A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011

Luang Prabang Elephants - Buon! Buon!

overcast 28 °C

We were very excited and relieved when we arrived at the ‘All Lao Elephant Camp’ and found such a nice establishment where the care and welfare of the elephants was obviously priority one. We have heard many instances where travellers (especially in Thailand) have had sad encounters in these sorts of camps where the elephants were just used as a performing ‘middle-man’ between the tourist’s wallets and the camp.

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The elephants at this camp work around 6-7 hours a day where they take tourists for gentle rides through the surrounding jungle and along the river. Then they are hand washed and taken deep into the jungle where they spend the night (on an ankle chain 50m long – so they don’t wander off!). The elephants seemed happy (especially after the logging life they were used to) and the Mahouts seemed genuine in their care and respect for their 5 tonne friends.

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^^ Playing with her food

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On the morning of our first day we rode Chocolate for an hour through the jungle on her specially designed seat. During the ride we spotted a large (2 meter), black snake slithering up the hill next to us. When Chocolate’s Mahout spotted the snake he removed our seats safety rail and leapt fearlessly off her neck and sprinted up the hill. A few quick, powerful, well-aimed strikes later and our Mahout had secured dinner for him and his family. Although I had to spend the rest of the ride with a huge black snake curled up next to me.

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^^ Chocolate's mahout with his dinner in the bag

After our ride with Chocolate we took a short boat trip across the river to our accommodation for the next two nights. We had a private bungalow with a huge open-air bathroom, very nice!

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^^ Our bungalow
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^^ On the boat crossing the river to our accommodation
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On our way to lunch we were lucky enough to witness a battle between a large spider and a Tarantula Hawk (spider wasp). The wasp was metallic blue with bright orange wings and antennae. The battle was quick and ferocious but with a well-placed strike from the wasp, the spider became paralysed and at the mercy of the flying predator. The next step of her plan was to drag the spider to a prepared nest where an egg would have been laid on the spider’s body. When the larva hatches it will eat its way into the spider’s abdomen and feast. The larva will avoid all the vital organs for as long as possible, in order to keep the spider alive and fresh. Once it has consumed enough it will pupate for a few weeks before tearing out of the spider as an adult wasp. Pretty cool and a real privilege to witness the battle, although I wish I had my camera!!

After lunch we headed back over to the camp classroom where we learnt and practiced the different commands for the elephants. After feeling confident that we could remember the commands (all in Laotian) it was time to test us. We were terrible haha. The elephants responded to us sometimes, but most of the time we were saying it wrong or not firm enough and needed help from the Mahouts (who were following closely on the ground) to stay on track, so much fun though! We were riding them on their necks for the first time and surprisingly for such a large ‘seat’ it required a fair amount of balance – much harder than bare back riding a horse.

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We walked our elephants down to the river and gave them a good bath, which was a bit of a magical, intoxicating experience. It is really hard to describe, but being able to be so close to such huge, intelligent, gentle creatures and spend the day with them is really heart-warming, weird I know but I felt a similar feeling when spending all day with the dolphins at Sea World a few years ago… enough of the soppy shit. One of the commands for the elephants when you are in the water is ‘Buon Buon’, the result is a big spray over their backs – right where we were sitting. Kirby’s elephant could do it really well and she was completely drenched with elephant-trunk water. My elephant though never learnt this command properly and instead of spraying water up at me she would just dive down deep to the bottom of the river. Literally I would be sitting on her neck and her Mahout would laugh and say ‘Buon Buon’ at which point she would drag me down with her to the bottom. At one point we were in deeper water and when she dove I put my hands above my head and my outstretched fingers were at least 50cm below the top of the water. A really odd situation, I never imagined I would ever be diving to the bottom of the river on the neck of an elephant in the middle of Laos.

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^^ You can see her carrying the 50m chains that will keep her safe in the jungle overnight

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^^ Diving down

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^^ Completely under water, only her bum sticking up!

After they were adequately clean we walked them into the jungle where they would spend the night. Once again we were the ones commanding them down the tight jungle path. I know that when riding a horse you have to be firm or they will keep pulling off to the side to gobble up a delicious patch of green grass. Well my elephant decided it wanted to veer off the path, and little old me trying as hard as I could, could do nothing about it haha. Literally my elephant pulled down a 5 meter tall tree while I was on her back trying to dodge the falling big branches. That was when I realised how powerful these creatures are; she snapped that tree like a twig and is well capable of lifting over 300kg with her trunk alone!

Our first day here was awesome!

On the second day we retrieved them from the jungle and took them for a bath – they were soooooo dirty, like they had been rolling in the mud all night! We had breakfast and then started our walk along the river to where we would have a picnic lunch with the elephants.
After they enjoyed their lunch of pineapple shrubs (with full pineapples) we just hung out with them and slowly made our way back to the place where we wash them – all the while the Mahouts were following us along the bank, with a fishing line in the water. We gave them a good bath again and they were off to the jungle – another days ‘hard’ work complete :).

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^^ Listening to her noisy guts

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^^ Having lunch :)

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^^ Lunch with the boys

That afternoon we got the boat to drop us 15 minutes upstream and we floated back down the river on our tubes (around an hour) admiring the locals fishing and working along the banks.

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^^ Floating down the river with elephant mountain behind us

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That night we hung out with our guide Yee. He told us how he was a monk for several years before he reached enlightenment. Now he is a guide while he saves money to go to school to become a teacher. He was happy to spend time with us teaching us about Buddhism and its values, the most sensible religion I have encountered. He was our guide for the whole three days and if you find yourself doing this same adventure I definitely recommend asking for Yee to be your guide.

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^^ Yee

On our last day we got the elephants from the jungle and gave them a good scrub. After their bath we had to say goodbye (which was a bit sad), we had had such a great time with them and will always remember them and their gentle, kind personalities. It was a real privilege spending so much time with them, and I’m glad they are no longer working like slaves carting timber all day.

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^^ Got to scrub all the mud off her - soooo dirty!

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^^ Buon! Buon!

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^^ Bye!!

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Just after we said goodbye lightning cracked through the sky and the heavens opened up, didn’t matter though as we were already soaked from the bath :) (The water-proof camera was invaluable during the last few days – thanks mum & dad). We then did a few hours kayak through some rapids back to Luang Prabang, where we indulged in a much needed 1hr massage for $4, first time being sore from riding too much elephant haha :).

If you want to indulge in this amazing elephant experience it will set you back $155 per person. Not bad for 3 days!

An interesting thing to note: we met a couple on the last day who informed us that they had just purchased their prescription glasses in Vietnam for $35 – where they were quoted $700 in Australia! Also they met a man who got a full mouth of dentistry work done (veneers) in Thailand for $8,000, he was quoted $45,000 to get it done in Australia.

Next time you have to buy new prescription glasses in Australia just spend the same amount of money and have a holiday in Vietnam. Same goes with dentist work, can’t wait until I need a filling :), yay for holidays!

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 02:54 Archived in Laos Tagged elephants jungle laos tour mahout all_lao_elephant_camp 3_day_elephant_tour mahout_training private_bungalow tarantula_hawk spider_wasp bathing_elephants swim_with_elephants yee Comments (5)

Luang Prabang - Where the world slows down

rain 25 °C

Well we have made it to Luang Prabang in Laos. We weren’t planning on flying but our poor organization resulted in us only having one day left on our Vietnamese visa’s, two days travel from the border. It was our first domestic flight in Asia and we were pleased on not dying so that is good.

Luang Prabang is situated on the peninsula where the Nam Khan River meets the Mekong River. It is famous for its Buddhist temples and monasteries where hundreds of monks call home.

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It rained only one day during our whole month in Vietnam and since arriving in Laos it has rained pretty much non-stop. Laos is very different from Vietnam, we haven’t heard a single horn beep since arriving or been harassed by a tuk tuk driver, and the street dogs are much more friendly :).
Laos is also heaps more laid-back than its neighbours, sometimes this can be frustrating but you just have to remember that a huge majority of Laotian people are Buddhists and live by the motto ‘No worries’, so with patience things eventually get done.

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We’ve spent 5 days in Luang Prabang, not really doing anything in particular. We have just been exploring the surrounding area on foot and getting into the slower paced rhythm of Laos, the constant rain has also hampered any real attempts at venturing further from town, as most tours are ‘view’ based. We visited the night market nearly every night which was nice.

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^^ Night market

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^^ Kirby getting a fruit drink from our friend Jasmine

We also spent some time visiting Wat Xieng Thong temple, built in 1560 on the orders of the King, it is decorated with thousands of beautiful mosaics.

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^^ Tree of life mosaic

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At night we have been venturing to the bars to take advantage of the happy hour, although most places in Luang Prabang have a happy hour from 2pm – 9pm. The local liquor of choice is called ‘Lao Lao’ and it is a super sugary alcohol, very strong but sickly sweet. There isn’t much to the night life, the city has a curfew and you should be at your registered place of stay by 11pm.

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^^ Writing some blogs

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After spending so much time relaxing in the sleepy town we decided on doing a 3 day Mahout course at the local elephant sanctuary. All the elephants are rescued logging elephants (mostly illegal logging) that used to spend their lives hauling massive, heavy trees through places inaccessible by vehicles. Fingers crossed it decides to stop raining.

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 00:54 Archived in Laos Tagged temple elephant laos luang_prabang mosaics monastary wat_xieng_thong lao_lao asia_domestic_flight Comments (0)

Goodbye Vietnam

We've explored big cities, small villages, high mountain communities, and incredible seaside resorts. We have travelled on horrendous buses, comfortable trains, and exhilarating bum-numbing motorcycles. We’ve slept in rooms like concrete bunkers, rooms with full cable TV and balconies, and a beautiful room floating amid Ha Long Bay. We’ve eaten some of the most disgusting and most delicious foods, and admired certain foods which we were too afraid to try :). We’ve ventured out of our comfort zones, mostly voluntarily but sometimes forced, and loved every minute of it. We’ve been ripped off bad, and struck incredible bargains. But most important we’ve created incredible memories that will last a lifetime and had a ball creating them.

Vietnam was an incredible country. There is so much history and culture and the people are more than happy to indulge curious tourists with tales of adventure and hardship.
We’ve spent a month here but instead of feeling like we’ve conquered a country it’s like we’ve just been given a small taste of a cake that is much bigger than we ever imagined.
If our experiences in this country are any indication of the things to come in the future countries we visit it’s going to be an amazing trip!
Thank you Vietnam, see you later.

Our next country is Laos, as we fly from Hanoi to Luang Prabang.

Total Spending for 4 weeks in Vietnam inclusive of everything = $1,644

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 00:26 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Ha Long Bay - Happy Belated Birthday Kirby!

sunny 27 °C
View Travels on KyleMac's travel map.

After a lazy day back in Hanoi it was off to Ha Long Bay for three days to celebrate Kirby’s (belated) birthday.

Ha Long Bay is absolutely amazing! Thousands of Islands (some not yet named) erupt from the turquoise ocean straight into the sky, creating an inspiring, looming, panorama that insists awe and admiration.

Our boat was called Calypso; it is a beautiful big junk with three levels.

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The first level was accommodation, our room was beautiful with dark stained wood furniture, a big ensuite (with a shower window that looks straight out into the stunning bay), and A/C. The best room we have stayed in all month haha.

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The second level contains the cocktail bar and restaurant.

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The third level is a sun deck with comfy deck-beds and a 360 degree view of the stunning bay.

The meals on board were excessive to say the least. Every night we would be treated with a 5 course culinary feast, some of the best food we have had all through Vietnam, and most definitely the best decorated – I had never seen a carrot turned into a flower before. We also did two fun cooking classes on board during the afternoon as the sun was setting.

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We were treated with a tour of Amazing Cave; a huge limestone cave that is responsible for many legends and tales and revered by the local people of the bay as a spiritual place. Some of the caves around the bay were used during the Vietnam War as Viet Cong hospitals, hidden deep within the Islands there was no way they would be discovered by the Americans.

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That afternoon we lounged up on the sun deck drinking delicious cocktails and watching the sun set deep into the turquoise waters, sometimes it’s hard to believe that you are actually experiencing this!

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The second day we left the main boat and took a smaller speed boat around to Lan Ha Bay just off Cat Ba Island. Here we swam, kayaked and admired the surrounding seascape. After a kayak tour we were left to do whatever we wanted. Some people decided to just sit at the bar and drink, while others tested their ‘backflipping’ abilities off the roof of the boat. Kirby and I decided to go exploring a bit more and headed off in our kayak in search of some adventure. We found a small uninhabited Island and explored the half-flooded cave for treasure, unfortunately after 10 meters it got too tight to continue and we never found any riches.

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The local people who inhabit Ha Long Bay live on floating houses and pontoons. They are sustained through fishing and aquaculture - clams in sand box farms. Most of the people (and their dogs) will never set foot on dry ground as they are born and die in their pontoon villages.

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During the night back on the Calypso we spent time fishing for squid, unfortunately there were only small ones around, but still fun :)!

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^^ Kirby squid fishing
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The next day we hung out on Titop Island – after a gruelling climb straight up to the top you can enjoy 360 degree views of the Bay.

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^^ View from Titop Island

After three relaxing days in Ha Long Bay we headed back to the mainland (after a quick stop at a pearl farm).
Our time in Ha Long Bay was amazing and Kirby enjoyed her birthday present. I would definitely recommend Calypso for anyone interested in visiting this incredible bay.
http://www.calypsohalongcruise.com

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 23:12 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam halong calypso ha_long_bay lan_ha_bay calypso_cruiser amazing_cave Comments (1)

Sapa - A Mountain Paradise!

sunny 25 °C

Sapa is a truly enchanting town. It is nestled 2000m above sea level on the steep slopes of north-western Vietnam. The town overlooks an impressive, deep valley filled with cascading bright green rice terraces. We found a beautiful room for $18 that overlooked the valley, although our room was only on the second floor we got a shock when we went out on our balcony and looked down at a 50m drop, apparently the hotel is hanging over the edge of a small cliff.

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^^ Sapa
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^^ The view from our room
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Our first day here we just relaxed and wandered around the quaint markets and sampled some of the local plum wine – delicious but potent, closer to plum ethanol than plum wine!

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^^ Fooling around at the market
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^^ This rooster had it's leg cocked ready to battle me
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^^ Piggy on his way from the market

Our second day in Sapa we set our sights to exploring the nearby mountains and hired a motorbike for $5 a day. After fuelling up we hit the mountain road west of town and found ourselves winding through the steep valleys and gorges, I had to focus on not crashing as the view was so breathtaking. The mist was rolling around the mountain and it made for an amazing ride as we cruised through the clouds on the quiet mountain pass.

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Eventually we started getting a bit chilly riding through the hills, so on the way back we stopped at Thac Bac (Silver Falls). The guard at the waterfall gave us the option of paying full price for a ticket or half price for no ticket, we decided to go along with the bribe and save a couple of dollars. It only took 15 minutes of walking through pristine mountain forest before we reached the stunning waterfall. After admiring the falls we headed off back to town for lunch.

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That afternoon we took the bike and rode south of town along the high ridge above the valleys edge to Ban Ho, a little farming town. The scenery along the way was unlike any other we have seen; children riding buffalo and playing in the fields, women dressed in colourful tribal clothes walking along the road to their villages with their babies strapped to their backs, small waterfalls between rice paddies as they cascade and feed each other with clean mountain water. So much beauty and not enough words to describe them!

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^^ Waiting for the local wildlife to pass
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^^ Beautiful rice paddies
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We had so much fun on our second day with the motorbike that we decided to hire it again and venture even further out of town with a day trip to Ta Phin village, where the Red Dzao people call home. The Red Dzao people originate from China but have been calling Vietnam home for hundreds of years. Before we left we purchased some candy and along the way to the village we handed it out to the children strolling along the road and also those that were helping their parents in the fields. As soon as we arrived in the village we were greeted by five women who were excited to show us around their village. So here we were, in the hills of Vietnam with five local tribal women dressed in their full tribal outfit guiding us around their home, a real treat! They took us to a cave just outside their village where we scrambled around inside as they took us deeper into the mountain and explained that they can use this cave to travel through the mountain, although it takes 3 nights and 4 days to get through to the other side! After 15 minutes we decided to turn back as it was getting fairly hairy, this was not a tourist cave with stairs or rails so we decided to avoid broken legs.

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^^ Red Dzao house
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^^ Exploring the cave

One of the ladies was telling us that her village was actually 3 hours walk from Ta Phin so in order to get her children to school each day they leave at 4am each morning to trek into Ta Phin, it makes you respect your easy education even more.
While we were wandering around the village and surrounding rice paddies I noticed that we weren’t seeing the usual buffalo that most people have around their farm land. When I asked her where all the buffalo were she informed me that there was a terrible winter two years ago and unfortunately all of the buffalo died, so until they save up enough money for new buffalo it is back to the back-breaking labour of hand ploughing the fields.

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After our visit of the village was complete we decided to purchase some hand-made items that the ladies were selling. They were very thankful for us supporting them and also gave us some small gifts for free which was really nice. We gave them the rest of our candy for their children that were currently in school and headed back into town.

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Our last day in Sapa we just cruised around the town on the bike admiring the stunning landscape and peoples that make Sapa such an amazing place. This is definitely one of our favourite places in Vietnam!

Cheers, Kyle

Posted by KyleMac 05:18 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam sapa red_dzao Comments (1)

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