The only landlocked country in South East Asia, Laos was previously a French colony and gained independence in 1953 (after briefly attaining independence during World War 2 before the French came back and colonised it again). Despite being relatively lesser known in the West than the bordering countries it has the fourth highest GDP in the area after Thailand.
Arriving in Luang Prabang the contrast between Cambodia and Laos, or at least this city, was striking. Gone were the gutters of streets filled with rubbish and lines of touts looking to sell you everything from a tuktuk ride to the chance to get high.
In their place were beautiful pavements with bins on every street and smiling locals by their stalls and shops, without any of the pressure selling that had been experienced up till now.
Another change you can’t avoid is the surrounding vista. Cambodia’s unbelievably flat countryside full of farm fields were no more and instead you could see the mountains and jungles that fill Laos. Every where you look is a spectacular view.
The old French colonial influence shines through in both the architecture and the businesses on offer, not the least the number of bakeries available to hungry tourists. Le Banneton was recommended on a blog and soon became my regular stop at the start of the day for a wake up coffee and sugary treat, skipping the free breakfast offered at my hostel in favour of the delicious pastries and baguettes from a (semi) authentic French bakery.
The first morning I sat here and stole their WiFi as I planned my time in Laos. This research led me to my first point of call, a small hill located in the middle of the town, Mount Phousi.
Only 100 metres high a few hundred steps take you up the hill, passing through various monuments and sacred points for the monks who live on their. The midday sun did little to help make the climb any easier though!
At the top you are treated to a fantastic view across the town and along the Mekong River and it is particularly popular at sunset, as evidenced when an entire army of tourists arrived behind me with an hour to go.
It costs 20,000 Laos Kip to get to the very top (about £1.75 at time of writing) and deciding that, with nothing else planned for the day and trying to be a frugal backpacker, I didn’t want to pay that twice I remained at the top for a few hours until sunset. I met various travellers here and swapped stories and tips before ensuring I had the best spot for the coming sunset.
The next day I joined a friend I had made in Cambodia and we set off to Kuang Si Falls. Around 30km outside Luang Prabang the falls are probably the number one attraction for visitors to the town.
Before you get to the falls themselves you pass a rescue centre for Asian sun and moon bears who were trapped with intention of, or actually rescued from, bear bile farms and other forms of abuse. The bears seemed to be well cared for with lots of things to play with, including the company of each other, and it is definitely better than the alternative they did have.
Past the bear sanctuary you reach the first set of falls and a small swimming area. But continue up the hill a little more and you find more fresh water pools with gorgeous rock formations and a setting out of a Herbal Essences advert.
I had read that it is worth reaching the top of the hill on a few blogs so set off on a, sometimes, risky climb next to the main drop. This included a section where the steps themselves are underneath the continual stream of water pouring off the top.
In all honesty the climb was not worth it and I should have stayed on the bottom. A view that became more true when I repeatedly slipped and stumbled climbing back down after!
Back on safer ground I found my friend in one of the pools and was excited to dive in and join them. It was at this point I learnt that this wonderful turquoise clear water was ice cold!
After the initial shock of the freezing water began to wear off I felt the second surprise as a school of fish began nibbling at the exposed parts of my body.
Having deliberately avoided the various massage shops across SE Asia offering fish massage services it became clear I would be getting the treatment for free here anyway!
As I relaxed in the cool water, and provided a buffet lunch to the local wildlife, I enjoyed the experience of swimming in a natural river running through a tropical jungle as birds and butterflies flew above me and fish shoaled around me.
This was not to be the best animal experience in Laos though, as tomorrow I would be meeting a much bigger creature.
Laos used to be called the Land of a Million Elephants but sadly over time the population has dwindled to only a few hundred left in the wild.
Elephants are now kept mainly for tourism purposes and, across Asia, suffer abuse and mistreatment so their owners can profit.
I wasn’t sure whether to go to any elephant “sanctuary” as I didn’t want to support unethical behaviour.
After a lot of research I found Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary near Luang Prabang which has many articles on the ethical vision behind it, including Forbes and CNN.
A very kind friend, before I left home, gave me a prepaid gift card (Bail Money as she called it) and said that at some point I will find something that I really want to do but can’t really afford and I should use it for that. Thanks to this person I was able to pay the $100 for a half day experience with these incredible animals.
I was picked up from the hotel first thing in the morning and met the other people who would be in our small group tour.
Arriving at the sanctuary we were introduced to Mr Tipprasert, a Thai national who has spent the last 25+ years of his life researching elephants. We spent about 30 minutes listening as he explained some facts about elephants, the background problem with their abuse and how Mandalao is trying to show there is an ethical way of tourists being able to interact with the magnificent creatures.
After this talk we were given some boots and taken on a quick boat ride across the river to the elephants, who were bathing as we approached.
The elephants came to us when called, I’m sure the lure of the food we would give them being a good enough incentive regardless of any instructions from the handlers. Elephants need to eat 250-300 pounds of food and only sleep around 3 hours every day.
And they really love bananas.
Here the elephants were allowed to smell and get used to us as we fed them bunch after bunch to gain their trust. It was an amazing experience to be so close to such a powerful animal.
Once fed the elephants are encouraged to walk to aid their digestion and so we began a trek through the jungle.
It was then I realised there would be no barriers between the elephants and us as we walked along next to each other.
As we travelled along the paths I wondered how an elephant could fit through some of the gaps we went through but, sure enough, a few minutes later a large grey shape would be plodding through the gap in the trees, tail swinging and ears flapping happily.
Mandalao do not use chains or physical punishment for the elephants and rely on voice commands and positive reinforcement. The great thing was that they let the elephants dictate the pace. Each time they wanted to stop for a snack, or to go off in another direction, we would stop and wait for them to be ready to move on again.
A little over an hour later it was time to say goodbye to the elephants and we made our way back to the centre for a (delicious) lunch before being taken back to the hotel.
It was a real privilege to have the chance to meet and interact with these endangered animals in an environment where they are cared for and looked after. If they had offered me a job there I don’t think I would have ever left!
The next few days were more relaxing with no real plans and just wandering around the town, popping into the multiple temples and enjoying the unique foods and sights.
In order to save money, which is rapidly running out now, I had made the choice to only visit one town in Laos and soon it was time to look to the next destination.
Rather than taking an 18 hour bus overnight I had been told about another option which would offer the opportunity to see more of the country and have a new experience on this trip. But that’s a story for another time.