Land of a Thousand Elephants

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December 24th 2006
Published: January 3rd 2007
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Pha That LuangPha That LuangPha That Luang

Vientiane's Golden Stupa, the country's most iconic temple. © L. Birch 2006
Vientiane was hot: almost unbearably so. Even sitting at a street cafe sipping a cold drink, I could feel the sweat running down my chest and soaking uncomfortably into the waistband of my trousers. A stop in the nation's capital - home to a surprisingly small population of around 200,000 people - was almost inevitable on the long trip south but for us, it was a necessary evil as we wanted to organise onward visas for Cambodia.

The Laos / Cambodian crossing at Voen Kham was not an officially recognised border entry or exit point by the Governments of either country. Increasingly however, adventurous travellers were managing to get through and - since Thailand had introduced new immigration laws from early November that would affect us - we had decided to extend our stay in Indochina and chance the crossing into Laos' southern-most neighbour. we had met travellers that had already done it but reports were mixed. Some said it was easy, others said they'd had difficulty. Some had been turned away from the border or been charged an exorbitant 'unofficial fee'.... there didn't seem to be any consistency to the stories so we knew we were just going to
Flying the FlagFlying the FlagFlying the Flag

The flag of the Socialist Union displayed on a building in Vientianne alongside that of the Lao Republic. © L. Birch 2006
have to try it for ourselves. Our chances of getting through were better, we reasoned, if we arrived at the border with a valid visa in our passports. Agencies in Vientiane were charging a whopping US$40 per person to obtain a visa on our behalf - exactly double what it would cost to buy them ourselves at the Cambodian Embassy, 4km outside town.

We did it like this. After completing the application forms the night before, I got up early the next day, hired a bicycle for the equivalent of US$1 and cycled through the dusty chaos of Vientiane to lodge them with the Embassy for processing.

On the morning that I cycled out to the Embassy, I was greeted by a surly official who took the forms, checked the passports and issued a receipt once I had handed over the US$40 for our two applications. I tried making small talk by asking if I was his first customer of the day. "What?" He replied, almost testily. "Oh, yes." There was a silence again until he handed me the receipt. "You can collect at 4pm." And with that, I was dismissed with a wave of his hand. I
Bolaven PlateauBolaven PlateauBolaven Plateau

A wild region of mountains, waterfalls and dry monsoon forest. © L. Birch 2006
was back again by 3.45pm but the official's humour had not improved. At this stage, I expected to be told that there was a delay and that I might have to pay a little 'extra' to move things along but to my surprise, I was handed the passports with a curt "Khop jai". I thanked him in return and walked back to my bicycle, studying the latest visas in our passports. They took up a whole page and had been overstamped with an impressive looking seal. Very nice, I thought.

With time to kill in Vientiane before a night bus took us south, we visited Pha That Luang: the so-called "Golden Stupa". Built around 1566 and said to contain a piece of the Buddha's breastbone, the golden stupa is probably the most iconic temple site in Vientiane, if not the country. It certainly lived up to its name and seemed to glow with a gilded yellow brilliance as the sun went down. We also changed up some money and bought a few US dollars in readiness for Cambodia. As resistant as we were about having to use dollars, there really was little choice. Government departments, even some hotels quoted
Tadlo WaterfallTadlo WaterfallTadlo Waterfall

Cascades over a rocky escarpment just outside Tadlo village. © L. Birch 2006
prices in dollars. If you insisted, you might be able to pay in the local currency but generally, you would end up paying more.

Back at our hotel there was a brief interlude with an Australian expat named Paul who shared his views and a bottle of red wine with us. He loved the Lao people but thought their food was dreadful. "Have you tried Laap yet?" He asked. We hadn't and said so. "Well don't bother." He said "It's awful". After heaping scorn on the Lao national dish, he turned to cricket. England and Australia were currently battling it out for the ashes in Melbourne. "You poms are absolutely hopeless." He told us with a grin. "You give football and cricket to the world and then promptly get thrashed by everyone at your own games." I tried pointing out that England had taken the ashes from Australia in 2005. "That was a fluke and you know it." He said with a sparkle in his eye. "You don't stand a chance this time." After finishing off the bottle of wine, Paul rose with a self satisfied sigh. "Think I'll go and check the test scores." He said, probably hoping
It's a Jungle Out ThereIt's a Jungle Out ThereIt's a Jungle Out There

Experiencing the great outdoors... on elephant back... in Laos! © L. Birch 2006
to get a final rise out of us. He made us laugh and made us promise to get in touch again when we got to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Ten hours on a night bus heading south has little to recommend it. At 6am next morning, we stumbled bleary eyed and sleepless from the bus in Pakse only to be greeted by dozens of touts, all trying desperately to get us onto expensive shuttle buses going to Si Phan Don, 130km further south. Everyone else seemed to be getting on these buses for the final dash to the border provinces and the hedonistic attractions of the Mekong islands but we had other plans. During our travels in the north, we had heard about communities in the south where a centuries old relationship between elephants and people was being broken by changes in agricultural and forestry practices. Tractors and heavy machinery were putting elephants out of business. Many were being sold off to foreign buyers or slaughtered for the (relatively) lucrative returns offered by Chinese herbalism. A few villages however, had found a novel new use for the pachyderms and were offering jungle treks to travellers.... by elephant. In
Bath Time at the RiverBath Time at the RiverBath Time at the River

After the trek, the elephants are treated to a scrub down from their mahouts. © L. Birch 2006
the past we had done a camel trek in India and a pony trek in Lesotho. How cool would it be to add an elephant trek in Laos to the list? Besides, it would help the local economy and help ensure the continued survival of domestic elephants in a country that was once known as Lan Xang - "Land of a Thousand Elephants".

So while the hordes headed south, we jumped on a local bus, destination - the Bolaven Plateau, 2 hours to the northeast of Pakse. As the bus wound its way into the low hills of the plateau, passing through small villages of palm thatched huts, I thought 'anywhere here will do.' But we were not disappointed when we finally arrived in Ban Hua Set - the bus driver indicating that this was our stop - it looked delightfully remote and rural. We found somewhere to stay in nearby Tadlo and rested on the first day, delighting in the breathtaking scenery and visiting a waterfall close to the village where we were staying. It was gloriously wild - surrounded by thin dry forest and cloud draped mountains. Close to the falls, all other sounds - including the
It's a Tough Life!It's a Tough Life!It's a Tough Life!

Viv takes a break from the rigours of blog research, Bolaven Plateau. © L. Birch 2006
ever present drone of cicadas - were drowned out by the thundering water.

Next day, hardly able to curb our excitement, we were up early to do our elephant trek that set off from a mounting block at the edge of the village. We were joined on our trek by Lorraine from France and together we set off on two elephants into the forest surrounding the clustered huts of Tadlo village. We crossed the river above the falls and the elephants continued through swamps and woodland where huge multi-coloured butterflies flitted.

The two and a half hour trek took us over streams, through paddyfields and into a local village where children wearing little else but smiles, ran along beside us shrieking excitedly at the sight of the "falang" on elephant back. Our elephant was called Moona and seemed wonderfully gentle. She had done it all before of course but was quite unfazed at having to cross fast flowing rivers strewn with slippery boulders - in fact, we were much more unnerved by this than Moona seemed to be! Finally, at the end of the trek, the elephants were fed with bananas and then taken down to the river for a bathe; their mahouts, scampering over the elephants backs and scrubbing them down with the soles of their sandals.

When it was all over, Lorraine, Viv and I agreed that it had been a wonderful experience and that we could easily do another longer trek. But despite staying another day to enjoy the peace and scenery, we didn't do another. There were just 11 days left on our visas and there was one last thing we wanted to do in Laos before crossing into Cambodia and finding somewhere to spend Christmas.


3rd January 2007

What ??
What was the one last thing you wanted to do in Laos before crossing into Cambodia ??? Stopping your story there was mean !!! Love Shelley & Mark xxx
11th January 2007

Hi there you lucky people, glad things are going well still enjoying reading about your travels but still very envious. Look after yerselves all the best Ken and Pauline xx

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