Elephants are the primary draw to Ban Khiet Ngong but the village offers plenty of non-pachyderm activities as well.
Ban Khiet Ngong is located in the edge of the Xe Pian National Protected Area, 2,400 square kilometres containing a range of habitats and species that make it one of the most biodiverse NPAs in Laos. A few years ago, some development groups and the local government set up community-managed tourism activities that could allow the village to generate income.
Years later, the programme are still running. We’ve seen these kinds of projects in other parts of Laos, where once the glossy activity signage goes up and the ribbon cutting ceremony is done, the initiative is quickly deserted. In Ban Khiet Ngong, the elephant stand doubles as a tourism info centre, and when we visited in November 2016, the signage was still up and the activities available. Prices are set, with money distributed fairly to the respective activity group. We had no problem booking programs directly at the centre, though English is limited. Kingfisher also has some of their own tours and they can help book the village-run activities. Note that for any foray into the park, you are required to have a local guide. We were told that includes the top of Phou Asa.
We think the absolute highlight is the boat trip through Xe Pian’s serene wetlands, and by boat trip we mean a dugout canoe pushed through the marshes by a man using a bamboo pole, a man who defies every wobble like a pro surfer. Do the trip early morning or late in the afternoon, when the light is gorgeous. It’s also the best time to spot birds, watch fishermen slide through the grasses and water buffalo ecstatically wallow, a tableau of nature with the profile of the Bolaven Plateau serving as the backdrop. This kind of wetland ecosystem and tourism experience is not found anywhere else in Laos.
Each canoe can only fit one passenger (when you see it, you’ll understand why). It’s 100,000 kip for an hour. Book it in advance directly at the elephant stand. It requires a 20-minute walk through the village to get to the water’s edge, so for a sunset trip, book it for no later than 16:00. And don’t bring anything you’d cry over if it accidentally got wet.
Phou Asa “mountain” and the temple ruins that sit atop it are included in either the full-day or half-day trek. The high hill is named after a revered monk Ai Sa (Phou Ai Sa translates to “Brother Sa mountain”). The temple was likely built in the early 19th century. In 1817, Ai Sa led the people to revolt against feudal lords and Chao Manoi, the king of Champasak who was allegiant to Siam. Phou Asa is where he trained the villagers, turning them into an army of fighting men that successfully took Champasak. Unfortunately, once the king of Siam heard the news, he sent an army to quash the rebellion. Ai Sa and his men were forced to retreat to Attapeu before he was captured; he died in Bangkok.
All that remains of the temple are the unusual stone pillars that formed the fortress of the compound. Also note the two stonewalled “ponds” that were used to store water and stone stairways leading into the grounds. The view is great and on a clear day you’ll see the Bolaven Plateau. At the rear of the temple, through the bushes there is a good shot of Ban Khiet Ngong.
Kingfisher Ecolodge offers one-day forest trekking with an English speaking guide and picnic lunch for 480,000 kip per person, 240,000 kip per person based on two people, 300,000 kip based on three. A half-day version (no lunch) is 240,000 kip per person, 190,000 kip per person based on two people, 155,000 kip based on three.
The lodge also offers a one-day mountain bike ride, only available in dry season (November to May). It’s about 20 km one-way on dirt road, stopping at some villages along the way before parking the bike for a 30-minute hike through the jungle to a waterfall. Price includes English speaking guide, picnic lunch and bike rental. Costs 550,000 kip for one person, 430,000 kip per person based on two.
In recent years, the dark side of elephant tourism in Southeast Asia has received intense media coverage and public reaction has been swift to condemn all elephant camps and vilify mahouts. Laos has an ancient tradition of domesticating elephants, and for centuries both beast and the men who tamed them were well respected. But with modern times, as wild elephant populations dwindle and public perception shifts, both currently find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
A mahout (elephant tamer and caretaker) begins the relationship with his elephant at an early age and develops an innate bond as they grow together. Mahouts love their elephant and consider them part of the family—but an elephant is a very expensive child and it must work to pay for itself.
Their options are limited. In the most ideal situation, these elephants would be free within a huge area of protected, patrolled land with no risk that it could wander into a village or cropland. The second best scenario would be a large sanctuary, where tourists could come to observe, not ride the elephants. It would remain with its mahout, who has intimate knowledge of how to care for them. What needs to be avoided is having the elephant leased or sold into logging, extremely dangerous labour that ironically has it destroying its own habitat.
Ban Khiet Ngong currently has 13 elephants: 11 females and two males. The village can be traced back to 1654 and it is said that the village has always been connected with elephants since that time. Tourism generates income for the family and helps keep the elephant in the village rather than having it sold into hard labour or a tourist attraction.
Please do your research beforehand and, if you choose to participate, there are three programs operated by the community. The first is an elephant ride up to the top of Phou Asa or simply around the village and wetlands. You’ll get on the elephant from a platform and sit on a howda (chair that rests on the back) made of rattan. The two-hour ride costs 200,000 kip. It’s best to do it in the early morning or late afternoon. A ride in the midday sun is not fair to man or beast.
For the more adventurous, learn to ride an elephant like a mahout which includes getting on and off the elephant from the ground and giving commands. It’s two hours of training in the morning, finishing in the afternoon with you leading the elephant up Phou Asa. It costs 930,000 kip for one person, 805,000 kip per person based on two people.
And if you’ve ever wondered what it was like for early European explorers traversing Indochina by elephant, then the Jungle Elephant Safari will give you a taste. You’ll go deeper into Xe Pian’s dry dipterocarp forest, riding and in some cases having to dismount and bushwhack. It costs 1,150,000 kip per person solo, 950,000 kip per person based on two people, 750,000 kip based on three. The price includes a picnic lunch, enjoyed while the elephants happily roam the forest looking for theirs.
Organise the trip a day in advance. Kingfisher Lodge can help book but you pay the village directly.
If you enjoyed your activity, a small tip is always appreciated as it tells the guide, boat captain, mahout they’ve done a good job.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 19th January, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.