Narrowly surviving the wildlife in Laos 

Well, it finally happened. All those years of checking under chairs, shaking out towels prior to use, and inspecting the dark corners of my bedsheets, all for nothing. A scorpion got me.

It was a whopping big one, too. And rainbow coloured! And she had babies riding on her back, which makes me feel guilty that she was killed immediately after the incident.

It’s a pretty funny story, actually, now that I know I’m not going to die. (From that. We will all die of something. This has been your mortality reminder of the week, you’re welcome.) We had arrived at the Elephant Conservation Centre, where we were looking forward to not getting trampled by elephants. We were sitting around a beautiful wooden table in a lovely bamboo bungalow, with our friendly little group of co-tourists. We had – wait for it- just signed our legal waiver and consent forms. Someone asked what “repatriation” meant, and we laughed about why they would ask for the contact information of our insurance companies.

Cue rainbow scorpion to stab me in the stomach as she crawls around the edge of the table.

I'm totally fine!
I’m totally fine!

I directed my own first aid by lifting up my dress to show the room both the sting, and, coincidentally, my underwear. I had Luke google Lao scorpions to see if I was going to die. (He remained placidly calm, a technique he uses when he’s trying not to panic gravely injured people.) I asked a nearby employee if it was the type to kill me. I asked another for ice. I was given an antihistamine, and was told that this was definitely NOT the type of Lao scorpion that injects neurotoxins and kills you, because a) it didn’t look like it, and b) I would probably already have the double vision that proceeds death.

However, the employee’s prediction that the sting would feel like “a bee sting on steroids” was accurate in sensation, though wildly understated. It hurt like heck. If I took my ice off for more than 60 seconds, it felt like someone who hates me was repeatedly stabbing me in the stomach with three blunt iron carving knives. Just like that.

Thankfully, the pain only lasted about 12 hours. This was short enough to not be too stressful, but long enough to require me to sleep with my tummy leaning against a bag of ice, which melted onto the mattress. The end.

A carp ends it
Yet another animal, feeling jealously towards the majestic and beloved elephant, attempted to steal the show. This one was a 3 foot carp, which jumped right into our boat on the way home from the Centre. It just jumped right in there. Our boat driver, hearing our screams (the group was collectively traumatised by my scorpion experience and had little tolerance for animals getting outta line), ran to the back of the boat, picked the fish up by the gills, and popped it in a plastic bag to eat for dinner. I joked to my neighbour, a psychologist, that the fish’s suicidal ideations had finally come to fruition, but she was not amused. Fish suicide is not a joke, you guys.

But the elephants themselves were pretty cool too. More later.

Luang Prabang

Wat Vieng Thong
Wat Vieng Thong

I always get caught up in stories and neglect to tell you what’s been going on. Since China, we’ve spent all of our time in Luang Prabang, minus 3 days at the Elephant Conservation Centre. We’ve just gotten back on the road again for a tour around Laos. Our time in Luang Prabang has consisted of eating cheese, getting cheap massages, using the internet, and dodging 10 million Western tourists as we find more cheese to eat. We have dragged ourselves out a few times to see some temples, climb the central hill of the city, go to the three small museums, and visit a waterfall/bear sanctuary with our friends Arne and Jenny (from our China group). But mostly, we’ve just really been enjoying eating cheese.

Lovely Luang Prabang. We stayed in between that big road and that big river.
Lovely Luang Prabang. We stayed in between that big road and that big river.
Being hipsters (traveller sub-breed) in Utopia: serving whisky, yoga, and vegetarian pizzas to weary white people with dreadlocks
Being hipsters (traveller sub-breed) in Utopia: serving whisky, yoga, and vegetarian pizzas to weary white people with dreadlocks

Actually, Luang Prabang is a delightful, if touristy, town. Right on the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it’s bordered by rushing waters and filled with tropical trees. It’s got lovely French colonial architecture littered with sparkly Wats (Buddhist temples). Buddhist monks in saffron robes wander the streets, but I don’t have photos of that cause it’s rude. The food caters to Western tourist tastes, but that’s ok with us at this juncture. There are crunchy Nutella crepes and deep fried fresh spring rolls, and avocados, and cheese. All available at street stalls or at vine-covered restaurants. It’s a lovely place to just *stop*.

The massages really are dirt cheap, too. About $10 for an hour. However, you do sometimes get what you pay for. I had one masseuse who I swear was reading her phone with one hand while she distractedly rubbed the same small spot of shoulder for minutes at a time.  I did not complain, because, $10. And also she had a cold and kept sneezing on me.

Everyone is doing it wrong: Some condescending and emphatic lectures
I think my college career comprised mostly of me spending a few hours learning about a thing, becoming wildly impassioned about said thing, and telling everyone I knew about it. In a very emphatic way. Sometimes I went to protests. There were t-shirts. This is one of the reasons that Luke and I think we would have probably not gotten along when I was in university.

That being said, I have not one, but two things for you today: Elephants and UXO.

Elephants
Being responsible tourists is important to Luke and I. We want to do no harm to the people and places we visit. But, sometimes, we don’t even know what we don’t know. Elephants are a great example. We went to the Elephant Conservation Centre by research and suggestion of our friend Belinda; we didn’t realise how truly different it is from other elephant tourism operators. As they say themselves: “the elephants aren’t here for us – we are here for the elephants.”

Elephants are everywhere in Laos – they do logging, they take tourists on multi-day treks, they are kept by waterfalls for tourists to get on top off. Seems ok, they’re so big and tough. But Luke often has to remind me: just because he’s big, that doesn’t mean he’s unbreakable. I cannot, for example, push myself up from bed in the morning using my elbow on his stomach (believe me, I’ve tried).

Elephants need friends.
Elephants need friends.

Similarly, elephants are extremely delicate, physically and emotionally. Due to their bone structure, it’s actually incredibly harmful to ride an Asian elephant’s back. You can ride their neck, but only for a short period. The big seat contraptions that tourists hop into shorten their lives and give them pain. Also, they need to eat for many hours a day in order to get enough into their stomachs. Combined with the time they need to sleep, that leaves very little time for working – the 12 hours worth of 30-minute tourist rides per day that many suffer is terribly detrimental. Emotionally, they need other elephants. It’s really a requirement. When you see an elephant, chained alone by a waterfall, swaying left to right, she’s not dancing, as the tourism operator might laugh. She’s distressed – it’s the same sign as, say, a human or monkey scratching or biting their own arms.

thumb_dsc00490_1024We truly didn’t know any of this, and would have probably ridden tourist elephants if we hadn’t gone to the ECC first. We had great chats with the conservationists at the centre (over beers, with ice held on my stomach) about solutions. To summarise their conclusions: elephants can’t go back into the wild in Laos – there isn’t enough forest. So we need to have elephant-safe tour operators, who allow tourists to get close to elephants while also giving the elephants socialisation, space, freedom, appropriate food, and medical care. The Lao people themselves won’t change the system, as the not-so-good elephant practices earn heaps of money. The only people who can really affect change are the tourists themselves, by not choosing to pay for services that hurt elephants. It’s just like not buying ivory.

So that’s my first annoying lesson for the day: don’t ride Asian elephants!

UXO
Before you make any hilarious jokes about UFOs, I’ll go ahead and choke off any humour: UXO stands for unexploded ordnance such as cluster bombs, big bombs, and landmines, and they kill a person in Laos every day. UXO maims children, it hands out permanent disabilities to people who can’t even afford a doctor’s visit, it ruins livelihoods, it makes whole villages unable to farm in the gorgeous green landscape around their homes. And guess who did it? Good ol’ US of A.

thumb_dsc00562_1024As I’ve said before in regards to other conflicts about which we’ve learnt (post-facto, of course), I am not going to give any judgement as to who was right or wrong or who had the best or worst intentions. I am sure that our American powers-that-be had their reasons, and I am sure that not just America was involved. Moving into facts, then: between 1964 and 1973 US forces dropped an estimated 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos. The biggest issue now is cluster bombs – Laos is the most heavily cluster bombed country in the world. 78 million cluster bombs, or “bombies” to Lao people, were dropped and failed to explode. Despite thousands of people on the task, from 1996 to 2007 UXO LAO (the biggest of 7 UXO clearance orgs) only removed 395,000, or .47%, of the bombies. That’s POINT four seven percent. With current resources it will take 100 years to clear Laos of UXO.

There’s a small little house in Luang Prabang where you can go to learn about UXO LAO’s work. It’s truly heroic. They do clearance work, which is as dangerous as it sounds. But they also do heaps of community education – teaching kids not to play with the baseball-looking cluster bombs, for example. In addition, they spend time prioritising the many requests they get for land clearance from villagers – too many requests to help them all.

BONUS STORY: Fireworks in China
Moving on to a heartwarming story of explosives. I forgot to write about this in the last blog.

Chinese people use a lot of fireworks. They’re an important part of weddings, funerals, holidays, business grand openings, and pretty much everything else. Therefore, they are everywhere, they are cheap, and they are super totally definitely legal.

This is not really information that a person wants their husband to hear, if their husband is an undiagnosed pyromaniac.

I got off pretty easy the first time, about a week before leaving China. Luke, with the encouragement of his big sis, bought a bunch of medium-size fireworks and set them off in a very huge and very empty parking lot, where everyone was camping. It was a big hit with the group, especially the children. Luke enjoyed himself potentially more than at any other time on the entire trip to that date.

The success went to his head. He was addicted to the thrill. So, the night before leaving China, Jens took us to a fireworks shop, where big sister Jo once again devilishly prodded Luke towards the most gigantic boxes of fireworks he could find. He tried to get Jens to translate “we want the size of a surface to air missile”, but Jens either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Anyway, this time, we were in a big city. We made our way to the main street. Jens called the police to make sure we wouldn’t be arrested. The children, their parents, and me stood 30 metres away, behind some trees, while Luke and his more brave posse did the honours. I’ll just refer you to the video. I was pretty much peeing myself. The youngest of our group immediately burst into tears as soon as the first one went off. I have reports from the ground that Luke was, quote, “squealing with delight” and “jumping around” as the fireworks went off. Bystanders on the sidewalk didn’t even look over; V2  rocket size celebrations seem to be commonplace. None of us were arrested, so all’s well that ends well.

We’re now in northeast Laos, in Nong Khiaw. Today we did a boat ride and hike through waterfalls (no leeches, thanks for asking). We’re also starting to plan the end of our trip, a very weird and not entirely unwelcome task. If you’re interested in our tentative plan, check out the “Where are we?” link below or to the right.

Bonus video: dancers in southern China

Oops I forgot: The end of China, including FIREWORKS

Luang Namtha (northern Laos)

Luang Prabang

Kuang Si Waterfall (near Luang Prabang)

Elephant Conservation Centre

Nong Khiaw

 

2 thoughts on “Narrowly surviving the wildlife in Laos ”

  1. Another great way to start my day, a blog from Felice!!! What beautiful country and your pictures are outstanding. So glad that if you were going to get bit by a scorpion that he was a “good” guy. And the pictures of the elephants were so interesting and I learned so much from your writings about them. What an adventure! Keep enjoying your trip and I will be patiently waiting for your next blog and your return home. Love, Grandma

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  2. Oh my gosh, this was a nerve wracking post! I’m glad the scorpion wasn’t a very bad one, but I’m sorry you were in pain. I loved learning about the elephants, and the photo of the elephants behinds also reminded me of Dad’s photos in Botswana. I’m looking forward to reading more about the ethnology museum. Have fun and stay away from nasty critters (although I’ve been telling you that for years!)

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