Laos once was known as the land of a million elephants, but today authorities say only 1600 or so are left. About a third of them toil as slaves for the Laotian logging industry, hauling the heavy trees being taken from the forest. A handful of lucky pachyderms have been rescued from this servitude and transferred to sanctuaries. They still have to work for their keep, which is considerable (around 500 pounds of food per animal per day). But instead of 8-9 hours of daily heavy labor, they only have to put up with tourists for a part each day.

Steve and I got to meet some of these animals Wednesday, having impulsively signed up for the excursion the preceding day. An air conditioned van picked us up at 8:30 and drove us out into the country, where the Elephant Sanctuary leases land from the local authorities. The project we visited was started in 2003, we learned, brainchild of a visionary German. Over the years, the property has grown to encompass an exquisite cliff-top resort with manicured grounds and white-curtained cabanas that overlook the broad Nhom Khai river and fantastically dramatic distant mountains.

Some folks opted the ride their elephants across the river and give them baths. But the forest ride called to us..

We sat in one of the cabanas and sipped coffee while our guide, Cha Vang, told us a little of the history of the place. Then we walked down to the riverbank and hopped into a long-tail boat that ferried us to the other side.

One of the newer females in the compound gave birth 5 months ago to a mischievous little male christened Maksi. The two of them spend most of their time on long chains that give them a measure of freedom to enjoy the surrounding forest. But for a few hours every day they move to a small enclosure, There Steve and I and Londoners Dominic and Sophie (the two other members of our group) hand-fed small yellow bananas to the mother. She scarfed them down –skin, knobby stem, and all — like potato chips, but Maksi’s immature digestive system required that we peel the fruit before placing it in his eager, searching little trunk.


After a while, Steve and I climbed up onto one of two nearby bamboo platforms. From it, we had to step out and onto the howdah, the wooden bench strapped onto the back of Mea Khammee, our ride for the morning. Every elephant here has her own mahout, the trainer/driver who directs and controls her. Mae Khammee’s mahout slipped in front of the howdah, wrapping his legs around her neck. And then we were off.

I’ve traveled on the backs of horses, mules, and camels; I’ve ridden in cars, boats, trains, buses, and planes, big and small. To my mind, nothing beats being transported by elephant. Granted, it would be impractical on Garnet Avenue, not to mention the 405 freeway. But for moving up a rugged mountainside through a teak forest, it’s quiet. Soothing. Majestic.

After about an hour, Cha asked if either of us wanted to switch places with our mahout, to ride on Mea Khammee’s bare neck and from that position do our best to control her. I had a sudden vision of losing my balance and tumbling from that 10-foot perch, breaking a leg or my back and being paralyzed for life. So at first I demurred. But 20-something Sophie was slipping onto her elephant’s neck, calling out that it wasn’t bad, and I couldn’t resist seeing for myself.

The view over our mahout's shoulder

I stretched out my legs then inched my butt off the polished wooden bench; eased my legs around the rough gray curve. Then Mea Khammee was bearing all my weight, and the Laotians were urging me to move forward; to tuck my knees behind her ears.

And we were off! Rocking a bit, yes, and there was no saddle or rope or pommel to grip. But I found that if I rested my palms on the great round knobs that constitute the back of the elephant’s head, that was sufficient to steady me. More remarkable than the motion was the way I could feel her huge muscles moving beneath my thighs. She flapped her great ears often, and when she did, they gently slapped my bare knees and calves.

At first I was most aware of the sinewy motion of her neck muscles. But after a while, I sensed her legs beneath me too, each stride fluid and sure. If there’s an elephantine version of a centaur, I seemed to become that — my pelvis fused to her upper back, her great legs become mine. We trod on that path through that impenetrable profusion of green, and it gave me a new goal in life: to lie on my deathbed years from now, ancient and fading, and remember when I strode through Laos, half-elephant, half me.

Eventually, I inched back into the howdah, to return to a more prosaic state for our final ascent up the mountain and give Steve a chance at the elephant ecstasy (he declined). From the top, we hiked down. Before we did, we fed a bunch of bananas to Mea Khammee. She seemed to enjoy them, but to me it felt like miserly thanks.

Air v. ground in Laos

Steve and I like visiting capitol cities. We feel they offer important insights into any country. That’s why we wanted to have at least a few hours in Vientiane in Laos. You can get to the Laotian capitol via a sleeper train from Bangkok. Thus we found ourselves pulling out of Hualamphong Station on the #69 Saturday night.

Somewhere deep within my psyche lies buried the delusion that night trains are romantic, which is why I keep taking them when I have a chance. At one point Sunday morning, in the Nong Khai station in Thailand, near the Laotion border, we actually saw such a train, incarnate. Elegantly labeled with raised golden letters, the Eastern & Oriental Express had dining car after dining car, and when they rolled by, we glimpsed tables set with linens and flowers. All the passengers looked to be plump and wealthy and Caucasian. I imagine their private compartments were plush and cozy.

The train we didn't take

The train we took, in contrast, had just one dining car, with six tables and battered plastic menus. The fluorescent lighting was blue-tinged and grim. A cheerful waiter served meals that were better than most of the fare we get on airlines (though those Eastern & Oriental Express passengers would have sneered at it). Steve and I also loved the fact that all the dining care windows were wide open, letting in the warm night breeze and giving us excellent views of the squalid conditions alongside the tracks that some of Bangkok’s residents somehow endure.

The train wasn’t the worst sleeper I’ve ever taken. It left precisely on time and arrived, 12 hours later, only about 20 minutes late. When the porter made up the bed in our car, the sheets looked reasonably clean, and the mattress wasn’t too hard. Still the clatter of the wheels penetrated my earplugs, and I’d have to be truly deluded to call the motion rocking, rather than jarring. When I have to pee in the middle of the night, I’d rather not have to walk through a corridor to a bad smelling little compartment with liquid on the floor, but we did enjoy waking up to stare at the fields of rice and sugarcane flashing by in the early morning light. After we pulled into Nong Khai, transferred to the shuttle train that takes you on the 8-minute ride across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River (the border between Thailand and Laos), then took a taxi to our guesthouse in town, it was about 11 a.m. and we both felt a little weary.

Still, we were game for doing Vientiane. I’d had the good fortune to find and print out a September travel article published in the LA Times, so we had up to date recommendations for restaurants (which we hunted down and which proved to be 1) excellent (Xang Phoo for lunch) and 2) superb (Lao Kitchen for dinner)). That writer’s 5 must-see sights were all within walking distance of our hotel and each other, and we found and enjoyed visiting them all. By dinner, we were passing our judgment: Vientiane (pop. about 250,000) feels sleepy and mellow by the standards of other world capitols. It’s worthy of a 7-8 hour tour, but not two whole days.

So we were happy to climb aboard the “VIP bus” to Luang Prabang at 8 the next morning. We could have taken a plane (Lao Air, less than an hour and not expensive), but we’d read that the scenery seen from the bus was splendid, and we told ourselves: we enjoy the occasional bus ride. Once again, we were forgetting the qualifiers: IF it isn’t 10 hours long and IF the bus has halfway decent shock absorbers and IF it doesn’t break down or go over the precipice of one of a zillion hairpin turns. Steve and I usually enjoy that. Our ride avoided death AND disaster. The scenery for at least half the ride was indeed surreally beautiful. We saw details we would never have glimpsed on the plane: posses of three years olds running down the road with no adult anywhere in sight, tiny flooded rice fields, chiles drying on tin roofs, preteens hauling sticks in bags slung their foreheads, and more. But the last few hours felt grueling.

The town it took us to, Luang Prabang, in contrast has exceeded the good reputation that drew us here. It’s one of those enchanted towns, a Brigadoon or Shangrila or at least a Santa Fe. The balcony of our guesthouse overlooks the Mekong, which even this far north is wider than the Colorado. Surrounding mountains are as comely as those features of classic Chinese paintings. The streets are filled with pretty restaurants serving great food, with glorious temples, with spas offering massage services so cheap that even massage-resistent Steve succumbed to the lure of a 60-minute Classic Lao session (and liked it!). Monks parade through the streets at dawn accepting crackers and balls of rice from tourists and locals alike, and an endless line of stalls set up along the main street every night selling wares that even shopping-averse Steve found beguiling.

Monks receiving alms at dawn

Typical Luang Prabang scene
We have another whole day here before we take off for our evening flight to Hanoi. We could easily do more strolling and grazing and body-pampering, with breaks for coffee or cocktails to people-watch. But one thing about that hellish bus ride: it gave us glimpses into lots of dense and mysterious and and misty mountainous jungle. It called to us, and as luck would have it, a small industry of folks in this town puts tourists on the backs of elephants who carry them into it. We’ve signed up and depart in just an hour for yet another adventure in ground transportion.