Luang Prabang – Day 6

I woke up early on my last day in Laos to the banging of drums moving down my street. I had heard that the Buddhist monks had this procession every day and it was quite the sight to see, but it was at 5:30 in the morning and the thought of finding enlightenment underneath the covers of my comfy bed felt like the more important thing to do, so I did not make it out to witness this. In fact, on my last day I went back to doing the touristy thing.

 

In fact, I went and did the most touristy thing that the city of Luang Prabang has to offer, Phousi Hill. This hill stands in the middle of town and I could see the temple on the top from many different angles as I traveled the streets of this town. Many visitors try to make it to the top of this hill right at sunset so they can witness the sun dip down over the horizon and look at the whole town at the same time. I have been told that it can be incredibly packed at this time of the day.

So I tried a different option where I would find solitude away from the craziness of the crowds. I went up early in the morning and it was worth going at the off time. There was nobody out there but us and a small tour group from China. I didn’t have to shove my way to find the best views and deal with the uglier side of humanity. I could relax and enjoy the view at my own leisure.

There are two ways to reach the top. One entrance is right in front of the National Museum and this is the way that most people go. It is easy to find and the route is very direct, but there is another path on the other side of the hill that not many people know about.

This would be the side that I would recommend. There is a whole lot more to see on the other side than on the one most traveled on. Numerous tiny shrines to Buddha exist on the other side and a new marvel awaits you with every turn.

And I am glad that I was not urged on by big crowds as I made my way up this side of the hill. I was able to sit and enjoy the sights without having to hear the click of cameras, and the babble of twelve different languages. There were even a couple of hidden spots that I would not have found if I had followed the crowds, the most exciting being the imprint of Buddha’s foot. I had to wind off the path a bit to see it, but it was worth the small detour.

It was also really cool when I finally made it up the 360 steps to see the town. No, I did not count the steps on the way up, but I was told by the cab driver coming into town that there were 360 of them, and I don’t know if he meant both on the way up and the way back down because it did not feel like that much.

The views were really pretty up there. I was able to survey the whole town. I could point out all of the places I had been while I was up there, and I don’t know if I should have left it for the last thing I did before I left town, but it was a nice way to say bye to this town that had enthralled me for so many days.

I took the more touristy path the way back down the hill, and it was not as exciting. There was a really cool tree on the way down but nothing as notable as the way up. It was the way that most trips end. You whisk yourself off to some airport for some adventure and excitement, and when you make your way back to the airport at the end you are left with a bunch of memories but nothing seems as exciting as when you first made your way to the adventure. It was still an amazing trip that had a lot of memories, and it will be a long time before the memories I create in Laos fade away.

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Luang Prabang, Laos – Day 5

I only had one day left with the elephants before I headed back to the comforts that Luang Prabang had to offer, but this was the day that I actually got to contribute to the care of the elephants. After spending a couple of days at the Elephant Conversation Center, I wished that we had planned things a little differently and would have gotten the one week experience at the site rather than the three day stay. If we had opted for that option, we would have helped out a lot more because it involved doing volunteer work at the camp after the three days were over. The only problem would have been that I would have wanted to stay there if we had gone for the longer option, so it was probably for the best that we were there for only two nights.

On my last day there, I got to work in the enrichment area. The idea of this part of the camp is to train the elephants to what it means to look for food in the wild. I know this may surprise many people to think that elephants need to be trained how to forage for food in the forest. Shouldn’t there instincts kick in allowing them to find food for themselves? Well, it is not that easy.

These elephants were trained since the age of three to either work in the logging industry, or perform at the tourist camps. They never had to search for food because it was always given to them by the mahouts. They never learned how to be elephants. I was told that the first time a new elephant was left alone in the enrichment area, they would stand there not knowing what to do because they had never been left alone in their live. And even though the goal of the Elephant Conservation Center is to get elephants ready to love out in the wild again they need to work their way up to that point.

Think of it this way. If somebody came to your house, grabbed you, traveled all the way around the way around the world and dropped you off into the forest so you could return back to your natural habitat, how well would you do out there by yourself? It is the same thing for these elephants. They need the time to learn how to survive on their own.

The two elephants that I got to watch in the environment took a little while to get going. They were able to find the food that was closer to the ground rather quickly, but they had a tendency to ignore the food that was hidden in the higher spot. I watched them walk right under some of the more obvious spots wondering why they couldn’t find the food hidden in these spots. I even asked the owner of the place if they has a weak sense of smell because of this phenomenon, and I was told that elephants have an extraordinary sense of smell which is what I thought in the first place. He told me that they just didn’t think of looking up high and this was the whole reason that they went through the process of training them.

He also told me that the elephants at first would start by struggling the various puzzles that were created for them, but after they figure them out, then the became way too easy for them. It required the center to come up with new and exciting ways to challenge the elephants that also simulated what it would be like for them to find food on their own. The elephants we were watching we just starting to figure out the easier puzzles and they still needed to work on finding and solving the more difficult ones.

Even though it was fun to watch the elephants in action, we had a boat we needed to catch to head back to our last full night in the more comfortable parts of Laos. We headed back to Luang Prabang and got a room closer to the center of town. It made for a very nice evening of enjoying drinks by the Mekong river and enjoying an amazing dinner.

It also meant it was the last chance I would get to travel across that wooden bridge that they build every year during the dry season. The bridge did not look as threatening at night, but as soon as we stepped on it and made our way across it, we could really feel how rickety it actually was. There were a couple of holes along the way that came from the continuous use over the last couple of months, but I also knew that the people of Luang Prabang would not fix these holes due to the fact that the wet season was starting soon and the bridge would have to come down anyway.

It was worth it making it across though because there was a wonderful restaurant on the other side that featured the Laos version fondue. It had many of the same features of Swiss fondue such as a nice broth to cook various kinds of food in over an open flame. But the difference came with the vegetables they used adding such things as cabbage, and scallions, and the addition of noodles. The meat was also cooked on a grill rather than being heated up in the broth. Add some of the spicy peppers to the broth and it made for one of the best meals I had while I was out there.

The trip had come full circle, but I felt like a completely different person because of it. A lot of the thanks for this has to be delivered to the Elephant Conversation Camp. I almost felt bad for going back to this life of luxury, but I now could use the new knowledge I gained from the journey to use in my life as I moved forward.

If you would like more information about the Elephant Conservation Center please check out the website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 4

I woke up early on my fourth day in Laos, and enjoyed a little peace and quiet while reading a book on the patio of my bungalow. Little did I know that one of my past mistakes would come to haunt me on this day.

This is not the only trip that I have been on where I roughed it with the elephants hanging out nearby. About eight years ago I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Tanzania where I was able to experience these majestic animals out on safari.

Of course, there are some differences between African elephants and Asian elephants. First of all, African elephants are a lot bigger, and they have ears that look like the continent of Africa. They also haven’t been domesticated in the same way that the Asian elephants have, so there might have been a time when they resembled each other more, but this is not the case any more. Despite these differences, there are many factors that make them similar.

One of these similarities is threads of hair that can be found on their tails. It is not like the hair that can be found anywhere else on their body because it is a lot coarser. It feels a lot like wire if you ever get the opportunity to ever rub it between your fingers. Elephants use it to clean their genitalia, especially with female elephants, by swatting it with the coarse hair. The thing is that many people think that because it is hair, it will grow back quickly which is not the case. But because of this belief, many of the owners of the elephants will clip off the hair, braid it together, and sell it as a bracelet or a ring. Many people end up buying them as mementos and it encourages the selling of more of these bracelets. Elephants lose the hair that they need in order to keep themselves clean which can eventually lead to painful diseases and in some cases cause elephants to have problems with giving birth. So something that appears innocent at many of these tourists camps where this practice goes on, actually contributes to the depletion of the species.

This is where my past came back to haunt me. When I was out in Tanzania while we were traveling between national parks, we stopped at a gift shop on the side of the road to pick up mementos of our trip out there. One of the things I always look for on my trips is something I can hang on my Christmas tree that helps to remind me of all the places in the world I have been at. This particular time I had found a nice wooden carving of a giraffe’s face, but when I went to check out the man who was selling me the item hounded me about buying one of these elephant hair bracelets. At the time I thought it was just wire because that is what elephant hair looks like. The man claimed that if I wore it, it would make me strong. I still wasn’t interested in it, but he continued to pester me about it, and I considered it an act of charity to buy one off of him even if it was a sham.

My wife and her family has continuously made fun of me for making this purchase. They tell me that I need to be strong and learn how to say no from time to time. It wasn’t until this trip that I learned the truth about my purchase which made me feel even more miserable. If I had known what I was buying was genuinely an elephant hair bracelet and what damage I was doing, I would not have done it, but I had never been educated about it. It takes trips like this to help me learn about these small things in the world. And hopefully by telling the world about my mistake, it will prevent somebody from making the same one in their lifetime.

It is another reason that I really loved the time I got to spend at the Elephant Conservation Center. It wasn’t just about hanging out with the elephants and watching the staff help them become more self-sufficient. It wasn’t knowing that the elephants were well taken care and examined by a veterinarian in large stalls at regular intervals. It wasn’t knowing that this organization was helping to create a forest where man has come in and depleted it without really thinking about the larger consequences of what that could mean about future generations. It was the fact that this place took the time to educate the people who stayed here about what they could do to make sure they weren’t contributing to the problem by the decisions they made half a world away.

This is why travel is so important. If we never go out and take the risk to see what the rest of the world is like, we get set in the mind frame of the place we come from. We don’t see the larger picture. We don’t understand how the buying of palm oil helps to contribute to the depletion of the forest. We don’t understand how the buying of certain products gives money to the people who would continue to abuse animals for their own superstitions or their own wallets. We need to be aware that we live in a global society and each decision we make affects the lives of so many others.

So as the sun started to set on my second day at the Elephant Conservation Center, I was able to reflect on my life and my contribution to the problems of the world. I was able to see that I needed to be more conscious of my decisions as I continued down this road of life and make sure that I make the right ones.

If you would like to find out more information or contribute to the work happening at the Elephant Conservation Center, check out their website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 3

My third day out in Laos was the one I was the most excited about. It was the day where I was going to leave Luang Prabang behind and take a two hour trip to the less populated part of the country in the provenance of Soyaboury.

The lifestyle in this part of the country was a little more simple. It wasn’t so much about tourist and cafĂ© streets where I could sip a drink and watch the crowds mingle in a facsimile of a small town in France. Instead, the people found a way to live off of the land. Mainly this was done through fishing on the lake we ended up on, but there were also plantations around here and small towns to supply the people of this area what they needed to survive comfortably.

The houses weren’t as fancy either. I stayed in a cabin in the middle of the forest on the edge of the lake. There was some electricity to the place but that created only at night and with the use of a generator. And I was forced to get off the grid because there was no internet service or wifi available anywhere. It was great because I was able to return to the simplicity of the wilderness that I had not been able to experience for a long time, and I was reveling in the experience.

But all of these things were not the real reason that I went out to this remote place. It was to visit the Elephant Conservation Center and witness all of the amazing work they are doing with these elephants in this region of the world.

The name Laos use to translate into the land of a million elephants. Now, I am pretty sure that the population of these beasts was never that large in this area of the world, but the idea that elephants were all over the place probably was. These gentle beasts had been domesticated by the people of Laos over a thousand years ago and they were used to help with gathering the wood that people needed in order to build houses, and support themselves. For many centuries this structure maintained a strong economic structure allowing the country to continue peacefully in a symbiotic balance.

But then the logging industry came in and the tree population started to decline and more elephants were needed to help deplete the forest. The people who were trained to handle these creatures could not train enough people to train the animals in the proper way, and soon the animals were abused. Because of this many things happened. The forest grew small and wasn’t able to support the wild population of the elephants. The animals were forced to find food at people’s farms and were executed because of this. Many of the elephants were also sold for great profit to Chinese wealthy individuals who used many parts of the animals for old remedies that they believed still worked. The population of the animals fell in both the wild and domesticated populations leaving the country with an estimated 800 animals that are left today.

This is when the Laos government stepped in. They were trying to save what was left of the forest and what was left of the elephants. They banned the logging industry and the animals who were beasts of burden were forced to move to tourist supported camps. The abuse there got even worse. The mahouts, the trainers of elephants, would train them by using a large hook and tapping the animals in certain places to get them to do what they wanted them to do. Because of the untrained mahouts that were working these tourist camps, they did not know how to use their tools correctly, and would hit the animals way too hard. It would leave areas of scars on the animals similar to what can be seen on the head of the female elephant pictured above. Some of these abuses eventually led to death.

This is where the Elephant Conservation Center came into play. The people that run this center were not looking to use elephants for commercial reasons. They, instead, were trying to save elephants, and then train them to eventually return to the wild. They have also been working on a breeding program to help bring the population back up to where it once used to be. They have hired skilled mahouts to help in this process, and what started off with only three elephants seven years ago has grown into a population of thirty. They have saved a few elephants from the terrible fate of having to work the tourist camps that don’t treat the elephants kindly, and they have even recently been donated 13 elephants that were scheduled to move to a zoo in Dubai.

Their efforts are some truly amazing things to see, and I was glad to have been able to spend two days and three night learning about all of the great things that they were doing at this place. I will tell you more about what they have done in my next couple of posts, but in the meantime, if you would like to find out more or would like to help by contributing to this great organization, you can contact them at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.

 

Laung Prabang, Laos – Day 2

On the second day in Luang Prabang, I decided to get out of the city and explore the countryside a little bit, and one of the big attractions out there is the Kuang Si Waterfall. It is a series of waterfall over pristine lakes that brings in tons of tourists to enjoy its beauty and to cool off in the water of the pools. It is about a forty-five minute drive from Luang Prabang, but there are many ways to make it out there. My wife and I rented a van to drive us out there for about the cost of six U.S. dollars. It was totally worth it too, because we just got to relax in the car and enjoy the scenery instead of feeling the pressure of driving in a foreign country and not really being accustomed to the rules of the road that the locals follow. Even though we took the easy way, there were still a bunch of other tourists who rented bikes and made their own way out there, or found tuk tuk to take them.

Entry into the park costs 20,000 kip which is just over a couple of dollars, and it includes entry into the Tak Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center. There are many people who live in this region, mainly Chinese I am told, who believe that the bile from the sun bears has healing properties, so they will trap these bears, keep them in small cages, and extract their bile from them for their own use. It was nice to see that there was a group in Laos dedicated to protecting them, and they had created large environments for the bears to roam around so they no longer felt the pressure of having to live in the cage.

The same people did an amazing job of keeping the water of the waterfalls pristine. I couldn’t believe the frosty blue that shimmered in the pools collected by the water trickling down the hill. And even though there were some crowds in the place, I was still able to find a private spot where I could enjoy the water. It wasn’t as cold as I was expecting it to be either. It was quite comfortable and if the weather was warmer, I would have stayed in longer.

Other people there found place where they could jump into the water and enjoy the crowd a little bit more. It was the perfect place to find the amount of people you wanted to contend with, and when you found that level you were free to enjoy yourself.

Of course the hike up the waterfalls had the big payoff at the end. The huge waterfall cascaded down a series of rocks and there were many places you could go to click the perfect picture. Granted the crowds got a little bigger here than some of the other places on the hike, but it was still never so bad where I felt like I had to fight through the elbows in order to enjoy the serenity that the spot had to offer.

We were also more adventuresome than some of the other people there. There was a small path on the left of the waterfall that we took to reach the top of it. The path was kind of steep and there were a couple spots where it was really slippery because you needed to walk through the side of the waterfall itself, but we made it too the top. The pools were not as pretty up there, but the views of the countryside was worth the trek.

It wasn’t only about the waterfall either. There was some amazing trees out there and every once in a while we came across an explosion of flowers. It was during the dry season as well, so I couldn’t even begin to imagine what this place would look like if it got enough rain to really explode.

For the most part, the hike was really worth it. It was the perfect blend of nature and man made structures to support it but not take away from the natural charm of the area.

It is a must stop for anybody who finds themselves in Luang Prabang, and I am glad we made it out there. After a couple of hours enjoying the area we made it back to the parking lot where our driver was happy to take us back into town.

Luang Prabang, Laos – Day 1

Luang Prabang is a small town situated in the heart of Laos. It is an obvious tourist destination but it does not attract the younger crowds looking for a night of crazy partying mixed with days spent around the pool. Yes, you can still have a few drinks at night and then spend the day sitting around a pool, but that is not the real attraction of this place. Instead it is a blend of a couple of things that really come together in a surprising way that makes people wonder what part of the world they really in. Laos used to be under the control of the French and you can still see that influence out here around every corner. It sometimes makes me feel as if I am in some small European town, but then there is also the fact that it is in the middle of Asia, and the place also holds on to the charms of the long rich heritage that has been here a lot longer than a few invading European forces could crush with their imperialism.

I could see it when I looked at the lush landscapes around the place. It is situated between two rivers, the bigger Mekong river, and the smaller Nam Khan River. When I looked at the banks flowing down to the river, I saw the power of nature as it took over the land with its jungle landscape.

But then, walking through the town, there are many places where the foliage has obviously been landscaped to look pretty and perfect, making the simple alleyways in town tempting little places to explore. The nice thing is that they are fun to explore because the town is so small that I am never worried about losing my bearings and getting lost in a dangerous part of town. I don’t think there is a dangerous part of town.

Unless I count the foot bridge that takes people across the Nam Khan River. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. It looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, and would be ready to collapse at any moment. It just meant that this would have to be something I would have to cross some time while I am out here. I did not do it on my first day because it costs a dollar to get across and I wanted to explore the main part of the town first, but it is definitely on the list of things to do while I am out here.

Apparently the people of Luang Prabang rebuild it every year during the dry season. When the rains come, the river gets really high and takes out the bridge. This just gives me another reason that I have to cross it because it is there and this version of the bridge will only be there for a limited amount of time.

I guess the rest of the year when the bridge is not up, they use ferry boats to get across the river. It would be fun to take one of these as well, but not as much fun as that bridge has to be. But I do need to make my way to the other side of the river while I am out here because there is a whole different part of the town over there. This is probably where most of the people who work out here live, and they do need a way to get across.

It goes back to that mixture that I saw on my first day out here. There is a healthy amount of fishing that takes place on the river, and it is probably the main source of food for the people out here. The river looked huge in my mind when I watched fisherman throw out their nets, and I am sure that they could bring it a big haul everyday, and this was still the dry season. I could not imagine how crazy this river gets during the wet season. It has to be huge, but then again I come from Colorado where we think that the trickle we call the Platte River has earned the title of river. When I see the Mekong during its low period, I learn that Coloradoans need to rethink their position on rivers.

Beyond the river is the town itself with its many features. There is the old palace that used to house the king of Laos that you can tour around. It is absolutely beautiful inside and even though the presentation chambers are decadent, it is surprising to see the humble quarters where they lived. Granted the bed room is probably close to the size of my whole apartment back in Seoul, but it is its simple decoration and practical living styles that remind me that I am looking at the living space of an Asian king. There are also many Buddhist temples out here, and their intricate design and peaceful atmosphere make them a wonderful place to visit and tour.

But as soon as I leave the grounds of these tourist spots, I find myself back into the French influence of the country. There are numerous bars that spill out to the sidewalks at night and people sit in their chairs sipping on their cocktails as they watch the various people pass them by. They serve food that is a blend of Asian spices and French cuisine. It makes the choices of food amazing. Laotian food is very similar to Thai food with its spicy deliciousness, but I can still find a nice Western style meal if I want to. Eating will be one of the things I will enjoy a lot while I am out here, and it makes me excited for what other adventures await me on this trip.

It’s Now About the Destination

Yes, we have all heard it before, the comedian standing up on the stage complaining about how horrible airports are. We have even experienced the moment. There are mixed emotions that we go through every time we are forced to make our way to the airport. On one hand, we are going some place great to enjoy a wonderful vacation, but on the other hand, you have to deal with an airport and airplane travel.

Yes, these places are awful. You get packed into places with large groups of people so they can shuffle you off from one place to another. They just become nameless faces among thousands. You get to sit on hard seats. You get to have the seat in front of you lean back so they can crush your knees. You get to smell really bad airline food because there is no way that you would ever want to eat it. And you get stuck in terminals during layovers because if you leave, it would mean that you would have to stand in line all over again to back to the place you never wanted to be in the first place.

Even though the mere thought of it makes my back shrivel up in dread, it wasn’t until today that I really understood why I truly hate airplane travel. It is not all the uncomfortable positions I get placed in because if I am driving across America, I get those same pains from being stuck in a car all day. It isn’t from the bad food because if we are being honest, the fast food that you find off of any highway in America is just as bad. No, I think the real reason I hate it so bad is because it takes away from me one of my fundamental beliefs.

Life is not about the destination. It is the all about the journey. It is about the things that you get to experience along the way. Don’t get me wrong; the destination is awesome when you are going on vacation, but so is the journey. Some of my favorite stories come from traveling on a train, or hanging with my new friends on a bus, or some of the crazy things I have seen from being on the road. But traveling by plane is all about how fast you can get from one place to another. There is a little hole you feel within your existence because you no longer get to talk about the stories that you would have collected along the way.

Now, a lot of airports will have great pieces of artwork up that reflects the nature of the little corner of the world where they find themselves in, but most of the time they are remakes of some original that could only be found outside of the airport. They are still neat to look at, but you still didn’t have to make the trek to go and see it. Instead it is right there off of the airplane for you to admire.

Most airports try to fill in the void that you experience from not having the journey with shopping. It is crazy the kinds of things you can find for sale at airports too. Incheon International Airport is probably one of the worst. They expect you to spend your money on Tiffany’s jewelry, or Gucci bags. They do not even have a place where you can pick up a small snack to enjoy on the plane, or a book or magazine to read to make the flight go by quicker. And even worse, they have Duty Free shops to fill in that void even more. If buying expensive things doesn’t make you feel better, than get yourself some cheap booze and cigarettes to pass away the time. The sad thing is you will only wake up from that with a bigger void you wish to fill.

In fact the only time you feel like you have completed anything that feels like a journey is when you first arrive at the place where you will stay. This is the first time that what you will see that looks like it has the adventure that we crave as human beings. The only problem is that it is found at the destination, the place that was meant to be our reward for going through the adventures in the first place. Think about every great epic story that you know. It is not about them being at the place, but instead it is about the adventure they have to get there. And I long for the same thing in my life.

The only problem is that after all the exhaustion that is experienced on the voyage to get to your destination, the only thing you look forward to is the bed so you can rest up to take on the next day. Yes, the next day will be filled with adventure, and it will be worth the long travel to get there, but you are still missing out on something because of the airplane travel. Now don’t get me wrong. In this busy world that we live in, I will still take that flight so I can enjoy places like Laos on the spur of the moment, but there is still a part of me that wishes that I could experience it the old way where I would take the long, slow route, so I have something to talk about when I get there.

This way the drink and company I share when I arrive will even be more enjoyable.