Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Elephants and Waterfalls

Laos was once called The Land of a Million Elephants, but sadly they reckon that today there are only about 1,600 elephants left in the wild here. With the logging industry being curtailed by the government, many elephants have been repatriated from timber camps and now work in the tourist industry, where they are very well looked after. Today Gene and I booked ourselves on a 1 day tour to All Lao Elephant Camp and Kuang Si Waterfall. The minibus picked us up from our hotel at 9am and we travelled in air-conditioned comfort for about an hour up into the mountains.
They parked the van on a muddy patch of ground out in the middle of nowhere and told us we had a short walk to get to the elephant camp. Poor Gene... they didn't mention that when we made the booking last night!. Just as well it hasn't been raining for the track would have been very slippery! The guide cut her a walking staff and off we went.

You can't really tell just how steep the track is from this photo... but there's a reason the guide is holding Gene's elbow!  Thankfully after about 15 minutes of this, we were at the All Lao Elephant Camp. This one has only been operating for a few months.

First close-up with an elephant! Asian elephants are much smaller than African elephants, but they are still huge.

The elephants were 'saddled up' and we climbed on from this platform, then off we went. Our elephant was called Lady Boy because his tusks had been taken. He was 65 years old!!!!! But still strong and healthy - strong enough to easily carry the extremely heavy chair as well as both of us!  The elephants here are ex logging elephants or bred in captivity. Apparently it's impossible to train a wild elephant unless they get it when it is still a baby.

It's quite surreal sitting in a chair on the back of an elephant. Nothing happens quickly. Every step is huge and painstakingly slow and we slowly swayed from side to side. 

Because the tracks were new we often had to push branches out of our faces and there were trees lying across the track that the elephants had to step over!

When we got to the half way mark, our mahouts dismounted and took photos with our cameras. Sing, our mahout, started out saying "100 pictures!" and we thought he was joking, but after a bit we realised he was serious!! I must have deleted 60 photos!... Here are just a few...

The advertising brochure did promise that we'd be riding the elephants down to the river and feeding them bananas but that wasn't exactly how it turned out. We arrived back at the camp without having seen the river to be told that it was the tail end of the rainy season so the track down to the river was too treacherous and muddy for easy passage. A couple of game young Aussie girls rode two of the elephants 'bareback' down to the river, but the guides strongly suggested it was far too difficult for me to follow on foot, so I had to sit that one out with Gene back at the camp. Then they wanted us to pay for the bananas to feed the elephants... hmmm.

This is our mahout, Sing with his buddy, Lady Boy, relaxing after the ride. After removing the chair, Lady Boy was given a feed. It looked like tough fodder, but all the elephants were tucking in and they appear to be healthy so I guess it works for them.

Then it was time for the rugged treck back to the van and by now the mid-day sun was very hot.

We travelled back to town for lunch - Lao-style take away sitting in the foyer of a travel agent ... hmmmm. Anyway, after lunch we loaded back into the minivan and headed out in the opposite direction to go to Kuang Si Waterfall. There is a bear sanctuary there - Asian black bears and Sun bears that have been rescued and rehabilitated.

They look fat and glossy in large enclosures with plenty of room to move around.

The track up to the Kuang Si Waterfall follows the river past many impressive smaller falls and rapids.

This place would be a photographer's delight.

The big falls are many tiered, but this is as close as I could go and use my camera because the spray at the viewing bridge was pretty heavy - but you get the idea...

Then finally the best part ... swimming!!! After getting so hot and sweaty I was busting for a swim and plenty of people were jumping off the falls and the monkey swing at the swimming hole. Considering how hot it is here I was surprised just how cold the water was! It was so good to be cold I stayed in till I was thoroughly chilled. I haven't felt cold for months and it was bliss!

A couple more photos on the way back to the van...

On the way back to Luang Prabang we stopped at Ban Na Ouan Hmong Village.

The people were obviously dirt poor and they use the little children to plead with the tourists trooping through their village to buy their handicrafts.
How could you resist these poor little faces?

This little girl was a tough little character. She was dressed up in traditional dress posing for photographs. After you took her photo she insisted you buy her stuff or pay her...

...and then, quick as a flash, she wanted payment for this photo of this toddler as well!

But it was bath-time for these littlies and they were blissfully unaware of us as they played in the water.
One of the cool spinoffs from going on a tour is networking with other tourists along the way. Some of our tour were talking about a restaurant they'd been to that has a cooking school and a fabulous array of Lao food, so Gene and I decided to seek it out for our last dinner.
The restaurant is called Tamarind and is run by an Australian lady and her Laotian husband. He was the second youngest of 8 children born to a farming family and was given to the monks and raised at a wat. While there he went to school and learned to speak English. When he grew up he left the wat met his wife, and and now they have a highly successful business with the restaurant/cooking school. The restaurant is across the road from the Mekong River and we sat out on the balcony in the cool of the evening. The waiters were extremely friendly and helpful and all spoke excellent English, which made it even more pleasant. We chose a set menu sampling of Lao food to share and it was amazing.
First up was this bamboo shoot soup with all sorts of other green vegetables and mushrooms. I din't write down what the flavour ingredient was in the broth, but apart from the unappetising colour was quite unlike any flavour I've tasted before and just delicious.

The main course selection was even better. On the black tray, there's green pumpkin and coconut curry, minced chicken and stuff in lemongrass sticks, fish in coconut cream steamed in banana leaves and a peanut sauce. On the white plate, there's river weed, sesame seeds and garlic dried and pressed into sheets a bit like chewy nori, pork sausage, smoked eggplant dip, waterbuffalo jerky, a tomato based salsa and a sticky chilli jam. The accompaniment to all of these dishes was sticky rice, which you rolled into little balls with one hand and dipped into all the yumminess. Throughout there was an underlying flavour that I am unfamiliar with and it was totally scrumptious. Even though it tasted so good we couldn't finish it all... but then they brought out dessert.................

Now this might not look like much, but it was so delicious we didn't leave even the pattern on the plate! It is black sticky rice with grated fresh coconut and a tamarind sauce topping that beggars description. Heaven in a dish. The little brown things are a crunchy nibblies to go with coffee, or in our case, fresh mint tea (literally boiling water poured over a sprig of mint, served with lime juice and/or sugar).  Gene and I both agreed it was one of the most delicious meals either of us have ever eaten ... and between us we clock up close to 135 years, so that's really saying something!!!

Pics from the walk home... 

I stopped off here and bought a couple of bags of those crunchy things to take back for presents for my students and the staff at VAIE.

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