Compared to the relative ease with which Bordeaux and I got to Khao Yai in Thailand, getting to the national parks in Laos seemed like far more of a mission. Our guidebook- the rather dismal Rough Guide to Laos- gave essentially no information on getting into Phou Khao Kaouy, aside from advising that we take a tour. We almost dismissed the idea of going entirely, and began planning on heading directly to Southern Laos. Thankfully, while walking up Vientiane's Lane Xang, Bordeaux and I came across the Laos tourism office. There, they gave us information on the park, and recommended to us Ban Na village, where they offer treks, homestays, and a night in an elephant tower. The staff at the tourism office were even able to give us detailed information on getting there by public transport.
The trip to Ban Na by public transport was rather easy- we caught a bus to Ban Phabat, and then walked 2 km to the village, where we were greeted immediately by a guide. While we filled out registration forms and waited for the trek to start, we had time to take in the village. There were several women making baskets, men working in the fields, and children playing hopscotch. One small girl competed with me in making odd faces, and two boys tried to impress us by doing strange tricks on their bikes.
From the village it was a 4 km walk to the Elephant Tower. We first crossed through rice paddies and bamboo groves, crossing bridges built of thin planks and bamboo poles. Past the cultivated land we entered 'elephant territory', a scrubby green woodland. Though the guides didn't speak much English (and we didn't speak any Lao), they were friendly and extremely personable, and pointed out the strange insects, tiny frogs, and snakes that crossed our path.
The tower was fairly basic, but well set up. There was a stream below the tower, where we were meant to bathe. The water was cool, fresh and clear, with a shallow rocky bed- perfect for cooling off, until Bordeaux spotted one of the seven-inch leeches wriggling toward us. For dinner our guides fixed a large tasty meal of noodles and sticky rice. After eating, they went through a book of animals with us, asking the English names for some of the birds and mammals in the area, teaching us the Lao names in return. At bedtime they set up mats, sleeping bags, and mosquito netting, and switched off the lanterns. A storm was growing in the distance, and lightning silently flashed over the forest. We fell asleep to the sound of rain on the metal roof.
So, we saw neither elephants, or any large animals. It was certainly disappointing not to see any of the elephants, but even so, the experience of the tower was well worth it. The forest around the tower was beautiful- huge trees and bamboo thickets. Additionally, the Elephant Tower has been set up as a source of income for the village, and many people in town are involved. By visiting, it can promote the development of conscientious tourism in Laos, allow villagers to develop income from the wildlife that destroys their crops, and hopefully encourage more tourism opportunities in Laos' wild places. But above all else, the experience of being in the forest canopy was incredible, particularly at night, when we were surrounded by the humming of insects, the chirping of bats, and the soft steady rhythm of the rainstorm. It gave a unique chance to see Lao village life, and to experience the nighttime rhythm of the jungle.