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Amazing animals to (responsibly) see

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Amazing animals to (responsibly) see

Our family recently learned about responsible animal tourism at a bear sanctuary in Laos. Now, we visit conservation projects instead of zoos whenever we travel – Lia

I personally don’t agree with keeping wildlife in captivity, so even though both kids are obsessed with animals, we never visit zoos on holiday. Then last year, we went on a trip to Laos where an unplanned visit to a bear sanctuary taught us about responsible animal tourism.

Free the Bears, Luang Prabang

It all started one morning at Sofitel Luang Prabang, when the hotel concierge spotted Indah’s beloved Paddington Bear toy. He asked if we knew that we could see bears in Laos, just under an hour’s drive from the hotel. I had mental images of poorly treated animals in unsanitary cages, but the concierge assured me that the Free the Bears centre is one of South East Asia’s most reputable bear sanctuaries.

Most of its residents are Asiatic black bears that have been rescued from farms where they were milked for their bile (a lucrative ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine). Now, they gambol around peaceful forest enclosures enriched with treats and toys. There are other animals here too. Budi’s favourite was a little red panda who was half cuteness, half mischief, just like him.

Indah loved one particular bear so much that we had to adopt it before she would let us leave. All the way back in the taxi, I could tell she was still thinking about the bears’ plight. A future conservationist in the making? Luckily, a swim in the hotel’s Olympic-sized pool followed by ice cream at the Governor’s Grill was enough to make sure she went to bed happy.

Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Kuching

After seeing how much the kids loved their animal encounters in Laos, we decided to try and add a conservation element to all of our trips. A few months ago, my husband had to go to Kuching on business. I was in need of a break (school runs, sleepless nights… you know the drill) so we used his Accor Plus membership to get a great deal on a Family Room and went along with him.

Pullman Kuching has it all: a big room, a huge relaxing pool and it’s just 30 minutes from the orangutan sanctuary at Semenggoh Nature Reserve. So, while Joko was in meetings, I took the kids to meet the great apes who call the reserve home. Most of them were once injured, orphaned or in captivity. Today they roam freely through the jungle so spotting them is really a matter of luck. We’d been advised to wake up early and head over for the morning feeding session for the best chance to catch a glimpse.

And what an incredible experience it was. After a briefing from the wardens, we climbed up to the feeding platform and waited. And waited… 10 minutes can seem like an eternity with young children, but everyone’s patience paid off. Gracefully swinging into view, a mother appeared. As she came closer everyone let out a collective ‘awww’, spotting a little head peering out from under her arm. I could sense that my own little ones were giddy with excitement at the sight of her baby when suddenly a crash of branches announced the arrival of a large male.  Everyone froze, even Budi and Indah were speechless (I wasn’t sure it was possible!). We took a few steps back and let him take his pick of the fruit before he disappeared into the undergrowth as quickly as he arrived.

The mother lingered, calmly grooming her baby (who had a lot more patience than Budi at bathtime, I might add!).

On the way home the spell was well and truly broken with Indah and Budi both shouting over each other and imitating the great apes. Back at the hotel though we had a chance to reflect over lunch and a dip in the pool. This was a truly lovely trip and if you’re after responsible animal encounters in Malaysia, this is one place I’d happily recommend. It helps too that I was able to get such a great deal on the hotel with my Accor Plus membership. Now I just have to worry about topping this on our next trip…

Discover these hotels here:

Sofitel Luang Prabang

Pullman Kuching

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