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Laos > General information > Region and city guide > Adventures in Northern Laos (part 2), Elephant Rides


Adventures in Northern Laos (Part 2) 

Elephant Rides 

Riding an elephant is something everyone should experience at least once. Riding one as part of your trek is far more interesting than if you ride one at a big tourist attraction, and the cost will be far more reasonable. An hour or two is probably long enough, so make sure that is agreed upon before you get on. Elephants don’t mind getting muddy, so it’s a great way to follow a stream and stay relatively clean and dry. It’s also a less strenuous way to head up into the hills than doing it all on foot. The rolling motion is rather nice once you get used to it. 


Elephant ride, Laos

You can ride an elephant for half a day along jungle tracks, visit the Tad Sae Waterfall, pass teak plantations and rice paddies, and come upon wonderful valley and hill views around every corner. Elephants are easily trainable and able to move incredibly heavy objects. They are also interesting, if not always comfortable, to ride. The view from up high is great. 

Many tour operators offer half- or full-day elephant rides, using jeeps or similar vehicles to get you to the villages where the elephants are maintained. Costs vary depending on outfitter and duration, but expect to pay anywhere from $25 to $40 for a day’s ride, including end-to-end transportation from Luang Prabang.

Overnight trips and combination trips (with mountain biking, hiking, or rafting/kayaking) are available, too.

The higher-end trips will cost about $37 for a half-day elephant ride for two people or $46 per person for a full-day elephant ride with mountain biking or trekking.

Elephant ride

Rates vary widely from operator to operator, as do group sizes, amenities, and quality of equipment and guides. You probably can’t check out the elephants ahead of time (they don’t come to town!), so you’ll need to ask other travelers, check out the rest of the equipment, and take your chances.   


Note: Do you know how elephants are trained not to run away? When they are very young, the babies are taken away from their mothers, but kept in sight, and a heavy leg iron and chain or rope is placed around the baby’s leg. The chain is staked to the ground, and the baby keeps straining to reach its mother. When it continually can’t reach her, it gives up. Then the trainers can replace the chain with a very light rope or harness, and the elephant never tries to get away. It has “learned” that something around its leg keeps it tied in place! 


Most elephant rides out of Luang Prabang leave from the tour operator’s office or other central location about 8:30 am. Some tours actually pick you up at your hotel. The prices I gave assume hotel pick-up and drop-off. You are normally taken by a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the elephant staging area. Your elephant ride may or may not return to the same staging area.  Some rides end at the Mekong River and you return to the camp by motorboat and then to Luang Prabang. That is usually the end of the bargain rides.  


The higher-end tours usually include lunch, a trip to the Tad Sae Waterfall (with admission fees paid), and return to Luang Prabang by boat or four-wheel-drive vehicle, arriving around 3;30 pm.  


 If you combine the elephant ride with a mountain bike excursion or some trekking, you could spend the rest of the day biking or trekking and get back to Luang Prabang about 5:30 or 6 pm– a pretty full day, so many people choose to extend their trip to two or three days, with overnight stays at a camp or hill tribe villages. On the trek you naturally can’t cover as much ground as on the mountain bike, but you should expect to get to the Tad Sae Waterfall and a Khmu village. On the bike extension you can get farther afield, visiting Ban Phanom (a weaving village), Wat Pa Phon Phao (a temple), and the Henry Mouhot gravesite, plus the waterfall.  By extending your trip another day and combining biking, trekking, and the elephant ride you can add a visit to a Lao Lum village, a Hmong village, and a Khmu village.  If you like the sound of two days, you may like three days even better! By adding the third day you can include all the preceding, plus a river trip on a raft or in a kayak. 


Mountain Biking 

Mountain biking has finally arrived in northern Laos. Look for quality bikes and helmets or it will be a very hard, very dangerous ride. Most day-trips run 30-50 km/20-32 miles. You will visit a variety of villages, maybe a waterfall, and spend some time on single track in the jungle. Part of your trip will likely be by motorboat.  Keep in mind there can be significant elevation gains on these biking trips, and the trails are minimally maintained at best.  


A helmet is absolutely essential. You are a long way from medical facilities, and ambulances can’t reach you. You should consider having an extensive medical/first aid kit with you and not rely on the trip organizers.


Rafting, Boating, Canoeing & Kayaking 

Most tour operators offer river trips of one day, and may offer combinations with trekking, biking, or riding elephants. These trips are usually by raft, but some places are now offering kayak trips as well. The options include visiting villages, waterfalls, and the Pak Ou Caves. These are normally set up to be easy, down-stream paddling trips. For more challenges, a few places are offering whitewater trips, too 


There are three main rivers in the Luang Prabang area that offer opportunities for whitewater rafting: the Nam Suang, Nam Ou, and Nam Pa. Trips on each river should allow you to visit a Lao Lum village. All trips involve four or five hours on the river, and all are of moderate difficulty. 


Caution: Make sure you feel the equipment is waterworthy, and if you think the rafts are overloaded, don’t get on. Boats in Southeast Asia are not known for their stability or quality, and overloading is a way of life.  A quality tour should have good equipment in good repair, never overloading or taking on passengers who are not part of the tour, and with one life vest per passenger and crew member. 


Canoeing is not yet easily available despite the relatively placid rivers in the Luang Prabang area. This is probably going to change very soon. 


Venturing Farther into Luang Prabang Province 

If you want to go to even more remote sites, you might try trekking in and around Muang Ngoi. These trips are usually at least three days since it takes several hours to get there.  The treks visit the Hmong and Khmu tribes, and include a stay in a village, a stay in Muang Ngoi, plus a motorboat ride.  The same trip is possible with a combination of trekking and/or biking and/or rafting. You can cover a bit more ground.  The pure trekking option includes eight hours of moderately strenuous hiking. The other options include four or five hours of trekking as well as several hours of biking and/or rafting. 


Another option is to go to Muang Khua in the far north of Thailand. These trips usually involve extensive trekking and several other activities. The trips tend to be between seven and 14 days. Shorter trips (five days) are possible, but it’s a long way to go for such a short time. Most of the activities are at least moderate in difficulty, and the sheer length of the trip adds to the strenuousness. But this excursion gives you the opportunity to visit hot springs, mountain bike to remote villages, visit additional tribes, raft down some new rivers, and see a rarely visited part of Laos.

See also 

      Getting to Luang Prabang 

      History of Luang Prabang, Getting around Luang Prabang 

      What to do & see in Luang Prabang 

      Day trips from Luang Prabang     

      Adventures in Northern Laos (part 1) 



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Travel guide to Laos: adventures in Northern Laos, Elephant Rides, mountain Biking, Rafting