Sunday, 8 January 2017


19th - 20th Dec 2016

Elephant bums. 
I must say, one of the aspects of life in this country that I enjoy (Laos I mean) and to a similar degree in Vietnam, is the relative absence of 'nanny' laws to which we in the 'west' have tamely subjected ourselves. As examples; the wearing of crash helmets, seat belts and life jackets. I would be the first to admit that these safety devices are advisable in certain circumstances. For instance I would always wear a crash hat when riding a motor-bike at speed. These items are always available here on the rivers or when hiring a scooter etc. but nobody bothers you if you choose to do without. Its your decision. I refer to a previous observation on (possibly) one of Charles Darwin's Theories of Evolution, the gist of which says; 'The moronically stupid are likely to perish'. Indeed I am a great  advocate of the view of the 'radical' British 19th century philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill. Below is an extract from his treatise 'On Law'.

Anyway, back to elephants. There are several agencies in town which offer trips to see and ride elephants. I was advised that the best, and one which is most genuinely caring of its charges (if you'll forgive the pun), is The Elephant Village, about 12 km east out of town on the bank of the Nam Khan river. It cost $45 for a half day excursion.
There were six of us in our little group and off we set in a mini-bus at 8.00am with a most charming guide who spoke excellent English. 

On arrival at a rather smart 'camp' complex (they have comfortable chalets and a swimming pool to cater for overnight guests) we were treated to coffee and biscuits before being taken to a 'start point' near the river. The staff took great pains to explain that the elephants here are most sympathetically treated and well looked after. They are always ridden bareback i.e. without the cumbersome and heavy 'howdah' seating and without using the normal sharp bull-hook to steer and control it. Voice commands sufficed, we were told.
We mounted our elephants from a wooden platform and, initially, the 'mahout' sat, or stood, behind. Only female elephants were ridden by us 'guests' as they are more biddable. The male, bull, elephants are prone to bursts of bad temper and are somewhat unpredictable. Bernie.
The journey we undertook was perhaps only about a kilometre or so, but it felt much longer. We had to cross the river twice, and the water came up to the elephants' ears at times.

Left: First solo on an elephant. At some point the mahout jumped off, presumably when he felt confident that you were not going to fall off. It felt distinctly uncomfortable with hands resting on the top of the animal's hairy head and my legs dangling behind its ears. I couldn't work out how 'short' to ride. In fact, as you got used the swaying motion, it felt better to pull your (metaphorical) stirrups up a bit but disconcerting to have no form of steering or brakes. I think you are meant to shout something at it to stop/go/turn etc. but I had forgotten what so kept schtum in case I yelled something wrong and it sat down or did a handstand. Perhaps if I had pulled its ears it might have had some effect, but I wasn't going to risk it.
The most worrying part was when wading the river, twice. I was seriously concerned that the brute might decide to get down and have a roll, or suck up some water in its trunk and spray it over its back. They like doing that don't they? Thinking back on my comments about 'safety equipment laws' this must be one of those  occasions when I would have felt much happier wearing a seat belt, crash helmet and a life jacket. Right: Incoming elephants.
In fact, the elephants were very well behaved and never so much as stumbled. They seemed to know where they were going. Nobody fell off as far as I can recall.

Left: Frank, an amusing German from Cologne, feeding a bun to an elephant. Back at the ranch we were encouraged to feed the animals. They especially like banana leaves apparently. Frank had his small camera in one hand and food offering in the other. I told him of a video clip I had seen of a couple of Chinese girls feeding an elephant at a zoo and simultaneously taking a photo with their smart-phone. The elephant grabbed the phone with its trunk and ate it. The girls were jumping up and down screaming over the loss of their valuable phone. However, they were encouraged to hang around for several hours until the elephant had a shit. When eventually it did, the keeper rang the girls' number and, sure enough, they heard the ring-tone from inside the mountainous pile of dung. It was duly retrieved, wiped down and handed back undamaged to the delighted girls. I was most disappointed that this beast didn't do the same to Frank's camera. How we would have laughed!

Right: Bits of elephant skeleton.
I think there must have been about 30 or 40 elephants on the site, plus some calves which we saw later on the other side of the river. Each adult elephant has its own dedicated mahout and I think they develop a great affection for one another. These are Indian elephants which are smaller than the African variety and only the males have tusks. I must say they all looked well fed, and by crikey do they eat a lot, and in good condition. Difficult to know if they were happy because they never seem to change their rather doleful expression. They must think a lot; after all they have the largest brain of any mammal and, of course, they never forget!

We were shown around a sort of elephant themed museum and then the resident vet's department where said vet gave a little talk. On being asked what was the most common illness that he had to deal with he told us that elephants had difficulty in digesting some food and often suffered from blocked guts. The initial treatment for this is to don a long rubber glove, up as far as his armpit,  and shove his arm and possibly his head up the elephant's arse to release the blockage. He put on this long green-coloured rubber glove to demonstrate and we definitely heard some anxious trumpeting from the nearest elephants (they never forget). I mentioned earlier that an elephant's facial expression never seems to change but I suspect its eyes open rather wide when they get this treatment.
We were joined at this stage by a 'lady' who had switched from another group. I think she had been refused (or didn't want) a ride, or the elephant panicked, and had thus joined us for part 2 of the day's entertainment. We were told that an elephant can carry 1000kgs on its back. I suspect she couldn't 'do' the weight. In aviation terms I am certain that if she was put on an elephant's neck it would be well out of 'Weight and CofG limitations'.

Left: Our hefty lady friend. I think she has just relieved herself. From directly behind she did resemble an elephant with a mahout on top.

The next part of the tour involved a motorised canoe trip a couple of miles up-river. We were slightly concerned by Weight and Balance limitations here as well, but we didn't sink, fortunately.
Right: Frank making use of my handy Waitrose bag to travel anonymously.

He appeared to profess an interest in elephant dung. They make paper out of this stuff out here. Maybe he was thinking of taking some back to Cologne to set up an eco-friendly 'Dung de Cologne' shop. It may catch on.

The reason for the trip upstream was to visit a series of waterfalls. They were indeed very picturesque and there was a decent bar/café on the bank.

Right: Frank's very pretty 'other half' Sara posing by a section of the falls. She had a good sense of humour too and, by her own admission, she needed it!

Left: More elephants up here which were bathing in one of the pools. A group of youngsters were riding on them, or trying to, because the elephants enjoyed sinking underwater from time to time........

.......leaving them swimming for it. I was told the water was very cold.

I noticed that there was a zip-line overhead the falls. Being an old hand at this now (from Vang Vieng) I asked if I could have a go. It didn't look a very long one and so, with just enough time to spare, I paid up and set off with a couple of guides. I was the only person to show an interest.
After about 30 minutes of climbing some vertiginous forest tracks, including a couple of rope ladders (left) and a bit of rock climbing I was somewhat knackered. I began to think I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew. Eventually we reached the start platform and I was fair dripping with sweat.

Again, on the zip-wires, the guides were most efficient.

It was actually a long zip, involving about 6 stages and several abseiling connections down to platforms. It was fun zipping over the falls at the end and I even managed a whoop, a la Tarzan, and wave coming in to land at the end (right).

After this, a return canoe ride back to the base camp where we were treated to a very good barbeque lunch and some much appreciated cold beer. I hadn't been expecting a good lunch.

Left: 'Top Ten Elephant Facts' displayed at base. Not sure if you are able to enlarge this but one interesting fact listed is 'elephants only sweat around their toenails'. Useful to know that if you ever need to wipe away an elephant's sweat.

Altogether a most amusing day out. Rather more than half a day as advertised as we got back to town at about 3.00pm, and well worth $45.

Spent the rest of the day wandering about town, and the Night Market again. Bought another nice little picture, for peanuts. Trouble is to get it framed in UK will cost a small fortune.
Right: The French influence obviously remains as I watched a game of Boules, or is it Pétanque, being enthusiastically played nearby.

I decided to treat myself to a 'gourmet' dinner at a smart restaurant called 'The Three Nagas' (left) that evening. Very good 'haute cuisine' nosh and wine, if rather expensive, and the manager is/was a most charming and enthusiastic Frenchman called Aurellon. Strongly recommended if you are passing.

So that was about it in Luang Prabang. A great little town. I got the tuk-tuk to the airport the following mid-day for the flight to Bangkok. I was surprised. I remember flying into Luang Prabang 'International' a few times from Hanoi about 6 years ago and the terminal buildings were not much more than a few ramshackle sheds. Gosh, look at the place now! (right). Very swish and modern inside too.

I did have a bit of a, no I'll correct that, a serious misfortune on departure. I had forgotten that I had a very nice Butler's corkscrew in my small backpack; you know, the thing with corkscrew, bottle opener and small folding penknife thingy on the end to take the metal bit off the top of a wine bottle. I had had it for many years and a most valuable implement it was. I'm sure I had inadvertently had it in the backpack since leaving London, but nobody in various airports had picked it up. They bloody well did here and it was (politely) confiscated at the security checkpoint. I was remarkably pissed off. OK, I know the rules only too well and if I had remembered it I would have put it in my suitcase. Still, it irks and I can't remember the last time a terrorist terrorised anyone with a corkscrew, bottle opener and 1" knife. I think we all know that some of these airport security measures are way 'over the top' nowadays but I'll leave that rant for another day.

A night spent in Bangkok (luxury 5 star Narai Hotel for £25; what a deal!) and then back to Saigon for to not celebrate Christmas. As mentioned at the beginning of this series, no blogs from there as I've done them all before.

....and to anyone reading this, my very best wishes for a Happy New Year.

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