Northern Laos, November 2008

Well my latest entry finds me in Northern Laos. This little country has to be South East Asia’s best kept secret. The scenery is incredibly dramatic – rugged limestone cliffs towering over lush green rolling hills and crystal clear streams emerging from cave mouths to wind their way to the massive artery of the Mekong River. I spent a few days in Vang Vieng – a curious backpacker haven and party town amidst the mountain peaks – with cafes decked out with daybeds and cushions, TV sets showing endless re-runs of Friends and American cartoons like South Park and signs advertising “buckets of cheap Mekong whiskey and coke”.  It is easy to coax a dollar out of the “falangs” (foreigners) if you know how. Rather than the oblivion of Tiger whiskey I chose a 2 day trek to get me out amongst the limestone ridges, Hmong minority villages and to explore the amazing array of caves that honeycomb the hills around this region. A half day’s kayak down the pristine NamSong River finished the adventure.

I have now travelled further north in Laos to Luang Prabang – the former capital in centuries past of the One Million Elephant Kingdom (Laos). This has to be the most picturesque town in Asia- and it is world heritage listed to prove it.  I could never have dreamt of the combination of French colonial villas with shutters thrown open onto shady streets and tiny alleyways and quaint shops selling silk, handmade paper products and silver. Everywhere there are chic cafes lit with soft lanterns in the evening, carved teak furniture and silk cushions inviting you in. In fact, if it wasn’t for the shade of the frangipani and mango trees lining the streets (and the gongs sounding from the many buddhist temples in town) you might blink twice and believe you were somewhere in Europe.

Aside from this being a perfect shopping and massage destination I have managed to drag myself away from its cosmopolitan pull to brush up on my skills as an elephant driver. I spent two days in a local elephant camp learning the basics of being a mahout – mostly learning how to ride them, using the various commands in Lao, as well as swimming with them and washing them.  I was paired up with a massive 45 year old bull elephant “Bhounsoo” for the 2 days – standing around 3 and half metres at the head it was truly a David and Goliath partnership. I am sure he only pretended to listen to the mosquito on his back trying to bark and coax him into obedience. I think possibly the funniest moment was collecting the elephants from the forest where they sleep overnight.  It was a different matter to try to mount up this massive bull elephant without the help of the bamboo platform back at the camp.  Despite taking a running jump and leaping off his back leg whilst he was lying down I still couldn’t get my nose over his haunches. I can only imagine how hilarious the scene was as my little local mahout guide from behind had both hands on my buttocks trying to launch me on to my elephant for the day.  Hmm – well perhaps it’s too early to consider a change in career…

And so with a degree of sadness my Laos adventure ends tomorrow as I fly south to Cambodia. Still one more sunset to toast over the Mekong River tonight…

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