Northern Laos: Way of the Mahout
Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
77Trip End Jul 21, 2009
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Where I stayed
Guesthouse in Hongsa; Homestays in Namh Tap and Kang En Villages
The Story of Li, my Guide
My journey to understand the way of the mahout began with a day trip on the slow boat west from Luang Prabang to the village of Thassouang, along the Me Kong river. 16 out of 20 provinces in Lao witness the presence of the mighty Me Kong which is 4,500km (1,500mi) in total distance from China to South China Sea. The slow boat is a major form of transit as it carries many travelers from Luang Prabang to the Thai border (over two days) and vice versa. I was joined on the boat by my guide for the four-day trip, Li.
Li is a 20-year old Laotian who has Chinese grandparents, a Khmu mother and a Hmong father. He's originally from Phonsavan, which is in Northeastern Lao (and home of the Plain of Jars), but his family now lives in a village in Sayaburi province, proximite to Hongsa
Our conversation drifted to religion and I explained that my family is Hindu, but I am somewhat spiritual with severe skepticism of many organized faiths. He explained that his family, being both Khmu and Hmong, is not especially spiritual, but believes in animism and spirits. He also shares my view that it is less important what you believe in as that frequently leads to division and conflict as we have seen throughout the world
Through Li, I learned a lot about the differences between the Lao Lum, Khmu and Hmong people and the extreme disadvantage that many non-Lao Lum Laotians face. Each ethnicity has its own language - Khmu is not a written language, the Hmong alphabet is based on the one that we use while the Lao Lum language is similar to Thai and has sanskrit origins. There are 49 ethnicities in total throughout Lao with most of them living in the highlands in small and remote villages. I briefly discussed this interesting ethnic dynamic in previous posts.
One of the interesting differences between the ethnicities is the Hmong people practice polygamy. Similar to this practice in other parts of the world, all of the families live in one compound and get along well with each other within the hierarchy of wives. Li repeatedly stated his desire to get an American backpacker as one of his wives. I had to explain that while it may be acceptable to him as he is partially Hmong, he would have a tough time convincing his American bride that there would literally be too many cooks in the kitchen!
On the Slow Boat Along the Me Kong
Of the parts of the Me Kong I have navigated, the stretch in northern Lao is my favorite and by far the most picturesque
Given it was the dry season, the water level was extremely low, exposing the high water mark almost 10-15m higher than the current banks of the river! Additionally, throughout the Me Kong were massive rocky islands that would be completely submerged come the rainy season. The current was fairly strong and I could only imagine the speed at which the water moves when it is 15m higher. Clearly, not just anybody can navigate this river as you must know every obstacle and all of the strong currents to maximize fuel efficiency and the movement of the boat.
While all of the other travelers were eating sandwiches, ramen noodles and chips served aboard, Li invited me to the back deck, where I joined him and a member of the boat crew for a special meal. Li brought a fish aboard and the crew member had grilled it up on the stone oven they have on the back deck and served it up with some chilis, sticky rice and river weed
Crazy and Dusty Mountain Ride in the Songchiaew to Hongsa
After an epic ride, I disembarked the boat in Thassouang with Li, some Laotians and a whole host of rice bags, chickens and other supplies brought from the city out to the countrysides. All of the western travelers, having no clue where we were getting off, were asking me what I was doing and whether I was lost. I was the only non-Laotian in this village and other than the two girls that would join my elephant riding adventure, we wouldn't see another Westerner until I was on the boat ride back to Luang Prabang a few days later.
We packed 16 people and a house worth of luggage and supplies like sardines into a songchiaew (pick up truck tuk-tuk) for an hour-long bumpy and dusty ride out to the large Hmong village of Hongsa. One of the Lao women who boarded on the back was wearing a sparkling white gown. By the end of the ride, she was completely brown from all the dust. I recalled our Cambodia cover, "Dusty Roads"Go A's.
We finally reached Hongsa and checked into the guesthouse. Hongsa was a sleepy, but large village, with not a lot going for it. Some villagers, those who are mahouts with elephants, participate in the logging industry, but for the most part the small local economy and market is the main source of income for most of the villagers. There really is not a lot of tourism out here as Hongsa is tremendously off-the-beaten path. However, this is likely to change in short order.
The day I arrived in Hongsa was a day of tremendous celebration in the village. Not only was Hmong New Year only two weeks earlier (and I found that many Lao villagers like to prolong any celebration), but more importantly, a new Thai-Lao border crossing had opened up. This border crossing was a mere two-hour overland ride from Hongsa and travelers can now get from Luang Prabang to Thailand in one-day and completely overland, while passing through Hongsa. While it may change the complexion of the village (I did not see Pak Beng, the current stop-over village on the two-day slow boat), this will be a tremendous source of income and there are already several guesthouses that, having opened in the last year, will soon be full instead of empty. What is good for some is not good for others. Pak Beng and Huay Xai, the current border town on the Lao side, will likely suffer as travelers divert through Hongsa.
Aside on Lao Exports and Sustainability
Logging, tourism and hydroelectric power are the major current exports of LaoVietnam, Thailand and China are huge buyers of both Lao timber and hydroelectric power. Technically, according to the "communist" government, water (and the land that is on its banks) is a resource that cannot be owned by anybody in the country. In actuality, many of the waterfalls that tourists visit are owned by those close to the government and the government has built massive hydroelectric dams (and is still building them) throughout the country. Lao has a future as the battery of SE Asia and will be exporting power for years to come.
However, many of its own people do not get cheap power, as one would expect given the plethora of hydro in the country. The government, who are Lao Lum, exports much of the generated electricity to Thailand and China. Meanwhile, the people of many of the villages in the mountainous north, who are not Lao Lum, have to re-import the power at inflated prices from foreign retail power distributors. This problem is somewhat mitigated in the most remote villages without electricity infrastructure, as many of the villages have built their own hydroelectric sluices. I would see these in person as I rode my elephant through the villages.
Just as much of a concern is the quick depletion rate of forests in northern Lao
This is a double-edged sword for me as the timber industry provides tremendous current income for the poor villagers of this region who do not receive many resources from or have significant infrastructure built by the government. However, it is a short-term proposition. Eventually, all of the trees will be gone as even the most audacious re-planting efforts cannot keep up with the rate of cutting. I would expect eco-tourism, which is growing tremendously in this region, is not enough to sustain the populations of all of these villages, would destroy the culture of these villages if it expands too much (as in Sapa, Viet Nam and northern Thailand), and cannot compare with the income generated from eager-to-pay and resource-hungry Chinese and Thais industrialists.
With nothing but primary schools available in the villages, it is difficult for future generations to gain new skills and stay in and maintain the life in the villages. Even if there were proper primary and secondary schools in every village, there aren't many opportunities within each of these villages. While many small villages are combined into larger villages to provide for larger markets and communities, there is not the economies of scale to really drive a significant local economy in most of these places. It's difficult for me to see a future where the mass exodus of Laotians from the rural countryside to the cities doesn't continue
However, while some who move to the city lead more prosperous lives, there is the significant ethnic divide between mountain people and city folk that creates significant economic inequality in the cities. Adding to the seemingly helpless and frustrating situation, one cannot speak out against potential future problems and injustices against the mountain people as you will be jailed. In the most cynical view, the government of Lao Lum people from and living in the lowlands really could careless about raping the resources of the mountains and destroying the culture of its people.
Working Elephants in Lao - (Go to www.elefantasia.org for more info or to help)
Lao was once the "Land of a Million Elephants". While the translation of the original empire of Lao, there were clearly a ton of elephants roaming the jungles and mountains long ago. This population has dwindled significantly for a variety of reasons. Asian elephants in Lao (Burma, India, Thailand and other countries) have long been used as working elephants to helped remove timber from the forest. The extremely mountainous jungle forests of northern Lao are tremendously rich in different woods, but are extremely forbidding for any tractors or other modern equipment
The working elephant population of Lao is also dwindling significantly as there are only two births per 10 domesticated elephant deaths. Much like Japan and Russia and their human demographic crisis, without any significant change, elephants in Laos are not sustainable. Hongsa has 47 working elephants, making it one of the wealthier villages I encountered during my time in northern Lao. All of the elephants work during the day (unless they are fortunate enough to be lugging around some trekkers for a couple of days) and sleep in the forest at night.
An average Asian elephant lives 50-70 years, weighs 3,000-5,000kg (more than 10,000lbs) and stands 2-4m in height (up to their shoulder blades). Much smaller than their African cousins, the other major noticeable differences lie in the size of their heads (Asian heads are much smaller and not as broad looking) and their ears (Asian ones have smaller ears that resemble the Indian Subcontinent while their African cousins have large ears that resemble Africa). These strong beasts can tow 4-5 tons!
Asian elephants eat 250kg of vegetation per day (no joke) and drink 100L of water per day
Elephants have very poor eyesight - they cannot distinguish between objects more than 30m in front of them. However, they compensate for this weakness with the tremendous senses in their trunks - one of the most amazing body parts on the planet.
Elephants are crucial to the villagers who live in the mountainous regions and there is an interesting relationship between the elephants and their keepers, the mahouts. Most working elephants have been domesticated for generations and a family owns a lineage of elephants. This is why the declining working elephant population is more than a conservation issue. Many mahout families try to keep their females from getting pregnant as the long gestation period means that an elephant is not working for quite a while. However, should they not be able to replace their existing elephants, future generations of their families will either struggle or will be forced to relocate to find income elsewhere
Treated well for the most part, elephants must suffer miserably during Phajaan. When a young elephant, it is domesticated by being confined in a cage while tortured. With the addition of shaman sacrifices, the elephant is fit to work when its spirit has been broken and it is deemed safely domesticated. A mahout is generally paired with an elephant at approximately the same age and spends his/her entire life with their creature. The mahout is the translator for the elephant and is the only other creature on the planet (perhaps other than the elephant's mother) that the elephant will truly listen to and that the elephant truly respects.
I would learn more and observe the relationship between the mahout and the elephant over coming days as I would get to know my mahout Kun Ping and my main man, a 28-year old elephant by the name of Jan Ping (Full Moon).
Day 1 of the Trek: Hongsa to Nam Tap - Dec 21
I went to the morning market of Hongsa before we met our elephants and took off into the jungles. There were three of us (two German girls and me) on the trek along with our guide and our mahouts
As I said before, these guys eat like crazy. As the mahouts were fitting the chairs on top of the elephants, they were chomping through thick bamboo like it was a celery stick. Keep in mind that bamboo has greater tensile strength than steel. We greeted and got to know the three elephants, petting their trunks, scratching them behind their ears and feeding them the bananas that they throw down like candy.
Before long we were off and I became aquainted with my mahout, Kun Ping. Not speaking much English and from Hongsa, Kun Ping and I would get along well over our few days together as he knew that I loved Jan Ping and I grasped the mahout vocabulary and skills with the elephant the quickest amongst the three of us. Speaking Lao, I asked him about his family, practiced my counting and learned the mahout commands.
To get the elephant to go, you yell "Pai" and gently graze the back of his ears with your feet
Kun Ping was awesome and basically let me take over driving Jan Ping from the get go. Riding atop him is essentially like bareback riding a MASSIVE horse, so while my inner thighs would think otherwise, I was elated to basically be in command of this massive creature for most of our time together. What I quickly learned is that Jan Ping has a mind of his own. While the lady elephants respected their mahouts and generally continued forward, with the frequent grabbing of bamboo off the side of the track, Jan Ping would go out of his way to grab whatever he wanted. He loves bamboo, big leafy plants and pumpkins more than anything else and would seek them out, especially going for the ones that were at the top of the tree and would cause his head to essentially be perpendicular to the ground... with me sitting on top of it. Additionally, whenever we reached a watering hole or stream, he would drink up and then spray himself to cool off... whether or not I was in the path of the spray.
It is amazing to watch this creature in action. An elephant's trunk is both one of the strongest things I've ever seen - they can tear massive trees straight out of the ground - as well as the most dextrous and sensitive thing - they could pick up and hold an egg without breaking it if needed. Riding on top of his head is basically like being on a living and breathing roller coaster with little spiky hairs pricking you. He's so damn cute and awesome; just writing about him brings incredible warmth to my heart and causes me to miss him
Jan Ping would barrel through most vegetation, but with the chair on him, I would have to use my mahout's machete to cut through trees that would have obstructed me. Kun Ping would walk alongside of Jan Ping to keep him in check. He was very strict with Jan Ping, threatening within eyesight of the elephant to hit him with a stick, but never actually doing so. As soon as Jan Ping saw the arm raised, he would obey his master. I quickly observed that Kun Ping cares immensely for his elephant, but it is a different type of love than the way an American loves his/her dog. These are working creatures after all and are a source of income. I would relate it closest to a boy or girl who owns and cares for a cow in India or one of these other countries. They love the creature, but they treat it as though it must be an obedient creature.
Happenings of a Khmu Village - Nam Thap
The first day of the trek took us through mostly remote Khmu villages. I found these villagers to be extremely reserved. While there was certainly a language difficulty as I spoke no Khmu and very little Lao, I perhaps think that the slight reservation was because we are falang (literally French person, but generic for foreigner)
We eventually reached Nam Thap village; a village next to a small stream that supports 90 families. I accompanied my mahout to take Jan Ping up a steep hill into the forest where he could eat like crazy and sleep (4-6hrs/night). All of the elephants are kept on their own otherwise they may brawl with each other. I then accompanied Li and some of the villagers to go bath in the river. I watched as all of the villagers bathed with soap in their water source, washed their clothes with chemicals in their water source and took their livestock to drink and relieve themselves in their water source. Did I mention this was their water source?
In a funny sidenote, Lao is a country where they eat dog. Li would joke about BBQing every dog we came across. He told me that as a youngster, he would go to a village and buy a dog for 150,000 Kip ($20) and then sell dog soup within his own village for 450,000 Kip. Pretty good margins!
All of the mountain villages hold elections every four years to elect a leader. Most villages are of a homogenous ethnicity, but many of the combined villages (particularly closer to the cities) are multi-ethnic, but segregated
Khmu villages and people are easily distinguished from the other ethnicities as they live in two-level houses on stilts and they carry bags by wrapping the strap around their heads. Hmong people live in one-level flats on the dirt and carry things on their backs. Lao Lum people generally live in nicer homes in the flat land villages or cities and the joke is that they carry stuff in baskets on their motorbikes.
In the Khmu village of Nam Thap, we stayed on the second level of the village leader's house. Rice farming and logging is the predominant source of income in Nam Thap. They have one elephant in this village, so while they've seen an elephant before, the entire village came out in full force to stare in amazement as we rolled in with our giant and majestic creatures
Electricity in the village is generated locally at the river as there are no power lines way out here in the remote mountains. The villagers construct a narrow sluice to funnel the water towards and through a small turbine. From the turbine runs very loosely insulated wire all the way to the house. There was enough power generated to run a small light and TV in the large room. We were able to watch a Man U game out in the middle of nowhere and talking football was an easy common ground to get me on the ins with the men of the village. I wrapped up the night looking at a beautiful starry sky full of planets, shooting stars, the Milky Way and constellations as there wasn't a street light for miles.
Day 2: Trekking from Nam Tap to Kang En
I fetched Jan Ping in the morning from the forest. It is impossible to find an elephant in the forest - the man had moved so far away - but eventually we saw the trail of destroyed bamboo trees and dung that led us to his grey body mixed in with the trees. Witnessing how hard it is to find an elephant in the forest, I can only imagine how impossible it was to find guerrillas and NVA camps during the massive US bombardment campaign.
Whether or not it is true, he looked really happy when we found him and immediately acknowledged me by wrapping his trunk around my leg
Relieved to be done with the downhill, we stopped at the base of the valley for lunch by a river farm where were there were lush terraced gardens because of the plentiful supply of water. The rest of the day was a beautiful ride with me as the mahout through and along a river all the way to the village of Kang En. I ate a sweet potato and sour cucumber fruit that I found on trees that we passed and generally enjoyed life as a mahout. In fact, when we pulled into village, one of the villagers said to Li that he thought I was a Thai mahout because of my complexion!
Happy Khmu New Year From a Village
Kang En is set right on the Me Kong river and is a much smaller village than Nam Thap. Also a Khmu village, we were fortunate to arrive for the Khmu New Year. There are no elephants in this town, so all of the kids were in absolute awe when we rolled through town. We took all of the elephants down to the Me Kong for a swim and all of the kids came racing down the sand hill to watch from a safe distance. I, of course, started chasing after all of them and the air was filled with the lovely sounds of childrens' laughter and screams as we played hide and seek on the banks of the Me Kong
Jan Ping absolutely loved swimming in the Me Kong as the river from the night before really wasn't all that deep. There was a huge sandbar where this village was located, which made for a picture perfect end to a long day of riding as there were mountains behind the Me Kong that were viewable from the sandy beach we stood on. After taking Jan Ping deep in the forest once again, I spent some time chatting about India, football and other things with Kun Ping. He wanted to take several pictures with me, which was a great sign that we had really connected. It would only get better as the night progressed.
Li and I went for a swim in the Me Kong - that river is freezing, silty brown and really fast moving - which was a real thrill and truly made me feel like a villager for a night. After cleaning up, I went for a walk around the village. There were UN and UNICEF posters up (I would see these later in other villages) that were illustrations on preventing malaria, washing hands, and other basic sanitary education. I also saw kids milling wheat, kids playing jump rope, the village women making the evening meals, women making walls with brick and mortar, and I had some homemade coconut pudding.
These two nights were the real deal when it comes to homestays
I was then invited into a Khmu home to celebrate the New Year with them. What this entails is drinking Khmu whiskey... a lot of it. Khmu whisky is made from fermented sticky rice and is drunk with bamboo straws out of a large gourd. They fill it up once cup of water at a time and you must down the entire cup. Before long, I was the local celebrity as I had downed seven cups of water. In my cheerful state, I was teaching some of the locals some English and had let the kids take command of my camera. After respectfully declining some more whisky, I joined the mahouts and the elder men in the village down at the local bar/shop/hangout on a small hill overlooking the Me Kong for some Beer Lao.
Reminding me of a dinner party, Ms Ting (this girl who works for the tour company who came with us to get some experience trekking and cook up the food and what not) came down the hill to call all of the men to dinner and we enjoyed a delectable meal of vegetable curry, fish and sticky rice. After dinner, Ms Ting had arranged a beautiful ceremony for ustied strings around each others' wrists as we gave the blessing and had to drink two shots (one is not allowed) of the most horribly tasting and powerful whisky I've ever had. All of us capped a great night by returning to the bar/hangout with some of the girls from the village and stayed up late drinking beers, chatting and listening to MP3s on my iPod. It might be a remote village in northern Laos, but there Malabar is more popular than Bob Marley (who they don't know).
Dec 23: Adios to Jan Ping and Voyage Back to Luang Prabang
Dec 23 was an extremely hungover and painful day for me - after all it was New Year's Day (for the Khmu) and that's the way it's supposed to be. It was also an extremely sad day as I had to say goodbye to Jan Ping. In such a short time, I had developed an incredible attachment to my elephant, partially because he was a dude my age.
I think Jan Ping knew I was saying goodbye, because when I walked up to pet his trunk and give him some bamboo for the last time, he wrapped his trunk around my leg and held on tight
On the boat ride back, I met a couple of Canadians - Tara and Sevan - living in Hong Kong and a Brit - Neil - and we all had some great conversations about travel, economics, sustainable development, energy, etc. Sevan is a pilot for Cathay Pacific in HK. These three and Neil, in particular, would be integral members of the holidays as we would assemble and reunite a formidable crew during our time in Luang Prabang (Xmas) and Vang Vieng (New Years) separated by a wonderful hiking trek in the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang.