Travel: Discovering the mysteries of Laos
THE Mekong River flows through Laos, a South East Asian country known for its mountainous terrain, French colonial architecture, hill tribe communities and Buddhist monasteries.
The easygoing, waterside capital of Vientiane is the site of That Luang, a shrine allegedly containing the Buddha's breastbone, the morning market of Talat Sao, and the Patuxai war memorial, a massive monument meaning Victory Gate.
Laos deserves all the accolades it receives.
Adrenaline seekers can lose themselves in underground river caves or whitewater rapids.
Wildlife enthusiasts can trek through pristine forests, still home to rare creatures, and foodies can experiment with the abundance of flavours that is Lao cuisine.
How lucky was I to visit The Land of a Million Elephants, where I fell head over heels in love with this barely untouched country. I'm here to check out Elephant Conversation and to discover Laos.
Waking up at sunrise, I walk along the upper Mekong, quietly roaming the streets observing the glowing temples.
The locals are up, going about their daily routine as I saunter to Wat Sisaket, the oldest original temple (built in 1818), and the only one to survive the Thai invasion of 1828.
Across the street I get to explore the Haw Pha Kaew temple with one of the famous Plain of Jars.
Then I discover the golden-spired stupa, Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Laos and symbolic of both the monarchy and Buddhism.
Something I find heart-wrenching, but also very moving, is spending time in the COPE Centre, which provides prosthetic limbs for victims of mine explosions and brings attention to the tragic after-effects of the Indochina war.
Less than an hour's flight to the former royal capital, Luang Prabang, I get closer to celebrating the 20th anniversary of the city's UNESCO World Heritage status and the arrival of the Elephant Caravan.
However, as soon as I arrive, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace consume me and I decide on the spot that I never want to leave.
So I allow for a few days to explore the historic architecture, the Buddhist temples and to watch the sunrise procession of 200 Buddhist monks through the charming city streets.
I travel early morning to Kuang Si falls, the most exquisite of the waterfalls near Luang Prabang where at that early hour, we briefly have the place to ourselves before the crowds arrive.
The turquoise waters are surrounded by a luscious, thriving jungle. I try to live my life by the 'I may never get this opportunity again' philosophy and to embrace each moment - so what am I waiting for?
In I jump for a refreshing swim.
Only 10 minutes outside of LP, I attend a local cooking class where we learn how to make coconut sticky rice and other traditional Laos dishes such as the delectable Lao eggplant dip.
A two-hour cruise along The Mekong on board a slow boat brings us to the mysterious 'Cave of a thousand Buddhas' at Pak Ou. Here, in a tradition that has lasted centuries, local people add annually to a repository of Buddha statues.
I have spent some time soul-searching as to how my art of photography can contribute to the industry in a positive manner.
So while there, I am able to take part in the 'Elephant Caravan' whose mission is to stave off the extinction of this majestic species in the small, landlocked country once dubbed 'The Land of a Million Elephants'.
I experience one of the most incredible moments of my life as I come face to face, or nose to trunk, with Moukhao, a 38-year-old female Asian elephant who was rescued from the logging industry a year ago.
If you want to engage with elephants in Laos, go to The Elephant Conversation Centre (ECC) which is about four hours from Luang Prabang. Time is against me and home beckons but I will return to uncover more of the mysteries of Laos.
Getting to Laos
Melissa Findley organised her trip through Helloworld.
For all inquiries phone 131 415 or visit the website http://instore.helloworld.com.au/destinations/laos