Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Land of a Million Elephants

I was apprehensive about this bus journey to Laos as in researching it I had read many nightmarish stories, for example this one here. Other than the pick up being an hour late I had no other problems, unless you count sitting on a stool for a period or little children being sick, but I'm so use to this its almost not a bus trip unless someone is ill. I started my journey at 6am (7am); four buses, one motorbike and one truck later I arrived in Vientiane at the excellent time of 3am. I found what appeared to be the only open/vacant hotel an got myself a room for $20. When I awoke I couldn't really be bothered to find a cheaper hotel as all seemed full, my hotel staff were friendly an asked "what are you doing today" in my "i've no idea" response they suggested they sell me a bus ticket, so on I got on a bus to Vang Vieng (where I was going next anyway). A bumpy ride that was rewarded with some nice views and green mountains a whole 3 days ahead of schedule (which is important as I am out of time).

Vang Vieng is billed as 'Koh Phangan on steroids' but I think this is unfair as its also kind of quiet but also stunning. It reminds me of Yangshuo, except Yangshuo hasn't been discovered by all the knobheads yet. The town itself is quiet because the main activities happen further up the river or an island in the river next to town. It is a town almost solely revolving around backpackers. The main activity is to 'tube' down the river, in an inflatable rubber ring; however this is for amateurs or 'noobs'. I did it once and I went all the way down, I mean its why I came here, right? - to quote a friend of mine "Nobody does that!" Which is true, most people don't even bother with the tube and just drink at the many bars along the river.

This is where the infamous "Phangan on Steroids" is located. Every bar gives you a wristband and usually a free shot of god awful whiskey. Each bar has a slightly different gimic, from zip lines to water slides, one bar even had some puppies (the Drum n Bass bar actually). However most people just drink an play the usual silliness of beer pong or dance that silly inbetweeners "Bon Bon" dance (as it is apparently known) as demonstrated by these drunk idiots. Having mentioned the idiots and stupid water features, this place apparently has a death rate of 3 a month, you can see why: alcohol + water + stupid water features = Damage. Not being that stupid I stayed well clear of the zip lines etc. I saw plenty of people on crutches and lots of cuts and bruises. Despite this the vibe is good and I met people I'd met in Cambodia, Vietnam and a few new people too.

In the evening the party moves over to the Island next to town and usually starts with a free bucket at the aptly named "Bucket Bar" before that closes around 12am and moves to Limbo bar, where people fail to pull off a simple duck under, It was no Koh Phangan effort I am sad to report. This carries on around the fire until it is time for bed.

When everyone is done partying the town is so geared towards backpackers they only play two tv shows in the restaurants.... Family Guy or Friends. I got kind of ill in Vang Vieng (No, not hungover ill) so I spent a day watching like 3 whole seasons of Friends, a feat E4 manage is about the same amount of time. Anyway party time over I headed off to Luang Prabang but not before taking some pictures of mist around the mountains. 
Vang Vieng and the misty mountains

Bridge to the Otherside

A view from the Bridge
I left for Luang Prabang on another supposedly bumpy ride. It started bumpy but soon became rather windy, with stunning backdrops of green karsts and endless valleys. I would love to come back and trek in this area as it was stunning. Also I don't have a pictures to show you.

Luang Prabang is a pretty town with UNESCO World Heritage status. It is easy to see why, it is quiet, laid back and houses much old style buildings as well as newer French colonial buildings which sit surprisingly well amongst of the temples, of which there are many. It mostly lies on a peninsula formed by two rivers (one the Mekong) and has a small hill protruding in the middle of which three temples sit atop.

I spent my first day here wandering around the old town, climbing the hill and taking in all of the temples as physically possible before the heat got to me and I was reduced to figuring out what to do with the rest of my time. I booked my ticket to Chiang Mai (a day earlier than 'scheduled') and a two day Biking/Trekking/Kayaking excursion in to the surrounding countryside.

Down River

Temple of Circular Gold
The first part of my two day excursion was biking through the hills, not so strenuous we stopped at a few local sites, temples and local trader stalls where they also had looms to make the fabrics I see in the markets. On one hill we came past a Snake, a guy had pulled up his truck and subsequently threw a big rock on its head, an then a second time to make sure before picking it up and taking it home, presumably to eat. We eventually reached our first destination, Elephant Village.
Laos used to be called 'Land of a Miliion Elephants' (hence the blog title) and although the amount of elephants alive today may have significantly dropped there are still plenty. Elephant Village is a combined project that aims to give homes to older/ill elephants once they have become too useless for the logging industry. In order to facilitate this, there only current duty is to ferry tourists around at their own pace a few times a day. The logging industry is unfortunately a terrible life for an elephant and much work is being done to reduce this, what you can do if you want to help is a) not buy any wood products that come from Laos or b) buy an elephant (The village can afford to look after them but not buy them from the loggers as even an ill elephants has a worth due to its meat value.) Information on all this can be found at Elephant Village. Anyway here are some pictures of happy elephants free from logging!
Big Smile

Petting the Elephant

Reaching for food!

Exploring with their trunks
I will probably get (even) closer to elephants in Thailand where I plan to do more days trekking and maybe even ride elephants. Elephant time over we took a short boat ride down to the next stop off for lunch at Tad Sea Waterfall, more impressive in wet season (I am told) it was still quite majestic, in a lower pool elephants go bathing, solely for the purpose of getting tourists wet. Lunch was followed by a trek to the Village where we would stay the night in the Chiefs hut. On route the guide told us all about the local widlife, ie the dangerous ones from snakes to leeches! We popped in on the school on the way in to the village and arrived at our hut. A dinner of sticky rice and two dishes of vegetables followed, I say two, one dish was the vegetables in a soup, the other; the same vegetables this time in a sauce. It was however very nice and tasty.
Water Buffalo

Tad Sae Waterfall

Bath Time

Schools Out
The hut also had a baby monkey as a pet. This happened because some of the younger hunters had shot a monkey in the jungle and when they found its carcass found the baby still clinging to it. They had wanted to sell it in the town but the chief decided not to and keep it as a plaything for the 'tourists'. I'm not sure which plan is better really. We left in the morning for a short trek to the kayaking point, on route we saw what I think is a Green Tree Pit Viper (according to my research). Once we had reached the Kayak point it was a long and hot three hour trip down river to the end of the trek. A good if short two days in the countryside around Luang Prabang. In the evening I had a farewell dinner with the two Dutch Girls I knew from Vietnam as our paths will stop criss crossing now. It was a cheap street buffet jobby for all of a dollar. Joined by yet another Dutch Girl (everyone seems to be Dutch at the moment, the two others on my trek were also Dutch) we drank Beer Lao and ended up talking about embarrassing stories from our childhoods and somehow also Pokemon. As tonight is my 19 hour trip to Thailand today is a prep day, which means blogging and photo time.
Baby Monkey

Itsssssaaaaaa Snaakeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Kayaks Galore!
Less than two weeks to go! One last jaunt in Thailand seeing friends from Thailand, I am both excited for that and then to go home, it's been an amazing 11 plus months but I am ready to go back now, expect one last Thailand blog and then an INCREDIBLY long year review to look forward to!
Bye for now.

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