November 2009: Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Laos is blessed to have many remaining forests in its mountainous topography. It is one of the least developed countries in SE Asia and does not have any major cities. Laos is home for dozens of hill tribes that still have distinct customs and clothing, although modern global influences are rapidly bringing change to them. Another change is the loss of habitat and wildlife, which is prevalent all over the world but even much more so in SE Asia given the much larger pressures of the huge surrounding populations of the land and wildlife. Additionally, Laos has the not so proud distinction of being one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. In The Vietnam war, the Vietcong routinely would seek shelter in the mountains of Laos and the US military sprayed the mountains with bombs, many of which didn’t explode and continue to kill civilians even today.

Laos until the 1900s was named the land of a million elephants because there were so many in the wild. Now days sadly there are only about 800 and half of them are domesticated and used for forestry or tourism. The remaining wild elephants are under tremendous pressure by poachers armed with AK47’s that professionally hunt them for their ivory. I went to Laos, with the hope of staying overnight in an elephant watch tower that overlooked a clay lick where elephants from the nearby forest frequent in order to consume the valuable minerals and salts of the lick at night. This is the story of my 4-day trip to Laos.


Location of Laos

To reach Laos, I flew from Bangkok to Vientiane, a small, pleasant city on the Mekong River. As soon as I landed in Laos, I knew I liked it. The pace of life seemed slower and more relaxed and there was more nature. The people were friendly, and many of the Laotian women even wore the beautiful traditional skirts called phaaa sin, wrap around dress. There were many beautiful Buddhist temples within walking distance, and interesting bars/eateries serving good food. Loas had a thriving backpacking scene, but it didn’t feel over touristy. Except for when I traveled to Van Vieng, which I did to see the caves and Mung people, a hill tribe that aided the American military in the Vietnam war and was heavily persecuted because of it causing many Hmong to flee the country as refugees. Many of them lived in Minnesota and went to school with me when I was a kid in Minneapolis, my hometown.

Mekong River

Buddhist Temple in Vientienne


Wooden Buddha temple

Buddhist Temple Dragon

Flag of current communist government in laos

Laos woman at market

I took a bus to vang Vieng where I stayed in a guesthouse overlooking the river and mountain valley. The town was overrun by backpackers that seemed more interested in sex and drugs than adventure and culture. Bamboo bars with dread locked hippy kids in elephant pants were the norm staring with happy mushroom induced glazed expressions at television sets re-playing Friends episodes. This wasn’t why I came. I came for the caves, so I organized a caving trip into some of the wild mountain caves and I hired a motor taxi to take me to a Hmong village in the countryside to see their way of life. But Vang Vieng was not a highlight for me. It was a demonstration of exactly how tourism can destroy a culture.

Vang Veng Landscapes

Vang Veng Landscapes

The countryside around Vang Vieng was beautiful however and I did enjoy hiking and cave exploring. 

Swimming Hole Vang Veng 

Red Ant Invasion

Vang Veng wild caves

Me in the Vang Veng wild caves

cave Spider

Cave Temple

I also found the bamboo thatched villages of the Hmong community interesting. Many of the Hmong were relocated by the government from their ancestorial homes deeper into the mountains into areas that are easier to monitor them since the communist Laos government considered them traitors for helping the Americans and rebelling against the government in the 60s and 70s. Many Hmong were imprisoned, tortured and executed while others fled to America as refugees.

Hmong Village

Hmong Village

Hmong Village

Hmong Village

The highlight of my trip was traveling via public transport across Laos to the south to stay in the small village of Banma where the villagers organized a community grass roots conservation ecotourism venture to attract tourists to stay in the elephant watch tower an hour hike into the forest overlooking a clay lick where wild elephants come to eat the minerals of the clay lick from the nearby forests of a national park. The villagers split the proceeds and use some of them to protect the elephants. Sadly, a few weeks before my arrival some poachers with AK47s waited one night for the elephants to come to the clay lick and they shot and killed a few of them and the elephants had not returned since. Elephants have good memories and do not forget trauma. I still stayed the night in the watch tower, sleeping in my tent and hoping that maybe the elephants would return so that we could see and hear them below us in the clay lick, but they did not come. The next morning, I hiked in the forest of the national park with a community guide.

Buddhist Temple in a rural village

Elephant watch tower I stayed the night in

Elephant watch tower I stayed the night in

I returned to Vientiane and spent one last night there before flying back to Bangkok and continuing my trip onwards to Myanmar.


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