It’s still the mid-nineteenth century in the Old Town in Luang Prabang. At least that’s what they like you to think. One of the more upmarket bars even advertises itself as taking you “back to the elegant good old days, the great colonial days..” No wonder the French love it here.
Nevertheless, the reputed charm is not without merit. The beautiful temples seem to spring up on you on every corner and the young orange-robed monks that work and worship in them lend further gravitas to the streets lined with elegant colonial architecture, fancy cafes and bistros. The traffic is minimal (a blessing in Asia), the buffet-style street food is interesting if hygienically dubious, the night market contains some of the best merchandise we’ve seen on our travels and climbing the hill in the centre of the old town at the right time can provide a stunning sunset view. Yes, the town certainly has charms.
Eco-tourism appears to be a growth sector in Laos in general, and in Lang Pruabang in particular. Aside from ‘fair treks’, where some or all of the profits from the tour are given to the villages visited, and the usual mountain-biking and kayaking options, Elephant treks seem to be one of the most popular tourist destinations. These ‘camps’ are really fairly luxury riverside parks, complete with cabins, restaurants and – of course – elephants. Here, visitors get to meet, greet,feed and ride these (apparently) rescued logging elephants as part of their ‘mahout training’ – a mahout being an elephant rider/handler.
We were lucky to be able to afford a two day stay (thanks to our friends for the wedding present – you know who you are!) and so it was that we found ourselves riding elephants in various ways, with varying degrees of elegance. We visited ‘Elephant Village‘, chosen mostly through its reputation for looking after its elephants and its commitment to rescuing and caring for former logging elephants who, as they become unemployed, face a bleak future, if not death. They have also had something of a bleak past, and we were constantly assured, through the literature and the guides, that the seemingly mundane existence of hauling fat Germans, French and Brits around is far preferable to the animals than their former work.
Our first task was to practice mounting and riding on the animal’s neck. These Asian elephants, although smaller than their African relatives, are still immense beasts. So, despite their apparently placid nature, we both maintained a huge degree of respect and after getting a leg-up from the elephant and resting our hands on it’s huge head, we both felt in awe of it’s power and personality. It was remarkable to be astride such an iconic animal though, and even the short trudge around the camp (novice riders, you really don’t want a fast elephant) was an unforgettable experience.
More sedate, although blisteringly hot in the sun, was the elephant ride, where a park bench seemed to be strapped to the animal’s leathery back and, in good-old colonial style, we mounted from a platform and set off down and through the river. At ten years old, our elephant was one of the youngest there and showed it with a great deal of immature stubbornness. Elephants may never forget, but in standing in the hot sun in the river for ten minutes without moving, we wondered if this one would remember the way back.
After another short bareback walk to take the elephants to their jungle home (they knock off at 2.30pm, perhaps something they wouldn’t have done before), a meal and a few beers around the campfire, it was back to the ‘Elephant Lodge’ to bed, ready for an early start on Day Two.
At seven in the morning, the intense heat of the previous day had left the air and the river steamed as the sun came up. Before we knew it we were having a morning stroll on the back of an elephant again. Without the crowds of the previous day, and in the early morning sun, taking the elephants down to the river was nothing short of magical. Here we were dunked, splashed and thrilled in an exercise that seemed to genuinely please the elephants and the mahouts too. Washing elephants on a Wednesday morning was a bizarre and quality experience that it’s unlikely we’ll repeat and is perhaps a colonial hangover we’re pleased remains.