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Elephant Park

LAOS | Thursday, 8 January 2009 | Views [1711] | Comments [2]

Luang Prabang has a series of economically and ecologically sustainable community based projects that tourists can enjoy called 'Stay Another Day'. These projects include promotion for the Children's Cultural Centre, where tourists can volunteer their time or donate books and funds; community based textile shops where every cent goes towards helping local villages and there is also The Elephant Park Project. This project is geared towards ecologically sustainable tourism - making sure that the elephants within the park, all of whom have been rescued (usually from loggers), are well looked after. Money paid by each person that visits the park goes towards the elephants upkeep and the development and growth of the park. Being that everyone who works in the park have families living in the nearby village, the money you pay is also going straight into the local community.

On Sunday I booked a day tour at the elephant park (for Wednesday) and had been eagerly awaiting it ever since. At the time of booking I didn't know much about what it would entail because the guy in the tour office was quite vague. I only knew that I was going to spend the day with the elephants.

At 7:45am I made my way to the Tiger Adventures offices on the main street of Luang Prabang to wait for the tour guide. Sitting on the stairs was a friendly middle aged American couple and we struck up a conversation straight away. We were soon joined by a smiling German couple in matching cargo pants, but there was still no sign of our tour guide. At a very late 8:20am our tour guide finally arrived with our tuk tuk and we all piled in.

After swapping tuk tuks and picking up several other people, we were on our way to the elephant camp. The 45min bumpy and very dusty tuk tuk ride was nothing if not crowded, but everyone talked and laughed like old friends. I was sitting in front of a Canadian woman called Steph and after starting a conversation about our travels (she'd come straight from an Australian visit) we hit it off and just couldn't stop talking.

We arrived at the elephant camp just before 10am and were straight away taken to meet the beautiful elephants who were in the middle of a mid-morning snack of sugar cane and pineapple leaves. The guide explained to us that many of the elephants have been rescued and some of them are injured. The one we saw first was lacking sight in her right eye. He explained this was because loggers use elephants for pushing over and clearing trees. I asked him if it was painful for the elephants to carry up to three people at one time on their backs. He smiled and shook his head "No, no. They are very strong. Also they are used to it and are treated very well here. They have a happy life and live until they are very old."

After meeting the elephants we split up into our groups. The lovely American couple left us because they were staying overnight and needed to check in to their lodge. (They gave me their email so I could contact them when I'm in Seattle, isn't that sweet!)

The leftover group (Steph, the German couple and myself) were led by our guide to the nearby village. Small wooden huts lined the red dusty roads and children waved and giggled as we pasted. The guide took us to a tiny roadside shop where a lady was selling sticky rice and mushroom pudding wrapped up in banana leaves. She invited us to try and although I smiled after tasting it, I must say it was very bland.

After strolling back through the village it was time for our elephant ride. Riding an elephant is something I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand I would never want to be a part of the oppression and exploitation of such amazing creatures and I know there are many dodgy elephant tours in Asian countries, but on the other hand I felt better after reading about this particular project and how well the elephants are treated in the park. I was still wondered if carrying around tourists all day is really the best lifestyle for an elephant, but I was constantly reassured by our guide and by the park keepers that the elephants were happy, healthy and safe. I hope this is true.

Steph and I had decided to 'share an elephant' and after climbing up onto the wooden platform we carefully sat on the two person 'seat' that was fastened to our elephant's back. The elephant's keeper (called a 'Mahout') sat on her neck and as we started moving he gently patted her as he whispered into her large floppy ears. I wondered what he was saying and if the elephant could understand him.

Our guide took our cameras and very kindly snapped a few photos of Steph and I giggling as we sat atop our magnificent elephant. He handed our cameras back and then we were off, albeit very slowly. Steph and I continued to talk as the elephant made its way out of the camp and down the slope of the river bank. I felt rather worried as our elephant stumbled down the vertical track to the river, and Steph and I both tried not to look down. (It was terribly high off the ground.)

Once we got into the river the elephant started making happy little trumpet noises and flicking large drops of water backwards with her curly trunk. She must have loved being in the water. The keeper laughed and patted her head.

Mornings in Luang Prabang are generally fairly overcast and by roughly 10-10:30am the clouds clear, revealing a stunning blue sky and warm sun. This has been the case every day since I arrived and I'm not sure exactly why it occurs. The only explanation I could come up with is that LP is in the mountains and the cold air makes clouds, which only dissipate once the sun is warm enough. The clearing of the clouds is obviously a gradual process, but as we sat on our elephant while she wadded through the fresh blue waters of Nam Kahm River, I could have sworn that the clouds parted and the sun came out in only a few seconds. The day was looking beautiful.

The was activity all around us: other elephants were wadding through the waters in front of us, children swam and giggled to our right and to the left women from the village washed their clothes on the rocks. After leaving the water our elephant made her way through the tail-end of the little village and back to the camp. The ride was exhilarating, but feeding the elephants was just incredible. After we had gotten off our elephant (being sure to say thank you!) we had of photo taken with one of the smaller elephants.

Lunch was a vegetarian buffet that we ate in the restaurant by the river. Although it was included in the tour, it was delicious! Lao salad, sticky rice, Lao potato curry and steamed veggies - it was mouth-watering.

After lunch the five of us got a small motor boat and drove 15mins up river to the amazing Kangsi waterfalls. The water in the pools below the falls looks light turquoise in color because it's glacier water that flows down from the mountains above. We dipped our feet in and were immediately struck by how cold it was. A few people had decided to swim but Steph and I decided to lounge in the sun and have a beer. We were only there for half an hour before our guide came to collect us for the next leg of our journey - KAYAKING!

We took a boat back down the river to our waiting kayaking guide. Steph and I picked out our kayak, adorned our selves with life vests and began the journey down river and back to town. Neither of us had used a two person kayak before but I think we got used to it very quickly and together we made a wonderful team. We powered meters in front of the German couple and even our guide, who was in a one person kayak, found it hard to keep up with us.

We were told that the kayak back to town would take us roughly three hours, but I believe it took at least four! It was tiring and very straining for the upper body, but both of us had a lot of fun. We talked the whole way about everything from men to travel. When the water was still we had to paddle very hard to get the kayak moving at all, but when we drifted into raging rapids it was hard not to loose control and flip over.

Being dry season, rocks stuck up out of the water and at times were extremely hard to spot. A few times our plastic kayak stopped abruptly and we smacked into a hidden rock. The first time this happened both Steph and I screamed, not sure if we would tip over or not. But as this kept happening and no tipping occurred, we just laughed. Only once were we truly worried, and that was when we somehow managed to deposit our selves right onto the top middle of a submerged rock. We were stuck. "What do we do?" Steph said, laughing. "I don't want to get out!" I said, "the water is flowing too fast, we might slip and fall on the rocks."

Steph agreed and we set about pushing with our paddles and our feet in order to set our selves free from the rock. Eventually we slipped forward into the rapids and away from the rock. We both cheered as the kayak lurched forward into the waiting current. As the front of of kayak hit the huge waved, walls of water smashed into my face and chest. Our kayak filled up with water and both of us were soaking wet. We went through quite a few more rapids and LOVED every second of it.

It seemed to take us forever to reach our final destination. The guide had informed us that we could stop when we saw a bridge. After about three hours of hard kayaking we were hungry, tied, wet and sore and couldn't WAIT to see this fabled bridge. We kept on going, Steph and I encouraging each other and trying our best to keep paddling. At one point some kids came swimming towards us, "Oh no, what are they going to do?" Steph sounded worried. Giggling, they jumped on the back of our small kayak. We almost tipped backwards and into the water! "ARGH!" I screamed, but all we could do was laugh. It was, of course, impossible to paddle with FOUR people on the tiny kayak, so the kids expectant ride really didn't last more than a few seconds.

It wasn't until after another hour that we finally spotted the bridge. "THE BRIDGE!" we both shouted simultaneously, "I SEE THE BRIDGE!! WOOO!!" Behind us the German couple cheered. I think we were all happy that we could finally have a rest.

Tired, sore, wet and sun burnt, we dragged out kayaks onto the muddy bank by the bridge. Although I was exhausted I couldn't help but smile. "I'm so tired...but that was amazing." I said to Steph and she wholeheartedly agreed.

After taking off our life jackets we jumped into the back of yet another tuk tuk and made our way into the centre of town. Steph and I asked them to drop us by the Tiger Adventure office so we could go across the street to the Scandinavian bakery for hot tea and croissants. I am so happy to have met someone as open and friendly as Steph. I do hope we can stay in touch and see each other again one day.

What an rewarding and full day this was. Most certainly a highlight of the Laos leg of my South East Asian journey. :)

Awwww! So cute. This elephant LOVES her sugar cane. Nom nom nom. :)

Awwww! So cute. This elephant LOVES her sugar cane. Nom nom nom. :)



Great stuff Maz! (Tho I hate the american spelling "center" - we enlightened aussies know it's "centre", tee hee) So have you had Luang Prabang salad yet, with its gorgeous sweet dressing? I couldn't get enough of the stuff, and all those extra salad greens they have, that we don't have in Australia!

  Leanne Jan 10, 2009 12:16 AM


Yeah, spell check changed that!!! I hate American spelling too. Which is also why I don't put Z's in realise! I must have just changed "centre" without thinking..I was in a hurry to get this story finished after all. I haven't even finished it yet! Thanks for pointing that out though. :)

I have had an LP salad and they're amazing!! I've also tried a Lao salad, which is similar. I love the Lao mountain coffee too. So delicious. :)

  mazystar Jan 10, 2009 7:24 PM

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