Elephant Riding and Bathing in Luang Prabang

So excited this morning. After a bit of a sleep in I got up and had a shower and got dressed for the elephant camp. After breakfast I sat in front of the building and waited for the driver to come and pick me up. I was waiting…. And waiting…. And it was fifteen minutes past the time that they had told me and I was starting to get worried. I saw a van go past and it was full of people. It pulled up further down the road. I was curious as to whether they had gotten the wrong place and as I looked down the road and saw the sign outside of where they were parked and it had the word Maniphone. I picked up my bag and started sprinting down the road as the driver got back into  the vehicle. I threw myself into the open window of the driver  seat and asked whether he  was from the All Lao Elephant Camp and he said yes. I told him that I was from the Maniphone Guesthouse as written on my form and not the Villa Maniphone. I almost missed out because of this. Lucky I was on the ball.

The journey was very French. The entire car was filled with a French family and all of the kids. I was starting to feel like maybe I should have gone with the others but when I arrived I met Amelie, a German girl who was also glad there was someone other than a French family here. We were paired off to share an elephant.

After much waiting and anticipation, we could see the elephants coming over the hill and we moved up towards the platform so that we could get on them. It felt really unsteady as my foot brushed over the rough skin covered in splinter like hairs that were very coarse. I sat down in the carriage and Amelie sat beside me locking the bar over so that we couldn’t fall out. Our mahout sat on the neck of the beautiful beast and gave him the command ‘bai’ meaning go, and off we went. It was such a weird feeling and I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time. The elephant wobbled from side to side and I felt like I was going to fall out at times, especially when we were going down the hills.

Amelie, Huong Huol and I

Her name was Huong Huol and I later found out that she was one spirited elephant. She liked to stop off and have a snack or a drink as we were moving along and occasionally she decided to go her own way instead of the way chosen by the mahout. I laughed so much. He was yelling at her ‘sai’ (left) and ‘kwaa’ (right) and ‘bai, bai bai’. It was one of the coolest things ever.

Shotgun seat! Riding up front!

The mahout jumped back and allowed Amelie to ride on the neck of the elephant and it was really wicked. I was hoping that I would get a turn. As luck had it, Amelie had sore thighs from the elephant hair rubbing her legs and she let me up front. This was even more cool and more wobbly than before. I sat with my legs wrapped tightly around her neck, dangling behind her ears. To manage to balance and stay on her neck I had to lean forward with my hands on the top of her head. I stayed on her neck like this until we got back to our starting place.

So pretty and precious she is!

The hour and a half went too quickly and the experience was somewhat surreal. I was so glad that I had the opportunity. We said goodbye to Huong Huol and headed down for lunch at the hut. After shoveling down lunch, we sat in eager anticipation of bathing. After about twenty minutes, we were told that it was time to go. We walked half way back around the track to the river and there were our elephants waiting for us. The woman took our bags, shoes and cameras for us and we went to climb aboard.

To get up on the elephant, the mahouts told them to sit down for us and we climbed up onto the necks. The elephants then walked down the steep hill into the river where they waded out for a fair way until it way deep enough. Then they were given the command, and their trunks went into the water, sucked up the water, and sprayed it at me as I was sitting there. I was completely drowned and I have never laughed so much in my life! The elephant kept doing it over and over and I gave his neck a wash by rubbing his thick, coarse skin. She sat down at one stage and when she reared up with her trunk I almost fell off and the mahouts were laughing their arses off. This was the most amazing thing ever and if I though that my day could not have gotten any better after the ride I was completely mistaken. This is one of the most incredible things I have ever done, and like all good thing, it was over too soon.

Elephant shower!

The elephants started to get out of the water and the woman took photos with my camera as we went. The elephant knelt down to let me off but before I could it was standing back up again and I literally slid the whole way down the side before thumping on to the ground. I said goodbye to our elephants and then headed back up the hill, completely elated, and completely drenched.

Completely drowned! Couldn’t be happier!

After attempting to dry off and waiting for an awful long time for someone to take us back to our guesthouses, we eventually found a driver who said he would take us back to Luang Prabang.  He didn’t know very much English and he didn’t know where our guesthouses were so we used the commands that we learned today with the elephants to get back. Sai for left, kwaa for right and straight with hand movements for straight ahead. It was quite the experience but we got back to our places eventually and said goodbye.
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The Backpackers Big 4

For any long time traveler out there, you will know exactly what it is that I am talking about. The Backpackers Big Four are those four big questions that all backpackers seem to ask each other as we live in this giant little bubble that serves to isolate us as we trek on down the road. A standard first conversation will generally go something like this….

Backpacker: “Hi! How are you? Where are you from?

Me: “Australia

Backpacker: “Oh cool. How long are you traveling for?

Me: “Don’t know. One way ticket.

Backpacker: “Oh my God, that is so amazing! Like, so where have you been so far?

Me: “From Mexico down to here in Costa Rica.

Backpacker: “That is crazy! Where are you going next?

Me: “Don’t know. Probably back to Canada.”

Backpacker: “That sounds so amazing!

I don’t know about you other long term backpackers out there, but I have had this conversation about a million times. And as we would say in Australia, it gives me the shits! (No I do not have diarrhoea, this literally just means that it annoys me immensely).

The Backpackers Big Four Questions are:

Where are you from?”, “Where are you going? “, “Where have you come from?” and “How long are you travelling for?”

Note that in among these questions, one of the most basic common courtesies gets left out. And that is the question “What is your name?”. Half of the time people don’t even ask. They just drop the big four and everyone goes off to the pub and has an awesome time.

There are multiple issues that I have with this standard structure of backpackers introduction. Firstly, it often does not allow for or lead to any kind of in depth discussion for the most part on deeper topics. Half of the people I meet traveling don’t even know where to take a conversation after the Big Four and this is frustrating because it never allows you to get to know a person with any kind of substance. You never really get to know a person at all based on these questions.

My second issue with this standard structure is that once you get off the road after a year and try and go back to normal society, you seem to lose your conversational skills. Meet someone in a bar that is kinda cute and you want to go talk to them….  well you can’t drop the Big Four at them, because we are no longer in ‘Travel-land’ so how do you go about this? Ummmm…. I don’t know…. I apparently lost my conversation opening skills…..

As a traveler/backpacker, I implore you to think outside the box. Try asking people about their family, their passions, their challenges. Talk about history, culture, scientific discoveries, current affairs. Talk about things that you are passionate about.  Make a joke. Talk to locals about their lives and what is going on in the area. Discover. Or otherwise you are just feeding into the never ending cycle of tourists who go on these trips, spend their entire time on the road drunk, learn nothing about the people they are with or about life and think they know and understand everything about the world.

To grow, you need challenge. So think up some new conversation topics and give them a go. Try and try again. Develop your ability to have conversations with people in a rich and fulfilling way that doesn’t feel like groundhog day every time you set foot into the next backpackers hostel. Have conversations where you can learn something new and of substance. Have conversations that will challenge your ways of thinking about things and that challenge and change who you are. And better still, when you start these conversations, open with the most important question that you should ask every time and never forget….. “What’s your name?”

The Evolution of Backpacking

Once upon a time in a land far away there was a group of backpackers from countries all round the world that would congregate in backpackers hostels and discuss life, politics, culture and important issues that faced them in this growing world. They would talk to locals about issues that faced them within their society. They would take in interest in volunteer projects, the environment and discovering the world around them. They were respectful of cultural differences and wanted to learn about how others live. They learned the languages of the people they were going to encounter so that they could communicate with as many people as possible in order to learn and grow within themselves…..

Unfortunately, this story doesn’t end with the happy ever after that most fairytales begin with, rather it continues with today’s generation making a mockery of the legacy that the founders of backpacking laid before them. Today backpacking has morphed into this disgusting display of cultural insensitivity as backpackers move their way from place to place on their Contiki tour bus with the main objectives being getting as drunk as one possibly can, getting high on cheap drugs and having sex with as many different nationalities as possible AKA the “International Whoring Mission” (or IWM for short).

Now while I won’t sit here and be a hypocrite and say that I haven’t engaged in some of these activities while I have been travelling, this does not shape my entire outlook of what it is that travel should be as it does for quite a large number of people. The amount of times I have met people who are all about getting smashed every night of the week and never actually make it out during the day time to experience their surroundings is huge. The only place they ever seem to go is the pub and when you ask them what good attractions there are to see around the place, the only thing that they can tell you about was ‘how cool the bar I went to last night’ was. They actually appear shocked when they ask how your day is and you tell them you just got back from surfing, rock climbing or caving and they want to know how you managed that hungover…. ummm… well I didn’t because “shock horror”, I didn’t drink last night! (OMG!)

Now while these people sit around nursing their hangovers, I generally scour the place for people to actually have an adult conversation with that aren’t sitting there with their heads buried so far into Facebook, their phones, some form of downloaded television or other technological device. It appears that the definition of being social these days has gone from ‘sitting around and actually talking to people’ to ‘sitting around and talking to people on the internet instead of the people that are sitting right in front of you’. I get so frustrated with this that I want to scream at people ‘put your goddamn phone down and actually be present where you are!!!’ It is annoying, it is isolating, and it defeats the entire purpose of travelling to meet people if all you are going to do is sit on your arse and type away to people at home.

Speaking of being present in your situation…. Back in the days where people didn’t have iPhones and digital cameras, they used to think very carefully about what they were taking pictures of and these were respected and valued. After they took their one photograph, they were present in their environment and what was going on around them. It is one of the most amazing experiences to “just be” and to let your eyes see and filter the spectacular things going on around you. It is in a way spiritual. In no such way does this spiritual event occur when you are living your life through a lens, which so many people today do. They just sit there taking photo after photo after photo and don’t open their eyes to actually see what is in front of them because it is more important to catch it on film so you can post it to Facebook or Instagram to show people how cool your life is in an attempt to gain as many ‘likes’ as possible for your own self gratification.

One of the biggest changes in backpacking between it origins and now is that key word ‘RESPECT’. Some people who read this may be like ‘what does she mean by RESPECT?’ Well here is what I mean…. Firstly, put some clothes on. If you are in a conservative country, the locals don’t care to see you running around with your arse hanging out of your shorts as you parade around in your bikini tops or boardies with no shirt on. If you want to carry on like that, go home. All it does is alienate the locals and make them hate tourists. Take Bali, Indonesia for example. Majority of the population there are Hindi and Islamic and quite reserved. And yet so many backpackers view this place only as a place they can go to get pissed cheaply every night and run around with no clothes on. Look at the locals. What are they wearing? Do they run around wearing practically nothing? If not, maybe you need to assess whether this is respectful and start dressing like the locals do when you are out and about in public.

Secondly,  I meet people who go travelling long term and still can’t speak a word of the language that the locals speak despite having been there for several months. I am sorry, but you can’t just go around expecting that everyone will speak English or your native language just to accommodate your needs as and entitled backpacker. It is just not on. At least make an effort. Get a phrase book, take a course for a week if you are planning on staying for a while and bother to make the effort. Not only will it endear you more to the locals, but they will be more likely to want to help you and get to know you if you actually show an interest in who they are, their language and what they are about instead of where it is you are going to get your next beer from. It is a part of the fun and challenge of travel. Get the brain flexing. Learn something. Start with the language.

Thirdly, I would like to address what is commonly known as ‘PDA’s’, or ‘public display’s of affection’. I don’t care where it is that you live in the world, nobody needs to see you groping and dry grinding another person in public. Yet for some reason when people find themselves overseas and on ‘vacation’ or ‘holidays’, this small courtesy to the rest of society seems to go out the window with the first vodka. And so begins the ‘right’ for drunk travellers to basically ‘do it’ wherever they are because that means you are cool and it is what everybody else does. Like, YOLO! (dripping sarcasm intended).

Next time you embark on a trip, seriously think about what it is that you are going for. If you are going somewhere merely to get wasted, hook up, behave poorly and disgrace yourself and your nationality, maybe you should consider staying at home instead because these are all things that you can do there. It is an embarrassment to the small minority of us left that like to travel like those of old with eyes wide open, hands to ourselves and in a conscious way that respects the cultures of the locals in the countries we choose to visit. It is a sad and sorry day for those who pioneered backpacking ventures so that we could explore our beautiful world, it’s surrounding and celebrate and share the differences between our cultures. It has now been molded into a giant drug and alcohol-induced orgy where people learn nothing about where it is that they have gone to visit. If you choose to behave like this when you travel, then maybe you need to consider a change in your perception and the ways in which you travel. Either that, or stop embarrassing yourself and just go home.

Living The Arctic Life! Electromagnetic Storms, Ice Hotels And Partying With The Locals.

The sights of that night will be forever imprinted on my mind…. I don’t think I could forget it if I tried….

After the excitement of dog sledding, my friends and I wandered down to the local store to have a look around at what we could find. In among gloves, hats, hardware tools and all kinds of other strange objects, we found a glorious plastic dish that was to serve as our entertainment for the afternoon.

So off we went, sliding down anything that looked even remotely hill-like, including giant piles of snow that the locals had removed from the roads with the excavator. No surface on an incline was left untouched as we tried to make our way down these slopes on our makeshift sled. At one point we even managed to become airborne and slam our buts into the ground of one giant pile of snow.

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Attempting to sled down a mound of snow removed from the road….

It left us fairly tired so we went in for our afternoon nap in anticipation of some more northern lights hunting and then heading down to the pub where a band was playing… the one night a month when they get live entertainment to Abisko and all of the locals come out in force.

Post nap, I was in the kitchen eating my usual northern meal of brown cheese and crispbread when somebody runs inside and says ‘you totally have to go outside right now!!’ Hurriedly the snowsuit goes on and I burst out of the door to be standing underneath a sky so vibrantly bright with green waves dancing across it that it was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. We had struck gold, and timed our visit with an electromagnetic storm which was heightening the activity of the aurora. The lights were so bright that I managed to take a few pictures of them with my point and shoot camera, a feat almost unheard of when it comes to taking pictures of the northern lights.

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My point and shoot camera picture of the Northern Lights

We stood outside and ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed for hours. At one point I lay down in the snow making snow angels while the purple and green hazes danced over the top of me. We then tried to take some group pictures of the amazing night sky with a professional camera, writing our names and other words like ‘Abisko’ with a red head torch in the sky below us. I never did wind up with copies of the pictures, but what my eyes saw that night will be forever etched into my mind and I am almost glad that I didn’t have a proper camera as it allowed me to experience it in life without feeling the need to be constantly behind a lens to catch it.

After what seemed like hours outside, and not being able to feel our toes or half of our bodies anymore, we decided to make our way down to the pub to see the band. I learned many things from my experience at the pub. Firstly, the international symbol for ‘you’re hot’ in northern Sweden is a raised eyebrow and a thumbs up. Secondly, you should not accept the strange man’s offer of four doubles of spiced whiskey shared among three because between that, the minus twenty degrees and the passionfruit-flavoured sparkling wine I consumed, I was incredibly drunk. The band played and we danced with some local boys before making our way back up the hill to the hostel for more consumption of Bailey’s and the attempted making of snow angels on the kitchen floor. After a laughing fit, where my friends tried to convince me to get up to mischief and I was sensible enough to not succumb to the peer pressure of annoying others for amusements purposes, I finally went to bed.

The morning was a somber and sorry day for all. We had to leave. And not a single one of us wanted to. Noon rolled around, we said goodbye to Abisko and we made our way to Kiruna on the train where we had a couple of hours to kill before our flight back to London. So of course, we went to visit the famous ice hotel.

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The train station in Abisko… taking us away 😦

The ice hotel was unlike anything I had ever seen. There were so many different sculptures and elements to the building it was amazing. I had a minor nap on the reindeer pelt in the makeshift ice chapel on one of the pews before running around the place with Indy taking silly pictures of us with the ice sculptures. Before we knew it was time to get back in a taxi and head to the airport. My adventure in the Arctic Circle was over…. for now.

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Napping in the chapel!

All I know is that I love this place. It is one of the most amazing places I have been in the world. There is no way on this planet that I will not get back there. It is just a matter of when… and I will of course take my place on the Ice Throne, become the Abisko Ice Queen, and never leave!

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The Ice Queen on her Ice Throne!