In which I am compared (unfavourably) to an elephant
Starring Mayoung whose child I definitely wasn’t killing
After nearly a month in China I was very, very ready for good coffee. Not only is Laos coffee good, it’s really strong and sweet and what’s more they also have fantastic baguettes and all manner of baked goods. I have NEVER felt so grateful to the French.
The town itself is very pretty – lots of old Colonial houses converted into shops and restaurants and the whole of the main street turns into a market at night selling everything from t-shirts saying “Same Same” to fake silver jewellery.
You can’t walk more than 100m without stumbling on a temple. Most have been rather recently renovated thanks to almost constant looting and pillaging from rampaging Burmese, Thai and Chinese armies over the years but the styles and murals are so unique and beautiful that you don’t really notice. On the first day I walked up the main hill in town to see the temples at the top. There was a huge storm brewing and I landed up sitting in a cave full of spiders while it passed over.
I spent most of my time in Luang Prabang learning to do things – weaving, cooking and elephant ‘driving’.
The two day dying and weaving course was at a little place called Ock Pop Tock just outside the main town and absolutely brilliant – I have a nice silk scarf to show for my efforts. All the dyes are made out of plants and insect resin and you boil them up on wood fires in an open air kitchen.
My workshop for the silk weaving was in a bamboo pavilion overlooking the Mekong. So pretty relaxing. Slightly less relaxing was that my teacher, Mayoung, had the disconcerting habit of yelling out ‘Nooooo’ (in the exact tone you would use if someone was about to drop your only child into a boiling cauldron) every time I did something wrong. As it was usually something on the pedals the regular wails of ‘Nooooo Foot’ meant I caught on pretty quickly. I also spent a very pleasant morning doing some batik painting with antique looking quills from a little saucer of wax that the lady I was working with kept putting on and off a fire she carried in a bucket.
The staff at Ock Pop Tock were lovely- I spent a lot of time talking to Song who was a high school student, the night watchman and also fully employed at weekends. A lot of the guys have very recently left the monastery which seems to be the main way that they get out of the villages and into the town. The schooling is expensive so they have to work to pay for it if their families can’t afford it. Song desperately wanted to travel and asked whether I thought he might be able to become a monk at a monastery in London.
The Mahout training course was very nothing if not entertaining. We were sat down and given a list of elephant commands before setting off to take them for a walk clutching our little bits of paper. Before we’d got anywhere near the elephants the guide had already covered off all the usual questions: How old are you? Have you got a boyfriend? Have you got a job? Have you got a house (how do SE Asians get away with this?). So by the time we met the elephants Piyou was completely at liberty to point out that this elephant was only one year older than me but also no boyfriend. “Aah poor elephant”, I said, and gave it a pat. “Yes,” he said, “But this elephant have house and job!” Low point.
The elephants don’t listen to a damn thing you say (they can hear the “you don’t want to if you don’t want to sweetheart” in your voice) until the REAL mahouts give them a firm tug or a whack and then they amble along taking every opportunity to stop and snack on bamboo. The main attraction (for the guides) is that you get to take them for a swim where they instruct the elephant to douse you with water. Repeatedly.