So today I rode on an elephant's neck, NBD

We couldn’t decide whether to schedule an elephant ride. What if it seemed exploitative, or just tacky?

Obviously, we went for it. There’s a sustainable-tourism outfit in Luang Prabang that centers around a sanctuary for former logging elephants, so we went out there. The elephants seemed to be treated very affectionately, and we learned lots of interesting facts: elephants can carry almost half their body weight; they eat hundreds of pounds of food and drink dozens of gallons of water a day; they gestate for about two years and elephant calves are milk-dependent for three years after birth! We also got to view a comparison poster contrasting Asian and African elephants — apparently Asian elephants are “wrinkly” and African elephants are “very wrinkly.” We’ll report back.

The guides kept suggesting that, in addition to the standard thing of riding in a little basket tied to the elephant’s back, we could also climb down to the elephant’s neck, which is usually where the guide, or mahout, sits. We tried to convey how very appreciative we were of this opportunity while politely refusing. This approach… was not successful.

I would say that sitting on an elephant’s neck is exhilarating, somewhat terrifying, and a fantastic inner-thigh workout.

Also, in a group of basically docile animals, our elephant was mutinous and badly behaved. Everybody else would be walking politely in a line and our elephant would try to overtake on the narrow path, or swing abruptly over to some especially delicious-looking bushes and start ripping them apart with her trunk and eating them. This was occasionally alarming but also pretty adorable.

Post-ride, we got to hang out with the elephants and feed them. Elephants have poor eyesight but fantastic sense of smell, and they knew exactly where the bananas were at all times. We’d stand there and these huge fleshy hoses would rear toward us, and we’d hold out an unpeeled banana or even several, and they would snorf them up with the wet toothless mouths at the ends of their trunks, deposit them in their actual mouths, and then immediately reextend the trunks for more food. MORE FOOD NOW! I felt a strong urge to hug them, but I mastered myself.

In the post-game recap over some Beers Laos, we got all grandiose about Luang Prabang, envisioning coming back with our hypothetical 10-year-olds some years hence. Who knows, but it’s definitely high on the list of places to return.

Paradise Laos'd

Let’s begin with the most important thing: Laos puns.

Regardless of whether you pronounce Laos to rhyme with the Yao in Yao Ming, or to rhyme with Taos as in Taos, New Mexico, Laos really lends itself to a punny blog-post title. But I’m not sure I’m doing justice to this opportunity. The problem is not just my limited pun-imagination, but also the apparent lack of consensus on proper pronunciation. “Laos-d and clear” only really works if Laos rhymes with Yao; if, instead, Laos rhymes with Taos, “All Laos’d up” might be a better way to go. Unfortunately, we kept getting conflicting reports on which was correct. And also neither of my sample puns makes any sense. So the rather poor Paradise Laos’d it is, but if you guys think of some greater Laos pun, please chime in.

As you may have guessed, we loved Laos, at least what we saw of it. We were not in the country that long — only three nights in Luang Prabang — and we almost didn’t make it at all, because our schedule was feeling tight. But luckily my former San Francisco roommate, Sabrina, had traveled extensively in southeast Asia, and said Laos had been her favorite destination. Thank goodness we were in possession of her recommendation, because LAOS IS AWESOME.

Or at the very least, Luang Prabang is awesome. Most tourists stay in the old town, which is on a peninsula created by the meeting of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers*, and which feels like Martha’s Vineyard in the jungle, except with approximately one temple for every three non-temple buildings. It’s sleepy and mostly pedestrian, with picket fences and low-key colonial architecture (so, cute n’ breezy two- and three-story brick and clapboard buildings, rather than the magisterial We Will Rock You form that colonial architecture sometimes takes). There are businesses that cater exclusively to tourists, but they’re right alongside the ones that cater mainly to locals. There aren’t any big hotels or chain businesses or tour buses pulling up. After the bustle of Hanoi, crossing the street in Luang Prabang felt like crossing my bedroom.

Every night on the quiet, cafe-dotted main drag of the old town, there’s a night market — featuring mostly clothing and jewelry and wood carvings and paintings and stuff, and patronized mostly by tourists. But there was this weird differentiating factor separating this market from others of its type: I actually wanted to buy things. The things I would have picked up for you guys if there’d been space in my bag! Awesome cloth handbags with wonderful embroidery and pom poms, beautiful silk things, cute little slippers with bells for all your babies, and embroidered skirts for your daughters. I’m not doing justice with my description — I guess the best I can come up with is that I think Anna Sui has been to this region a time or two. And that the color combinations remind me of those you see in images of Tibet, but leavened with some kind of linen-y neutrals? Anyway, I wanted to mow through the place souvenir-shopping, but for space reasons I refrained.

Instead we drank coffee in sidewalk cafes, drank beers at picnic tables overlooking the rivers, took sweaty walks, talked to a cute young monk who wanted to practice his English, tried lots of Laotian food — and, oh yeah, rode an elephant. More on that in a sec.

For now, though, an emphatic tourist bulletin: Laos, you’ll love it! Heartily endorsed. But don’t take my word for it — here are all of our Luang Prabang pictures. (Duh-nuh-DUN!)

* I know, I know, Mae Kok. Laos is brutal in its expectation that you will not make juvenile jokes about the names of things. Don’t even get me started on Mt. Phousi.