I read the airline magazine on my way to Luang Prabang, where I learned about the 2014 Elephant Festival and it was on my “Must do” list from that moment. I have no doubt other travelers got annoyed with me as I kept talking about it!
The Elephant festival is held in February of every year to celebrate the national symbol, the livelihood of many Laos people, and to raise awareness for this endangered animal. Up to 100,000 visitors attend the festival every year (which is rotated every year among 3 provinces) and up to 80 elephants are present with their costumes on.
Up until this point I was always so good about having a hotel or hostel booked beforehand. Then I noticed a lot of people were winging and it worked out for them to find a hostel upon arrival, so I decided to try it this ONE time. Sayabouly guest houses (hostels) do not have websites so online booking was not a possibility, and I did not have a working phone (and it was so hard to communicate with local people to try to use theirs) that I decided to take a chance on finding a place to stay when I arrived.
The bus ride took 2 1/2 hours and was very slow. But it cost only 60,000 KIP or $7.50 ($1 = 8,000 KIP) so I can’t complain too much. Much of the trip to Sayabouly was unpaved and the bus at times struggled uphill.
Laos bus system: they MIGHT leave at a certain time, or when the bus is full. This was quite the opposite coming from Vietnam, where they leave on the dot and have no mercy on anyone who’s even one minute late.
So my 2PM bus got going at about 2:35 PM. We made many stops along the way to drop off people in rural villages. I was amazed at how the bus driver knew to stop, as there were no bus signs. Did the people just stand alongside the road and flag down the bus? It was quite amazing to me.
Another thing about Laos buses: just because the bus is full does not mean it is really full. There is always more room! Plastic stools will be placed in the aisles if all the seats are taken, and the unfortunate people who get on last will have to sit on those tiny little uncomfortable stools.
One older gentleman (maybe in his 50′s but can you ever tell with Asians hahahaha) sat next me in the aisle. I was going to offer him my seat but I was so tired from traveling, that I decided I’d offer to trade him halfway through the bus ride. What touched my heart was that this man did not complain or have a pity party for himself, like so many of us would do (many of us would pull a “this sucks” attitude) but instead he was smiling and talkative with the man next to him. He and I said “Sabaidee” (hello) to each other and when he got off the bus, he turned around and said it to me again (as goodbye). So I never had the chance to offer him my seat but it didn’t matter, because he didn’t care. That is one thing I absolutely love about the Laos – despite the average salary being around $125/month, they grow what they need, they make what they need, and they seem to be as a whole, genuinely happy people. This was truly a great experience for me to see and a great reminder of how lucky I am. Which is a part of why I wanted to take this trip.
I arrived in Sayabouly and had nowhere to go. I was hearing from other travelers that it was going to be very hard to find a guesthouse. 6 English-speaking travelers shared a tuk tuk from the bus station to the center of the village, and we were all on our own to find a place to stay.
I’m going to sidetrack for a second: at the bus station I witnessed a Russian man get into a physical altercation with a tuk tuk driver – over 5,000 KIP. He wanted to pay 5,000 KIP and the driver was charging everyone 10,000 KIP. Everyone’s budget is different but to PUSH a tuk tuk driver over 62 CENTS IS UNNECESSARY. The traveler got off the tuk tuk and stormed off. 62 Cents!!!!
After hours of walking around, I stopped at a restaurant as I decided if I had to sleep outside (haha), that I might as well have a full tummy. I tried to ask the teenage boy working at the restaurant (these are always at the front of a family’s home) if I could borrow his phone. No one spoke English so I pulled out a screenshot of a website saved on my phone of available guesthouses and tried to show the boy what I was needing. No WiFi available; on this trip I’ve been at the mercy of available WiFi. I read that only 3% of Laos people have computers and of that 3%, 99% of them are in Luang Prabang or Vientianne, the capital. So it was going to be hard to find Internet in Sayabouly, a rural village.The boy didn’t understand, and left on his motorbike.
I finished my meal and continued walking on my merry way, resorting to the possibility that I might have to camp outside with the elephants. Then, the boy drove up to me and gestured for me to get on the back of his motorbike. He drove me to a guesthouse. He HAD understood after all (after all my charades) what I needed; when he left the restaurant, he was driving around the village to find a room for me. As I rode on the back of his motorbike I kept thinking, “Wow what a nice kid! How sweet of him! Laotians are amazing!” He dropped me off then said, “25,000 KIP.” LOL! Ok so maybe he wasn’t THAT nice, but I gladly paid the $3.12 as at this point I was in dire need of a warm shower and a bed. I also had to give him credit for making $ where he could. He had, after all, provided a service.
The guesthouse had tripled its prices for the festival – to 150,000 or $18.75/night, which is astronomical by tiny Laos village standards. I got a tiny room that wasn’t the cleanest but it had to suffice.
You’ll see in my following photos that the $3.12 motorbike ride and $18.75/night hostel were so worth it.
I was told these elephants eat 250 lbs of food a day. By the way, here is Sayabouly’s tourism website: http://sayaboulytourism.com/
Miss Elephant contestants. An English speaking representative of the tourism booth told me that the prize is the honor of the title, and she gets to ride on a special elephant in the parade. Similar to American and worldwide beauty pageants, the Miss Elephant contest is judged on beauty, pose, body, and ability to speak well.
And next, a walk around the tiny village to see a bit of every day life.
Not sure why, but I am always fascinated when I see Southeast Asians walking around with their farm animals just like we would with our pet dogs. Cows especially are walked around the village so they can eat.
Religious dog hanging out at the temple! He looks pretty darn happy to me.
I went to the cafe twice and both times, lots of small boys were in there playing video games.They were always curious about me and hovered around me to see what I was looking at on the computer, until I pulled out my camera. Then they literally darted to the other side of the room and this little guy was the only one who’d turn around and smile for me. So cute.
I’ve noticed a lot of stray animals which breaks my heart because I can’t scoop them up and take them to their owner, or to an animal shelter. I tried to justify the situation a little by telling myself that at least none of the animals I’ve seen are starving and least the warm temperatures keep any one of them from freezing.
I stopped to buy coconut water and thought these last thoughts (hey look on the bright side, no starving dogs) when this little dog appeared literally 2 minutes later. I really think it was weird timing and I was meant to meet her. Her ribs were sticking out, and she looked so defeated. I looked around at the available food at stand, and tried to ask the owner if she had anything else for me to buy. The language barrier caused a lot of confusion, and the dog had laid down to rest (wearily). I didn’t want her leaving as I really wanted to get her some food. I ended up buying the most edible thing I could find on the stand, and called the dog to come near me (away from the stand so I wouldn’t disturb the people). The dog immediately perked up. Although all strays I’ve come across are fearful of humans when we get too close, this dog was so hungry that she reluctantly (at first) ate out of my hand and slowly trusted me. Then she started walking away, and it broke my heart as I wanted to give her a bath and lots of food and love.
As I was telling someone though, perhaps Southeast Asians (or other cultures) think Americans are horrible for kenneling our dogs or putting them on leashes. I don’t know. But all I know is that the stray animal problem is hands down my least favorite part of my travels.
And now to end the Sayabouly post on a positive note – as I was walking back to the hostel at the end of the day, a group of young Laos guys summoned for me to have a beer with them. Beer Laos is the beer of choice here. It is cheap (usually $1 for the equivalent of a 40 ounce!) and while I personally don’t find it to be super tasty, don’t find it to be bad either! I sat and drank with them outside, until they had to go.
Next post: Vientianne, Laos (the capital city).