephant tourism before we came. I knew that I wanted to interact with elephants, but I also knew that a lot of companies didn’t treat their animals very well, and I totally refuse to participate in that. Basically what my research turned up was that the wooden benches most companies put on the elephants’ backs for people to ride on are actually quite painful for the animal, so that was immediately ruled out. They also don’t love walking long distances with the extra load on their necks and backs. In the end, we chose an elephant sanctuary that had good online reviews and let you ride directly on the elephant without a chair, as well as in the water, since elephants really enjoy bathing.

I’m sure someone out there will say that elephant riding is cruel no matter what the circumstances are, but I genuinely believe that these animals were well cared for and that they were far too happy playing in the water to even notice us much. As always, though, it’s good to do research before participating in any animal tourism. And when in doubt about the treatment of the animals or their living conditions or the legitimacy of the organisation: ogle from afar.

After our time with the elephants, we are back in the kayak for another 3 hours before we finish our trip. We arrive home exhausted and splurge on dinner at a bar with wifi and lounge chairs set up on a balcony outside.

Read more about our travels through Laos