Long the ancient royal capital of Laos’ many national permutations, Luang Prabang was a favorite of the French during their century of domination with their architecture, but not their cuisine, influencing and complimenting the Laotians own superb sensibilities. The city is stunning, serene and a foodie mecca.
Laos and its food is fascinating, relaxed, less spicy and refined.
In a city known for its cooking classes, Tamarind offers unique full day experiences starting with a shopping expedition to the morning market.
Read more at Suite101 – my latest Featured Article on the Food & Drink page’s Culinary Tourism section, including the recipe.
“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.” ancient Chinese proverb.
The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.
Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker – to revive Asian silk.
As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages. These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.
Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.
Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.
Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.
Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.
Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.
The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.
Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.
Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.
Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:
“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran
“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803 – 1873)
“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)
That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”
Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.
To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and accidents occur.
I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.
My wife, on the other hand, followed Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.
Was it fun at first? No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.
* “The Elephant to Hollywood,” by Sir Michael Caine
He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns). Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang – of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.
For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, King Sisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.
In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.
What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.
Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)
Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804 That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer, release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.
At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).
There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.
Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.
There is the Morning Market (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog. The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.
Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.
Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)
My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30). Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).
There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron (lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.
The baritone sounds of the giant drums resonate calling monks to prayer. Soft chanting can be heard in the stillness of pre-dawn. In the near pitch blackness dozens of men and women jog, walk and exercise on modern machines one sees in any American gym except these are free and in the park. In front of the Vientiane Times, men are stacking rolls of the daily newspaper on their motor bikes for delivery. French bakeries are opening for business. There is barely a car in sight on the streets at 6:00 AM. The air is still cool and moist before the sun raises the winter temperature to 90 degrees (F) by midday. Welcome to the reincarnated city of Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
On the South Korean financed and constructed 2.5 mile long Mekong River Promenade/flood control wall (completion by 2013) stands the largest political monument in Laos – a Pathet Lao leader? A vitriolic monument to Western imperialism? No…it’s a memorial to an early 19th century national hero, the martyred Prince Anouvong (King Chaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829) last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang. He led a failed war against their enemy, Siam (the Kingdom of Thailand) who had occupied Vientiane, and he died in captivity.
After 400 years as the on-again/off-again capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), the city of Vientiane was utterly destroyed in 1827 by Thailand and remained a wasteland until the arrival of the French in the 1890’s. They rebuilt Vientiane as the administrative capital under their colonial “protectorate” and many structures retain early 20th century French colonial designs. Where are the memorials to the 1975 Communist revolution? They exist in only two places – the former Royal Palace (National Museum) and at the former American compound of the USAID/CIA outside of the city that became the home of Kaysone Phomvihane (1920–1992) co- leader of the Pathet Lao along with the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong (brother of the last King of Laos). Thus is the complex history of this beautiful country with its stunningly friendly people, as well as an indication that modern Lao is still the traditional, conservative Buddhist culture that has been its history for over a thousand years.
Vientiane, like so many Southeast Asian cities, is undergoing an economic and building revival unheard of since the end of Western domination (the Vietnam War) in 1975. It still retains vestiges of a relaxed colonial town that has to deal with tropical weather which rarely gets cooler than 85 (F) on any day – and always humid. I was told that the number of cars has doubled in the last three years and building cranes can be seen in numerous locations. Chinese, Vietnamese, South Korean and European investment money is pouring into this Buddhist nation.
Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His Majesty Sisavang Vong, ( King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959) – another celebrated national hero – the nation we know today as Laos – drop the “s” and say “Lao” – was a feudal society of several kingdoms who pledged loose allegiance to the Kings of Lan Xang and, later, to the Kings of Luang Phrabang. The monumental statue on the grounds of Luang Phrabang’s National Museum (former Royal Palace) depicts the King’s right hand in a classic Buddha position for peace and the left hand holding the 1946 constitution.
The current Lao People’s Democratic Republic is not much different, with many of the same families in power, except allegiance is to the Central Committee that resides in Vientiane. Over 90% of all Laotians are self-employed small business entrepreneurs and farmers and always have been. Buddhism and its teachings still remain the greatest cultural and political influence within the nation. There are more Buddhist temples and monasteries than I can count – independent of government influence – and travel within Southeast Asia for Laotians is unencumbered. The excessivly bureaucratic government is considered incompetent and government workers have decent middle class jobs – just like the former Royal Courts. There is a visible lack of infrastructure planning in this developing country.
All of this makes Laos, Vientiane and the ancient northern capital of Luang Phrabang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and another blog) a fascinating country. Laos cuisine is wonderful. Less sweet than Vietnamese and with fewer hot peppers than Thai, the dozens of flavors from herbs, meats and spices shine. This will upset vegans who believe Asians are basically vegetarians and are eating more meat due to the influence of McDonalds, but Laotians have always been large meat/fish eaters. I was told by numerous chefs that currently more vegetable dishes are becoming part of the cuisine because of Western vegetarian trends! Laotians eat EVERYTHING – beef, pork, duck, frogs, rats, some dog, river fish, shell fish, all the innards and the blood – both liquid and congealed. (OK, please don’t stop reading – I won’t add recipes.) But they lavish love on their pet dogs and cats – they don’t eat their pets – unlike other Southeast Asian cultures (although this is rarely a part of the modern urban diet).
Life is on the street and in the markets – typical of Southeast Asia. The “morning markets” are primarily food (4:00 AM – to mid day.) “night markets” tend to be crafts, clothing and prepared foods and “weekend markets” are a great mixture. At any market you will find fresh frogs and the latest Apple I-Pod – it’s “one stop shopping” – the American dream…
Inexpensive restaurants abound and spill onto the streets. Lunch or dinner for 2 will rarely cost more than US$15 – unless you stuff yourself. A large 3/4 litre bottle of Beer Lao – a pleasant lager – costs $1.25. A few outstanding restaurants exist. The best being La Silapa, owned and operated by a French Canadian with a menu that is an excellent fusion of French and Lao flavors. Lunch for two is less than $30. (Note: wines are expensive anywhere in Southeast Asia. Costs are frequently more than the entire meal.) Nos serves excellent sushi at prices that make a Westerner believe they were in a Sushi nirvana – about $.25/each with salad and miso soup. There are a number of pizza restaurants using wood fired brick ovens and make terrific paper thin crusts. For genuine Lao cuisine eat on the street. Look for the most popular, crowded street restaurants. The rapid turnover means the food is fresh and has not lingered in the heat – what, no ice to keep the food fresh? Get real – I’ve yet to get even the slighest stomach problem.
Poverty, as judged by Western standards, is the norm for most people – especially in the rural countryside – in all of Southeast Asia, but not starvation. For a visitor from the “First World,” luxury is quite affordable – beautiful hotels for less than US$70/night, restaurant meals for 2 with drinks for less than $25 (and this is the average high end.) A person/couple can travel for less than a third of that amount or waste money on ultra luxury accommodations that will run in excess of $650/night. Yet if peace and stability remain in this fabled land they just might achieve the Lord Buddha’s dream of the Middle Path – neither lose one’s self in sensual pleasure nor deny one’s self the gifts of living.
The long-tail boat, as narrow as a canoe, skims close to the water of the Nam Khan River. The verdant green teak wood jungle climbs picturesque limestone mountains. Lining the river bank, farm plots of cucumber, tobacco, corn, banana, papaya and a dozen other fruits and vegetables resemble French formal gardens. In the river women are washing laundry, men are beating the water with bamboo poles to stun fish before throwing out their nets, and boys with scuba masks are bent over peering into the river to see if this is a good fishing spot.
We tie up to a bamboo platform “dock” and climb the concrete staircase at least 100 feet above the river to the six room Elephant Lodge. From the wide tiled terrace in front of our glass walled room we have a sweeping view of all I’ve just described, and more – utter peace broken only by the sound of jungle birds, people working on the river below and, occasionally, the trumpet sound of elephants. Are we in paradise? Yes, at the Elephant Village 10 miles north of Luang Prabang in the north central highlands of Laos.
They consume 600 pounds of food and drink over 10 gallons of water a day. Dogs, snakes and motorized vehicles scare them. Swimming and taking a bath is a thrill. They’re strictly vegan (raw food types) preferring palm leaves, pineapple plants, vines and even the tough woody stems of these plants. For dessert, bananas – skins and all – are a favorite, and their average life expectancy – if not worked to death – is 80. This is a common pachyderm – the elephant. I know this because I was a mahout for a day – well, kind of…
The Elephant Village is not a typical tourist “resort.” Founded in 2003 by Markus Peschke, who was bored with his German civil service job, it has a mission – saving the remaining 1,600 native Laotian elephants from extinction. The ancient name for Laos, Lane Xang , literally translates “land of a million elephants.” That was not hyperbole, until the 20th century it was reality. Human thirst for ivory tusks, hides, meat and work animals for the timber industry decimated the herds to today’s endangered numbers, yet still one-third of the 1600 are “employed” in the life-shortening lumber business. To make them work harder many lumber companies feed the elephants amphetamines.
The Elephant Village owns 12 females, purchased (rescued) from debilitating work and provides everything including 24 hour veterinary care. For 6 hours a day, they give tourists an experience, and then they eat and play in the river and eat – did I mention eat? Sleep averages about 3 hours – then they eat some more. Each elephant has a mahout – their “driver/caretaker” – and they are particular. The elephant must like you, and it will take some weeks before the mahout knows if the elephant will “hire” him – it’s a life-long position.
The Village offers tourists a day excursion and an all-inclusive overnight at the Lodge. Each person/couple has their own guide as well as an elephant and mahout. Our training started with getting familiar with our elephant – stroking her trunk – and then taking a one-hour ride. We sat in a chair behind the mahout, slowly plodding through jungle trails, into the Nam Khan River and then through a poor rural village – one with the fabulous “French garden” farm plots. After the ride the elephant was rewarded with a stalk of bananas which we fed to her – their trunk is an incredibly dexterous limb!
This was followed by a humbling and comic scene of learning how to mount the elephant on the back of its neck like a mahout. With great patience, this enormous animal lifts its right leg like a step to allow you to place your right foot on its leg and swing your left leg over its body and neck. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. If you’re under 30 or a trained athlete – or a real mahout – it’s easy to swing that left leg up and over her wide body. For the rest of us it’s a humorous crawl up this huge animal. I’m sure elephants laugh, but they have the good grace to do it silently. To dismount, a command is given and she lowers all four legs as if they were hydraulic lifts, but only for a minute – their patience has a limit.
Sitting atop the neck of this mountain of muscle, bareback, while it slowly lumbers is like standing in a rocking boat, yet you do get used to it. They are responsive to the voice commands and pressure from the knees of their mahout sitting right behind me. Within a short time, I relax and understand why these animals were the major form of transportation for eons. We traverse a trail through the teak wood jungle and into the river – presently shallow in the middle of the dry season. As we climb the river bank it’s then I discover their fear of dogs as the mahout had to sternly – with voice commands – prevent this multi-ton animal from bolting at the sight of a 15 pound pet canine. Singing helped calm her down – they love their mahout to sing to them. Elephants really do have an incredible memory for language, their surroundings and, especially, for the behaviors of humans – whether you’re respectful or not.
In the evening, we gathered for dinner under a blanket of stars – four couples from Germany, Holland/Brazil, Japan and ourselves, the USA. Southeast Asia is a mecca for Europeans, and, just like my experiences in South America, very few Westerners venture out of their comfort zone.
After a night sleeping at the lodge surrounded by utter peace and quiet with the full moon shimmering on the Nam Kahn River, we take the elephants for their morning bath. Once more riding on the neck with the real mahout in back, brush in hand, the elephant kneels down immersing itself, and my legs, into the river. I’m still on its neck when the elephant, on command, raises its long trunk and repeatedly slams it down splashing water over itself and me. I scrub its head while the mahout takes care of the back. She definitely is enjoying this, especially splashing her trunk in the water. It’s amazing how long the elephant can immerse its trunk, literally holding its breath while we scrub. It’s fun and the river in the early morning is surprisingly warm. After 10 to 15 minutes, we lumber back to shore and she’s ready for her six hour day of work, giving people like me an eco-tourism experience I’ll always want to remember.
We arranged this excursion through whl.travel who provide outstanding customer service responding to emails with lightning speed. Cost was US$346/couple including transportation to/from Luang Prabang, all meals and the overnight at the Elephant Lodge. A portion of the cost goes directly to help fund the mission of the Village. The tour itself is conducted by Tiger Trails with informative guides.
The Elephant Village, as a non-profit organization, is always seeking donations. The cost of simply purchasing (literally rescuing) an elephant runs US$15,000 – $20,000. For an animal that has populated this Earth for over 60 million years, it would be a monumental tragedy to experience their extinction in such a short period of time. To spend a day and a half with these wonderful creatures is priceless.