Located 54 km south of Pakse, the village of Ban Khiet Ngong lies in the buffer zone of the Xe Pian National Protected Area.
Spanning 2,400 square kilometres, the conservation area boasts lowland forest and extensive wetlands rich with biodiversity, including 320 species of birds. The landscape is unparalleled in Laos, and the village is a good example of creating environmentally sensitive tourist infrastructure that brings in much-needed income to a remote rural village.
Elephants are the main draw to Ban Khiet Ngong; the village has 13 domesticated elephants and the community manages its own tourism activities, some of which do include the elephants. Prolonged media coverage continues to raise awareness around the dark side of elephant tourism, particularly regarding the process of breaking them in, but also the practise of riding them and overworking them in general.
Public reaction has been swift to condemn all elephant tourism and vilify the mahouts that handle the animals. The situation is complex, as tourism provides income that helps already domesticated elephants avoid other “occupations” such as logging. That said, in taking part in elephant-related activities like riding, you are fuelling demand for camps and “sanctuaries” which undertake these activities. Please do your research.
The country’s current stock of domesticated elephants are caught in a Catch-22. A mahout considers his elephant part of the family—but the elephant is an expensive child and must work to pay for itself. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they are at risk of being leased or sold into logging, punishing work that ironically has it destroying its own habitat. As a better alternative, tourism generates income for the family and helps keep the elephant in the village—never the most ideal situation but far better than having it sold into hard labour or a cruel tourist attraction.
Whether you choose an elephant-related activity is, of course, your discretion. Keep in mind that you will see these graceful giants ambling down the road through the village.
There are plenty of non-pachyderm activities in the village as well. Aside from enjoying the lovely pastoral scenes, there are forays into Xe Pian: visitors can hike up Phou Asa mountain to the temple ruins or embark on a difficult two-night trek to Ta Ong village. Illegal hunting and deforestation means it is unlikely you will see large mammals, though in theory there are Asiatic black bears, pangolin, gaur and yellow-cheeked crested gibbons.
A trip through the wetlands in a dugout canoe is an absolute highlight. Glide through the grasses, the silence and stillness interrupted only by a lone fishermen, a flock of birds, a wallowing water buffalo. It’s a serenity, landscape and experience not found anywhere else in Laos.
Orientation From Pakse, travel 40 km south on Route 13 to Ban Thang Beng village at km-48 (lak-sii-sip-pet). At the junction, head east on 18A, a dirt road which actually runs all the way to Attapeu. After 7.5 km, turn right (head south). It’s another kilometre to reach the village.
Ban Khiet Ngong is located within a national protected area. A park fee of 20,000 kip is required at the entrance. For your own safety, trips into the protected area must be accompanied by a local guide. The elephant stand and tourism centre (where activities and homestays can be arranged) is located in the centre of the village. Kingfisher Ecolodge is a kilometre further.
Upmarket Kingfisher Ecolodge has played a large part in drawing tourists to the village. With bungalows overlooking the wetlands and marshes, this nature retreat remains the most comfortable accommodation option. For more modest budgets, homestays are available and they’re a great way to immerse in local life. The system is managed by the village, with participating families on a roster. Simply show up, it can also be arranged at the elephant stand.
The only public transport is a once daily songthaew to/from Pakse.
There are no ATMs and 3G service is intermittent.
18A (the dirt road off of Route 13 leading to Khiet Ngong) is challenging in rainy season. We were informed there are plans to seal it.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 19th January, 2017.