“The idea of the Laos government is to become the battery of Southeast Asia,” Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, Time, 12/09/2010
According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is comparable to a river. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, giving an outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, where as in reality it is not. So does life. It changes continuously, becomes something or other from moment to moment. (The Buddhist Concept of Impermanence)
Is Laos in the 19th century racing towards the 21st? Not since the 1970’s has this most relaxed of southeast Asian societies faced the prospect of monumental changes globalization is bringing to this ancient land. In a series of articles for Suite101 and the Examiner, I explore these shifting forces even as I experience centuries of tradition.
Forested mountains and ethnic villages may dominate photos of northern Laos, but it’s the region’s swift rivers an energy hungry southeast Asia covets.
In the misty mountain provincial capital of Luang Namtha in northern Laos, a mere 50 miles from the Chinese border, a traveler would not normally expect to enjoy a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, stuffed with banana, while sipping a shot of Lao Lao.
In the far north of Laos, overlooking the swift flowing Nam Oh River as it cuts a path through towering forest covered limestone mountains, the Nong Kiau Riverside Resort and Restaurant melts into the lush countryside.
Bangkok, Thailand and Vientiane, Laos provide an abundance of eateries from street vendors to luxury hotel venues like Bangkok’s Centara Grand Hotel’s 55th/56th floor Red Sky dining room and Sky Bar.
Yet in remote villages, some reachable only by boat, tools invented centuries ago are still used for preparing important aspects of traditional cooking such as sticky rice, eaten at every meal.
Grains of sticky rice are sun dried and then the hard hull must be broken and sifted away using large woven baskets. The young mother of this household gave me permission to film her children providing the power to operate the hull cracking tool.
The abundance of South East Asia’s food supply is not lost on its restaurants.
In the Laotian capital, Vientiane’s Kong View provides beautiful vistas of the Mekong River while preparing excellent dishes such as salt grilled river fish.
On a quiet street within the historic French colonial core of Vientiane, reservations may be necessary on weekends for Dining at Ban Vilaylac.
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.