Luang Prabang – Elephants & Monks
The journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang took us over one of the most beautiful mountain passes that exists in the world today. We drove past whole villages, stretched out for miles in linear form down one side of the road between the tarmac and a sheer precipice. The road twisted and turned so frequently that the going was slow, and was sometimes so steep that the air conditioning in the van had to be turned off so more power could be supplied to the wheels, leaving the sun to cruelly beat down and render us all sweaty messes.
About three hours into the journey, we stopped at a restaurant located at the highest point between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. We had seen many stunning landscapes over the last 22 days, but this blew them all out of the water. Without a cloud in the sky, the sun lit up the mountainous landscape, casting shadows over the vegetation and producing some effective lens flare. After buying some pineapple and mango from the restaurant, it was time to continue on to our destination.
We arrived at Luang Prabang mid-afternoon. We were due to spend two full days here, and not wanting to waste any time, Maxim and Julia (a young Russian couple here on their honeymoon who had joined us on day 20), Joaquin and I walked to Mount Phou Si, a 100-metre-high hill that stands in the centre of the city. On the way up, we passed a local woman selling small birds in wicker cages. My ornithological knowledge isn’t great, so I’m not sure what species the birds were, but the premise is for one to buy them and set them free on top of the hill.
Joaquin bought a cage before realising that another two birds would have to be caught in order to keep stock levels up. When we reached the top, we looked out over the picturesque city and let the two birds fly towards the setting sun. Standing just below the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si, we took pictures of the beautiful landscape before heading back down to the night market.
That night we dined at Lao Lao Garden, a quirky outdoor restaurant complete with a fire pit and (due to the time of year) a massive Christmas tree. I had been advised by a friend to try the table barbecue, so, not really knowing what to expect, we ordered and waited patiently. We had learned by this point that there is no sense of urgency in Laos. Food does not come quickly; even canned drinks can take ten minutes to arrive at your table. But no matter, that’s their way of life, and who are we to say otherwise?
We were quite surprised when the waiter asked us to stand up, and more surprised when he proceeded to lift the middle section of the table clean out of its base. He then popped a cauldron-like coal pit in the hole and a convexly domed cooking panel on top, where strips of meat could be placed to cook. We ate our body weight in food over the next half hour, musing at the ingenuity of the simple device. After dinner we departed for the hotel; we had to be up early the next morning for a very exciting treat indeed.
As the sun rose, we were already on our way by Tuk Tuk about 20 minutes up the road towards the river. Joaquin, Ari, Maxim, Julia and I had decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to do something we had all wanted to do. It had been on my bucket list for years. When we arrived at the river, we jumped into a longboat and our driver manoeuvred downstream to our destination. We clambered off the boat, onto dry land and up the hill, finally set eyes on the cynosure; the only reason we had come. The elephants.
We had paid for a “Ride and Bathe” package at the Tad Saé Waterfalls, and not really sure what we were in for, we climbed aboard our elephants and set off through the forest. After a rather ephemeral jaunt through the trees, our elephants took us into a waterfall-levelled creek. There they walked around whilst munching on leaves and cooling their legs in the cold water, before walking up the ramp and back to the shelter.
Feeling a little disappointed that it was over, I was thrilled when the guide approached us and asked us if we were ready for the bathing part of the excursion. We stripped off to our swimwear and re-boarded our elephants, steering them down to the waterfalls once more. For the next half hour, we swam with the gentle giants, fed them and washed them, all while other tourists watched from overlooking balconies. It was an incredible experience, with only one hairy moment when I was thrown off my elephant and nearly drowned as it trampled me. Alas, a minor detail…
I didn’t see a single person dismount these animals without a grin from ear to ear. I had had the most enjoyable hour of my trip so far, and have thought about it hundreds of times since. We decided to stay on and swim in the waterfalls for some of the afternoon, the curglaff effect wearing off the warmer the day became.
I was still smiling as we arrived back in Luang Prabang. It had been an incredible day and I was finally able to tick the activity off my bucket list. After a look round the night market, it was time for dinner then bed. The next morning would be a very early one.
My alarm went off at 4:45am. I fell out of bed and packed my things, ready for my return in a couple of hours’ time. A few of us were heading down to the main street to watch the procession of the monks. Monks don’t earn money, so they cannot buy food. They rely on the locals to give alms and feed them every day. As the sun started to rise, so the line of bright orange robes became visible in the distance. They strode down the street with open canisters, receiving rice and vegetables from both locals and tourists.
We had been asked politely by our tour leader not to participate in the ceremony, which we had agreed to. It’s not our tradition, and one can only wonder how the monks feel if a tourist is giving them food just for the sake of being part of the ceremony and their culture, which, undeniably, they are not.
We watched as the line of monks snaked its way through the streets of Luang Prabang, and walked back to our hotel to collect our bags and pick up a quick breakfast.
The next 48 hours would be spent on a long barge travelling upstream on the Mekong River. It would likely be uncomfortable, cold and rather boring, so all my gadgets were charged and ready to go the night before. We departed the hotel at 7am and drove towards the dock, at last seeing our mode of transport for the next two days…