Vern: At 5:30am a tuk-tuk, dropped us off in the centre of Luang Prabang, but we could really have been anywhere. It was dark, there were few street signs and real life never looks like the map. A Kiwi couple suggested a cheap place to stay, and a helpful local (who wanted nothing from us, only to help two strangers in the dark - most unusual in Asia) set us off in the right direction. We found the place and collapsed onto another firm mattress just as the sun was powering up.
Allowing ourselves only a short power-nap to staighten out our night bus contortions, we were up again before ten and walking the peninsula of aged Gallic grandeur. The French were on this little thumb of land, bound by the Mekong and the Nam Khan feeder river, for a long time and their plaster-moulds and warm patisserie-vent air never left. The roads and alleys form the shape of fish skeleton and both the neighbourhoods and the menu chalkboards are a Franco-Lao fusion. Which for us meant a chocolate crepe and a fruit-shake for breakfast!
Andrea visited the city's nicest temple, Wat Xieng Thong, while I sat on the steps outside. We're both rather wat-ed out already, but there was a pretty cool mosaic elephant in there which we wanted a pic of and it's a pay-to-enter temple, so I sent in Andrea and she snapped a précis of the place for my benefit. And for yours, if you happen to be a future a dinner guest of ours who has been unknowingly seated at the table such that you're looking directly at a digital photo-frame bombarding you with Our Year Off - The Best Of.
At a riverside restaurant, it was recommended that we try Mekong fish (well it couldn't really get fresher) so Andrea ordered a fish 'laap' - a spicy salad with minced fish (or other meat), basil and mint leaves. Unfortunately, it also came with randomly sized bones, which made it a rather high admin salad. 'Who needs a pairing knife when you've got a mallet?'
Pounding drums and cheering ruptured the ambience of our post-meal stroll. Needing to scratch the itch, to know what a gathered mob was enjoying without us, we followed the erratic path of bees to pollen and came upon a sports hall.
Three young men with cantelopes for calf muscles kept a rattan ball airborne for a while when suddenly one leaped up, two metres high, and fly kicked it over a volleyball-net and into the ground on the other side. It landed violently, out of reach of any of the equally deformed trio frozen there, and bounced away. Thrashed skin-drums were followed by clashes of finger-symbols which were the diameter of a tea cup but clashed like Tibetan gongs. This was the supporters' victory chorus. It was not dissimilar to the cacophony which followed a lost point, so when we left an hour or two later, we were largely deaf. This wild sport is Tàkráw --basically volleyball with your head and feet-- and we'd happened upon a national tournament. It was mesmerising and masterful but not beautiful. Each point starts with a fly-kick service, which 50% of the time is an Ace. When it IS returned, usually the receiver pops it straight up. On his second touch he sets up the man at the net, and the third touch by that team is a thumping no hands cartwheel kick. 90% of the time this is unreturnable or out of bounds. With the rest of the percents of time, the players bounce the wooden ball on knees, feet and heads to keep it in play. We found a spot in the bleachers from where we could see the scoreboard, cheered for the underdogs, and made an afternoon of it.
The evening air was smoky and basted with BBQ sauce when we walked out of the stadium. The source of this glorious sticky scent was a stack of skewers sitting next to a large barrel of red coals under a busy griddle. We picked two chicken skewers, handed them over to the grill-master to reheat and joined a table of other travellers who were also street-eating. Conversation flowed easily amongst this travelling set made up of us, a Dutch couple (the male of which spoke English with a strong midlands accent), an English couple and a loud, red, boozy Swede who, in between gobbling down a full barbecued duck's head for shock value, butchered every talking point with long-winded monologue.
"Gee, you sure know a lot of stuff," said the Dutch girl. It wasn't said with admiration though, it was more like exasperation. He missed this.
"Yes, I read a lot..." chomp, chomp, crunching duck bill, chomp, "...of Wikipedia."
Ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha. Ha. What? Who? What?! Who just reads through Wiki?! I love Wiki I do, and I think about eighty percent of the stuff on there is written by well researched do-gooders with time on their hands. But I can only imagine the twenty percent fiction, slander, gossip, error, lies and pranks which this clown is drunkenly bombarding common areas with on his world wandering. God, I love the Internet!
---Animal Lovers Please Skip This Paragraph (You'll miss nothing of our story)---
The Dutch kid told us of the horrors of seeing puppies and kittens delivered to restaurants and markets in Vietnam, and told of a girl he'd met who was so upset by it all that she vowed to save just one animal. 'She asked some questions about how and where they're bred, and researched what type of paperwork is required to fly an animal back to Canada and how long it needs to sit in quarantine once it gets there etc etc. It was a longwinded process but she decided it was worthwhile for its karma and the good it would do her. She chartered a motorbike taxi to the puppy farm and spent about an hour at the shoddy facility picking the cutest, most playful puppy, the one she was going to save. She found a worker, took him over to the cage and pointed the puppy she wanted out. He picked one up and held it out to her, a gesture meaning, "This one?"
"Yes, that one, she replied."
He turned around and started back toward the door of the cage. At the same time he withdrew a tool similar to a small hammer from his pocket. Before she could say anything: a crack, a yelp, a silence.' He finished the story and looked at the five of us, mouths agape. Even the Swede was silent (though perhaps he was chewing).
'Because the worker thought-'
'Yeah, we get it,' someone interrupted.
The conversation picked up though and we talked until the market disintegrated around us in time for 11:30pm curfew leaving behind just a street full of trash.
I was running sprints the next morning because my credit card company was declining my withdrawal attempts, the ATMs were far away from the guesthouse, and we were scheduled to be picked up soon for an excursion by a man who'd surely demand to be paid.
It worked out okay though, always travel with a ATM backup card, and soon we were stretched out in brown velour la-Z-boy-type thrones in the back of a rocking Seventies minivan and on our day trip. We got out after a twenty minute drive and crossed the Mekong on a longboat which delivered us to Tad Sae Waterfall and Elephant Park.
We started with an hour long ride sitting in a little bamboo basket on top of Asian elephants. One person per elephant. They stomped and they chomped but the beautiful beasts seemed sad and the handlers didn't love them. Elephants have been part of Laos village life, logging, farming and battle for thousands of years but recently have been sidelined by purpose-built machinery and a lot of these dopey Goliaths were abandonned and are wandering about in the wild, in conservation parks or in tourist parks. This was actually the second time for both of us on an elephant. We rode and fed African elephants in South Africa a few years back and while it still was a rather contrived activity, the African game rangers loved the animals, knew them inside and out (grossing us out with a detailed description of their ovulation cycles) and seemed dedicated to keeping the animals safe from poachers. The elephant handlers in Laos were just doing their day job.
The second experience was a lot more fun. In a turquoise pool fed by a gorgeous terraced waterfall, we bathed the smallest of the elephants. We climbed aboard him (sans basket) and he waddled into the water. It wasn't warm and a chill went up my spine. The same must have happened to the elephant, even through that tough grey hyde, because all his hairs stuck straight up. Each one thick like a plastic brush bristle. As the pool got deeper and he became weightless, he also became a lot less stable and the two of us slipped off and crashed into the water. Around him we treaded water (not wanting to put our feet down for fear they might end up under his) and rubbed his thick leather with the palms of our hands: his back, his trunk, the two bumps on his head. 'Can he even feel us?' I wondered. He'd watch us warily through confused bloodshot eyes. Occasionally we'd try and mount him like a bucking bronco, but he was so wide and so slippery this was usually just a short rough slide back into the water. While he was in theory getting cleaner, he wasn't making it easy for us to stay clean. Every so often he'd release a depth charge, a big yellow grassy loaf of bread came out of him and lurked around, and we'd have to dive away, until the current took it down stream. At one point I was in front of him rubbing his forehead and trunk, and he was either playful or fed up because he'd lift his trunk out of the water and take my hand (perhaps he thought I had food) then like a water polo cheater he'd give me a good tug downward, under the water. I'd have to wiggle my hand free to stay afloat. He seemed to like this game but after a while it got a little scary and I had to do some ducking and diving to get back round to his side so he couldn't fix both eyes on me.
Soon it was over, and we both agreed it was a great experience. I'm not sure humans and elephants are supposed to be symbiotic but it really IS lovely to get right up close to such a beautiful creature and to touch him and feel him and play with him and fear him. I imagine that there are some wondrous experiences which come with being a conservationist, but for now I am just a tourist to such encounters.