Where do I begin/To tell the story of how great a love can be/The sweet love story that is older than the sea/The simple truth about the love she brings to me/Where do I start
With her first hello/She gave new meaning to this empty world of mine/There’d never be another love, another time/She came into my life and made the living fine/She fills my heart -Andy Williams “Love Story”
Really, it’s a good question: Where do I begin with this one — to tell the story of a brief, but intense affair?
Her name was Ping Pong (not kidding) and she was somewhere in her 40s (female elephants live to an average of around 80). As I mentioned in my last post, Victor and I decided to go visit some four-legged friends. Since I had seen animals treated and exploited in all sorts of ways while living in Asia, I made sure to do some research. All Lao Travel‘s elephant mahout lodge was recommended and all of the elephants there have been rescued. Our guide told us that many of them were used in illegal logging operations and horribly over-worked. Elephants are amazing animals. They are so large, but at the same time all of the ones we spent time with had a gentle quality about them. So it really is heartbreaking how some people treat them.
The days of hard labor are over and these days they give silly tourists rides and the silly tourists feed them bananas. At first Victor and I rode in a howdah (fun new word), a platform seat with railing and canopy. We went through the woods with our guide steering the elephant and each of us giving it a try too. Later on in the day, it was time for a more solo ride. We stood on a platform and the elephants walked up to us and we slid right on, no seat or anything. To be honest with you, my thighs hurt a bit the next day — sitting on an elephant requires a bit of stretching before and after. Our guide grabbed my camera and off we went.
We walked to the river where our buds were schedule for bath time. As it turned out, Ping Pong knew the command for splash and it was a trying time in our relationship:
The convergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers around Luang Prabang makes for a beautiful view. But after a day or two of strolling and lounging at cafes, you get this urge to get on a boat. We decided to take a day trip around Luang Prabang and go visit some large four-legged friends while we were at it. Lonely Planet recommended All Lao Travel, so we picked one of the many tours offered and were very happy with the result. Our day began on the river. It was still a bit cool but the heat was beginning to creep in. The engine was making a lot of noise, but there is something about going up the Mekong that makes everything seem serene.
Our first stop on the boat trip was Ban Xang Hai, known as the whiskey village. This whole village caters to tourists on boat trips. Store and home fronts are filled with scarves, whiskey, and other souvenirs. Vendors can be a bit aggressive, but then I’m really not easily swayed.
If you walk past it all, we found a Buddhist temple that had a neat collection of old photos:
I’ll be honest with you: I knew nothing about Laotian food before I traveled to Laos. And I have no clue why I didn’t because there is a large Hmong population in my hometown, but only one restaurant I have heard of since. Lao cuisine is delicious and different from neighboring Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam (sorry never got to Burma to eat). The French influence is very noticeable in Laos with baguettes easily found and several French restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Because I heard so many great things from Chloe, I decided that Victor and I would take a cooking class at Tamarind, a restaurant and cooking school, in Luang Prabang.
We arrived in Luang Prabang around lunchtime and decided to eat at Tamarind. The lunch was fantastic, so that boded well for our class. One of the first things that I noticed about Lao cuisine was sticky rice. Sticky rice comes with almost every meal and when people eat with their hands, they use the rice as a base to scoop up other food. We ordered a combination plate (pictured above) which came with Lao sausage, a jerky and few small pickled salads. Lao cuisine uses plenty of fresh herbs, but I was most surprised to encounter dill, an herb I associate with Eastern European cooking. It was so hot when we arrived in Luang Prabang I had to order a cucumber salad too:
Cooking sticky rice in special bamboo baskets:
A PiA fellow who has lived in Laos for many years recommended Lao Kitchen in Vientiane. As the hotel manager circled the location for me on a map he said, “Good choice.” And it certainly was.
Lao sausage with a delicious dipping sauce and plenty of dill:
A laap salad, consists of minced meat, pleanty of herbs and a kick of heat from some chili:
Breakfast in Luang Prabang — if I had to liken it to anything, I would call it a rice noodle savory breakfast crepe:
If I ever disappear and you can’t find me, try looking in Luang Prabang, Laos. I’ll be there at a cafe sitting at one of the outside tables in the shade. I’ll have a cup of coffee on the table and a croissant on a stylish plate. I’ll have a book open on my knee, but I won’t be reading it. I’ll be people watching as the afternoon light dances in between tree branches and the occasional sound of a motorbike passing in the background gently interrupts my permanent slide into day dreams. That’s Luang Prabang, and that’s where I’ll be.
Luang Prabang really sticks out in my mind as one of the most laid-back, beautiful places I have ever visited. The city feels like an island because it is surrounded by the Mekong River on one side and the Nam Khan on the other. Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame wrote a piece I really enjoyed about how she never wants to go back to Luang Prabang and ruin what she had and remembers.
The city is famous for 33 beautiful temples and the monks who live in the town and receive offerings early in the mornings. Old French villas from the colonials days are being restored creating a fusion of East meets West in the heart of the East:
I’ll be honest with you, Laos, like Sri Lanka, wasn’t really on my radar when I moved to Asia. Then my friend Chloe went to Laos. When she came back, she told me, “You have to go.” Over a cup of coffee I listened to her talk about the charming old town of Luang Prabang and delicious French food. She also brought me back a pot of delicious black currant jam. I was sold. I contacted another PiA fellow who had been living in the capital, Vientiane, for a few years. She recommended a spot on NYTimes 36 Hours piece to start exploring. As I read more, I would encounter some dark pieces involving the Communist government. This piece was especially interesting and I recommend it to anyone before going. To put it in super simplistic terms, Laos is a complicated place. The landlocked country gets overlooked by many Americans today, yet, as the NYTimes piece notes, “Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped over two million tons of ordnance over Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.” As we strolled the night market in Vientiane, passing tables with dolls and beautiful embroidery, we also passed many with jewelry made from leftover bombs.
We had a full day to explore Vientiane, but, unfortunately, that day was a Monday. The famous Pha That Luang (Great Stupa) was closed. So instead we stayed in the center of town and visited Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in the city. I could have spent hours here looking at all of the small Buddhas.
The French descended on Laos in the 19th century and their legacy is still present:
Vientiane even has its own Arc de Triomphe. Patuxai, or the Victory Monument, was built in 1969 and Lonely Planet had this interesting description that it was built “with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport; hence expats refer to it as the ‘vertical runway.'”