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Luang Phrabang Bowling Ban

Written on: Tuesday January 29th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Faced with over a weeks stay in Louang Phrabang after arriving back from Phonsavan, while waiting to go on the Gibbon Experience in Bokeo National Park, I decided I would have to do something constructive with my time. I began by getting banned from Louang Phrabang's bowling alley! Who gets banned from a bowling alley? A bowling alley I tell ye!! Unless we're talking the MegaBowl in Feltham I don't know anybody who has been banned from bowling, let alone banned from bowling in Laos, surely the home of the friendliest people on Earth. I promise it was not intentional, nor did I mean to cause offense, in fact to the majority of the patrons and staff in the bowling alley that night, myself and my band of many travelling men were a great source of entertainment, never before seen in Laos.
My day began very civilly, with a stroll around the town, a glance at a few of the excursions that were on offer, and whiling away the day in the Scandinavian cafe with a newspaper, some writing and some reading. Early evening I took a trip to L'Estranger where I took in The Last King of Scotland and some grub, and then I thought I'd grab a quiet beer and maybe a few games of pool at the Lao Lao Garden, before getting an early night. It's at that point the night sort of went off on a bit of a crooked, but enjoyable tangent. One beer turned in to quite a couple more, and before I knew it I was chewing the fat with a couple of guys from Kent, Ed and Roly,  who were travelling through Laos and Thailand just on a short 4 week holiday escaping from the harsh winters of England. They were vexing their frustration at Louang Phrabang having nowhere to go to after the curfew sets in at 11:30pm, so I gave them an insight in to the delights of the local 10-pin bowling alley. Before we knew it we were on the back of a tuk-tuk with a gaggle of other randoms on our way to the Bowl.

We were joined by another English traveller, Ben, and given my favourite Lane 1 with it's crooked alley and set about to bowl. Now believe me it started off very timid, very respectable and one might say, even gentlemanly. But after a couple of bags of popcorn and who knows how many more Beer Laos' we were rasing the stakes. The gauntlet was thrown and it was decided on our last game that if you hit a spare you had to moonwalk back up the lane to your seat, whereas if you hit a strike every one of us would have to remove his T-shirt and sprint to the other end of the bowling alley and touch the Female toilets sign (bearing in mind we're on Lane 1). Well, come our final bowl each we'd had quite a few moonwalks, now with fingers pointing haphazardly in to the air as pistols, but amzingly not one strike. So it was decided that now, desperate to declothe, with any spare we would do the topless run.
My first bowl on my final go left me 2 pins standing, and with my last bowl I nalied them both. Before they'd even hit the polished surface of the alley my opposition had their shirts on the floor and had taken off. Disrobing I took off around the back off Lanes 2 to 8, past the reception desk brazenly showing off my bronzed tanned belly and up the length of the centre overtaking Ben in the process, before gleefully slapping the sign. The four of us wobbled back laughing our heads off, along with the rest of the 10-pinners who had all stopped to see what the hell had possessed four half naked guys to run around a bowling alley.
As I hit the spare on my final go I claimed myself one last bowl and joked that if I hit a strike now we all had to get completely naked and touch the sign. I stepped up still giggling away and hurtled the ball up towards the pins, with a followthrough and form reminiscent of Bill Murray in Kingpin, sending all 10 pins scattering to the back of the alley. Within seconds all chaos broke loose. With adrenaline still fastly flowing, T-shirts went flying and instead of running out the back of our seating area the boys flew past me over 7 lanes where everybody else was still bowling. I took off shirtless in their pursuit once again over Lane 2 and 3 turning to see Roly in just his boxer shorts coming after me, over 4 and 5, carefully avoiding a couple of freshly thrown balls, to Lanes 6 and 7 where I eyed the 4 foot fence in front of me that stood between me and buying a round of drinks. I had it in mind just to hurdle straight over it, but as my foot touched Lane 8 that idea was firmly put to sleep. My footing on the polished surface went from straight underneath me, my body went in to a horizontal position hanging in the air for a split second, almost defying gravity, before I came crashing violently like a bouncing bomb in to the fencing. I rolled over at the foot of the fence to see Roly still in his boxer shorts back at Lane 1, disappointed that nobody else had taken their shorts off, Ben at the sign intent on not finishing last again, and emphatically Ed speeding down Lane 5 and thowing himself Superman style in to all 10 pins! I promise you the entire bowling alley complex was shaking with it's participants laughter. Sheepishly we returned to our clothing and decided that that might be enough fun for one night.
My next few days in Louang Phrabang couldn't have been more different. It's always good to mix up the drunken hilarity and nonsence with some culture and so, having booked myself on to a 2 day elephant training course that is what I did. Truly one of the most amazing things I've ever done, I begrudgingly arose from my slumber in not so good a condition at 8am, packed a small bag for my 2 days away and jumped in the back of a tuk-tuk to be taken out a short distance to the jungle where my mahoot or elephant trainer programme would begin.
Accompanying me this time were a great English couple from Manchester and Leeds, Lucy and Adrian, and all 6 foot 5 inches of Ben from Rotterdam, Holland. We began our day with another group of people who had just booked on to do a short ride on the elephants and then spend the rest of the day kayaking. So sharing my initial elephant ride was a girl from Sweden, who despite only being in Laos a week taught me some very useful sayings that came in handy when conversing with the Lao people over the next few weeks.
In Asia an elephant handler is known as a mahoot, the person who rides on the elephants neck, directs the elephant through the use of his legs and words the elephant is familiar with, and cares for the elephant almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Each elephant has just one mahoot whose relationship with each other is much like, or even to a greater extent like a marriage. Although first thoughts made me not enjoy the ride so much, sitting on a wooden platform atop of the elephants back, as this is what the elephants do day in and day out, walking the same route around the Lao jungle. But sadly the alternative is them being set free in the wild where they would have to forage hard for their food, and be at the very real risk of hunters or poachers. They would be lucky to last a few weeks. At the elephant camp their mahoots care for them like a member of their family, providing food for each of them to munch upon throughout the day, bathing them to keep them clean and upholiding a relationship which is beyond any I'd witnessed before between human and animal.
On our first ride on top of Boun Yang, the name of my elephant I would come to care for and learn the personality of over the next few days, the atmosphere and setting of where we actually were was intensified even more so as the heavens opened and the rains poured down with a ferocity far greater than any I'd witnessed further up in the northern hemisphere. Within seconds we were soaked to the bone, but the views of the the rain forest ahead of us made us not care in the slightest as to our uncomfortable, unescapable position.
As the rains subsided we arrived back at the feeding station and set about feeding our elephants some bananas and foilage which they consumed in their masses before settling in to our stilted, plush wooden houses where we would spend the night. Adrian, Lucy, Ben and I changed in to our mahoot suits, a baggy denim suit that made us look like a dodgy 80's hip-hop band, similar to Kris-Kross, grabbed some lunch and headed back up the hill for our first real training directing the elephants from a position sat on his neck. We were given a sheet with all the familiar commands the elephant understood and with the mahoots now sitting behind us keeping a firm hold on our shoulders to stop us from toppling either straight off the front on to our heads before being trampled to death by the elephant itself, or to the side to a broken arm we began directing the elephants around in a small but up and down area. Under the direction of the mahoots we all did reasonably well for our first time and got by without any falls or damaged limbs.
Leaving the elephants to their leisure and dining once again Cy, our guide for the two days took us off to the nearby river where we were to take in some more tubing. I was apprehensive at first as I really didn't want to get my foot wet again for some time as the burn still wasn't showing any signs of healing, but the temptation gave way and despite the rain beginning to come down again we all lept in to our rubber rings and began floating down the river. Despite not having multiple bars to stop off at like in Vang Viang, this strecth of river was far better for the tubing itself. Beginning rather calmly, as we were overtaken by an elderly couple in a kayak, the river soon became much faster, leaping up over rocks and at one point almost flipping me right out. Finishing our ride down the river we then had the agonising walk, barefoot back over sharp, gaudy rocks to where we began which Cy failed to inform us of. On our way back Lucy came up with a cracker, pondering on the old couple in the kayak that had passed us on the river. Further on up the river I had spotted the couple's kayak moored in at the bank, where they were taking a look at the grave of the Frenchman who discovered Angkor Wat. Lucy it seemed had not seen this as she commented that because of them passing us on the river for the second time the river must go round in a circle and link back up at where we started. Comic genius!
Once our elephants had arrived back where we were we took scrubbing brush in hand and walked the elephants in to the river to give them a good scrubbing down. Riding on the back of an elephant when it is having fun in the water, raising up on it's hind legs and splashing down in to the river with it's trunk billowing water everywhere was truly amazing. Immaculately clean, even behind his big flapping ears we walked our elephants in to the jungle where they spend their nights and hiked back ourselves to a much-needed great Lao curry, a few bottles of Beer Lao and a couple of games of cards to see the night off.
A mahoot's day begins at 6:30am, but hearing the rain pounding down throughout the night, we were very apprehensive to hike back out in to the jungle to fetch the elephants. Dutch Ben didn't refused to get out of bed, but myself, Adrian and Lucy motivated by each other followed Cy out as the rain poured down on top of us to get our elephants. We had definately made the right decision as we were now allowed to ride and drive the elephants ourselves with the real mahoots walking behind. It was incredible that an animal so huge and strong would be guided and instructed to go places by a human so feeble in comparison. The feeling of me being in charge of this animal and the bond I had already made with him will be one to remember for all times.
Returning to the ranch, we ate breakfast and were supposed to set off on a 4 hour trek to a waterfall. Thankfully all 4 of us decided that with the rain not letting up one tiny bit and all of us running out of dry clothes we'd hang around the main area for a while and take a bus and a boat over to the waterfall later. Cy grabbed a bottle of Lao Lao whisky and the cards began. It was a good job we hadn't decided to hike to the waterfall, as when we did arrive it was quite a let-down, as there wasn't much water falling at all.
Returning to Louang Phrabang, both Lucy and Adrian, and Ben all stayed at the Merry Guesthouse where I had been staying before. Then that evening I took Adrian and Lucy to once again sample the delights of the Louang Phrabang bowling alley. Walking in confidently I was met by the female owner of the alley who refused even to look at me, and when I repeatedly apologized and promised it wouldn't happen again, she just shook her head at me. Banned from a bowlng alley, I was a disgrace.
I would stay one more day in Louang Phrabang before heading up the Mekong to Houay Xai, but Adrian and Lucy were booked on the following morning at 8am. Sitting at noon with a newspaper once again in my local Scandinavian Bakery I was astounded to see them come walking up the stairs grinning explaining that after we didn't get to sleep until 5:30am there was no way they were going to make their boat. The three of us took a boat over the river to Xiang Men, a local village very much poorer than Louang Phrabang, where we gave out pens to the local children, then made sure of an early night so as to board the slow boat up the Mekong the following day.


From Chyna on Nov 20th, 2011

This airltce achieved exactly what I wanted it to achieve.