The Elephants of Ban Na

Photos by MJ Klein

Hui-chen and I visited Laos for a few days. We’ve blogged on Laos before and this time we wanted to do something very different from the last couple of visits. So, we decided to go to the small village of Ban Na, about 60 KM east of Vientiane, the capital city. All of the shots in this article and many more, are available on my Flickr photo album entitled Ban Na Village, Laos. We recommend that you take a look at the photo album because we couldn’t possibly show you all the photos in this article.

Our story begins with Mr. Somboon, shown here with Hui-chen. The village of Ban Na is a very small, traditional village. One of the village leaders, and the head of the elephant ecotourist program has a mobile phone and the number is published on the internet. Normally, someone who wanted to go to Ban Na would contact a travel agent and book a tour. Hui-chen and I dislike those tours (we are travelers, not tourists) so we decided to contact and travel to the village, directly. Mr. Somboon called the published telephone number for us and speaking Lao, he arranged everything! He made it very simple. Mr. Somboon runs the Heuan Lao Guesthouse N17.95713 E102.61861 and we spent several days there, both before and after our visit to Ban Na.

Getting to Ban Na isn’t as easy as it might sound. Traveling in Laos can be an extremely frustrating experience because nearly none of the population is fluent in English, and very few of the signs are in English. We left the Heuan Lao Guesthouse and took a local taxi, called a “tuktuk” to the bus station. I told the driver where we wanted to go and he said we needed to go to the “north bus station” for a bus to that particular destination. In response to “how much?” (always, always, always get the prices up front!) he said “50” to which I replied “50 baht?” His answer was “yes.”

He drove a long way and then demanded 50,000 Kip, or 200 Baht. He insisted that he said “50 thousand” but he only said “50.” He had purposefully allowed a misunderstanding to develop so he could get more money from me later. As soon as we pulled up to the bus station some guys came over to the tuktuk and began asking us “where you go?” Always be careful because they can use a little information to get money from you. I usually ignore such requests for information. The driver was so argumentative with me that I just gave him the 200 Baht (about US$5.00). He then said “you can take a taxi to Ban Na.” That just totally pissed me off. I cannot tell you how many times people make decisions like that for me. I said “bus” but this guy took me to a place where I can hire a taxi (read “more expensive”) instead of the bus. I asked the driver if those guys were his friends and he immediately answered “no, not my friends” which indicates to me that he did indeed take us to some of his pals.

I’m not being negative, but….

One of the big problems in these countries is that people see you and they automatically assume that because you are a foreigner, you must be going to some popular destination. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been ushered towards a bus to Bangkok or Pattaya (as if I’m ever going there!), when in fact I needed to go in the opposite direction. In Western countries, we refer to these as “stereotypes” and they are often illegal. In Asia, stereotypes are common and encouraged, so one has to just get used to it. I went to the bus station ticket window. Before I even got to the window, some people were trying to get me to get on a bus without even asking me where I wanted to go. The woman at the ticket window said “no have bus” and that was all there was to it (I had the name of the village written in Lao).

Some of these people can be extremely persistent, following you around and asking you where you want to go. The more persistent they are, the more I ignore them. If you tell them where you want to go, its very likely that they have a system set up with their pals to charge you the maximum amount of money they can get. Often these guys try to offer you some “taxi” service right next to a bus stop. Just use your street smarts.

Also Thai and Lao people are perhaps the most curious people I’ve ever met. They want to know everything, and even when clearly its none of their business. i will be talking with Hui-chen about something, and they will stand right there as if they are part of the conversation. When I asked them to excuse us, I have to actually tell them to step back so we can have a private conversation. Mr. Somboon had written the village name for us in Lao, along with an explanation who we are, and what we wanted to do in Ban Na, and every single Lao person that we talked with tried to grab that piece of paper from my hands to read it! I had folded it up to show the name of the village only, but one driver tried to take the whole thing from me. I said “you can read the village name – that’s all you need to know” but he actually persisted and nearly tore the paper up trying to get it from me.

Anyway, we went back to the other bus station (150 Baht) where we were told by the staff that the bus we wanted was at the north bus station! When I told the staff that they said “no have bus” they had no explanation. I decided to find out how much it would take to have an automobile taxi take us to Ban Na. After negotiation, we settled on 700 Baht or about US$20.00. We took the taxi and he drove us right to the place we needed to be.

There are buses that go to Ban Na – I just don’t know which ones there are and I didn’t go to a travel agency to find out. I didn’t want them to hard sell me a package.

To get to Ban Na, one takes a bus, tuktuk or taxi east to Phabat village and then takes a turn at this temple N18.27778 E103.16920. There is a very small sign (in English also) that indicates the turn, but you may miss it. Its best to keep a lookout for the Phabat village sign and then slow down. Once you reach this temple, its another 1.5 KM down this dirt road to reach Ban Na.

Ban Na village got electricity about 8 years ago, but there is no city water system. Every day you see young girls fetching water for the family just like this. Hui-chen and I saw some very young girls carrying single buckets because they were too small to use the balance like you see in this photo. The families are very tightly knit and everyone knows everyone else’s business in a village like this. This kind of life is not for everyone, but it is safe and secure. The people are prosperous, resourceful and happy. They are also nice beyond belief – something that we are not used to in the Western world….

When you take that dirt road beside the temple, look for this sign on the left at N18.28714 E103.16165. This is the administration center (at the store). You may discharge your transportation at this point.

Looking down the dirt road towards the left from the perspective of the above photo.

Looking towards the right, we see one of the traditional style Lao homes. Up on stilts, the home is mostly open, except for sleeping areas.

Unfortunately I did not remember to write down this gentleman’s name. He speaks rudimentary English, but its certainly good enough to communicate with. He is the administrator of the elephant ecotourism program, and one of the village leaders (if not the village master himself). I was surprised at the organization of the program, right down to the paperwork with proper English. Prices for whatever you want to do are clearly published and each line item is written down and then totaled. What you have to be careful of is the currency conversions. Just about everything in Laos is in US dollars. Their national currency is called the “Kip” and most times you will get a price in US dollars and Kip. We use Thai Baht, which is actually preferred over Kip, so we always ask “how much Baht?” This is where you can get into a misunderstanding. In this case, there were a couple of people working on the conversion calculations. They went from Kip to Thai Baht, instead of directly from US dollars into Baht. The difference was about 10 US dollars, not to our favor. It literally took them about 10 minutes to give us a price in Baht. I then showed them my calculator and converted the US dollar price into Baht and they agreed that I was correct. All smiles, no problems. Its not that anyone would try to purposefully cheat you; its an honest mistake that occurs when going around these currency calculations. Just be logical and write down the process as you are going through your calculations. It helps to carry a calculator with you. I have my HP 15C with me everywhere I go! All together we spent around 80 US dollars on this expedition to Ban Na. After you read this article I hope you will agree that it was well worth it.

The Administrator outlined our program for us. We would eat lunch (meals are line items on the invoice and cost US$1.5 each), and then hike out to the elephant observation tower, approximately 4 KM. We would spend the night there, then go trekking the following day. In the late afternoon we would return to Ban Na where we would stay in a traditional Lao home with a family (“homestay“). The program was for us to spend about 24 hours in the field. Sweet! Here you can see some of the points of interest on this topo map. We only went to the tower and free style hiking, but there are waterfalls and caves nearby. I got the impression that one could spend a week here, exploring everything there is to see that is available from the village base.

While our lunch was being prepared, I snapped a few shots. This poor puppy has been seriously mis-handled by small children that don’t realize one shouldn’t pick up a puppy by its front legs. Later in our trip, I saw an older child take this puppy and slam it to the ground from over head. I immediately went over and checked it out (it was OK). I keep asking Hui-chen if she thinks the puppy is dead by now or not. Village life is what it is, and truthfully there are way too many dogs around as it is. Each hour featured at least one dog fight, as they are territorial and lacking open space in the village. This is a reminder that when you visit a village you are going to see and experience things that you may personally disagree with. Just keep in mind that this lifestyle has remained unchanged for virtually hundreds (thousands?) of years, and its not our job to “improve” upon it, unless asked to do so.

Once we finished our lunch, it was off to the field! I like this sign! You should see the large version to get the impact. We are now in elephant territory!

Along the path to the trail, we saw this odd fence. Our guides explained to us that it snot a fence but a walkway used during the rainy season. This area is impassible because of the mud that forms during the rainy season.

Both of our guides wore plastic sandals, typical of most men in Asia. You wouldn’t be allowed to wear them on any guided trek in North America that I know of, but nevertheless their footwear did not seem to be any disadvantage to them at any time.

Along the way to the tower we saw evidence of elephant activity in the area: broken bamboo stalks.

After about 1.5 hours of hiking an easy trail, we arrive at the elephant observation tower! Its situated literally in the middle of nowhere. N18.30650 E103.14306.

To protect the tower from unauthorized use, the ladder is drawn up and kept off the ground. One of the guides must climb up the rebar stubs (designed to keep elephants from damaging the tower) up to the first stage and then let the ladder down. Its quite dangerous. One slip and the guide would be torn to shreds on those stubs, perhaps even fatally, when considering the position one has to be in to climb! I was very uncomfortable while shooting these photos!

Here you see one of our guides stepping up to the first stage.

Once he let the ladder down, we climbed up. Its safe if you keep your focus. There are no guard rails on the lower ladder, mind you. Now, let’s take a look around the tower!

Built with the assistance of the German government, the tower is also used for cooking and sleeping. At this point I want to mention that normally they like to have the tower filled to capacity (which is 12 guests and 2 guides) before they will take guests to the tower. On this occasion, they took Hui-chen and I alone. We did not travel with a tour and apparently another tour was not scheduled to arrive anytime soon, so they made arrangements for us to go alone. That was very cool! Also, we found out that The Discovery Channel was scheduled to visit the village 2 days later and the administrator was worried that they would be too busy with TDC people.

This is the view towards the NW. Once you are on the tower, it is forbidden to go back to the village at night because of the danger. You would very likely meet up with some roving elephants and could be severely injured if not killed. A villager was killed within the last year, so this danger is not exaggerated. So, on the tower, you eat sleep and wait until morning before you can leave.

This is the mat used for eating, but Hui-chen and I took a short nap after our 4 KM hike. The elephants usually show up at sundown or at night, so we weren’t worried about missing them. Besides, they aren’t subtle and will certainly make enough noise to wake you up! For sleeping arrangements, they put down camping mats and provide small sleeping bags and a mosquito net. The bags were too small for me, but i just unzipped it and used it as a blanket. Even in January, it was not cold (to me at least).

Mr. Thit prepares a charcoal fire to cook our evening meal. The food they prepared was delicious Lao style. I’d go back there just for that!

I do want to mention though, that the food preparation process generated a tremendous amount of smoke and noise, which cannot be good for the wildlife, especially when you are waiting for elephants. Personally, I was expecting some kind of pre-packaged food such as sandwiches, which would have been just fine and would not have made any noise or smells which scare away the wary elephants. Even so, we read the guestbook and several entries mentioned elephants coming to the tower during meal preparation time, so maybe the noise and smells don’t have as great an effect as I think they may. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t have done it that way myself. The guides also failed to turn off their mobile phones, and both of them took calls from women (I heard the voices) while we were waiting for the elephants to arrive. Instead of saying “honey, I’m working now, I’ll call you in the morning” they engaged in extended conversations in full voice. I had to actually tell them to get off the phone – not cool! Hui-chen and I are not sure if the elephants had no intention to come to the tower that night, or were scared off by all the noise.

In addition, there are a few other disturbing considerations. I’m not trying to be critical, just honest and hopeful that visitors to the tower will help educate the guides who are all well-meaning. In several of the guestbook entries, Hui-chen and I read accounts of the guides feeding the elephants. Clearly posted in the tower, and also at the administration center, are rules strictly forbidding the feeding of the elephants, and yet apparently the guides are occasionally doing just that. The reasons for not feeding the elephants are obvious and should not be ignored. One person actually wrote a plea to the guides to not feed the elephants.

Also, even though we were in conservation land, the guides would routinely cut vegetation unnecessarily. I don’t think they quite grasp the concept that the land should not be modified unless absolutely necessary. I personally would never cut into a tree on conservation land, unless appropriate. The guides know the land very well by way of navigation, but they are not really true “guides” in the sense of overseers who understand what to do in any given situation. They are typical Lao villagers who have been recruited into the burgeoning ecotourist program, and hence they act like villagers in most situations. They did know the elephant habits quite well and were good at predicting their behavior too. So, again, while not trying to be critical, experienced visitors should help educate the guides where appropriate.

When you leave the tower in the morning, you have to venture down this ladder. The aluminum extension ladder on the side is a spare.

View of the watering hole from the tower. There is a saltlick under the tower that the elephants need occasionally. This is why the tower was placed here.

Hui-chen reads literature on the local programs as evening descends.

Mr. Khamphat prepares sticky rice, a Lao staple. The amount of sticky rice that they prepare and consume is surprising.

Unfortunately, the elephants did not show up for us at the tower that night. They are wild animals and unpredictable. Even so, I enjoyed our stay at the tower and certainly will come back again.

I suspect from reading the guestbook that the best time to visit is during or near the full moon.

The next morning, our chef/guide Mr. Thit lit another fire and began cooking more food.

The guides used this and other watering holes for washing and bathing.

Mr. Thit prepares more sticky rice in the early morning light.

After eating more excellent Lao style food, we ventured out for the day’s trek. The first think that we came upon was evidence of last night’s feeding: pulled up bamboo roots.

We trekked for a few more hours, following the sounds of the elephants. The sounds they make while feeding sound literally like small charges going off, as they break bamboo stalks, which snap when broken. We heard them breathing and grunting with the exertion. Here we are coming into a very interesting area.

In the center of this photo, we can see a “trunk print” where an elephant trunk came into contact with the ground. A bit more difficult to discern is the footprint to the upper left of the trunk print. Elephants come here to play in the mud and to spray themselves with a mud coating.

The vegetation clearly shows evidence of being sprayed with mud – overspray from elephants.

At times we were were hiking through some very dense forest.

One of many giant ant hills we saw, and also hid behind while observing.

While later, we came into this field which had been cleared.

Our guides listen intently while pinpointing 2 different groups of elephants that were behind a thicket directly ahead.

This is a log that we hid behind to avoid being seen. Immediately ahead is a thicket where a number of elephants were grazing. We could hear baby elephants noises also, so this meant that any approach could be dangerous.

Crouching Woman, Hidden Elephants.

The wind changed and the elephants caught our scent. They weren’t happy! They left that area and moved into another area. We went around the long way and found some more fresh evidence of their presence.

Around noon, we went to this watering hole and took a break N18.28197 E103.13306. There was dung from the night before, so now we knew where the elephants were last night! Our guides ate more sticky rice and some of the morning’s food (but we weren’t hungry). Mr. Khamphat stripped down to his skivvies later (out of eyeshot of Hui-chen of course) and bathed in this water.

After our break, we went into some very thick and interesting parts of the forest. The forest habitat in Southeast Asia is slowing disappearing. These elephants moved into this area because of the loss of habitat elsewhere. One of the main contributors to the destruction of the elephant’s habitat is the elephant itself. However, the elephant is the only one authorized to perform this type of destruction. They eat tremendous amounts of vegetation, partly because their digestive system is so inefficient that much of the food exits their bodies un-digested. Baby elephants sometimes ingest the dung of their parents in order to gain nutrients and bacteria necessary for digestion. In elephant territory you see bamboo stalks torn apart like this.

This dung pile is only a few hours old.

Our guides told us that this was where one of the baby elephants slept.

This photo seems insignificant, but its really not. We had been following a small group of elephants around for about an hour. The forest is so thick that you can’t actually see them but you can clearly hear them. My personal experience with animal tracking and years of field work tell me that directly in front of the lens of my Nikon D80 is a solitary male elephant, approximately 7 to 10 meters away. He growled at us like a tiger! I have never heard an elephant make a growling sound like that before, but the meaning was unmistakable! GO AWAY! I will admit to you, dear reader, that as I snapped this photo, I was scared! Following the growl was sounds of more bamboo snapping from heavy footsteps. This elephant was coming toward us!

Here you see Mr. Khamphat beating a hasty retreat away from the angry elephant. I honestly don’t know why I stopped to take this photograph, but I suppose that its my nature to ignore danger for the sake of the blog! Once this photo was taken, I slung my camera and ran! I honestly did not know if the big guy was following us or not, but I did not take time to look back. Hui-chen was right behind me and Mr. Thit behind her.

After a few more hours, many photographs and video footage, we returned to the village of Ban Na by way of a different trail.

Craftswomen working bamboo.

More resourceful craftswomen working bamboo for basketry.

These shots are of the inside of the traditional Lao home where we spent our second night in Ban Na. Notice the baskets in progress on the left side.

Left side of the kitchen. Notice more basket material on the wall.

This is where they cook their meals.

This is our host, Mr. Khensing, and his son.

They prepared a delicious Lao meal for us, and then sent us on our way.

We really enjoyed our visit to Ban Na village and we hope you enjoyed reading about it too!

UPDATE: We’ve gone back to the tower in January 2010, and here is the story.

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