My favorite war movie?…Tropic Thunder (yes I’m being serious). That’s about all I’ve seen of the jungles and mountain landscapes of the golden triangle (for lack of a better term), until now. Laos is by far the most far out, unfamiliar place I have ever been in my life. Bamboo bridges over long blue and green rivers that weave through the mountains around them, dusty dirt roads where an entire family rides on one small motorcycle together, opium dealing tuk tuk drivers, packs of water buffalo crossing the roads in front of you, name any cliché of what you imagine south east Asia to look like – its here.
Don’t get me wrong there are a lot of tourists here. A LOT. This has been very surprising to me. I didn’t imagine Laos would be such a tourist destination. As I write this I am at a local coffee shop, “Joma”, that serves breakfast burritos, bagels w/ cream cheese, and Iced lattes. The over population of tourists and lack of interaction with true locals has probably been the most disappointing aspect of Laos for me. Its unfortunate such an un-eclectic population of people travel the world. I swear if I see one more guy with a pony tail, drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette, reading some random book or another white girl with dreadlocks I’m going to yak (Ok, that’s all the ranting I’ll do for now). The local people of Laos are more reserved than the locals I interacted with in Thailand. Occasionally you will meet a local that is excited to meet and interact with a foreigner, but for the most part you get a blank stare and a polite “Sa bai dee” (“Hello” in Lao).
The lack of enthusiasm for tourist may be due to the fact that Laos was conquered by the French, and until recently was under their control. Thailand on the other hand has never been conquered by another nation, and always remained independent. That being said, the French influences have led to a very interesting food scene in Laos. There are a lot of bakeries that produce fresh breads and incredible pastries/desserts. This was a welcomed change from Thailand where I saw very little bread, but not so good for the weight I felt I was losing and good shape I was getting into on this trip. Overall I would take the food in Thailand over Laos any day. Its much more light and healthy. I miss having noodle soup and fried rice for every meal. You also see a lot more “American” type of meals like burgers and fries and pastas in Laos, which I’m not a huge fan of (I’ll eat enough of that when I return and its not particularly good here anyways).
All that being said, I had an incredible experience at an Elephant camp in Laung Prabang, Laos this week. We (My dad, my dad’s gf’s son Loren, and I) arrived at The Mahout Elephant camp early Wednesday morning where trainers and elephants were awaiting our arrival. Within fifteen minutes of us arriving at the camp and meeting some of the elephants and staff, we were riding elephants through the jungles of Laos (I have some awesome videos from these rides). We cruised through the bush and into the Nam Kham River, across which our lodgings were located. Ultimately we found ourselves back where we originally arrived. We took a short boat ride across the river where we settled into the cabins that would be our homes for the next two nights.
The Mahout elephant camp is more like a camp for people. The visitors staying overnight stay in these very nice log (or something like that) cabins, there is a common dining area for all of the guests, and there is a strict itinerary with different daily activities for the camps guests. Shortly after settling into our cabins, and putting on the required “mahout uniform” (by far the most ridiculous outfit I’ve ever worn in my life. And that’s coming from a guy who used to wear a multi colored gino green global hoodie and dressed up as the jolly green giant one year for Halloween), we were whisked away, back to the other side of the river where we attended “elephant school”, and learned the commands to ride and direct an elephant. After school each of us was given our own elephant to ride (with assistance from one of the mahout trainers). We rode through the jungle on our elephants again and back down to the river where we participated in bath time for the elephants. This mainly consisted of the trainers shouting commands for the elephants to get us as wet as possible. The elephants did seem to enjoy this as well and produced some awesome pictures (see above).
The next day Loren and I got up early to see the Mahouts retrieve the elephants from the jungle (where they stay each night). Side note: Waking up in the jungle sounds like you have a Native American tribe howling and charging at you from far away, or better yet an alarm clock that plays 10 of those nature sound cd’s on top of one another. The elephants are chained up in the jungle overnight, with plenty of room to move and eat. Fun fact: elephants only sleep 1-3 hours a night, and eat about 300kg a day! Apparently a couple of the elephants broke their chains that evening, found their way to a local farmers sugar cane field and had an awesome midnight snack. The mahouts were not too pleased however, because their company has to pay the local farmers when things like this happen. We took a short AM ride with the elephants, but today’s main activity was a trip to the Kwanzi waterfall. We took a 30-40 minute van ride (also very camp like) with some other couples and families that were staying at the camp to the waterfall.
On this van ride I saw more of life in Laos. As we passed local villages outside of the city I saw groups of kids playing in the streets. The kids of Laos are currently on vacation and have some very interesting ways of spending their time off. One group of boys I saw had made a fort, literally in the middle of the road. Another group of kids seemed to be playing tag along the side of the road with cars whizzing by them. Finally I saw a young boy pushing a tire along the street with a stick. A much different world.
Our time at the waterfall was amazing. There are different areas of the waterfall you can hike to. One of the lower points is a crystal blue pool with a smaller waterfall feeding it. The water is so blue because of the limestone residue from the waterfalls. There was also a rope swing where you can fly and jump into the water below, which is not as warm as its tropical appearance suggests. Further up the path is a steep climb to the top of the main waterfall. Loren, my dad, and I made the 20 minute trek to the top with a couple of periodic stops so the big guy could catch his breath. I must add that for 70 years old (shhh don’t tell anyone) he can really hold his own with us energetic 24 year olds. The top of the waterfall was incredibly scenic. You could see down the waterfall to the pools far below, as well as look out to the tremendous mountain landscape of Laos. These views were truly some of the most magnificent vistas I have seen in my life, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip. While Laos may not have provided the rich culture (and great food) I experienced and loved in Thailand, the views, and images of the landscape I have in my memory more than make up for it.
By the time we got back to the elephant camp it is was nearly time for dinner. I kind of over did it with the fried foods at dinner that night. I had done a lot of exercise that day so I figured I could indulge a bit. I had the Lao version of onion rings that basically were whole fried onions, fried chicken, and a whole deep-fried fish that I ate just myself (getting sick just thinking about). To go from such light meals in Thailand to such heavy fare in Laos really set me back the last couple days. I’m starting to feel better now and will be taking it easy my last two days in Laos.
I can’t believe my trip is almost over. It has been less than three weeks, but it feels like I have been traveling for much longer. I’m definitely ready to come home and see my friends, my kids at work, get back to playing ball US style, drinking tap water, etc. On the other hand, I’m going to miss the time with my dad, the relaxation of this vacation, and the weather. I predict a major heat wave when I return. See you all soon.