The Elephant Festival 2010: Bringing it back to Hongsa!
With the festivities of New Years Eve now behind us, it’s time for party-goers to seek out the next biggest sensation in Laos, literally. This can only mean one thing – it’s nearly Elephant Festival time again! The Elephant Festival (or Boun Xang) is the nation’s largest event celebrating both the historical and present-day ties between man and elephant. With attendance peaking at 80,000 last year, the Elephant Festival will come full circle to be held in the small village where it originated: Ban Viengkeo, Hongsa District, Sayaboury Province on the 20th and 21st of February 2010.
Situated only five kilometres from the city of Hongsa, Ban Viengkeo is the cultural heartland of Lao domesticated elephant ownership. For those intrepid travellers wishing to experience the ‘real Laos’, or for jaded ex-pats needing to be reminded of the quaint exquisiteness of Laos, then the 2010 Elephant Festival is a compulsory destination. Set amongst rice paddies, trickling brooks and natural bamboo forests, Ban Viengkeo is quintessential, untainted Laos. This small, meticulously tidy village will come alive with the trumpeting sounds of up to 50 elephants, all long-standing residents of the local area.
The Elephant Festival began and now returns to the Hongsa District for a very good reason – it remains one of the few districts in Laos where domesticated elephant ownership still follows the ancient rites and traditions followed for centuries from one generation to the next. The old man you passed on the dusty village trail may once have been a mighty elephant handler responsible for the well-being of up to a dozen elephants. His great-grandson may at this very moment be involved in an elephant-taming ceremony, preparing for his working life with his elephant companion. It is all still possible in Hongsa.
The 2010 Elephant Festival will evolve from its previous successes to be a more cultural affair, taking into consideration the sacred qualities found throughout the region. Visitors to the festival can participate in or simply observe elephant blessings from local monks, give food offerings to elephants, watch the elephants being bathed in the Nam Kene River or saddle up for an elephant ride. Always the most spectacular element of the Boun Xang is the early morning elephant processions. With all elephants decorated in their finest attire, the reverence and respect humans still have for this magnificent species remains clear. Women hold up their babies for blessing while others offer food and money, all in the hope of receiving special luck and prosperity from a species considered in Buddhism to be second only to humans in spiritual significance.
Another highlight of the Elephant Festival will be the Elephant of the Year competition. Selected from a panel of judges, the elephant of the year is chosen for his or her temperament, looks, well-being and personality. Yes, just like people elephants have their own unique personalities, ranging from naughty, inquisitive, shy to elegant. The winner of the competition will receive a brand new motorbike. Possibly not a suitable prize for the elephant, but very appreciated by the elephant’s owner!
The village of Viengkeo is not only known for its history steeped in elephant lore. Of Tai Leu ethnicity the women of Ban Viengkeo are recognised as some of the most skilled weavers in the nation. It’s possible to wander through the narrow lanes of this village and view women weaving underneath their houses. With a smile and a Sabai dee, you’ll be welcomed in and given the opportunity to buy intricate weavings hot off the loom at bargain prices. Other woven items available for sale include beautifully designed sinhs for women and elegant, traditional cotton shirts for men. The quality and prices of pieces on offer are far too good to pass up and are possibly the best bargains you will find in all of Laos!
Accommodation for the 2010 Elephant Festival endeavours to be as traditional and authentic as the region itself. Homestay will be the most widely available accommodation option, giving visitors the opportunity to sleep only streets away from the elephants. At all previous elephant festivals, event organisers have received nothing but praise for the homestay arrangements. Local villagers are excited to open their houses and extend their hospitality to travellers from far and wide. Many life-long friendships have been forged between families and visitors who would otherwise never have the opportunity to meet and exchange stories. HINT: If you are an international visitor, bring along photos of your family, friends or hometown to show your homestay family.
Transport to the 2010 Elephant Festival is varied. With the village of Viengkeo still remote, event organisers recommend you factor in two days of travel to reach the festival on time. However travel time can be greatly shortened if you wish to take a helicopter from Vientiane to Viengkeo, a quick 40 minute trip and possible to book through Lao Air.
From Luang Prabang
By boat: Certainly the most scenic and comfortable way to reach Hongsa, this will take you a full day. Leaving Luang Prabang at around 8am, this seven hour boat journey will navigate you past stunning forests and villages on the banks of the Mekong River. Dropping you at Ban Thasouang, from here it will be another one hour to Hongsa by taxi.
Buses and local taxis are also an option.
At the Luang Prabang bus station hop on a local bus to Sayaboury, an approximate three-hour journey. From Sayaboury catch another local bus to Hongsa, a further three hours. From Hongsa it’s just a quick taxi to your final destination.
Another option is taking a taxi from Luang Prabang to Hongsa via Chomphet. Do this by first crossing the Mekong in Luang Prabang on the car ferry where taxis will be waiting. Travel to Hongsa will take an approximate five hours. Why not organise a minibus for you and your friends?
Finally, for those keen adventurists, travel to the festival your own way on dirt bike. Leaving from Luang Prabang, cross the Mekong River in the Chomphet District of Luang Prabang. It will then take you five hours of adrenaline to reach Hongsa, via the village of Ban Nam Sing.
For those wanting to learn more about the festival, accommodation and transport arrangements, please visit the official Elephant Festival website at: http://festival.elefantasia.org. Here you can download maps, further event information and the festival program guide.
Or contact the event organiser on firstname.lastname@example.org, who will be happy to answer your questions.
See you on the 20-21s of February in Ban Viengkeo, Hongsa!