A Different Way of Getting Around

Finally in its full form, our elephant post!

“It’s easy! Just yell ‘song’ so he’ll lift up his leg, step on it, then grab his ear and pull yourself up!” the spry mahout said as he hoisted himself easily up on top of the elephant. Easy for him to say as he may have been a hundred pounds dripping wet.

So began our mahout experience, a one day hands on elephant riding and driving experience at Elephant Village, an elephant rescue project outside Luang Prabang. One by one, we approached the elephant, some more cautiously than others, and tried our hand at scaling the elephant. Theresa, while apprehensive on approach, scaled it easily sat proudly on her elephants head while taking a  loop around the open field.

My turn was next, and I saddled up to the side. I got a leg lift, put my foot on it and felt it sag a little. I grabbed the ear and tugged, half expecting it to give as well, but the elephant held firm. I pulled, hard, enough to get my other arm around the elephant’s neck, but I’d lost my upward momentum, so I just kind of clung there. Eventually, I sort of managed to wrestle my legs up and around, not nearly as gracefully as Theresa had done, and found myself sitting on top of an elephant, looking down its truck to the world below. She didn’t even seem uncomfortable with this huge mass sitting on top of her head. Taking stock of my surroundings, I noticed first how high up I felt, but then more about the elephant. Her skin was very leathery and her hair on the top of her head very prickly. Her ears flapped wildly and slapped against my legs as she tried to cool herself. The “seat” itself was surprisingly comfortable, there was a nice saddle like place to sit along the neck. And before I knew it, she was walking, swaying me from left to right.

I did my best to lead my elephant around the field’s loop using the commands we had learnd for left (sai), right (quay), go (bai) and stop (hau). For emphasis, this went with knee forward on the opposite ear, though in reality, the elephants merely took them as guidelines. Any patch of bamboo or stack of pineapple leaves (their main food at the village) they stopped for or changed course to get to. Any hill was met with a long pause at the bottom as well as at the top. I started to wonder what made people want to use the elephants for work since they certainly didn’t seem very efficient. I guess being able to carry up to 1400 pounds means you’re allowed to go slow. Finishing our elephant driving tour (and putting away a nice buffet lunch), we next had to bathe our elephants. We led them down to the water down some steep hills that gave you the distinct feeling you were about to tumble down the elephant’s trunk. We persuaded them to step into the murky, fast-moving river with loud “bai!” calls and got soaked as the settled in. Some elephants sprayed water with their trunks over their backs but never submurged. Mine, however, was no such wimp. Her favorite thing to do was completely submarine to the extent I was freely floating before lifting back up, making it very difficult for me to stay on the elephant. Repeatedly, I was scrubbing with the brush (seriously, we’re paying to do this hard labor?!) only to find my elephant disappear and myself start to float away. And she could stay down there an impressively long time.

Cleaned and well exercised, our elephants were done with work for the day (they eat up to 16 hours a day!) and it was time to say goodbye with one last tour around the field. We fed them bananas and pineapple grass to reward them and bid adieu to the gentle giants.

Southern Laos by Moto: Part Two

The first four days of our motorbike tour through Laos were smooth riding. No bad weather, no flat tires, no getting lost. Our biggest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat along the way, which wasn’t a problem we had anticipated thanks to the abundance of roadside food stalls. Apparently, however, most of the ones in southern Laos aren’t used to serving white people. We knew there would be a language barrier, but we figured that a little sign language would get us by. Nope. No matter how much we pointed to pots of noodle soup or made eating gestures, on more occasions that not we got blank stares or giggles in response. But eventually we’d find someone who would ladle us up a bowl, and all would be well again.

Unfortunately, part two of the trip, a planned two-day circuit around the Bolaven Plateau was not all sunshine and blue skies…literally. Things actually began to darken at the end of day four as we made our way back to Pakse to overnight before continuing on. A light intermittent drizzle turned into driving rain when we were about 8 km from the hotel. The rain was hard and it stung as we drove carefully and not nearly as quickly as we would have liked. For the rest of the night it would rain in one form or another.

But when we awoke in the morning, there was no precipitation. The skies, however, were grey without even a hint of blue. It wasn’t exactly promising, but we had plans to drive halfway around the loop to see waterfalls and tea and coffee plantations, stopping for the night at a waterfall lodge where we’d celebrate our anniversary. So off we went. For the first 35 kilometers, up until we stopped at the first of the loop’s waterfalls, the heavy clouds hung onto their rain. But then they opened.

And boy did the rain come down. It was enough to make any sane person throw in the towel. We should have just turned the bike back toward Pakse, found a nice hotel in town, and made the best of it. But we’re not sane, or at least we don’t learn our lesson very well. Despite rainy, messy days never turning out well, we still maintain some odd belief that it can’t really be that bad, that just maybe there’s a blue sky just around the corner.

Thus when the rain broke we hopped back on the bike and continued toward kilometer 89, the location of the Tad Lo waterfall. Unfortunately the break was no longer than a TV-timeout. So swathed in ponchos we pushed on. At least there was a lodge in our future.

What’s that they say though? Something about when it rains, it pours? I think they’re on to something. Wet and tired we pulled up at the lodge ready for a hot shower, a hot lunch, and a room with a nice view. On first sight, it looked like we might be in luck. The grounds of the lodge were lovely, though I have to say the waterfall didn’t knock my socks off. Rainy season = muddy season, and the waterfall was just a spewing mess to me. The guidebook had said that you could swim in it; it seemed to me that the best you could do was drown in it. Yet that wasn’t a dealbreaker. What was, however, was the fact that every single room in the resort had twin beds. It boggled my mind, but there was not even one double bed in the entire place. Who builds a lodge with only twin beds?

Anyhow, a double bed wasn’t about to fall from the sky, so we went in look of another accomodation option. Our choices were not great, mainly dingy backpacker digs that looked like they might be washed away if the rains kept up. We found an inbetweener though that wasn’t quite what we had in mind but would do. And so we settled in. There was nothing to do but watch it rain…and rain…and rain. We did manage to sneak out once to go back to the lodge to at least enjoy a decent dinner (the food was good, the service horrible).

In the end it wasn’t the anniversary we imagined, but it was certainly memorable. The next day didn’t prove any better, so instead of completing the loop (a task we deemed impossible after seeing the connector road, which was a mud pit), we just turned the bike around and drove the 89 km back to Pakse as quickly as was safely possible. The Bolaven Plateau, supposedly a beautiful place, might just be best left to the dry season. No matter what you might think, riding a motorbike in driving rain is really not that fun.

Hello Moto

Inspired by our friends at One Year On Earth, we decided to free ourselves from the burden of buses (who in our limited Laos experience, had a nasty habit of deliberately forgetting passengers) and rent a motorbike for a few days to tour southern Laos. To put our parents at ease, by motorbike, I do mean more of a motorscooter; it’s not exactly a Harley.

But we certainly did put some mileage on it. Our first day, we headed south from Pakse to Don Khon, one of the larger islands of the region of the Mekong known as Si Phan Don (4000 islands). There, we parked the bike and caught the ferry (it’s really more like hiring a boat) over to the island. There, we found a bungalow right on the river and relaxed on our balcony. The next day, we rented bikes and explored up and down the length of Don Khon and Don Det, an island connected by a defunct French train line (in fact, the only train track the French ever laid in Laos). We cycled to what was optimistically called “Niagara on the Mekong.” It resembled a rapid. We found a “beach” that was a little too covered in water buffalo feces to properly enjoy. We passed the well known French locomotive that has sat in its place ever since it quit running. So while there was no thrilling site to see, the real joy was cycling through the rice paddies, passing working farmers and their playing children.

On day three, we returned to our motorbike and headed 30 kilometers north to the largest island of Si Phan Don, Don Khong, and really, did more of the same. Having our motorbike made it easier to get around, and it was more of the same on a vaster scale. No big sites to see, but lots of little moments to enjoy and cherish. The monks studying at the Wat. The children playing by the river. The wind blowing through a rice paddy. A really pleasant, relaxing environment.

But alas, adventure compels us forward and we found ourselves the next day pushing on to Champasak, to play Indiana Jones at Wat Phou, an Angkor Era temple. Though not as impressive as its southern neighbor, Wat Phou does boast some dramatic views as you climb the stairs to the main temple.

Failing to find anywhere decent to stay in Champasak, we hightailed it back to Pakse that evening, one of the nice things about having your own transportation – you’re never stuck. Or at least so we thought. We’d know better after our last two days, which we’ll cover in part 2.

Left Behind at the Border

“Hurry up,” the bus driver who would later claim not to speak English yelled at us from behind the wheel of the Sepon Travel “tourist” bus we were taking from Dong Ha, Vietnam to Savannahket, Laos. The six of us Westerners, the only actual tourists on the bus, turned toward the bus, gave the driver a long look, and told him that we were doing the best we could.

Jeff and I, along with four British tourists, were standing at the visa window at the Laos customs and immigrations station at the Lao Bao border. Everyone else was back on the bus and ready to go. As locals, all they had to do was get a quick stamp. They didn’t need to fill out four different forms, submit photos, obtain a visa, and then get the required stamp. But hey, we thought, they’d just have to wait. This was after all the “tourist” bus, the one every agency and guesthouse in Vietnam sold tickets for with promises that the bus would take us to the border, wait while we got our visas, and then carry us on to our destination in Laos. It was easy as cake we were told.

Except that it wasn’t. All six of us were being stonewalled by the one and only visa officer. He was pissed that we had simply asked why the visa fee was $10 more than the $30 we had been told it would be. We had confirmed the price with the Sepon Travel ticket agent just the day before. And we’d confirmed it with a French woman right there at the office who had passed through and paid $30 just two days prior. But at the window, we were told that no, it wasn’t $30 but was instead 350,000 kip for Americans and Brits, and 310,000 kip for Swedes. A very homemade sheet listing these prices was shown to us as proof. Wanting to pay in dollars, we asked what the exchange rate was, and we were told 8.600. None of us had an actual idea what it was but that seemed low. It also seemed extremely suspicious when a group of French people were charged $30 each when the rate sheet he showed us gave their visa fee as 300,000 kip. Wouldn’t that mean the exchange rate was 10,000 kip to $1 or that maybe the fee shit was just plain BS and the fee was a flat $30?

Frustrated but knowing that he held all the power, we very calmly asked him to explain how the fee structure worked. I don’t think he could, so he just didn’t. Instead he closed the window, walked to a desk further back in the room, and left us standing there. The bus driver, who hadn’t yet yelled at us, came over to see what was going on. We asked him to help or to translate or whatever, but he refused. Instead he began rounding up all the other passengers and getting them onboard, despite obviously knowing that we weren’t ready to go anywhere.

The “hurry up” call came just as the officer got up from the desk and reapproached the window. But he again refused to serve us or even speak to us. Instead he took all of our forms, crumbled them up, and threw them in the trash. He then sat and stared at us. Let’s just say that at this point, all six of us were reconsidering why we wanted to enter Laos at all. They weren’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat.

But we remained at the window, waiting for the officer’s power play to come to an end. Alice, one of the British girls, went to the bus to explain things to the driver, who by now was honking at us and slowly rolling the bus forward. It was obnoxious, but we figured he wasn’t actually going anywhere. We certainly weren’t, because now the visa officer had found a tour group that he’d decided to wait on instead. He had 10 visas to issue, and we could do nothing but stand there and curse him under our breath.

And then, as the visa officer moved on to about the 6 out of the 10, our bus pulled off. The young British couple got quite upset (all of our luggage was still on the bus after all), while us and the older British couple figured he was just pulling up near the gate or at most going to the town 1 km down the road to get the other passengers started on lunch. And anyhow, what was I going to do? Without a visa I couldn’t enter Lao.

Oddly enough, as soon as our bus pulled off, the visa officer decided we could after all have visas. Well, we could have them after first listening to a lecture from him about how difficult our countries make it for people like him to visit. What was this? Was our being stonewalled retribution for him not being able to get an American or British or Swedish visa? Anyhow, we listened, and nodded, and smiled, and then grabbed our passports with visas, got our stamps, and headed off to find our bus.

It wasn’t at the gate, but the official there said it had just gone into the town, so we began to walk there. We could see a number of buses pulled over on the side of the road, and we figured one must be ours. Wrong again. It was nowhere to be found in the one-horse border town. Well, we rationalized, it must be coming back for us. Strike three. The bus was gone, with our stuff, and with no intention of coming back. This we learned after phone call after phone call to the bus office, where we got run around after run around about what exactly was going on. Two hours after the bus left, we were finally told that we were on our own as far as getting to Savannahket, where we would be reunited with our luggage.

It was too late in the afternoon to catch another bus, so in the end, the six of us hired a sawngthaew (a converted pickup with two wooden benches down the sides of the truck bed) to take us the rest of the way. It cost us $40. Exhausted and angry, we finally arrived in Savannahket at 7 p.m. ready to let someone have it. But wouldn’t you know, the office was closed. Luckily they had left our luggage with a hotel clerk, and it was all there. We’d have to wait until tomorrow to have it out with Sepon Travel. There was no point in railing on a hapless hotel clerk the company had thoughtlessly left to deal with the mess, and we all just wanted a hot meal, a hot shower, and a bed.

The next morning, not willing to let a company get away with that, Jeff and I returned to the office to try to get compensated for our trouble. It wasn’t going to be easy. The office in Laos was just a ticketing agent. Sepon Travel is a Vietnamese company, and we weren’t in Vietnam. But we got the guy at the Laos office to call up the boss in Vietnam, and Jeff (quite calmly and rationally I must say) began to tell the guy what he owed us. Unfortunately, the guy didn’t think he owed us anything. Getting left at the border was, according to him, our fault. First he claimed that the bus driver didn’t speak English and had no idea what was happening. (Not true, but even if so, still their fault.) He then claimed that we had told the bus driver that we weren’t going to get visas, and so he left. (Oh yeah, we just thought we’d take a trip to the Laos border and live in no-man’s land for a while after stamping out of Vietnam). Then he said we had exceeded the time limit for the bus to wait. (We were not given a time limit. Giving a time limit would make no sense as we aren’t allowed to give ourselves a visa and stamp and thus must wait as long as it takes. And finally, advertising themselves as a tourist bus that helps tourists through the border process, they were, by us paying them, contracted to wait however long it took and then carry us on to Savannahket.)

Unfortunately, our being rational and demanding reasoning from them got us nowhere. Customer service does not exist in Asia, as far as we can tell. And getting anyone to take responsibility or tell the truth (instead of just telling you what they think you want to hear whether it’s true or not) is practically impossible. In the end, the guy offered us $20 total for the six of us. We told him he owed us at minimum $48 or half the price of the bus ticket each. We asked why $20, what reasoning there could be for this, but of course he offered none. And then he hung up on us. And when we called back, he disconnected his phone. Very professional, I tell you. Frustrated but tired, and determined not to let this incident set the tone for our time in Laos, we decided to just take the $20 and go. We’d fought the fight, and we’d lost.

But we’re going to do our best to make sure no one else ends up in the same losing battle. Word of mouth is king in the world of travel, and this is a story we just love to tell. Sepon Travel, you should have just been a responsible company and A) not left every single one of your tourists (the people you claim to cater to) at the border and B) ‘fessed up to your mistake and made it right.

*If you are trying to cross the border from Vietnam to Laos at Lao Bao, I highly suggest that you not take the Sepon Travel bus. They are obviously a recklessly irresponsible company. A Laos company called VIP bus also makes the trip, and I’d recommend trying to get a ticket with them. Or go ahead and just do it yourself. Local buses run to and from the border (though be aware that the last one leaves the immigration office for destinations in Laos in early afternoon).

**Also, just FYI, the exchange rate is, in fact, right around 8,600 kip to $1. What the visa actually costs, I don’t know, but at the Lao Bao border you’ll do no better than whatever rate is listed for your country on the very non-official paper the officer shows you.