Mnong Elephant Races - Dak Lak

Discussion in 'Vietnam - Motorcycle Trip Report Forums' started by Rod Page, Mar 28, 2012.

  1. Mnong Elephant Races
    Buon Don, Dak Lak (see top centre of below map marked with an elephant icon. 400km from HCMC).
    24-25 March, 2012


    The M'nong are a matrilineal, subsistence, agrarian hill-tribe people living mostly on the central highlands in Vietnam. Animists for the most part, they believe that life depends on having a good relationship with various spirits. Animal sacrifices play a major role in appeasing the spirits. Until relatively recently a pre-literate tribe, their culture is passed down through the singing of time honoured poetic stories.

    Formerly part of the Kingdom of Champa the Mnong have been marginalised over the centuries including recently by the Vietnam's policy of assimilation; indeed as recently as 2002 the USA accepted Mnong from Vietnam into the USA on the basis of their being political refugees.

    Interestingly, the Mnong are the originators of one of the world's oldest known musical instruments - the lithophone. Played on ceremonial occasions the instrument is made of stone & resembles a xylophone. It is believed to be more than 5,000 years old.

    The Mnong are renowned elephant trappers & tamers (& known also for the propensity of their male members to smoke tobacco communally from large bongs).

    We were at Buon Don village, almost on the border with Cambodia, a little over 40kms west of Buon Ma Thuot for the Mnong Elephant Races. Wonderfully situated along the beautiful Srepok River & adjoining Vietnam's largest National Park - Yok Don - a park where wild elephants & tigers still roam whilst four ethnic minority villages find themselves well within its boundaries.

    Buon Don village was founded by N'Thu K'Nul, a Mnong chieftan who captured the white elephant that was given to the Thai royal family in 1861, for which he became known as Khunjunob (King Hunter of Elephants). He is buried in a clearing down a red dirt road of Knong Ne village, Buon Don, in a large square tomb. Only exceptional elephant hunters can be buried here; those who have captured & tamed say at least a dozen elephants - N'Thu K'Nul captured & tamed over 400 elephants! It is held that he lived for 110 years - 1828-1938.

    The event has grown in activities as the following photos attest - the first a shot of a game dear to the Mnong where the aim is to pull your opponent outside the circle; the second, elephant soccer:



    The traditional events run over 2 days & includes 3 ceremonies of great importance to the Mnong; ceremonies of such significance that UNESCO has pushed for their safeguarded for humanity as being of great traditional culture & folkloric value.

    On the first day a ceremony takes place down by the Srepok River where the male village elders will seek the blessings of the waters & a successful harvest, a ceremony immediately followed by the blessing of the elephants. Some photos & associated commentary to set the stage:



    The village elders head all such ceremonies amongst the M'nong. Note the men dressed in traditional hunting attire, & also the signs of the pig slaughtered for the ceremony:



    Village Patriarch Y Then E Ban:




    The head of the slaughtered pig is placed on the head of each elephant before the pig's blood is rubbed on the elephant's forehead ( water poured over the elephant's eye:



    The village elders enjoy a well deserved drink - its a concoction made from a local leaf to which alcohol has been added - after a hard day's celebrations:


    The press were intrigued to find a westerner in attendance & particularly one with a broken leg (great practice for my english speaking university students):


    Hien, my friend from Buon Ma Thuot, who determined festival dates & activities for us was the excellent translator.

    That night a traditional gong ceremony takes place in the village around a large bonfire. The gongs are sounded to call on the gods seeking their blessings. At the moment the gods are deemed to be present amongst them the tone played on the gongs will rise sharply. The ceremony is followed by the killing of a buffalo to appease the spirits. The buffalo is tethered & the man deemed the strongest in the village will put it to death using a wooden or bamboo rod to repeatedly attack the animal's heart behind the shoulder. The killing can take some considerable time. Once killed the meat of the animal is cooked before being eaten by all present.

    The next day the famous Mnong Elephant Races take place. The race honours the strength, courage & bravery of the Mnong people as witnessed by their ability to trap & tame elephants. The race attracts a large crowd & the best photographic spots are difficult to secure. My daughter, Moana, would station herself unflinchingly atop a massive ant's nest to capture the excitement via full-on frontal shots of the race (whilst others around her would pick the ants from her shoulders & eat them)!

    Race 1, uphill:


    Note the guy in the tree in the background:


    There are also spectators in the tree at the top right:


    Races are conducted on a course up to some 500m in length depending on the terrain, & capable of accommodating at least 10 elephants per race. The race starts with a salvo of the 'tu vu' (musical instruments made from horns) & is accompanied by a boisterous, cheering crowd & the beating of gongs.

    Each elephant has 2 jockeys - the first handler seated atop the elephant's neck carries an iron pole known as'kreo' used to encourage speed & to control the direction of the animal. The second handler hits the elephant with a wooden gavel, the 'koc', to ensure the speed. Elephants can reach speeds approaching 50km/h. Race 2, downhill - let the photos do the talking:










    How good is that!!!!!!!!

    Every second year the event is held in conjunction with the Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Festival. On occasion the event may be held around Lak Lake the picture perfect & largest fresh water lake in Vietnam. Such a setting can see a large number of elephants from several villages competing before an equally large crowd.

    1. It is difficult to determine the time during which the Festival will be held;
    2. It is even more difficult to determine the schedule of ceremonies & the timing of their enactment - most people will not know; those giving advice will propose different dates, different timings, whilst days for events will change & so on. You need to be flexible, patient, ready for delays..........
    3. There is no printed material available to effectively assist you. Forget it if you cant speak Vietnamese or have someone with you who can;
    4. There is no effective transport system in place.

    1. Take your own motorbike - it will assist you not only in getting to events but even in finding them!
    2. Stay in Buon Don village; this will enable to attend all events, irrespective of when staged;
    3. Set aside in full the 2 days for the festival.

    It is worth considering a tour of Yok Don National Park in conjunction with the Mnong Elephant Races.

    Bed-time after the elephant races:


    For more information on Buon Ma Thuot see:
  2. What a spectacle Rod. I love the guy standing on the elephants back but the sound of all these elephants charging along with the tu vu must be awesome. Any video with sound?
  3. It is indeed quite a spectacle. From the point of view of a spectator we are extremely lucky to witness the event in its current format - the Vietnamese policy of assimilation (see: ) saw a decline in such activities, a situation not helped by a serious decline in elephant numbers.

    Nowadays with the Vietnamese government understanding the value to tourism of the ethnic minorities (& given support from such venerable organisations as UNESCO) its almost 'open slather', but one can not seriously see this continuing in the long term - the slaughtering of the buffalo, for example, would seem unlikely to be continue indefinitely.

    Village patriarch Y Then E Ban is clearly better placed than most to assess the situation but is one who is concerned as to the events future.

    What it all adds up to I feel is that those who are genuinely interested should consider coming without further delay.
  4. Ron's comments made me zoom in on a couple of shots of the jockeys. You would not want to tumble if, like the leader of the 3 standing jockeys here, you were leading a closely knit field:


    Remember the elephants are travelling at speeds approaching 50km/h:

  5. Whoa there. Another sensational report. What a spectacle it must be to see those elephants thundering across the field racing. Lucky man to be there & see it all.
    Thanks for the report yet again.
  6. It would appear at this early stage that the Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Festival will be held next year from March 10th-15th, 2013. This is the biggest festival on the Central Highlands & normally the M'nong (Dak Lak) Elephant races will be staged in conjunction with the Coffee Festival.

    From past experience the races may well be held at Lake Lak, Vietnam's largest natural fresh water lake, some 50kms SE of Buon Ma Thuot on the way to Da Lat itself around 140km further on. Lake Lak is picture perfect; its an area mostly inhabited by the M'nong & elephants abound - the racing promises to be spectacular.

    I mention the above at this early stage following the concerns of so many about the air quality around northern Thailand at this time of year; & the expressed desire of so many to find 'an escape' for next year.

    I believe that with considerable planning (considerable being the word) it may be possible to arrange entering Vietnam via Bo Y from Attapeu in Laos. (From such an entry point interested riders from the Bangkok area could join with those descending from the north). The run to the Buon Ma Thuot region would be via Kon Tum - I've posted reports on both cities/towns (or via the more remote Hwy 14C depending on interest). Rental bike options to be made available via Da Nang.

    Time in Da Lat, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue.....before heading back to the HCM Trail visiting the sensational areas around Phong Nha before exiting back into Laos at one of several options off the HCM Trail. These would be the 'surest' areas weather-wise at that time of year. Yes, I said it will involve considerable planning!

    Just a thought.
  7. Wow! Truly spectacular!

    And for the spectators at the end of the raceway- let us hope these elephants have good brakes! :thumbup:

    I've always thought the buffalo races here in Thailand were impressive, but this is on a whole different level! :clap:
  8. I've just been advised that the Buon Ma Thout Coffee Festival will be staged March 9-12, 2013. As reported above in this thread it is highly likely that the elephant races will be staged to co-incide with the coffee festival.

    As the coffee festival is held only every second year the races may possibly be conducted near Lak Lake, in which case it could be quite a spectacular event.

    Cultural events of this nature & size are disappearing, especially in their traditional, authentic state. Those interested in participating in such ceremonies whilst such cultural exchanges remain enriching are strongly advised to note the dates in their diary & remain attuned to any decision taken by the M'nong people concerning actual dates.
  9. Beautiful beasts, many thanks for the report and pics.

    I notice some of the bulls have their tusks "tipped" (sawn off) and some don't...... wonder what the ivory poaching situation is like in Vietnam? I did hear as far back as '88 the wild elephant population was down to 3 figures but sadly this was an effect of the war, not poaching.

    I remember going to see the awesome "Year of the Elephant" pageant in Bangkok and marveling at the beautiful tusks on all the bulls....... till I got closer and saw they were all "falsies" held on by huge jubilee clips! The beasts were all from the Thai Forest Industry Organisation and the bulls routinely have their tusks tipped to discourage poachers.
  10. This from yesterday's Viet Nam News:

    Elephants given protection funds
    [TABLE=width: 310, align: right]
    [TD=align: center]05-voi.jpg[/TD]
    [TD]Elephants play football in a cultural festival in the Central Highlands Province of Dak Lak. Local lawmakers have approved a policy to protect the elephants. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Ha[/TD]
    DAK LAK (VNS)— Lawmakers in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak have approved a policy to protect elephants. Under the policy, the provincial government will spend US$2.85 million until 2015 to offer free healthcare services to the animals each year. All of the fees for medical examinations and medicine will be paid by the government.
    Elephant owners have to pay at least half of the fees for medicine when health check-ups are required. The local government would pay the rest.

    During the 1980s, the province had 550 wild elephants, but now the figure was estimated to go down to between 80 to 110 in the Dak Lak forest, the main area for elephants in Viet Nam. Since 2009, 14 wild elephants have been found dead for many reasons. The number of tamed elephants has also fallen sharply, from more than 500 in 1980 to 50.

    Protecting elephants has become a challenging issue in the Central Highlands.Three years ago, Flora & Fauna International (FFI) warned that 150 elephants who were living at the time were in danger of becoming extinct.

    According to news website VietNamNet, in 2009, representatives from FFI built an elephant training centre in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak. At that time, they were optimistic about the project's feasibility, believing it would contribute to the conservation of wildlife. However, in September this year, Mark McDonald, a conservationist, said that groups of conservationists had little hope that their efforts would be rewarded. With limited funds from sponsors and the small scale of the centre, the efforts to stop poaching were futile. Forest rangers are now worried that the species might die out in Viet Nam if the male elephants die.

    The website quoted the director of the Dak Lak Province National Park as saying that elephant poaching had been developing rapidly. Six male elephants have been killed this year. Just last month, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development began developing a plan on protecting elephants in the provinces of Dak Lak, Nghe An and Dong Nai. The main point of the plan is that the State would provide financial support to local residents, so that they could keep and develop elephants. Under the plan, electronic-tracking chips would be attached to every elephant so they could be monitored. In addition, fences would be installed to protect elephants in conservation areas.

    The above will be of interest to M'nong leader, Y Then E Ban, deeply concerned about his people's ability to maintain their cultural association with the elephants.

    No advice yet as to exact dates & places for the elephant races this year......will keep readers posted.
  11. Great rehearsal of your report Rod ... I had missed the original posting : -(
    You are blessed to participate to such attractive festivals and I hope that they keep them going and that many of us will have an opportunity to enjoy it sometimes. Your Vietnam stories are all very enticing; it will be nice to hear also from Tahiti now ... Even so the chance for me fly so far around the world is limited.

    Sent from my iPad using Forum Runner
  12. Awesome thread Rod.
    I 've never experienced such event with so many elephants like that.
    I have chances to be in Tay Nguyen sometimes, however just sawing couples of elephant in some tourist area, normally for taking tourists walking around their village.
    Too bad that the numbers of elephant is now decending due to lots of issue.
  13. VietHorse - regretably, judging by a recent article in Thianh n ien News, time seems to be running out for this most fascinating of cremonies & associated events:

    Gov’t incentive of little help to Vietnamese elephant breeders
    [TABLE=width: 100%]
    [TD]Last Updated: Wednesday, January 09, 2013 11:40:00


    [TABLE=class: floatLeft, width: 1]
    [TD=class: image][/TD]
    [TD=class: caption][/TD]
    elephantbig.jpgElephants in Dak Lak Province lack the space and freedom to mate normally and have lost interest in reproducing
    Though the government has offered a US$19,200 subsidy per calf they are able to breed, elephant owners in Vietnam’s Central Highlands are having no less trouble getting domesticated elephants to mate and become pregnant.

    The subsidy was promised last month by the government of Dak Lak Province, which has the largest elephant population in Vietnam.
    The large sum boosted the spirits of local elephant owners, but only temporarily, as it did nothing to help them overcome the problems related to living conditions that have long prevented their elephants from reproducing. “All the animals [we raise] have produced young, but not the elephants, and that has been the case for at least 20 years now,” said Ama Drang of Buon Don District.

    The number of domesticated elephants in the province has been stuck at around 50 for a long time.

    Locals said the animals work too hard and lack sufficient space to mate. People would see the local elephants carrying tourists every day, and that has made baby elephant a rare scene.One elephant became pregnant in 2010 but the baby died after being born prematurely. Locals hypothesized that the mother must have been overworked during its pregnancy, which is supposed to last 28 months.
    [TABLE=width: 203, align: right]

    Y Gar, an elephant breeder in the province, said an elephant costs tens of thousands of dollars, “so it would be a big waste if the animal was not put to work.” He said it would also make him and other owners “unhappy” to let an elephant cease working to bring a calf to term, since they would earn nothing from the animal for more than three years, including the time the animal would need to care for its calf.

    The lack of a large space elephants require to engage in their normal mating process has caused the animals to lose sexual interest in each other, locals said.

    Ma De, an experienced elephant breeder, said “elephants are rather hostile during their mating season and can be dangerous to people, so their owners tend to chain them in the jungle without food. “After a while, domesticated elephants lose their interest in sex. And that causes their reproductive organs to deteriorate.”

    Locals said they have tried leaving the animals in the jungle during their season, so they can find partners, but have stopped after many were poached for their tusks and tails. Traditionally, an elephant’s tail hair is said to bring good luck.

    Locals are pleased that the provincial government has agreed to help them, but say they also need help establishing practical preservation policies, such as who will take the responsibility for the safety for elephants left in the jungle to mate. They said they would also need support to deal with complications that might arise during prospective pregnancies.

    Dang Nang Long, who keeps seven elephants in the province, is one of the few elephant owners that have actively tried to improve the animals’ reproductive habits. He has been trying for years to set up a private space for elephant couples to mate. He started with two of his own and after they seemed interested in each other, he has continued with three other couples, not all of which belong to him. “Elephants are similar to humans in that they only mate when they like each other,” Long said.

    Though none of the female elephants have gotten pregnant yet, Long remains optimistic and maintains faith in his method.

    It would seem that those interested in participating in this most unique & unusual event should prioritorise their attendance before it becomes too late.
  14. Now here's an event that deserves being promoted, that readers deserve having the maximum notice in advance of it's staging.

    The Vietnamese Government has placed this event on the highest echelon for festivals to be conducted in Vietnam to mark this year, 2014, being the International Year of Tourism. It made me particularly pleased as its amongst the most spectacular of festivals that one could ever see &, having been unable to find any record of the event having been staged in 2013 was concerned for its survival, the reasons for which are clearly outlined in this post.

    I felt it important to alert readers to the fact that the event has been scheduled for March 2014 & am awaiting precise dates & even locations taking into consideration the importance being given to this year's event. I understand Home Stays with the M'nong will be possible this year involving a certain 'introduction' to the techniques applied by these people in training elephants.

    I'll advise readers of exact dates once they come to hand but those interested should start planning now!
  15. My apologies for the extremely late notice but I'm led to believe the elephant races, buffalo sacrifice & water offerings are taking place as I write - March 12th & 13th. Notwithstanding the lateness of the information coming to hand it just may be that someone in HCMC or thereabouts could well benefit from the advice.
  16. From far away in the South Pacific, Bora Bora to be exact, I was surfing the web looking to find news of this year's race in Dak Lak province. Its a festival that absolutely blew me away, one I was so keen to attend i did so with a broken ankle.

    The reports I found were scant but what I did find was the following statistic - you should remember that we are talking of the M'nong here, a race of people acclaimed to be the best elephant trappers & tamers in the world. this is an area where elephants abound, well comparatively abound.

    Returning to the statistic - in Dak Lak province in 1985 there were 502 elephants, in 2000 84 elephants & by 2010 only 60! This years festival saw 18 elephants compete. the Vietnamese government is pouring millions into projects to save the elephant but it would appear with little success.

    The numbers make one wonder for how long 'the show will go onDo yourself a favour & try to get there next year (although the numbers are suggesting that it may became a biannual event).
  17. I'm a long way from Vietnam but I am advised that the elephant races will be conducted this year around 1st March, 2016.

    This is a unique event, a rare moment of adventure that you will never forget so this is a bump for those riding in Vietnam or looking to ride there to do some research & head on down to these races & a number of associated events unique to this part of the world so as to witness something absolutely extraordinary.

    My tip is to consider renting a bike from Flamingo Travel - if you do so they will be able to determine the exact date of the elephant races for you - then organise a tour around the races .......... the ride down from Hanoi is sensational!
  18. My advice is that this spectacular & truly unique event will take place between 12-14 March as part of the Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Festival & the Central Highlands Gong Culture Festival 2017.

    This represents a second to none chance to see something quite exceptional, to experience some of the world's best coffee - truly worth the visit in itself - plus a chance to cruise the great riding in the highlands of Vietnam - with easy access to fabulous Dalat.

    Don't even hesitate!
    • Like Like x 1

Share This Page