Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary Image

Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary: Is It Really Ethical?

Mandalao elephant sanctuary is one that claims to put elephant welfare first, but is that really the case?

From the day we decided to set out on our backpacking adventure, we knew that we wanted to see elephants. They are amazing creatures! One thing that we were certain of was that we did not want to see elephants at an unethical sanctuary – this was the most important thing for us.

Riding, tricks etc. were a definite “no no” for us. We knew that the elephant sanctuary which we would choose needed to be exactly that – a sanctuary. The thoughts of funding the cruelty and neglect of these wonderful animals made us sick.

We avoided all elephant tours in Thailand because we couldn’t be sure that they put the welfare of the animal first. Through research and reading a lot of information online, we came across Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary in Luang Prabang, Laos. The sanctuary has a high rating and even had an article written by CNN, outlining their commitment to being an ethical sanctuary.

What is Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary?

Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary markets itself as a sanctuary and rehab centre for elephants. One that puts the animals welfare first. One where elephants, rescued from the logging industry, can have a new life. Where they are free from abuse and free to roam.

The site at Mandalao consists of approximately 80 hectares of land. Ten elephants live here including one baby elephant, called “Kit”, who they plan to reintroduce to the wild.

The sanctuary is located approximately 30 minutes from Lang Prubang town by car.

How Much Does a Visit Cost?

A visit to Mandalao ranges from approximately $80 USD (€70) for the “Communicating with Elephants” half-day tour, all the way up to approximately $150 USD (€132) for the “Inside The Hearts of Elephants” full-day tour.

We opted for the half-day “Therapeutic Trek” which cost $100 USD (€88) each.

What Does The Trip Include?


On our half day trip, a minivan picked us up from our hostel at 8.30am to go to Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary. The trip to the sanctuary from Luang Prabang takes approximately 30 minutes.

As we travelled, we were introduced to our guide who gave us some information about the elephants. We discussed what we would be doing throughout the day.

Morning Refreshments

After we arrived at the sanctuary, the Project Director – Prasop Tipprasert greeted us. We also enjoyed some tea and coffee.

Prasop gave us an informative talk on elephants and their behaviours. The talk lasted around 20-30 minutes and was excellent.

Feeding The Elephants

After this, the staff provided us with some socks, boots, sunscreen, insect repellent and a flask with drinking water for the trek. A boat waited for us at the river side to take us across to the elephants.

We were excited to finally see some elephants in the wild.

It was not what we expected! We were introduced to the elephants for the first time in the “feeding” area. The guides provided us with bananas to feed the elephants after they were brought over to interact with the people on the tour. The animals were pushed and coaxed to a particular area and verbal commands were used. This was the first red flag for us.

During the “feeding”, the guides encouraged people to touch, kiss and interact with the elephants which made us a little uneasy. While we appreciate that many of the elephants here have had tough lives in the logging industry and are now in a better place, we also don’t like the idea of them being a “play thing” for tourists.

The bananas soon ran out and it was time to set off on our trek with the elephants.

The Trek

The brochure said that we would walk with the elephants along a path through the jungle and that they would be in control. This was not what we witnessed.

The elephants were a walking parade for the tourists to take pictures of. The animals were given verbal commands to stop and were pushed, pulled by their bellies and even tapped with a stick to “encourage” them to move when they stopped for too long. This wasn’t what we signed up for!

At one point, I shouted at one of the guides to leave the elephant alone after he tapped her on the side, using a stick, with a level of force that made us both very uncomfortable. He was trying to get her to pose for a picture with another person from the tour.

After our trek, we returned to the restaurant where we had lunch… luckily we were allowed to go in of our own accord and without any “encouragement”.

Is Manadalao An Ethical Sanctuary?

The brochure may say that these animals are free to roam. That they are in control – but don’t be fooled. While the animals likely have a better life at Mandalao than the one that they came from, they certainly aren’t free. They are still captive and although we didn’t witness any elephants chained up or tourists riding them (which is great!), we did witness some things that made us question whether Mandalao is all it claims to be.

We reached out to Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary by email, outlining what we seen on the tour and asking them for their response on the matter. To date we have not received a reply.

So that is the craic with Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary.

What are your thoughts on elephant sanctuaries? Can they ever be ethical? Let us know in the comments below 🙂

Looking for the idyllic waterfall in Laos? Find everything you need to know in our Guide To Kuang Si Falls in Luang Prabang.

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