I'm going to break this post up into two parts because I've travelled to SE Asia multiple times and I hadn't yet made it to Laos, always adding it to the "I'll-do-it-next-time-list" and I've, as to be expected, fallen head over heals in love with the incredibly, beautiful and untouched country. A short but very rewarding journey rich in atmosphere, stunning natural beauty and culture - I want to urge you to go and to go almost immediately!
Secondly, I want to talk about why I was there - an extremely important topic of Elephant Conservation.
But, before I get into that, here are some things I think you should do in Laos:
Spend a day exploring the waterside, charming capital city, Vientiane. Wake up for sunrise and walk along the upper Mekong, quietly roam the streets observing the temples glow as the morning light illuminates them and see the locals going about their daily routine, followed by coffee the local Laos way.
All in a day you can visit Wat Sisaket, the oldest original temple (built in 1818), and the only one to survive the Thai invasion of 1828. Then hop across the street and explore the surrounds of the Haw Pha Kaew temple, where you will also find one of the famous Plain of Jars. Next to my favourite of the morning, the great golden-spired stupa, Pha That Luang, which is also the most important national monument in Laos and symbolic of both the monarchy and the Buddhist religion.
*On a side note, whilst at Pha That Luang, the most gorgeous couple from Melbourne introduced themselves to me and I wanted to give them a special little mention, as I find it inspiring they have quit their jobs and are on an adventure, travelling the world together. So great to meet you Mark and Miranda - The Common Wanderer - thank you for taking your time to come up to say hello to me.
Following this, something I found heart-wrenching, but also incredibly moving was spending the afternoon in the COPE Centre, which provides prosthetic limbs for victims of exploded ordinance and brings attention to the tragic after-effects of the Indochina war. To be completely honest I was limited in my knowledge of the war and I found the facts presented in the COPE Centre staggering. Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in the WORLD per capita in history? Or that approximately 80 million of the 270 million “bombies" remain to this day, unexploded and throughout the country following the war?
I do recommend an eye opening visit here and to bring along the tissues.
Say farewell the current capital and fly to the former royal capital, Luang Prabang (make sure you ask for window seat - the views are said to be next to none!!)
Whilst I was in Luang Prabang there were a lot of celebrations including the 20th anniversary of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status and the arrival of the Elephant Caravan (I’ll get to that soon). However, as soon as you arrive in LP you feel an overwhelming sense of peace consume you and you might never want to leave. So allow a few days here to explore the historic architecture, the Buddhist temples and most definitely get up each morning to watch the sunrise procession of approximately 200 Buddhist monks through the quiet and charming streets of LP. Personally, I'm fascinated by the life of a Buddhist monk and the tradition of the monks procession dates back to the 14th century, as each morning they depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal and will share some of their alms with small children so that they can take food back to their family.
Spend a day with the locals. After sunrise make sure you visit the peninsula where the two rivers meet and basically just relax - you're on Laos time after all!
Most travellers who make it to LP don’t trek down this end and you really should as the Mekong River meets the Nam Khan River and there is this beautiful little bamboo footbridge that you can pay a small fee to enjoy the walk across. After this make your way to lunch at Tamarind - they have an incredibly delicious local spread for vegetarians. Then spend the afternoon watching the sky burn and soak in that last light over the magical Mekong River and distant mountains.
Travel to Kuang Si falls, the most beautiful of the waterfalls near Luang Prabang. A major highlight for me. GO and go early!
Apparently the destination can get quite crowded, however we had the place to ourselves for about half an hour first thing in the morning and oh was I completely blown away when I got there.
I've heard about Kuang Si falls, but I actually couldn't believe my eyes when we arrived - those turquoise waters surround by a luscious, thriving jungle -what a dreamy morning! Please do me a favour and make sure you go for a swim, as even in the "colder months," it is really refreshing!! I try to live my life by the "I may never get this opportunity again" philosophy and to embrace each moment - so what are you waiting for? Jump in!
From here you can also visit a nearby bear sanctuary (literally walking distance) to see Asiatic Black bears rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.
Lastly, on the way home I highly recommend enjoying a local cooking class, which is all organised for you by Insider Journeys. Only 10 minutes outside of LP, here we learnt how to make coconut sticky rice (yes, I 100% licked the bowl whilst cooking) and other traditional Laos dishes such as my favourite Lao eggplant dip. Another highlight for me!
Board a slow boat for a trip up the magical Mekong to the mysterious ‘Cave of a thousand Buddhas’ at Pak Ou. Here, in a tradition that has lasted centuries, local people add annually to a repository of Buddha statues. Again though, go early! It’s a picturesque two hour cruise upstream you definitely won’t regret or forget.
Going to leave it at six because this is where my real passion comes in and why I’m really excited I got to visit Laos.
I have touched on this briefly in an earlier post, but I have spent a lot of my year soul searching into how my art can contribute to the industry in a positive manner and the direction I see myself heading. So whilst I was there in Laos, through my photography, I was able to take part in the "Elephant Caravan" who's mission is to stave off the extinction of this majestic species in the small landlocked country once dubbed "The Land of a Million Elephants."
I experienced one of the most incredible moments of my entire life; being face to face (or nose to trunk) with Moukhao, a 38 year old female Asian elephant. Moukhao was rescued from the logging industry approximately one year ago, originally from the Sayabouri province in Laos, and it was literally one of those life changes moments I will never, ever forget.
The issues surrounding ethical and responsible tourism involving elephants vary across the different countries, therefore I am wary of generalisations on the topic. In a perfect world all elephants in Laos would return to the wild, however right now this is not ideal. Due to urbanisation and deforestation of their natural habit, the potential of poaching, risk of death or injury by local people killing elephants to protect their crops and villages, as well as the risk of capture to be returned to the logging industry resulting in premature death, is very, very real.
The population of Asian elephants has plummeted and is decreasing at a rapid and alarming rate. They ARE facing a high risk of extinction.
"If we don't act now we'll soon see a world without elephants" - Sebastien Duffillot, ECC CEO.
Until we can create an environment to return the elephants to the wild this is a hiatus, a status quo. If you want to engage with elephants in Laos, the way to go is to visit The Elephant Conversation Centre (ECC) which is about 4hrs from LP.
Here you can spend 1-2 nights and learn about the elephants, about elephant hospitalisation and medical care, the importance and significance of elephants in Laos culture and about elephant conversation issues. In a safe environment you can interact and observe the elephants bathing or as they would be in their natural habitat with operators who endeavour to properly consider elephant well-being, physical and cognitive health, as well as social and reproductive opportunities.
I’m not trying to force an opinion on you, I am simply trying to encourage and urge other travellers to do extensive research about elephant conservation, specifically involving tourism activities. To ask you to consider the impact of your actions. To make conscious decisions and do extensive research into how to resourcefully use your time and/or money to assist in the conversation of these incredible, incredible creatures.
We can support elephant tourism in a responsible and humane way. The key to conservation is education.
For further research - you can read The Insider Journeys Responsible Elephant Tourism Policy here or visit www.elefantssia.org
Lets begin to connect dots of this disconnect. To realise that nature is not external to us and that we are part of nature. To converse and protect for future generations.