The trip to Luang Prabang was split in two. Both were five hour boat journeys on the Mekong river. Before we boarded the boat we went to a tour office come cafe where the staff told everyone that our overnight stop was a very small place and all the guest houses were full. Luckily they had a guest house which had 8 rooms. Book early to avoid disappointment. We had already booked our room but we were not exempt from the game.' Your hotel is full' the girl announced. 'We move you to new one but no food'. She then gave us a refund which amounted to about £3 each. 'Will we have a double bed' I enquired for no real reason. 'Oh yes' she said.
The young backpackers all signed up for the 8 rooms. I think you know what's coming. Anyway we went to the jetty to meet the boat. Lonely Planet had said that if the boat looks overcrowded stand your ground and they will provide another one. As we arrived a very full boat pulled off. We went on to another and were pleased that it left half empty. The Mekong is long but not especially wide. The banks are lined with big forested hills. It is very beautiful. The boat had a bar and a toilet so all was well with the world. IPod on and relax.
The journey was lovely. Back in Thailand the trip organiser had given me two meal vouchers for the 'full' hotel so I knew the name of it. I was a little surprised (not really) when we docked to be offered a room at the 'full' hotel by a chap on the quay side. We headed off to our new hotel which didn't include food to find they do have a restaurant but breakfast and dinner are somewhat more than the refund we got. A little scam me thinks.
Anyway the room was quite nice. Oh, there obviously wasn't a double bed but the owner kindly, after Jill glared at him, moved the two very heavy beds together. Wise man I thought.
We had a walk around the village which incidentally had more guest house rooms than Blackpool and had a rather nice chicken tikka masala. Back at the hotel we booked breakfast for the morning and ordered some baguettes for the journey. 'You need two each' said the lady 'It's ten hours to Luang'. No it isn't it's 5 hours we thought. We asked what time the boat left. '9am' she said. Strange the boatman said 8.30. We slept well in our re-arranged beds.
We arrived at the jetty at 8.30 and boarded. We had two soft seats and a table. When all the youngsters arrived at 9am the seats were all taken. Guess who's sitting on the floor?
In the seats opposite us were a middle aged Swiss couple, Monika and Thierry. We had spoken briefly the day before. It turned out she was an artist and he had trained as a classical clarinet player. He had played in big orchestras but had done a career change. He was now a computer scientist and had written a book. In his spare time he was working with Tom Waite the musician. Have you ever felt like your life is dull? They were good humoured and very pleasant company for the trip.
It was as we suspected five hours to Luang Prabang. We did not know what to expect. It is a really quaint town on the banks of the Mekong. We have a nice hotel with only eight rooms on the river front. The town has plenty of restaurants etc and it was a nice few days kicking back and pottering around.
After a couple of days we took the bus to Sayabourly. It was a four hour drive on dirt roads. We had booked three days at the Elephant conservation centre. After a bone shaking drive we arrived at the bus station. The arrangement was a tuk tuk would pick us up at 12.30pm. We are now on Laos time. When we booked the bus tickets we were told it would leave at 8am. At 9.10 people were still getting on with their chickens. My Zen is being tested. Good practice for India I keep telling myself.
At about 1.30pm after an hour in the searing midday sun our tuk tuk arrived. He drove us for about 30 minutes to a small jetty where a very old, very rusty, very slow boat took us to the centre across a lake. Crossing the lake the scenery was stunning. As we approached the centre all tiredness disappeared. In the distance we could see the bungalows and an elephant ambling along. For everything else there is MasterCard.
We met our hosts. The centre had a couple of young volunteers to show us around. One French, the other French Canadian. The centre is managed by a French lady and our two fellow visitors were French. You may have guessed that Laos was a French colony. Anyway they all spoke English so all was well.
We were shown to our room. It was a one room hut made from wood and bamboo with a balcony overlooking the lake. We settled in then went for lunch. After lunch it was meet the elephants and their Mahouts.
The centre is an NGO. Its purpose is to try and conserve the elephant population by offering veterinary services and education. William the young vet was English and had recently been working in Cranleigh. Small world.
There are about four hundred wild and four hundred domesticated working elephants in Laos. Elephants have a two year pregnancy and give birth to one calf so they are a fragile species. The centre concentrates its work on the working elephants. The elephants are owned by families and some well off individuals. They are used in the logging camps which provide timber mostly to China. The Mahouts are the men who train and ride the elephants in these camps. It is comparatively lucrative work.
The centre runs a Mahout school which teaches them about elephant care. It also offers a veterinary service for sick or injured animals. Mahouts prefer female elephants. They can produce a calf and so keep the business going. However a heavily pregnant elephant cannot work and this extends after the calf is born. This means the family lose money`. It is also very expensive to get the owner of a male elephant to allow it to impregnate a female. The centre has a resident male and they offer the service for free. As part of the deal the Mahout brings his family to the centre and works there while the female gestates and gives birth. Everyone seems happy.
Unlike African elephants Asian ones can be trained and are generally docile. Two exceptions are a pissed off mother and a male in Musht. Male elephants periodically have musht. At this time they become very horny and pretty much impossible to control. Time to find them a mate.
We were only a group of four so it was all very personal. Jill and I were assigned to our Mahout Mr Pheng. He had a female elephant called Mae Boun Nah. They were both little sweeties. That first afternoon we were introduced. We were taken for a short walk and allowed to ride on the elephant. This is not a zoo or a theme park. There are not wooden seats carrying six tourists like in some places. However the elephants are working animals so are used to having someone on them. Elephants have very weak and delicate backs so you have to sit on their neck/shoulder. It is quite odd, a bit like being an airline pilot. You have three ton of beast behind you and two foot of head in front. Plus an 8ft drop to the ground. It is quite scary to start. Pheng led her along with a piece of string while we took turns on top looking terrified. Elephants understand about forty commands and do exactly as they are told. After a while you relax and enjoy the ride.
After the ride we went with them to the lake for their evening bath. The Mahout rides them into the lake and then scrubs them clean while the elephants roll around. Magical stuff.
After bath time it's bed time. We walked them into the forest. They have to be tethered otherwise they would wander off. A fifty metre chain is fastened around one leg and the other end to a tree. They will then spend the night eating and sleeping.
In the morning we went with Pheng to get Mae Boun. Pheng called her out and she duly came out on to the forest path. Don't have a dog and bark yourself they say. Don't have an elephant and carry a big chain either. They have trained the elephants to reel in the chain with their trunk. Seeing is believing.
With the chain recovered we headed back to the centre. Next it was time to go for a longer walk with the elephants. Things to know about elephants. They are big and strong so don't startle them. Always make some noise if you approach them from behind. They don't have great eye sight. There should have been four elephants in the morning. Medoc a big female had been upset by something in the night. She had broken her chain and done a bunk. No mean feat let me tell you. Her Mahout had gone to find her. This meant four people and three elephants. Jill and I shared so one rode and one took pictures.
We had a fantastic walk through the forest with Mae Boun and Pheng. These are just amazing creatures.
After our little soiree it was time for some Mahout training. As I said the elephant understands about 40 commands. We had to learn five. Go,stop,left,right and back. 8ft in the air with 3 ton of beast under you believe me five commands is a lot. Clearly my Lao accent is not great as each time I gave a command the Mahout had to give the elephant a recap. It was great fun.
After our training session we were shown around the veterinary centre. If you've tried getting a dog to take a pill imagine getting a three ton elephant to do what you want. Good luck.
The centre is surrounded by jungle and the bungalows have lots of holes in them. We went back to the room and Jill said there was something on her face towel. I looked and at first thought it was a grasshopper but closer inspection revealed a scorpion. A small one but they are the worst. With slightly shaky hands I wrapped the towel around it and put it outside. What else was lurking in the shadows I thought? Later William said they pack a real punch.
It had been a magical day with the elephants. A real trip highlight. After our evening meal and a few beers we sat on the balcony to watch the sunset. I don't have the words to describe how it feels.
In the morning we woke. The sun was shining into the room. I looked on the floor for my head torch and phone. Ok, I think the floor is moving. My side of the bed is a carpet of ants, big and small. I put my head outside and the balcony was the same. Getting dressed was tricky, the little w***s get everywhere (and I do mean everywhere) and they sting.
We went to breakfast and a poor member of staff was dispatched to spray them. He was not happy. There were no showers that morning. The centre has a 120 litre water tank. They also have a sick elephant that can't go to the lake to drink. It drinks 150 litres of water a day and had drunk the tank dry.
After breakfast we went with Pheng to get Mae Boun. Out she came and collected her chain. Pheng brushed her down with some branches. He then asked if we wanted to ride her back. Jill kindly let me go. It was brilliant. I was now confident on the elephant and had a great ride.
All too soon our time was up. I adored the whales in New Zealand and the elephants had the same impact. Gentle giants. I hate the idea of them in the logging camps but if they don't have a use to the locals they will not keep them. It's a tough call but let's hope with money and education they survive.
We left the centre and returned to the local bus station for the trip back to Luang Perbang. Our bus was about 300 years old and had holes in it. Laos's buses are notoriously unreliable. Often being described as being made from wet cardboard. Three hours into our very bumpy journey I thought 'this is going ok'. Bang. A tyre exploded. Everybody off. It took forty five minutes and three guys bouncing on a scaffold pole to undo the wheel nuts and change the tyre. Fair dos we got back to Luang Prabang. Tired and covered in dust but all in one piece. Next stop is the capital Vientiane.