As promised again, here is my blog about my short trip to Laos – and its probably the most fun one so far! I finally got to see (and ride no less) an elephant, which justifies the plethora of elephant print clothing sold everywhere here.
Of course, the one time we actually make it on time to the airport, that’s when problems show up. We arrived almost three hours before our flight, still bleary eyed from traveling through Bangkok traffic. We then proceeded to wait an hour in a line to check in because the computer system for Lao Airlines was failing. After finally getting that resolved, we waited another 30 minutes in a security line, then another 15 in immigration. Thinking we still had a little time we went to grab some breakfast, seeing thwt tue screen was showing our flight had not started boarding. When we came out with our sandwiches, we saw to our surprise that our flight was flashing red for final call. We hurriedly raced down to our terminal, where we found the passengers very much not in final call position. As it turns out, boarding had not yet started. Typical. We flew on a propeller plane with a group of old timers. Actually, apart from the stewardesses, we were the youngest by several decades of all the fifty some or so passengers. It was quite amusing to travel seeing a plane full of gray hair. Our plane lifted into the sky and our ears were saturated with the defeaning drum of the engine, which continued at that volume until we were high into the sky. Fortunately, the sound eventually dimmed and we were able to enjoy a rather pleasurable ride.
Our arrival into Laos was by far the best and most relieving environmentally of all our landings thus far in Southeast Asia. After breaking through the blanket of polluted sky, which was slightly better over Laos, we descended over a sea of green hills and trees and mountains speckled with red roofed houses. The land is absolutely beautiful – all lush forests and winding rivers and misty hillsides. Laos is perhaps one of the least developed in all Southeast Asia, and that definitely reflects on the natural hillside.
Luang Prabang houses one of the only three international airports in Laos, and is also the tourist capital of the country, and yet the airport is small and the city is small and relaxed. It is composed predominantly of simple streets and houses and the quiet of nature. After arriving at a spot called the Spicy Backpacker, we took a nice walk through this peaceful city, which boasts mostly markets, ecoturism adventures, and comfortable guesthouses with lovely mountain views. We visited several historic landmarks in the city, including one of the local temples and monastaries, before taking the cheap river ferry across the Mekong River to a patch of small local villages, which were definitely signs of the economic poverty present in Laos. While Luang Prabang flourishes with tourism, and has become a cozy oasis, the other villages are still dusty groups of rundown shacks. We unfortunately also saw many heaping trash heaps here, which were present in small dry riverbeds around the villages. Walking through these local areas, we felt very strongly our foreignness. People did not seem angry or bitter with our presence, but rather only confused and uncertain. We also tragically witnessed the effects of this poverty firsthand. While walking, we noticed a group of three dirty children had started to follow us. At one of the street markets earlier we had bought some fresh fruit, a few pieces of which remained unfinished in a plastic bag tied at our belt. Seeing the food, the kids began to point at it and pull on our arms. We quickly untied and opened the bag, only to watch with breaking hearts as their little dirty fingers plunged in like a flash to grab what little fruit was left, which they then shoved hungrily into their mouthes. It was devastating, and we wished more than anything we had had more to offer them. When they had finished, they retreated and skipped on down the road. In these villages we saw many such hungry children, but we also saw many families eating together and a group of boys playing soccer, assuring us this community also had a lot of beautiful things to offer. Leaving behind this glimpse of the real Laos, we took the ferry back across into Luang Prabang to go see a traditional Laos ballet at the Royal Palace Theatre. The production was mediocre to say the least, but it was very interesting to see the vastly different masks, colors, dance moves, and music used to express a local legend. The music was provided by a 10 piece Laos orcheastra composed of odd woodwind pipes and whistles and drums, all of which created a very distinct and unusual sound. We then had dinner at a local restauarant famous for being the oldest family business in Luang Prabang, and got the chance to tour the bustling night market, which we noticed particularly for the plethora of baguettes, fruit, and metal keychains supposedly made from melted metal from bomb shells. Later that evening we also had the chance to meet up with Gert and Jane for a beer at the local market, a couple we had met two weeks earlier in Seam Reap. The network of backpackers is really quite extraordinary, and we loved hearing their story.
The next morning we saddled up for what would be the best, though definitely most stereotypical adventure, we will likely have in Southeast Asia: elephant riding. We were picked up in the morning with a group consisting of two french couples and one australian couple (who an energetic pair of great grandparents no less!) named Paul and Elizabeth. We then all headed out to the Laos Elephant Village, which is an elephant conservation and tourism sanctuary home fifteen adult elephants and two baby elephants. Although this group claims that “saving elephants is their mission,” I think profit is perhaps more important as seen by the way these majestic creatures are forced to carry people all day and all have frayed ears from the kicking feet of the mahouts who steer them. Our elephant was named Mein Tom Kang (which we were told means the Golden Mother) and she was extraordinary. There are no words for how neat it was to journey across the river and through a village riding an elephant. They are massive and have bristly hairs all over their thick skin. We were lucky in that our elephant even waved its trunk at us a few times. It was a great day of feeding and just watching elephants, which I absolutely adore. It also justified my purchase of elephant printed souveniers, as I have now actually seen, rode, and played with one of these Asian trademarks. We even got to put bananas in our pockets and let the baby elephants fish them out with their trunks. It was a glorious day in the Laos jungle before heading to the airport later that afternoon for our next adventure. I should not that flying out of Laos was also rather enjoyable. As our little propellar plane rose above the clouds like the little engine that could, we saw the first true clouds of our travels. Rather than a blanket of dust and smoke, the lack of development in Laos allows for a thicket of fluffy white clouds, which are natural and beautiful. It was incredible, and such a contrast from the other places we’ve visited, to see the glorious golden sunshine reflected over the cover of snowy whiteness.
Laos is quite an interesting patch of land in Southeast Asia. Colonized by the French, Laos still heavily feels the french influence in both food and cultural tradition within the cities, but outside of the cities Laos still seems mostly untouched. A large majority of the land is still covered in untempered forests, allowing for a striking natural landscape and a considerably cleaner environment. The Laos economy sustained heavy losses in 2008 with the global financial crisis, but has recently grown substantially with increased tourism. The lush countryside and natural splendor attract many visitors for zip lining, trekking, elephant riding, and even just relaxing in the calm city or village atmosphere. Nonetheless Laos still struggles heavily with poverty and lack of infrastructure. The ramshackle village we saw was just one of the many in Laos lacking resources, and that was just a hop, skip, and a boatride away from the tourist capital. As Laos continues to become a more popular tourist hub, it will be interesting to see the way the natural beauty is affected, as well as the affect on its people. We needed only see three little pairs of hungry hands to know that despite the excitement of luxury elephant rides, the Laos people are still suffering heavily. What is a tourist destination for some, is harsh reality for others, a fact worthy of remembering.