Blog Archives: Laos


Elephant Whispering on a Monday morning

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As office manager, my Monday mornings follow a familiar pattern, however, this Monday was anything but normal.

Today I’m not in the office but in Laos ‘The Land of a Thousand Elephants’, spending time with a group of beautiful female Eurasian elephants at a new project called Mandalao, a short distance from Luang Prabang.

Sadly, Laos only has 40 wild elephants remaining and with logging now banned, these majestic creatures are facing huge challenges to stay away from the traditional tourist use for retired loggers. This is where projects such as Mandalao come in. Run by a passionate American, Mike, who has rescued eight elephants and brought them, and their mahouts to a small reserve allowing them to retire in this peaceful environment.  No Ankush (sticks) and no riding, just a safe place where the mahouts and local farmers are learning to become elephant whisperers.


A breeding project is underway between the captive females and their wild male counterparts, a baby – Kit has already arrived and is making his way through the gentle system until being released into the wild. Dressed in boots we crossed the river and waited for the elephants to reach us, not the other way around.  We stood as four females and their mahouts joined us on the river bank, here they were fed on bananas and bathed with cool buckets of water.  Following them into the forest for their daily walk, through the river, under and over branches before we arrived for more bananas and great photo opportunities, at this point we met Kit, his mother and grandmother as they majestically walked passed, no interaction allowed.

Then it was time to say an emotional goodbye, maybe I was tired (it had been a busy few days) but it was a tug saying farewell to our new friends, their future at least happy and secure.

Laos Part Two

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Following my visit to Koh Lor and the amazing trip through the cave I continued by road to Thakhek, a 1.5 hour drive, a small town on the Mekong River. This is very much a new area, little visited and only a few accommodation options.

In December 2011 a new “Friendship” bridge was inaugurated linking Laos with Thailand across the Mekong River. Looking at Thailand as I did from the sleepy Lao side and seeing the huge buildings, impressive temples and bright lights one could not avoid thinking about what the Lao people thought about their two worlds.

I spent a day trekking in the nearby countryside. A very early start, we set off by Tuk Tuk stopping at the bus station to fill up another Tuk Tuk with petrol before continuing out into the countryside. After 15 minutes we turned off the road on to a dirt track and travelled along at speed on this potholed access road through the jungle to the village of Ban Na located in the forest.

It was doubtful before I arrived that a trek would be possible. It was the end of the rainy season (late October) and you could see how high the water was just a couple of weeks before. It had dropped 20 feet but we still we had to forge several streams. In some locations we passed earthen humps that smouldered, the technique used for charcoal production. At one point on the trek it is possible to swim in a lagoon that has formed at the entrance to a cave. After crossing several more streams, the last on a fallen tree, we stopped for lunch. My guide, a local villager, built a fire and cooked fresh fish on wooden skewers set at 45 degrees top the fire which we ate with local salad. He cut up foliage with his machete which he spread on the ground. It reminded me of the nests that gorillas make when they rest in the trees at night, unlike any picnics I’d had before.

Two ladies appeared. They had been collecting mushrooms in the forest and were also collecting leaves from a nearby tree. The women told my guide they were edible and so following my motto of “I will always try anything once” we ate them aswell. They were quite tasty.

We came across a very large cave filled with water. We could see light at the far end and rested here in the shade and then passed through a tunnel to another part of the cave and out towards the light. Part of this was on boards wedged between massive rocks. Behind us was now the solid wall of rock covered in trees and jungle creepers although the area we came out into was flat, a mixture of rough pasture and rice fields.

We said good bye to our village guide and my guide suggested we walk to a another nearby village. It is here that people who are doing the two day trek overnight in the eco lodge. It is very basic, you sleep in the main house, a stilted wooden house, on the 2nd floor in one open room, quite an experience. The village is of interest, but few visitors come. I played boule and it was not until the 2nd game that I realised I was playing with my guide against the villagers rather than against all of them individually. After a close game we won and they provided the beer.

The next morning we departed for Savannakhet. This is a small town with a number of French colonial buildings located by the Mekong River. There is also a nondescript church. There is a surprisingly good hotel, the Dao Savanh facing the river. There is not really any reason to stay here but it provides a place to stay if coming from Pakse and crossing into Thailand over the Friendship bridge at Thakhek. During my inspection visit the hotel was hosting a graduation ceremony for the local high school. All along the road in front of the hotel were stalls selling brightly coloured bunches of plastic flowers and cuddly toys, gifts from relatives and friends to give to the students.

We continued on to Pakse. It was here that I was to join the Mekong Sun boat for a 4 day, 3 night cruise along the Mekong through Southern Laos. My cruise was upstream so we set off from Pakse for the 2 hour drive to Khone Pha Pheng waterfall, the largest falls in SE Asia in terms of volume of water. This is what hindered the French in thier navigation of the river along with the slightly lesser falls of Lee Phee.

After seeing the falls we travelled by road to Ban Hart where we boarded a local vehicle ferry across the river to Done Khong. This is the largest of the 4,000 islands (12 x 6km) and is an immensly wealthy region, locally, since rice grows in abundance and is of a high quality. We travelled to meet the boat. It was now dark and we hit a massive thunder storm. Taking off our shoes and socks we walked along a dirt track to the river side where we boarded the ship. Large picture windows meant that you could lie in bed and admire the passing scene outside.

After a quiet night on board we set off the following morning by “slow” boat to visit the 4,000 islands. We arrived at the island of Don Det where we boarded a Tuk Tuk for the short drive across the stone bridge, built by the French, to Don Kone and on to see the Lee Phee falls and the one remaining locomotive, now stripped, rusted and under cover. For dinner a large fire was built and the crew set about preparing our beach BBQ.

Whilst this was going on me and our German tour manager had a go at using the small circular throw nets, the ones with the weights around the rim. He caught 4 fish. I had to try it and caught the same number. I was most impressed but have some work to do to get it fully circular by the time it hits the water. By this time there was stunning sunset. The crew served a wonderful meal and then sang some Lao love songs on the condition that we also sang a song or two.

The next morning we set sail for Champassak where we stopped and took a Tuk Tuk to see the UNESCO World Heritage site of Wat Phou. It is located at the foot of the 1,500m Kao mountain and is an impressive and atmospheric ruin dating from the Khmer period. We set sail again and enjoyed a lecture on Laos in the evening after dinner. Our final day. Before setting off we walked to a nearby temple (384 steps) for a fine view out across the Mekong River. We arrived back in Pakse at 11.30 where we all said our goodbyes and I met my driver. He was going to take me to the Cambodian border.

We set off and then the driver told me we were going to collect his wife. It is often the case on recce trips that such instances occur. People travel with you, sometimes because public transport is poor and sometime for company, you deliver goods or letters or documents to people along the way, you stop for the driver to pick up a delicacy from a town or a region for themselves or as presents.

We arrived at the Lao/Cambodian border. I said my goodbyes and walked to the immigration building, a hut, on the Lao side. I presented my passport. One Dollar please. I asked what for. I was told for the exit stamp. I argued, politely, but to no avail. No Dollar, no exit stamp. I paid and walked into Cambodia wondering if the slightly more strict UK border regulations would ever find there way here, I hoped not!

Return to Laos

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In October I travelled to Vientiane, Laos, my first visit since 2006. Vientiane has become a little busier and has grown into a large town, still odd for the capital of a country. The road along the Mekong River is being improved making for a pleasant riverfront walk.

Part of my remit to myself was to look for new hotels that could be offered to our clients. The two most well known, the Setha Palace (French Colonial) and the Green Park (contemporary Lao) do not disappoint. I did discover a couple of additional gems, small, quiet and where many people are now looking to stay. The Ansara is small and without a pool, apparently it was not allowed one because it was a temptation to the monks in the nearby monastery who can see into the garden. It has a very nice outside terrace serving excellent food and an elegant restaurant on the second floor. The Salana also is a good choice, slightly more lively and suiting a person on a more limited budget but who still wants some home comforts.

A visit to the COPE Centre. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and was founded in 1997. They not only fund people affected by the dreadful bombing in the 1970′s by American bombers in the “Secret War” but also people suffering from diseases that affect the limbs like leprosy. The centre is very informative and shows a film related to the war, well worth a visit in my opinion.

I flew on to Phonsavan. The airport only has one flight a day, 3 times a week, the alternative is a two day drive via Vang Vieng. Phonsavan is the new town that was built after Xieng Khong was abandoned but the old French Colonial buildings of Xieng Khong can still be visited. The main attraction is the Plain of Jars, set over three locations. One site is in an open valley with a few stone jars on the hillside whilst the other two are on raised elevations, one amongst trees and another reached by a 10 minute walk through farmland. Nobody knows the origin of the jars but they are thought to have either been funery urns or used to store liquor.

I drove down to Luang Prabang, a full days drive along winding roads through wooded mountain sides and small villages perched on the ridges. I somehow thought that the mountains should end at some point, we would get through them, but they never did which was a nice surprise! The roads were virtually empty of traffic which made the whole journey more relaxing and gave me the opportunity to absorb the landscape for myself.

Luang Prabang has changed. The town has become far busier and buildings have extended out through the valley opening in the only direction it could.

At the other end of town, where the Khan River meets the Mekong River the town retains its sleepy charm. The best hotel in town is the Residence Phou Vao, a delightful property set in lush gardens with a good outdoor pool and a wonderful spa. The Maison Souvanphoum, formerly the home to a Lao princess, has just undergone an extensive renovation. Two other hotels to look at are Amantaka, the former hospital, and the similarly designed Hotelde La Paix, the former prison. The latter has two attractive wooden building in the grounds that serve as a restaurant and a cookery school.

My special find during my stay in Luang Prabang was the Satri House located a quiet suburb of the city but within 20 minutes walk of the night market. An old colonial house with 25 rooms, this Relaix & Chateau hotel is a delight. It has outside dining, two pools and is packed with character and antiques too.

I went to see a textile outlet called Ok Tok Pok located by the main market, Phousy, down a dusty track next to the Mekong River. It has 4 rooms (2 with river views) and each one reflects a different Lao minority. You can just stay, visit or take a course that they run. These include aspects of making textiles from spinning to dying to weaving. It serves simple meals and is very restful. Also new, and now being copied, is Shangri-Lao,an elephant camp on the outskirts of town. Here you can ride elephants, learn about elephants and stay overnight in the appealing wooden chalets that overlook the river.

I flew back to Vientiane and then set off for a 4 hour journey to Hin Boun (3 hours on a flat road followed by 1 through the wooded mountains). It was dark by the time we arrived but the next morning I could see my surrounding and the hotel I was staying at. A small riverside resort really, basic but clean, bungalows on stilts and overlooking the Nam Hai river.

It wasn so calming watching the small wooden boats pass by and the water buffalo drip as they exited the river and headed back to their village whilst I, toaster to the table, had eggs, toast and tea!

The main reasons to stay here is to visit the Koh Lor cave. It is popular, one can see, with the back packers that are prepared to make the journey. You board a boat across a small lake to the cave entrance. Get out and walk a short distance into the cave where you board another boat for the journey through the cave. Most older clients only go in a short distance to see “paradise”. This is a magical illuminated area of stalagmites and stalactites, the most impressive I have seen anywhere.

The reason most people do not not venture further is because the cave is 7km long. Until recently the people who lived on the other side of the mountain took a full day to walk over the top. Today, these villages have no road access and everything is taken by boat through the cave. At the other side of the mountain is a small picnic area and a nearby village which I did not venture to, but I am always curious and want to go a little further. The boatman and the drink seller were vague to say the least about how far the next village was so I decided to find out. After 30 minutes we walked into Namthaw village, almost deserted save a few people in their houses and a couple of small girls swinging on a tree vine. The school was quiet and upon asking we discovered they were all harvesting the rice, school was closed until the harvest was in.

It is hard to believe that the village has remained untouched for so long. There are 9 villages in the locality, all inaccessible by motor vehicle. A truly unspoiled traditional Lao village.

Staying at Amantaka, Laos

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Whilst on holiday in Laos, I just had to go and see the new Amantaka set on a large garden estate in the UNESCO protected town of Luang Prabang.

We arrived at sunset, and from the hustle and bustle outside we were transported into a world of immediate calm found in the central courtyard by the pool before dinner. Musicians were playing gentle Asian music on unusual looking instruments. The dining room captured an airy colonial ambience, the food was delicious offering authentic Lao and French-influenced cuisine and the service faultless. A beautiful evening.

The Suites (some with their own large pools) are entered through louvered doors from the courtyard that lead into light and airy elegance throughout, the décor and furnishings reflecting the town’s French colonial history. There is also a fabulous spa offering everything you would expect and more.

It is an easy stroll into town where you can explore the many temples, historic sites and the various boutiques, bakeries and restaurants lining the town’s main street. Also within easy walking distance from Amantaka are the picturesque banks of the Mekong River and the town’s colourful night market with irresistible gifts to take home.