Laos Part Three: elephants, waterfalls and dodging water buffalo

Dates I was there: 14-15 September 2011

The journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was an unpleasantly bumpy one. There were six of us piled into the mini-bus along with our tour guide and the driver. Since there were three sets of three seats on the back, we divided into pairs and sprawled across them.  I get car sick at the best of times and, as we swung around mountain corner after mountain corner, I could barely sit up straight. In fact, I couldn’t sit up at all. Instead, I had to lay across my seats with my travel buddy holding onto me, acting as my seatbelt to stop me from falling off. In that position, the ride was much more comfortable. I think I even dozed off.

It was monsoon season, meaning that there were several landslides up in the mountains. The authorities were already dealing with the mud but, every now and again, we’d come across a patch that had yet to be dealt with. Instead of taking his time to move across it, our driver’s method of getting past was to slam his foot down. The van would lurch forwards, skidding a bit towards the edge of the cliff before being dragged back into place. It was a nerve-wracking way of getting through but it seemed to do the trick.

We had one stop off on our journey, at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere with some amazing views, and 7 hours later, we finally arrived in the town of Luang Prabang. I could not have been happier to get off that bus.

We all went for a wander, after checking into the Malida Guesthouse, through the night market to a bar on the edge of the river. After a drink, we went for dinner at the Lao Gardens restaurant, where we were able to cook our own bbq dinner at our table. We were given a hot metal dish to cook the meat on, with the vegetable being cooked in water along the rim, along with an egg. It was all delicious, particularly the water  buffalo, but sadly I was still not feeling great and the smoke emanating from the bbq was not helping, so I couldn’t eat as much as I would have liked.

We went back via the market but, annoyingly, I didn’t have much money so I couldn’t make any purchases, but I didn’t find a cash machine at which I stocked up so that I could revisit the market the next day.

The next day, half of our group- me included- got up early to go elephant riding. We were to visit the Luang Prabang Elephant Village, which our guide had recommended. It was probably a more expensive option but if you are going to go elephant riding, you should make sure you go to somewhere good. The elephants are not always treated well. The place we were visiting was a sanctuary which homed elephants that had previously been used in the logging industry; they had been beaten and many still held the scars. Now at the sanctuary, they were treated much better and took tourists for rides in order to earn their keep.

After our eggs breakfast, we were picked up at about 8.40am and taken to the other side of the river and up onto a ledge from which we could mount our elephants- mine was called Mae San. Each elephant had a handler- a mahout- who rode on its neck whilst we sat in a bench strapped to its back. It was an amazing experience, if perhaps a little unnerving as we walked up a very muddy hill. After a little while, we changed positions so we could each ride on the elephant’s neck. It felt more unstable than it probably was and we posed for some photos before heading back to feed the elephants bananas.

After bidding our new friends goodbye, we climbed back in the boat and went upstream to the Tad Sei waterfall, parts of which we were allowed to play around in before we headed back to the sanctuary for lunch. I’m not entirely sure what it was that we ate but it tasted good. Booklets had been placed on the tables which told us about the village and its elephants. It turned out many of them were blind as a result of their logging work. Mine had been stabbed and drugged.

We did have the option of spending a day at the Elephant Village and bathing the elephants in the afternoon. However, since we didn’t have long in Luang Prabang, we headed back so that we could join the rest of our group who were going to rent motorbikes and take them down to the Kuang Si waterfall. It was a shame to leave but it is not a decision that I regret.

We started off on a slightly muddy road with a few treacherous potholes. All of a sudden, I saw my friend’s legs fly up into the air has she hit one and came off her bike. Thankfully, she was okay but our guide took her to the hospital to get patched up, leaving us to complete the rest of the journey alone.

As we turned onto the next road, we found that, for once, it was actually in very good condition. Unlike our bike ride in Vang Vieng, I could now actually enjoy this one. As we whizzed along, we all got separated along the road. I turned a corner to find that a group of water buffalo had spread themselves out across the road. I was unsure of what to do next. I could try and sneak past but, if they charged, I didn’t think I could turn my bike in time. If I turned back, there was a good chance that I would get lost, knowing me, and no one would know where I’d gone. I figured I’d take the risk and I waited for them to move over slightly and slowly moved past them. It turned out that they were not that interested in me at all.

Finally arriving at our destination, we grabbed a sandwich and headed to the waterfall, through a bear rescue centre. After a dog stole my mayonnaise-filled sandwich wrapper out of the bin,  we carried on to the falls. We were debating whether we should take the opportunity for a swim when we heard thunder. The heavens then opened and the rains poured down. When the rains let up a little, we took the chance to go back to our bikes, which thankfully all seemed to work after their soaking.

As we set off, we bumped into our tour guide who had come to find us. We sat on our bikes, balanced on a hill, and chatted to him. I put my foot down to help stop myself and steady my bike and my wet sandal strap snapped, meaning that I had to drive back barefoot. I was slightly nervous as my brake was stiff anyway and the roads were wet but thankfully they dried quickly in the heat as a the sun emerged. Just as a tip for any potential bike-riders, don’t do it in sandals- my converse would probably have been a better call.

We had that evening free, so some of us set off to the night market. There we found a little alleyway full of cheap foot stalls, where we could fill up a plate with food. Even though some of the meats did look good, I was a little nervous about getting ill so stuck to the vegetable options. It all tasted good though so that was not a problem. We then went souvenir-shopping. I also managed to pick up some new flip flops.

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