There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Friday, 28 February 2014

Phonsavan, the Plain of Jars and Unexploded Ordnance: Part 14 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

27/02/2014

After breakfast we set off with N on the twenty minute drive from Phonsavan to Muang Khoun, the former provincial capital of Xieng Khuang, and before that the royal capital of the Kingdom of Xieng Khuang. The drive took us through a rolling landscape of rich agricultural land. Although many fields had been planted with rice, many others were fallow and some contained lines of ponds. These features - and the state of the Muang Khoun - are consequences of the Hidden War.
 
'Ponds'
Bomb craters, Xieng Khaung Province
From 1964 to February 1973 Laos was bombed by the Americans, at first to support the Royalists in the civil war against the communist Pathet Lao (now the government) and later to disrupt the movement of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh trail into South Vietnam. Despite never declaring war, nor officially fighting on the Royalist side, the United States flew 580,944 sorties and dropped 2,093,100 tonnes of high explosive on Laos – an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes for eight years making Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the world. Even these staggering figures conceal a further truth; there was no bombing in Vientiane, where the Lao government was the recipient of huge quantities of American aid, nor in Luang Prabang. The vast bulk of this deluge of death fell on a small corner in the south east and on Xieng Khuang province in the north east. The ponds we saw were bomb craters, the fallow fields were too full of unexploded ordinance to be safely worked.

 


I shall return to the UXO (unexploded ordinance) problem later, but for the moment back to Muang Khoun. In the sixteenth century, as the royal capital of Xieng Khuang, the city boasted 62 gilded stupas. Only a couple are left and That Dam, the largest and best preserved, sits, blackened and holed, behind a row of wooden shop-houses at the town’s entrance. It was damaged by invaders and the ravages of time not American bombs. Thai and Vietnamese armies marched across this plain and Chinese bandits pillaged it, stripping the gold from the stupas and digging a hole right through That Dam in the belief it contained treasure. These marauders may have lacked the Americans fire power, but they did not lack their destructive zeal - though most lacked their sanctimonious self-justification.

That Dam, Muang Khoun

Muang Khoun just about survived these depredations. After the Kingdom of Xieng Khaung passed it became the provincial capital until it was destroyed by American bombing and the provincial capital was moved to Phonsavan. Muang Khoun is now little more than a village.

Muang Khoun

The locals still pay reverence to a Buddha statue that once sat inside a temple. There is little left of the temple, but the statue has been carefully reassembled, at least as much of it as survived has, and its smile remains enigmatically lop-sided. N was keen to tell us the Americans deliberately targeted the temple, but I am sceptical about that; more likely they did not give a 4X what they hit, and that in a way makes it worse.

The remains of Muang Khoun Temple and Buddha statue
A short distance away we visited the remains of a house built by the French and destroyed by the Americans. N said it was a hospital, other sources describe it as a colonial villa, and the colonial administrators certainly found these cooler hill stations easier places to be than the steamy plain. It looks more like a villa than a hospital to me, but whatever it was it was comprehensively destroyed.

Whether it was a French hospital or villa it has been comprehensively destroyed, Muang Khoun
From Muang Khoun we drove back towards to Phonsavan to ‘Jar Site 1’. Large stone jars anything up to two metres tall are found all over Xieng Khaung province, but there are three major agglomerations of which Jar Site 1 is the largest.

Among the jars, Plain of Jars, Site 1

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of jars sit on undulating grassland. Who put them here and what for remains a mystery, but it was a time consuming task and obviously important to someone. Best current guess is that they were placed here some two thousand years ago. Local legend has it that a race of giants stored their whisky in them - there are many jars which explains why no-one remembers the party. Archaeologists, prosaic as ever, suggest they were used in funerary practices - the largest jars would easily accommodate a full grown man in foetal position, but exactly how they were used is anybody's guess. Any information held in the archives of the kingdom of Xieng Khuang went up in smoke along with rest of Muang Khoun in the 1970s.
Lynne with one of the larger jars, Plain of Jars, Site 1
 
N showed us a cave used as a shelter during bombing raids, a direct hit, he said, led to the deaths of some 200 people and it is now a shrine. It may have been used as a bomb shelter, but the holes in the roof N pointed out are, according to other sources, natural and ancient. It may once have been used as a crematorium, and the human remains found outside were of people not important enough to qualify for a jar. Like everything else about the Plain of Jars, this is conjecture.
 
The cave which may have been a crematorium, Plain of Jars

N sat in the shade while we wandered about the site. He had not been the most active of guides and his information seemed as unreliable as his work ethic.

 
A jar with a lid. Did they once all have lids? Nobody knows.
Plain of Jars, Site 1 
I do not, though, doubt the intensity of the bombing, which is corroborated by many sources. It was also obvious. Jars lay on their sides, many smashed or damaged and although some of this may have happened over the centuries, there was no doubting the grassed over bomb craters liberally scattered amongst them.
 
Bomb crater on the Plain of Jars

There were also many small concrete markers. MAG (Mines Advisory Group - web site here) are a British based charity who, as part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, were co-recipients of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. They are currently taking the lead in clearing mines and unexploded ordnance in thirteen countries, including Laos. Each plaque represents an item of unexploded ordnance removed by MAG - the whole jar site has been meticulously swept as foreign tourists will, the authorities hope, bring in money, so not blowing us up is a priority. We were, though, advised not to wander into the long grass, nor to pick up or kick at any unidentified object or piece of metal lying around. We took the warning seriously.
 
Mines Advisory Group marker, Plain of Jars

We walked all over the site, spending an hour or more, but the only other visitor we saw was a middle-aged Frenchwomen talking to N. She had come from Vientiane and wanted to go to Luang Prabang and N was arranging to take her next day after dropping us at the airport for our flight to Vientiane. She seemed a brave lady travelling on her own, but we were sure she would be safe with N and his driver, so it seemed a good idea.
 
The jars stretch of into the distance, Plain of Jars, Site 1
Back in Phonsavan we dropped in on the Tourist Information Office. They were closed, but we had only come to see their collection of shells and bomblets, just a tiny fraction of the UXOs that had been collected locally and made safe.

Shells outside the Tourist Information Centre, Phonsavan

We lunched in a Phonsavan noodle shop, basic Lao fare but tasty and wholesome.


Lunch in Phonsavan
I have no idea  why am I looking so sour - we had not opened N's the envelope yet
 

After an active morning, at least by his standards, N had the afternoon off, but first he handed over the travel agent's assessment sheet. He had been the least impressive of our guides on this trip and we intended to write a mildly uncomplimentary report, but on opening the envelope we found he had given us the wrong piece of paper. What we had was an email from Laos Airlines to the travel company informing them that our plane to Vientiane the next day had been rescheduled from 11.00 to 15.00. Our wondering about when he intended to tell us turned into the unworthy thought that perhaps he meant to drop us at the airport at 10.00 and head off to Luang Prabang with his new fare, leaving us to discover the rescheduling for ourselves.
Phonsavan

Deciding to leave tomorrow’s problem to tomorrow, we took a walk through Phonsavan. If Luang Prabang was the epitome of cutesy charm, Phonsavan was an exemplar of the plain and workaday. There is a building boom, but that did not deter a donkey from wandering down the main street searching for something to nibble. We passed shops selling tyres, car parts, clothes, shoes, religious objects and football shirts - the tentacles of the Premier League (and Barça) reach even to this backwater.
 
Football shirts on sale, Phonsavan

That evening in the hotel restaurant, after a nourishing glass of pastis I cracked and ordered a European meal, the pork steak and chips Lynne had so much enjoyed yesterday. I was disappointed with myself, I do try to eat local all the time, but I enjoyed it.
 
28/02/2104
 
N arrived in the morning aware that he had given us the wrong document. His plan was leave to us at the hotel for the morning and send someone to pick us up for the flight. Meanwhile, we suspected, he would be taking his unofficial fare paying passenger back to Luang Prabang. This was not acceptable; without transport we would have been stuck in the hotel, so we demanded he show us more of Xieng Khaung province. The countryside, dotted with villages of the Hmong and other ethnic minorities, would, we felt, be worth exploring.

Reluctantly he agreed and after a delay while he phoned the airport in the vain hope that the situation might have changed, we set off. We drove around for a while but N failed to find anything interesting, maybe he did not want to, or maybe he did not know the area well enough but an hour later we were back in Phonsavan.

We took charge and directed the driver to the MAG Visitor Centre which we had spotted earlier.

MAG Visitor Centre, Phonsavan
While looking around their exhibition we were asked if we had seen the film Bomb Harvest. We had not, so we sat alone in their thirty seat cinema and watched the 2007 documentary by Australian film maker Kim Mordaunt.

It is a powerful piece describing why local people are living with danger and how it affects them and also showing MAG training up its local bomb disposal teams, including several all-women teams.

Unexploded ordnance is a problem after all wars. A hundred years after the First World War the so-called ‘iron harvest’ continues and both the French and Belgian armies maintain facilities for dealing with it. Casualties are now rare, but last March two Belgian construction workers were killed by a WW1 bomb.

With 22,000 casualties since hostilities ended, the problem in Laos is far greater, partly because the war is more recent and the country less developed but mainly because of the wholesale use of cluster bombs, a technology unavailable in 1914-18.

Bomb casings, like those stacked outside the Tourist Information Office, are designed to open as they fall scattering small bomblets into the ground. 270 million such bomblets were dropped on Laos of which around 80 million failed to detonate and remain live to this day. Locally called bombies (pronounced bom-bees), they are painted yellow and slightly smaller than a tennis ball, the sort of thing a child would pick up and play with - to deadly effect.

Cluster bomb casings, Tourist Information Office, Phonsavan
They lurk on the ground and in the wet season they work their way down into the soil, and the next wet season they may work their way further down or back up unpredictably. Bombie education is an important topic in all schools, children know what to do and who to tell when they find one, but still 40% of the casualties over the last decade have been children. Farmers live in poverty because their fields are too dangerous to plough, and even in those that have been returned to use, a plough share can one day hit a bombie that it has missed every previous year.
 
The MAG teams are clearing ten thousand bombies a year – at this rate Laos will be free of the things in 8,000 years. The work is funded by the government of Laos, some international governmental aid and charitable donations. Only very recently has the United States made any contribution, and even then it is pitifully small.

We left the film impressed by the work if the clearance teams, marvelling at the stoical acceptance of the local people, and angry about the earlier actions and present inactions of the United States. You do not have to spend long in Southeast Asia to realise that American policy in the sixties and seventies was disastrous. Their interventions in support of corrupt regimes prolonged civil wars and ratcheted up the death count without affecting the eventual outcomes. But I doubt that even the fiercest hawks intend to be killing people forty years after hostilities had ceased, nor did they intend to blow apart children whose parents were not even born when the fighting stopped. If I am right, they should accept their responsibility and make a serious contribution to clearing up their deadly mess.
 
Cluster bombs are an indiscriminate and vindictive weapon and in any sane world they would be banned. It took until 2008 to produce the Convention on Cluster Munitions that does just that. It has been signed by 89 countries, including all members of the European Union but excluding the US, Russia and China. Wikipedia quotes Stephen Mull, in 2008 the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, as saying "Cluster munitions are available for use by every combat aircraft in the U.S. inventory, they are integral to every Army or Marine maneuver element and in some cases constitute up to 50 percent of tactical indirect fire support. U.S. forces simply cannot fight by design or by doctrine without holding out at least the possibility of using cluster munitions." To which I say, ‘Shame on you Stephen Mull; shame on you USA.’

Back upstairs we bought some MAG tee shirts, made a donation and staggered out into the sunshine still feeling angry and upset. To restore some normality we told N to ask the driver to take us to the town market.

It was a typical market selling agricultural tools - unlike the gardening department at B & Q you are expected to provide your own handle - ....
 

Tools, Phonsavan market
…and a wide selection of fruit and vegetables, some we recognized and some we did not.
 
Fruit and veg, Phonsavan market

And at the end were a couple of local specialities, squirrel and swallows.

Swallows (on the left) and squirrels, Phonsavan market
 After that it was time for lunch where, sadly, neither squirrel nor swallow appeared on the menu.

It was finally time to go to the airport and let N get on his way. A kilometre of two outside Phonsavan, Xieng Khoun airport is a contender for the World’s Smallest Commercial Airport. We mistook the hut below for the entrance, but actually that is all there is - and with one flight a day to and from Vientiane it is probably enough. Small it might be, but it is a powerful job creation scheme requiring two people to check us in, a third to pick up our cases, place them on the scales and then move them to the X-Ray machine. Someone else moved them off the machine and onto a trolley and yet another person drove the trolley out to the plane. There was also an official to check everybody’s identity card (or passport in our case) and stamp our boarding cards.
 
Xieng Khuon Airport
All this to put thirty passengers on a small turbo prop plane. Laos Airlines do not have the finest safety record, but our Chinese designed and built MA 60 aircraft took off on time (according to the revised schedule anyway) and landed in Vientiane an uneventful hour later.


 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Luang Prabang to Phonsavan: Part 13 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

Waking around six and hearing the gong that signals the monks barefoot walk through the streets, we pulled on some clothes and for once went to watch from street level instead of from our balcony. Most of the kneeling women (and they were all women) were placing small handfuls of cooked sticky rice in the monks' begging bowls.
 
Some younger monks receive their alms, dawn in Luang Prabang

I assume all this donated rice gets eaten, but although rice alone may have sustained monks - and most of the people - a hundred years ago, people today, monks included, expect a more varied diet with rather more protein. Where this comes from I have no idea.

The line of monks stretches into the distance, dawn in Luang Prabang
N and the driver arrived at 8.30 by which time we were, breakfasted, checked-out and ready for the long drive to Phonsavan.

South East Asia
We set off down Highway 13, heading south towards Vientiane on a two lane tarmac road, mostly in good condition. Not far out of Luang Prabang we started to climb into the mountains; there were few hairpins, but the road twisted and turned as it hugged the valley sides. Some dwellings clearly showed that northern Laos has more than its share of poverty, but there were a surprising number of satellite dishes on display.
 
Yet another satellite dish, Highway 13 south of Luang Prabang
Villages lined the roadside. Some were equipped with water pumps, clearly labelled as donations from the Singapore based charity World Vision. They were being put to good use; we saw several people washing themselves or their children under the pumps, while elsewhere villagers were carrying water home in buckets on carry-poles – sometimes with a child in a sling as well.

Two water buckets and a child in a sling, Highway 13 south of Luang Prabang
The driver put his foot down where he could in an endeavour to keep the long journey as short as possible, but the continuous breaking and accelerating, not to mention twisting one way and then the other left me feeling queasy. My request for a halt meant that we could walk through a village and take a nosy gawp at the houses and people, who seemed happy enough to wave and smile as we passed.

Roadside village, Highway 13 north of Phou Khoun, Laos
Approaching Phou Khoun we passed a convention centre.  Surrounded by a phalanx of heavily armed soldiers, groups of men in suits and senior army officers, their uniforms dripping with gold braid, were talking as they waited for their drivers.
 
The junction of Highway 13 and Highway 7, Phou Khoun

Phou Khoun is a small town on the junction where Highway 7 to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars leaves the Luang Prabang to Vientiane road. In July 1964 Phou Khoun had been the objective of Operation Triangle, an attack carried out by the Royal Lao Army and allied Hmong militia, covertly financed, organised and ‘advised’ by the Americans. The intention was to remove the communist Pathet Lao from Phou Khoun and open up the road to the Plain of Jars. Three units with air support and a Thai artillery battalion converged on Phou Khoun, one from Vientiane, one following the route we had taken from Luang Prabang and the Hmong Militia approaching down Highway 7. The Operation was partly successful, Phou Khoun was taken but the Pathet Lao remained in control of the road to their stronghold on the Plain of Jars. A couple of days later the Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the pretext for the US to become more involved in Vietnam and they lost interest in the ground war in Laos.
 
Phou Khoun Market

Although we had been travelling slightly slower, or at least at a more even speed, we reached the town too early for lunch – at least by our standards; locals will eat any time after eleven – so we took a walk through the market, which was interesting, as all such markets are.
 
Taro in Phou Khoun market

We ate beef and noodles – not quite Vietnamese pho, but pretty good anyway - at a basic restaurant. Like Cambodians, the Lao tend to use fork and spoon for rice dishes, but chopsticks for noodles and except in European orientated restaurants a cache of chopsticks is available on every table.

Noodle soup, Phou Khoun
Several large cars with tinted windows rolled down the street, and gold braided soldiers walked past with their bodyguards, but there were also a few old men dressed in rarely-worn suits, a little crumpled and a size too large, but with a medal, sometimes two, pinned to their lapels. These, unlike the self-important men with gold braid and a chestful of medals, were the real heroes of the revolution.

A soldier sat on guard outside the restaurant, a Kalashnikov across his knees. I never like seeing people with guns, even if they are supposed to be on my side - if there is no danger why guard me? - but I assumed his presence was part of the heightened security for the convention rather than a reflection of the local situation generally. The man slouched beneath the shade of the restaurant's awning – we found his relaxed attitude reassuring.

Main street, Phou Khoun
After lunch we turned down Highway 7, which wound its way higher and higher into the mountains. Here many of the inhabitants were of the Hmong ethnic minority. We had met the Chinese Hmong in 2010 (here and preceding posts), and the Vietnamese Hmong in 2012, now we found ourselves among the Lao Hmong. 5 million Hmong live across Southeast Asia speaking a variety of related languages. To the outsider, ‘Hmong’ seems to cover a wide range of people without very much in common.

Dwellings beside Highway 7, east of Phou Khoun
Locally, Hmong houses are constructed with large eaves, some sweeping down the ground, they are usually thatched, and there is almost always a small house facing the main one used for storing rice. Some were very folksy and picturesque, unfortunately the only one I got a decent photograph of was constructed from more modern and prosaic materials.
 
Hmong dwelling beside Highway 7 east of Phou Khoun
We stopped at a village where a modern concrete bridge crosses the Nam Minh, a small river that comes bouncing along its stony bed from high in the mountains. Upstream children were playing in the water…..

Some get to play in the river.....
Nam Minh River
…while below us two girls squatted by the water’s edge washing up a small mountain of dishes, pots and pans. N pointed out the two sections to the village, one Lao the other Hmong. They live side by side, but keep largely within their own communities.

...while others have to work
Nam Minh River
Up to that point N had been of little use, indeed he had been asleep most of the day, occasionally opening his eyes to point out something of interest. On one occasion he woke up pointed to the roadside, said 'Cow,' and went back to sleep. I am not convinced I need to employ a guide to identify large ruminants for me.

We walked through the village and paused outside a shop where a man was barbecuing small fish and some attractive hunks of lean venison for a hungry customer. N pointed out the deer's head on the table by the barbecue. Poaching is illegal, he told us, but sometimes deer can be legally shot. He looked unconvinced about this one, but as the village police station was directly across the road it was obviously either legal or the local constable was the proud owner of a judiciously large slab of deer.

Barbecuing fish and venison by Highway 7
East of Phou Khoun
As we drove on Lynne was looking at the Rough Guide. 'Isn't this Highway 7?' she asked. I agreed it was. 'It says here,' she continued, 'that Highway 7 has been the scene of much bandit activity.' I had read the guide earlier, so I knew this. I also knew there had been no attacks for over a decade and the authorities believed the problem had been dealt with. 'Can you see any bandits?' I asked. 'No.' she replied. 'Neither can I.' I said, and indeed there were none.

In late afternoon we stopped climbing. We had reached Xieng Khouang Province, usually described as a plain surrounded by higher peaks. The word ‘plain’ is misleading, it is undulating rather than flat, more like a lowland area than the highland plateau it is. The area seems isolated, but it is rich agricultural land and has been a crossroads on the routes of trade and human migration for millennia. Xieng Khoung is home to the mysterious Plain of Jars, but more recently it was a stronghold of the Pathet Lao insurgents (they have been the government of Laos since 1975) and a staging post on the Ho Chi Minh trail. This recent history cost, and is still costing the inhabitants dearly (more next post).

 
We reach Xieng Khouang Province
Phonsavan, the new provincial capital with some 35,000 inhabitants is a long thin town strung out along the highway. If Luang Prabang exudes cutesy charm, Phonsavan is the epitome of workaday dullness. There are large houses at the entrance of the town, well built and elegant but they are set among builders' yards and workshops. ‘Location, location, location’ is not an idea that has reached Xieng Khoun yet.

Phonsavan
Our hotel was up a side road from the main drag, a couple of hundred metres along an unmade road up a small rise. There was a central administration block with a restaurant and a couple of accommodation blocks in what had the potential to be an attractive garden. Our room looked out across the Plain of Jars to the distant hills and a group of trees climbing the skyline like a line of elephants holding each other's tails.

Looking across Phonsavan from our hotel balcony to the 'elephant-like' trees
Not fancying the unlit road in the dark, we decided to eat in the hotel, which we rarely do and is usually a mistake, but not on this occasion. Most of the other European guests made the same decision, though there were less than a dozen of us.

We started with a glass of pastis - a favourite of ours, but hard to find outside France and even harder at such a decent price. The menu was Franco-Lao; we both had pork, mine Lao-style with ginger, while Lynne had a pork chop and chips. It was good to see her eating properly for the first time for a week, and she thoroughly enjoyed her meal.



Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Luang Prabang (3) Elephants: Part 12 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

We rose early to watch the monks receive their daily alms.

video
 

After breakfast we left Luang Prabang for our half day elephant experience. After driving northeast for half an hour beside the Nam Khan River (which flows into the Mekong at Luang Prabang) we turned down a dirt road, followed it through a village and entered the elephant sanctuary.


Breakfast time in the elephant sanctuary
 
The Kingdom of a Million Elephants was always an overstatement, but Laos is now estimated to be home to only 1600 elephants. 600 of these work in the declining logging industry and face redundancy within the next few years, which means they will be put down or left to fend for themselves. Domesticated elephants are incapable of returning to the wild, so sanctuaries like this are the only hope for retired and superfluous elephants.

Seven female elephants are kept on site. One is a nursing mother so she is separated from the rest, another is pregnant and excused giving rides, leaving five working.
 
'I'm having my breakfast, you can have a ride when I've finished.'
 A young man called Sou Kan was delegated to look after us for the morning, so we walked around the reception area and read all the information while he organised us an elephant and a mahout.

We were introduced to Mai Ham Tong, who seemed an admirable elephant with a trusting look in her eye. We climbed the gantry and slid ourselves into the wobbling wooden howdah strapped to her back. Our previous elephant ride in southern India had involved sitting one behind the other on the beast's back where we felt secure and safe, but the howdah swayed alarmingly with every lumbering step.
Elephants ready to work
A man with 'mahout' across the back of his tee shirt clambered nimbly onto Ham Tong's neck and we set off through the sanctuary garden.

We had gone 50m when Ham Tong stopped, turned sideways and refused to continue. The mahout dismounted, walked into her eye-line and issued some strict orders. Ham Tong ignored him. She seemed unhappy and I wondered about our chances of survival in a flimsy, unstable howdah on a bolting elephant – despite their preference for a slow plod they are capable of speeds of 40kph or more.

I would have been happier if the mahout had stayed on the elephant rather than standing several metres away, but I assumed he was a professional and knew what he was doing.
 
He shouted at the elephant again and Ham Tong broke wind. Sitting on a farting elephant sounds, and feels, remarkably like sitting on a revving motorbike. Then there was a heavy plopping sound. Once Ham Tong had done her jumbo sized business she forgot about her rebellion and continued calmly on her way.

At the end of the garden we turned down a steepish slope towards the river, the mahout returned to his perch on her neck and I relaxed. Ham Tong now seemed contented, but even a fractious elephant cannot charge through water and if we did fall off, unlikely though that was, we would land in the Nam Khan which is, clean, clear and only waist deep.
 
Ham Tong turns right towards the river
As we neared the water I realised that my calm was not shared by Lynne. My attitude was entirely rational (of course, when is it not?) but Lynne has an unreasonable and exaggerated fear of water. I made reassuring noises but all she would say as the elephant lumbered down the slipway was 'let me out' - an impracticable suggestion as we had required a gantry to get on and would require another to get off.

Once Ham Tong entered the water and turned to walk downstream the steady rhythmic plodding made Lynne calmer.


Ham Tong wades into the Nam Khan River
We reached a stony shoal dividing the river into two streams. The mahout hopped off, asked for our camera and proceeded to take 30 or more pictures as the now perfectly behaved elephant trudged across the shoal. He did a good job, too, most are nicely framed and he ensured the sun was always at his back.


Trudging along the stony shoal, Nam Khan River

Returning our camera he hopped back on board and Ham Tong waded ashore where a path ascended to the nearby village. As we lumbered through the village, Ham Tong paused to eat some newly cut banana leaves and the mahout plucked a bright red flower and inserted it into the cavity elephants conveniently have just above their cheekbones.

 
The mahout indicates the crossing point
At the end of the village we returned to the elephant sanctuary.


Back towards the sanctuary
 Kan greeted our return, 'have some tea or coffee,’ he said, indicating a table with an urn and some cups, 'and then we'll go and see the baby elephant'.

 
Ham Tong sports her flower, her morning's work over
As I reached out to pick up the jar of coffee another hand reached out and then dropped. 'Sorry,' said an American voice behind me, 'I didn't mean to cut in.' 'That's alright,' I said. 'Anyway,' the American voice continued 'I'd assumed you were having tea.' ‘We don't have to act like stereotypes all the time,’ I told her, put a spoonful of coffee in a cup for Lynne and then, as I am no fan of instant coffee, picked up the Lao tea. So am I a stereotype after all? A spoonful of Lao tea leaves floating in a cup of hot water is, I think, far enough removed from a Tetley's teabag not to count.

We carried our cups over to a gazebo with a wonderful view over the river and the jungle beyond. I doubt there can be a better place to sit and sip tea.


The view from the gazebo
Afterwards we joined Kan and walked down the slope Mae Ham Tong had taken earlier. At the bottom a pirogue was waiting to take us over the river - the first time on the whole trip that we used an appropriately sized boat.


Across the Nam Khan by pirogue
On the other side we walked through a teak plantation.........
 
Through a teak plantation
beside the Nam Khan River
 ......and then through the forest to reach the clearing where young Maxi was kept with his mother.


Forestry workers with the versatile two-wheeled tractor
so common in SE Asia
 He is a lively young chap with a tendency to misbehave so he is kept in a stockade while there are visitors. Still suckled by his mother he also eats solid food - maize stalks garnished with banana leaves being the dish of the day. An adult elephant needs 250Kg of food daily (plus 200 litres of water) so they are expensive to keep. Maxi may be small, but he had a very firm grip with his young trunk.


Maxi and his mother
Returning to our pirogue we pottered upstream for 20 minutes and disembarked near the Tad So falls.


Lynne boards the pirogue for the next stage upstream
The path up from the river brought us to a clearing with another elephant compound and, in front of it, a group of young men playing boules.

Received wisdom is that when the French discovered the upper Mekong was not navigable and that anyway El Dorado was not there, they lost interest in the landlocked third of their Indo-Chinese colony and ruled with a light touch and very few French administrators. It is surprising, then, that Laos has apparently retained more French influences than either Vietnam or Cambodia. There are more French buildings and French restaurants, French is routinely used alongside English and Lao on menus in tourist areas, Lao hotel breakfasts (in Luang Prabang and later in Phonsavon and Vientiane) were all based on good quality French-style bread, filled baguettes are widely available, pastis can be enjoyed in bars and restaurants at reasonable prices, Vientiane (we discovered later) has shops selling a wide range of French wine at reasonable prices, and here were people playing boules. 'I have one at home,' Kan said indicating the boulodrome. 'I play with my friends in the evenings and the loser buys the beer.' Human behaviour can be remarkably similar across continents.

 
Playing boules in the Lao jungle
 
The Tad So falls were a short distance beyond, where a stream rushes down the hillside in a series of steps on its way to join the Nam Khan. At least that is what happens in the rainy season. In February, as we had been warned, a few dribbles were still descending the hillside, but in a month or two it would dry up completely until the rains at the end of May.


The Tad So falls - not much to see
A narrow path can be followed to the stream’s source a four hour walk away. We ventured a little way along it - far enough into the jungle for me to feel like David Attenborough and to strike a pose, which fulfilled some sort of lifetime ambition.
 
My David Attenborough moment

We were gone long enough for Kan to come looking for us, obviously fearing we had been eaten by something ferocious.
 
A ferocious jungle resident

The pirogue took us back down stream for a buffet lunch that had been laid out long enough to have gone cold. It was not the highlight of the day; thank goodness Beer Lao can always be relied upon to be cheap and available.


Back downstream to the elephant sanctuary
 After lunch we drove the thirty minutes back to Luang Prabang and hid from the sun's worst excesses.

We went out again later, probably a little too early as we found the streets empty. Moving slowly through the blanket of heat, it still took us only five minutes to cross the old town from our hotel on the Mekong side to the Nam Khan side.

We reached the Nam Khan where it is spanned by a bamboo bridge. The bridge is rebuilt every year after the rainy season and the family responsible levies a 5000 kip (40p) toll.


Monks on the bamboo bridge, Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang
We paid up and crossed the bouncing bamboo bridge. Upstream the town's children had taken to the water and were splashing about or swimming - a pleasant activity in the heat of the afternoon.


Lynne on the bamboo bridge
Nam Khan River, Luang Prabang
 We found little on the other side. A lane ran up past the inevitable guesthouse where hens and chickens scrabbled in the dirt. We emerged in a quiet corner of the town and strolled as far as a small monastery beyond which the tarmac road led out onto the countryside.


We emerged in a quiet corner of Luang Prabang
It was not long before we bounced or way back over the bridge, discovering that our 5000 kip toll had paid for a return journey.

More people were appearing in the streets as we returned to the main drag and after our exertions it seemed appropriate to reward ourselves with a cold beer….
 
Xian Thong, Luang Prabang from our chosen café
….at a café with, I thought, a most enlightened approach to heathy eating and drinking.
 
Yep, that's my idea of healthy, too

Afterwards Lynne returned to the hotel while I wandered into one of Luang Prabang's many massage parlours. I should point out that massage is a respectable pastime in Laos, not a euphemism for something else, and I was going for a foot massage.

In 2005 our daughter had taken us both for a foot massage in Huizhou - she was a regular when she lived in China. It was a robust massage which Lynne decided involved more pain than gain, but I was prepared to give it another go.

40,000 kip (£3) is not a lot of money to pay for an hour’s undivided attention from a young lady in short shorts. The attention was, I repeat, given only to my feet (though occasionally venturing as far as my knees) and I was sitting in a shop window in a room where several others were undergoing the same process.


Foot massage, Luang Prabang
After giving my feet a good scrub - they probably needed it, but it did tickle – she rubbed them with oil, kneaded them, pummelled and beat them and poked them with a small ebony stick, blunt at one end and rounded into a dumbbell shape at the other. The time passed quickly and I went floating back to Lynne on rejuvenated feet that hardly seemed to touch the pavement.

I liked the massage, but the effect, like the Ayurvedic massage I had in India, lasted for a disappointingly short time. In the evening we tried to visit the restaurant we had intended to go to yesterday, but it was full. There was, however, space in a restaurant across the street, the tables laid out in a garden behind the building.

Lynne was better but still not much interested in eating so she ordered a plate of chips, while I chose chicken and herbs cooked in a folded banana leaf. It was pleasant, if small so I had a dessert, a pile of sticky rice with coconut milk and slices of mango. But for the mango, it was the grolan we had seen seen in Cambodia but here was not packed inside a bamboo tube [‘grolan’ is the Khmer word, in Lao it is ‘kao lan’ and we would eat it from the bamboo in Vientiane]. The dessert was alright, but I would have liked more coconut flavour, and less crunch in the rice.