Exploring Laos -Laung Prabang, with Caitlin Russell

We are very excited to have our first travel blog from the lovely Caitlin. Follow her travels and her awesome photography here.
Luang Prabang

The atmosphere is so different to anywhere we’ve visited so far; it’s quiet, relaxed, and the people – locals or otherwise – are lovely. Luang Prabang, suitable to the size of Laos, is minuscule in terms of land mass. It was beyond refreshing after several weeks of big cities swarming with beeping horns and overcrowded subway stations. Although the skyscrapers in the Chinese cities were impressive, I am decidedly more fascinated by the Lao landscape of waterfalls and mountains, seeing up close the craftsmanship involved in the temples and buildings dotted around town and meeting their friendly locals.

In this tiny little town there are an amazing 37 Buddhist temples. You’re able to go and donate food to the monks every morning after buying food from the morning market which is ran on the town’s Main Street between four and six in the morning. Our guest house owner ran us through the rules and how to show respect to the monks, which of course is extremely important to them, their religion and to the locals. As well as this, as you will know if you’ve ever visited Luang Prabang, is that the size of the town means that it is exceptionally quiet; loud noises could virtually be heard from any other point in the town and so as a mark of respect Luang Prabang is free from the all night parties that can be experienced in many other Southeast Asian towns and cities.

The guest houses in Luang Prabang are plentiful, immaculate and really fairly priced. Ours, The Apple Guesthouse, is part-owned by an Australian couple who we’ve got talking to over the past couple of days – the things they’ve done philanthropically speaking are beyond admirable. Their two adopted children are Lao, and they employ local young people at the guest house and send them to school and provide them with several meals a day in return along with a mountain of other voluntary work including teaching the monks at one of the temples English, where tourists are encouraged to help out (unfortunately we weren’t there on a Wednesday or we would both have loved to help out). They also gave us a map of the town, pointing out all the things we could possibly be interested in and all the ways to get there quickest. Hospitality like we had received nowhere else we received at the Apple Guest House. There was a communal balcony upstairs, which was as immaculate as the bedrooms and offered guide books, coffee, tea and fresh water.

On our first day of exploring Luang Prabang got off to a very slow start. It was Paul’s 23rd  birthday and so of course when we both took our malaria medication on an empty stomach which resulted in vomiting and an extra few hours recovering in bed afterwards. When we finally ventured back downstairs we walked first to the river bank and alongside the Mekong River which runs directly through the town. You’re able to take boat rides across to the other side of and along the river, and there are copious restaurants lining its banks on either side. We then made our way into town tried some of the towns famous fresh baguettes. Even in the heart of the town, the subdued atmosphere continued. People working, walking or cycling around had smiles on their faces and for the entire time I just felt so welcome and at ease.

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We climbed the town’s high point, Mount Phousi, which has a temple atop it along with giant Buddhist sculptures on the path up. In thirty five degree heat more than a few bottles of water were necessary, but the views at the top were more than worth it. Inside the temple a Buddhist ceremony was underway and so everyone was silent, only heightening the beauty of the entire experience. The remainder of our day was spent looking at the many other temples around the town and the National Museum. That evening we had dinner in town followed by some drinks and visited the night market.

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Luang Prabang is surrounded by wilderness, and sadly one of the carriers of felled trees are elephants. As time progresses, and it becomes more taboo, more of the elephants are being moved from timber camps to camps set up to rehabilitate them. Some of the camps are purely to visit the elephants, others you can bathe them and others you can ride them. I felt like when we spoke to people about our intention to ride elephants we were really looked down upon, and I totally understand if you oppose riding the elephants but I had looked in great detail at the sanctuary we were visiting and although it’s never 100% guaranteed to be certain when reading up online, I felt comfortable with what I had read that the animals were treated well and for me a well treated elephant carrying 150 kilos worth of people twice a day far trumps an abused, mistreated and underfed animal carrying several tons of timber daily. Again, I’ll stress that I completely respect the opinion of others that differ to mine but I expect the same in return. As an animal lover it was by far one of the best experiences of my entire life, to be so close and able to touch, feed and wash them was something I will remember for the rest of my life. I was so surprised by how their skin felt, and how overwhelmingly huge they were. The relationship evident between the animal and ‘mahoot’ or trainer was wonderful to see, and I loved every single second of it (especially when Paul got off and I got to bathe it alone).

After a short elephant ride and bathing them in the Mekong River, we then visited then Kuang Si Waterfalls, around five minutes from where the sanctuary was located. Sunday is traditionally Lao people’s family day, so it was busy, but stunning nonetheless. I had looked up the waterfalls for months previous to our trip and I couldn’t believe the injustice photographs, including mine, done to them. The water such a light blue-green in the white pools, paths beaten into the trees and greenery underfoot, bridges stretching across the pools and tree swings with a continuous flow of people diving into them. Outside the falls is a market with clothes, souvenirs  and food and just inside the park they are situated in there’s a small zoo with bears and other animals that I admittedly didn’t pay attention too because the bears were extremely fascinating.

Almost a year after visiting Luang Prabang and revisiting the piece I wrote on it, I feel my affection has only grown for it. Being able to compare it with almost twenty other locations in Southeast Asia, it was hands down my favourite place, and it beats the places I’ve visited elsewhere in the world, too. The art, the nature and the people make it so worth the visit, but if you go just for a break from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding towns and cities I guarantee it will be the best break you ever take.

 

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My day with the Elephants… By Grace Melville

I was lucky enough at the end of last year to travel around Thailand with my parents and sister. We travelled around Bangkok, Chiang Mai before ending our time on a tiny island off the south coast. Those who have been to Thailand will know how beautiful this country is. It is a never ending sensory overload and I only wish I had more time to explore. This country has the ability to leave a profound effect on a person and I was no different.

Elephants are Thailand’s largest land animal and one of its largest animal exploits. This post will be about my experience in meeting elephants but I wish to speak shortly about the problems that surround elephant tourism. Being people of travel we care about the planet and this care naturally extends to animals.

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I think the simplest terms in which to put this is:

DO NOT go to any elephant ‘parks’ which advertise elephant rides or elephant shows.
DO go to elephant ‘Sanctuaries’.

Some in Thailand have seen the interest in elephants from tourists and have capitalised on this interest extensively. Unfortunately in this process the body of the elephant becomes nothing more than a commodity, used only for profit, at the expense of the elephant’s welfare and health. Those in charge are often uneducated in how these creatures need to be cared for, leading to widespread mistreatment. This is an issue across Thailand and Asia. Elephants are trained by having their spirit broken, known as ‘the crush’. This involves weeks of torture and beatings until the elephants submits. They are then used for rides, shows or as street acts where they are over-worked, under-fed and kept in appalling conditions. If you enter somewhere that offers rides or shows, I urge you to leave. 

My tip to avoiding such places is researching the place you are going to, read trip advisor reviews. It will quickly become apparent whether the company care about the elephants or money.

My family and I visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. This was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has 5 locations around Chiang Mai and look after over 20 elephants. They are dedicated to the welfare and health of these creatures as well as educating the public on how they should be treated.

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My experience:

After a very early start and a bumpy 2-hour car ride up into the valley we arrived at the sanctuary. Upon arrival we were given a multi coloured thread top. I would recommend bringing shorts as otherwise you look half naked like I did. But to be quite honest no cared about the semi-nudity, least of all the elephants. After an introduction to the team we were given a talk about elephant care and a history of all the elephants in that location. The carers were kind and intelligent, stressing the need for improved conditions for these animals.

After this we were lead down to the wide open field where the elephants were. Coming face to face with these creatures in an environment that is entirely their own is indescribable. The elephants were not fearful and would happily walk around us sniffing our hair and eating bananas out of our hands. All the food is provided by the sanctuary so do not worry about bringing any with you. Fun tip: the elephants love the bananas and sugar cane, but aren’t as keen on the cucumbers so grab the former if you want to be popular with them! Be calm and patient with the elephants, they’re naturally curious and playful. But mind your feet!

Everything is done on the elephant’s time; the feeding session can take thirty minutes or an hour. It is completely up to them. After the feeding we went on a short walk with the elephants up the ravine and finally down to the small lake that lay below.

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Then it got really fun. We were shown how to help wash and scrub the elephants. Definitely bring a swimming costume or trunks with you because it gets very wet. No matter what age everyone was splashing around in the water. Truly unforgettable.

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After this we walked back to main hut and said goodbye to our new friends. This entire experience felt calm and natural, a far cry from the mechanic and capitalist attitude seen at other locations. This piece is by no means meant to sound preachy or condescending. Obviously no one in his or her right mind would wish to see an elephant hurt. My aim is to merely pass on the knowledge I learned from this experience and share the magic I felt from this day.

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Thank you and happy travelling x

Follow more of Grace’s adventures here.

Useful links to learn more and the website of the sanctuary I visited:

http://www.saveelephant.org

http://www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com