Elephants from the rescue/retirement center about to demonstrate their strength by rolling/pulling...
|Laos does not use coins. The smallest note is 500 kip and until recently the largest note was 50,000 kip (US$6) so when we exchange a few hundred dollars we get such a large wad of notes (and we become millionaires - in kip!) Laos has recently introduced a new 100,000 kip note but this is not in general circulation yet.
From Luang Prabang we took the slow boat up the Mekong River for two days with a stop over at PakBeng. Because it is the dry season, the Mekong River is much lower than in the wet season, rocks are appearing and there are a few tricky places to manouever through.
We broke the two day river trip up by staying an extra night in Pak Beng. We got a small boat across the river to see an elephant rescue/retirement park where older or injured elephants are kept. We watched a demonstration of the tough life they previously had working in the logging industry.
The boat trip is a slow but relaxing way to travel, chugging up the river, past many small villages on the riverside. Where the water level has gone down are gardens, making use of the more fertile silt coming down the river. Peanuts are a favourite to grow here in the sandy riverside silt. You get a glimpse of life in the villages as you pass - people fishing, washing clothes, washing themselves, tending their gardens, macheting undergrowth on the hillsides to clear space for their next crops. Because burning of rice stubble and new plots of crop land has begun, the hills are hazy and every evening there is a blood red sunset.
Huay Xai is our last stop in Laos, right across the river from Thailand. We have just got back from an exciting two day "gibbon experience". Eight of us, a couple from Switzerland, a couple from Holland, a couple from Russia and us NZ/Danish, drove an hour, and hiked 2 hours, into a corner of a 260,000 hectare National Park. We then donned a harness that we wore for the most part of the next two days for zip lining through the forest. The project has been set up to try and preserve the forest, give the local people an alternative income from the land and preserve the habitat for the gibbons.
It was exhilarating (and a little scary!) launching yourself off from one side of a valley on a steel cable, not yet being able to see where your final destination was amongst the trees. The longest cable was 700 metres, most were around 500 metres. On arriving at the other side, we would undo our safety line, unhook the rollers and brake and shout "OK" so the next person knew they could come across. The "brake" was a piece of bicycle tyre at the rear of the rollers that you pressed down on should you be arriving too fast! However, if you braked too early, you would then have to swing around on the cable and haul yourself to the end hand over hand. We got pretty good at judging.
What an amazing tree house for the night 40 metres up! We ziplined in to find our 3 storied home for the night. First floor was the landing and on the other side the coolest bathroom, one side a curtain for privacy, the rest airily looking right out over the forest. Here we had all the mod cons, a squat toilet, cold water shower and hand basin. Definitely a room with a view!
Upstairs there were mattresses, sheets, quilts and pillows for us to arrange under mosquito nets for the night. Our meals were ziplined into us from a "kitchen" further away in the trees. There was a resident cat who had recently been brought to the tree house to catch the rats that were attracting snakes. I'm happy to report we saw no rats or snakes, so cat must be doing an efficient job!
It was magical at night with the moon shining on the trees and listening to all the noises of the forest.
The network of ziplines takes you from mountainside to mountainside, across deep valleys that would otherwise take you ages to hike down, then back up. The trip is called the "gibbon experience" but the monkeys themselves are quite elusive and most live much deeper into the forest. However, we had so much fun zipping here and there, we were not disappointed that we didn't see any gibbons.
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