The Incredible Disappearing Elephants at Phou Khao Khuay

Scandinavian Bakery, Vientiane - just found out about Whitney - sniff sniff

Ready to hit the road!

At the time of my last dispatch, we were sitting on the upper veranda of the Scandinavian Bakery in central Vientiane, fuelling up for our ride south. Moments later, we were zipping along Route 13, making a quick stop for baguettes at the city limits and I was busting some classic Whitney which I just happened to have on my iPod (we’d just heard of her tragic passing). Panic temporarily set in when I realized we didn’t have the iPod charger with us, and had instead shipped it with the rest of our stuff to Pakse – but amazingly, the dilemma was quickly resolved when we found we were able to purchase a new one for about $3 from a dusty pile at a makeshift roadside shack.

Behind me, the shack where we bought an iPod charger for $3

Two hours outside Vientiane, we passed signposts for the tiny village of Ban Na, known for its herd of wild elephants which can be observed at close proximity from an specially-built open-air tower in the forest of Phou Khao Khuay (a national protected area). We decided to stop and see what it was all about. As we puttered slowly down the main drag of Ban Na, villagers glanced warily at us from their basket weaving (it’s a town-wide pastime, sponsored by a large company). Many little kids smiled and waved, a phenomenon that doesn’t happen often with the jaded children of Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

False advertising

We somehow found the “office”, which consisted of a picnic table in front of the home of the “director”, and managed to get his wife (also busily weaving baskets) to summon him for us. The carefully worded sign he pointed to informed us that the observation tower was built as a community development initiative to counteract the negative effects the wild elephants were having on nearby farms (mainly, feasting at will on crops of sticky rice, bananas, and sugar cane). Funding for the project was provided by the German and Canadian embassies. The admission fee was a bit steep by southeast Asian standards: $40 for the afternoon, during which two guides would lead us on a 4km trek to the tower and back (tourists aren’t allowed to go on their own, and the path isn’t signposted). He then said that we were unlikely to see elephants during the day, though, and recommended we sleep overnight in the tower, adding that we were the only tourists that day (this meant we wouldn’t have to make small talk with other annoying backpackers). We quickly agreed that the discomfort of camping and the disruption of our plan to get to Tha Khaek that night could be overlooked for a chance to see wild elephants. We handed over the exorbitant fee of 800,000 kip (about $100).

We loved our guides, Thipavong and Mr. Bounmi (we never figured out why only one of them was “Mr.”). Despite their extremely limited English, we chatted amiably throughout the trek and they made it their mission to teach us Lao, which we’d previously assumed was indecipherable. We oohed and aahed as Thipavong pointed out ginger plants and termite hills.

Taking a break during the trek

At some point along the way, we asked what time the elephants usually come near the tower. The response was vague – “xang baw ma”, which according to our (woefully inadequate) phrase book, meant… the elephants were not coming at all. We tried to contain our annoyance and figured we’d not understood each other. Riccardo said he’d draw our question again when we got to the tower. The rest of the trek was slightly awkward, with the guides and us each chatting with each other in hushed tones. “If there are no elephants, why the heck did we just pay $100 to sleep outside?!”

A short time later, back at the tower, we realized with 100% certainty that we’d been taken for a ride. We also concluded that our guides weren’t even in on the joke and had genuinely thought they’d just been hired to take us on a camping trip. Thipavong told us that elephants hadn’t come to the tower in over a year! We resolved to gather our things and try to head back to Ban Na, but were quickly discouraged from that plan as it was getting dark and we would never be able to find our way through the maze of paths and fields. Besides, the fire had already been lit for dinner. Having no other choice, we decided to deal with the “director” the next day and try to enjoy the expensive but elephant-less camping trip as best we could.

It turned out to be a lovely evening, actually! Through a combination of charades, pointing at the phrase book, and frantic gesticulating, the four of us were able to communicate quite effectively. Dinner was beyond amazing – Thipavong whipped up some sort of buffalo and vegetable curry, there was a salsa of grilled tomatoes which even I found incredibly spicy, and the freshest river fish I’ve ever eaten – they were still floundering as Thipavong threw them on the fire (I know, brutal). All of this was accompanied by a massive heap of sticky rice, regular doses of Lao-Lao (whiskey made from sticky rice) – “for good sleep”, Thipavong advised, and lively conversation. They even gave us Lao nicknames – Riccardo is now “Xang” (elephant – because he’s a giant by Lao standards) and I’m “Phet” (spice – on account of my overzealous consumption of green chillies).

Dinner was amazing, despite my pained expression (I wasn't ready for a photo)

Sadly, “good sleep” would elude us city slickers. A thin straw mat and some ratty sleeping bags were generously provided, but being a germophobe I preferred to wrap myself in every item of clothing I’d brought instead. We also got a mosquito net (we hadn’t brought ours), which turned out to be extremely helpful. The wooden floor was hard and draughty, and the air got chilly. Worst of all, the noises of the forest (which some may find soothing) kept me in a constant state of high alertness. The various bird calls and howls we could hear in the distance were dazzling, but were joined by the less romantic noises of squirrel-like creatures scurrying around the tree right next to us. I, for one, do not find the sound of nearby rodents to be particularly comforting.

Morning finally came. Despite our resolve to have fun the previous night, our level of discomfort stirred a new anger at the shady “elephant-sighting” scheme. We had also read the extensive literature on display in the tower and learned that the cost for staying in the tower should actually be much less that what we paid. Thipavong and Mr. Bounmi once again managed to soften our hearts with a wonderful Lao-style breakfast: noodle soup, a gigantic and very tasty omelette, another freshly-made salsa, and more sticky rice. We trekked back to Ban Na in a relatively zen-like mode.

Breakfast, equally amazing

A better view of the observation tower where we spent the night - that's Thipavong

Raising the ladder, presumably to stop elephants from invading the tower

Back in Ban Na, we decided to take a more Lao approach to resolving the matter, since we have learned that losing one’s temper with anyone in southeast Asia is likely to yield the opposite result to the one you want. The concept of “jai yen” – keeping a ‘cool heart’ – is valued above all else. Failing to keep jai yen inevitably results in nervous smiling and laughing on the part of the Laos, and the dialogue is effectively brought to an end. Thus, we met with the “director” and his daughter (who spoke a bit more English than him) with warm smiles and calm voices, and respectfully asked for some of our money back. Although not an enormous sum for us, and obviously more so for them, Riccardo and I both felt that saying nothing and accepting the slight would perpetuate the culture of corruption and the assumption that foreigners visiting Lao can be treated as walking ATMs.

They explained that the villagers have decided to charge more than they used to in order to offset the damages of an elephant rampage that extensively destroyed crops last year. No return of any of our money would be possible. We kept smiling and I invoked the “karma” argument – “Look. We don’t want to take money away from the village. But it’s not right to tell tourists there are elephants here if there are none. If you return some of our money, you will still have a lot and we will be happier. Good karma all around.” By now, a sizeable crowd had gathered around the picnic table, watching the proceedings. After lengthy consultation between them all, we were solemnly presented with two 50,000 kip notes. We nodded, wai-ed, shook hands with our guides, packed up the bike, and took our leave; satisfied with the symbolic gesture.

We’re in Tha Khaek now, and about to get on the road towards Savannakhet – stay tuned.

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One thought on “The Incredible Disappearing Elephants at Phou Khao Khuay

  1. The Scandinavian bakery was my favourite cafe in Vientiane! Their coffee and marzipan pastries were amazing. Sorry to hear about your elephant scam. You should take them to the tribunal for “false and misleading advertising”…
    Did you stay at Mali Namphu in Vientiane?

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