Episode 24: Vientiane/Vang Vieng/Luang Prabang, Laos
Skin colour (Tom): Ossie Ardiles
Skin colour (Jane): Ozzy Osborne
Location: Luang Prabang, Laos.
Date: 26th August 2010.
Ya-ya……. hao……. jou……. SONG!
If you are currently standing still and proffering your knee to assist me clambering onto your back, then you’re a Lao elephant and have no business reading this post.
If you are staring at your screen in a slightly bemused manner, then in all likelihood you’re of the human persuasion, so please continue. I promise not to mount you and ride you down to a muddy river to bathe you.
Yes, we are officially mahouts! Our three-day course finished today and, though there’s probably little call for mahouts in the UK (especially those who only give commands in Lao), we feel we could do a job should the national obesity crisis continue: by directing “bubbly-folk” from K.F.C. to the microwave meals aisle at Aldi and then back to their sofas in time for Jeremy Kyle.
More elephant fun later, but first I have to update you on our time in Laos, which has been excellent.
We flew into Vientiane the day after arriving back in South East Asia to a huge storm in Kuala Lumpur. The beauty of these storms is that, although they ruin your wife’s viewing of Die Hard by playing havoc with the TV reception, the following glorious morning, you wouldn’t know they’d happened.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos, in case any of you are going to the pub quiz tonight, and it is the least capital of cities you can imagine. We spent three nights there and it was very relaxing and low-key.
A couple of long walks, a couple of sights (including the national monument – Pha That Luang – which could really do with a lick of paint) and some excellent food.
Annoyingly someone in the UK had given me a cold, which I’ve somehow kept hold of in the stifling heat ever since. Jane has since also displayed minor symptoms, but, perhaps because I’m a man, my cold/flu/plague is much worse.
Our final night in Vientiane ended in yet another sweaty march back to a hostel for me, to retrieve more money after we had failed to bring enough to cover the bill (those who remember a similar incident in Mancora, Peru, will be relieved on my behalf to know that this was done on the flat).
The night had started out well, with dinner and drinks in a pretty lively bar, which we soon realised was a pick-up bar. This we discerned when we saw that every man was at least 10 years older than me, with a waist band 10 inches bigger, and that every woman/ladyboy was at least 10 years younger than Jane, wearing skirts at least 10 inches shorter.
We enjoyed watching the human tango that is the Lao sex trade, wondering if one day, when my waist inevitably and inexorably expands and I become more bald patch than hair, I’ll be back without Jane (I can hear you all thinking that the day is not far away).
We moved from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, a pretty town which is the Lao home of “tubing”. Tubing is essentially getting in a rubber ring and floating down a river, but the Vang Vieng twist is the numerous bars en route, enabling you to get totally sloshed as you tube.
Imagine it like the Henley regatta if you will, but with less Pimms, straw boaters and linen suits and more whisky cocktails served in buckets, mud volleyball and “In The Tubing” vests (these vests are ubiquitous on a certain kind of loon in S.E. Asia – everyone has been tubing in Vang Vieng – but I still don’t understand what “In The Tubing“ means. “I‘m A Tw*t“ would be a much more fitting slogan for the wearers).
We were a little concerned when setting off, since we were striding (or floating) very consciously into the territory of the “traveller-type”, but we had a great time.
It has to be said that the quantity of Beerlao consumed had something to do with this, as did the pair of chatty Irish girls we spent the day with, who were excellent company, and even joined Jane in loudly singing the choruses to “The Gambler“ and “Jolene“ while I slowly shook my head and pretended I wasn‘t with them.
The only downside to the tubing is that whenever you want to get out of the fast-flowing river and into a bar, you have to be fished out by someone on the shore. It’s more like being lassoed actually, as they sling a plastic bottle attached to a rope in your general direction and hope you can reach it and then cling on.
If they miss you, you miss the bar. Then you have to swim like a dolphin to get to the bank 400 yards downstream, and walk back covered in mud and self-loathing.
Worse still is if the person trying to fish you out at the end of the day (when you’re very well oiled and have something of a head of steam up) is a ten-year-old sack of bones who seriously underestimates your bulk and who you end up having to donate your tube to before pulling them to shore – like a fatter, paler and more bleary-eyed version of Baywatch.
I’m still not sure why I tipped him for having saved his life. Perhaps the whisky fermented with bees that I’d drunk at lunch time had gone to my head.
That night we were brought down from our drunken high by an astoundingly poor curry – Jane had a dhosa filled with frozen veg and I had a mutton curry which I’m still chewing.
We then moved on to Luang Prabang, in Northern Laos, by way of Super VIP bus. VIP here means it has wheels and was built after 1960. Super means the driver is sober and the livestock is in the hold. The journey took us through some stupendous mountain scenery and past tiny villages full of grinning kids and fighting chickens.
Amazingly, although the roads were so winding that it was all we could do to stay in our seats at times, we both got some sleep. I suspect the excesses of the tubing had caught up with us.
Luang Prabang was similar in many ways to Vientiane – a laid back city which feels much smaller than it is. Luang Prabang is prettier though, and the lack of heavy traffic makes it altogether more appealing, especially when strolling.
Again, there are no must-see sights, but a couple of days spent walking round the compact centre and visiting the national museum, a couple of temples and several pretty good eateries made our time spent there very enjoyable.
So, to the mahout course. We booked in for three days mahout training and I think it’s fair to say that whilst it was a fantastic experience which we’ll never forget, the “training” element was somewhat lacking and the three days amounted to extended elephant trekking.
This in itself was superb: long treks through the jungle perched atop a ten foot pachyderm with its ears flapping against your knees; bathing in the river where the proper mahouts invoked bath-time games of spraying and trunk slapping; and getting up close and personal with the elephants’ lives and keepers.
As I said though, the promised training left a lot to be desired. On the first day, after our first ride on the giant bull elephant (in a seat), we were given and briefly taken through a prompt card of mahout words used to control an elephant. This took less than ten minutes…… and that was it!
Any other information we gleaned about the beasts and the mahouts was as a result of our continued inquisition: usually we couldn’t give a damn, but we felt a little short-changed with the information we were getting. Jane became slightly obsessed with checking the itinerary at every opportunity, to ensure we weren’t missing out on anything worth doing and that our guide stuck to the programme. She was not however wholly successful.
As I say, though, even with the best training in the world, we were never going to be able to control 2.5 tonnes of stubborn grey flesh in three days. Any attempts we made at directing specific movements were (we reckon) only followed through habit or the “gentle” cajoling of the mahouts.
In our defence, even the mahouts had to resort to underhand tactics to get the big buggers moving (their default is “stop and eat”) – the poking with sticks, machete scabbards, spikes and fingers, the whipping with long sticks and the leading by the ear may have seemed somewhat cruel to our eyes, but we are persuaded that this is the norm (and it certainly seemed necessary, if occasionally bordering on excessive machismo).
In addition, the mahouts genuinely seemed to love their steeds – refusing to share their own elephant’s leafy snacks with any other elephant, and picking out the choicest trees for them to feed on when out and about.
Unfortunately, we had our first really unlucky spell of weather in South East Asia during the course, as yesterday it poured down all day and today was mostly showers. This dampened the spirits, but didn’t ruin the course highlight 3 hour trek way up into the jungle covered hills. Even when Ton-Kun, the bumpy-headed elephant I had been assigned, started blowing muddy water and big bits of soil over her shoulder onto her already sodden “jockey”, we were still having fun.
We finally threw in the towel though, after the second full-body submersion bathing extravaganza of that day and we stood shivering in a monsoon on the river bank.
This morning the rain continued and we were pretty relieved to get in the shower after a final dip in the river with our enormous new friends.
If the above sounds at all negative, it’s not supposed to – we had smiles on our faces throughout the three days and loved being with the elephants. Our only disappointment was that the course didn’t quite do what it said on the tin, and for the money we paid it wasn’t a particularly “slick” operation.
We had an extra trip this afternoon to some pretty wonderful waterfalls near the elephant camp. The rain came down again, but (unlike a Dutch couple who appeared to be scared of rain) we wouldn’t have missed these strange falls.
We’re back in Luang Prabang now, counting mosquito bites (25 for me, 20 for Jane (though hers are bigger and “more mosquito-bite-like” apparently)) and enjoying the comforts of a guest house and proper restaurant (the food at the mahout lodge was mostly crap).
It’ll take us a few days to wash the elephant smell off us, so we pity the person sat in seat 24a on our flight to Hanoi tomorrow.