It’s school holidays so we’re departing our Happy in Hoi’An life to travel and explore the neighbouring landlocked country of Laos. We are super excited to be able to do this country with Steve’s parents in tow, Sue and Barry (aka Nanny and Poppy). And although we’re off to a wonderful start in Vientiane, plus the exceptional track record of no major issues on our entire nine-month journey of traveling the world (touch wood), unfortunately it’s all about to fall apart in Laos just like this chair!
We experience what many would classify as the ‘worst case scenario’ that any traveller could go through. Well, actually the second worst as the worst thing that could possibly happen is death right? And at last count we’re all still alive.
One quiet afternoon in Vientiane, Sue loses her footing on the stairs at our accommodation and, although we don’t realise until later, she breaks her left femur bone. It happens on day number three in Laos and day number eight of their nearly 3-week trip away.
Sue’s okay. Thank goodness. It could have been a whole lot worse really. But our shared experience over the coming fortnight tests us all to the core. It requires all of our resilience and strength to keep it together, especially Steve who is the main support and backbone to both of his parents in Bangkok while the travel insurance drama and issues keep unfolding over and over and over again.
Sue has the best travel insurance. But if you’re here reading my blog post today, I just want to take the opportunity to reiterate to all the adventurous and not so adventurous travelling souls out there to please take out proper travel insurance (especially in third world countries) and always ask yourself this basic question before you depart: what’s the worst case health scenario that could possibly happen if you’re abroad? And how will you manage that?
This blog post is at times confronting and sad, as it ended Sue and Baz’s journey with us. But it also contains, amongst the health emergency, some amazing adventures on the backpacking road that my four teenage daughters and I experienced together traveling through the northern cities of Laos, while Steve flew back and forth between various Laos cities and Bangkok. This makes him sound like he’s Superman!
Holiday Time with the Grandparents
Saturday: Day #280
We’re excited to be departing our humble home in Hoi’An, but the alarm clock rings out at 3:30am and it’s not such a welcoming sound. It’s awfully dark and quiet on the streets of Hoi’An. I’ve pre-arranged a taxi through my lovely taxi contact Mr A who collects us from our house and then Golden Sand Resort and drives us to Da Nang International Airport (mini-van taxi 500,000 Dong/A$28).
The only way we could manage to get eight seats on the plane from Da Nang to Vientiane last minute is to book Sue and Barry in business class (mind you they’re not complaining) and the rest of the family (us) down in the cattle cart! Don’t worry they wandered down the aisle and visited us a couple of times to check in.
We arrive into the capital city Hanoi for a two-hour stopover and then board another flight to another capital city, Vientiane. Once we arrive, we quickly and easily organise two taxis to drive us to our accommodation Vientiane Star Hotel for US$7/taxi and we arrive at 12:30pm. We’re knackered! Thank goodness for the Magnum ice-creams to refresh us at the airport!
The Vientiane Star Hotel costs A$246 for 8 people for 3 nights (A$82 per room for the three nights) so it’s a great deal. The vibe here is chilled and we admire the ultra-clean orange and black checked tiles that pattern the outdoor central courtyard with the bedrooms coming off the courtyard and a long bar serving cold drinks and simple snacks. The courtyard is a small haven for all the accommodation guests to enjoy a drink or breakfast in the mornings on the picnic style chairs and tables.
There’s a major building construction next door that looms over the courtyard at one end of the hotel. The new building looks more like a grey, imposing towering fort that casts a gloomy outlook from the relaxed and friendly courtyard. There is literally no space provided between both properties either – maybe a couple of centimetres but that’s how close the new construction actually is. The man behind the bar, who is checking us in is from The Philippines, tells us they’re scared that if an earthquake hit, this poorly constructed building would probably fall on top of the Vientiane Star Hotel. I’m sure it could, but let’s not wish for earthquakes while we’re here hey.
We arrive before check in time, and happily wait a couple of hours for rooms to be cleaned and made available for us. We sit upstairs in an open air room and order some cold Beerlao (10,000 kip/A$1.50) and enjoy the snacks on offer – fat chips, buffalo wings, and garlic bread. We’re very tired. I manage to get my information out that I had previously researched on things to see and do while in the capital of Laos.
That afternoon, after we check in and settle our things, we take a walk to the vibrant and bustling night market along the river promenade even though we’re dog tired from an early start. There are so many stalls and people which makes us all feel that little bit claustrophobic and at the square there are the daily afternoon exercise programs starting up. It’s a brilliant sight at sunset. Sue and Baz return to the accommodation a bit earlier to get some shut eye, while Steve, me and the girls find a Vietnamese restaurant to sit at and enjoy dinner. It’s delicious food and costs only A$25 for the whole family including drinks. Can’t argue with that!
We sleep well except the mattresses are rock hard! This brings back memories of our first time traveling to Laos back in 1999 on our honeymoon. The hard mattresses must be some sort of Lao legacy. I’m sure if we stayed here for a few months we would grow accustomed to the hardness. But right now we’re not.
Vientiane Day 1
Sunday: Day #281
We arrange to swap rooms for Sue and Baz as they are staying in a little shoebox of a room, while Steve and I go upstairs with share bathroom and toilet facilities (his head touches the ceiling of the shared bathroom, but hey it gives us a laugh). We love it – feels like the authentic backpacking deal! The four girls are happy in their one large room upstairs across the other side of the courtyard.
We decide to hail a tuk tuk on the main road and head to That Luang golden stupa (10,000 kip each or A$1.50). According to tourist literature it is the most scared monument in Laos. A grand 16th Century stupa that looks more like a fort than a place of worship from the outside. It’s only 4km north east of the capital city, and 15m tall. It reminds me of the golden stupas in Myanmar, and is just as impressive to look at with its golden surface and interesting shape. Around the corner there is a giant lying Buddha which is also glistening gold and a nice place to rest for a bit in the hot morning sun.
We take another tuk tuk to Patuxai Victory Monument (another 10,000 kip each). This monument is a concrete arch, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. We climb a total of 197 steps to the top to take in the view of the streetscape below with our hearts beating from out of our chests. The water fountain out the front of the arch is not operating, and a thick green algae lines the white concrete in the non-working fountain. But the gardens surrounding the Victory Monument give it a beautiful presence nonetheless.
In the afternoon Baz heads off for a lie down in his room as he’s not feeling the best in the tummy, while we go to a local Sushi restaurant with the girls. Our four daughters have been dreaming of and requesting to eat sushi for nine long months and finally we’re going to fulfil that dream today in Vientiane of all places. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, but on the expensive side. It’s a one-off treat!
Vientiane Day 2
Monday: Day #282
We decide to take a walk to the Lao National Museum this morning as it’s not that far away from our accommodation. Again it’s more of a dilapidated museum but the contents of the museum are interesting and historical. Old photographs and relics from moons ago. There are even dinosaur bones displayed in the first section discovered in Laos.
But again it is the extensive length of back-to-back wars in Laos that is truly staggering. The first with the French (known as the First Indochina War) and then followed by the USA when they secretly bombed the crap out of supposedly neutral Laos (known as the Second Indochina War).
And just as we end our touring around the museum it starts to rain heavily. And if you’ve ever been to South East Asia when it’s raining, that actually means it’s bucketing down! Cats and dogs.
Dacey enjoys getting completely wet!
We manage to escape the wet weather when there’s a break in the downpour, so we tip toe across the mass of brown puddles outside the gates of the Lao National Museum and escape up a side street and into a cute little French bakery. We read the paper and see that the US has given money to help clean up the UXO mess it created in the secret war. The rains obediently commences again; it’s heavier than before. We end up having to purchase a couple of umbrellas at the local corner shop and walk back to our accommodation.
The afternoon we planned on making a visit to the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE); instead we have our own emergency.
As we sit upstairs resting and planning our afternoon together over a map of Laos, and it rains cats and dogs again. We’re teaching Baz how to use a smart phone and I’m sure this may be the only record of Baz communicating with one in his hand!
The wind picks up pushing a light spray of water onto the dark wooden staircase that leads down to the orange and black checked tiled courtyard. The water is running across it, it’s a wonder to see torrential rain accumulate like this and I decide to walk down three steps, crouch down and take a photo of the running water. Sue follows behind me with her iPad and then bang, she slips on the top step and lands on the first step down with the loudest thud.
I turn around instantly after hearing the thud, and put both arms up and hands out to stop her from sliding down further steps on the steep staircase. But she’s grabbed onto the railing and stopped herself from falling further down the staircase and pushing me with down with her.
Sue grimaces with pain, and can’t move her left leg at all without feeling terribly uncomfortable. I think it’s her back, but then we all assume it is her knee from knee replacement surgery she had five years ago. She sits there on the step not moving an inch trying to work out when the pain will pass but she just can’t get up off the step.
But it doesn’t take us long to work out that we now have an emergency on our hands – Sue can’t move from the step at all without feeling intense pain, and she is located on the very top of the staircase.
The family holiday in Laos ends right here. Right now. It’s upsetting and it’s real. Steve and I get straight into action and start working out how to initiate her travel insurance and how to get her down from those steps and into medical care in Vientiane.
Baz sits reassuringly next to Sue on the second step with his arm around her. But Baz has also experienced his skin on the top of his hand being peeled back. It’s all happening here and we are all becoming more and more upset. Sue is in pain if she moves slightly, and no one knows what is the exact cause of this pain. Tears start welling in her eyes, and we realise again at another level this is some kind of bad news. How bad we’re not sure yet. But it’s bad.
I grab my lap top and set myself up at the bar downstairs and start searching for the best hospitals for foreigners to go to in an emergency situation in Vientiane. Mind you we are in third world country Laos. I get onto a website that shares three places for foreigners. Steve is next to me at the bar as he starts making the reverse charge call to the travel insurance company from the accommodation phone. But we have a couple of issues already. The manager here is not Laotian – he’s Filipino, and speaks more English than Lao. So we have to get a friend of his to call around for an ambulance so he can communicate in Lao, while Steve uses the phone in between to try and get in contact with the travel insurance 24 hour 7 days a week reverse hotline. But there’s a lock on the phones at the bar for international calls, even though it’s a reverse charge.
We try and call the Australian Embassy clinic that is listed as one of the three preferred foreign clinics, but their pre-recorded message keeps saying we’ve called out of hours. It’s 3pm in the afternoon and they should be answering their phone. We attempt another few times but get the same message. So we call the French Embassy clinic, the second on the list of that website, and they answer straight away. Relief. They’re speaking English. They tell Steve to take his mum to the Friendship Hospital in an ambulance.
The manager behind the bar is pulling out pink coloured towels and placing them across the steps. This is unbelievable and we are all in a state of shock about what’s unfolding and continues to unfold here.
The ambulance finally arrives, sirens are echoing through the streets and a crowd of Laotian onlookers are standing at the end of the street peering down the laneway to take a squizz. It’s a long driveway to walk down, and feels even longer knowing that we have to get Sue from the top of the stairs, down the laneway and into the ambulance which is parked on the street. We watch as ambulance professionals arrive with a chair on wheels. But as they attempt to slightly move Sue she screams in pain. There’s no way she can get down from those stairs in a seated position. I tell the ambulance guys they need to get her to lie down on the top landing – just one step up and get her lying flat on the floor and then transfer her onto a flat stretcher.
The main ambulance man, an older man, sits with Sue and tries to work out where the pain in her leg is, and they finally decide to pull Sue up onto the top landing and lie her down. The other men walk up the stairs with the stretcher and help move her onto it. I can still hear her screams. It’s just awful. We’re all crying. We all have a massive lump in the back of our throats that we can no longer feel.
Steve, Baz and Sue drive away in the back of the ambulance. And all we are left with is each other, the unfinished drinks and snacks still on the table with the map of Laos spread out, and the harrowing sound of sirens that belong to you and not someone else. Then they fade and all is quiet and everyone just gets on with their normal business.
We just wait for an update.
I’m feeling a kind of out of body experience at the moment in an attempt to digest and make sense of what just happened. Bloody hell. The girls and I come together at the table and chat about it all and what the plan might be. I have no idea what the plan is. All I know is that Sue and Baz are not in the best place health wise right now and we’re in third world country Laos.
Steve makes contact. The communications here in Laos are limiting to say the least. Steve has spent an intensive amount of time emailing the insurance and instigating what happens next in this type of emergency. This all takes SO MUCH TIME and there’s an insurance process to follow.
In the meantime, the Friendship Hospital is clean but basic. Sue is located in a large room with four beds but she has the room all to herself. They’ve taken an x-ray of her leg and have located the source of the pain – she has broken her left femur bone. Yes, the longest and strongest bone in the entire body – broken. There is no medication here at the hospital either, it’s a go-and-buy-your-own-medicine and unfortunately Steve cannot find any of the suggested pain relief, like morphine, at the series of chemists near the Friendship Hospital.
Steve was also advised to buy their own bedpan for Sue as she cannot move. Sue’s leg is bandaged, she’s still wearing all her clothes and although there’s nursing staff around, they pretty much stay away from her. It’s hard to imagine without being there, but what we know of as a hospital in Australia and the services we are provided don’t exist here. No matter what type of travel insurance you take out, we’re in Laos and we just have to follow procedures and answer questions and provide information in the hope that Sue will be out of here sooner rather than later.
I don’t see Steve until he returns later that night with Baz, who’s had his hand looked at and bandaged up. They both look drained and exhausted and scared. Sue is at the hospital and although it’s the best hospital we could find, it’s definitely not the place to stay with a broken femur bone and very limited services. The insurance company has been emailing Steve requesting more information. So we sit in the courtyard taking photos of passports, finding insurance policies in Sue’s inbox on her iPad (we’re great hackers now!) and supply the height and weight of passengers and luggage for the medievac journey.
Then I press send. The only piece of missing information that the insurance company has requested is a letter from a doctor outlining Sue’s condition. That will have to come tomorrow morning.
We finally head to bed. Steve and I chat for some time and fall asleep uneasily.
Vientiane Day 3
Tuesday: Day #283
This morning we planned to depart the capital of Vientiane in a mini-van to travel approximately three hours north to Vang Vieng. But I had to cancel that and asked the travel company to keep it on hold until we knew what was going on with Sue.
Steve, Baz and I woke early and caught a tuk tuk into the hospital together to see Sue while the girls slept in. The tuk tuk kept breaking down on the way there, and I think we’re all just glad we finally got there in the end. We arrive to hear Sue’s voice chatting to one of the nurses. All I hear is her bright and happy voice which was enough to know she’s okay. She got through the first night and hopefully only night in this Lao hospital.
Today we await confirmation from the insurance company when the medical evacuation for Sue to a Bangkok Hospital will happen. Steve spends most of the morning either on the phone in the nurse’s station or sending emails from his smart phone to the insurance company trying to get an update on the medivac situation and then trying to find better quality drugs for Sue to take.
In the meantime, a doctor enters the room and I explain that we need a letter outlining Sue’s condition here at the hospital to send through to the insurance company. Without it everything is on hold for her evacuation out of here. Time is of the essence.
I message the girls and get them to come in to visit Sue (Nanny) via taxi and they arrive with their smiles. We sit around and chat with Sue while Steve and Baz head out to purchase ice-creams for us all. There’s not much else to do other than eat ice-cream, and Sue love ice-cream so it’s the least we can do with her: eat ice-cream. We depart the hospital with lots of hugs and tears and hope that Nanny flies out of here sooner rather than later. Fingers crossed (again).
We stay for some time, working out ways to make Sue more comfortable. We are really waiting to hear from the travel insurance company that she will be air lifted out of here today.
There is nothing I can do staying put here in Vientiane, especially when Steve and his parents will hopefully be flying out this afternoon to Bangkok, so the girls and I depart Vientiane at 2pm in the mini-van to make the 157km drive to up to Vang Vieng on our own. We wave goodbye to Steve and Baz who are standing outside the hotel, and the scene of the tragic fall, and I leave with a sad and heavy heart.
Out private van to Vang Vieng costs us US$96 for the three hours+ journey. We have a lovely man driving us, and there’s plenty of room for us to stretch out and nap if we want. The van stops a couple of times for photo opportunities and a rest stop. I get out and take advantage of stretching the legs and the photo op (the scenery is spectacular), but the girls are mostly silent all the way to Vang Vieng. They are really disappointed that the family trip in Laos has come to an abrupt and tragic end and mostly they were so looking forward to hanging out with their grandparents over the school holiday break. Now they have me again (which they’ve had all year long I’m continually reminded) and our traveling family has been split up.
We arrive to our hotel – Sunrise Vang Vieng. It’s absolutely beautiful. The gardens and the pool are amazing, the accommodation itself is a small hut-like construction which totally emulate a relaxing and welcoming ambience. We miss our family who really should be here with us enjoying this scenery and the views at sunset across the vivid green rice paddies at the back of our room, but it’s not going to be that way and we just have to find a way to gather ourselves and our collective positive-ness and make the best of an unfortunate situation.
It’s close to sunset and I grab a couple of photos from the Sunrise grounds and then we order a tuk tuk from reception to take us to the main restaurant area of Vang Vieng. We are in search of comfort food and a drink. The tuk tuk’s cost us 30,000 Kip there and 50,000 Kip back (a bit ripped off but I just couldn’t be bothered negotiating with the next driver we found). We find a lovely place to eat – Bamboo Tree – and it becomes our favourite place to dine at while we’re here in Vang Vieng.
I get in touch with Steve via Messenger to see if there’s any update. He’s been on the phone trying to organise medical evacuation and pain relief and dealing with way too many travel insurance consultants. Unfortunately the Lao government has not given approval for a plane to land in Vientiane yet…this is the one missing piece required to get Sue out of a Lao hospital with limited health services to Bangkok where she can receive proper treatment. Waiting, waiting, waiting. This is overwhelmingly stressful for Sue especially, but also draining on Steve and Baz.
Vang Vieng Day 1
Wednesday: Day #284
We take a walk into town and discover the supermarkets with strange names like K-Mart, A-Mart, M-Mart. Really? They’re funny names for all these supermarkets but we happily purchase the things we need like water, beers, shampoo/conditioner and noodles.
We wander all over the dusty town. It’s changed immensely from 2012, and of course from 1999 when Steve I visited here on our South East Asian honeymoon adventure. I cannot quite get my head around the number of buildings that have been built along the river. So much so that we can’t actually get to the river. But I’m determined to find the river so I can show the girls its beauty of the karst mountains that I keep mentioning to them.
It really is a difficult thing walking to the river now. Previous there was no stopping us – we would wander down a dirt track, chooks and their cute chirping chickens scattering from the road, and we would watch as people crossed the river either by small wooden long boat or for those impatient walking. Many would grab their bicycles and hold them above their heads and wade through the flowing river to the other side. It was lovely to watch the slow pace and simple life here back then. But now that is not the case. Development has come in and the river is almost impossible to get to in the town’s precinct.
But I don’t give up. Even though the girls are quite happy to not see the river today, in this moment, “really mum you’re obsessed with a river”. But it’s something I have to do. I have to be able to get down to this river and see it again. And I finally find an opening. It’s across a stick-made bridge that looks a little rickety, but don’t they all? Once across we are on the banks of the river, there’s not much left of that and I see the brown waters flowing down stream. Buildings and construction sites are looming all around us, workmen are sawing and drilling and hammering. Vang Vieng has changed into something of a Frankenstein.
We walk back up to the cafes and restaurants that have been built along the banks of the river and happily sit at Otherside restaurant that overlooks the Nam Song River and just chat together and order some food.
That night I try a traditional Laotian dish called Laap which consists of minced chicken, salad cooked with mint, coriander and served with sticky rice. Yummy!
Vang Vieng Day 2
Thursday: Day #285
We take the plunge and hire four motorcycles from our hotel (80,000 Kip each) to explore outside the main township of Vang Vieng. It’s fairly quiet here and the girls are keen to get back on a bike and cruise around town.
1st Stop: Kaeng Nyui Waterfall 6km out of town and it’s a lovely long ride through the paddocks and hills. The views are simply stunning.
On the way to the waterfalls, Ash runs over a snake that’s passing over the road (yes lots of screams) and we meet up with a bunch of young boys carrying machetes. The boys take delight in finding the snake mangled but still alive on the road and go ahead and finish it off. We leave them to continue our journey to the waterfall as they are entering into a green paddock, maybe working or collecting something. I’m really not sure what they’re up to.
We park the bikes and lock them up. There’s a tourist working elephant chained up waiting under a tree and I see the sadness in its eyes as it sways from side to side. So sad. We walk on and pass a rat skewered for barbecue and decline the meat offering but accept buying two large bottles of icy cold water.
The walk to the waterfalls is beautiful and the scenery lush and green and peaceful. We enjoy a refreshingly cool dip in the waterhole and the cool spray coming off from the spray. There’s no one here at the moment and we have the waterfall site to ourselves.
2nd Stop: Tham Chang (Jang) cave over the orange bridge at the Vang Vieng Resort. This is an amazing bridge and unfortunately I get a little photo opportunity crazy and decide to stop literally in the middle of the bridge road and forget that Ash is behind me, and Billie behind her on their bikes. Ash crashes into my bike from behind (not bad) but poor Billie tries to avoid Ash and turns and falls off her bike. She’s on a suspension bridge across the river and she’s off her bike! Great one mum. There are tears, not many, but she gets herself up and she’s okay while we continue over the bridge with the rest of the traffic. Of course I’m being told off by Ash behind me, which is deserved, but I’m more concerned about Billie and we stop on the other side, get off the bikes and go to Bill. She’s cool. Just a minor scrape on the leg. We will laugh about this one day – how mum nearly got Billie to fall off her bike and a bridge in Vang Vieng.
And then a beautiful brewing dark clouded storm hits the town of Vang Vieng. There’s lots of rain and thunder and lightning over in the distant sky. It’s magical to watch from here.
We take the opportunity of another dip in the pool back at Sunrise Hotel, and wait for the storm to pass. Then we get back on our motorbikes and drive into town to our favourite restaurant Bamboo Tree where we order Padthai (it’s a favourite amongst the girls). When we return to our accommodation we play cards in the girls’ room before crashing for the night.
I catch up with Steve over Messenger App and we are delighted to hear that he is flying back to Vientiane tomorrow and will catch a bus up to Vang Vieng to meet up with us and finish the trip together.
Steve is returning as everything that needed to be organised has been. Sue has had a major operation on her femur bone and come out of the anaesthetic much better than expected. She’s now got a long road to recovery and normal life. Steve thinks everything is sorted with the travel insurance company, and with Sue in hospital and Baz located nearby in a hotel he thinks with everything worked out with the travel insurance contacts and with the medical support all around them at the Bangkok hospital he can come back to his normal life.
But this is certainly not to be the case.
Vang Vieng Day 3
Friday: Day #286
This morning the alarm is set. We wake up at 6am and plan to ride our bikes out to a mountain viewpoint called Pha Negun which is only 4km out of town (so they tell me but the Lao people’s version of distance is not the same as mine). We cross over two wooden bridges to get across the river (with no stopping for photos – lesson learnt) and the early morning mist and clouds that form around the tops of the mountains are simply mesmerising.
The only problem is that when we finally do arrive to the mountain with the viewpoint, after stopping to ask for directions from a local herding his cows along the road, is that it’s been raining and everything is quite wet. That means the path (if you could call it that) is wet and slippery and since the girls point blank refuse to wear their trekking shoes, they are in for a hard slog.
The sun is rising and so is the temperature. We pay our kip (I think it was 50,000 or so each) and start the trek up. There are small wooden signs alerting us to how much further we have to climb. It’s really tough going and although we start the trek with a solid footing of concrete steps that have been placed on the narrow track to assist climbers, it disappears at around 300m. So now we are 300m up working out if we can get to the top. It’s doable, but the journey back down might be more dangerous. So Ash, Billie and Dacey choose to return down the hill while Charlie and I try to climb up further. But after another 100m or so, we realise it’s just too difficult. We need proper trekking boots – the one’s that protect your toes and have really good grip.
I’m not one for giving up so easy, and we gave it our best go but this look out will have to wait for another time with better footwear all round. Charlie and I decide to turn around and make our way downhill avoiding all of the intricate spider webs. At least we got here and we all thoroughly enjoyed the motorbike ride out here with the clouded karst mountains as our scenery.
At 11am Steve lands in Vientiane from Bangkok, and catches a bus to meet us in Vang Vieng. We can’t wait to see him. He messages me that he’s in town and I walk up the Sunrise driveway to the main road and wait to see him appear from across the old dusty pot holed tarmac.
I’m so grateful that he’s here. But he looks like he’s run the Ironman challenge and looks depleted and completely exhausted.
Vang Vieng Day 4
Saturday: Day #287
We had been putting the tubing off, until we knew for sure Steve’s plans. The tubing is something that is part of Vang Vieng’s culture. Steve and I tubed here in 1999 when you could walk down to the river and watch the local women washing themselves and their clothes. And today we are tubing together as a family in Vang Vieng.
We take a tuk tuk ride out to the spot where the tubing starts up stream with a group of backpackers – Bulgarian, English, American, Cypriot. It’s a noisy yet fun ride and we chat with the young people about how tubing was here in 1999 and then it started to get all out of hand and popular with the young and risky backpacking market. That’s when party platoons were created and the behaviour of backpackers and travellers to Vang Vieng was less than desirable. Vang Vieng also became known as the party town, where anything goes and you could in fact lose your life.
Even today, after the partying has been regulated and the platoons dismantled, people are scared of tubing. But they shouldn’t be. Tubing is awesome fun – it should never have been allowed to get so out of hand in the first place but people were making money from alcohol and drugs and the young people were attracted to visit. But today it’s regulated. But I am amazed at how little the tubing activity itself has not changed: the tyre tubes are still big black donut shaped seats and getting out to the river on them is still as raw as it was back in 1999. The flow of the river still pulls at your feet and the stones underfoot make it hard to keep your balance and get into the tube.
I stay on the bank with the video going while the girls and Steve wade through to the middle of the river and try and get in their tubes. It’s funny. But poor Dacey gets a scare as the flow of the river is strong and the rocks are slippery, so she gets pulled away early and has a few tears at the fright of it. But she’s okay after a rocky start, and we all cruise down the Nam Song River in our tubes with the magnificent jutting karst mountains towering over us.
There are now bars along the Nam Song that we can stop off at and have a beer and meet other people. As we flow downstream in our tube a group of young boys throw a water bottle out to us that is full of water (so it’s heavy) attached to a very long rope. This is how you get to the bar. They throw a “life line” out to you and they help pull you in. Obviously this was not around in 1999, and is the left over remnants of an out of control party scene, but the local authorities ensure that alternate bars are open and not all of them at once.
We get pulled in and meet a lovely NZ couple who are friendly and chatty and enjoy hearing our story of traveling for the year with our four daughters (although one daughter (Ash) refused to go tubing with us today). We stay for a cool beer, there’s loud music playing and we sit out on a deck area and watch the tubers float past or grab a “life line” from one of the boys. Sometimes it works but not always, as we watch a couple of people miss their “life line” and continue floating past.
We float under a pedestrian-motorcycle bridge and enjoy watching the young Lao kids jump from he top of the bridge into the brown Nam Song river. Then they come over and hitch a ride with us on our tubes and then swim over to the other side of the bank.
Unfortunately, towards the end luckily, Charlie punctures her tyre going over a submerged branch, so the three of us hold onto her tyre and she places a finger on the hole. It’s still fun. Billie and Dacey are floating down on their own and enjoying the experience too. We come to the finish greeted by an older Lao man speaking through a speaker phone telling us to paddle over to the left hand side of the river so we can hold onto another “life line” and come in to land.
At the end of the tubing experience, there’s a line up hammocks within a small open air hut-like structure. The girls love this with while sipping on a cool drink and we just sit back and relax enjoying the sunset on another day in Vang Vieng.
We cross over the bridge hauling our large inflated tubes, well everyone except Charlie’s whose is flat by now, and run into a couple and have a conversation on the bridge. Her name is Ginny from KL, Malaysia and she’s here visiting Laos with her partner and family. She’s a physiotherapist and she and Charlie talk all about the industry as Charlie wants to study to be a physio when she leaves school. I just love how people are so open when they travel.
Luang Prabang Day 1
Sunday: Day #288
Travel Day: we depart Vang Vieng and say goodbye to our friends at Sunrise hotel and unfortunately Dacey cannot take the little dog she’s befriended and journey to the French colonial town of Luang Prabang which is a 218km drive from Vang Vieng. We have booked a private van that costs us US$155 for the 5-hour plus journey but we manage to do it within the 5 hours (from 10am to 3pm).
At one point there are extensive road works occurring along the winding highway up the mountain. The clouds have set in on the tops of the mountains and the road is now a brown coloured mud and so wet. The combination of the churning of the road and the wet makes this journey too slippery for the tourist vans to get up. I mean the vans are giving it their best shot and trying to get up the slippery hill slope but the wheels are spinning without traction. It’s a sight to see. The worst part about this is that there are no barriers on the side of the mountain. It’s just a drop off the side and if we’re in the clouds, that means we’re pretty high.
Other 4WD vehicles make it up effortlessly, and we watch as another tourist minivan attempts again with my hands over my mouth. I can’t watch as the van roars itself up and then just spins its wheels. So this is not working and what to do.
A large orange painted digger machine rolls down on its steel metal roller. We watch and listen. The sound of the metal roller makes it feel more like a military tank approaching its enemy. They get the tourist van up the hill as far as possible and place a couple of rocks behind its back tyres. The digger approaches the tourist van and men scurry to attach a steel rope to the undercarriage of the van. The van is then pulled up the hill by this giant orange digger for just 20,000 Kip. Thank you very much! We are all inside the car, seat belts on and a few prayers or more positive mantras said and before we know it the digger is turning its claw around in a circular motion and we are too. An unbelievable experience, glad it all worked out, but I’d hate to know how many cars nearly slip over the edge.
Here are two videos taken while our minivan with us inside struggled up the slippery slope, but got some assistance from the digger!
The downside of the mountain is much more relaxing and enjoyable as the sun is out and the white low lying clouds have disappeared. Our driver stops on the side of the road for us to get a photo of this beautiful mountainous scenery.
In the afternoon we arrive into Luang Prabang (LPB) and wander down to the city to enjoy baguettes at French bakery called Indigo and a lovely café latte. The kids are overzealous at the tastiness of the wraps. It’s as if they’ve never had food like it before! It costs us more than what we are used to, but hey it’s great to change things up every so often and get a welcoming smile from the girls. Dinner is local and cheap at the local Hmong market. It all balances out.
Luang Prabang Day 2
Monday: Day #289
Steve and I make the most of our time in LPB and rise extra early, like 5:30am, and wander in and around town to witness the end of the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. We see a line of orange clad monks holding their small steel tins accepting offerings from people lined up along the street. It’s amazing to witness such a traditional and respectful custom.
So what is an Alms Giving Ceremony exactly?
It’s a daily sacred Laos tradition of giving to the monks that dates back to the 14th Century. If you’re happy for an extra early start to your day then you should experience it. Seeing it is believing it, especially the 200 monks lining the streets. You can read all about it here.
We enjoy our walk around the town especially the early morning market with its fascinating array of unique produce and display.
We wander down to the riverfront and then back to Indigo Bakery for a café latte. For some reason my sim card is not connecting to Lao Telecom. Even at Indigo the wifi is not working either. We ask the manager of the bakery if there’s some reason why the wifi isn’t connecting and we’re told there’s no Lao Telecom internet or ability to make calls at the moment.
I finish the latte and we walk outside along the main street. There’s tuk tuk drivers hawking their tourist trips to us. We stop and chat with one of the tuk tuk drivers about the cost of going to see a popular waterfall and then we start talking about the Lao Telecom issue. We discover that due to a major communications tower coming down in a storm at Vang Vieng (down south) the tuk tuk driver informs us that we could in fact be out of signal for up to 2 days. Say what!!!??? Steve really needs to check in with Sue and Baz regularly and this no internet and calling connection just won’t work from Laos.
We find limited wifi at the hostel we’re staying at in LPB. Steve also finds out that Sue is not having much joy with the travel insurance company, so Steve makes plans to return to Bangkok to sort out these issues while I make plans to take the girls and a tuk tuk ride out to see Kuang Si waterfall.
We both depart at 10am – Steve to the airport and the five of us to Kuang Si waterfall along with two young Danish girls sitting in the back of the tuk tuk. Bye Steve.
Kuang Si Waterfall
The journey out to Kuang Si waterfalls is a long and bumpy one. Our tuk tuk river starts off driving slow, but as soon as we hit a section of road further afield, he’s foot weighs heavily down on the accelerator. The six of us riding in the back hold on to the bars tightly as we dodge other traffic, such as wandering cows and people. I start up a conversation with the two Danish backpackers who are inspired by our world traveling family and are fairly keen to be adopted. My girls roll their eyes. Again.
So at this waterfall is a Free the Bears rescue sanctuary and NGO (Non-Government Organisation). It’s not one of those tiny enclosures either, but a significant area with bear toys, flowing water to play in and wooden platforms for the bears to sleep on, rest and play. These bears have all been rescued from poachers and wildlife traders. We learn from the information at this sanctuary that these Asiatic Full Moon Bears are commonly captured for the extraction of their bile. Why? Because the bile is a prized panacea in traditional Chinese medicine and is thought to have magical healing properties.
Bile is a liquid that is produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Captured bears are kept in small cages just for this purpose – to supply bile via catheters inserted into their gall bladders to drain out the bile for the Chinese medicine market. Another bear living safely in this sanctuary has had its hand amputated due to injuries with being chained up, and many others have been beaten into submission to perform dances from a young age dressed in human baby clothes. It’s disgusting what level of pain and suffering human beings are capable of creating to our animal kingdom. But today, although we know these bears backstory, we watch them in awe and smile as they play with one another and rest peacefully on their wooden platforms away from danger and cruelty. But I can’t help but imagine how many more Asian full moon bears are out there in this world enduring a terrible life of bile manufacturing and performing for human entertainment.
Dacey and Ash love seeing the bears play and move about and we watch them for some time before even getting to the waterfall. They also have the most unusual sleeping positions! They’re cute and are called Full Moon bears as the markings on their fur on their chest area has a crescent-shaped white marking on their black fur. I enjoy the bears too but are more intrigued with these large old trees that we are seeing as we walk through the waterfall sanctuary.
We walk up to the waterfall and it is ah-mazing. Pure blue water. It’s this colour due to the water flowing over the limestone rocks and the water collects limestone particles containing high levels calcium carbonate that reflect the light making water appear a stunning turquoise colour. It’s also clean and so very cold and refreshing. We go in for a swim being careful to not slip on the rocks underneath and submerge our bodies into one of the deeper watering holes and appreciate the coolness of the water that helps being our body temperature down. The waters are so blue due to the
We’re here in the morning so there’s not that many people to compete with, but by afternoon the place and the swimming hole is packed with tourists wanting to do the same thing. Unfortunately, Ash and Billie don’t venture into the water. Not sure why, but they sit on the side and watch the fun.
The scenery leaving the falls is something else too.
Laos Buffalo Dairy
On the way home, we ask our tuk tuk driver if he knows where the first buffalo dairy is situated for the entire Lao country? And he does and we stop off for a visit and have an opportunity to look at the purpose built facility and taste test their produce. The dairy is owned and operated by an Aussie woman called Susie and it is something else. The way she operates the dairy is in conjunction with the local community. Many locals own a buffalo for milk, but the problems with keeping their buffalos fit, healthy and free from disease is difficult and costly for local Lao farmers. But here they can take their buffalo in for milking as well as get all the health benefits associated with healthy buffalos. It’s a win-win situation for the farmers and the dairy.
The girls are actually happy going in to see this facility but we have to wear some protective overalls and gumboots to stop the spread of disease into the facility. It’s hot in the overalls, but we all enjoy it nonetheless. Dacey thinks she’s in Ghostbusters the movie as the overalls remind her of what they wore. Funny girl. At the end of the tour we finish in the kitchen and try a smooth and tasty ice-cream, a zesty yogurt, and a full flavoured mozzarella cheese. We all croon over the samples. They are being sold into local outlets as well as exported to China mainly.
It’s been a big day out and dinner tonight is at local Amigo’s Mexican restaurant. There we meet owner Alisha, another Australian who runs two restaurants with her Lao husband (one restaurant is in Vang Vieng and this one LPB). They have two girls and a dog and a big dream! Anyway Alisha is amazing to chat with and serves the BEST Mexican food I think I’ve had! The girls are in Mexican food heaven and order tacos while I order enchiladas. If you’re in Luang Prabang, you got to go there and taste her food.
Luang Prabang Day 3
Tuesday Day #290
We hear of another mass shooting in the US this time occurring in Las Vegas. It’s the worst in American history. We feel sad for the tragedy and the continued reluctance of American leadership to take on its gun laws. Our hearts go out to those impacted by such terrible ongoing gun issues in North America.
I get up early again and grab a coffee at my now favourite French Bakery, Indigo and sit down at an outside table enjoying the early morning wanderings of the locals as well as writing in my journal. The ice truck has arrived carrying bags of ice for the local stall holders down a side alley and the motorbikes race past with kids on the back heading off to school.
I return to our hostel and wake the kids as the plan today is to climb up Mount Phou Si.
Mount Phou Si
20,000 Kip each for entry, 328 steps
There’s an amazing 360-degree view of Luang Prabang city and the meandering brown coloured Mekong river from atop this city mountain. And yes it probably would be best viewed at sunset but hey, we’re here now on a cloud covered day which is a lot more pleasant than being out in the unbearable heat at this time of the year in Laos.
That (Mount) Phou Si means ‘sacred hill’. On the top is a temple that houses a number of golden Buddhist statues. There’s always the common sighting of food and drink offerings to the spirits along with burning incense sticks and a pile of shoes left outside the temple doorway.
The sweat that my body is creating from the climb is literally running down my entire torso from the top of my head to the backs of my legs, I’m a human of running sweat. Each time I wipe my forehead more sweat beads appear and accumulate to form a free flowing trickle down the side of my face and body. The kids are wet too from the sweat and as you could imagine not impressed with the level of physical exertion this is requiring. But the view is lovely – we all agree on that! We pose for a photo on a rock that juts out enough to give the impression of it standing in the air.
There’s no consistent breeze here either, but when a slight breeze comes across this sweat infused skin of mine it’s so lovely and naturally cooling. A moment of relief. We look for the other side of steps to come down on, but they’re nowhere to be seen. So we follow the steep step pathway we came up along. The landscape up and down to either side of the 328 steps is an entanglement of branches, leaves and trunks. A special jungle oasis in the middle of Luang Prabang.
I’m not sure what happened, but Ash and I had words over something this morning and she’s frozen up. So Ash doesn’t venture out with us to climb the 100m Mount Phou Si and stays back at the hostel. I hate the thought of her missing her out, but I can’t be worried any longer otherwise we’d do nothing! We are here at the top of the shining golden stupa. It’s the golden speck we see each morning with the first light and the man made light switched onto it at night from outside our guest house room door on the second floor.
Lunch – yay it’s half price tacos at Amigo’s Mexican restaurant up the road so we heartily enjoy chicken, pork or Australian beef tacos. Thoroughly enjoyable after a hike up a hill.
Afternoon – kids enjoy a swim in the pool and we chill in our rooms. I wander off to the UXO LAO centre about 10 minutes away to witness the state of destruction from the second Indochina War (Vietnam War). To be honest, I’m feeling a bit down and out about it all actually – such a sobering and sad reality to see the pain this war caused and how it affected and completely destroyed people’s lives.
Dinner – we walk to Utopia (young backpackers at the hostel have been telling us to go) for a drink that’s situated on the Nam Khong river, and we end up having dinner there (not cheap) but absolutely delicious. Apparently Utopia is for sale, and it comes with an inbuilt volleyball court with netting and sand. It’s tagline – zen by day, grooving by night. There are early morning yoga classes as well as hundreds of mats to sit, lie and relax on. Friendly, always smiling, staff and a great vibe about the place.
Luang Prabang Day 4
Wednesday: Day #291
I don’t enjoy the best sleep last night at the Kounvanan Guest House. It seems guests were partying until all hours of the morning just outside our door. Then I woke at 3am to the deep hum of beating drums were sounding out across the city –it’s the Buddhist lent drums. There is a huge Buddhist celebration on Friday where the streets of LPB light up and everyone comes out to see a parade and enjoy themselves. It is the day we leave town so we will unfortunately miss out on this one this time.
Day’s 1st Plan – to see the ECC (Elephant Conservation Centre) but it’s closed until 7th due to Buddhist Lent.
Day’s 2nd Plan – enquire about taking a tour to another elephant sanctuary called MandaLao but tour prices are very expensive US$99 for half day and US$149 for full day.
Day’s 3rd Plan – chat with Alisha (who is also a qualified tourism operator) and she suggests going on a boat cruise up the Mekong and seeing the large cave, then visiting the Whisky village on way back.
We wander down to the banks of the mighty Mekong river and are met by an elderly Lao man who asks us if we’d like to ride up the river to see the caves and the Whiskey village. I negotiate with him for a price. He starts at 400,000 Kip and then lowers it instantly to 350,000 Kip. The journey will be for about two hours, but I look at the girls and we are all tired and listless. The sun is out today and it’s so very hot already. The thought of being out on a boat in this heat is proving counterproductive to keeping up motivation levels.
We walk on. I don’t have enough Kip on me anyway, so I need to find an ATM first. We decide to sit at the Mekong Coffee Lounge. It’s a spectacular French colonial building painted sandstone yellow that faces the Mekong. We sit outside and order some cool drinks while watching the activities occurring across the Mekong and work out what we’d like to experience today.
We walk towards a staircase leading down to the river. A man stops as he’s walking up with his family, and asks us if we’d like to get across to the other side. He has a long boat with a cover on top and can take us all for 10,000 Kip each. I agree and we board the boat. It’s a short trip and we disembark close to the main boat racing activities. However, there’s no real pathway to follow. It’s a bank of the river. It’s covered in green grass, slippery mud and its slope is on a severe angle. We all struggle to get over to the main area where the tents are erected and the festival is taking place. How do they walk so quickly over this type of terrain? I’m holding up the foot traffic as I hold onto exposed strands of long roots. I just have to have a laugh. It’s such a wild west experience and yet again I’m mumbling only in Laos.
It’s the season for the Lao Boat Racing Festival. Thin and long wooden boats full of people race against each other each year. There’s got to be more than 20 people in one boat paddling their hearts out along a stretch of the brown muddy coloured river. The other side is a village, but it hosts the boat races with start and finish lines and a man broadcasting the race on speaker phone. It’s a type of fair or festival vibe with inflatable balloons, ice-cream stands, and lots of skewered meats being cooked on makeshift barbecues. There’s an area for some dart throwing fun. It’s a common Lao game we first came across in the capital Vientiane where a series of yellow balloons are inflated and placed on a wall rack. The aim is to throw three darts and pop three balloons. Sounds easy? I know but it actually isn’t. If you pop three balloons with three darts and you win a can of soft drink.
The prizes in Vientiane range from drinks to oversized stuffed bears. But here across the river in this little village the prizes are less impressive and all I can see are soft drinks lined up on the counter.
Dinner is again at the Amigo’s Mexican restaurant owned and operated by Australian Alisha. The food is lovely and the kids are more than happy to walk up the street to get there for it.
Tonight we watch an old 1925 silent movie called Chang. It was the first movie ever made in Laos and follows a Lao family surviving in the jungle and protecting themselves against the wild animals that live with them in the jungle. The movie is set up as an open air movie on the grass of some resort. The movie is free but to watch it we are asked to purchase a drink. Of course they’re the most expensive drinks I have bought in Laos – water and wine. But we enjoy the movie and have a greater understanding of why local farmers have slaughtered the elephants that once roamed wild here in Laos.
Luang Prabang Day 5
Thursday: Day #292
I wake to the beautiful music and sounds coming from the public speaker phones scattered around the streets of Luang Prabang. It is a public listening to the Buddhist monks singing and playing their traditional stringed instruments. It’s at once noticeable that the place is calmer as the Lao people go about their morning routines of setting up their stalls, dropping their children off at school, sweeping the pavement and gutter with a soft bristled broom.
The sound emanating out onto the street reminds me of a meditation – soothing, calming, gentle, restorative, reflective. But it’s public. We’re all listening to the same thing as we go about our lives. It is one of the things I enjoy most about living and traveling in Asia. The busy-ness of street life can be overwhelming, but the centredness formed from their religious or life philosophy provides the simple balance.
We have only been here for only a handful of days, and yet I am waking early, going to bed earlier and feel more connected to my being than I have in a long while.
I have made a connection with Hongkham, a Lao national who manages the Indigo cafe-guest house where I come to each morning to complete my ritual of writing. We have established some type of friendship based on me coming here and asking questions. Hongkham willingly answers them to the best of his knowledge. He’s a lovely man.
Unfortunately, we are leaving for Hanoi tomorrow afternoon which means we will not be able to stay and see the Buddhist Lent at its best. Apparently the candles and lanterns are lit up in the streets, the people converge into Luang Prabang streets and a celebration of what it means to be Lao ensues. But Hongkham tells me he will send through photos so I don’t miss out altogther on seeing the spectacle. We are also missing out on the mid-Autumn Vietnamese celebrations too. And two nights ago our landlord Mr Chuong and Dao organised a red lion to perform a dance in the rental house to bestow good luck on each member of the family living within its walls and to send evil spirits away. Mr Chuong recorded the ritual and Dao sent it through to me yesterday. It made me cry.
It’s our final full day exploring Luang Prabang and this afternoon I’ve organised to go and visit MandaLao elephant sanctuary just outside of Luang Prabang city.
We spend the morning being lazy in our cool rooms, dashing down the street for a coffee and smoothies before we are collected by the elephant sanctuary car at our guest house at 2pm.
It’s not a cheap excursion either. US$99 per person for half day tour (US$391 for six of us) or US$402 via credit card as they charge 3% to customer (A$512). There are full day tours at US$149 per person too. And unfortunately we miss out on the half day tour, but MandaLao offer our family a special afternoon visit at 2pm without lunch and without walking with the elephants for US$79 each, with Dacey being half price and an extra 20% off due to having a booking of five people. We’re in! It’ll be worth the money. I can only imagine the cost of rescuing and then rehabilitating these elephants.
We drive in the mini-van for a while until we arrive into a remote village about half an hour out from Luang Prabang town. It’s green and quiet with the flowing Nam Khong river running through the property. We are greeted by Tan who is our Lao MandaLao guide who chats with us all the way here in the minivan about his life, our traveling life and the elephants. I’m instantly intrigued by him and his story. And although he’s on 26 years of age, his experience and journey shines through.
What does MandaLao actually mean? In Lao this name translates to ‘beautiful connection’. We start by making the late afternoon snack for the elephants – sticky rice balls and bananas with a special sweet snack inside of ?? and then we carry all this food down to the boat and cross the river to where the elephants live.
Tan was born in a village to the north of Luang Prabang city. He is the youngest of six children and life was hard for Tan’s parents who are Lao people cultivating the land. They rely on the land and their hard work on their crop to make money to survive for their large family.
Tan shares that he was a cheeky boy growing up due to being the youngest. We all look at Dacey! He tells us he used to fight with peers and not listen to his parents much. At the age of 15, Tan’s life at school finished and he went to the temple in Luang Prabang to be a monk. There Tan would be given board and food, and a heavily discounted education. It’s here where he learnt more about himself, meditated at length and was exposed to English. He had never seen the value of learning English in his rural village as it was never used, never valued there. But in Luang Prabang, Tan was opened up to a whole new world where English language could get him further than he ever thought.
He spent three years as a monk and left at the age of 19. He had a year on his own before marrying at the age of 20. He and his wife have two boys. But he says marrying so young is hard. There’s so much pressure to provide for a family and make ends meet. It seems that in many Asian cultures including the Lao culture the burden of being the sole breadwinner is largely placed on the shoulders of men.
Tan started working at an elephant tourism riding company. It was here that he got to use and practice his English language skills, and it was here he also got to see the dark side of elephant tourism and riding. Unfortunately, most of the elephants have been used previously for logging and they have had a hard life without the proper food or socialisation that elephants enjoy being in a herd.
Lao used to be referred to as Lao Lan Xieng which translates to the land of one million elephants. Now it is less known as this and more commonly referred to Lao PDR which stand for Lao People’s Democratic Republic or as Tan shares with us Lao Please Don’t Rush! The Lao culture and its people are very relaxed and less rushed than many of its neighbouring peers. But the statistics Tan shares tells the horrific story and current plight of keeping elephants alive in Laos:
- 1980 – 3,000 elephants in Laos
- 2009 – 1,200 elephants in Laos
- Today – about 850 elephants in Laos. And only 40 are wild.
This decline is a mix of a number of changing factors but the biggest one has been the loss of the elephant’s natural habitat due to land clearing for the cultivation of crops. What is impressive is that once we arrive at MandaLao sanctuary we are seated and listen intently to Tan as he shares all this information about the elephant’s plight as well as what MandaLao is focused on achieving for the elephants of Laos and South East Asia.
Here is what MandaLao promotes as the five freedoms for elephants. I suppose it informs their underlying values for their entire operation here.
- Elephants are free from hunger and thirst
- Elephants are free from discomfort (ie. No chains, no riding)
- Elephants are free from cruelty (ie. No Mahout with a hook on a pole to control)
- Elephants are free from unnatural behaviour (ie. No alienation from the herd)
- Elephants are free from unnatural reproduction (ie. They are free to reproduce naturally)
There are eight elephants living their lives here on the 200 hectare MandaLao property including a new baby male. Now I know elephants are large animals and I had assumed that they eat plenty of food. But I didn’t realise just how much! Tan informs us that one elephant eats 200kg per day and then poops out 80kg per day. Many of the elephants who are rescued are malnourished, skinny, and overworked in logging or tourism industries. The reality is any elephant that is “working” is beaten into submission. The Mahouts use a hook like device, called a Thotti, on the end of a pole that they use to stab the elephant in the head, mouth or inner ear where the animal is most sensitive and therefore responsive to the Mahout. And then of course they chain their elephants up for long periods of time until they’re required to work.
I also did not know that elephants do not have sweat glands. So the many blankets that are placed on their backs and an elephant riding seat placed on top does not allow sweat to escape from the elephant.
There are only about 40 wild elephants left in and around Luang Prabang. The other issue impacting these last remaining wild elephants is the elephant-human conflict. Poachers is one thing with many hunters coming in to poach male elephants for their tusks. Females have small stubs for tusks, whereas the males have the larger protruding ivory tusks. But an another more local issue is that wild elephants can smell food up to 5km away, so often in their search for food they come across farmer’s crops. And when they do they don’t just eat a small portion of the crop, they tend to eat it all up! This infuriates the farmers who have often used a gun to kill the wild elephants who ruin their crops. What MandaLao sanctuary has organised to stop this is a system whereby if a wild elephant comes in and eats a farmer’s crop, the farmer will be compensated through insurance. This means that the farmer and his family are not left financially destitute if an elephant ruins his crop. This protects the elephants and assists the farmers. A win-win scenario that is working here in Luang Prabang.
MandaLao has also got a vision of being able to rehabilitate elephants so that one day they can be released back into the wild. It’s going to take some time for this to occur, but it’s on the agenda. There is a generation gap of elephants which is also problematic in keeping the species alive. More elephants die than are born. And if the elephants that are saved from domestication and working can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, this may be their best chance of survival for my own future grandchildren’s generation and their children to know a world where elephants roam the South East Asian jungles care free.
Meet the Rescued Elephants
I think it’s better shown in photos. They’re all beautiful and such gentle giants. We love feeding and washing these graceful animals down by the river.
This evening I sit downstairs at the shared lounge area and meet a couple of younger backpackers. We have a great time chatting and sharing travel stories and yes again they are super impressed that we as parents have taken our four daughters on this type of travel experience.
Oh to be young again! But in them I see me, just a younger version and without four children and wrinkles, and as we share about stories along the backpacking road less travelled my girls come to the table too and sit and talk and open up. The thing I love about backpacking and traveling in general is that people who do this are open and willing to share and listen and learn. It really is a beautiful space to be in, especially for an entire year.
I personally have learnt so much about the world and about myself, and I’m certain the girls and Steve have too. I feel that to travel outwardly is really also to travel inwardly; to mine the depths of who we are and why we’re here. To have passion and purpose and be open to looking through many other windows through the journey of life.
Luang Prabang Day 6
Friday: Day #293
Buddhist Lent celebrations. I have a terrible night sleep and when the alarm sounds at 5:30am I shut it down with one eye half open. I’m now down at my usual coffee haunt Indigo early morning before the kids get up enjoying some alone time sitting outside listening to the Buddhist music sounding out from the street speaker phones for all the public. This morning it’s driving me a little nutty, more so than previous mornings as it’s sounding like someone playing around loudly on a xylophone! I’m sure it’s a lovely sound, my head just feels like it might explode. Coffee helps ease the pain.
I watch the usual scene unfold – a ute arrives and parks outside the front of the Indigo café and it’s full of large bags of ice. There must be close to 100 bags of ice in the back of this ute. The tray is dripping from the lean of the car which is parked on the curb. A woman and a man start unloading the bags of ice and dropping them off to certain stalls and guest houses along the street. This happens every morning at about 7:30am.
It’s overcast, glum actually for our final day here in Luang Prabang. Steve has checked in with me via Messenger. He also had a terrible night sleep. Woke up at 1am hot and Baz, Steve’s dad, was snoring. They’re both sharing a room in Bangkok awaiting final details of Sue’s ability and timing of flying back to Australia. It’s felt like it’s been a long time in the making. He was still awake at 3am and then someone in Bangkok called his number as he was just getting back to sleep.
Our original plan for today was for a happy-to-see-you-and-spend-time-with-you-goodbye where we all depart Laos today. Nanny and Poppy go home via Phnom Penh, and the Six Backpacks depart to Hanoi for two nights before returning to Hoi’An on Sunday evening.
However, our revised reality is that Nanny is in a Bangkok hospital undertaking rehabilitation after her broken femur bone surgery; Steve is over in Bangkok ensuring the myriad insurance actions actually occur and that the doctors both in Bangkok and in Australia are on the same page regarding Sue’s health and ongoing needs. This is a five-month healing process.
And Steve and Baz are making the most of spending time with each other tranversing Bangkok.
So I’m doing it solo with my four daughters in Laos which is a great opportunity for me. Today we depart for the airport at 2:30pm in a tuk tuk for 60,000 Kip to catch a flight to Hanoi for two days of exploring the capital city of Vietnam. It was the easiest and most straight forward way to make our way back to Hoi’An via planes.
This morning we are free and we decide to walk to the UXO LAOS museum for a sobering reality of the evil impact of war and its ongoing disastrous legacy.
Although I came to see this museum on my own, I really wanted the girls to see it too. So back we all go.
Many don’t realise that the small landlocked country of Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the entire world. This is due to the secret war that occurred during the American War (it really shouldn’t be called the Vietnam War) who indiscriminately dropped bombs in and around the Ho Chi Minh trail (to cut off the north Vietnamese supply line to south Vietnam) as well as internal areas of Laos.
Just imagine this: between 1964-1973 some 2 million tonnes of ordinance and 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on a neutral country. It was kept secret from the public for six long years after the American War ended too.
Sad. Tragic. Disturbing. Challenging. Our Australian government has assisted with money to help clean this mess up as well as help fund centres like this one UXO Laos. So many farmers and children who live in the more rural areas of Laos are still TO THIS DAY being maimed and killed due to UXO (unexploded ordinance). This kind of behaviour from so called “super powers” really gets me mad and the sense of the prevailing injustice of it all leaves me gobsmacked.
But I highly recommend visiting these centres, giving a donation and teaching our children the ongoing legacy that a political war brings to millions of people. Much better than a history lesson from a book in a classroom. That’s for sure.
The girls and I head down to Indigo for our final lunch in Laos. I order a traditional northern Laos dish called Khao Soy Noodle Soup – a noodle soup layered with pork mince and tomato based sauce, served with a sticky rice cracker. All for 30,000 kip!
The tuk tuk comes to the hostel, and we disappear to the international airport and onto another plane (how many have we caught this year?) and as we fly up high above the city of Luang Prabang headed to the capital city of Hanoi, Vietnam we gaze out the small plane windows and take in the breathless beauty of the jungle hills and plump white clouds that is Laos.
Thanks for reading.
It’s a long blog post and Laos is one of those places we absolutely adore and would return to visit in a heartbeat but we now also feel saddened by our visit there due to the memories of the emergency we experienced early on in our journey. I am catching up with my blogging and hope to have the next post out to you shortly. Bye for now. Off to Hanoi…