There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Luang Prabang (3) Elephants: Part 12 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

We rose early to watch the monks receive their daily alms.


After breakfast we left Luang Prabang for our half day elephant experience. After driving northeast for half an hour beside the Nam Khan River (which flows into the Mekong at Luang Prabang) we turned down a dirt road, followed it through a village and entered the elephant sanctuary.

Breakfast time in the elephant sanctuary
The Kingdom of a Million Elephants was always an overstatement, but Laos is now estimated to be home to only 1600 elephants. 600 of these work in the declining logging industry and face redundancy within the next few years, which means they will be put down or left to fend for themselves. Domesticated elephants are incapable of returning to the wild, so sanctuaries like this are the only hope for retired and superfluous elephants.

Seven female elephants are kept on site. One is a nursing mother so she is separated from the rest, another is pregnant and excused giving rides, leaving five working.
'I'm having my breakfast, you can have a ride when I've finished.'
 A young man called Sou Kan was delegated to look after us for the morning, so we walked around the reception area and read all the information while he organised us an elephant and a mahout.

We were introduced to Mai Ham Tong, who seemed an admirable elephant with a trusting look in her eye. We climbed the gantry and slid ourselves into the wobbling wooden howdah strapped to her back. Our previous elephant ride in southern India had involved sitting one behind the other on the beast's back where we felt secure and safe, but the howdah swayed alarmingly with every lumbering step.
Elephants ready to work
A man with 'mahout' across the back of his tee shirt clambered nimbly onto Ham Tong's neck and we set off through the sanctuary garden.

We had gone 50m when Ham Tong stopped, turned sideways and refused to continue. The mahout dismounted, walked into her eye-line and issued some strict orders. Ham Tong ignored him. She seemed unhappy and I wondered about our chances of survival in a flimsy, unstable howdah on a bolting elephant – despite their preference for a slow plod they are capable of speeds of 40kph or more.

I would have been happier if the mahout had stayed on the elephant rather than standing several metres away, but I assumed he was a professional and knew what he was doing.
He shouted at the elephant again and Ham Tong broke wind. Sitting on a farting elephant sounds, and feels, remarkably like sitting on a revving motorbike. Then there was a heavy plopping sound. Once Ham Tong had done her jumbo sized business she forgot about her rebellion and continued calmly on her way.

At the end of the garden we turned down a steepish slope towards the river, the mahout returned to his perch on her neck and I relaxed. Ham Tong now seemed contented, but even a fractious elephant cannot charge through water and if we did fall off, unlikely though that was, we would land in the Nam Khan which is, clean, clear and only waist deep.
Ham Tong turns right towards the river
As we neared the water I realised that my calm was not shared by Lynne. My attitude was entirely rational (of course, when is it not?) but Lynne has an unreasonable and exaggerated fear of water. I made reassuring noises but all she would say as the elephant lumbered down the slipway was 'let me out' - an impracticable suggestion as we had required a gantry to get on and would require another to get off.

Once Ham Tong entered the water and turned to walk downstream the steady rhythmic plodding made Lynne calmer.

Ham Tong wades into the Nam Khan River
We reached a stony shoal dividing the river into two streams. The mahout hopped off, asked for our camera and proceeded to take 30 or more pictures as the now perfectly behaved elephant trudged across the shoal. He did a good job, too, most are nicely framed and he ensured the sun was always at his back.

Trudging along the stony shoal, Nam Khan River

Returning our camera he hopped back on board and Ham Tong waded ashore where a path ascended to the nearby village. As we lumbered through the village, Ham Tong paused to eat some newly cut banana leaves and the mahout plucked a bright red flower and inserted it into the cavity elephants conveniently have just above their cheekbones.

The mahout indicates the crossing point
At the end of the village we returned to the elephant sanctuary.

Back towards the sanctuary
 Kan greeted our return, 'have some tea or coffee,’ he said, indicating a table with an urn and some cups, 'and then we'll go and see the baby elephant'.

Ham Tong sports her flower, her morning's work over
As I reached out to pick up the jar of coffee another hand reached out and then dropped. 'Sorry,' said an American voice behind me, 'I didn't mean to cut in.' 'That's alright,' I said. 'Anyway,' the American voice continued 'I'd assumed you were having tea.' ‘We don't have to act like stereotypes all the time,’ I told her, put a spoonful of coffee in a cup for Lynne and then, as I am no fan of instant coffee, picked up the Lao tea. So am I a stereotype after all? A spoonful of Lao tea leaves floating in a cup of hot water is, I think, far enough removed from a Tetley's teabag not to count.

We carried our cups over to a gazebo with a wonderful view over the river and the jungle beyond. I doubt there can be a better place to sit and sip tea.

The view from the gazebo
Afterwards we joined Kan and walked down the slope Mae Ham Tong had taken earlier. At the bottom a pirogue was waiting to take us over the river - the first time on the whole trip that we used an appropriately sized boat.

Across the Nam Khan by pirogue
On the other side we walked through a teak plantation.........
Through a teak plantation
beside the Nam Khan River
 ......and then through the forest to reach the clearing where young Maxi was kept with his mother.

Forestry workers with the versatile two-wheeled tractor
so common in SE Asia
 He is a lively young chap with a tendency to misbehave so he is kept in a stockade while there are visitors. Still suckled by his mother he also eats solid food - maize stalks garnished with banana leaves being the dish of the day. An adult elephant needs 250Kg of food daily (plus 200 litres of water) so they are expensive to keep. Maxi may be small, but he had a very firm grip with his young trunk.

Maxi and his mother
Returning to our pirogue we pottered upstream for 20 minutes and disembarked near the Tad So falls.

Lynne boards the pirogue for the next stage upstream
The path up from the river brought us to a clearing with another elephant compound and, in front of it, a group of young men playing boules.

Received wisdom is that when the French discovered the upper Mekong was not navigable and that anyway El Dorado was not there, they lost interest in the landlocked third of their Indo-Chinese colony and ruled with a light touch and very few French administrators. It is surprising, then, that Laos has apparently retained more French influences than either Vietnam or Cambodia. There are more French buildings and French restaurants, French is routinely used alongside English and Lao on menus in tourist areas, Lao hotel breakfasts (in Luang Prabang and later in Phonsavon and Vientiane) were all based on good quality French-style bread, filled baguettes are widely available, pastis can be enjoyed in bars and restaurants at reasonable prices, Vientiane (we discovered later) has shops selling a wide range of French wine at reasonable prices, and here were people playing boules. 'I have one at home,' Kan said indicating the boulodrome. 'I play with my friends in the evenings and the loser buys the beer.' Human behaviour can be remarkably similar across continents.

Playing boules in the Lao jungle
The Tad So falls were a short distance beyond, where a stream rushes down the hillside in a series of steps on its way to join the Nam Khan. At least that is what happens in the rainy season. In February, as we had been warned, a few dribbles were still descending the hillside, but in a month or two it would dry up completely until the rains at the end of May.

The Tad So falls - not much to see
A narrow path can be followed to the stream’s source a four hour walk away. We ventured a little way along it - far enough into the jungle for me to feel like David Attenborough and to strike a pose, which fulfilled some sort of lifetime ambition.
My David Attenborough moment

We were gone long enough for Kan to come looking for us, obviously fearing we had been eaten by something ferocious.
A ferocious jungle resident

The pirogue took us back down stream for a buffet lunch that had been laid out long enough to have gone cold. It was not the highlight of the day; thank goodness Beer Lao can always be relied upon to be cheap and available.

Back downstream to the elephant sanctuary
 After lunch we drove the thirty minutes back to Luang Prabang and hid from the sun's worst excesses.

We went out again later, probably a little too early as we found the streets empty. Moving slowly through the blanket of heat, it still took us only five minutes to cross the old town from our hotel on the Mekong side to the Nam Khan side.

We reached the Nam Khan where it is spanned by a bamboo bridge. The bridge is rebuilt every year after the rainy season and the family responsible levies a 5000 kip (40p) toll.

Monks on the bamboo bridge, Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang
We paid up and crossed the bouncing bamboo bridge. Upstream the town's children had taken to the water and were splashing about or swimming - a pleasant activity in the heat of the afternoon.

Lynne on the bamboo bridge
Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang
 We found little on the other side. A lane ran up past the inevitable guesthouse where hens and chickens scrabbled in the dirt. We emerged in a quiet corner of the town and strolled as far as a small monastery beyond which the tarmac road led out onto the countryside.

We emerged in a quiet corner of Luang Prabang
It was not long before we bounced or way back over the bridge, discovering that our 5000 kip toll had paid for a return journey.

More people were appearing in the streets as we returned to the main drag and after our exertions it seemed appropriate to reward ourselves with a cold beer….
Xian Thong, Luang Prabang from our chosen café
….at a café with, I thought, a most enlightened approach to heathy eating and drinking.
Yep, that's my idea of healthy, too

Afterwards Lynne returned to the hotel while I wandered into one of Luang Prabang's many massage parlours. I should point out that massage is a respectable pastime in Laos, not a euphemism for something else, and I was going for a foot massage.

In 2005 our daughter had taken us both for a foot massage in Huizhou - she was a regular when she lived in China. It was a robust massage which Lynne decided involved more pain than gain, but I was prepared to give it another go.

40,000 kip (£3) is not a lot of money to pay for an hour’s undivided attention from a young lady in short shorts. The attention was, I repeat, given only to my feet (though occasionally venturing as far as my knees) and I was sitting in a shop window in a room where several others were undergoing the same process.

Foot massage, Luang Prabang
After giving my feet a good scrub - they probably needed it, but it did tickle – she rubbed them with oil, kneaded them, pummelled and beat them and poked them with a small ebony stick, blunt at one end and rounded into a dumbbell shape at the other. The time passed quickly and I went floating back to Lynne on rejuvenated feet that hardly seemed to touch the pavement.

I liked the massage, but the effect, like the Ayurvedic massage I had in India, lasted for a disappointingly short time. In the evening we tried to visit the restaurant we had intended to go to yesterday, but it was full. There was, however, space in a restaurant across the street, the tables laid out in a garden behind the building.

Lynne was better but still not much interested in eating so she ordered a plate of chips, while I chose chicken and herbs cooked in a folded banana leaf. It was pleasant, if small so I had a dessert, a pile of sticky rice with coconut milk and slices of mango. But for the mango, it was the grolan we had seen seen in Cambodia but here was not packed inside a bamboo tube [‘grolan’ is the Khmer word, in Lao it is ‘kao lan’ and we would eat it from the bamboo in Vientiane]. The dessert was alright, but I would have liked more coconut flavour, and less crunch in the rice.

1 comment:

  1. Reading your accounts of the journeys on and around the Mekong River have definitely put this area on our list of places that we must 'do' - though not, I'm sure, in the depth and detail that you two have done it. We especially like the thought of seeing elephants in their native country and environment even if domesticated. However, Mike would have to give the foot massage a miss - it would definitely cause fainting and nausea! We would cope with the cold beers and cocktails though. Another wonderful account. Thank you. Mike and Alison