One of the big desires we had when booking Laos was to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary to spend time close to these majestic animals. I’m sure there are lots of elephants with below-level intelligence, anger issues, violent streaks, etc., but when I look at elephants, I just see wise, benevolent creatures too good for the modern world and I want to hug them and feed them endless bananas. We did have to pay more than what most posters listed for their “elephant experiences,” but we got to visit the beautiful Mandalao Sanctuary, hear from one of the great elephant conservationists out there about his plan to reintroduce elephants to the wild back to the numbers they used to be, and then we spent the day just doing whatever the elephants wanted to do.
Laos is called the land of a million elephants, but there are currently only about 800 left due to bad practices, the secret war the US waged on Laos in the fight against communism in Vietnam, and leftover landmines from that war that explode in the jungle regularly today. The elephants we met at the rescue were covered in scars left from the whips and hooks used on them for training in logging practices or circus work. At the Sanctuary, they are slowly reintroduced to the habit of living in and off the jungle, gently trained to forage for food again (sometimes leading to stealing from neighbor farms, which is a problem), and rehabilitated from their sad lives. The sanctuary is working with zoos as far away as Belgium to bring in males to help repopulate the land. They used elephant poop to make different products like paper and art to sell.
Our tour day was lovely – we boated over the river to the reserve and spent some time just feeding the elephants, getting them used to us. Then we walked alongside for a few hours deeper into the jungle, stopping when the elephants wanted to stop, watching them bring down entire trees just to strip them of their tasty branches. Asian elephants are nowhere near as big as African elephants, but still quite intimidating up close, and it took a while for me to feel comfortable enough to pet them, scratch them, get close and feed them sugarcane. Once I did feel comfortable, it was delightful! They have the most beautiful eyes and drip their sweet snot all over your hands and clothes trying to get to the sugarcane you’re holding. They felt cold in the “winter” we were experiencing and shivered a little bit as we walked in the shade, seeking out patches of sunlight.
We walked into the jungle to a camp and had a traditional Laos lunch, eating with our hands, then explored a bit more, meeting some locals in a Hmong village and getting to see houses, how they cooked, and how they farmed. Everyone was the friendliest person I’d ever met. I just love Laos.
That evening we watched the sunset from our “skyscraper” hotel at four stories high, and at night we went to the night market and stray cats cuddled up in our laps for warmth while we tried local foods and listened to some bands play. The next day we got to wander some more through Luang Prabang – it’s a lovely town that’s easy to navigate and full of creeping flower vines, cafes, river views, friendly locals, ex-pats that probably fell in the love with the slow pace of life, opened an overpriced clothings store and never left. A highlight was the traditional barbecue we had at Dyen Sabai, overlooking the Mekong River.
We ended our week in Laos by visiting Vang Vieng and then Vietianne, the capital. VV used to be a huge party central for backpackers with its river floats, drug culture, and cheap prices. Due to many deaths, the government stepped in to shut down the party scene and then regulate it to something more manageable. We decided we kind of had to see what the tubing was all about, so booked an overnight there and a day of tubing.
It’s now organized into groups with a guide who makes sure you get from stop to stop (how effective is this? More on that later!) and we were surprised to find a fellow Hong Konger in our group! Paddy, a boxing coach who lives in K town, was visiting his Scottish dad and his second wife in VV and taking a drinking day away. There was also a German personal trainer and a kind Japanese chef/photographer and then an older Israeli man with his hired Laotian companion for the week. Hm.
The funny thing about rubber inner tubes is there is no way to look cool getting in or out, but we were all in the mood for a good time on the really sunny day, and floated from bar to bar, making best friends for the day (Russian Katie, Mexican Andres – I fell back into the habit of calling everyone by their country first), and drifting down the rapids. However, I somehow managed to get caught in some reeds, got separated and lost from the group, and had to hop on the back of a random’s motorcycle and pay to get back to the hotel in time to make our transfer to Vientiane. It’s all a good story now, but not so much fun when you’re shivering in your wet bathing suit in the middle of a village in Laos holding a street hotdog and a dying cellphone and no sense of direction.
Luckily it all worked out, as most things do, and Corli and I made it to a beautiful B&B, a former French colonist home in Vientiane for the night. We wandered about a bit the next day, admiring the Buddhist cemetery, Laos presidential palace, and some landmarks, before making the journey to fly to Phuket and meet up with Nick and Larry for our Christmas holidays!
Overall – and things I wish I’d known before I went – Laos felt like an undiscovered country. I think because it’s landlocked it has escaped the beachgoing backpacker crowd (no judgment, I am also you) and has retained a lot of original culture and nature, while still finding a way to make tourism easy. It was SO cheap. The food was some of the best I’ve ever had, the mountains gorgeous, the people lovely, and I was forced to relax in a lovely way. “Got nothing but time,” I kept saying to myself when my impatience threatened to take over. 10/10 would do again, but only to Luang Prabang for a chill week.
Until next time, when you will meet me in Thailand!
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