The B.F.E.

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Friday, 18 March, 2011

Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos has been a very pleasant experience. The country’s overall vibe is pretty mellow and locals are extremely accommodating.

In fact, I may as well just announce it early – I intend to throw an end of trip award ceremony and Laos will be taking the trophy for friendliest country. Justin Bieber will be there in person to collect the award and tickets will be priced at £200 *the lineup may change at any point with no prior warning*.

The first sure sign of how incredibly relaxed things were about to get came when we took a trip to the tourist office on day one. The guy paused his computer game, put down his controller, smiled, shared the information we desired, shook our hands, and then went back to trying to defeat the boss on level four.

While the teenagers operating the tills are pretty cool, they don’t even compare to the chilled-out monks of Luang Prabang – these guys are the hippest cats walking the streets.

The Laotian monk is the new millennium’s answer to a mod – they don’t walk, they strut. They wear sunglasses, have mobile phones with pop song ringtones, and wink at the ladies – they are straight up players (that are not allowed to play). I bet they have wild parties.

A part of me wanted to join this new fad, but popular trends have certain dress codes and that’s not really up my alley. I’m a man of simple pleasures, a pair of jeans and a t-shirt will do just fine. The monks are worse than most when it comes to their gear. They all wear identical robes – come on, lads. You’re not six-year-old twins with a mum that loves to hunt out those 2-for-1 offers.

We were in the tourist office to book a package deal which included elephant riding – this was big on Ruby’s to-do list. I would have to sacrifice a few nights of beer drinking for the fee, because it wasn’t particularly cheap. Still, once in a lifetime and all that.

On our way to the elephants, Ruby was in desperate need of a pee. So, she hurriedly jumped straight out of the van as soon as we arrived at the destination. This move landed her sat down in a big, old, slippery pile of elephant crap. There’s a nice level of irony there – after all, she did immediately find a toilet. Unfortunately, it was an elephant’s toilet.

It looked painful and it was important to confirm that she was not hurt before laughing – that was a bloody difficult task. Thankfully, she was fine, just embarrassed and very smelly. Therefore, I could and did laugh a lot.

After a quick clean up, we headed over to the elephants – who appeared to be well looked after and happy. I always feel a little bit wary on these kind of trips, regarding the animal’s well-being. However, these guys seem to be in a good place. Their blissfulness could easily be down to the fact that they just witnessed Ruby diving into their crap though.

As we climbed on the elephant, we couldn’t seem to shrug off this 10-year-old kid that stood alongside us – at first, we thought he had either lost his parents or was begging for money. It turned out that he was there for neither of those reasons. The young lad was going to be our guide and elephant handler – I can’t deny that I was a bit anxious that a ten-year-old would be playing the role of adult in such a scenario.

When I was ten, I was made to wash the dishes or clean the car. Apparently, in Laos a child’s chores include walking elephants through the jungle. He’s still waiting for his voice to break and his CV already surpasses mine.

On a serious note, it is completely insane that a ten-year-old boy would be burdened with such pressure and trust.

The kid and his elephant pal seemed to have a pretty good routine. We were quick to learn that the elephant was fairly fat for a reason, therefore, young Mowgli’s system was pretty simple. He allowed the big guy to shovel half a forest in his mouth every five minutes, ensuring that he wasn’t a grouch and happy to follow instructions. Rather smart tactics.

As our walk through the forest was coming to an end, we were informed that we would now be given full control of the elephant – yes, I was uneasy about such a young guide before, but I certainly trusted his elephant handling skills more than I did my own.

It’s not like learning to ride a bike, where a fall may result in a grazed knee. If you fall off an elephant, they’re clumsy and weigh like 5,000 kg – you’d probably be looking at two grazed knees. Nobody carries that many plasters around with them.

Our task would be to guide the elephants down to the river before bathing them. Naturally, we were given a briefing in how to control an elephant, this lasted all of about thirty seconds with all instructive words, of course, being in Laotian.

We had fifteen or so commands to remember, each of which we only heard once. It took me two weeks to memorise how to count to ten in French back in high school, now I was expected to control a bloody elephant in another language. I demand notebooks and highlighter pens! I sensed that I may be leaving this scenario with two grazed knees.

The lack of preparation time became apparent and I made a pretty poor error. I stupidly ended up confusing ‘slow down’ with ‘go forward’. Now, as far as instructions go, they are probably the two worst commands to switch.

He was galloping towards the river pretty excitedly and quickly, this made us a bit nervous. So, naturally, I accidentally started shouting ‘go forward’. It then proceeded to move even quicker – there was a point when we were almost over its head and sliding down its trunk.

Our guide was belly laughing against a tree as he watched us almost get trampled on – it’s hard to be annoyed though, as that is exactly what I would have been doing when I was ten-years-old, too.

The Mekong River was evidently the elephants’ happy place, because once they made it into the water they suddenly became very lively. They were having a great time splashing around and who was I to tell them to stop? I also didn’t want to risk accidentally telling it to ‘kick me in the head’ or something.

The giddiness of the animals did result in us frequently being dunked in and out of the water like a chocolate biscuit going into a cup of tea, but that was all part of the fun. The dunking probably helped Ruby washout any crap she still had left on her clothes from her previous fall as well –  another reason to appreciate the mayhem.

After surviving the underwater, bouncy-castle challenge, we were down to our final task – it was time to feed the elephants. I’m not sure how they could still possibly be hungry after making us stop countless times for a branch brunch, but it does explain why they do such large craps.

Their afternoon treat would be a bunch of bananas. I was tossed my bananas, only for a trunk to land on my lap within seconds, grip hold of the goods and then swing them into its big, fat gob. The activity was over as soon as it began.

My elephant patted me on the knee a few times with its out-swinging trunk, but soon realised that I was now foodless and worthless. The big guy then marched me over to Ruby’s elephant with only one thing on its mind – a banana split. Ruby had made a solid bond with her elephant though, so she only gave greedy guts one from her bunch.

Once dinner time was up, we said our goodbyes and were soon on our merry way. Overall, it was a really enjoyable day.

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