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Kingdom of a Million Elephants

Updated on September 23, 2013
Sunset on the Mekong River
Sunset on the Mekong River | Source

Prisana Pipatpan finds plenty to appreciate and ponder over as she visits the Plain of Jars and the old Laotian capital of Luang Prabang.

This article was first published in The Bangkok Post on April 25, 1993.

The moment I arrived at Hualampong Railway Station, I knew I had made a mistake. I stepped into the crowded concourse, shortly before midnight and was immediately consumed by a massive flow of people, pushing and shoving their way to platforms, luggage carts and any available floor space. There was no direct stream of traffic, just a claustrophobic movement of sweaty tired bodies, crammed together without the luxury of airspace.

However, the chaotic scene I witnessed was not your average night. It was the night before New Year’s Eve and a massive exodus was underway. Surrounded by a sea of weary travelers, I slowly made my way to a filthy corner of the station, seeking refuge inside a dingy restaurant.

Our destination was Nong Kai, located on the banks of the Mekong River, where a short ferry ride would take us to our ultimate destination: Laos.

By the time I crawled into my second class, air conditioned berth, I did so with utmost relief. I awoke six hours later to a quiet sleepy compartment. A soft early morning light filtered into the train and I could smell the welcome aroma of coffee being served.

Upon our arrival in Nong Khai, we gathered at Tha Sadet pier. This was my first chance to actually meet a few members of our multi-national group, mostly made up of Bangkok residents. We grabbed our bags and made a steep descent down the narrowest steps in all of Thailand. A quick ferry ride across the Mekong landed us in Laos, where we filled forms and smiled at bored immigration officers. Outside the small office, Jit, our young lean Laotian tour guide, efficiently herded us onto a brand new mini-bus.

As we passed the Friendship Bridge under construction, Jit began his tour speech; “Laos has four million people, 10% live in our capital city Vientiane. 85% of our people are farmers…”. The magnificent Friendship Bridge loomed to our left; a monstrous steel apparition which looked distinctly out of place, rising from its humble surroundings into the 20th century. When completed in 1994, the bridge will link Laos with Thailand for the first time in history.

Some 125,000 people live in Vientiane, in modest homes and buildings which rarely rise above one story. Traffic was light and most of the commuters were on motorbikes and bicycles.

“I’m sorry,” Jit announced nervously, at the end of his speech. “The Lane Xang hotel is full. We will be staying at another clean and comfortable hotel, I believe you will enjoy.” I cringed at his description, having slept in various clean and comfortable Asian rat holes, however, the semi-new Asian Pavilion Hotel, was not what I had imagined. On the contrary, it turned out to be much nicer than the famous old Lane Xang hotel, named after the ancient name for Laos: the Kingdom of a Million Elephants.

Source

"It is forbidden to take pictures at the airport."

Five minutes after stepping into our hotel’s empty lobby, we were whisked away to the airport. Jit had arranged for a helicopter to fly us up to Xiengkhoung, where we would visit the Plain of Jars. This news came as a welcome surprise, since I had never flown in a helicopter before.

“When do we leave?” I asked Jit, after sitting in Vientiane’s airport for well over an hour.

“When helicopter comes,” he replied smiling.

I soon learned that in Laos there are no set schedules. Our group meandered through the airport, eating fresh loaves of French bread and taking pictures of one another. I was just about to click off a few myself, when our Thai tour leader intervened and warned me otherwise.

“It is forbidden to take pictures at the airport,” he said.

I looked around and saw dozens of people snapping pictures and replied: “If it’s forbidden, why is everyone taking pictures?”

“Because they don’t know it is forbidden.”

“What will happen if I take pictures anyway?” I asked.

“They may take your film away,” he said. “It depends on their mood.”

Eventually, the Soviet-built ME-8 helicopter arrived and once again our entire group took pictures of each other standing in front of the copter. I stood there forlornly, wondering whether to shoot or not to shoot? I didn’t care if my film was taken, but I definitely didn’t want to offend my protective Thai guide.

We crawled into the copter’s empty grey belly. A loud whirl of blades turned overhead and suddenly, we were lifted straight up, far above the green Vientiane plain. I looked at my companions, who sat rigid on the vibrating floor, with their eyes closed as if in prayer. A few passengers had cupped their hands over their ears as well, trying to block out the chopper’s continuous loud whirling drone.

Unfortunately, the copter lacked windows except for two small holes on the floor in the back of the belly. Someone asked Jit if we could take pictures out of the door and to my amazement, he agreed. I quickly crawled over to the front of the copter and crouched behind a Laotian man who sat inside the doorway, with his legs hanging outside the helicopter. He was wearing large earphones and stared vacantly out at the open space. Jit wisely, was the only other passenger wearing ear plugs.

While the copter’s roar pounded in my ears, I rapidly shot off a roll of film, trying not to hit the Laotian man’s head with my zoom lens. It was a difficult task, considering he was sitting directly underneath my lens. Far below, I saw dozens of oddly placed ponds scattered throughout the countryside. A moment later, I suddenly realized that the hundreds of small “ponds” I saw, were not ponds at all. They were bomb craters.

Inside the Russian-built ME-8 helicopter, flying to the Plain of Jars.
Inside the Russian-built ME-8 helicopter, flying to the Plain of Jars. | Source

"BOM U.S.A."

When we landed I was in a solemn mood, unable to shake off a hundred questions firing inside my mind. I wondered what thoughts and questions must have haunted the men who flew the B-52 bombers over Laos. Journalists during the Indochina War-era called Laos, the Land of a Million Irrelevants. The buckshot landscape I sadly witnessed from the sky, clearly revealed the horror of such “irrelevant” bombings. In fact, the US dropped more bombs on Laos than they did worldwide during WWII: it therefore tragically earned the distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation, per capita, in the history of warfare.

We drove in a green rickety “school” bus down a winding dirt road towards the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of massive dark stone jars dating back 2,000 years, dotted the windswept grasslands. The largest concentration of jars were scattered across the gentle slopes of two small hills.

Our group leisurely strolled among the giant hollow jars, some of which stood over five feet tall. Approximately 300 jars escaped destruction during the Indochina war, and as a reminder of who bombed the Plain of Jars, several craters were marked with a small wood sign post which read: “BOM U.S.A.”

French archaeologists believe the jars were once used as stone burial urns. Ashes, stone axes, bronze ornaments, ceramics and other artifacts have been discovered inside the jars, which experts speculated were reserved for high ranking officials.

Plain of Jars, Laos
Plain of Jars, Laos | Source

"A Manhattan with holy men..."

The next morning we flew from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the former royal capitol of Laos. Founded in 1353 as the royal capitol of Lan Xang, this alluring little city was truly a dream world, nestled amid green rolling mountains on a sharp curve on the Mekong. Indeed, it was a hidden Shangrila, where you could disappear for a walk along the serene Mekong banks, or stop and talk with young Buddhist monks gathered around small campfires inside hushed temple grounds.

Luang Prabang was once described as a “tiny Manhattan” by Norman Lewis, “but a Manhattan with holy men in yellow in its avenues, with pariah dogs, and garlanded pedicabs carrying somnolent Frenchmen nowhere, and doves in its sky.”

Today the charming city remains much the same, though the somnolent Frenchmen have ventured elsewhere, the saffron-robed holy men still make their daily procession through the early morning mist, carrying shiny alms bowls and flickering candles.

Young Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang, Laos
Young Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang, Laos | Source

Those who try to enter will die, either by a severe nose bleed, or suffocation.

Shortly after dawn, I climbed 329 steps to the top of Pousi, also known as “Marvelous Mountain”, a rocky hill which dominates the town’s skyline. From Wat Chom Si, a small temple at the hill’s summit, I gazed out over the early morning mist at Phousang, the city’s most mysterious and legendary mountain.

According to one legend, a famous cave called the “Flamingo Cave” exists inside the mountain, where hidden treasures are believed to be protected by “Nyaks” or guardians. However, no one has ever reached the cave’s entrance, even by helicopter. Supposedly, those who try to enter will die, either by a severe nose bleed, or suffocation.

In 1861, Henri Mouhot, the first Frenchman to arrive in Luang Prabang, climbed into Phousang to study the wildlife inhabiting the area. He died suddenly and mysteriously at the age of 32, while exploring the unknown region. Villagers are still afraid of venturing into the area, fearing such inexplicable deaths and many believe that Phousang is where powerful ogres continue to live, acting as the guardians of Luang Prabang.

Stairway to Heaven in Luang Prabang
Stairway to Heaven in Luang Prabang | Source

A Golden Age

As the morning sun burned off dawn’s hazy mist, a clearer 360-degree view came into focus. Below me, the multi-tiered roof of Wat Mai glistened in the sunlight and the golden spire of the former royal palace of King Sisavong Vong rose above tall palm trees. Built in 1904, the palace was converted into a museum shortly after the 1975 Revolution, and houses the famous golden Phra Bang Buddha image.

The sacred standing gold Buddha image was presented to the city’s founder, Prince Fa Ngum, by the Khmers in the 14th century and inspired the capital’s name. Under his reign, the Kingdom prospered into the14th and 15th centuries, but increasing pressure from its neighbors and internal strife caused an end to the Kingdom’s Golden Age.

Crossing the mighty Mekong.
Crossing the mighty Mekong. | Source

On the banks of the Mekong

In the late afternoon, I sat on some rocks on the banks of the Mekong and watched a family bathing together in the emerald green water. To the right of me two men carried bicycles across the river on their shoulders. To the left, children splashed each other joyously. The scene was utterly peaceful and made me wonder about the Laotians and their future. The winds of change are blowing in Asia’s least developed country; a place currently isolated in an enchanting time capsule.

Source
Laotian Brothers
Laotian Brothers | Source

Comments

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    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 

      7 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Santorini is a wonderful place prisana! Looking forward to reading your hub!

    • Prisana profile imageAUTHOR

      Prisana Nuechterlein 

      7 years ago from Thailand and Colorado

      Thank you Elias! I plan to write about my trip to Santorini soon...have you ever been there...I see that you are from Greece.

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 

      7 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Incredible hub prisana! I loved your story and pictures and found myself following you into your adventures travel.

    • Prisana profile imageAUTHOR

      Prisana Nuechterlein 

      7 years ago from Thailand and Colorado

      Aloha from Waipio Valley...article soon to follow...joining movement:

      http://www.march-against-monsanto.com/

      Will you also be protesting in NZ? Thanks for your kind comment!

    • Pearldiver profile image

      Rob Welsh 

      7 years ago from Tomorrow - In Words & NZ Time.

      Nice work, nice perspective and heartfelt message... a great passion and talent lies within, that clearly lasts beyond 'the sense of now' conveyed in this piece... thank you for allowing us to see life with your eyes.. take care... PD

    • Mountain Blossoms profile image

      Marianne Kellow 

      8 years ago from SE Thailand

      An amazing hub on the most beautiful of countries. ~We've been twice in the past year and want to go again.

      Your hub still rings true today despite being written in 1993. Your photos are wonderful and inspire me to get a hub together of our journeys too.

      Thank you so much. MB

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 

      8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      I'm sorry! I just realized that you DID read my UXO hub on Laos but I wasn't able to erase the link from my first comment! Again, thank you Prisana. I appreciate your reading it.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 

      8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      I'm so glad that I finally got to read your hub on Luang Prabang in return. I liked the photos and the commentary and like many of your readers, I felt that I was traveling to Luang Prabang and the Plains of Jars right alongside of you! The "Nyaks" you mentioned could also be translated as being monsters or giants as the word is synonymous with each, just like "guardian." I really like your photos. I'm planning to visit Luang Prabang soon, perhaps in 2012. Thank you for posting a link to my page and thank you for sharing. I hope to read more from you in the near future! Voted up!

      If you could, please read this hub whenever you have the time:

      https://hubpages.com/politics/unexploded-ordnance-...

      In my opinion, its one of the most important hubs I've ever written while here at HubPages.

      Thank you.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Thank you so much for this word and photo tour of the "real" Laos that average Americans back in the U.S. were never allowed to see during the Viet Nam war because, if memory serves, the U.S. military never went there. Obviously they did as evidenced by all the "ponds" which you correctly deduced were bomb craters, as well as the graffiti on the jars in the Plain of the same name.

      But what of the "million elephants"? Is this an obscure reference to something else or do elephants really exist in Laos?

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      9 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Great hub, I would love to visit Laos myself.

    • profile image

      Afzal 

      9 years ago

      Not interesting hub but very very informatics visit i am feeling that i was also with you in this visit. Please Accept my congratulation with my heart

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander Reno 

      9 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Congratulations on your hubnuggets nomination. What a great hub. Well written, and the pictures are astounding.

      Namaste.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      9 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      I enjoyed every minute of my travel with you. Thank you for sharing this with us. And congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. The Kingdom of a Million Elephants is up for voting right here: https://enellelamb.hubpages.com/hubnuggets6/hub/Th... Read and vote. By having the chance to win, many will get to read your story. Best of luck!

    • nikipa profile image

      nikipa 

      9 years ago from Eastern Europe

      Beautifully done! I am amazed by your style of writing and taking eye-catching pictures. Thank you for sharing! Looking forward for more!

    • Prisana profile imageAUTHOR

      Prisana Nuechterlein 

      9 years ago from Thailand and Colorado

      Hi Epi,

      Thank you for your wonderful comments! Thanks also for posting my hub on your FB!

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 

      9 years ago

      ...this is so beautiful .....that I had to come back again and revisit a classic .....and I have sent some people/fellow hubbers your way!

      lake erie time ontario canada 8:45pm

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 

      9 years ago

      ..my my my my what an exotic and exciting hub subject you have presented us with ....... I will proudly post this most beautiful piece of writing and images to my Facebook page with a direct link back here - you are indeed one of the jewels at Hubpages and you make the world a smaller place with your stories and adventures to those of us in the cyber world

      lake erie time ontario canada 4:04pm

      p.s. - The National Geographic society could sure use a (photo)journalist like you

    • Prisana profile imageAUTHOR

      Prisana Nuechterlein 

      9 years ago from Thailand and Colorado

      Hi Vinaya,

      Really glad you loved the pictures. Thanks for dropping by and "visiting" Laos, via my story.

      Hi Quill,

      Thanks for sharing your comment. It is an awesome destination!

    • profile image

      "Quill Again" 

      9 years ago

      Well written, I was right there in the reading and pictures... voted up and awesome.

      Blessings

    • Prisana profile imageAUTHOR

      Prisana Nuechterlein 

      9 years ago from Thailand and Colorado

      Hi Dexter,

      Thanks so much for your comment and for voting up! I was indeed fortunate to visit Laos during its tourism infancy, when Luang Prabang truly was a hidden Shangrila. From what I've heard, the charming city is still a magical destination.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      9 years ago from Nepal

      Your article is adventurous, makes your reader to see the place you describe. I very much loved your pictures.

    • Dexter Yarbrough profile image

      Dexter Yarbrough 

      9 years ago from United States

      Wow! I felt as though I was on this adventure with you. Your photos are amazing and tell a story aside from your written words in this hub. I know you first published this in 1993 and it is just as informative today.

      This is truly a gem. Thanks for sharing. Voted up, up and away!

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