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Monday, February 18, 2008

Elephant festival draws jumbo crowd

Several thousand local and overseas visitors travelled on long and winding roads from various parts of Laos to Paklai district in Xayaboury province over the weekend, to view the impressive sight of dozens of assembled pachyderms.

Xayaboury provincial authorities organised the festival in conjunction with the Lao National Tourism

Administration (LNTA) and French organisation ElefantAsia in the home of most of the country's domestic elephants, with a programme of activities taking place from February 15 to 17.

This was the second such festival, and built on the success of the first, staged last year in Hongsa district in the same province.

On Friday morning, the main streets of the small mountainous district were jammed and police had to stop vehicles entering the town, where the official ceremonies were taking place. About 10,000 people turned up to take part in the festival.

The opening ceremony was held in the district's Sports Stadium, where several processions gathered, including schoolchildren waving national flags and flags symbolising the LNTA and the festival.

There was also a procession of 59 elephants, a parade of young women dressed in ethnic costume, rocket-launching, and boat racing. Several people appeared in the guise of Pheekhol , a familiar ghost.

Standing Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, Governor of Xayaboury province Dr Lien Thikeo, LNTA President Somphong Mongkhonvilay and a number of ministers and high ranking officials attended the event.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Dr Lien said the festival was part of efforts to incorporate elephants into the tourist industry, generating income for elephant owners and helping them to continue raising the giant animals.

He also said the festival served to create awareness among the younger generation about the virtues of these enormous beasts.

Dr Lien said Laos had a long connection with elephants and that Laos had once been named “The Land of a Million Elephants”, reflecting the fact that Laos had been home to large numbers of the animal; now, however, the population was in decline.

He said Xayaboury province had only 488 domestic elephants and few of them regularly produced young as they spent all their time working and had little opportunity for reproduction. The authorities were trying to reduce the workload of these elephants in hopes that their numbers would increase.

Mr Somphong said the LNTA would continue to cooperate with ElefantAsia and the Xayaboury authorities to organise another festival next year as part of efforts to promote tourism in the northern provinces of Laos .

He said these provinces had considerable tourism potential due to the area's untamed nature, cultural diversity and long history. He pointed out that Paklai district was a transit point on the road to the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang for tourists coming from Vientiane and Thailand .

After listening to the opening address, visitors stood and admired the slow procession of elephants, some of which were painted and decorated with the Lao flag.

The elephants performed for the visitors, charming onlookers with their size and grace, perhaps already in the initial stages of training for a greater role in tourism.

Dr Lien led leaders and visiting guests in a tour of the 87 exhibition booths, displaying both local and overseas products and services.

Tourists were offered the chance to ride the elephants and were also able to see them hauling logs and bathing in the river. At night, fireworks exploded skywards in celebration of the festival.

Visitors also enjoyed performances of traditional music and dance and circus acts from Vientiane .

By Ekaphone Phouthonesy
(Latest Update February 18, 2008

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