I have never been so happy to see a sunset and call an end to the day. A day which started before sunrise, involved a lot of waiting around, and an excruciating eight hour slow-boat journey down the Mekong River with about a hundred drunk backpackers for company. It was neither pretty nor comfortable and when we finally got to the port at Pakbeng, I could have kissed the ground just to be on dry land again. One by one, all 150 of us clambered off the boat to be welcomed by hoards of guesthouse hustlers ready to pounce on anyone who seemed lost and looking for a room for the night. This frenetic scene made me even more grateful that we’d made a reservation at Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge and their tuk tuk was already waiting for us at the top!
When we arrived at the lodge just a short and bumpy drive later, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. We made it; it was calm, the outlook over the Mekong River was stunning, and I had no doubt that the lodge would be infinitely more comfortable than any of the guesthouses in town. The standard journey down the Mekong from a small town by the border between Thailand and Laos to Luang Prabang takes two days so most people only stay in Pakbeng for just one night. We decided to stay for two, this gave us a much needed break between slow-boat journeys and a chance to take in the idyllic surroundings and quiet village life.
Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge is part of a small hotel group consisting of a boutique property in the bustling UNESCO town of Luang Prabang and a beach resort in Vang Vieng. We chose to stay at the Lodge because quite frankly, it seemed to be the nicest place in town, but we were also impressed by their commitment to responsible tourism and supporting the local community. There is an onsite dispensary with a team of doctors, they finance a local school and water reserve, but perhaps what was most evident when we were there was the number of jobs they provide and local families they support.
One of my favourite aspects of the Lodge was their vegetable garden; it’s split into 10 allotments which are given to the staff families. Each year they throw a party and draw lots for their plot, then whatever they grow is sold back to the hotel, in the local village, or for their own use. I think it’s a great initiative and fantastic way of creating new opportunities for their staff and community. The more we travel, the more conscious we are of trying to support properties with certain goals and ethics. It’s easier said than done as you don’t always know what is happening behind the scenes, so we were grateful to the team at Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge for showing us around and taking the time to talk to us about their ethos!
Checking Into a Suite Room
Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge is split into two buildings, each with its own restaurant and bar so you don’t have to traipse between them if you don’t want to! In the original building you will find their 20 Superior Rooms which are rustic and comfortable; all are equipped with cosy beds, ensuite bathrooms, and balconies facing the Mekong River. The upper building houses eight Deluxe Rooms which offer a slightly higher level of comfort with king-sized beds, air-conditioning and more spacious bathrooms, and two Suite Rooms which also have the added benefit of a small lounge area.
From our Suite Room at the end of the row, we watched the elephants from the Mekong Elephant Park bathe in the morning, while in the late afternoon we sat back with a couple of beers and watched the slow-boats cruising into the port for the night. On both nights, we were so exhausted from the day’s excitement (or rather trauma on the first night) that we both collapsed straight into the bed after dinner and fell asleep to the sound of chirping lizards!
Dining at Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge
All guests get breakfast and dinner as part of their stay, which saves you the hassle of jostling with the other slow-boat travellers for a table at one of the restaurants in the small village. Breakfast was basic but adequate with usual offerings such as tea, toast, eggs, crepes and fruit. Dinners were much better; they serve a Laos-style set menu which came with a soup to start, then a couple of meat and vegetable dishes with rice, before finishing with some fruit or a small dessert such a panna cotta. We really enjoyed the stirfried beef with plenty of ginger and the morning glory with tons of garlic, both so fresh and filling. However, even better than the dinners was the lunch we had after our morning hike. The bright and bountiful salads, a delicious braised tofu, and some sticky rice was just the vibrant meal we were craving. My personal favourite was the chicken laap which was so well seasoned and jammed packed full of zingy herbs!
Hiking around the Local Villages
We spent our morning on a short hike with a local guide through surrounding forests, local villages and then back into Pakbeng town. He barely spoke any English but could probably navigate through the area in his sleep so we knew we were in capable hands. We traversed paths which at some points I thought were a little hairy but after seeing the local villagers (including our guide) ambling through in their flip flops, I told myself not to be such a chicken! The area was ruggedly beautiful; even though a certain someone and I are city people at heart, we love to spend time in quiet spots like this. Where our guide walked, we followed… sometimes he had to clear away the bamboo or vines with his machete, sometimes we stopped just to take in the calmness of it all. Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge organises a range of different hikes depending on your preference and skill level; had we more time, I would have liked to spend all day out there with a picnic lunch!
Visiting the Mekong Elephant Park
I’ll admit that I was a bit hesitant about visiting the Mekong Elephant Park because I wasn’t sure it was the kind of ‘animal tourism’ we could support. Created by Sanctuary Hotels, the park is in its infant stages but it was still really interesting to go across the river to meet the elephants and their mahouts. Yes, these elephants have mahouts. Why? Because these elephant have lived with them all their lives and were previously working in painfully tough conditions in the Laos logging industry. The Park aims to get the animals out of that industry and slowly rehabilitate them into a different way of life at the park where they get to roam freely, eat and play, and meet some visitors! Here, you not just meet these beautiful creatures but also gain a better understanding of their, often very brutal, lives up to this point.
It also gives the mahouts an alternative form of earning income because they are often forgotten in all the attention surrounding the sensitive subject of elephant tourism. For most mahouts, this is a family business; their grandfathers and fathers before them were mahouts and they know no other way of life. Learning a bit more about their life was eye-opening for me as I had no idea that they were all separated from their families and spend most of their days with the elephants. I know it might not be the case for all, but the relationships between elephant and mahout that we witnessed here was one of mutual understanding and respect. I think it’s really important that as part of creating a sustainable programme, this involves both the elephants and the people who work with them. What Mekong Elephant Park is trying to achieve is still being developed but their aims and actions are admirable.
Thank you to Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge for hosting us during our time in Pakbeng, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!
If you’re looking for more Laos travel inspiration, check out my other posts…
- Review of Luang Say Residence, a luxury boutique hotel in Luang Prabang
- A guide to cruising down the Mekong River on the slow-boats
- A guide to two of the best Laotian restaurants in Luang Prabang
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