Saturday, November 24, 2012

Laos - Land of Elephants

Day 20 (Thurs)

Today we decided to visit the KuangSi waterfalls, which are supposed to be amazing. We booked a van through our guesthouse to take us and some others to the falls, by far the cheapest way to do it. It was a windy 45 min drive through the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang but we made it to the falls! They are so beautiful. Natural formations of limestone and turquoise water! There was a swing and people were jumping off the smaller falls. The water was so cold but very refreshing. We enjoyed taking pictures and swimming for a few hours before heading back with our van crew.

We got back around 3:30 which was just in time for me to get ready for my cooking class! I had originally planned on taking a cooking class in every country I have been in but haven't been taking time (or money) to do it yet. At around $25 to $30, it can be a bit expensive for the budget traveller but you get what you pay for and I thought this Laos Cooking Class was one of the best experiences I have had here in LP!

I had originally wanted to book the day class but it was already full for days, so I booked the evening class instead. I took the guidebook's advice and went with Tamarind Restaurant's cooking class. It has a reputation for being excellent and it really was!

There were 12 of us in the class and since it was evening time and the restaurant needed its space for the dinner crowd, we headed outside the city for the class to a small farm lot. It was picturesque! A beautiful outdoor set up with a long table by a pond for eating our creations together. The instructor's table was filled with fresh herbs and vegetables and there were coal pots (the native way to cook - no stoves for us!) already lit and burning.

Our ingredients
Rice cooking

We made three Laos dishes and one dessert using ingredients the locals use, including lemon grass, basil, peppers, garlic, shallots, green onions, tomatoes, Chinese eggplant, cilantro (which they call coriandor here), ground chicken, and of course, sticky rice!

The first dish we made was a jeow, which is a kind of paste. It was very simple and included toasting peppers, eggplant, onion and garlic and then using a mortor and pestle we ground it together with fish sauce, salt, herbs and chicken flavor. Then we put plastic over it for later.

Next we prepped our steamed fish in banana leaf by making a similar paste for seasoning, soaking the fish and then wrapping it in banana leaf and leaving to steam cook.

Our last main was chicken laab (Laos salad) stuffed into lemon grass. We made a jeow and mixed in the ground chicken. Cutting the lemon grass correctly was the hardest part. I, embarrassingly, went through a few lemon grass sticks before I finally got one that would hold the chicken mixture (and my instructor made my second one, which was much prettier than mine...). Next we coated the stuffed lemon grass in egg and fried in a pan.

Finally we prepared our dessert. We had already had cooking some red sticky rice, which we then put into a pot with a bit of sugar, and pinch of salt. Next we extracted coconut milk from some fresh coconut shreddings and cooked the sticky rice in it. The final step was to add some delicious native fruit. I added to mine banana, mangosteen, mango, tamarind, and dragon fruit. Then, time to eat!

We had a great time cooking together and during dinner it was nice to talk to the other travellers. Some British, some Dutch, German, Australian, and even another American. We talked and swapped travel stories while we ate. It was a great experience to meet other travellers from around the world and bond over learning to cook Laos food!

Day 21 (Fri)

So today was our tour to elephant village! We went through a company called Tiger Trails, which I mentioned before. Elephant Village and Tiger Trails were both started by  German guy who travelled to Laos and fell in love with the country. Many elephants are still used as a main source of labor in logging. This can be a very hard life for an elephant. So the creator of Elephant Village wanted a place for captive elephants to have an easier life. Elephants can consume between 150 and 250 kg of food each day, making them quite expensive to keep. By using them for sustainable tourism, they can in a sense pay for their keep while living an easier life than if logging.

Elephant village is currenlty home to 11 Asian Elephants, 3 of which are owned and 8 are rented. I was told that often times the owner will not sell the elephant to elephant village, so they are rented instead.
The elephants all come with their mahout, or elephant trainer/rider. Most of the time, a elephant will have only one mahout so the bond between the two can be very close.

For our tour, we started with just a small trek sitting atop an elephant carriage. Along the way we would stop at points for our elephants to grab a palm frond which they would munch on along the way like a giant celery stick.

When we got back we were able to "thank" our elephants by feeding them bananas, which they seemed to really love! Next we had our mahout training. We learned the proper way to approach, mount and ride an elephant. We had to learn the calls in Laos since that is the only language the elephants understand. We also learned how to ride on the back of the elephant head/neck, which is where the mahout usually sits.

After our class (and a lunch break for us and the elephants) it was time to use our mahout skills and take the elephants for a bath! This was my favorite part! The elephant I rode is named Mae Unk, and was the same one we trained on. I asked her mahout, named Sae, what her name means. Sae told me "Mae" means "mother" and all female elephants are called this, and "unk" means "hangover". I asked Sae why he would name his elephant hangover, and he just laughed and said because she always over eats and has hangover, moving very slow! And sure enough, although Mae Unk was not the biggest elephant, she was certainly the fattest!

So I rode Mae Unk down to the river. She really liked to go underwater, dunking me about waist high into the cold river water. She would stay under for a few seconds before emerging her head and trunk to take a breath. I scrubbed her thick skin and pat her head, which was covered in course hairs. It was an amazing experience to sit atop this huge elephant as she played and bathed in the river!

After the river bath, the elephants headed back to their home in the jungle where they can eat and rest for the remainder of the day. Meanwhile we continued on our tour to see the Sad Tae waterfalls just a little way down the river. The falls were smaller than Kuang Si falls but just as beautiful with clear refreshing water. It was also much less crowded at these falls and a bit more enjoyable. I was able to talk to the other two travellers on our tour, sharing travel stories and advice and talking about how much we enjoyed our elephant experience together.

After the falls we made it back to Luang Prabang and arranged to meet one of our new friends for dinner later. This was such an amazing day that I am sure I will never forget!

Crepes bought from a street cart.

Day 22 (Sat)

So today we left Luang Prabang to head back to the capitol, Vientiane. Linds has her flight back to the States tomorrow. We left on a bus at 6:30am for the 11hour trip south. This time the bus was full, mostly of locals including 3 monks. Two monks sat in the seats directly across from us. At one point they took out some kind of snacks wrapped in bamboo. As they were eating, the woman sitting behind me said something in Lao to them and offered some other food for them. So the younger monk sitting on the aisle seat stood up, allowing for the woman to place the food on his seat. Then he picked up the food and sat down again. Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch women, even in the most innocent of ways. (I have heard that if they do touch a woman, even by accident, they have to undergo a cleansing ritual, but I am not sure if this is true..)

Later on the bus ride, Linds and I had just finished a cup of noodles that proved to be a bit spicey, and we were both coughing a lot. Then Linds tells me she thinks the monk is trying to get my attention. So I look over and he has fashioned a stick with a small package strapped to it by rubber band, and is holding it out to me. At first I was confused until I realized he was trying to give me the small package, which was a cough medicine. So I took the package off and the rubber band came with it. I thanked him and Linds and I split the medicine. Then I wanted to give him the rubber band back so I held it out to show him and then placed it on the arm rest. So he grabbed it and put it back in his bag.

Our small interaction with the monks was probably the highlight of the bus trip, which ended up being the most grueling trip I have ever been on. Our bus broke down numerous times, at one point we slowly pulled up beside a very rural repair shop in the middle of nowhere, where we waited for the bus to be fixed again. Our 11 hour trip turned into 13 hours and when we finally arrived, the bus that had left at 8am was also arriving...
What a trip!

Day 23 (Sun)

It rained all last night but Linds and I were comfy in our hotel room. We decided to splurge on a nicer place since we were so exhausted from the long trip. Our room had aircon and really comfy beds, and we ended up paying $10 each. Today she will be leaving for her long trip back to the States. So I arranged for a cheaper accomodation for myself down the road. My new guesthouse is also arranging for my bus trip to Chiang Mai. I have reservations there starting Tues and really can't wait to get there just in time for the Lantern Festival festivities! Unfortunatley my bus trip to get there will be 17hr overnight.... oh boy.

So today and tomorrow I will wonder around Vientiane, perhaps see a few more temples and the famous Buddah Gardens (if the weather improves) and then tomorrow evening I will be leaving Laos and heading back into Thailand (for the 3rd time this year!) This will be the last leg of my trip before heading home!
But first, a few pictures from Vientiane:

to be continued!

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