111021 Luan 21 October

 

We decided we would like to finish our holiday with something different so went to The Elephant Village some 20 kms north from Luan Prabang in the jungle. We arrived at this meticulously prepared resort where the mission statement is ‘saving elephants is our mission’. Laos was known as the Land of the Million Elephants but the elephant in Laos is now an endangered species.  Some 1,600 remain of which an estimated 560 still work in the forest harvesting timber.  These elephants face a bleak future of hard work and abandonment.  The aim of The Elephant Village is not only to rescue working elephants from the harsh abusive environment in which they must make a living, but give them a brighter future, allowing them to roam freely in the jungle, group together in herds, mate and start families. The activities with the animals plus the accommodation at the resort, provide funds to support the elephants.

When we arrived, we were taken by boat to the other side of the river.  There we took part in the morning wash.  The elephant lifts one leg which acts as a step, then you hold onto the ears and haul yourself up to sit right under the ears.  We can tell you that it made us quite nervous being so high up just hanging onto the ears.  The Mahout (trainer/handler) sits behind.  The elephant lumbers into the river and is instructed to sit down. Then you are given a scrubbing brush and you have to wash and scrub the elephant clean whilst sitting on top.  The younger, more lithe backpackers stood up, slid down to the tail and also, sat on the trunk.  We were quite happy to stay in one place! Michael lost his scrubbing brush and his Mahout went diving in the river to find it which left Michael alone on his elephant holding onto his Mahout’s mobile phone. A nervous experience. Afterwards a seat was tied on the Val’s cleaned elephant, and we went for a ride through the jungle.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the resort and pool, finding out about the vet hospital and relaxing under a hut which had a wonderful view of the river, mountains, jungle and the village gardens.  A delightful lunch capped off the morning.

It was then back to Hanoi, Singapore and home, sweet home.

We had a wonderful time. Thanks to Yarra Travel Junction for the marvellous organisation. We had lots of fun and made new friends.

20 October, 2011 Thursday Luan Prabang

We think it’s Thursday but without the carpet in the lift at Hanoi we’re kind of not sure!  This hotel is in the French Colonial style and has some very beautiful gardens, lily ponds and our room overlooks the Mekong River.  It is very peaceful with a special ambience.  Strange also to see the Mekong River in another country after having boated on it on the Delta in Vietnam.  According to the guide, the Mekong is about 4,500 kms long and starts high up in the Tibetan Plateau.  We haven’t actually checked this out but everywhere we go there is the Mekong.

We were up at 5:00 this morning to see the parade of monks in the main street of Luan Prabang.  We had organised a bus from the hotel to take us there but soon found out we had paid for more than expected. We had just arrived in the bus when a man on a motor bike pulled up beside us, laid out a prayer mat, placed a carpet runner over the top of the mat then put a basket of sticky rice on the mat.  Over the top of the basket was a long shawl.  The driver indicated that it was for us.  We had only wanted to go to photograph the parade but now we were expected to be part of the giving of rice.  The driver placed the shawl over one shoulder and told us to kneel on the carpet runner. We later learned that the scarves represent the asking of the monks to intercede for a better future life. No way could we kneel on our wonky arthritic  knees.  I sat side saddle and Michael sat cross legged. We think this must have been a disrespectful position as at this, the bus driver was most upset and indicated that if we couldn’t kneel we should stand. All this happened by gestures, as the driver couldn’t speak English.

Every morning, over 200 orange-clad, barefooted monks come from every monastery in the city and join together to make one long queue. They carry containers and receive alms in the form of sticky rice from the people kneeling on prayer mats laid out on the pavement of the main street. The rice is taken back to the monasteries and offered as food and intercession to the ancestors of the alms givers.  Some of the rice is eaten by the monks.  We have trouble with this as the sticky rice, by this time, is handled by hundreds of people.  Our guide later told us that people have to have clean hands because if dirty rice is given, bad things will happen to the alms-giver.  This made us worry about how well we had cleaned our hands that morning!! After a few minutes, Michael decided that his ancestors had been appeased and that he was now allowed to take the promised photos, so I ended with 2 baskets of sticky rice.  One is supposed to roll only a small amount into a small ball but this was beyond me, so a few monks got a lot of rice, and the rest had to rely on the others who had more aptitude with the rolling thing.

We then returned to the hotel for breakfast and appreciated the chance to relax outside in the colourful gardens overlooking the river.

We then spent the morning in the Historical Old Town. We started at the fresh food market checking out the exotic fruits and vegetables, visited the National Museum which was once the Royal Palace of the King and visited more temples with lots of gold.  In the afternoon we took a leisurely 2 hour ride up the Mekong river to some caves containing thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues. The caves are a destination for local pilgrimages, especially during the Lao New Year.

Over the past 4 weeks we have been on many different styles of boats but this was the most plush and comfortable.  It is called a “long tail boat”, 24 metres long, only 1.5 metres wide and finished in highly polished teak with intricate carvings.  Very comfortable for a nap after the early morning start!

Val forgot to mention the village we were taken to on the way to the caves, perhaps because it wasn’t imprinted on her mind like it was imprinted on mine. This village produces Meekong Whiskey, and it was pretty good stuff.  I had to taste all three varieties and the walk back to the boat, through lanes lined with ladies weaving and wood carvers, was a delight.

She also forgot to mention the sunset over the mighty Meekong on the way back.

October 18, 2011 Wednesday Vientiane

Last night Val and I had a great meal in the hotel restaurant and were entertained by Lao music and traditional dancing, very, very graceful and extremely skillful. An art that has to be learnt from a very young age when fingers and joints can be trained to bend to unbelievable extremes.

It was Tuesday, we knew this because the lift told us (they change the carpet every day). Reminded us of that wonderful English TV show The Teachers- where you are told the day in various funny ways.

Again we were escorted to the lift by our guard of Generals, captains or whatever they were, the hotel is surrounded by armed guards, and we feel completely safe.

Today we were picked up at nine, by our guide, Mr Varasan (call me San), and taken on a tour of local temples, starting with Wat Sisaket. This temple, San explained, was the only one left intact after the Thai invasion in 1828. We finished the temple tour at a very special place for San. It was at That Luang, one of the holiest sites in Laos, that 12 year old San entered the monastery to later become a monk. He spent eight years there, leaving when he was twenty. This, he explained, is normal in Lao society. Laos is a very Buddhist country and it is usual for the boys to be sent to monasteries to become monks and gain a very good education, as well as achieving goodness. Some stay, others like San, leave and resume an ordinary life. Girls achieve goodness and are looked after by marriage.  I like Buddhist countries.  The people are so nice, probably because there are so many Generals!

We finished off the tour at the victory arch. We weren’t going to tell him that we had been there yesterday, but we couldn’t climb all those steps again, so we broke it to him gently and we headed to our restaurant, possibly the best in Laos, The Kaolao, for an unbelievable lunch.

Next was the Morning Market, you have to see this place to believe, it was almost unbelievable. You can buy anything here and the quality was, yes you guessed. San even checked out a nice gold necklace, he is saving up to get married- a very expensive business- makes you wonder why they bother!

On the way home we got him to drop us on the banks of the Mekong, well our driver did, I havn’t mentioned him because I can’t remember his name. Val and I checked out the un-big statue of the first King and then back home James! We aim to check out the dancing again, but a light meal this time because we’re busting!   See you later.

October 17, 2011 Monday Ha Noi to Vientiane.

Lyn and I have split company with Val and Michael to return to Melbourne – yes, we arrived safely home this morning Tuesday.  For the next couple of days, Michael is providing the posts of the rest of their trip of 5 nights in Laos.  Thanks Michael.

 

….and then there were two…..

We left our beloved “leaders” at Ha Noi airport at eight in the morning, leaving them to their marathon wait for their flight to Singapore.  I sincerely hope that they did not drink any of that indescribable liquid sold as ‘coffee’ or ate any of those salad rolls, last seen ‘walking’ along the shelf.

Arriving in Vientiane, we were met by our guide, Sen, and driven to our run-down, flea-pit of a hotel-only to be greeted by the entire Lao armed forces! They were having a little get together and most of the generals seem to be on our floor. We had been ‘upgraded’ and were installed on the six floor-where all the rooms, have their occupant’s names on the doors (ours didn’t), but we didn’t mind because our room is just sensational (Unbelievable).  Pictures are included.  We have our own ‘ming vase’ in the ‘vestibule’, a bar, sitting room, separate bedroom with chaise lounge, two TVs plus two toilets and basins! The only drawback is there so many places to put things that when we tried to leave the suite for our exploration of Vientiane there were cries of “have you seen my glasses, watch, camera?”

There were dramas to be had at the ATM whilst trying to get out the millions of Kipp needed for a few dollars but we were a little concerned when the millions didn’t eventuate.  Had our bottomless credit card emptied and left us destitute?  We tried again in the next ATM, this time a seedy little box on the street.  It gave us some cash but decided it liked our card so much it would keep it!  Val asked the lovely person in the shop and she phoned the bank and insisted that they come out to us and rescue the card.  Meanwhile Michael realized that we didn’t have any identification on us-back in the hotel safe, so went back to get the passport.   However, when the guy arrived, Michael had not returned so he handed over the card anyway.

We discovered the Patuxay Monument, Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe.  Of course we had to climb to the top to photograph the views.  The whole area is very beautiful with lakes, gardens and fountains.

Even on the drive from the airport we noticed that there were more cars than motorbikes compared to Vietnam.  There are heaps of 4 wheel drives all in excellent condition and surprisingly well behaved on the road.  We have been so used to traffic lights that are not obeyed in Vietnam, that when once we tried to cross the road on a red light because we had waited so long, we were looked at crossly by the locals.

Whilst having our dinner we were entertained by some dancers and musicians. Unfortunately we didn’t have our camera with us.  Next time!