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Published: December 30th 2010
Not The Least Bit "Laos-y" “Seung, Mae Nam! Seung!,”
yelled our Mahout. Obediently, Mae Nam bent her massive tree-trunk sized leg, creating a step up to allow her trainer to climb aboard. “Your turn,”
said the Mahout. “Seung!”
I beamed. The elephant obliged and I was able to climb onto the massive animal. A grin settled onto my face. Bareback riding an Asian elephant in the middle of the Laotian mountains is definitely something to write home about.
Laos is a country of smiling people, tangerine cloaked monks and French colonial architecture. While ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’ is one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world, it is also a land full of picturesque landscapes where farms outnumber buildings and kids chase foreigners for a smile and a wave. The 21st century hasn’t quite found Laos yet, and to our surprise communism still has a stronghold. Wherever you see a Laotian flag flying, the red and yellow hammer and sickle is waving adjacently.
From Hanoi we flew to the town of Luang Prabang. Timeless yet invigorating, sleepy yet activity-filled, this historically charming city is protected under the UNESCO umbrella for its cultural value.
$15/night. Not bad.
We fell in love with Luang Prabang and were instantly able to see why it is considered to be a gem in Indochina. Settled in between the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, the city center is filled with cultural shops, trekking outfitters, aromatic bakeries, restaurants overlooking the rivers, book stores, massage havens, lodging to fit any budget, and streets that were actually easy to cross. We felt slightly disappointed that our schedule only allowed us to indulge in Luang Prabang for three nights, but we went forth and tried not to let our venturing get in the way of our relaxation.
Our first two days were filled with site exploration by foot (aka walking). We hiked to the summit of Phu Si hilltop to see views of the surrounding area and walked over the old Communist Bridge out of the touristic center. When we crossed the bridge we were given a little more insight into everyday Laos. We witnessed a wedding processional where family and friends were walking the groom to the bride’s house for their ceremony. We also stumbled into a local carnival celebrating the Hmong New Year. Girls were dressed up in their traditional
Hmong attire and everyone was playing games, eating and riding carnival rides. Returning to town, we sat along the river bank, drank fresh fruit smoothies and watched across the way while farmers tended to their fields and gardens. We also admired the local kids diving into the river time and again to chase their soccer ball from where they were playing along the dusty rivers’ edge. Night time was dedicated to food and wine. We found the food, both local and international, to be delicious and reasonably priced. A few times we engaged the table next to us and spent hours conversing and drinking wine with new friends.
The third day was our much anticipated elephant adventure. After researching the different trekking outfitters, we booked with Tiger Trail, a sustainable tourism company whose original intent was to give elephants a refuge from exploitation and a proper ‘elephant’s retirement.’ Elephant mistreatment continues today. They are often overused by populations around the world for farming, logging and immoral tourism. Development as well as slash-and-burn practice is diminishing their natural habitat, as there is less forest to roam. The money we paid not only allowed us to visit elephants for a day,
but it also aids in the sustainability of the project, the elephants, and the local people. They even have an elephant hospital on location.
We spent the first half of our daytrip learning basic commands from the Mahout, or elephant trainer, riding our own elephant bareback, and bathing it in the river. It was such an enjoyable experience! They are beautiful, powerful animals, who seem both intelligent and kind hearted. We said a warm goodbye to our wrinkly friends and continued our tour by boating upstream to a limestone waterfall. It was a tad too chilly to swim, (it is the cool season here) so we conversed with our eclectic group over drinks and took in the views.
If not for our next booking, we would have stayed in Luang Prabang longer; however, we soon realized that we were in store for something unimaginable. After an overnight bus ride from Luang Prabang, we found ourselves in Huay Xai (pronounced after much trial to be “Hoy Sigh”), the jumping off point to our next escapade, The Gibbon Experience.
Exclusively located inside the Borkeo National Reserve, the Gibbon Experience is a three day-two night adventure of zip-line flying, backwoods hiking,
along the Nam Khan river
and overnight sleeping in tree houses only accessible by cable. We originally heard about it in Panama from a Russian woman who had gone two years earlier. She raved about it and said it was not to be missed.
The Gibbon Experience fully lived up to its reputation. Three hours in a car, one and a half hours uphill by foot (aka hiking), and a network of cable wires later, we landed in a tree house with a couple from Utah, Nate and Caitlin. Built about six stories off the ground with an unobstructed 180-degree view of the valley below, the tree house and its surroundings were breathtaking. Our first afternoon was spent hanging out in the jungle canopy listening to the calls of the wild and watching a beautiful sunset with our new friends. Dining was a delightful experience. Our loveable guide, Noushan, would zip over to our tree house to serve us delicious local cuisine cooked nearby in jungle huts. We got to know our bunkmates very well, and they have turned out to be some of our favorite people we have met so far. Even with great food and conversation, bedtime still came early in the
forest in order to recoup after a long day of trekking and zipping, and to prep for another full day ahead.
Noushan woke us up each morning at the break of dawn and took us trekking in search of animals, namely the critically endangered Black Crested Gibbon, a species located in very specific parts of Northern Laos, Northern Vietnam and South China. We were given a 50% chance of seeing a gibbon in the wild prior to arrival, and we were hopeful on our first morning hike. While we did not see a gibbon that day, our time was not spent in vain, as the sounds of the jungle in the early morning were plentiful, and the cloudy mist of first light was peaceful.
Then the adrenaline began to flow. For the day, we were given complete access to the network of zip-lines, and with Noushan as our guide, we were transported into the world of Peter Pan. Zip-lines are basic contraptions where you have a harness around your hips like that of rock climbing. The harness connects to a carabineer with a pulley attached. You connect yourself to a taught cable of varying length (some as long
as 1000 meters) and fly along letting gravity do the work. Not only was it invigorating to soar above the trees, but it also provided us with unbelievable views. We zipped through the forest for hours. None of the four of us wanted to stop and Noushan gladly allowed us to continue. Even though he zips hundreds of times a week, he was still as excited as if it were his first time.
The morning of our last day, we woke at 6:00 a.m. in our final attempt to spot the elusive gibbon. Our guide motioned for us to be quiet, led us silently into the brush and perked up when he heard a call. Then, between the trees, about 30 yards away, one appeared! Even though it was only for a moment, the gibbon sighting was certainly a highlight. Out of 14 people who trekked into the jungle with us, the four of us from tree house 3 were the only ones to spot a gibbon. How fortunate!
We were so sad to leave, and we even attempted to bribe our way into staying longer. To no avail, we had to depart The Gibbon Experience and thus
Streets of Luang Prabang
Everywhere there is a Lao flag, a communist flag is hung next to it
make our way back to Thailand. It was an experience of a lifetime to be so far into the jungle, so far away from civilization, and in one of the best playgrounds either of us had ever encountered.
Aside from the joy of floating through the trees, making great friends, sleeping in tree houses, and seeing a gibbon, it was also great knowing that The Gibbon Experience gives back. A rather large percentage of the proceeds go toward preservation, animal rehabilitation, and reforestation. In 2010 alone, 100,000 new trees were planted in the Borkeo National Reserve buffer zone. It is comforting to know that measures are being taken to protect such a remarkable place with such precious flora and fauna.
From Luang Prabang and the elephants to The Gibbon Experience, our Laos trip felt a bit magical. There is certainly more to see and learn, but we accepted our break from city-life, history and war with open arms. The lighter side of Laos was just what we needed, and it left us eager to return.
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