And so, feeling a touch queasy and glad to have our last long bus journey of the whole trip behind us (yay!) we arrived in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is a former Lao Royal capital and is now a Unesco world heritage site (we’ve been lucky enough to visit a few of these during our time away). It’s a beautiful and totally charming place which grows on you even more the longer you’re there. We got there in the evening and our first impressions were good as it was all prettily lit up with fairy lights, and it’s even better by day.
There are wats all over the shop, and even more monks calmly promenading than in Vientiane - apparently most Lao men commit to being a monk for a period of their lives, if only for a short time. One of our guest houses in Luang Prabang was in fact right next door to a wat, so we got accustomed to the 4am low-tech monk alarm clock of a really loud banging drum. Nice. Soon followed by the racket of the morning market setting up shop practically outside our front door. Not a well-judged place for a lie-in…
Like in Vientiane but even more so, there are lots of colonial buildings and even the newer ones, because of the Unesco world heritage status, are mostly in a pseudo-colonial style. Cars and buses are banned from the centre, so it’s also a tranquil place to stroll around, with only tuk tuks puttering about.
Luang Prabang also has an excellent night market with rows of colourful silks, handicrafts, cheap as chips t-shirts (with Beer Lao ones available in every colour imaginable) and refreshingly unpushy stall-holders. Our rucksacks are getting fuller and fuller by the day…
But the undoubted highlight of our time in Luang Prabang (and in fact, probably Asia and in the top 3 of the whole trip) was our visit to a nearby elephant sanctuary.
Laos used to be known as the land of a million elephants, but sadly there are now fewer than eight hundred left in the wild. We had a wonderful couple of days at a sanctuary right alongside the river, where they look after ex-logging elephants.
We learnt to ride the elephants ‘mahout-style’ (ie. sitting on their neck). I can confirm that there is no graceful way of getting on (or off for that matter) an elephant. It’s a very sedate way to travel, with the elephant going at absolutely its own pace and stopping for a loo break (think hosepipes and footballs) or a nibble at a nearby tree whenever the mood takes it.
We had a brilliant time feeding them bananas – we never imagined it would be such fun but their trunks are just like writhing alien creatures seeking out their snacks. One elephant politely tapped me on the shoulder to request some more bananas please (which they throw back whole as if they were M&Ms.)
We also got to give them their morning bath in the river which they seemed to really enjoy – we got almost as wet as they did (and Roland in fact took a dip too).
They are marvellous animals, so huge but so placid and gentle. They have a special bond with their mahouts and seem pretty happy with their lot. After a couple of days with the elephants, you get quite attached to them and start to recognise their individual personality quirks. Roland’s was a trifle grumpy in the morning - well, you know what they say about elephants and their riders…
It really was a wonderful experience which we’d thoroughly recommend if you’re ever in a place that offers it. It was very important to us that we went to a sanctuary where they really care for the elephants, and haven’t just plucked them from the wild for tourists’ pleasure. The logging industry is in its dying days in Laos which spells a bleak future for many working elephants as they are so expensive to keep (on account of their rather hefty appetites), so sanctuaries such as this one are a viable way to enable the elephants to earn their keep in a much easier and more relaxed occupation (a couple of tourists surely beats tonnes of logs), where they are properly looked after.
We loved Luang Prabang – and that’s even despite a couple of days of ropey weather (one of pouring rain when it was actually properly cold, with all our warm clothes having been sent home). It’s definitely not a party town (all the bars have to shut by 11.30pm to allow their customers and staff to get home in time for the midnight curfew!) but that was quite a pleasant change from lively Vang Vieng.
After a fun last night in Luang Prabang enjoying a Lao barbecue (a domed contraption with hot coals and a kind of moat around the edge where you cook veggies and noodles to go with your meat), we caught a plane to Hanoi in Vietnam. It was either a one hour flight, or 30 hours on a bus along mountain roads…
And now we’re here in our hotel, waiting for our visitors Paul and Neal to arrive after their long old flight from London. We’ve got 10 days or so with them and we’ll be travelling South down Vietnam together. How we’ve missed Paul’s unique brand of humour…!
Hope all is well back home. We’re now into the last three weeks or so of our trip (how has it flown by so quickly?) so there won’t be many more blogs to go. I’m sure we can squeeze in a couple though!
Take care and lots of love,
Helene and Roland xxx