Tiered roof of Wat Mai

From Buddist Lent to an animist Baci ceremony

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. The town boasts a copious number of old colonial buildings many of which have balconies and brightly painted shutters adorning them.

Buddha inside Wat Aham
Buddha inside Wat Aham

There is an abundance of intricately decorated and gilded temples with one on almost every street corner. Some portray paintings of Buddha and his teachings on their entrance and inside walls whilst others are plain. Their affluence varies, and I have enjoyed exploring the different ones when I can find them open! This has proved challenging. In this season, apart from those such as Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai and Wat Visoun for which you have to pay an entry fee, the others only seem to be open when the monks are meditating.

The central city is on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is bisected at a crossroads, on one side of which are the tourist shops and restaurants and on the other the quieter area where the ex-pats frequent the cafes. At the end of the peninsula is Wat Xieng Thong with its roof enhanced with bright emerald. My guest house is located on the Mekong at the quiet end. There is one other road, Middle Road, that runs between the Main Street and the Mekong. During early morning alms giving, or Sai Bat, the monks and novices walk in silence from Wat Xieng Thong, along Main Street and returning on Middle Road. There are notices at all the temples advising tourists how to behave at alms giving. Unfortunately, the advice is not always heeded.

With so many temples, it is common to see groups of monks and novices meandering through the streets and their bright orange robes hanging out to dry next to their dormitories. The Monk school is near The Little House and the novices often walk past in two’s and three’s, many holding umbrellas aloft to shade them from the sun. This is essential after they have shaved their heads at Full Moon and Half Moon. I have also noticed them at the stalls purchasing drinks and sweets. I don’t suppose Coke is on the menu in the monasteries! One day when I was walking back from The Little House, I passed a single file of novices, carrying swag bags over their shoulders, trailing behind a monk. Someone told me they may have been going for Vipassana “in the woods” which they do for the whole of Lent, taking minimal possessions.

Ladies on the way to the temple
Ladies on the way to the temple

Earlier this week, I had observed, from my balcony, more people than usual dressed in their temple clothes, clutching silver or gold containers full of offerings (as I discovered.) What was happening? It was the start of Buddhist Lent which lasts for three months. The dress code for the temples is no bare shoulders and knees covered. I wear sleeveless dresses in the heat so am always conscious of my clothes when visiting them. Ladies wear traditional sinhs which come in a multitude of patterns and various degrees of quality. They always wear blouses, often white or cream. Both men and women wear a sash over their shoulders which must be tied precisely. This is standard dress, not just for temples, but for anybody working for the Government or attending official functions. ‘Falangs’ or foreigners working here who wear the sinhs find them hot and uncomfortable. I have yet to try one although as the girls at The Little House have been learning to make one this week, I may attempt to sew one myself.

I attended prayers for a short time at my nearest temple, Wat Nong Sikhounmuang. Everyone sits on the floor, which can be uncomfortable after a while! On this occasion, one man was chanting whilst the monks, novices and congregation listened and responded at intervals. I am not a Buddhist, nor do I speak Lao so I was unsure of what was happening. A few minutes after sitting down, an old lady next to me gave me a nudge and with a sharp “madame” demonstrated I should have my hands together in prayer. I obeyed!

Many offerings were placed in front of the monks and statues of Buddha. These included monks’ robes, towels, food and marigold stupas. Large candles appeared. Some of them were still partially wrapped in plastic. I watched in fascination as a man began to light them. How long would it be before the temple caught fire? I was glad I was near the door. I was waiting for a conflagration. He realised just in time the flame was reaching the plastic and removed some whilst waving another piece dangerously close to the flame. All was well though. At the end of each chanting section someone banged a drum and a cymbal which resonated around the temple. It produced a beautiful echo which I loved but it startled everyone each time it sounded.

Inside the temple
Inside the temple

I had plenty of time to observe the costumes of the ladies. Some sinhs are made of silk whilst others are cotton. The temple sashes are traditionally cream but I noted some with beautiful embroidery. The comings and goings during the ceremony amused me. Many phones were in operation, including that of the head monk who spend most of his time adjusting one phone on a selfie stick and taking pictures of the congregation on another. I cannot imagine that happening in an Anglican church!

Making a flower stupa
Making a flower stupa

We took the girls to T.A.E.C. (Traditional Arts and Ethnological Centre) to learn how to make a flower stupa. It gave them a break from arithmetic and sewing! T.A.E.C. conduct workshops in traditional arts and the stupa was for Lent. Many street stalls sell them and ladies squat on small stools on their stalls making them. They twist banana leaves into a cone, secure a band around the base with toothpicks and poke marigold flowers into the gap between the cone and the band. What could be simpler? Sally rated mine sixth out of six, with those made by the girls being judged much neater.

Baci offering table
Baci offering table

Next we made a Khmu taleo. The Khmu, who are animists, hang large ones outside their houses to ward off the ‘pi’ or spirits. They make them by weaving sticks of bamboo together to form a circular shape. It sounded easy. It wasn’t! Once again I found it more difficult than the girls and it reminded me how hard it can be to learn a new skill. I need to remember that when I am teaching them sewing!

We finished the week on a different note. We had a Baci ceremony to bless The Little House and say goodbye to Sally. The girls are all animist and this was an animist ceremony conducted by a shaman. He chanted and made offerings to the spirits after which we tied baci strings around each other’s wrists whilst wishing the other person wealth and happiness. My wrists are now adorned with strings which they consider bad luck to remove before three days have passed. They become very bedraggled in the shower!

Flowers of the flame tree

Shopping, rain and sewing

Frangipane outside a temple
Frangipane outside a temple
Flame tree in bloom
Flame tree in bloom

I had an early start as my flight to Luang Prabang left at 9am and Google advised it would take an hour to reach the airport. Google is not always correct, and I arrived in plenty of time. (It also neglected to tell me the metro didn’t open until 6am so I had to catch a bus instead!) The three-hour flight was uncomfortable as I had a middle seat in the back row next to the toilets and the seat didn’t recline. It was a relief when we landed.

My visa on arrival was speedily granted and in no time I was in the arrivals hall where my transport awaited. It was wonderful to be back, and so soon after my last visit in February. The city is as beautiful as ever although looking different. It is now the rainy season and not the height of summer. The flame trees and frangipane are in bloom and enhancing the views of the temples. Purple bougainvillea is a mass of bright colour against the backdrop of rusty roofs, the wooden walls of the houses and the milk chocolate colour of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. There are few tourists around as it is the low season and the streets feel empty. There are only two of us in the guest house. It is excellent for me but not so good for the businesses.

I am staying in the same room at Sayo River. The balcony affords a view of the long boats on the river, (I have already espied some racing each other), the traffic in the street, the occasional tourist wandering aimlessly and the locals as they criss-cross the road from their houses to gaze at the river. One old lady appears each day, usually with a toddler on her hip, and a small dog attached by a different coloured piece of string. There is a plastic bag attached to its collar but I doubt she uses it for the purpose I assume it is intended! One man spent many days hand sawing a pile of wood. Everything here is ‘sa sa’ or slowly, slowly. (But is very hot!)

Laboriously sawing wood
Laboriously sawing wood
The broom is usually in action!
The broom is usually in action!

It is a different experience staying in a place for a length of time rather than rushing through as a tourist. I was lucky enough on my last visit to have visited most of the tourist attractions so do not feel the compulsion to do so again. This was just as well as the week was spent on The Little House project, helping to shop for further sewing supplies and stationery items and then getting to know the girls and building a relationship with them. I have been enjoying closer involvement with the local people and their way of life whilst living in the comfort of the guest house. Having trekked last time and stayed in the villages, I appreciate the benefits of flushing toilets!

Shopping is not as I know it. There are no malls or large supermarkets. In their place are a myriad of small shops and mini marts whose goods spill onto the pavement in front, making walking hazardous on occasion. They make no attempt at display and pile dog food next to gift baskets of jam. There are specialist shops for each range of goods such as clothing, kitchenware, ironmongery and computer repairs. (Given the dust in the streets, I am not sure how the innards of a laptop remained clean as they attempted to repair it in the latter.) The tiny stalls have the ubiquitous Beer Lao alongside bottles of water, packets of snacks and other items that defy logic. There is not the variety or quality of goods Western countries take for granted, and much is imported from China.

A precarious way to ride a motorbike
A precarious way to ride a motorbike

It has been hot, humid and dry. The rains should have arrived but haven’t and the rice crops are dying. Everyone was thankful in my first week when the skies opened. Water flooded the roads as the drains couldn’t cope with the volume. Umbrellas appeared, and I marvelled at the ability with which people could drive a motorbike with one hand whilst holding an umbrella over their heads with the other (speaking as one who has never driven a motorbike at all!). As soon as the rain stopped, the ladies appeared in the streets with their brooms, unblocking the drains and sweeping the leaves. Leaf sweeping seems to be a national daily pastime here! It is remarkable how quickly the weather changes. The wind arrives as if from nowhere, the skies darken, shutters bang and there are a few rumbles of thunder and the odd flash of lightening, which slowly increase in volume and frequency. The heavy air freshens but how much rain will fall this time? Will it be enough?

Avoiding the puddles
Avoiding the puddles
And there was no rain!
And there was no rain!

I soon established a routine. I either walked or got a taxi/tuk tuk in the mornings to the ‘ban’ or village where the project is located. The contrast between the central tourist and local areas always inspires me. The morning is spent teaching sewing, maths and some English. I have a translator without whom it would be difficult. We are surprised at the lack of basic maths knowledge and have been doing sums at the level of a six-year-old at home.


As Laos still keeps French hours, lunch begins at 11.30am and finishes at 1.30pm. I return to town for lunch and go back in the afternoon for more teaching. At about 4pm, I saunter back, reflecting on what has happened during the day and all that I am learning, hoping that the girls are benefiting as much as I am.

By the time I arrive, I feel sticky and dirty and just want a shower. The temperature has been in the thirties and the air has been very heavy. A beer Lao on my balcony watching the river life, dinner in one of the many cafes or restaurants and I’m ready for bed!

House in Khmu village

Trekking on intrepidly

School time
School time

The following morning I was up early. It was only then I realised a heavily pregnant woman had been sleeping in a room off mine from which there was no other exit. Guilt set in, particularly as I had suspicions I had displaced some family members in the enormous room. Ai had slept ‘outside’ and assured me this was not the case.

I had coffee and watched the children get ready for school. The two cheeky boys I had noticed were my host’s grandsons. They each went off clutching a handful of sticky rice. Once the kitchen was free, Ai cooked our breakfast whilst the old lady went back to sweeping the leaves. She obviously liked a tidy compound as she had spent most of the afternoon sweeping and burning the day before. Breakfast was omelette and toast with the toast cooked over the fire on a grill made of bamboo sticks. Afterwards, Ai went to find food for lunch. I had visions of him knocking on people’s doors to see if they had any spare food but he went to the shop!

Once he returned we set off. Walking out of the village we passed several houses under construction. These belonged to Khmu. The Government had decreed that people from the next village had to move to this one as there was insufficient water and useable farm land in their own. It provided land, but the villagers had to build their own houses. It was interesting to see the different styles. We passed through their village and it appeared poor by comparison. Ai stopped again in search of food. He bought eggs from the headman’s wife and carried them in his pack until lunch. I was astonished he didn’t break them! Whilst we were chatting to the lady, he spotted a large black scorpion in the road. She became very excited and rushed to get a container to catch it. Its destiny was death by drowning in her whiskey bottle! It gave the imbiber strength (apparently!).

Having started chilly, the day became hotter and hotter. At one point, Ai gave me a choice of routes. There was the easy way on a track up a steep hill in full sun, or the hard way, climbing up rocks and in the shade. When have I ever taken the easy way?

We continued on over said rocks and climbed up the side of a waterfall. At the top he let me have a rest. It was easier after that. I was relieved when he said we would stop at a hut for lunch. The ‘hut’ was a shady platform with a rural view and refreshing breeze. On the way, Ai had collected a hollow bamboo stick and some water. He stuffed the ends of the stick with leaves put the eggs and water in the middle and built a fire to boil the eggs. Very ingenious! Once the eggs were cooked, he placed strips of buffalo skin (minus stiff hair) in the ash to cook. The lunch menu comprised hard-boiled eggs, the ubiquitous sticky rice, crispy pig skin, which was like fatty hollow pork scratchings and chewy buffalo skin which was a challenge to the teeth. It wasn’t as bad as I expected from its appearance though. Afterwards, Ai suggested having a nap. I think he was more tired than I was as the cockerels and people talking into the night had kept him awake! I didn’t object as it was a lovely place to stay and rest.

Ai cooking our lunch
Ai cooking our lunch

It was only 20 minutes to our next homestay village, but the route was uphill. The house was more substantial than last night’s. Our room was upstairs, and we shared with the family, which comprised Mum, Dad and two small boys. They slept in one corner of the large room and Ai and I had separate mattresses and mosquito nets in another part. They could accommodate a number of people, judging by the pile of mattresses and blankets. The bathroom had a dividing wall for the squat toilet (non flushing), toilet paper and a bucket for its disposal. I deemed this the height of luxury given the environment! There was a concrete water tank and a shelf for storing food. They also used the room for washing dishes.

We took a walk around the village which was much larger than the previous day’s. It had a population of 1,000 people, comprising both Hmong and Khmu. There was a large grassy area in the middle where girls were playing skipping games and the men petanque, watched by their sons. According to Ai, women have too much work to do to play and the girls don’t want to! This information could not pass without comment and I was almost diplomatic in my response but I suspect not enough!

Animals roamed freely but a few large cows were tied up. These were the fighting animals. Gambling is popular in Laos and everywhere they keep prized cockerels in bamboo cages. I hadn’t realised they used cows too. A house was being built at the far end of the village and several men were on the roof whilst others watched from below giving advice. Everyone was getting involved in the project. Many children were having showers under the communal taps, it being washing time. There was also a collection of small shops that almost constituted a shopping centre!

Time for a haircut
Time for a haircut

Back at the house, I watched the boys (aged 6 and 8) playing whilst I waited for dinner. Earlier they had been wielding a large knife, and I now realised they were modifying a crossbow. They spent hours shooting into the bank below the road and making adjustments to the weapon. The dog, intent on chasing the piglets, and anyone who passed on the road risked being shot. Meanwhile our host sat on a stool having a haircut by someone who had arrived on a motorbike.

Ai was relieved of cooking duties tonight as our hostess prepared our food. When it was ready, we sat on low stools around the communal pots of sticky rice, cabbage soup and more buffalo skin, this time cooked in a stew. It wasn’t any more tender though! The conversation was in Laos so I didn’t understand it. It was dark in the room, with minimal light coming from the cooking fire and a single bulb charged by solar power.

My hostess in her dark kitchen
My hostess in her dark kitchen

Afterwards, the family sat around a small laptop and watched a film. I went to bed and read on my Kindle for a while. Everyone was tucked up on their mattresses by 7.30pm. It’s a long time since I’ve had such early nights!

The following morning, our hostess was up before 5am lighting the fire and preparing for the day before she went to work in her fields. We arose early as Ai wanted to do the bulk of the hike before it got too hot. Like the previous day, it was cool first thing. We had an omelette and toast for breakfast before we left. Ai had mentioned that eggs from the market were expensive and produced in battery farms. I felt guilty that I was eating them whilst the children just had sticky rice. He had also expressed surprise that a) eggs were nutritious for children and b) he could use the eggs from the chickens he had at home. I wasn’t sure if this was nationwide ignorance or just his.

School field in the early morning
School field in the early morning
Climbing up through bamboo
Climbing up through bamboo

Our walk this morning was uphill through a bamboo forest to a hilltop village empty of people but full of cows, pigs and chickens and the odd turkey. Ai was searching for food for our lunch but there were only one or two ladies about and no shop. I watched and waited whilst he chatted. After the village we descended steeply towards the river and the village where we were due to meet the driver. Unfortunately, the bridge had been damaged in a recent storm so we couldn’t cross. Ai attracted the attention of a boatman on the other side and he ferried us across, one by one, in a leaky boat. The village had suffered extensive damage with roofs being blown off and one house had collapsed completely.

Whilst I sat and waited for our driver I was the object of some interest to the children returning from school and two or three came to stand in front of me and stare shyly. Talking English to them met with bursts of giggles!

On our trip back to Luang Prabang, we stopped at a noodle soup shop for lunch. It was tastier than buffalo skin but took me a while to eat with chopsticks so Ai and the driver had to wait. They dropped me back in town and I walked back to my guesthouse.

The trek was a personal challenge for me. I knew the heat would be a problem, but I was also anxious about the homestays. I needn’t have worried. They were basic but much as I expected. The fact I didn’t stress whilst I was there was a big achievement and I was glad I had stepped out of my comfort zone. I felt like a real intrepid traveller!

Village houses

On an intrepid adventure!

Weaving loom under the house
Weaving loom under the house

I had come prepared to go for a trek in the countryside. Given the heat, I had had second thoughts but knew I would regret it if I didn’t go. I booked a group tour with Tiger Trails and arrived at their bus depot early one morning. It became a private tour when the two other participants re-scheduled because they were sick. I was dubious about being the sole trekker but, with hindsight, I think my experience was enhanced.

My guide introduced himself as Ai and we set off with our driver to a village en route to Pakxeng. The road looked familiar. At one point, we had to wait as there had been a slip. I assumed the people on the road ahead were workers but when they removed the barrier a little while later, everyone piled back into the tuk-tuk in front of us. They were all still trying to squeeze in as we drove past!

Our transport for the river crossing
Our transport for the river crossing

On arrival at Pakkens, we walked down to the river past houses which had looms set up outside. As it was so dry, the cloth must have been full of dust before they even finished weaving it. A boatman took us across the river past two men who were fishing. They held a net between them, both wore dive masks and took it in turns to submerge to check for any fish in the net. It was an intriguing method!

We walked up from the river and proceeded through farmland where animals, mainly buffalo, wandered loose. There were few people about but we chatted to one man who was stripping bamboo in preparation for making a basket. Hmong traditionally carry their baskets on their backs like our backpacks, whilst the Khmu use a head strap attached to their baskets that wraps around their forehead. As this places a severe strain on their necks they are gradually changing to the Hmong way of transporting their goods.

We stopped for brief rests here and there and for lunch in a river bed. In the rainy season it would have held a raging torrent but for now there were just dry rocks. It was early for lunch but Laos still adheres to French timings and lunch begins at 11.30am come what may! Ai presented me with an enormous pile of noodles wrapped in a banana leaf. I couldn’t eat it all and saved some for later (although later never came and he gave them to our host’s pigs the next morning).

Noodle lunch
Noodle lunch

We meandered along following the course of the river for the rest of the afternoon. It was so hot that Ai cut large palm leaves for us to hold over our heads for shade. It was a relief to approach rice fields as this meant we were nearing the village that was our destination for the night. There was no rice planted as it was too dry. In the hills, there is only one crop per year as, without irrigation, there is insufficient water. It can therefore only be planted in the rainy season. The approach to the village was up a steep hill. My back pack had surely got heavier! There were two fish ponds beside the track. These were well fenced and privately owned. They certainly did not welcome trespassers!

My hostess with her indispensible broom
My hostess with her indispensible broom

In the village, Ai had a long discussion with an elderly lady (or maybe she just looked old) who showed us a large room in which I was to sleep. A mattress was placed on the floor for me. It didn’t look inviting, but I wanted the homestay experience and that was what I was getting. The bathroom contained a large concrete tank of cold water and a non flushing, knee challenging squat toilet. If I wanted a shower, I could do so in the bathroom by throwing bowls full of cold water over myself or I could stand under the tap outside that served the surrounding four or five houses. I opted for the former.

I ‘showered’ and wrote my diary and read whilst Ai went in search of a pumpkin for dinner. Some small boys came to scrutinise me closely and more passed by on their way home from school.

A little later Ai accompanied me on a tour round the village which was larger than I thought. Most of the houses were made of wood rather than the bamboo I had seen elsewhere. One house was very incongruous. It was constructed of stone and appeared unoccupied. Ai was scathing. Why would anyone spend so much money ($30,000 U.S. in his estimation) to build a house in a village without electricity and a dirt road most of the way to Luang Prabang? Whilst there was no electricity, houses displayed satellite dishes which puzzled me until I discovered that many, including my homestay, had solar power. There was no switch in my room though. It was outside somewhere and controlled by my elderly hostess. I discovered later that 7.30pm was lights out!

We walked through the village and up to the schools. These covered all ages from pre-school to secondary. Several students were playing soccer on the playing fields. It was a beautiful setting surrounded by hills. There were several dormitory huts next to the schools. Parents build these for children who have to go to another village to continue their education. Usually this is at secondary school age but sometimes much younger children are sent away. They have to cook and look after themselves when staying in the huts so become independent at a young age.

When we returned to our homestay, I had free time to wander as Ai cooked our dinner over the open fire in the room that served as the kitchen. Pumpkin soup (not as I know it), cabbage and sticky rice was on the menu. Meanwhile, I sat and watched the comings and goings of the village and took a stroll to watch the children playing in the mud on the banks of a murky looking pond. It was the perfect place to play with plastic diggers, trucks and stones. One boy climbed to the top of a jackfruit tree and proclaimed there were no ripe fruit whilst another wielded a large knife to whittle a stick. I learnt that the boys are required to make brooms each week to take to school to use for cleaning. They are given marks on their accomplishment. The girls do embroidery. One poor lady, with a baby strapped to her back, and an assortment of other children, ground rice, using her foot to operate the contraption we had used at Mr Lee’s. I knew how hard that was and felt sorry for her. She looked weary. There was no husband in evidence and he was probably working in the fields with other men (and women). There were few around.

It was almost dark by the time dinner was ready. It was plain but good. By that time, I was starving! Whilst we were eating, Ai told me the population of the village was 240 comprising 44 families of which four were Khmu and the rest Hmong. Families all lived together and one house was home to 15 people.

It was straight to bed after dinner. I read by torchlight and listened to the night sounds. There was lots of chatter and the cockerels could compete with those I had experienced in Rarotonga. My room was next to the bathroom from which interesting noises emanated! My night was disturbed.

Where's the food?

Wildlife and water buffalo

Our long boat was late causing Sally some consternation as we had an appointment at the Free the Bears Wildlife Sanctuary. This time, we cruised downstream in a more luxurious boat than the ones we had been on so far. The tuk-tuk ride to the Sanctuary was hairy as Sally, sitting next to the driver, urged him to go faster whilst we all clung on in the back. She need not have worried. They had forgotten we were coming! Fortunately, our guide, Nicky, was there as she could have been out on an excursion like the two members of the team who were in the north of Laos rescuing two more bears.

I saw it first!
I saw it first!

Sally had scheduled our arrival to fit with the bears’ feeding time. After an introductory talk, Nicky led us to an enclosure where the bears were locked in their cages temporarily. She gave us buckets of food and told us to hide it so the bears had to hunt for their lunch. They are very inquisitive and have a strong sense of smell. We retired to a viewing platform, and the keeper released the bears. It didn’t take them long to find the food, including some placed on a high pole. A wily bear just shook the pole!

There is food here somewhere!
There is food here somewhere!

They are all moon bears in the Sanctuary. Many have been rescued from bile farms or been kept as pets in small cages. Some had been caught in traps set by poachers. Conditions in bile farms are appalling and the manner in which they extract the bile is cruel with a catheter often being inserted straight into the bear’s gall bladder. However, whilst the Chinese prize the bile for traditional medicines and there is a trade in exotic wildlife species, poaching will continue. Drug companies also use it in the manufacture of drugs such as ibuprofen. The bears have all suffered severe trauma by the time they are rescued and some remain traumatised. They will not be released back into the wild because of this and the danger of recapture. In the future, they intend to breed the bears and release them but this will not occur whilst consumer demand for them exists.

Kuang Si Waterfalls
Kuang Si Waterfalls

Nicky showed us around all the enclosures including areas not usually open to the public. The number of bears rescued keeps increasing and more enclosures are being built. It was a fascinating tour.

Afterwards, we walked up the different levels of the Kuang Si waterfalls which were an incredible turquoise colour. We didn’t have time to walk to the top of the last one though as it was lunch time and we were due at the Carpe Diem restaurant, a short walk away. Here we enjoyed a French influenced Laos lunch overlooking their pools which were in the same river as the waterfalls. When we had finished eating, some of us braved the cool waters for a quick dip. It was refreshing!

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Water Buffalo Dairy farm. Two couples had set this up, intending to produce cheese and ice cream from water buffalo milk. Dairy food is not part of the Laos diet and the couples knew nothing about producing it. Rachael, our owner guide, was a chef and determined to learn. The farm has since evolved. They now produce cheese for local restaurants and unusual flavoured ice cream for the tourists. (My sample was basil.)

A healthy pig
A healthy pig

The story does not end there though. They also work with the government and local Laos people to improve the stock of water buffalo. Traditionally, the animals have been left to roam with their owners not sighting them for weeks at a time. Over the last decades, the size of the water buffalo has decreased because of in breeding and inadequate care. This farm now rents the pregnant animals from the local farmers before she is due to deliver the calf. They care for the beasts, vaccinate them and return them when the calves are about six months old. During that time, they milk the mothers and use the milk for the cheese and ice cream. The animals are in better condition when they are returned and Rachael and her colleagues educate the Laos farmers in how to better care for their animals.

There are also pigs and rabbits kept at the farm, not only to amuse young visitors but also to demonstrate how they can be housed in good clean hygienic conditions. They also hope rabbits will become an additional protein source for Laos. Rachael gave us a very enthusiastic tour which included getting up close and personal with a large water buffalo. We all took turns bathing him and there was much petting (although not by me!)

Our action packed and interesting day culminated in a sunset cruise back to Luang Prabang.

Cruising back to Luang Prabang
Cruising back to Luang Prabang
At MandaLao
At MandaLao

Our second wildlife experience was at MandaLao Elephant Conservation. Here we learnt about and walked with the elephants but first we had lunch!

Looking across the river to the Elephant Sanctuary
Looking across the river to the Elephant Sanctuary

After our meal, the project director, Prasop Tipprasert, who has had extensive experience with elephants in Thailand, gave us an informative talk before we met the elephants. There used to be thousands in Laos where they played an important part in the logging industry. It is estimated about 800 remain. The project provides the best environment for those elephants it has rescued, educates the public and contributes to the conservation of the remaining wild ones.

At present, 10 elephants have over 30 hectares of fenced land in which to roam. They have a set routine. In the morning, they have a ‘buffet’ breakfast by the river after which two of them walk with the tourists whilst the rest are free to wander in the enclosed jungle until the evening. They return to a fenced enclosure, which is 4km from the river, for the night. In the past, visitors could also bathe in the river with them but this stopped after a tourist threw sand at an elephant who then developed infections in his eyes and ears. There is no riding of the elephants at this Sanctuary.

Each elephant eats 250kg of food a day, some of which the Centre provides and the rest they forage. They only retain 40% of the food so it is a massive job keeping up with their required intake! To aid their digestion, they also have to walk 12km a day.

The tour itself began with us donning some fetching footwear and making banana ‘sandwiches’. These comprised a split banana which we filled with sticky rice (even elephants eat rice!), tamarind and a pinch of salt. Yum! (The elephants thought so too!) We then walked down to the river for a five minute boat ride across it. Health and safety kicked in, and we had to add life jackets to our already glamorous apparel.

Feeding the elephants banana sandwiches
Feeding the elephants banana sandwiches
Walking in the jungle
Walking in the jungle

Our two elephants, Mae Tou (aged 42) and Mae Boua Nhen (35) awaited us. They became our best friends when they realised we had banana sandwiches. Sugar cane was of no interest. It didn’t take them long to devour the large basketful we had assembled. They were then ready to walk. They followed behind us with their mahouts, stopping here and there to graze. I had been nervous beforehand about this experience. Elephants are very large! It was a magical experience though, and I was sorry when it was time for the mahouts to lead them to the night enclosure. There was something very calming and spiritual about having these majestic animals so close and be able to touch them. I would do it again any day. After another short boat ride, we returned to the cafe from where our minivan delivered us back to town.

Our visits to all these places was very enlightening, and it was reassuring to learn there are so many efforts being made in conservation and improving conditions for these animals.