On our last night in Laos and our last night on this journey, we take a Lao cooking class, and the class fully exceeds expectations. The chef is delightfully entertaining, the food is delicious and very cleanly prepared, the other classmates are fun and easy going, and the setting is serene. The Tamarind cooking class did not disappoint. When we get back to the States, we may take a break from Asian food for a little while, but we are excited that we can now make a couple easy dishes of our own as soon as we start missing the tastes and smells of Laos.
On our first afternoon in Luang Prabang, we meet an ex-San Franciscan who has stationed himself in Laos teaching English. He runs a non-profit school, inviting any and all who wish to learn in what little free time they have. After only a brief conversation, we are invited to his evening class to be interviewed by his students and then join the group for dinner. We immediately accept.
We’re picked up by students on motorbikes and then make our way to the classroom (and home for some of the students). The class starts with the students asking Lindsey and me about our jobs and soon morphs into us also asking them questions about the Hmong and their lives. The students, all boys, are from large families in poor villages. In most instances, they are the only English speakers in their communities. In Laos, an education is not free. Their families have worked hard and sacrificed greatly to enable them to attend school. But the school system in Laos is insufficient. Teachers are paid sporadically and won’t show up if they have a better offer for their time. It’s not uncommon that teachers don’t know about the subjects they’re teaching, so classes are often spent copying pages from a textbook. We learn that the non-profit English class we are attending strives to supplement the education from Laos schools. The boys learn about the countries that surround Laos. They learn how to maintain a budget. They learn that anything is possible if they can imagine it. The experience is both humbling and inspiring.
Class wraps up with the some of the students playing guitar and all singing along. Then some have to leave, but we stick around for more conversation over dinner. The students prepare the dinner and while we eat, we learn the aspirations of everyone around the table and the challenges that they will need to be overcome to achieve them. The goals we hear vary from becoming a journalist and a teacher to finding love and starting a family.
Lastly, before parting ways for the night, we get the chance to help one of the students with an essay for an application he is working on, which is inspiring both because of the deeply intense subject matter and because of how much he had to get through to get to this point in his life. Through this essay, we learn the student’s path of many trying and difficult jobs and experiences that led him to today. We wonder how he ever came up with the idea that things could be different when he had never been presented with an alternative way of life. We’re not sure we would have had the motivation, energy, and general street smarts to even come close to what he has been able to do.
We make plans to meet up again tomorrow for the Hmong New Year’s kickoff before being motorbike back to our Guesthouse.
Elephants are majestic creatures. Confident in each step, calm with each bite, all the while towering over most other animals. We adore elephants; want them to be treated kindly, fairly, and humanely. That said, we were faced with the dilemma of wanting to ride an elephant. We knew that there is clear research that shows that the trekking chair that goes on the elephant’s back is damaging and painful for the elephant, so we stayed clear of this experience. That said, we also learned that there is mixed opinion about riding elephants bareback. It’s a difference that goes back to cultures and economics. Docile female elephants that are already domesticated and need to be financially supported can be kindly ridden on the back of their necks.
We made sure that these elephants walked no more 4 hours a day, which is the number considered ethical under most temperatures and terrains. In addition, most of the elephants at the sanctuary we visited were rescued from previous horrible conditions – the one that I rode had previously stepped on the edge of a landmine and was missing a giant toenail. We made sure that the place we visited didn’t use bullhooks or trekking chairs. And we made sure that elephants were watched over and given plenty of food and water to be healthy and happy.
Now that we’ve made ourselves feel better about riding a elephants, the experience was awesome. The connectedness that we feel when riding elephants just behind their ears makes us feel both terrified that we’ll fall about 10 feet but also thrilled to feel the muscles undulate with every step and movement the elephants do. To try to stay on, both Lindsey and I tense our legs with our knees tucked behind our elephant’s ears and use our arms to try balance on the elephant’s head. Although it’s clear no one is worried we may fall off, Lindsey and I are still slightly panicked – especially when my giant one (about 1 or 2 feet taller than the rest) decides to pass the other elephants while climbing a steep hill.
We love the experience from learning to ride an elephant without a chair, helping to wash the elephant in the Mekong, and learning about the history and wonder of elephants all the while.
Pro tip: We visit the waterfalls at 9am, which means less swimming, but more importantly no other visitors. We have the place to ourselves until 10:30am. And what a place it is. The pictures don’t do it justice.
Luang Probang is vibrant and calm. The land is lush and the brown Mekong River is dotted with brightly painted boats. Monks walk quietly, yesterday’s bright orange robes drying on the line. The tuk tuks are orange, blue, red, and white. Golden temples are everywhere. There is one main street in Old Town. It’s just a mile long and extends a few blocks in either direction making the area feel manageable. It’s tropical and only recently discovered by tourists, giving us the benefit of a tourist economy in a place where authenticity reigns.
At the morning market you can find chicken, dead or alive, rats roasted on a stick, vegetables picked fresh at dawn, and noodles served atop a banana leaf. At the night market you can find jewelry, key chains and spoons made from bombs and unexploded ordinances from the civil war. We were asked not to allow anyone other than registered guests into our hotel, to keep up “public morale”. English is the language of tourists, and tourists are the source of income, so everyone from monks to guides to shop owners are eager to learn. Most only know “shop talk” though, meaning they know the script of their field, but nothing outside of it. Our favorite restaurant is called Khaiphaen, both for its food and its mission to help street children and youth in Laos. The cuisine in Laos is simple, as most people cook over a fire, using only what can be found in nature. You can still find croissants and baguettes, a relic of ownership by the French.
Luang Prabang is a Southeast Asian oasis. The UNESCO World Heritage site served as a retreat for us, far from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Laos is in the midst of change. It’s easy to look past the poverty and struggle in the sparkle of Western comfort and the highest level of service. We’re so grateful to get to experience a more complete Luang Prabang.