Sunday, March 31, 2013

Raptor Watch - Malaysia

Every March the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) holds "Raptor Watch" to welcome the raptors (birds of prey) as they migrate north. The weekend event has three major activities - visiting booths, taking walks, and looking skyward for raptors.

Bird Group Booth: Go to site for information, t-shirts,
and note cards
The MNS Selangor Bird Group, friendly, knowledgeable bird watchers staff an active booth - they make you want to be a bird watcher. When we approach they asked us  "Do you think that you are too advance for our beginners' bird watching class?" Too advanced! The question should have been "are you advanced enough?" We signed up for the 2014 class (away when 2013 class is offered).

A critical mass of serious bird watchers show up for the event - if not to see the birds, to eye the manufacturers' display of sophisticated cameras and binoculars.  They also sponsor lectures on birds, day and weekend bird watching trips, and workshops, e.g., photographing birds. We left the booth with 2 t-shirts and note cards.

We met an American retiree who was travelling with a Malaysian friends to bird watching sites throughout the country and region. His card identified him as "a bird watcher" and "grandfather." Birding groups from the Philippines, Thailand, China, and Taiwan were also there. China has a flier describing 5 possible birding trips with enticing names like "16 Day Easy Winter Birding." A review of costs suggests the trips aren't for casual birders. Even if you will never go bird watching in China, check their website to see why people go crazy over birds. I went to a discussion on Asian bird festivals and left convinced that bird watchers are important to international conservation efforts.

Among games and activities for children was a face painting booth. Some adults got into the spirit of the day and had a bird face painted on their face.

A not-to-be missed activity is to take a walk with a MNS member. We took the mangrove walk and a forest walk. I was interested in the mangrove walk, because mangroves are important to maintaining the coastline ecology. Our guide gave us a well-informed, mini-lecture (worthy of note taking). Two highlights were that a mangrove tree breathes through its exposed roots and it redirects the salt in the water to surface of its leaves.
The edge of a mangrove forest
As we walked we saw legions of soldier crabs heading out to sea. We immediately saw the aptness of its name. One of children spotted a puffer fish (a seriously poisonious fish) stranded in a shallow puddle. She "rescued" it put it in deeper water. Of course, the fish headed back to where it came from (the shallow puddle).
Close ups of soldier crabs

The puffer fish

We heard that birds start appearing as early as 10:00 a.m. and the last arrivals might come in at 1:00. We had expected that they would fly in later, but its their show. We hiked up to the lighthouse and stood on a ledge to wait. As you can see were among birders with serious camera equipment. There were also bird counters stationed at the lighthouse. The birds fly in from Sumatra and the lighthouse is located on the nearest point on the Asian continent (10 nautical miles). We walked down to the resort (to check out) before the first bird appeared. By the time we reached the resort we could spot the raptors.

Waiting for the raptors to appear
Raptors captured on an every day camera
Raptor Watch showed MNS at its best - diverse members, interesting activities, and informative guides. What was most impressive was the number of children and adolescents. Apparently the schools have nature clubs and their members were all over the places - usually being herded in by a teacher. MNS effectively meets many needs and interests. We don't take advantage of all it offers, but we know our membership money is going to preserve the country's environment and educate the next generation about nature.

Wearing the t-shirt of the day


Logistics: Raptor Watch was held on the grounds to the PNB Ilham Resort, Batu 10, Tanjung Biru, Port Dickson, Malaysia. We booked for two nights - it was pleasant and relaxing, but probably better to suited to families. We took a train from KL Sentral Station. We took the express train (RM13) that goes to Singapore; we could have taken the KT Commuter which is cheaper and a little slower. At Seremban we walked to the bus station and to the bus to Port Dickson (RM 4) - a seriously long trip (at least 40 minutes) and then a taxi to the resort (RM 20). Next time we will hire a taxi from KL for the day. Start by going to the light house, view the exhibits, possibly take a MNS walk and head for home. Faster with a lot less wasted time. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Trip up the Mekong

The Mekong traverses major parts of Asia, descending from the Tibetan plateau in China, through or adjacent to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  Prior to this trip, I had never seen the Mekong...I just never made the time to go to the delta region when living in Vietnam.

The Mekong shortly after sunrise


This was dry season. The Mekong was low, vast areas of sandbars were exposed, and the river had retreated from its banks.  River boats were still plying their routes.  In a number of places we saw large bridges being built to span the river, Huay Xai and near Sainabuli are but two examples.  Roads are being built to ease transit between cities in Laos, and reliance on the river for transport is beginning to decline.  You can no longer able to travel by boat between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.  Dams are planned for the middle Mekong in Laos, and in the upper reaches of the Mekong in China.  In a few years the river will be managed with all the problems associated with the lower Mississippi River.  We decided to go upstream from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai by riverboat so we could experience travel on the river before it disappears forever.

The Mekong in the morning mist


I was reminded of how difficult travel could be in the 19th and early 20th century when reading a history of Laos.  French colonial officials would spend 6 weeks travelling from France to Saigon in Vietnam, and then spend and additional 6-8 weeks travelling up the Mekong by boat to Vientiane.  And the mortality rate was extremely high due to Malaria and other tropical diseases.  Talk about a hazardous duty assignment.  Today, moderately hard travel has us sleeping under chemically treated mosquito nets only in infested areas, and drinking bottled water.  For most of our travel we don't take anti-malarial drugs.  I can no longer count on losing 10-15 lb on a trip to SE Asia.  Maybe we are travelling at a higher level than we used to or health conditions are improving.  I think it is a combination of both.

River traffic on the Mekong - a slow boat


For our river travel, we had several choices: slow boat, speedboat, or a "luxury slow boat." We chose the later, in part because we wanted relative comfort (seat pads), non-overloaded boats as is the case of the slow boat, and to protect our hearing (on the speedboat passengers wear helmets).  The speedboats are basically longboats with an automotive engine on the rear powering a direct drive prop.

We took a short trip by tuk-tuk from our hotel to the dock at 6:45 am.  At the dock we were met by the staff who checked us off a list maintained on a smart phone.  We produced passports for checking-in.  Our luggage....two roller-boards were carried down the steep uneven steps from the street to the boat.  Water level was 100 feet below street level.  We boarded and the luggage was stowed below decks.  As we settled in fellow passengers arrived,  mostly a French tour group, with a smattering of Australians, British, and eastern Europeans.  A young Australian we met at the Elephant Conservation Centre was among the last to board.  He had just returned from Veng Vang and was suffering from several days of heavy partying.

Promptly at 7 am we were off.  We had two pilots and several additional crew members.  A short safety instruction was given in French.  Evidently, life preservers were available, but in a locked cabinet under the pilots platform in the bow.  We were assured the pilots were very experienced.  Shortly after departure breakfast was served, french pastry, fruit, juice, and coffee/tea.

Exposed rock formations in the Mekong - dry season water levels
As we moved up the river, we could see the towering rock formations that line the river channel.  Since it was dry season, all the formations were exposed.  Navigation guides on top of the rock formations, were obviously well worn over the years when the river was at flood stage.

An altar in the lower cave of Pak Ou
About 90 minutes after departure our first port of call, the Pak Ou Caves.  This was a short stop, 20-30 minutes.  We climbed up to the caves which contained hundreds of Buddha images.  We lit prayer lamps and joss sticks while thinking of a sick friend.    According to the guide, the Laotian king would annually make a pilgrimage to the caves to honor the Buddhas.  We visited only the lower cave, forgoing another steep climb to the upper cave.

Pak Ou Cave
After departing Pak Ou Caves  we cruised upriver, making a short stop to pick up some tourists who stayed at a remote lodge along the river.  We saw large beach areas along the river.  While beaches looked arid, it was evidently fertile with corn, beans, squash and peanuts.  Some crops were ready to be harvested. At one stop, we were told that freak rains and winds a month earlier had destroyed the maturing corn crop.  Villagers raise chickens, pigs, cattle, goats, and water buffalo.  Animal production is a "cash" crop and the meat is not eaten within the village.  Other protein sources are used.  As a bird watcher we met later in Malaysia said of Laotians,  if it moved, they ate it.

A Lao-Tai village
A whiskey still
Villages are located on the bluffs above the river.  Villagers build bamboo thatched walkways to get over the sandy beach.  We stopped at a "whiskey" village, with an operational rice whiskey still.  I sampled and it reminded me of rice wine I tasted near Dak To in Vietnam.  I did not purchase any, but we purchased locally produced Hmong textiles in this mixed Lao/Hmong village.  The Lao government has moved the Hmong closer to the river so it can provide services.

Village weavers selling cloths

A child in the village

Village scene


Along Lao-Tai, Hmong, and Kamu rivers villages seem to line the riverbank.  Each ethnic group has its own style of housing, with Lao-Tai, and Hmong building on the ground and Kamu building on raised stilts.  In this area electricity is available, as well as satellite dishes.   In one village, electricity was installed a year ago, and an electric meter I looked at showed a grand total of 256 kwh used in one year.  (When in Raleigh, NC,  our base usage was 1,000 kwh per month).   A local medical officer was present and we were told schools were nearby on the outskirts with one primary school serving several villages.

The village medical officer

  Secondary schools are in larger communities.  While most of the villages were served by roads, river travel was preferred due to speed, and I think comfort (no potholes).

Gardens on the banks of the Mekong
Padi field after harvest


Besides the crops listed above, a hay like plant with fronds that are used for household brooms.  padi is grown.  It appears the Lao-Tai have first choice on the padi field, with the Hmong, and Kamu relegated to more remote fields.  In the villages among the Kamu, individual plots of land are allocated to a family.  As the family grows and children marry, the plots are subdivided for household formation.  When the plots can not longer sustain subdivision a request is made to the village head and additional land is allocated on the village fringe.  The villages we saw had about 800 inhabitants.
Village products
Palm fronds are dried on the sand banks. Children spend time beating them on the sand to free them from their seeds. Behind the villages were padi fields.

Sunset on the Mekong as we approach Pak Beng
We stopped at Luang Say Lodge at Pak Beng for the night.  Shortly after arrival, we were treated to a dance performance with Hmong, Lao-Tai and Kamu dances.  As in most tourist performances, audience members are invited to dance.  They always seem to pick on Liz, an ardent non-dancer graciously joined in.  Hotel employment assists the local economy, by hiring and training locals, and by setting standards for local agricultural production.  The food was acceptable, and the hotel had an extensive French wine list at reasonable prices.  I took advantage of the clear sky to use our Sky Scout to look at the stars, something we virtually never see in Kuala Lumpur.

The next day included one village visit, a customs stop when the boat entered the area where the Mekong served as the border between Thailand and Laos.  We could compare the relative economies of the two countries.  Thailand appeared to have a higher standard of living, with a lot of road construction and river levies being built.
Proof that a mosquito net can be romantic
At 5 pm we docked in Huay Xai.  Our fellow passengers hurried off to exit Laos, and cross the river to Thailand before the immigration and customs offices closed at 6 pm.  We chose to stay at a local hotel.  We left the next morning by air to Vientiane.  Lonely Planet wondered why the airport was built at the top of a hill.  The simple explanation is security, and why build on the flatland where padi and other crops can be grown.  It reminded me of the remote airports in the mountains of central Vietnam.  We flew on a Laotian Airlines MA-60 (a Chinese manufactured two-engine short field aircraft which I later found had been banned from flying in Indonesia and has not been approved for flying in Europe and North America).

A SMART has migrated from SW China



Dogs are used as movable billboards for a local mobile phone company
Airport Security (an X-ray was available and used)


Our aircraft to Vientiane



Thursday, March 21, 2013

Laos: Notes on where we slept, ate, and did

Mini-Mart sign in Huay Xai - A Grass Roots Entrepreneur
We spent 17 days in Lao. For the most part our lack of advance planning worked. A lesson from last year - don't travel doing Chinese New Year without reservations. We watched a steady stream of people walked from guest house to guest house in Luang Prabang looking for a vacancy. We had reservations, but finding an available restaurant was challenging.

Lodging:

To find hotels we relied on Agoda and Trip Advisor. In Vientiane and Luang Prabang we paid about USD40 for clean rooms with firm beds, no bugs, and a central location. Some had cable television others did not. Some included breakfast, others did not. None had elevators, but staff helped with luggage. Laundry was charged by the kilogram rather than by the piece, which I hope never changes.

Vientiane: Hotel Khamvongsa Perhaps the best value in the old section of central Vientiane. For breakfast we could chose from 6 set meals and fruit drinks (we alternated between banana shakes and pineapple juice).  The homey atmosphere at breakfast seemed to motivate visiting NGO staff to conduct business loudly over the phone. Aren't they trained?

Luang Prabang: Many comfortable guest houses that are relatively similar to each other. We stayed at the Ammata Ammata Guest House and Phounsab Guest House. The Phousab is located on Luang Prabang's busy main street, but our room in the back as totally quiet

Huay Xai - A hard scrabble city at the end of our Mekong boat trip. We stayed at a recommended guest house. We saw a bloody syringe in the lobby, which colored our opinion of the town and the hotel. Similar to Luang Prabang Huay Xia probably had a number of similar options, but a decidedly lower standard.

Food:

In Vientiane and Luang Prabang we primarily ate French food - it was well prepared and cheaper than similar foods in Kuala Lumpur. For breakfast we had baguette sandwiches made with fresh baguettes (at least once the waitress took our order, went off on a motor bike and returned with baguettes) or soup. Soups and pho were good, but spicying varied (chili sauce available on request) - a soup costing more than 15 kip (USD2) was enough for two.

As for Lao food we couldn't try Luang Prabang's better known Lao/fusion restaurants, because Chinese New Year celebrants had made reservations. Un Petit Nid became our "restaurant by default." Its varied menu was reasonably priced. One night we had tomato soup and pizza (comfort food night) and another Lao food. All were tasty. On Valentine's Day we were surprised to see it had a Malaysian flag (Malaysian owner)/.

Malaysian flag in Luang Prabang (Malaysian owner)

We ate at several places along the rivers. Mekong River places cost less with huge portions. I ordered a Croque Monsieur and received two sandwiches. Places along the Nam Khan were pricier and somewhat more upmarket..

A half salad!
In Vientiane we ate The Noodle People (next to the Hotel Khamvongsa) for its good, inexpensive noodle soups and the Viengkanphou across from the Lao National Cultural Hall to satisfy a sudden craving for a hamburg. At Viengkanphou we were rewarded with good baked potatoes; the hamburger was large but its texture wasn't to our liking.
Yummy baked potatoes - sometime you need a familiar favorite
Closer to our hotel we had lunch at Le Vendome. Doug chose the 22000 kip (less than USD4) lunch and I had an enormous chicken salad. Doug's arrived promptly - after more than 30 minutes we were ready to confirm that my order was in progress when it arrived.
Less than USD4 - chicken drumsticks and pasta salad

Enormous chicken salad - I enjoyed every bite
The favorite of the trip was L'Adresse de Tinay. On its posted menu was a cheese plate - a new craving motivated a sudden need for a mid afternoon snack. We made a dinner reservation and chose its fixed price menu. My dinner began with broccoli cappuccino style - it was amazing (far lighter than I imagined). The restaurant cost more than other Vientiane restaurants (at least the ones we ate at or checked out), but far less than KL. And the food was great - enough to encourage to plan for return visited to Vientiane and many more dinners.

In Huay Xai the general scruffiness of the town and syringe at the hotel ruined our appetite. We stopped at a mini-mart (on street side away from the river). We were looking for cheese-filled Ritz crackers. The shop had Ritz crackers but none with cheese. The owner brought out Laughing Cow cheese portions and a knife. How could we say "no"? He showed his sign (at the top of this posting). The next morning we returned to snap him holding his sign, but he was too busy making baguette sandwiches to pose. So if you are in Huay Xai look for the shop and reward this plucky Laotian by buying something.

Entrepreneur at work in Houay Say

A way to spot the shop - these are in front
An example that nothing goes to waste in Lao
What we did: Some tourist sites

We have talked about the major sites we saw along our trip: Green Discovery Tour of Vientiane, Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayaboury, Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang, and our trip along the Mekong (to be posted soon). On our last day in Vientiane we went to the Lao National Museum and bookstore. The museum was a bit of a hodgepodge, but an interest way to spend a few hours. The 2nd floor had a section on modern (post-French) political leaders - a reminder that history is written by the victors. Any reference to America or Americans was preceded with the adjective "imperialistic." There was a display by the various ministries that looked like a state fair display. No updating since they were created earlier in the 21st century.

We stopped at Monument Books - it had good collection of books on Laos. Overall a large and pleasant bookshop. We picked up some books and a calender




Monday, March 11, 2013

Laos - More than elephants, monks,and river cruises

We enjoyed all the normally tourist things in Laos, but it was our visit to two organizations that will bring us back. Both Laotian organizations are improving the lives of Laotians. Big Brother Mouse adds to their literacy and the number of people who read for pleasure. Saoban, the product of years of community development work, empowers local artisans to produce quality products and set fair prices for them. If you are a tourist in Luang Prabang buy a book to keep or donate. In Vientiane shop!

Big Brother Mouse: Yikes, we didn't take any pictures. A photo of bungalow with books won't lift one's spirits as much as just walking in. Big Brother Mouse (BBM) is an all-Lao (Lao-owned, run, and staffed) book publisher and distributor located in Luang Prabang. Its mission is to show Laotian children and youth that "literacy is fun." For some children part of the fun may be a visit by a part-time staffer, Boom-Boom, an elephant who helps deliver books to remote areas.  BBM designs, writes, and publishes books in Lao and Lao/English. Some stories are original. Others are translated. A good story is a good story no matter where its from.

Visitors to Luang Prabang can drop into Big Brother Mouse and purchase books in Lao to leave in villages or give as tips. We bought a small packet of pre-selected books for the staff to include in a book party. At set times tourists can engage in English conversation with local people. We met a woman who learned  about the lives of novice monks from her conversations at BBM.

BBM seeks donors to sponsor the publication of a book or a book party. Sponsoring a book or book party may be an ideal gift for a special occasion - birth, bar mitzah, retirement, and so on. We plan to sponsor a book now, and perhaps a book party when we return to Lao. Visit the web site to learn more, to be impressed and inspired.

Saoban: First our back story - I am not much of a shopper. We have everything we need and then some. After buying virtually nothing in India - I later regretted that we hadn't purchased hostess gifts and the like. We can give interesting gifts, and more importantly we help local artisans. I vowed not to make the same mistake in Laos. By our last day in Vientiane we had a suitcase full of gifts.Good karma must have been radiating from Saoban. The store's display was beautiful, and the story behind the shop was awesome.



Saoban is a social business that evolved out of PADETC, a Lao community development NGO. During our visit we chatted with Shui-Meng, the shop's owner, about her work in community development. She worked with village women help them think about and set fair prices for their products, e.g., that their labor was not free and that materials (even if locally accessed) had monetary value. As part of pricing their labor the women needed to think about what they wanted from their work, e.g., ability to educate their children. They learned the importance of setting prices and sticking to them, especially the need not to accept lower prices for their products and thus undercut each other. She helped them understand the importance of quality - using natural dyes rather than cheap chemically produced dyes and keeping consistency between products.

Doug and I with Shui Meng -
An inspiration for all those who want to empower women

Shui Meng  and other developers did not lecture village women. Rather they undertook the long process of gaining the women's trust and soliciting their input. One consequence is assuring the sustainability of a way of thinking about how to value work, especially if new products and crafts are developed. While Saoban sells the products these women produce, the weavers are free to market their products to other shops and outlets.Truly the women are empowered. Here is an observation Shui Meng recently posted on Saoban's FB page "You will no longer take for granted what goes into your bowl of rice or how much work goes into your little scarf or bamboo basket once you spend sometime with the people who grow the rice or make the stuff you use everyday."

What did we buy? A piece of fabric, now hanging on our wall. We hadn't found anything that won us over and had decided to wait until "next time."  I took a photo, but it doesn't give it justice. Here is a youtube presentation to show how such pieces are woven. It suggests what our design looks like. We also bought scarves and napkins. After a short debate we decided against spoons crafted from aluminum contained in bombs dropped in Laos. We had sympathy for the project, but didn't know what we would do with more spoons. While we talked about the spoons Shui Meng quoted a women in a bombed village "Why did they (US) hate us?"

We talked with Shui-Meng for about 20 minutes. Afterward we Googled Saoban and PADETC. Our admiration grew. Saoban's FB page includes videos and slide shows of the artisans at work. Visits to Saoban's villages can be arranged - something for our next trip. PADETC's website said that it welcomes experienced and skilled volunteers, preferably volunteers who can stay for at least 3  months.  In 2013 it is particularly interested in hearing from Environmental experts who have time to volunteer in Laos. A sabbatical or transition to retirement project? Makes me wish that I had some hands on skills.

The PADETC website had a link to Sombath.org that tracks the status of Sombath Somphony the founder of PADETC who went missing on 15 December.  A reminder that a tourist can overlook the human rights and development struggles that go on in Laos and other countries.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lao, Land of a Million Elephants

An Asian Elephant at the Elephant Conservation Centre Laos
Lao, PDR (Lao, Peoples Democratic Republic) is also known by its travel slogan, Land of a Million Elephants.  It originally was the translation of Lan Xang, a Lao empire lasting from 1354 to 1707.  Today the  Lao Government claims 1000 elephants, 600 in the wild and 400 working elephants.  Staffers at the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) suggest the number is actually 875, 450 in the wild and 425 working elephants.  Whatever the number, elephants in Lao are declining.  (Note I use Lao rather than Laos as this is the term used inside the country to describe itself).

When contemplating our visit of Lao we considered going to the annual Elephant festival.  After several calls to Green Discovery (an eco tourism outfit) we were told the festival was not happening during 2013.  In fact it did happen in Xayabouly (could also be spelled Sayabouly).  It was not without controversy, as other towns felt a rotation between towns was appropriate to spread the wealth.  But we were not deterred in visiting elephants, we chose the Elephant Conservation Center.  It is associated with ElefantAsia.org, an umbrella organization looking after Asian elephants.  It seemed a better choice than tourist oriented elephant sites hawked on the streets of Luang Prabang, and in the tour offices of Vientiane.

Passengers inside a Laotian Bus
We started our trip to the Elephant Conservation Center by bus from Luang Prabang.  The bus was scheduled to leave at 9:00 am or 8:00 am.  The exact time did not matter as the bus departed whenever it was full, in our case at about 7:45 am.  We booked the trip through a travel agent in Luang Prabang.  It is actually cheaper to use the travel agent as they include the tuk-tuk transit to the bus station.  If we attempted booking the trip on our own, it would have involved three trips to/from/to the bus station at 30,000 kip per trip.  Sometimes using an agent is a cheaper alternative.  We got to the station at 7:15 am, boarded the bus (after some seat squatters were evicted), and waited as more and more stuff was loaded under the bus, put on the roof (including at least one motorcycle), bags of fertilizer were put on the floor down the aisle, and finally plastic stools were placed on top of the fertilizer, each stool was sassigned a passenger.  No one stood and no one was on the roof.  The first 15 km were easy, then construction.  It was a well graded dirt road with few potholes, but basically reminded me of road construction in the Black Hills, South Dakota USA in the early 1960's.
Ferry crossing the Mekong in Laos
After several hours at a speed of 25 kph we reached the banks of the Mekong river.  Down river, but within sight was a new bridge, still missing a center span.  It was reputed to be opening in May 2013, but I think May 2014 may be optimistic.  We disembarked from the bus as it was loaded on the ferry boat.  Meanwhile we perused stall for the various food stuffs available, grilled rodents (rats, squirrels, or bats) were for sale.  It did not tempt me in the slightest.  Once across the river we reboarded the bus, and in a hour were in the Xayabouly bus station.   We were early and needed to wait for an hour for the tuk-tuk to arrive.  We made a quick stop at the local ATM - the machine was out of money.  Contrary to popular belief, ATM's do not print money on demand.  Affected travellers were assured the stock of money would be replenished in several days.

Grilled meat for sale at the ferry crossing
About 5 km out of town we stopped at a boat landing on a reservoir.  The motorized launch slowly pushing the weeds away made its way to the dock.  We boarded and the launch began its slow return to the Elephant conservation center, with its motor literally wheezing its way across the expanse of water.  After about 20 to 30 minutes we reached the camp dock.  We were quickly assigned our cottages, shown the essential facilities, and hurried off the meet the elephants (4 aged 35, 60, 16, and 17).  But before we could approach them we needed to learn some basics: always stay in an elephant's sight, and don't quietly walk up behind them (their tail can whip out in a 1.5 meter area). They are quick as well as big.

Approaching the Elephant Conservation Centre
We learned 6 terms to command our elephants.  Stop, go, back, right, left, get down.  Watch this short video to learn these commands.  All us us (with the exception of Liz) rode the elephants.  We learned that the elephant back is fairly weak, which is the reason you see the mahouts riding on the neck.  Actually, you are riding directly above the shoulder blades which leads to an interesting ride experience.  Out mahouts used a thin rope with a short hook on the end.  The hook is not applied to the elephant ear but loops around the rope.

Grandma (Liz) touching an elephants trunk

Elephant skin is remarkably smooth and soft.  They even suffer from mosquito bites and love to be stroked. And they can make a very low rumble from deep within their body, almost at a frequency below human hearing.

Grandpa (Doug) on an Elephant

After learning the 6 commands, I instructed the elephant to kneel down, and I climbed aboard.  The elephant expected me to be somewhat faster in boarding and began standing before I was fully settled.  Then with the mahout walking along side of me, I began commands that led us in a small figure eight.  I then dismounted.

Elephants like to swim
Late in the afternoon the elephants wanted to swim.  We followed the animals to the banks of the lake.  They moved quickly into the water and began playing.  The 60 year old female and the 35 year old male paired off, while the two teenagers played gleefully off to the side.  The mahouts were in the water with them, using scrub brushes to wash their backs and flanks. After about a 1/2 hour of fun, the elephants were off to the jungle for grazing and their night location.  As we were to discover the next morning, they are hobbled by a chain attached to a stout tree so they do not escape into the forest.

The first night we actually saw stars, something we rarely see in Kuala Lumpur because of the cloud cover and pollution.  This time we remembered to bring our Sky Scout, an electronic device gifted to us by Liz's brother.  It worked and was interesting, More so to me than to Liz.  I managed to hear about several stars seen only in close proximity to the southern hemisphere.  The night sky as well as the sounds of birds is like comfort food.  It is something that is intensely familiar and satisfying.

An elephant at its night location.  Note all that has been eaten.
Day two at the elephant centre consisted of fetching the elephants from their night sleeping location.  Each elephant is confined to an area about 100 - 150 metres from the dirt track leading to the Elephant Conservation Centre.  The exact location shifts nightly. Each elephant grazes in the jungle, clearing an area in a 15 -20 meter circle.  Elephants eat about 250 kilo of food a day.  The chains were unlocked and the elephant assisted the mahout in pulling and coiling the chain before carrying it back to the road for storage.  We walked back to the conservation centre for an additional elephant ride and a trek around the peninsula.

Carla, the elephant vet
In the afternoon we visited the elephant hospital, spoke with the vet (from the Dominican Republic), and learned about the maternity leave program for pregnant elephants.  Having a pregnant elephant is a significant economic hardship for the mahout.  Pregnancy lasts 22 months and the mother to be cannot work for the last 12 months.  Following birth the mother elephant cannot work for an additional 2.5 years.  Because of this few domesticated elephants are allow to breed, a major cause for the decline of the elephant herd in Lao.  The Elephant Conservation Centre assist mahouts who allow their female elephants to breed and give birth by subsidizing the mahout during the 3.5 year economic drought.

In addition to the elephant maternity program, the ECC has a breeding program, and a mobile elephant health clinic.  The vet and several assistants travel to logging camps, and elephant centres to treat sick and injured elephants.  Some elephants are transported to the ECC for treatment and recovery.

We visited the maternity area of the ECC and saw two baby elephants on an adjacent peninsula.  They seemed to be having fun, but were controlled by their mothers.  We also passed by the breeding area where the male elephant and one of the young females are confined for 4 hours per day in the hope a breeding program will arise.


Mother and child
While we were at the ECC Connie Speight (a spry and active 86 year old from Santa Barbara, CA) came to visit her elephants.  Connie is the founder of the Elephant Umbrella Fund and has rescued at least 15 Asian elephants from abuse and horrid working conditions.  Her connection with the elephants can be seen in this picture.

Connie Speight with one of the saved elephants
On our final morning we retrieved the elephants and went on a hike to a nearby Buddhist shrine containing a footprint of  Buddha.  Many such shrines exist throughout Asia.  After a quick lunch we returned to town via a dugout canoe powered by a gas engine which skimmed across the lake.  On the other side of the dam, was the local golf club.  (It appeared to be a par three course with two holes).

Note from Liz: Connie was amazing - I assumed that she was in her early 70s. A role model for sure.