Thursday, June 18, 2009

SE Asia Trip, Part 8 - Luang Prabang, the Third Attempt

09/03/09 - 12/03/09

And it's back in Luang Prabang for the third time! This time I will be riding elephants and learning how to weave!

I booked a half day elephant ride through Tiger Trails. There are a lot of places in Luang Prabang offering elephant rides, but not all of them are reputable places or treat their animals well. Tiger Trails is a pretty well established company who operate under the Fair Trek community-based tourism logo. They work with the Elephant Village, about 15km outside LP on the banks of the Nam Khan. It was originally established in 2003, by a German I believe. There are 8 elephants in the village, most rescued after being injured whilst working in the logging industry. They are all kept healthy and looked after by a specialist vet. The Elephant Village is endorsed by Stay Another Day, an initiative which promotes sustainable tourism in Laos and Cambodia.

The group I went with consisted of a Canadian couple and 4 Germans, so once again I was the single one! When I arrived at the Elephant Village I also met a couple who I'd met earlier in Muang Ngoi.

An earlier group riding their elephants through the river.

As the rest of my group came in twos, they all shared elephants. I was the odd one out, so I got my own! We climbed onto the elephants from a specially constructed platform. Each elephant was also ridden by a Mahout, who knew the elephant really well. My Mahout was a young guy but he had been doing this job for 5 years. You can check out all the elephants here.

Me riding an elephant!

Didn't feel hugely safe going down such a steep hill, but we made it!

Wading through the river!

I was the first person to try riding on the elephant's neck. The mahout seemed perfectly happy lazing around in the seat and playing with my camera!

Heading back up to camp.

After our ride, we helped to feed the elephants. They definitely eat a lot!

We were also provided with yummy lunch at the Elephant Village Eco Lodge, before heading back to Luang Prabang. It was a fun morning, though I wish I hadn't worn such light colours, I was filthy by the time I'd finished. They also run full day and overnight trips, and Mahout courses where you can learn a bit more about the elephants. We were supposed to go to Tad Sae waterfall as well, but apparently it is all dried up at this time of year.

The rest of the day I spent enjoying LP and meeting up with the other two girls I'd left in Muang Ngoi as well as two of the German guys I'd met on the elephant trip.

Over the next two days I'd enrolled in a weaving course. The aim was to make a traditional Lao silk scarf. The course is run by Ock Pop Tok, a Lao textile gallery and weaving centre founded by a Lao weaver and an English photographer in 2000. It provides sustainable employment to rural weavers. The centre itself is in a gorgeous garden location a wee bit out of the main centre of town. The course is quite expensive, but well worth it I thought.

The first half of the day involved learning to dye silk. There was only me and one other woman on the course. We had an interpreter, a young guy named Morn who was studying English at Uni. He was a really nice guy and very helpful. He first told us about the how the silk was made and dyed, and the origins of weaving. Then we got to choose some silk and what natural dyes we wanted to use.

Making my dyes!

We were learning how to make natural dyes. I chose tarragon root (yellow), sappan tree bark (purple) and some kind of berries (orange).

The range of colours you can get from the natural ingredients found in the Centre's garden.

The other participant was only there for the morning, so that left me on my own for the rest of the course - making it even better value as these people were solely focused on teaching me. They made me a yummy Lao lunch and then I got to choose two colours for my scarf and learnt to spin the silk onto the spools. I chose a blue-grey colour for the base and a pinkish colour for the pattern.

I was introduced to my teacher, a Lao lady who spoke no English (hence the need for an interpreter). She showed me how to work the loom and make the pattern. It was quite difficult but I eventually got into a rhythm. By the end of the day I'd done about a third, with a bit of help!

Before heading to the weaving class the next day I got up early to watch the Monks collect alms. This happens early every morning in Luang Prabang and is a big tourist attraction, although it really only involves the locals. We just stand around and watch. There are a lot of rules about not getting too close to take photos etc. I stood on the other side of the road and watched, well away from the snap-happy tourists.

After that I headed up Mount Phousi to check out the views. Unfortunately there really wasn't much of a view as the whole of LP is blanked in smog at this time of year.

The entrance of the Royal Palace, from the gates of Mount Phousi.

Random Buddha statues dot the mountain.

Yey, naga statues!

I spent the rest of the day finishing my scarf. Unfortunately lunch today wasn't so great - mushroom soup and fermented fish - yuk! But at least there was plenty of sticky rice!

I was pretty proud of my finished scarf - the edges weren't perfect, but it wasn't bad for a first attempt. I haven't taken a photo yet of the finished piece. It was hard work but well worth the effort to actually say I learnt to weave, Lao-style!

In the evening, my friend and I went to see the cultural performance at the Children's Cultural Centre. I saw something similar before in Vientiane, but actually I preferred this one. The kids were great and it was quite interactive too. They started with a Baci ceremony where they greeted everybody in the audience and tied white strings around our wrists and gave us food and water.

The Baci ceremony.

Some of the young performers.

There were some lovely dances, full of energy and fun. There was also a puppet show in Lao, depicting the legend of Pi Mai Lao or Lao New Year celebrations. Luckily we were given a leaflet to explain what was happening! It was pretty funny though!

Well, that's it for Luang Prabang. After the show I spent way too much money in the night market buying souvenirs and gifts, and got a great Lao massage before heading to bed. It was up early the next morning to head to Vang Vieng. My trip is almost over!

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