Mae Lamb, an Asian elephant, tears down the tasty crown of an acacia tree showering us with leaves. Her mahout thinks she’s eaten enough from the yanked-about tree and the middle-aged jumbo is coaxed on to a path.
Back on the trail, Mae Lamb rubs her belly and behind on the bark of a lean teak tree. I’m close and in the line of fire for elephant dust and tree spittle.
Her scratching disturbs a large green snake from slumber.
“Wah,” says my guide, Mr Yeng, pointing up, as a green snake spirals gracefully down the tree trunk. “A snake is lucky, you know.”
Very lucky, I learn. After my stroll with the two females at Mandalao, a sanctuary above the banks of the Nam Khan River in northern Laos, I meet an elephant whisperer.
Prasop Tipprasert brings 32 years of Thai elephant expertise to his work at Mandalao, close to the Unesco temple town of Luang Prabang. Mandalao’s mission is to reintroduce captive elephants into the wild to boost their chance of breeding and long-term survival.
“The Lao always talk about the big naga,” says Prasop, referring to the supernatural serpent-like creatures living at the bottom of the Mekong River who are the protectors of Laos. “If the big naga comes, they say, Laos will recover from all pain. And, of course, the big naga is the train!”
The Lane Xang – Land of a Million Elephants – train slithers through the rugged limestone mountains of Laos from the capital Vientiane north to the Chinese border at speeds of 159km/h. A sleek, serpent-nosed loco sporting the red, white and blue colours of the Lao national flag, it’s a boon for China and Laos trade and transport. A joint venture, with China as the majority partner, the US$6 billion Laos-China Railway has carried nearly 1.5 million passengers on the Laos rails since it opened in December 2021.
Before I mingled with the elephants in Luang Prabang and increased those passenger numbers by boarding the train, I begin my journey in low-rise Vientiane with my guide, Boun.
French villas, cafes, glassy offices and richly decorated temples (wats) with prayer halls that are fringed with elephant statues and white-petalled frangipani curl around the north bank of the Mekong, a wide slick of chocolate-brown river. It’s impossible for the city’s scant shade to relieve the treacly air. No wonder the French colonialists did very little last century when they ruled Laos for 60 years.
No such sticky deterrent had felled the Siamese when they marauded through Vieng Chan, city of sandalwood, in 1827-8, burning the city to ash and looting its Buddha images. The city’s most beautiful site, Wat Si Saket, enclosed in a courtyard of columns stencilled in scarlet and gold survived the raid. This was because it was a military camp and built in Thai style, Boun says. Today it’s an exquisite haven decorated with 10,000 Buddha statues fashioned from sandstone, bronze, ceramic and teak. Nearly all exhibit the mudra, gesture, of calling the earth to affirm the Buddha may attain enlightenment.
In the coddling heat, I look for my own enlightenment. I find it at the Mekong Garage Bar overlooking the river and a green Lao People’s Navy vessel where I’m mistakenly served two pints of Beerlao in one enormous glass. I follow up the city’s generous spirit with a spice-infused cocktail and Lao fried chicken at swanky villa garden bar 525 in downtown.
My head clears the next day in the fresh air of mountain retreat Vang Vieng, the first stop on my rail journey north. Laos’ new railway stations, apart from Vientiane’s, aren’t far from town centres. They’re huge, silent, sparkling-floor affairs with sweeping roofs that have more in common with the spec of Beijing’s Forbidden City than the petite Buddhist temples of Laos. Security is airport style with not a drop of liquid allowed through.
First class will get you a comfy, padded seat; second class is packed with more seats and people. My tip? The air con is better in second class. Strikes and delays? Not a whisper in communist Laos.
Mr Kham, in jandals and shorts, sits next to me. He’s returning home after a three-day visit to Vientiane for work. “It’s so quick and comfy. I’ll be home in Muang Xai in less than three hours.” By bus that’s 18 hours to cover almost 805 kilometres, he says. I know my preference. Bus stations are chaotic, out-of-town, bustling affairs where slow, uncomfortable buses and speedier minibuses plough the serpentine highways and distant routes of the country.
I’d imagined the train to be as silent as it was sleek but no, it snorts like a dragon as it tunnels through the mountains. Blink and you might miss the rice paddies and lofty peaks wreathed in cloud as it’s only 65 minutes to Vang Vieng.
It took me almost as long to order a decaf coffee in Naked Expresso in town, I huff. “You know Lao PDR means ‘please don’t rush’,” Boun says, a riff on the letters of the country’s full name – Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Once infamous for legions of drunk foreign backpackers who tubed down the river in inflated tractor-tyre inner tubes, today Vang Vieng is a less addled place. Its soaring mountains, like a Chinese painting of sugarloaf peaks, is the antidote to my impatience. I cycle with Boun to explore the craggy Cave of the Golden Crab towering above a turquoise blue lagoon, and lunch at an organic farm. I feast on fish laap with sticky rice – chopped tilapia meshed with mint, chilli, spring onions, chives and garlic. The chilli blows my mouth up, so I cool it with a moreish mulberry mojito made with rice wine and banana liqueur. After that, I only have energy to watch life from the frangipani-scented gardens of my hotel, the Riverside Boutique Resort. As the sun sets, children swim and motorbikes judder home over a wooden bridge across the river. I watch the sun disappear behind the peaks streaking the sky in rose pink, orange creme, and pastel grey.
Refreshed, I journey north to ridiculously pretty Luang Prabang where, on a finger of land basking in the Mekong River, frescoed bijou temples stencilled in painted gold rub shoulders with French villas wearing louvred shutters flavoured in royal blue and celadon green. Coconut palm, betel nut palm, potted cactus and blooms of pink bougainvillea garland the streets. And the smell of frangipani, tropical heat and, at sundown, smoky Lao barbecue, permeate the town. It’s a heady mix. And despite heart-quickening modern life – fantastic restaurants, cool bars, food and craft markets, and agency tours pitched on pavement boards, the town’s pace is still attuned to the ancient rhythms of the Buddhist temple with almsgiving each early morning for the monks and drumming and chanting at dusk.
With my town guide, Jack, once a novice monk, we visit the most magnificent of temples, the 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple) where once Lao kings were crowned. The diminutive teakwood sim, prayer hall, is exquisitely layered with deeply sloping roofs that flair, like stiffened fabric. It’s topped by 17 parasols, dok so faa, that represent the heavens. Finials in the form of nagas rear up from each roof tip like sentinels. Fifteen of these water spirits are the protectors of Luang Prabang. On the right side of the sim, a decorative elephant head shimmers in silver mosaic. It channels blessed water through its mouth.
I think back to what Prasop said at Mandalao about the naga and the train. And I wonder if the same “naga-train” might be prophetic, too, for the plight of the elephant in Laos, not only a sacred Buddhist animal but a cultural symbol, too. The number of wild Asian jumbos has dwindled to 300 in the country. But Mandalao is forging a blueprint to reintroduce captive elephants to land close to a station on the new rail route. An ecotourism initiative rooted in the local community is the thinking. With easy access on the fast train, and funds from this eco-venture, it just might.
InsideAsia has a 10-night Laos by Rail cultural adventure costing from NZ$4158pp (excl international flights) including all accommodation with breakfast every day, a number of other meals, train tickets and transfers from Vientiane to Luang Prabang via Vang Vieng and Muang La, some private guiding and more. InsideAsiaTours.com
For more to see and do in Laos visit tourismlaos.org