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    Laos in a Betel Nutshell

    February 2nd, 2008 by mary

    Laos was a quiet and less populated country than its neighbors, by far. The capital Vientiane feels more like a resort town with its laid back atmosphere lack of traffic. There are plenty of expats living and thriving here to provide the comforts of western life amongst the stupas. The US embassy rep gave us a funny look for needing extra pages added to our already double wide passport.

    Vang Vieng is best described as spring break for wannabe backpackers. The main street is lined with open air restaurants blaring episodes of Friends and The Simpsons. The river right outside the otherwise dusty road town is one bamboo bar after another. The locals meanwhile take advantage of the dry season and drive their tractors to the middle of the river for gravel while others stoop over to collect river weed. The river weed is dried and compressed to look like thick seaweed then roasted and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It made me hurl for 24hrs.

    Luang Prabang was all about temples. Everywhere you walked there were monks going about their daily activities in their saffron robes and often matching umbrella to keep off the sun. The monk schools were packed with boys of all ages. Here more than anywhere else it seemed monkhood was a way to get an education.

    To get from the northern Laos town of Luang Prabang to the Thai border we would have to endure a two day journey by slow boat up the Mekong. Each day’s cruise started at 9am and ended just after 6pm. There were no stops along the way except to drop locals at their villages so we had to bring all snacks and beverages along, as well as entertainment. At least we were going against the grain of the travelers so we had space to spread out on the wooden boat. The boats going in the opposite direction were notorious for packing in 100 passengers on a 40 capacity boat so people had to fight for room and some slept on the piles of cargo and backpacks. We had less than 20. The first night we slept in a border style town with nothing but guesthouses and snack shops. The next day was full of rain and we had to put the tarps down to stay dry. At the end of the second day we arrived after the border closed so we had to wait until the next morning to make our third entry into Thailand.

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    Mahouting Around

    February 2nd, 2008 by mary

    In Laos and Thailand elephants are still being used in the logging industry despite animal rights activists. Some projects have popped up to try to save the ailing beasts of burden. One idea is to buy the sick and injured elephants away from the loggers and try to restore their health. To offset the costs of maintaining such large animals the ellies are then trained for their new job in tourism. We wanted to see for ourselves so we spent two days at a mahout camp. The herd was made of 8 adult girls and one baby boy. Physically they looked to be in good health and well fed. These Asian ones are much smaller than their African cousins, almost 3ft shorter. The shape of their heads, back and mouths are distinct as well. We rode on the necks and felt their bristly hair poking up at us. It’s not easy to stay balanced on a moving elephant. You can feel their shoulders alternating with their stride rocking you to and fro. And it feels like you’re sitting on a rotating turret swinging from side to side as the elephant takes in its surroundings. There’s nothing to hold onto except your will to not fall 8 feet to the ground and get trampled under foot. We walked them up the mountain where they spend the nights eating and sleeping. In the morning we met up and they gave us a lift down to the river to give them a bath. The mahouts gave us scrub brushes and though the elephants got cleaner we got dirtier. The adults went back up to camp to get ready for the next tourist rides while the baby was in a tyrate for being left behind. The mahouts found the girls wouldn’t work if the baby was around. The ellies and mahouts work for 14 days then get a day off. The elephants get their 200-400lbs of food a day and have medical supervision so most will live to the natural ripe old age of 65. Whereas ones stuck in logging only survive half that lifespan. Given that freedom is not an option the tourism gig seems a better life than logging.
    Surprisingly there are sparse wild elephants in the mountains but their days of freedom are numbered as people encroach on their territory

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    In the Belly of the Beast

    February 2nd, 2008 by mary

    Laos is cluttered with limestone mountains which is prime for caves. What better way to explore them than by innertube. In addition to the big rubber donut we were given headlamps, though Steve’s was as bright as Mars as seen with the naked eye standing in downtown San Jose. The battery pack was what killed me. They looked just like car batteries, except a quarter of the size and weight. They were attached to the lights by exposed wires and were made to hang from your neck. Supposedly they watertight and I was going to test that out as mine kept slipping into the water. There was a rope that we could pull ourselves into the cave with. The jagged entrance was no more than two feet high so you had to flatten yourself and exhale to pass through unscathed. The sunlight didn’t penetrate very far into the cavernous tunnel. The rope led us farther into the pitch with only our headlamps and echos to break the darkness. It was a good thing there were so many of us. Advancing along the rope while dodging the many head gashing traps in the meek light was trying enough then add keeping the camera out of the water to take video and I was at my multi-tasking limit. Next we hit a shallow flat with about six inches of water so we walked our tubes across. The cave was so low we had to stay bent. On the other side we hopped back onto our tubes but this time we linked up to form straight lines with the guide at the lead. I had to give up my light so he could navigate us as we went deeper in back first. With our shoes on our hands we all paddled slowly through the water like a caterpillar walking on water. The light from the other tubers’ lit up the cavern walls. They were twenty feet across, curved and smooth on the sides and came together in a jagged crevice ten feet overhead. That gave the illusion of a rib cage a spine. As Steve put it, we felt like Jonah inside the whale. It would’ve been nice to have a light but it was also a good idea not to look at the water or the cave too closely. Watching all those points of light dance on the curved tunnels lighting us various features and colors was mesmerizing. The guides sang soothing Laotian songs that echoed through the chambers as we paddled to the end then turned back. That was good, dark, wet bum fun.

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