LUANG PRABANG (LAOS) - My heart is pounding.
I am walking away from two beasts towering up to 3m and weighing tonnes more than me.
But I hear their footsteps catching up. They are getting closer, I think to myself.
Suddenly, with a rustling of shrubs, one of them is right beside me, staring me in the eye.
Fortunately, Man and Mon, a mother-daughter pair of Asian elephants, are friendly and docile and just taking a leisurely stroll through a teak forest.
And they prefer chomping on bananas and bamboos, as opposed to eating me up.
I am at the MandaLao Elephant Camp in Luang Prabang, a free-roaming elephant sanctuary where the animals do typical elephant things in more than 200ha of teak forest.
Here, there are no chains restricting their movement and no elephant rides which place a strain on the animals' backs.
The elephant is the national animal of Laos, the only landlocked country in South-east Asia. Luang Prabang sits in the north-west, while the capital Vientiane borders northern Thailand.
Unlike other countries in the region, Laos is completely unfamiliar to me. It is not a place regularly featured in movies nor a popular travel destination people often talk about.
But it turns out to be a wonderland when it comes to nature, I find out during a four-day trip to the country last month.
The 4,350km-long Mekong, Asia's seventh longest river, winds around the country saying "Sabai Dee", which means "hello" in Laotian.
Laos also weaves in the spiritual, with a ceremony to restore the soul, and a daily morning ritual of offering food to monks.
Luang Prabang has been a Unesco Heritage Site since 1995. This means that the mix of traditional Laos urban architecture with French colonial architecture has been preserved since that year.
It also means that a 11pm curfew is imposed in the area so as not to disturb the town's cultural heritage, with monks and locals waking up early for rituals.
In the evenings, locals go to the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers to catch the sunset.
Another popular spot is atop Mount Phousi, a 100m-high hill in the centre of the city, reachable through a short leisurely climb.
Compared with Vientiane, Luang Prabang's roads are mostly unpaved. There are not many buildings, but a lot of fields and hills. Farms dot the town, with farmers wearing conical hats tending to the fields.
In MandaLao, we make for the friendly giants' special banana snacks - bananas filled with sticky rice (a Laotian staple), tamarind and rock salt. We then take a boat across the Nam Khan river to feed the treats to the world's largest land animals.
When they fall sick, these snacks would be filled with their medicine.
The trunked creatures will be delighted, thinking they have managed to snag the snacks from us. But instead, they would have been tricked into taking their medicine.
We then stroll through the forest with the gentle giants, with some parts featuring steep inclines which they ascend nimbly.
It is all very graceful and, as someone who recently nearly failed his Individual Physical Proficiency Test, quite inspiring.
The younger Mon, 15, walks ahead but regularly stops and waits for her mother to catch up.
Mon was rescued from a riding centre just two months ago and reunited with 50-year-old Man at the park.
Project director Prasop Tipprasert explains that the Laotian people have a close connection to elephants.
Elephants have the same body temperature as humans and same percentage of water in their bodies. Like Laotians, they are very family-oriented and communicate with one another very well, evident from Mon and Man's interactions, such as their criss-crossing trunks and playful nudges.
Mr Prasop says elephants digest only 40 per cent of what they eat, so they have to eat double the amount of food to get enough nutrients. Over 18 hours a day, they eat about 226kg of food.
Asian elephants weigh up to 5,000kg on average. They need to walk up to 17km to aid in the digestion - roughly the distance from Yishun to Marina Bay.
"You need a very big backyard if you decide to keep an elephant at home," Mr Prasop quips.
Sadly, elephants are on the "rim of extinction", he stresses, with the booming population of humans bringing us in conflict with the creatures' habitats and feeding grounds.
MandaLao works with its Thai counterparts to facilitate elephant breeding programmes.
Mr Prasop says: "Laos used to be called the Land of A Million Elephants, but now there are just 800 to 900 in the wild. In expanding, we forget our big friend."
Another quintessential animal in Laos is the buffalo.
Buffaloes were previously used widely in the country for ploughing farmland, but with the rise of machines such as tractors, they are now kept primarily for their meat.
At Laos Buffalo Dairy in Luang Prabang, chief executive officer Susie Martin welcomes us with a cheese platter comprising mozzarella, ricotta and feta.
The twist? These are made from buffalo milk.
We try our hands at milking a buffalo, which is one of the weirdest experiences in my life.
It feels really intrusive. We are instructed to run our thumb and index finger down one teat. When my turn comes, I do so as firmly and confidently as I can.
It reminds me of those condiment stations where the ketchup and chilli bottles hang upside-down and you have to squeeze them out onto a saucer.
The milk shoots out like a stream from a water gun. While I am afraid of using too much force in case I hurt the buffalo, the oblivious creature is happily eating leaves.
Buffalo milk is 8 to 10 per cent fat and more creamy than cow's milk, which is 3 to 4 per cent fat. It is also white, unlike cow's milk which is yellowish.
To help local farmers earn extra income, Laos' only buffalo farm rents female buffaloes from them, working with about 200 farmers from 20 villages.
They help to breed the buffaloes and collect milk from them to make products such as cheese and ice cream. This earns the farmers about an extra US$200 (S$270) monthly, which is the entire monthly income for some of them.
As I stand by staring at six-year-old Ulai, a staff member hands me a hose and a brush, and gestures towards her. For the first time - and probably the only time - in my life, I proceed to bathe a buffalo.
A total of 100 buffaloes are located within the 20ha farm, 15ha of which are used to grow grass for grazing.
We are given gigantic milk bottles with black caps to feed the adorable baby buffaloes. They scamper to us when we hold out the bottles and absolutely go at it, gulping down every drop of milk.
We also visit the Kuang Si Falls, one of the most iconic sights of Luang Prabang, comprising a few layers of falls. The longest drop is a 60m descent - the height of 14 double-decker buses. As a comparison, the Rain Vortex at Changi Airport Jewel is 40m high.
The roaring falls at each stage culminate in gentle pools, painted a distinct blue hue due to the minerals inside. Snap a picture and hashtag "no filter".
This is an extremely popular site with tourists and there are changing rooms for those looking to take a dip in the waters.
Wading into one of the pools, I feel a flicker of regret as the cold water sends a chill down my spine, though I also feel refreshed.
FEED THE SPIRITUAL SIDE
Laos also provides an insight into the spiritual.
One evening before dinner in Luang Prabang, we are led to a courtyard where we take part in a Baci ceremony.
Locals believe we each have 32 souls and when we travel, we leave parts of ourselves behind.
The ceremony, led by village elders, helps to reassemble all our souls in our body.
We sit around a set-up of orange and white flowers in a golden pot, with our legs crossed and hands together.
The elders, all dressed in white and wearing sashes, start chanting. I do not understand what they are saying, but I am already in too deep to back out. I sit there and immerse myself in the divine experience.
Following that, the elders tie white threads around our wrists. We have to keep these on for three days for the ritual to be effective and all our souls to return to our bodies. That also means wearing them even to shower.
And we each do not get just one. Or two. Or three. I end up with a total of nine dangling on each wrist.
Early on another morning, we go to a street near a temple in Luang Prabang for alms giving. It is 5am and I am only half-awake. We are here to give alms, in the form of sticky rice, to local monks.
This is a daily occurrence on the streets of Laos, with locals getting up as early as 4.30am to prepare the food for offering. If the locals wake up late, they can offer the alms directly to the temple.
We sit on stools and carry traditional Lao rice baskets woven out of bamboo. The monks soon walk by in a single file, wrapped in their orange robes, and we place the food in their metal containers.
In Laos, 65 per cent of the population are Buddhist and alms giving is one way to attain good merit.
There are monks as young as eight - novice monks can be identified by their robes, which cover only one shoulder. A fully ordained monk, who must be at least 20 years old, has both shoulders covered.
Laos is not often at the top of people's travel lists, but that is why it has been left largely unexplored, compared with other places in the region.
If anything, this trip has shown me the value of preserving natural sites and sights.
There is a certain calmness and beauty in keeping things rustic, removed from the swankiness of modernisation. Perhaps it invokes a less frantic vibe and helps us live life at a more relaxing pace.
• The writer was hosted by Scoot and Accor.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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