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Published: July 15th 2020
Although he who walks behind an elephant may feel secure, he is likely to get splattered with elephant dung… ~ Lao Proverb
Today we were continuing to explore the calm and alluring township of Luang Prabang
We woke early, but headed to breakfast fairly late at 7:30am. I enjoyed muesli with yoghurt and milk, but I made the mistake of ordering the special eggs with toppings
– a type of baked eggs with sweet bread and sweet Chinese sausage. I simply didn't like it (which is VERY rare for me), so I had to re-order a vegetarian omelette, which was so much better. The woman in the kitchen wasn’t very impressed with me at all, but then again, I don’t think she was all that impressed with people in general. Cold orange cordial and hot tea rounded the breakfast off.
With breakfast complete, we jumped into a minibus and headed to the outskirts of Luang Prabang. We drove through very basic villages, and we also had to navigate the seismic impact of the China-Laos Railway Project – an ambitious high-speed train link that will connect Kunming in China with Vientiane in Laos by 2021.
We’d drifted under half-complete bridges on the Mekong River a few days earlier, so we were familiar with this project, but we
didn’t realise the impact it was having on rural life in Laos. The dirt roads were rutted and the surrounding environs were scarred. Laos is one of East Asia’s poorest countries, so I’m pretty sure the key beneficiaries of the China-Laos Railway Project reside in Beijing. I doubt Laotians in the local villages surrounding Luang Prabang will benefit much from this train link in the years to come. It is always difficult to witness a diminutive country in the financial clutches of a monolithic autocracy.
Despite the bumpy road and the unsettling impact of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative
, our bone rattling trip was worth it, because we were travelling to the MandaLao Elephant Conservation. The aim of this sanctuary is to preserve and protect domesticated and wild elephants, and it was to be an incredible experience. We donned special waterproof knee-high boots, gingerly clambered into a long thin canoe and sped across a narrow but fast flowing river to the waiting elephants. We fed them bananas, then walked with them through the sanctuary grounds. MandaLao markets itself as an intimate non-riding elephant experience
, and it certainly ensures this is the case.
The sanctuary is an absolute
leader in ethical tourism – there are no chains, no hooks, no ropes and no riding saddles. The elephants walk freely in their natural habitat, and we (as tourists) walk alongside them. The entry fee contributes to their ongoing care, which simply adds to the experience. I loved it, and Ren was over the moon. She had a smile on her face from the time we arrived, and her love of the sanctuary was amplified a hundredfold by meeting Panda, the resident (and absolutely adorable) three legged dog that followed us everywhere.
We walked with four of the resident elephants for an hour, and the time literally flew. When it was time to leave, it was to be a very reluctant goodbye. We made our way back down to the riverbank, carefully boarded the long thin canoe and sped back across the river to the sanctuary headquarters. It was a relief to remove the knee-high boots, as the intense midday sun was difficult to escape, and the waterproof boot material wasn’t breathable. We settled around a long table in the covered dining area and enjoyed a very welcome lunch – stir-fried chicken, stir-fried vegetables, green curry with vegetables, steamed
rice and tempura vegetables. The Beerlao was also very welcome, and Ren’s fresh ginger and lime juice was incredibly refreshing.
We headed back to Luang Prabang in the early afternoon, and set out on a walking tour of the city. However, we’d barely started before stumbling upon Tamarind, a Lao-fusion restaurant on the banks of the Nam Khan (which flows into the Mekong). We settled at an outside table on the balcony and ordered drinks (iced Lao coffee and iced smoked black tea) and a dessert degustation (khanom chan yai
). The cold drinks were extremely cooling, and aspects of the dessert sharing plate were fantastic, including the purple sticky rice. However, there were a few components of the dessert degustation that weren’t terribly appetising, including the steamed pumpkin slice.
Feeling suitably refreshed (and very full), we made our way to the north eastern tip of the city, where the Mekong River and Nam Khan River meet. We were looking for Wat Xieng Thong (the city’s best-known monastery), but we first found the diminutive Wat Pakkhan. After wandering along the banks of the Mekong for a short distance, we finally stumbled upon the impressive Wat Xieng Thong. Despite being
an open and relaxing space, the early afternoon sun was searing, and tourist buses were arriving in force, so we managed to capture a few photographs before retreating from the sun and the parading tourist hordes.
We continued southwest along the Mekong riverbank, hugging shade wherever we could find it, then detoured (accidentally) through the peaceful and sheltered lanes around Wat Xieng Mouane in the city’s old quarter. We were beginning to fade in the afternoon sun, so we decided to head back to the hotel. We stopped at an ATM on the way and withdrew $1.5 million KIP (approximately $240 Australian dollars), then bee-lined for Legend Hotel (our comfortable haven in Luang Prabang).
After a long day in the sun, Ren collapsed into bed, while I headed down to the central courtyard of the hotel. As dusk slowly fell, I settled at a table with my laptop and a cold beer and caught up on my travel writing. It was such a relaxing way to end an eventful and rewarding travel day.
We’ve visited a lot of places over the years, because we crave new cultures and atypical experiences. The smell of new foods, the lure
of new customs, the smile of those who may speak differently to us, but who embrace us as we pass through their hometown. And while the desire to stop and immerse ourselves in a village, town or city is ever-present, we are (for the most part) always ready to move on, because new cultural experiences await just around the corner…
However, every so often a place kindles something within you. Something that lures you to stay on a few days, or to not leave at all. And when you do leave, you long to return. I’ve only experienced this a few times during our travels, most recently in Bucharest (Romania’s gritty capital). As I sat quietly in the hotel courtyard and reflected on our experiences over the past few days, I realised I wasn’t ready to leave Luang Prabang. Not quite yet anyway. This place had a calm bohemian atmosphere that was very appealing to me. I came here thinking I would struggle in the city’s debilitating heat, but I ended up falling for its gentle pace of life. We were leaving early the next day, and yet here I was describing my desire to stay on. I retired
to our room with a heavy heart.
We woke early to witness local monks collecting alms from Buddhist devotees (and non-devoted tourists) in the old city centre. We set off in darkness around 5:30am and walked to Chao Fa Ngum Road, where a small group of monks had already started to queue in preparation for the daily procession. It was still dark when they started, so photography was limited, but I felt uneasy as a voyeuristic bystander, standing and staring at such an important component of Buddhist life. Should this really be a tourist highlight? I started to wish I’d stayed at the hotel and settled with my laptop, writing about how this incredible city on the banks of the Mekong had so captured my imagination…
We didn’t stay long. We were leaving for Vang Vieng at 8:30am, and our journey involved a seven hour trip over mountains in a minibus. We needed to finalise our packs and grab some breakfast. SHE SAID...
This was only our second day in Luang Prabang
, but the place already felt like an old soulmate! 😊
We loved our hotel (Legend Hotel), but breakfast wasn’t nearly as nice
as the day before, nor were the staff. The lovely woman from the day before had been replaced with an extremely grumpy one. My omelette had bits of eggshell in it, and the spaghetti carbonara I’d loved the day before had been replaced with a greasy meaty macaroni – that was sweet! And yes, it was as gross as it sounds! The only thing I enjoyed were the slices of fresh mango and watermelon.
I was beyond excited to get the day started. We were spending the day with rescued elephants at MandaLao Elephant Conservation. It had been organised through Intrepid Travel, and two MandaLao minibuses picked us up for the 30 minute drive to the sanctuary. It was a very dusty drive along roads under construction, and it was as bumpy and uncomfortable as the road to the Kuang Si waterfalls the previous day.
MandaLao Elephant Conservation has been in operation for just over five years (with the support of World Animal Protection) and describes itself as ‘an intimate non-riding experience focused on education and elephant welfare’. It occupies a couple of hundred hectares of forest on the banks of the Nam Khan River.
as we arrived, we received a briefing from Mr Prasop Tipprasert, the resident ecologist and elephant specialist. He had worked in conservation for decades, and had successfully increased elephant numbers in Thailand. He was now using his Positive Reinforcement Training to help elephants and their mahouts (elephant handlers) in camps in Laos. We were briefed on elephant physiology, diet, breeding and optimal lifestyle.
All the elephants in the sanctuary had been rescued from physically demanding labour in the logging industry or from the equally hideous work of giving numerous rides a day to tourists; while being chained at all times. The ethos here is to try and replicate the life that a wild elephant would have (as much as possible). They are free to happily wander the forest and feed naturally, enabling them to eat the bulk they require (about 250kg!), as well as being able to walk the number of kilometres they need to help their weak digestive system to work. Apparently allowing them time to socialise with each other is an important but often overlooked part of caring for elephants in captivity. They are a herd animal, and need the company of other elephants for their emotional
health. And very happily the elephants are chain-free, and no hooks are used on them either!
The 12 rescued elephants have never known life as truly wild elephants, so they can never be released into the wild. In order to fund the sanctuary’s work, we get to spend time with the elephants as they go about their daily routines. Other younger elephants (who will be released into the wild eventually) aren’t part of this program and have no contact with tourists.
The other thing I really admire about this sanctuary is that they offer income streams to the surrounding community. There are many conservation efforts that only focus on the elephants and not the other half of the equation – the people who have to live with the aftermath of wild elephants who are existing in exponentially decreasing natural habitats. The locals around the sanctuary have been commissioned to grow crops for the elephants, and others have been hired to work in the sanctuary.
I really appreciated listening to Mr Prasop. After the briefing, we were fitted with gumboot type leach / mud / water proof long boots before walking down to the river. While waiting with
Chris, Carole and Naa for the canoe to return for us (after dropping off the first half of the group), we were watched over by Panda, the sanctuary’s three legged black and white dog. He tolerated my cuddles and pats, but I could tell I was distracting him from his duty of seeing us off. He was clearly loved, and seemed to take his role as caretaker of the tourists very seriously. Even though he was incredibly steady on three legs, I did notice that while we waited, he was happy to lean against me and take some weight off his lone back leg.
Once across the river, we got a safety briefing from Mr Laan (our guide) on how to feed and walk with the elephants safely – we had to avoid loud talking, laughing, sudden movements and approaching the elephant from behind. He had seen our interaction with Panda and said that elephants were even more emotionally perceptive than dogs, adding – ‘if you have an open heart, they will know it’. 😊
We met Bung Un, a 37 year old female, and Mae Tu, a taller 40 year old female. We fed them a large
basket of bananas to build a relationship and gain their trust. They loved the bananas and kept searching our hands for more, and when I held out my empty palms to show them I had none left (jazz hands style, as I do with our dogs), they still ran their snotty trucks along my hands to make absolutely sure they were empty. Un also kept thinking Andrew’s camera was a treat, and tried to grab it a couple of times. I hadn’t realised their eyesight was so poor.
At some point Mr Laan told us we could stand closer to the two elephants and touch them if we wished… well, I didn’t have to think twice about that offer… actually I didn’t even think once! I was cuddling the bridge of Tu’s warm and prickly trunk within seconds. Un seemed to be more drawn to Andrew and wasn’t as open to my hugs as Tu was. It was extremely interesting that we hadn’t even spent 15mins with them, and their individual personalities were becoming so apparent.
When the banana basket was empty, they were ready to begin their morning walk. We basically started walking, and Un and Tu
unhesitatingly followed us with their mahouts bringing up the rear. They knew this routine. We first walked by the river, cut through fenced off farmland and then into a lightly forested area full of teak trees, jungle vines, bamboo and other growth that elephants like to eat. They would stop to eat anything and everything that took their fancy, and we’d hang around waiting for them to finish. I loved that the walk was very much about them rather than us.
Apparently Un and Tu had worked at the same logging camp together, and very thankfully had been rescued together. They had been at Mandalao for three years, and were firm friends. They spend their days walking and munching together, and at night they sleep next to each other in the jungle. My heart just melted!
The elephants wandered off the path into the forest undergrowth, and we had to be careful that we weren’t in the way of any vines or branches being pulled down by the hungry munchers! The other half of our group were walking with Kahm and Kuhn, and they caught up with us soon after we’d entered the forest. The four elephants mingled
and socialised together and I honestly couldn’t tell them apart anymore (apart from identifying their mahouts).
Kahm and her mahout Mr Yod had been walking with the other group, but I soon realised that Kahm was a gorgeous creature and I was grateful that I could spend some time with her too! I initially thought she was older than Tu, as her trunk was much smoother to the touch (elephants lose their bristly hair with age). However, she didn’t have the pink age pigmentation that Tu had, so I may have been wrong about this. Kahm stood calmly while I got my fill of pats and cuddles. She was a magnificent old girl, and I could have spent days with her!
The elephants are so obviously happy here – with ears flapping, and bottoms and tails swinging. Standing among these four very calm elephants, I was beside myself with joy in the beautiful sun dappled forest! 😊
The elephants eventually seemed to have had enough to eat, and the main guide started wrapping up the walk. It was fascinating to see that rather than stand together, each of the four elephants gravitated to their mahout and stood
quietly by their side. They have such a strong and beautiful connection with the mahouts.
Mahouts usually bond with an elephant for life, so I should make note of the fact that not only have the mahouts cared for their elephants for many years, but they’ve also had to adapt to huge changes in the lives of the elephants (with a direct impact on their own livelihoods). It was heartening to see that Mr Yod was able to keep caring for Kahm when she was bought by the sanctuary.
This was by far the most ethical elephant sanctuary I have visited, and I was so happy to support it. While the elephants are still exposed to tourists, we were merely observing them… on their terms and not ours! And most importantly for me, there was immense respect shown to these majestic creatures. I was on cloud nine to have this sort of extended close and personal experience with the elephants.
We ended the walk after about an hour and returned to the sanctuary headquarters to have lunch. It was an extremely hot day, so Andrew enjoyed a large cold Beerlao, and my ginger and lime drink was
also superb. Lunch was extremely fresh and tasty – straight out of the sanctuary's organic farm. We were served shared dishes of steamed rice, vibrant stir-fried vegetables, tempura vegetables, a vegetarian green curry, and stir-fried chicken with vegetables. For dessert we enjoyed the small dark yellow bananas that we’d bribed the elephants with earlier that morning. The meal marked the end of our experience at MandaLao, and I left with a very full and happy heart. I was so pleased and thankful that these elephants were finally leading a contented life, and I felt so grateful for having had that experience.
On a related animal note, I’m yet to comment on what an animal magnet Philipp is! All animals seem to love him and immediately gravitate towards him… to a point where pet dogs have even come running out of their gates to greet him when we walk past! I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s a true animal whisperer.
Back in town, we were dropped off near one of the two bamboo bridges over the Nam Khan River. The bamboo bridges are apparently one of Luang Prabang’s iconic sights and I saw them featured on many postcards
of the town. The bridges are an essential connection between the villages and the trading sector in the old quarter of Luang Prabang, and they’re a bit unique because of their ‘seasonality’. Every year they are dismantled before the rainy season (the strong river currents have swept away bridges in the past) and then re-built by the locals after the rains.
Andrew and I headed into the old town to do a shortened version of the Lonely Planet walking tour. The plan was to only visit the temples and streets we hadn’t seen so far, and to omit the museums we didn’t wish to visit.
We started at Tamarind Restaurant for much needed cold drinks – an iced smoked tea with lime for me and an iced Lao coffee for Andrew. We then shared a degustation dessert platter that had seven desserts, all of which were made from rice or rice flour. We love trying the traditional food in every country we visit, but we also try to find examples of chefs and restaurants such as Tamarind that represent the modern side of the country. Some of the rice flour desserts were delicious and others weren’t, but I
loved trying all of them. My favourites were the peanut brittle, khao gum
(purple sticky rice cooked in sweetened coconut milk) and key meo
(deep-friend long crunchy rice flour and coconut biscuits). My least favourite was the sang kaya maak eu
(steamed egg custard set in pumpkin), even though this is supposed to be a local delicacy.
We kept walking along the Nam Khan River, seeking shade from the old riverside trees wherever we could. Our next stop was at Wat Pakkhan, a small and simple but very cute temple. It sat at the very tip of the curved peninsula, where the Nam Khan snakes towards the Mekong River. The wooden angled support struts on the outside walls of the temple gave it a sort of topsy-turvy feel that I really liked.
A little further around the tip of the peninsula, at the confluence of the two rivers, was Wat Xieng Thong temple – the main destination of our walk. We had ducked down a charming side street and quite by chance came upon a back entrance to the temple. The 16th century complex was a favourite straightaway. It’s one of Luang Prabang’s most important temples, with strong
ties to royalty and contains valuable traditional art.
All the buildings in the monastery complex were beautiful, with striking rooflines, gilded and lacquered walls, mosaics, and wall carvings. However, the main ordination hall kept drawing my attention. It had the most elaborate sweeping roof, intricate gold stencilled art on black lacquer, ceramic mosaics and an exquisite ‘tree of life’ glass mosaic on the rear temple wall. I noticed that there was a combination of many mythical and real animal motifs in all the art. The elegance of the buildings and the tranquillity of the complex made this a very attractive site. Even though we had chosen the hottest part of the day to visit, it meant we virtually had the place to ourselves. However, within minutes of me saying this to Andrew, we saw two big buses pull up at the main entrance and spew about 50+ people into the complex. Talk about jinxing ourselves. 😊
We continued walking along the Mekong, admiring the lovely traditional Lao wooden architecture which contrasted beautifully with French colonial influenced buildings. It was a very attractive and charming neighbourhood. There were many more hotels and guesthouses in this part of the city,
but it didn’t feel at all touristy.
Very oddly, even though the Nam Khan was so close to the Mekong, the feeling on this side of the peninsula was distinctly different. I loved the coconut trees crammed along the banks of the river, lovely little gardens and the little cemented alcoves which held artists and small stalls.
We were starting to tire, and our map was proving to be slightly inadequate in finding the Xieng Mouane area. We stopped to look at a small Wat and by chance noticed that we were at the Xieng Mouane temple. The reason we couldn’t see any signs pointing to the area was because we were already in it! It was a small enclave of artisans with studios and shops open to the public. We checked out two shops but the prices were a bit exorbitant, and we didn’t see anything we liked anyway. Back on the street, we were very very grateful that the area was heavily shaded with old trees.
By 4pm we were both extremely hot and tired, so we began walking back to the hotel with a detour to an ATM. Back at the hotel I was
absolutely shattered and napped for nearly three hours, while Andrew caught up on his notes in the hotel's courtyard. I was going to join Andrew, but it was that bewitching dusky hour much loved by mosquitoes, so I resisted and stayed in the room. We’d already had to ask the hotel reception for a mosquito repellent plug-in for our room, but they’d run out and we got a spray can instead. Given the choice of potentially getting malaria or breathing in possibly toxic fumes, we chose the fumes. 😖
I was slightly more refreshed and revitalised when I woke up, but after a short discussion we decided to have a night in. We were tired, and we were also full from indulging in so many big meals since arriving in Luang Prabang. An early night was a good idea, as it was going to be a 5:30am start to experience the giving of alms to monks at dawn.
The almsgiving ceremony is a longstanding tradition in Lao Buddhist culture. Almsgiving takes place daily as the sun rises, beginning with the monk’s procession through the main street of Luang Prabang, and then spreading out to all the side streets.
For a few years now we’ve read that giving alms to monks has become so much of a tourist spectacle that the monks are considering abandoning the early morning ritual. Locals wake up early and cook fresh food for the monks, offering the best they have as a way for Buddhists to gain merit. However, over time the almsgiving has become a popular tourist activity, and the monks are reportedly getting ill from tourists offering them old sticky rice and food leftover from the night before. And there is also the aspect of monks being stalked by tourists with flashing cameras.
We didn’t participate in giving alms, but we went along to observe and possibly take photos. I wish with all my heart that we hadn’t gone. The light was too bad for photos anyway, and we contributed to a spectacle that I found rather distasteful. I really wish the monks would insist that tourists didn’t participate in what is essentially a religious and culturally important ritual for the locals and monks only.
We walked back to the hotel through silent and sleepy streets, our path barely lit by the light from lone naked bulbs in occasional shopfronts.
I had an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I felt slightly dirty. As much as I like judging situations for myself rather than blindly accepting what I've read… I really wished I hadn’t participated in something I strongly believe was neither culturally sensitive nor responsible tourism by any stretch of the imagination. I was disappointed with Intrepid Travel (a proponent of Responsible Travel) for suggesting it, and with Naa (our group leader) who had promoted it as the highlight of the trip – because it most certainly wasn’t!
Anyway, trying to put that spectacle behind us, we packed and organised ourselves for a long travel day ahead. I try not to have a heavy meal on a travel day, so I opted for a light breakfast – a cup of tea, a plain omelette and a few pieces of mango and watermelon. The Legend Hotel had been a pleasant haven of calm ambience and good service, plus our room had been very large and comfortable. Even though it may have been nice to stay in the heart of the city centre, I appreciated being a short walk away from the hustle and bustle.
was sad to be leaving Luang Prabang. Not only was it a visually beautiful city, it also had a welcoming vibe that made us feel immediately comfortable. This lovely ambiance was also helped by the Lao people being amazingly friendly and polite. I know tourism hasn’t taken hold here like it has in other parts of Southeast Asia, but we weren’t treated as tourists at all, and nor were our interactions purely commercial. I could easily have spent another few weeks in this gorgeous laidback city, wandering its street and eating its delicious food. Andrew and I had many conversations about moving here at some point! 😊
Next we travel south to Vang Vieng, in limestone karst country.
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