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.
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.
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 . 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 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.