A journey to Laos – ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’
Once upon a time the indigenous Lao elephant was as common as
western farmers’ tractors. There are now less than 1,400 left. Ancient
scripts record that human interaction with these venerated “Kings of the
Forests” began at least 5 thousand years ago and are believed, by the
Shamanic/Buddhist Lao, to have once succoured the Buddha while he was
fasting in search of exquisite enlightenment. To the Lao, these leviathans
of the jungle are sacred and revered as living icons and are central to the
mystic Laotian culture.
Still embraced as the sacred Xiang -’Land of a Million Elephants’, 800 wild
elephants still populate the remaining 35%of virgin Lao forest. 560
privately owned working elephants labour alongside their mahouts, dragging
the dead weight of 2-tonne rosewood logs from the jungle as machines cannot
access the valuable and illegally plundered exotic woods.
monk splashes holy water on the sacred animals.
Hard toil and stress are rapidly taking a grievous toll of the dwindling
elephant population. An elephant, similar in life span to a human, begins
training at age 3 and is traditionally partnered with a Lao infant boy. The
juvenile mahout grows with the animal, forming a lifelong working
partnership. At 15, the elephant is mature enough to begin its toil.
Each elephant and its mahout support, statistically, 3.5 extended families.
Once, tired elephants were allowed lengthy recuperative periods. Latterly
inflation has caught up with the elephant heavy-haulage business. The 35% of
un-plundered Lao forest that remains can, increasingly, only be accessed by
Loss of habitat is killing the elephants as surely as a rifle bullet. Too
exhausted to breed, the Lao elephant is now doomed unless the few fecund
cows are released from their work to breed. If not, the “Kings of the
Forest” are destined for extinction within the next half decade.
Laotian wild elephants are now totally protected. Lao farmers are not. An
elephant’s voracious appetite consumes 250 kilos of succulent foliage a day.
Loss of their ancient stamping grounds mean the ravenous wild population
destroys frail bamboo and rattan villages, killing helpless farmers whilst
rampaging in search of food.
feed their charges.
The communist authorities, with a relatively benign and free-wheeling
interpretation of Marxist/Leninism, have collectively realized that perhaps
the remaining forest and their huge inhabitants are worth saving - if only
as a profitable tourist attraction.
The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, sparsely populated by 6.5 million
ethnic Lao, has, over the last decade, tentatively opened its borders to
embrace the once loathed western democracies and their “evil” capitalistic
tendencies. Laos shut its borders in 1954 after Ho Chi Minh ousted the lotus
eating, exploitative French colonists in a bloody confrontation, later
deposing and allegedly ‘removing for re- education’, members of the esteemed
Lao Royal Family.
Laos claims the unenviable statistic of being the most bombed country on the
planet. During the Vietnam War, ten years of relentless bombing by American
B52s sent the Lao people underground, creating vast subterranean cities
within the labyrinthine cave systems hidden deep within the mountainous
northern highlands. The wild creatures above were left to their own devices.
Uncountable numbers of elephants perished, either by direct hits or by
innocently treading on unexploded munitions, most notably the sadistically
effective cluster bombs, ensuring a gruesomely slow death.
elephants take tourists for a ride.
UXB’s still maim or kill villagers and creatures alike in the remoter
regions. 2.6 million cluster bombs were liberally sprinkled over their bare
heads. In remoter and as yet uncleared territory, a thousand Lao a year are
killed or seriously maimed from the rotting but still lethal munitions.
After the cessation of hostilities the beleaguered country was simply
dismissed and forgotten by the wider world.
The People’s Democratic Republic overlords are finally arriving at the
conclusion that the remaining virginal forest, poison free soil and pristine
rivers are profitable tourist attractions, and that elephants have the
magnetic ability to attract dollar-clutching tourists. Laos is now open for
Many young Lao under 40 have never seen an elephant, let alone interacted
with one. Such is Laos’ paucity of pachyderms - and along with them the
mahout culture. As a result, the optimistically monikered National Tourism
Administration have embarked on a “re-education programme” to reconnect the
Lao with their cultural deity. Hence the third Lao Elephant Festival, which
will be held next February in Sayaboury City.
Last year’s chaotically successful festival in Pak Lay saw 74 grandly
marching elephants and 40,000 exuberant travellers descend upon and
overwhelm dusty Pak Lay for a three-day gala event celebrating the sacred
elephant and the ancient Lao culture. Gaily decorated working elephants,
resplendent with brightly decorated howdahs, painted toenails and garlanded
with tiaras of wild flowers perambulated about, straddled by their elegantly
uniformed mahouts and showing a benign disregard for the myriad spectators
clutching small children and dashing between the four stumpy columns that
are an elephant’s legs.
Despite the din, swooshing sky rockets, the chaotic traffic of zippy little
Chinese motorbikes and the devil-may-care antics of the thousands that
swamped the small provincial town, the cavalcade of elephants ambled through
the streets in a well ordered line formation. They patiently participated in
religious events, were dazzled by a myriad flash guns, blessed by monks, and
pawed and tickled by endless kids. They demonstrated log hauling techniques
and otherwise meandered about giving rides and behaving like boisterous
puppies at evening bath time. Despite considerable innocent provocation, the
mahouts, via a language of grunts and yells, steered their huge charges
through the crowds.
My Lao style hard bed was in the basement. My Lao is almost nil and my
hosts’ English non-existent. We communicated via much arm waving, silly
mimes and smiles. I’m probably the first white Caucasian/Australian ever to
have been welcomed under their roof. While I slumbered, innumerable kids and
a slightly daft grandfather sneaked down the stairs and squatted, cuddling
their knees and staring fascinated, as the giant hairy falang twitched and
Dining on Lao cuisine, especially alfresco, demands a considerable act of
faith and becomes tricky when you’re a guest of an overwhelmingly hospitable
Lao family. The impoverished but optimistic Lao waste nothing that is
remotely edible. Most dishes are based on recognizable ingredients -
glutinous sticky rice, vegetables, noodle soups, various permutations of
boiled or charcoal grilled pork, scrawny chicken and scrumptiously crunchy
grilled fish. Don’t be surprised, though, to discover the sightless eye of a
deceased pig staring dismally back from your noodle soup.
As an honoured guest you get the best bits. It doesn’t do to be squeamish.
Good manners are important as Lao folks are unfailingly polite. You must eat
and fervently hope the next course, prepared especially for your
delectation, is not that Lao delicacy - the fermented contents of a
buffalo’s first stomach! Another warning - fermented rice hooch, capable of
starting a rusty engine, is wicked and should be approached with
Travelling ‘roads’ in Lao requires a certain stamina, considerable patience,
initiative and a sense of humour. The few paved roads through major towns
and villages vanish onto bone jarring tracks, incorporating some surprising
obstacles. The occasional elephant or archaic Chinese log truck belching a
filthy fug of oily fumes and grossly overloaded under the weight of illegal
rosewood trunks add extra bowel-loosening moments. I wondered how much Karma
would be lost if we actually hit a monk - and there are lots of them -
pushing a cartload of firewood?
Lao drivers are a cavalier lot and pay scant attention to the niceties of
conventional driving etiquette. They hurtle along the deeply crevassed
roads, semi-blinded by swirling eddies of dust, career around sharp bends
leaning hopefully on their horns and play vehicular Russian Roulette with
Wandering buffalo, black hairy pigs, and small battered motor bikes belching
fumes with entire families of mum, dad, two kids and an aging grandmother
grimly hanging on, flash past and vanish in to the dust. Gaudily painted
taxi trucks bulging with humanity jammed in like tinned herrings, all
laughing hysterically and waving. Scruffy kids clutching squawking roosters
hang off the sides, adding a further thrilling dimension to survival.
Entry into the once self exiled and shamefully plundered country is
surprisingly simple. Visa applications are dealt with reasonably swiftly
prior to departure or can be obtained over the counter at Laos’ numerous
entry points. Expect the unexpected and you will never be disappointed.
Ageing buses only leave when full to capacity and beyond. Rely on a time
table at your peril. Three-wheeled taxi trucks provide a cheap, crammed and
coronary -inducing ride worthy of any major fun park.
Riding the Mekong River aboard a grossly overcrowded, lurching longboat is a
surrender to fate. Hunkered and helmeted, speed boat taxi trips are fast,
furious and wet, and relatively expensive.
Accommodation ranges from basic home-stay, living with a Lao family and
kipping on a rattan floor, to comfortably renovated guest houses in the
French colonial shop house style with en suite and thirty channels of crazy
television, and upmarket western style hotels, with lots of permutations in
between. A hundred bucks will still go a long way in Laos.
Sayaboury will host the next Elephant Festival on February 14-15, and is
located within four hours of the ‘must see’ UNESCO protected ancient Royal
City Of Luang Prabang. For more information, the excellent
www.elefantasia.org (a small French NGO) provides constant updates and
comprehensive information on the festival and the current state of the
Elephants demonstrate their log hauling
at the Lao Elephant Festival in Pak Lay.
Well-known Burmese artists
on show at the new Suriya Gallery
Chiang Mai, haven for artists and art lovers, has one more
gallery now. The Suriya Gallery, off Huay Kaew Road, is showing a range
of contemporary Burmese artists in an open setting. Suriya owners, Aung
Soe Min and Nance Cunningham, are happy to bring these well-known
Burmese artists to a wider public, and to show their new work to those
who cannot make it to Yangon.
Soe Min and Nance Cunningham are the proprietors of the new Suriya
Gallery in Chiang Mai.
The recent opening of the Suriya Gallery was a friendly and busy
occasion, with delicious Burmese food being served with refreshingly
cold Shan tea. Art-lovers milled about, admiring the artists’
atmospheric, colourful and often exuberant canvasses, which represented
many different styles and subjects and used various media. Aung and
Nance, obviously in love with their work, had problems dividing their
time between serving the refreshments and answering countless questions
about the artists and their subjects. No pretensions here, just
wonderful art and friendly, knowledgeable people.
The couple fully support 5 Burmese artists by buying all their work, and
regularly accept submissions from many more, to be shown either in their
Pan Sodan Road gallery in downtown Yangon, or here in Chiang Mai. Around
30 paintings are being exhibited here at present, representing 10
artists, plus a large selection of imported hand-drawn copies of Pagan
mural paintings representing mythical and Buddhist themes.
Some paintings, such as the impasto Mandalay scenes of Aung Naing Maung,
the very different dancers of Myo Nyunt Khin and Soe Naing, the Rakhine
and Shan views of Thant Myint Aung, and the Yangon scenes of Moat Thone,
explicitly draw on Burmese culture and landscapes. Others, such as
Eikaza Cho’s tumbling figures, Than Htay Maung’s expedition series, Soe
Naing’s subliminal creatures, and Kyi May Kaung’s collages, are entirely
in the landscape of the mind. All are beautiful in their own way.
For the art-lover, it is the colours which strike the eye first - some
incredibly bright, combining non-complimentary colours in a most unusual
and successful manner, others subtle and gentle, irresistibly drawing
the viewer into the subject.
Unusually for this writer, there was not one single painting which was
‘unliveable with.’ And more than several which would have been wonderful
to wake up to each morning. Given the conditions under which the Burmese
people are forced to live, the joyful and thoughtful expressions of the
artists’ perceptions are all the more astonishing.
The Suriya Gallery also has a coffee shop and cafe, serving delicious
northern Thai coffee and Shan tea, with free wireless internet, in a
refreshing studio-like atmosphere. Open all hours (or at least until 10
p.m.) - every day - this is a great place to sit, relax, admire, and
Nance has spent 8 years in Burma, working in public heath and Aids
prevention, and is of course fluent in the Burmese language. In their
spare time (what spare time?) she and her partner Aung are compiling a
definitive Burmese/English dictionary, the pocket version of which is
due out at the end of this month. From January, they will hold regular
Burmese conversation classes at all levels from advanced beginner to
Framing can be expensive here in Chiang Mai, however Nancy and Aung have
many of their works beautifully framed at very reasonable prices at a
small workshop owned by Jintavanee, a local wood-worker. It’s located in
Soi Bua Luang, which is just off the Holiday Garden Hotel on Huay Kaew
Road. Drive past the hotel, turn right, then right again at the next
crossing into a small lane. Jintavanee’s sub-workshop is on the right,
his main workshop is on the left in his compound. You can email him on
jintavanee_house @hotmail.com, or call on 089-701-8990/084-045-7499.
Well worth finding if you need a picture framed.
The Suriya Gallery is located off Huey Kaew Road, in the first Soi on
the left coming into town from the Canal Road. Parking is easy, just
turn into the compound behind the ‘Nail Shop’ on the corner. The address
is 16/1, Huey Kaew Road, tel:- 053-221-969.