Elephants, Gibbons and Big Stone Jars

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Asia » Laos
July 11th 2006
Published: July 18th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

We arrived in Luang Prabang from Van Vieng after a 9 hour bus journey, the windy road passed through stunning scenery of tree clad mountains, though shrouded in cloud at points. The majority of the population of Laos are not served by roads, so as highways have been built little villages have sprung up along side the roads, often seemingly precariously positioned on the edge of mountain drop offs, with houses only supported by a couple of wooden stilts.

The feel of Laung Prabang was still relaxed but had a lot more of a touristy feel, this is where the majority of tourists get their first introduction to Laos. Many travellers enter Laos from Chang Khong in Thailand after visiting Chang Mai, cross the river into Laos at Ban Huay Xai and without stopping there get straight on the slow boat to Luang Prabang.

We found a quiet little hostel in the old town of Luang Prabang over looking the Mekong river and headed out to explore the wonders of the evening Handicraft Market. The market lines one of the main streets and is full of locals selling, fabrics, skirts, bedding, jewellery, lampshades and paintings. Many of the stalls sell the same thing but there are some beautiful things and some bargains to be had with some bartering. Our bartering skills are improving but still not polished, often the rule of thumb is halve the price and work up. If all else fails walk away and a good deal is soon struck as they decide to offer you a 'good price' lucky lucky Mr if you buy now! The 'good price' is still way more than what the locals pay but we still feel like we got a bargain most of the time when you think how much things actually cost when you put them into equivalents in the UK.

We spent a day exploring the city taking in Mount Phousi, which is not suprisingly a mount in the middle of the city with a little golden temple at the top and guess what there's a buddah up there too. It gave us good views over the city and entertained us for a while. It also makes you realise how small a 'big' Lao city is!
We also visited the Royal Museum which was interesting. When the communists got into power in the 1970's the remaining Royal Family either fled the country or were placed in 're-education camps' which involved lots of hard labour and propaganda. When the Royal family were removed from the Palace it was made into a museum almost straight away. It is therefore pretty much how it was left, with all the furnishings and decorations intact as well as gifts from other countries in cabinets. There is one particular room that is painted red and inlaid with pictures made out of broken coloured glass depicting scenes from Laos history.

The next day we were collected from our hostel at 8am for our two days one night Life of a Mahoot (elephant keeper) tour with a company called Tiger Trail.

We were introduced to our guide Ken and taken in a 4 x 4 to a new 'eco' resort that is being built outside Luang Prabang, from there we got a boat across the river and had a short walk upto the elephant camp where we were to stay. Here, they have four elephants, all female one of which is 12months pregnant (elephants are pregnant for 2 years). All of the elephants used to work in the logging trade which is heavy, hard
Back seat driver?Back seat driver?Back seat driver?

Sue is a terrible back seat driver, even the Mahoot got annoyed and told her "if you can do any better you drive!" So she did
work, often with long hours and little care for their well being. The elephants now do three or four 'shifts' a day, each shift consist of about an hours gentle walk carrying their mahoot and a maximum of two tourists, a paddle and drink in the river and the consumption of as much foilage they can grab and munch as they trundle along.

The first thing we did was take an Elephant ride on the seat on the back of the elephant, halfway through we swapped onto the neck of the elephant, which was quite scary given there is nothing to hold onto apart from Nellies ears (which I didnt like doing), while our Mahoots dosed in the chair!

After lunch it was time for the elephants to be taken upto where they were sleeping for the night, the chairs were taken off of their backs and their long chains draped over their necks and then we rode them bare back upto the edge of the forest. I didnt like the idea of them being chained up in their 'free' time, but as our guide rightly pointed out you would need a hell of a lot of fencing
Bed TimeBed TimeBed Time

Taking the elephants off to their grazing patches for the night.
and it would cost a lot of money to build a fence strong enough and big enough to contain an elephants. The camp is surrounded by farm land and a few local villages and the elephants could either cause alot of damage or be taken. They had about 10 to 15m chains each and each night they are taken to a fresh patch so they have lots of fresh vegetation to munch. We left them to their rest and dinner and walked back to the camp.

For the rest of the afternoon while our guide was preparing our dinner we went with four other people and their guide to the local village. 10% of the village are employed by the eco resort or the elephant camp (which are owned by the same company). In a community which is mainly subsistence farmers the work provided by the company is a major source of income to many. Whilst walking through the village we were invited to a party for the birth of a new baby which was the nephew of a woman who worked as a cleaner at the resort. There was a very out of tune band at full volume and lots of arm waving dancing. We were fed and plied with 'shots' of Lao beer and once they had plied us with alcohol the local women soon started to try and keep the men entertained while they tried to palm each of us girls off with the local men, many of which looked older than us or married or both! I was lucky, mine got the hint and I kept him at bay whereas one of the other girls had a man trying to grab her waist and give her a kiss. Until this point we enjoyed the party and hospitality, as soon as the band finished their set we thought it was a good time to escape back to the elephant camp.

We got up at 6am and set off to collect the elephants from their resting place. When we got there, they were covered in dust and dirt as they rub mud into their skins to protect them from the sun, insects and parasites. We jumped back on them - with some dificulty from ground level and took them down to the river for a bath.

Bath time was great, we went into the river and the elephants sat down and used their trunks to squirt water on their faces and have a good drink. We aided them with buckets full of water and a scrub with a brush. They looked so cute when their trunks were sticking out of the water and blowing bubbles. I have to say I was quite suprised how coarse the elephants hair is, there skin is very tough and leathery apart from behind their ears which is soft and silky.

After the elephants were bathed and had their fill of water it was time to take them back to the camp to have treats of sugar cane and bananas before their first shift of the day. We changed out of our wet gear and had breakfast before embarking on a half day trek through some local villages. It was very interesting to see the local way of life, people live very much with their animals in this part of the world. Children, pigs, goats, dogs, ducks and chickens were happily running around the villages while the adults were tending to crops, mainly of rice and maize. We were exhausted by the end of the walk, it wasnt that
Curious Little GirlCurious Little GirlCurious Little Girl

staring at the funny looking folk walking through her village.
far or that particularly hard, however the heat and humidity were intollerable. Just stood in the shade I was sweating but as soon as I started walking I produced that much sweat that it ran down my face and stung my eyes and my clothes were soaking wet - Nice!

We returned to Luang Prabang and having only bathed in the chocolate brown coloured river the day before we were glad of a shower and change into clean clothes. We went out for dinner with the group that we had been on the tour with and then headed out to watch a bit of the World Cup. The bar we went to had to be the campest bar in Laos. Unlike in Thailand we hadnt seen many gay / camp / transexual men in Laos up until this point and I think they all must work in this one bar where they sell Big Pink Gay cocktails and Blue Woo Woos served by the campest men on earth.

We had booked on a tour up in Ban Huay Xai (by the way this town along with lots of others in Laos has about 3 different spellings) starting on the 2nd of July, as we had to double back on ourselves we decided to take the land route up and return by the river route 'going with the flow' for the return. It doesnt really make that much difference on time as both routes take 2 days travelling with a night stop enroute. We caught the bus upto Luang Namtha, a nondescript town close to the Chinese Border. The town was flattened during the war and so has now been rebuilt as characterless concrete buildings. It is a town on a transport route to China and has a feeling of a place where people just pass through and dont hang around too long. It can be used as a base for trekking but we were low on time.

The hostel we stayed in wasnt great we havent stayed in much worse places for a long time. The bathroom was manky, the sink tap didn't work and to wash your hands you had to use the shower. The room doors were boarded up with wood nailed to the back of them and the white walls were a shade of smeared grey. Still it was for one night, the sheets were clean and the mosquito net was intact and the door locked.

The next morning we got up early and headed to the bus station to get a bus to Ban Huay Xai. The guide book says that this journey can take 7 hours to 2 days or be totally impassable in the rainy season. We got our tickets and waited for the bus, which turned out to be a few pickups. We were lucky we got in the back of one with 8 locals, we thought we were cramped and then we saw the other pick up with 6 westerners and 4 locals in the back. The average height of the western men was about 6ft, whereas I think I was as tall as most of the men in our pickup.

The journey was interesting to say the least. As we left Luang Namtha we were on a beautifully smooth tarmac road. This gradually degenerated to gravel and then soil. We passsed fields with local tribe people working or carrying things along the side of the road. You can see all the different dresses and visual appeances of the tribes just driving past them at work in the fields.

At times the pickup slid around, went over bumps and lumps and then came to a stand still a few times while we had to wait for the road to be built, or mounds of soil moved out of the way so we could pass. A tarmac road is being built from Ban Huay Xai to Luang Namtha as a trade route between China and Thailand which at the moment it is still very much under consuction.

We arrived in Ban Huay Xai after 9 hours with very numb bums and covered in dust. Andy was taller than the rest of us and his head protruded over the top of the cab resulting in him getting the most of the dust and looking like he had just been tangoed!

We spent a day sorting our selves out ready for our tour into the Bokeo national reserve. We felt very isolated from the outside world here - there was no internet connections until 'next friday' as we were told and there seemed to be no phone centres either. We spent our time relaxing and discovered the Red Cross Sauna. A traditional herbal sauna operated by the
Waiting for the road to be builtWaiting for the road to be builtWaiting for the road to be built

This was the pickup we got from Luang Namtha to Ban Hou Xay, note the sticker saying it carries 15 passangers plus driver.
Bokeo Branch of the red cross. All the procedes go towards funding the centre and their projects in the region including the malaria and burns clinic. The sauna was of basic constuction with a fire of wood heating a large pot of water containing herbs with an outlet into the sauna room above. After a session in the sauna, your skin felt so soft, clean and refreshed wich we hadn't felt in a while.

We left Ban Huay Xai at 7.30am in 4x4 heading for the Bokeo National Park and the Gibbon experience and partially retraced our steps along the road way we had come the day before last. Three hours into the journey we left the 'main' road way, forded a river and then followed a dirt track up into a little village on the edge of the jungle. We disembareked the 4x4, were met by our guides and headed off into the jungle.

After about an hours walking we reached 'base camp' where we were met by a bear and a monkey! Both are unfortunately victims of the illegal wildlife trade and poaching. Both animals parents were killed by poachers and both babies turned up on the illegal animal market at Luang Namtha. The monkey was bought by a woman as a pet who later down the line realised that he was too much of a handful and didnt want him as a pet anymore. The bear was bought by a man who didnt want it turning up as food or as medicine over the border in China. Both people had heard of the Gibbon Experience Conservation Project and thought they would be the best people in the area who could help.

Unfortunatey the monkey won't integrate back into the wild because of the nature of the units of monkeys that already live in the forest it may be attacked or killed by the others. The monkey therefore is going to stay at base camp permenantly and although not ideal at least it's not caged or chained and is free to roam as it pleases. The bear on the otherhand is going to be integrated back into the wild. They haven't ever done anything like this before but they plan to have one person go with the bear into the centre of the national park away from human interference and train the bear to forage

Actually 2.6 million Kip which isn't alot really.
for food and then eventually cut off all human contact and leave him there. He is so cute but at 5 months old he is already strong and biting but luckily at the moment his sharp teeth havent come throught yet. The bear took a shine to Andy and immediatley after seeing him decided he would make a good wrestling partner, this was a good diversion for the mischievious monkey who decided to grab this opportunity and jump on Andy's head and steal his sunglasses, which he soon dropped when the guides shouted and started chasing him.

We were kitted out in our harnesss and given some instuction on use and safety of the zip wires and we were off! At first it was just a short zip to tree house one, for lunch and a breifing session.

Basically the Gibbon Experience is a project that aims to provide the local people with jobs and empower them to protect their forest. Before the project was instigated there were no forest guards and a big poaching trade was taking place in all the local markets, but the revenue from the project pays for guards (many of which used to be poachers themselves) to protect the forest from logging and poaching.

The idea of using tree houses and cable ways is to allow people to experience the forest and enter the forest but with a low impact on the environment. At present there are 4 tree houses with another one due to open soon. The aim of the project is to have a network of 12 treehouses on the outskirts of the forest - one for each of the villages in the buffer zone surrounding the Bokeo national reserve. This would then make a full network of forest guards protecting the the whole of the reserve and reducing unregulated access into the heart of the reserve allowing the wildlife to live without human intervention.

The Gibbon Experience is named after the black cheeked crested Gibbon which was found in the reserve when it was previously thought to be extinct. So far the project has been a success, there has been full government and local support and poaching and logging has reduced to nil in the now guarded areas. The people who work on the project are proud that so many visitors want to visit the area which until the project started they didn't realise how special the national park is and why they should protect it, plus the project pays good wages to all empolyees and guards. Once the full project is complete the idea is that it will be handed over to the Laos people to continue with the project for income without intervention.

It is a little pricey for Laos at $130 per person for 3 days 2 nights but it is well worth it. You feel like a big kid zipping along cable ways, some of which are 400m long and 150m from the ground over valleys and sleeping in tree houses. Tree houses 3 and 4 are the most rustic but give fantastic views and tree house 3 even has a small kitchen, shower and toilet!

We were split into two group, and Andy and I were placed with Trevor and Mike a couple of Canadians. We decided to go for the harder option which was a hike to the furthest tree house first. The hike there wasnt too bad other than the leeches, that seemed to have a taste for canadian Blood and we were rewarded with a swim in a waterfall at the end. The hike back the next day was another story though, as it was all up hill.

On the afternoon of the second day it started raining and it didnt stop until about 11am on the last day. The rain was blowing in the sides of the tree house and the centre section near the tree was allowing water to pour into the tree house, saying that our beds remained dry and we awoke in the morning to the sound of the gibbons calling. Unfortunately we didnt see them but it was great to hear their calls - they are so noisy, but it really gave you the feeling that you were in the wild!

Getting out of the reserve was more interesting than when we arrived. Due to the rain all of the rivers had swollen and rivers that we previously just paddled across we now waided across waist or in my case almost chest deep. The monkey and bear kept us entertained while we were waiting to leave base camp. The bear spotted his wrestling partner and went to attack Andy, who after watching the locals handle him had a better idea of
Water fall at tree house 3Water fall at tree house 3Water fall at tree house 3

Actually 2.6 million Kip which isn\'t alot really.
how to take control. Andy was soon wrestling the bear to the floor and throwing him around, which the bear seemed to love and made him eager for more. The monkey was jumping around grabbing people and sitting on their heads, when it was time to leave the guides held him so he couldn't follow us to the village. All you could hear was the child like screams of the little monkey that wanted to carry on playing. The bear followed us for quite a while and was running up and down the bankings and in between the tourist stopping in front of us every now and then as if challenging us to fight, when we got to the first river crossing this was as far as he could go and he happily ran back into the jungle.

When we got back to the pick up point we were faced with the news that due to the weather the vehicles may not make it to pick us up and we may have to walk for 6 hours to get back to the main road to meet the vehicles. This thought did not fill any of us with joy.

We were all overjoyed when we heard the roar of an engine and the new 4x4 they had recently bought had made it to the village. That vehicle therefore ferried the two groups there and back to the main road as the older 4x4 couldnt make it across the river. The jeep was skidding about in the wet mud and deep trenches had been carved in the track by the rain. When we got to the final river we commented that the water levels didn't look that high here then as we drove in the water instantally went over the bonet and we just made it across.

We arrived back in Ban Huay Xai happy, exhauseted, soaked and all of our clothes stinking and dirty. But after a trip to the launderette a shower and a trip to the Red Cross Sauna we were as good as new.

The next day we left Ban Huay Xai for Pak Beng on the slow boat. We expected the boat to be full but not that full! We were there early to get a good seat and 2 hours after the boat was meant to depart they were still loading more and more people on that had just crossed the Mekong from Thailand. Every bench was full, more benches were put in down the aisle and blocked off the other seats and then plastic chairs were put in and the locals sat on the roof (they wouldnt allow foreigners on the roof), one guy counted 115 people and that excuded the locas on the roof. Every person had a big back pack too - it was ridiculous. We were relatively comfy and seven hours after we eventually left we arrived in Pak Beng. Pak Beng is there just for the nights break on the slow boat although they are trying to make it a base for trecking to local villages.

Given the amount of people on the boat we got up early and headed down to the boat to get good seats. Some people tried the tactic of turning up near time of departure and then saying the boat is full there are too many people you should put on another boat. This didnt work they just ended up with no seat this time!

The journey was beautiful but not very interesting as it was totally forest clad mountain after forest cad mountain with a few little villages only accessible by boat along the way. We did see a boat crossing the river with a load of logs and an elephant on it though.

We arrived in Luang Prabang and we checked back into the same hostel as we had a decent room for $3, booked our tickets to leave the next morning and after an excellent pizza and a cold beer went to bed.

We caught the 8am local bus Ponsavanh, until the new road was recently constructed this journey used to take upto two days. We set off winding up the mountains, initially along the same route as from Van Vieng but we then left the main North South Highway and headed East to Ponsavanh. The journey took an uncomfortable 10 hours. The seats on the bus were made for midgets (so Sue was fine) and as such you either took up part of the next persons seat or your bum cheecks hung off the edge. It was the same width as a normal bus but inside it has 5 seats across instead of 4. Just to top things off we had 3 puntures along the way with only two spare tyres. So when the third puncture occured the driver was melting a patch on the inner tube, putting it back into the already bold tyre and then pumping it back up with an inbuilt compressor.

On the bus we met an American mother and daughter duo who were travelling together and a Canadian guy. It turned out pretty well as we all stayed at the same place and conveniently made up a group to visit the plain of Jars which is about the only thing to see around here. This area was right in the middle of the fighting and was completely flattened and as such is a pretty chracturless town. Somehow most of the ancient mysterious jars survived the bombing and is now the main tourist attraction of the area. Thousands of tonnes of bombs were dropped in this area and there are reminders everywhere, either as bomb craters or as empty shell casing and greneade displays at hostels and cafes.

Our tour of the Plain of jars took in all three sights but to me after you had seen one of the sites they were all pretty similar. The jars are huge and they think they may have been carved for ceremonial use but no one really knows. It brought the reality of the aftermath of war to home, as you walk around the sites you are to stay within the markers for areas that have been cleared of unexploded ordenance. Whilst we were at site number 3 MAG detonated two mines and they were very loud and close. The majority of the area has been visually cleared but not all the area has been subsurface cleared. Many of these mines may be walked over all the time but have been just too deep for them to be activated. It is pretty scary when you think about it. The tour also took in a Russian Tank, which wasn't worth seeing as it has been totally stripped and is just a shell and a Hmong Village where they made a rice spirit. It was good to see the jars as we were passing through Ponsavanh on our way to Vietnam but I dont think it is something I would go out of my way to see.

We spent the rest of the day after the tour wandering arond the local
Bombs 1Bombs 1Bombs 1

This is just one collection of explosives that our hostel collected, and every hostel, restaurant and cafe has a similar collection
market and visiting the War Memorials which are on the hills behind the city.

That is it, thats the end of Laos. Only two countries to go and heading home is coming closer. Laos has been a place both of us has thoroughly enjoyed and worthy of a trip on anyones itinary of South East Asia.

To the border and beyond!

A note for people travelling to Laos:

The one major annoyance we have found in Laos is the lack of ATMS's there are a few in Vientiane, but over the rest of the country they are for domestic cards only. Some banks do cash advances on a VISA card with 'only' a 3% comission but opening times are short and only monday to friday. The rest of the time you get stung for travellers cheques or cash advances at travel agencies that charge anywhere from 4 to 10%, debit your card in dollars and give you 10,000 to the dollar. So you get stung with a double wammy! You soon learn to take a good deal when you find one and change cash to last you for a while.

Additional photos below
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20th July 2006

Nothing to say except - looks awesome. just saw the pictures still have to read the text Love to you both from both of us x
24th July 2006

Aww Guys you look like you are having an amazing time. Just reading this after my normal 8am to 5pm boring day. Wish we were there Lots of love xxx

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