Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An Elephant Trek, A Cave Visit, and Visa Renewal in Luang Prabang

One of the last things I did in the Luang Prabang area was to plan an elephant trek near the village of Pak Ou. I wanted to take the trip by bus so I could just relax and let somebody else do the driving.  We took a bus about an hour and a half north of town to the village of Pak Ou, and when we arrived, there were several elephants there milling around the town.  Apparently the village has sort of a symbiotic relationship with these elephants.  The villagers guard them against poachers, and then use them for a few hours a day to do some moving and hauling chores, and to take visitors on treks.  Then they let them loose to hang out in the jungle around the village.  I hope that the villagers treat them well.

Each of us on the tour bus were assigned elephants to mount. Some elephants carried two or three people, but I was on the elephant I was riding alone, except for when the handler mounted the elephant with me.  We had to get on the porch of the second floor of a two-story building to get on the elephants.  The handler of my elephant tried to get me to ride on the elephant's neck, bareback, but the elephant started taking off and I did not feel comfortable there AT ALL.  I felt like I was just about to tumble off the elephant as it lurched from side to side.  So I had the handler lead the elephant back to the staging area, and I got in the basket on top of the elephant instead of sitting on its neck.  Once all of us were perched atop our assigned elephants, then we went trekking through the jungle.  The elephants went up and down steep hills, and through areas that I never would have thought an elephant could get through.

After trekking through the jungle for about forty-five minutes, we returned to the village.  The handlers then gave us a brief tutorial of the words that they had taught the elephants, and these were the commands that the elephants understood.  Then the handlers told us we were going to bathe the elephants.  I had no idea what that meant, but they told me I had to change into a swimsuit.  I wasn't aware of this beforehand, and hadn't brought a swimsuit with me.  They rustled one up from somebody in town, and I changed into it.  I figured that I had to wear the swimsuit because I might get splashed while bathing the elephant?

Next they had me mount the elephant, but not from a second story like I had before.  They had the elephant kneel down on its front legs, and I had to climb up the elephant from its front legs.  And there was no basket on the elephant to sit in this time.  They had me sitting on the neck of the elephant, which I was just as uncomfortable to do as it had been the last time I tried that, and I was not very secure with that at all.  Just as I got atop the elephant, the elephant started walking into the Mekong River, and I was not feeling very well positioned or secure atop the elephant, sitting on its neck; I was basically just clinging on for dear life.  When the elephant got into the river, it suddenly reared up on its hind legs, dumping me into the Mekong River.  The guides were all laughing their asses off, but I was not terribly amused.  I still had open wounds from my motorcycle accident and was not happy to be dumped into the river without warning.  I figured this was just kind of a joke that the guides pull on the unsuspecting tourists, but I bet they wouldn't do that to their grandmothers.  Later I Googled “Mekong River” and found out that it was loaded with pollution and disease, and I learned about horrible things like liver flukes, lung flukes, and other parasites you can get from the river, and also found out that there are things in the soil around the river that make their way up your body through your feet and do awful things to you.  And I had come out of the river and walked back to the village barefoot.  Great.

After the elephant trek, we all had lunch in the village, and then took a small dugout boat across the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves.  It turned out that the couple who took the boat with me (they were from a different tour bus) were from my hometown of El Paso, Texas, where I grew up.  Actually, they had grown up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, right across the border (which is where I went to elementary school), and had moved to El Paso, where they were going to UT El Paso.

The caves had been transformed into a Buddhist shrine.  They were filled with sculptures and statues and all kinds of Buddhist icons and offerings.  There was a set of upper and lower caves, and we toured through all the caves.  Then after exploring the caves for a while, we took the little dugout boat back, and returned to Luang Prabang.  We briefly stopped at Whisky Village, where the villagers distill various spirits and make wines, before returning to the town.

When I was on the way back, I started feeling a little bit sick.  Once I returned to my guesthouse, I was really sick.  I thought that something really bad was going on...I had been afraid of infection with my motorcycle accident wounds, and I was afraid that I had a systemic staph infection, or that I had caught something horrible from the river when the elephant dumped me.  But it was probably just coincidental, and I was only sick for about a day, and then I was fine again.

I stayed in Luang Prabang just a couple more days, but on the day before I was to leave Luang Prabang, I found out online that I could renew my Laos visa in Luang Prabang if I wanted to, so I decided to take advantage of that opportunity.  There are two ways to extend your initial Laos visa-on-arrival: one is to leave the country and get a new visa-on-arrival, and the other is to tack on up to an extra month by going to the immigration office in Luang Prabang or Vientiane (and maybe some other cities, I'm not sure), and doing it that way.  I figured that since I still time in Luang Prabang, I could extend my visa.  I had read online that they would do it the same day.  So the next day, I went off in search of the immigration office.  I first Googled it, but it was not at the spot that Google said it was; there was some sort of resort there.  The people at the resort thought I had to do it at the police station, and they gave me directions to a police station.  But I got there and found out that I had to go to a different police station, which I did, and it turned out to be the right place.  Also I found out that they would not renew it the same day; they told me I had to come back the next day.  That altered my plans a little, because I was planning to leave early in the morning as I had a long ride to get to the next town.  But it turned out not to be too bad.  At first they told me that I had to come back at three in the afternoon the next day, but when I told them that I was leaving and needed to travel, they told me that they could have it ready by eleven in the morning and to come then.  So I showed up at eleven the next day, and they had it ready within ten minutes.  I already had my motorcycle packed up and had checked out of the guesthouse, so I just left town right after I got the visa extension.  Strangely enough, they extended my visa to February 29, which doesn't exist in this non-leap year, but I figured I would probably be out of Laos at least a couple of weeks before that anyway.

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