Woke and had a lovely breakfast of croissants washed down with sweet tea, then headed to Elephant XL Camp to get picked-up and taken to the Elephant Xieng Lom Camp and Lodge for a day of elephant trekking and waterfalls. An American girl, a Welsh couple, and another American – an eco-warrior who had a plan called ‘Guerilla charity’ – where you ‘hit’ a place for a day or 2, do some charity work or just help out in an orphange or a school, then ‘get the hell out of there’. Sounded very American to me. It’s designed for those who want to help the under-privileged, but can’t take months off to do so. He was on ‘reconnaissance’….gathering info to compile his book and website. It must have taken off – he’s got a slot on Oprah in April! He wasn’t dominating with his stories of saving the world, not overpowering in the conversation as I’d imagined. He listened too, and it was a nice group to be with. He was there to train to be a Mahout, which required an overnight stay. I think a day with the elephants is quite enough for me.
We arrived at the Camp at 9:30am after a dusty, rocky drive, and were delighted to see elephants roaming around freely munching bunches of bananas. We had some tea, and waited for our instructions. Crystal and I were offered a chance to visit the Tad Sae waterfall first, so we hopped in a longboat and headed down the river in the blazing morning sun, that always feels like it burns you more directly and quickly than the constant, strength-sapping midday heat. We arrived at the waterfalls, and we saw the pristine turquoise water. Crystal fancied a mini-trek first, so we headed off for an hour in the jungle alone. The terrain was unforgiving on Crystal’s Charles and Keith sandals, and one of them broke, meaning she had to walk back over the sharp twigs and leaves, as a piggy back up and down the hard to navigate terrain would have been near-impossible. Still, she marched like a trooper…..and that’s why I enjoy her companionship on my travels – she has a real sense of adventure, and she never complains or sulks about anything, which makes life on the road very easy. Back at the waterfalls we gladly jumped into the icy waters, and soaked ourselves.
Back at the Elephant Camp, we had a delicious lunch, watching elephants wading in the river, then it was our turn to ride the gentle beasts. Though we sat on a seat for 2, with the mahout on the elephants neck, it wasn’t long before Crystal and the mahout swopped places, and Crystal was sat on the elephant’s neck, shouting out elephant commands we had been taught earlier. It was a fantastic experience for both of us. We rode through the jungle, and then down to the river. Some of the paths were very thin, and places were boggy, but the elephants stood firm and the ride was smooth, though they did get a bit lairy trying to go into the water. Riding the elepahant in a river was fantastic, and to see the line of 5 elephants all in the river blowing water everywhere was a sight to behold. Back at the camp, the friendly guide took loads of pictures of us on the elepahts back, to capture the amazing experience. We then spent time feeding the elephants bananas and patting their trunks. To be at such close quarters with these gentle giants was so much better than seeing them from afar in a zoo. We left content, and headed back along the dusty, rocky road back to Luang Prabang centre. That evening we had some Lao food, and a few drinks. Then we got a tuk-tuk to a bar that was advertising an xmas party, but the music was just techno, even though the decorations and the outfits people were wearing were in the spirit of xmas. It was Christmas Eve, and then midnight struck,and it was Christmas Day, but there was no countdown, only the incessant clatter of repetitive techno music. Disappointed, we left, but still, it was Merry Christmas in Laos!
Christmas Day! Crystal and I exchanged our ‘Secret Santa’ gifts we had bought at the night market the night before, simple but nice things that were typically Lao in style. We had a nice breakfast by the Nam Khan river, fruit, croissants and tea. We then walked around by the Mekong river trying to bargain for a boat to take us to the famous Pak Ou caves. We eventually agreed a price with a boat captain, and agreed to return to his spot at 2pm. With over an hour to kill, we decided to take in the Royal Palace Museum.
Built in 1904 during the French colonial era, the builiding is a mix of Lao and French architectural and art styles – and apparently haunted by the spirits of the Royal Family. It’s a small museum, and no photography is allowed. We took in the King’s reception room, where busts of the Lao monarchy are displayed, the secretary’s reception room, and throne hall and the throne room. The rooms display some interesting art collections, and one room features gifts given to the Royal Family from various countries. The museum didn’t hold our interests for very long, and it was almost time to meet the boat captain anyway, so we headed off.
I grabbed a baguette, then we were led by the boat captain to his longtail boat, where we joined other slightly bewildered tourists on the long 25km journey up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. It took nearly 2 hours to get there. The limestone cliff views along the river are certainly impressive, but the cave itself isn’t particularly interesting. The lower part of the limestone cliff cave is full of Buddha images, left by visitors. There are hundreds of them, of all sizes and styles. After taking some photos, we continued up to the upper cave, Tham Phum. This cave required a flashlight, but as other people had flashlights in the cave anyway, it really wasn’t necessary. Local children begged for money quite aggressively, their mothers lying in wait, the beginning of a lifetime of dependency. Everything cost money, from the flashlight to the toilet – and prices were high. The place has unfortunately become a terrible tourist trap, and is more of an unpleasant experience than one I would recommend. Never go there. We went back as the sun was setting, and the chilly wind went through my body, making me shiver and taunting me with my imagined onset of flu. It was a Christmas Day like no other, for sure, but I was glad to be getting back to the town to get ready for Christmas Dinner. We got back just in time to catch the sunset over the Mekong, which was beautiful, even though I was distracted from trying to stem the flow from my streaming nose.
Crystal and I headed back to the Guesthouse, got changed, and headed out for Christmas Dinner. The day before, I had picked a lovely white colonial-era building that was doing a proper xmas dinner with all the trimmings. I’d booked a balcony seat, and we had a lovely turkey dinner. For me, it was a naturally special moment, and for Crystal, it was another new experience. I had a couple of glasses of wine, and felt very satisfied. We struggled on to another bar, a small roadside bar that served great mojitos. We had a couple each, then headed back to the guesthouse. Merry Christmas!