I'm in the land of a million elephants but I only have eyes for one. At 60 years old, Peng is the grand dame of MandaLao Elephant Conservation, located just outside the northern Laos city of Luang Prabang. We spend the afternoon making her favourite snack, a banana taco – the yellow fruit slit in half and packed with tamarind, rock salt and sticky rice – then we take a boat ride across the milky-tea-coloured Nam Khan river to feed her and tuck her in for the night. There is no riding or washing the elephants at MandaLao, they are here to rest after being rescued from logging operations and riding camps.
I sidle up to Peng and wait for her to take the taco in her trunk like the other elephants we are feeding but the poor old girl wants me to pop it straight into her rather dauntingly large mouth. When I hesitate, one of the guides encourages me, telling me Peng is so old she can't even be bothered using her trunk; I offer the stuffed banana and she gently takes it, turning her heavily lashed eye to me within a couple of inches of my face – perhaps she needs glasses, too.
Peng's penchant for mouth-to-hand contact makes her less popular with our feeding crew, but I have fallen pretty hard for her by this stage so she gets a few more treats from me before we take a short walk along the jungle path and lead her and her fellow residents to where they will spend the night.
MandaLao is a great place to see Laos' dwindling elephant population. The camp is two years old and it attempts wild breeding and the reintroduction of elephants to Lao national parks, but for Peng it is a retirement village where she will live out the rest of her days.
I have travelled to Luang Prabang on a few occasions but this is my first time staying outside of the World Heritage-listed city in the newly opened Pullman Luang Prabang resort. Set among paddy fields, the air filled with the songs of children from a nearby school, this resort has semi-detached villas spread throughout the rice fields with a central area to sit and take in the view. It makes a great base for exploring the region and the wildlife of Luang Prabang. We spend a couple of days up and down the dusty byways discovering more of Laos.
From the wilds of MandaLao, we head off the next morning to the Kuang Si waterfalls and stop by the Free the Bears sanctuary where sun and moon bears are rescued from the bear bile trade and now laze around in the jungle on wooden platforms. The organisation freed more than 60 bears last year. Then we wander up the path to the opal blue pools of the falls where people swim and take selfies. We finish with lunch at Carpe Diem, a restaurant whose wooden deck is next to the falls; it is the best view in the house and the shrimp ravioli is incredible.
On the way back from the falls, we stop in at the Laos Buffalo Dairy where we meet Australian Susie Martin who came to Laos as a tourist – and then forgot to leave. Martin has set up the social enterprise dairy to assist local farmers, many of whom are too poor to care for their water buffaloes correctly. In a nutshell, Martin will house the buffalo, feed them, treat any illnesses and even breed them. She milks the cows while they stay at the farm, and returns them to their owners in better shape than they arrived. And her lemongrass ice-cream and Persian feta – all made from water buffalo milk – are well worth the stop.
After our time in the country, we shift to the Sofitel Luang Prabang in a central position in the former Laos capital. Here we walk to the night market, cruise shops full of Lao weavings, or simply order a gin and tonic and sit out the front of our suite, one of 25, where you can keep an eye out for the pair of house rabbits.
One of the best welcomes in the region, your stay at the Sofitel starts with a baci ceremony where village elders tie white string around your wrist in an effort to help you find missing parts of your soul. Then you head to an outdoor fireplace to hear local legends about the Monkey King and haunting tunes on the khaen, a traditional wind instrument.
We end with a barbecue at the Governor's Grill, accompanied by some Beerlao. As I set off for bed, I take a book from the shared library. Turning in for the night my thoughts turn to Peng, and I hope she is as content as I am.
FIVE MORE LUANG PRABANG HIGHLIGHTS
STROLL THE TEMPLES
Temples such as Wat Sensoukharam and Wat Sop Sickaram on the main street are peaceful places to walk. Check out the grounds as well as the temples and you may find golden figures laying under trees in various states of disrepair.
TAKE A SUNSET MEKONG RIVER CRUISE
Mekong Kingdoms runs a beautiful cruise aboard a dark-wood boat with wide-open windows, comfy couches and killer snacks. Grab some aperitifs and a glass of wine and pull up a seat as you chase the sunset along the famous waterway. See mekongkingdoms.com
EAT LOCAL AT 3 NAGAS
The Sofitel's sister property on the main street of Luang Prabang offers a local feast that includes Mekong river fish spicy soup, fried buffalo in garlic sauce and mixed vegetables with Laos herbs. Wash it down with a cocktail made form Lao whisky.
VISIT THE UXOLAO VISITOR CENTRE
Just near the Sofitel is a sobering reminder that Laos remains the most heavily bombed country in the world. UXO, or unexploded ordinance, refers to the live bombs still covering Laos, injuring or killing one person every day. Visit and donate so that more clearing can be done.
One of the best ways to experience Luang Prabang is with an evening perch on the main street watching tourists and locals pass by. At the Maolin Tavern, pull up an outside table and order one of the many beers on tap.
Paul Chai was a guest of Accor Hotels and Scoot.
Scoot flies Luang Prabang from Singapore.. See flyscoot.com
The Pullman Luang Prabang resort is perfect for an out-of-town stay. Double rooms from $140. The Sofitel Luang Prabang has just 25 rooms, all of them suites, and is an indulgent stay. Rooms from $265. See accorhotels.com; sofitel-luangprabang.com
There are full and half-day tours of MandaLao Elephant Conversation that start from $US100 (children 5-11, $75; 1-4, free). Tours of the Lao Buffalo Dairy start from $US6 or just drop in for one of its ice-creams sold from the kiosk. Entry to Free the Bears is free but buy a T-shirt to help its good work. See mandalaotours.com ; laosbuffalodairy.com