As I prepared for my first major international expedition in years (a camping safari overland across Kenya and Uganda; check back soon for my reporting!), I couldn't help but to reflect on my last such expedition.
I planned a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos around an overnight stay at the Elephant Village Sanctuary and Resort. I was still a resident of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the time, so I took advantage of my closer proximity to Asia being based in the Gulf region (as compared to the East Coast of the United States) to visit destinations such as Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and of course, Laos.
After transferring in Bangkok, I boarded a rickety jet for Luang Prabang. The city is a UNESCO world heritage site given its rich Buddhist history and architecture. It was the seat of the Laotian government until the country’s turbulent revolution in the mid-20th century.
Laos’ economic development rankings are often among the lowest globally. Nonetheless, Luang Prabang’s friendly people, safe streets and scenic views of the PhouThao and PhouNang mountains make it a popular stop for international visitors.
I enjoyed some time browsing shops and shrines in the city’s center before spending Days 2 and 3 of my trip at the Sanctuary. It was founded to provide a home to aging elephants who might otherwise be overlooked (or worse) in a tourist industry unfriendly to elephants past their working prime. While the sanctuary does indulge tourists like me with rides and other fanfare, there are strict time limits and conditions that exist to mandate the animals’ well-being above all else.
My day began getting to bond with my elephant hosts through feeding and watering. Then, I toured the property on elephant-back (no seat or harness!) as a practice run before riding an elephant across the Mekong River, where she’d spend the night resting under the trees on the other side of the riverbank. My only point of reference prior to climbing onboard was my experience riding a camel a few years’ prior. I wrongly expected that the flat back of the elephant and wider girth, as compared to a camel, would make for a smoother ride. Instead, I was surprised at how incredibly unsettled I felt; though, I suppose I shouldn’t have been given that I was up at least ten feet in the air as the majestic creature traversed uneven terrain. I just about dug my nails into the poor elephant’s head to keep my balance as my legs splayed out across her broad fame. I was beyond sore the next day, similar to how the long holds in pilates activate the most hidden of muscles.
I fretted the whole time that I was hurting my elephant transporter by holding on for dear life, to which my Laotian guide laughed a bit too loudly. He said that the faint pressure I was applying to her massive skull and literal thick elephant hide was akin to someone brushing our skin with their nails - annoying maybe, but not painful.
I returned from the other side of the riverbank by boat in time for dinner. I was the only overnight guest on the property, which had no wifi or TVs. My modest room had a soft bed with softer yellow lighting and frayed yellowed magazines. In other words, it was heaven on earth to a corporate communicator with two smartphones who was always on call.
I ate my breakfast of coffee and porridge while watching farmers on the other side of the Mekong start their day in the fields. In the months immediately after my trip, I thought of them often as I was beginning my workday in front of a screen.
If “wobbly” is how I would describe my elephant ride, then “peaceful” is the most apt word for my time in Luang Prabang. I’ve been on enough stressful holidays to know how to appreciate the ones that are action-packed, but are still somehow replenishing.
Let’s see what my first trip to East Africa inspires!