We were lucky enough to be invited to see the 2018 Elephant Festival in Xaignabouri province.
Xaignabouri, which is also spelt (and pronounced) Sayaboury, is to the west of Vientiane province, on the Thai border. The best way to get there is to fly into Luang Prabang, and then drive for 2-3 hours. It's a windy road but the scenery is quite stunning.
The Elephant Festival takes place every year in February, when the weather is still cool and the mist hangs on the surrounding mountains. It's start early in the morning and goes for several hours.
We arrived just before 7am; the stands were packed and crowds of thousands were patiently waiting on the facing 3 sides of the field. Behind them, 69 colourfully festooned elephants were ambling into line, with their mahouts atop.
It began with a traditional Lamvong dance by the Xaignabouri people in their traditional dress.
Then followed a colourful performance of dancers from each of the provinces, each wearing their traditional costumes.
Then there were speeches, before the President of Laos, Bounnhang Vorachith, and his wife, did the official opening ceremony. (You can just see them both in the top right above the big gong). There were a number of government ministers there too which was quite an honour.
2018 is also marks the official Visit Laos tourism campaign. As such, the Festival performances may have been more involved and spectacular than usual.
This enormous basi (blessing) podium is for the celebration at the end of the morning's festivities - you see why it's so big later!
Then came the beautiful elephants! The sun was just rising now and the frosty morning air was starting to dissipate.
These elephants and their mahouts are all from Xaignabouri, the heartland of elephant country.
There were a few younger elephants and even a couple of babies with their mums!
These guys didn't get the good job but the performers later on would thank them, I'm sure!
After the elephants, were a series of floats and performers from different provinces around the Laos. They were colourful and lively and really looked spectacular. This was my favourite part and I grabbed a good vantage point from the corner of the stage.
I loved all the different forms of creative expression that went into these displays. There was really a good mix of tradition and culture, new and old. And a great energy and enthusiasm.
Last but certainly not least, were a dancing group of "ladies". They were much appreciated and applauded by the crowd!
Then all the elephants were brought back out again into the middle of the field. The young elephants present bouquets of flowers to the stage guests, in exchange for pieces of sugarcane.
This was repeated several times and our kids were even lucky enough to do it. And were utterly thrilled by the experience!
Finally it was time for the big crowd pleaser, the elephant performances. There were elephants doing art, playing basketball, and running races. The crowd boundaries became more flexible, marked essentially by the elephants themselves. Army officials moved people back as needed, such as when the elephants played football. It was all accompanied by enthusiastic compering and applause.
Down on the ground, it was a carnival atmosphere. This festival draws over 100,000 people over 4 days but this is definitely the biggest event.
Finally, it was time for the final event, the elephant basi (blessing). The big golden podium was wheeled back to front and the elephants - and people - crowded in close. The biggest tusker led the way.
And now you can see why there's so much baci string - to pass around 69 elephants and their mahouts!
The Elephant Festival is on over 4 days every February in Xaignabouri.