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The second week in Laos was just as stimulatingly colorful as the first. We spent two days at the Tiger Trail Elephant Park Project. When we first arrived, we rode in the chair on the back of the elephant and I clung onto the wood with every muscle fiber in my body. I felt like we could slide down the side of the animal at any moment, but we didn’t. The Mahout (elephant trainer) led the elephant through the water and without asking, hopped off the two-ton grayish-pink animal to take pictures of us. Back at the main camp, we practiced mounting and riding an elephant…on her neck (all of the elephants at this camp are female). What I thought would be more unnerving than the sitting in the chair, was actually quite comfortable. I rode horses for the first half of my life and it was just like getting back in the saddle. But without the saddle, replaced with thick, wrinkled skin that felt like a worn leather chair covered in nylon bristles.

After practice, we each mounted our own elephant (with a Mahout sitting behind us). I rested my hands on Mae Pua’s enormous, whiskered head as the gentle giant led me into the jungle. A few steps into the woods, my Mahout jumped off and asked me if I was okay to ride alone. You Tarzan, me Jane. She slowly put one foot in front of the other on the mud path. I knew she was happy from reading the sign posted at the main camp because she flapped her ears back and forth against my legs, which felt like giant rubber mats stretched over canvas. I was sad to leave her after the 20-minute expedition; riding an elephant may be one of the most thrilling adventures I have been a part of so far. Both my husband and our friend Craig loved the elephants as well and Craig can now say he’s rode an elephant but not a horse!

We stayed the night in the lodge and early the next morning ventured back into the bush. We picked up our elephants (once again, I rode alone while my Mahout walked in front of us) and headed for the water. Mae Pua reached the river’s edge and apprehensively entered while dipping her long trunk below to spray a waterfall into her mouth. Quickly we found ourselves in the middle of the waterway, the elephants routinely submerging themselves while we squeezed our legs tightly not to slide off. Then we scrubbed. Using a handled cleaning brush, I rubbed meticulously around her head, reached forward down her snout and turned to wash her back. The village sign that informed me of what makes elephants happy, also warned never to trust an elephant. But at that moment, all I knew was trust.

Instead of taking a van back 15km to Luang Prabang, we kayaked down the lazy river for three hours. Ben and I only tipped once, but that was his fault. The following day we shuttled for six hours to Vang Vieng, a backpacker’s haven filled with pizza joints featuring TVs with your choice of “Friends,” “Family Guy” or “The Simpsons.” Totally random, but surprisingly fun, even though we were considered “over the hill” in comparison to the other Falang in town. We went to a bar for the first time on the trip and getting to it consisted of walking over a shabbily constructed bamboo bridge to a nearly deserted Cancun-like bar on the party island. The people who worked there were mostly tourists who were paid in drinks, food and accommodations. How they stayed a month in Vang Vieng, I’ll never understand. The main attraction of the town is tubing down the river while stopping at riverside bars for BeerLao and to test your luck on a rope swing. We had watched the rope swing videos on Youtube.com and had decided unanimously that it looked too dangerous. Once there, all three of us took several swings off the wooden platform and flung ourselves into the water. Never say never. The ride home on the bus was far worse than any rope swing could ever be. The road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang climbs steadily up the mountain along a narrow pathway that they call a two-lane road. I would say it’s more like one-and-a-half at best. After the bus broke down, it was quickly fixed and we managed to make it home alive. We were reminded of our luck when we passed a construction truck that had tipped over coming around a sketchy curve in the mountaintop pass. To celebrate the end of one of the best trips of our lives, we dined for a second time at our favorite restaurant in Luang Prabang, Tamarind.

As I sit in my new digs in Shanghai, I miss the laid-back vibe of Laos. It’s a country that I hope to visit again in my lifetime and you should too!

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