Saturday, August 27, 2011

Between Holidays...

December 27-29, 2009

...awoke to the sound of pre-dawn roosters. One of them had a crow so bad that it kept Miki and I in bed, giggling. We rented bicycles and peddled around looking for other, less ramshackle places to stay. One of these, Mayly guesthouse, was highly touted but slightly past its prime. For some reason, the owner began to discuss with me his plans of expansion, but he sounded a bit weary from the uphill struggle, worn down by his own pessimism. Where a few years ago he'd been the only guesthouse on the far side of the river, now he was surrounded. Vang Vieng was on the grow, and as such, it was a very noisy place. Night was accompanied by the thud of bass, day was the sound of hammer and saw. For every existing guesthouse, two more seemed to be going up.

Five minutes on the road out of town, I got a flat. This was followed by an hour walk back to town with the bike on my shoulder. The woman at the shop would do nothing for me, so I walked away angrily after an uncharacteristic show of temper. I am usually very patient in times like these, but have grown weary with kind people who have sold their humanity for tourist dollars. More than this, I hate myself for my anger.

The new bike, from a different shop, handled the bad roads well. It took us through rice fields and jungle, past lazily grazing cows, and under high karst mountains. It also took us through a series of small villages newly created to house the resettled Hmong. In one, we caught a glimpse of some ceremony: two lines of Hmong girls in traditional dress tossing a ball back and forth. (I later found that this was practice for a courtship ritual.

We reached Blue Lagoon cave soon after. A boy took us up a steep climb over sharp, triangular rocks. The cave itself was a mere gash in the cliff face. Inside was a tight maze of narrow openings and a slippery, knife edge ridge above a chasm of imperceivable depth. It truly was dangerous going. The boys would stop sometimes and point their torches up at a heap of rock and say something in Lao. One boy ran his hand along a stalactite: instant xylophone. Back outside, we sat and drank water, our bodies and knapsacks streaked with mud. I found it strange that we hadn't seen anything that the guidebook had promised: no lagoon, no Buddha, and no Brooke Shields.

We cleaned off in a stream down on the valley floor, beside a boy spearing small fish with a small gun. Downstream, we had lunch on a deck overlooking a bamboo bridge, kids swimming and bathing below. One kid was handicapped, pushing himself along on a makeshift walker. His granny squatted, doing laundry at the water's edge, suddenly angry at a 4WD that created waves as it made the crossing. When we paid for lunch, we only had bills of a large denomination (worth $6 dollars US), which the owners couldn't break. The husband went somewhere for about 5 minutes, then returned, handing the bill to a girl, who probably would've biked off somewhere to change it, leaving us waiting further. Never in a hurry, the Lao.

We pedaled out along the dusty roads, under a sun now hot. There were plenty of villages out here, plus one 'town,' which housed a college composed of a few concrete buildings around a large, overgrown athletic field. It was around here, at a T-junction, that we found a good-natured Frenchman astride a dirt bike, looking at his map. He'd rented the bike 21 days before and had been riding around the country. He pointed us down the right direction. We ran into him later at a river crossing, the 3rd crossing of the day. We'd twice had to pay for the privilege, to nearly identical women sleeping in nearly identical huts beside a barricaded bridge. (Near the first, two girls riding a motorbike had fallen sideways into the river from the bank.) The Frenchman had told us that we'd mistakenly come along the southern road, and were now looping back. Which explained all the foreigners we'd passed coming the other way. It also explained why we'd had such a hard time following the map we'd gotten at the bike shop. This turned out to be lucky after all, as the northern road was fairly shady, cutting back some of the afternoon sun's bluster. Water buffalo had their own solution: bathing in the river, burying themselves in mud. In this they proved smarter than the red-faced tourists on bicycles.

Back in town, we rehydrated at Vang Vieng resort, then rode across the bridge to Tham Jang cave. We arrived at 4:20, 10 minutes before closing, but the gatekeeper wouldn't let us in. I tried reason, I tried pleading. I even pointed at the monk seated nearby and said, "Show some of his compassion." He didn't budge, despite there still being at least 20 people lingering up at the cave entrance. "You are a bad man!," I yelled in his face, showing anger for the second time that day. What had compounded my anger was the fact that, 15 minutes before, I'd realized that what we'd thought was the Blue Lagoon cave was a different cave deliberately mislabeled in order to dupe tourists. I wasn't liking the people of Vang Vieng at the moment. But our friend here wasn't so much greedy as lazy, and at 4:30 on the dot, he mounted his bike and rode away, passing a German in a small swimsuit who was swimming into the lower reaches of the cave, breaststroking like a big fat frog. Five minutes after the gatekeeper left, Miki and I hopped the fence and climbed the steep steps. We weren't able to enter, barred by a heavy gate now locked. As we looked out over the river, I wondered if I wasn't a bad man too.

In town, we looked for a place to enjoy the sunset. For all the building, very few riverfront cafes or hotels had seating that faced the million-dollar scenery to the west. We eventually found one, but the mozzies soon drove us off. So we walked the town. The video in one cafe was playing "Friends," (and would be every time I walked by). Another cafe had the sign, "No Friends." Two other cafes were partial to "Family Guy." A different cafe had the sign, "Give Pizza a Chance." Many other signs had bizarre English with nospacingbetweenwords. Down on the island, the coming of night brought mayhem. Many of the bars had their names spelled out in Xmas lights, music pumping competitively, the alcohol reached only by crossing haphazard bridges. (There was a charming transcendent nature to it all.) This, along with the chubby, half-naked drunks strolling around really made me dislike the frat party that is Vang Vieng. Twenty years before, I'd probably have loved it, but now, for me, "party" is no longer a verb.

We finally sat to eat at the Organic Cafe, but found both the men and the food wanting. As we ate, a truck kept circling the block, the people in back holding up a trophy and singing...

...Miki had a fever last night, so we had a mellow day of resting and reading. We spent most of the morning at Luang Prabang bakery, then separated. I watched monklets beg at the Irish Pub where I ate Steak and Ale pie. We spent the rest of the day beside the river on the island, lazing on one of the covered bamboo bungalows. Later, roti pizza from a street vendor.... the morning, we rode out to some caves in the back of a truck. Our guide was a jolly Lao named Boum, whose girth gave me confidence in the fact that, if he could negotiate the narrow passages of a cave, I certainly could. It turned out not to be necessary, a world away from the ridiculous danger of a couple days back. The first cave was a series of interconnected chambers; the second a long tube. Coming out of the latter, we saw hundreds of dead bees on the trail. The caretaker of the cave was nearby, preparing to roast the honeycomb. A few days ago, no one had been able to enter the cave due to the bees, but I doubt the genocidal solution was done out of concern for the tourists as much as a means to have a tasty snack.

We rejoined the rest of our group at the Water cave. The highlight here was pulling yourself through while sitting in an inner tube. Some of our group stayed inside to swim, but I'd had enough of the cold water and had come out early. After lunch beside the stream, we walked through a couple Hmong villages. The poverty was pretty severe, especially when compared to the Lao of Vang Vieng town. The low-riding pigs and chickens weren't food but commodities to be sold if money was needed for medicine,. etc.

The rest of the day was the highlight for me, the kayaking. I wound up with a boat to myself. Before leaving, the guide had shoved some weeds in a round slot in the aft. Assuming it was some superstition, I asked him about it, to be told, "Keeps the water out." It was bliss to work my way slowly down river, beneath high karst walls. Villages came up, and their villagers -- fishing, bathing. Two children led a herd of buffs across the river. A granny and child on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. Further down river were people tubing, looking drunk, cold, and bored. They were passed by the long-tailed boats ferrying Asian tourists up river. Most bizarre were the bars. You'd hear them before you saw them, the music booming along the water. Then the structures would loom up, rickety and precarious and teeming with partiers, who'd dive off the platforms or were swinging out over the river on zip lines. It all reminded me of the night scene in Apocalypse Now when Willard's team drifts up to a stream of lights hanging across the Mekong, distorted music rising above all. We took a break at an empty platform further on, to sit in the sun and swim. I took my turn on the zipline. Two moments took guts: letting your feet leave the platform, and letting go of the trapeze bar.

Had dinner back in town, sharing a table with a half-dozen Vietnamese backpackers. Funny that my memories of Vietnam 12 years before was of a country not unlike Laos today. And now the Vietnamese are backpacking. The meal, and the day, was soured a great deal by the waiter, who was as surly as he was incompetent. He got 2 of our 3 items wrong, and forgot the other one altogether. When it came time to pay, he couldn't remember what we'd ordered. We were complicit in our own poor memories. A fitting, and metaphoric, end for our lukewarm relationship with Vang Vieng...

On the turntable: "Suzanne Vega"
On the nighttable: D.H. Thomas, "The Southwestern Indian Detours"

Friday, August 19, 2011

...And all throughout Laos...

December 24-26, 2009

...this being Xmas eve, Miki and I had dinner at the Cote d'Azur French restaurant, culminating in a stroll down the French market and past the bars, the female staff dressed sexily and topped with Santa hats...

...we pedalled out of town on this Xmas morn, bound for Wat Si Muang. It was an extremely active place, worshippers showing great devotion as they placed tall arrangements of yellow flowers and candles on the floor just before their prostrating foreheads. Other worshippers were banging gongs, and one man seemed determined to destroy the head of a large drum with the force of his beats. The temple had been built on the site of a former Khmer temple, the ruins of which still rose as a pile of porous black stones behind the newer structure. A massive bird was perched atop this, turning its head almost mechanically. It remained balanced on a single leg, the opposite claw wrapped around it as if a hand. Nearby, a baby gibbon swung itself playfully about its cage, stopping only to look sheepishly into my eyes. Its parents were in an adjacent cage, looking forlorn, as if they'd given up on life.

We'd heard about a naga shrine that was out on the island. A man had told us to find the watertower, turn right, and cross the rickety bridge. The bridge was certainly rickety. If I hadn't seen a motorcycle go over, I doubt that I'd have had the nerve. On the opposite side was a small village on the bank of the Mekong. The shrine was set amidst a quiet bit of jungle, decorated with serpents of exaggerated size, all surrounding Shakamuni and his naga cloak. It was an equally peaceful and spooky place.

On the ride back through the village, we were chased by a group of dogs, which scattered with a loud kiai and an aggressive stance (something I've found to work well on Asian canines). We spent the rest of the morning in a cafe run by a Japanese woman, reading in comfy wicker chairs and sipping one of the best coffees I've ever had. The cafe was decorated in true sparse Japanese style, consisting of just a few pieces of furniture, some hanging textiles, and plenty of negative space. Next up was lunch at a Laotian restaurant where we shared a dish that was cooked like nabe, but rolled up like harumaki.

At one o'clock, we were picked up for the ride out to Dreamtime Eco Retreat. After a quick stop at the market, we rode the dusty red road through the jungle to the bungalows. Ours was built alongside a small stream, with a hammock for swinging. The other bungalows were built to be hidden from the others, a trait common to places like this. The main bungalow was the center of things, where we all lazed around reading and dozing, alongside a large litter of cats. The place was owned by a pair of Belgian brothers, who'd been raised in Israel. Their mother and sister were visiting, along with two other Israelis, 2 Brits, and a French woman. Mike, the owner, had found the land 3 years ago, and opened to guests the year before. The place was spantan and simple, little more than a handful of modest structures surrounded by ungroomed jungle. He hopes to create more of a spiritual center, but to progress slowly, by word of mouth.

We all had a Xmas dinner of grilled Mekong River fish, potatoes, corn, and wine. Lots of wine. The night culminated around a bonfire in the jungle with good songs and conversation. Definitely a memorable holiday...

...I awoke feeling poorly,laying in bed soaking in my own alcoholic sweat, the only peace found in the variety of birdsong. We finally got up, but with no one else around, slept again until 9:30. We'd thought about staying a second night, but not really being of the party set, felt a little out of rhythm here. Most of the morning was lost, but I did take the time to walk the trails, trying desperately not throw up. For the first time in my life, I'd immediately vomit up the water I'd drink. It may have been the wine, but my money was on the fish, cooked and eaten in the dark. (Cornflakes and coffee eventually restored the balance.) As I walked, I tried to distract myself by looking at bugs (including one that looked like lint), listening to the birds, and trying not to think about snakes too much.

We left at noon, and stopped soon after, wheels buried in 3 inches of sand. A villager suddenly aparated out of the jungle, and helped us out. It was a bumpy ride in the back of the pickup, which didn't help my head any. I had a quiet hour to recover in the cool of the Mixay Hotel lobby, but the next ride in the back of a minibus brought the headache to the comeback trail. Halfway to Vang Vieng, we entered the mountains, winding up through the banana trees and the jungle. This was the landscape I'd remembered from previous visits to SE Asia. It dawned on me that I'd been in the flat of jungle lowlands for three weeks. We arrived in town after dark, 2 hours late...

On the turntable: Happy Mondays, "Greatest Hits"

On the nighttable: Edward Dorn, "Interviews"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vientiane Solstice

December 23-24, 2009

...started the day in Sabadee Cafe, with a coffee that was the best I'd had since starting the trip. The poster above me showed a collage of photos of various menu items, each one with a time and date signature in the lower right corner. Equally hard to ignore were the BGM Xmas Carols being sung slightly off-key by what I presumed were Laotian kids. There probably weren't many tracks on the CD, for the same song would repeat every 15 minutes.

First up this morning was the National Museum. Downstairs was the cultural history, many exhibits made of styrofoam and papier-mache, like in a elementary school history project. The Buddhas were, of course, lovely. Upstairs was all political. Paintings showed the devil French acting in their usual barbaric French ways, with lots of dead babies and monks tied to posts. Later, photos showed Laotian rightists meeting with men only identified as "American imperialist." Another exhibit showed the cultural traditions and clothing of the various SE Asian countries. Singaporeans were represented by their stewardess uniforms.

We rented bikes and rode along the dirt trails paralleling the Mekong, through open air restaurants and past lazy dozing dogs. Some Chinese tourist was taking a photo of the Don Chuang hotel which rose like a tombstone above the rest of the older French architecture. Midday we arrived at the Linda Sisaphon, which did a great Thai lunch of crab and tofu puffs, and spicy noodles. The ubiquitous corner television was showing a karaoke video of Ram Wong, Laotian style. Unlike in Cambodia where the hands seem to delicately trace the Khmer alphabet in the air, the Laotians instead keep their arms stiff at their sides like David Byrne.

Bellies full and sinuses clear, we biked through a series of gradually posher suburban neighborhoods to Sok Pa Luang, where we sat awhile on the steps of a small, unoccupied temple and watched the dogs sleep and the leaves fall. Stomachs finally ready, we walked across the grounds to have a sauna and a massage. The former was wonderful, a handful of us clad in sarongs and roasting in the steam. Water and herbs were boiled in a steel drum, from which a pipe fed a small opening in the floor of the shack.. The shack and the heat began to make me feel a bit like a Vietnam War era POW. The light streamed through a small square window and was backlit by steam. Slipping further back in time, I was now a 1950's European cinema-goer. Sitting and passing the afternoon in this way was a wonderful thing, in the company of two Frenchmen, a Columbian, and a Puerto Rican guy ever hitting on a gorgeous Persian-American
girl. The massage that followed wasn't quite as good, done by a young, obviously untrained guy who pawed me like a weak kitten. A return to the sauna was a nice consolation.

The light fading, we followed a dirt path along the Mekong. There were quite a few rickety wooden decks built over the river, where people could drink and watch the light fade further still. We took a seat on the deck furthest west, well beyond the dusty construction zone nearer the city. Below, fishermen brought in their boats, women bathed, and kids played, everyone eventually fading to silhouettes and becoming figures of art, the subjects of our photos. And the miracle of the sunset followed, as it would again tomorrow.

We returned to our new hotel, Mixay, and got into a conversation with David, who'd been staying here for 5 months. He'd been offered a job with the UN, who'd then reneged upon his contract when he'd arrived. The length of his stay in country was due to the fact that he was in the process of suing them. A lawyer and former anthropology teacher, he'd been living in Hanoi for the past 8 years. We had an interesting chat, but for his bile against aid groups, he insisting they were all corrupt. Most interesting was his take on the Vietnamese, forseeing an inevitable decline in their currently booming economy, since their main investment was in their children and in feeding them. Once the resources have all been eaten, it's all over...

...In the morning, we took a jumbo out to the Buddha Park, which is an older version of the work by Luang Pu that we'd seen a few days before on the other side of the Thai border. Here too was the same jumbled array of towering Hindu and Buddhist figures, built in a somewhat amateur fashion. The setting though was better, alongside the Mekong, looking in the direction of the other park, a few kilometers and a whole country away. We had a good time climbing in and around the hollow, pumpkin-like tower, but didn't feel that the expensive tuk-tuk ride out here was exactly worth the fare.

We were dropped off at Pha That Luang, a big, gaudy, gold gumdrop that is a source of pride for the Laotians. There was a pretty impressive temple being built next door, roofs folding in atop one another. A group of ladyboys posed in front for photos. We left them behind and began to walk across the city, past a sign for a shop called, "Scoubidou," and past bus stops which all had those large plexiglass walls that in China would hold newspapers for commuters to read. Here, they held only advertisements.

We'd hoped to have lunch at the infamous Pyongyang restaurant, being naturally curious about what passes for North Korean food, but the restaurant seemed to have been closed down. We walked hungrily through the city, having a snack at the mall, which was filled with hundreds of young girls in a frenzy over some boy band that was scheduled to play later. We quickly escaped to the Scandinavian Bakery, where we passed the afternon reading and writing. We also had a war of attrition on the balcony, with a workman blowing dust outward into our drinks. We finally gave in due to the chemical warfare that followed, consisiting of fumes from floors newly stained. We ducked into a supermarket geared toward Vientiane expats, stacked with a far better selection than anything I'd seen in Japan. Appetites whet, we sought out dinner...

On the turntable: Sonic Youth, "Daydream Nation"
On the nighttable: Edward Abbey, "The Brave Cowboy"

Monday, August 01, 2011

First Day Vientiane

December 23, 2009

...We tuk-tuk to the Immigration post, get processed, then board a bus that crosses the Friendship Bridge. On the Lao side, we switch from the left of the road to the right, then have our tires sprayed. It's a bit like being part of a child's toy car set. Off the bus now to apply for our visas. We wait under a banner that proclaims Vientiane to be a non-smoking city. It isn't a long wait, and after getting our stamped passports, we go to the tuk-tuk queue. Rather than the usual chaos, we are shown a sign with fixed prices, held up by a handful of smiling drivers. One is chosen for us, and upon paying the fare upfront, we are given a receipt and climb into a jumbo. the whole process has been quick, neat, and polite. The same can be said about the roads, the driving, the city itself. no rush, little dust or trash. Laos begins to work its magic spell early.

We check into a hotel, and begin to walk. A few blocks over is the fountain of Nam Phu , and nearby, we grab a tuk tuk to take us to Patuxai. This large concrete slab stands in the center of a roundabout, showing what Soviet architects could have accomplished had they been allowed to design the Arc de Triomphe. The Champs d'Elysees then would be the broad avenue leading past the moneychangers and fancy hotels to a mock-up of the White House, painted pink in this particular version. On the way, we detoured through the 'Development Center,' a fine euphemism for the up(-per) scale Malaysian shopping mall built on the grounds of what had for centuries been the city market. This places enables the rapidly increasing middle class a place to spend their kip while simultaneously crushing the chances for the lower wage earning sellers of the former market to join them. Seems that the socialist economic policy here is a slightly less than level playing field.

Nearby is That Dam, a stupa whose former gold leaf was stripped by Siam invaders nearly 3 centuries before. The US Embassy stands beside it, reminder of yet another cultural theft.

Took a lazy stroll amongst the Buddhas at Si Saket, then crossed the street to Haw Pha Kaeo, squeezing between Chinese tourists to walk through a building that can't seem to decide if it's a temple, a museum, or a gift shop. Inside, a Buddha had a large fleck of gold stuck to its forehead, as if playing Indian poker.

There was much more space out by the Mekong. A construction team was in the midst of some huge project which stretched halfway across the river to Thailand. (It dawned on me later that in this, the dry season, the river is always that low and dusty.) After buying a painting from a young mother, we ate some ping ka and learned from a former Thai expat that all this construction going on was the building of a park. He'd come here a dozen times on visa runs, but hadn't visited for over a year. He'd noticed a lot of new businesses and hotels over that time, probably due to the Southeast Asian Games which had just finished the week before. The vibe however, hadn't significantly changed.

We worked our way slowly through a few other Wats, their gilded facades even more brilliant in the fading light. Kids played volleyball in an adjacent lot, and others, clad in saffron, knelt before the Buddha and followed the chants of the head priest. We wandered the alleys of Chinatown back to the riverside, where hundreds of people sat drinking Beer Lao and watching the last of the day's light. Up the street at the Hare & Hound, I found my own beer to wash down my first Bangers and Mash in five years, to the accompaniment of a Laotian boy singing along to an Abba CD.

Our hotel had a special show for us, perhaps inspired by this town's popular "Dumb Show." It began when I tried to make a phone call, but the guys at the front desk couldn't figure out how to make the phone work, then finally said, "Broken." When I said that I'd just used it a few minutes before, they went and got someone else. Later, when Miki and I asked them a few questions, they just looked at us. In the past, I've found that even if you don't share a common language, it is possible to convey information if both parties are patient listeners and have a small share of common sense. These guys appeared to be operating at a deficit.

The highlight of the show began later. We'd already suffered for a few hours from noisy Thais in the hotel fiercely competing with the street noise coming through a window frame that had no pane. This was all nearly drowned out by the sound of water (along with the accompanying smell of waste) rushing through the pipes just outside the aforementioned windowless window. Somehow, Miki and I both fell into sleep, but an hour later, the A/C unit (which we purposely hadn't paid for) began to turn on and off by itself. I guessed that someone in a nearby room had gotten the remote control for our unit, and perplexed as to why his wasn't working, kept turning ours on and off for at least half an hour. I noticed that our own remote control was marked with 206 rather than 209, so I went down the hall and knocked on that door. I was answered by a German voice, which continued to speak in German, rather in than the English that I spoke, or in the language of the country in which we were all guests. (Somewhere, there is probably a German blog entry about all this.)

I eventually went down to the front desk, waking and scaring a poor girl sleeping in a cot in the lobby. She seemed reluctant to wake the manager, who, when he came out, was rubbing sleep from his eyes. I explained as simply as I could about the problem, then led him to our room. He stared at the offending unit for about 5 minutes, during which time it was silent, of course. Then, he said something like, "Too cold, it becomes ice," and left in apparent incomprehension. Ten minutes later, after I was on the brink of sleep, the phantom A/C resumed its earlier routine, until someone somewhere finally grew tired of the monotony of pushing buttons and gave up.

Until 6 a.m. the next morning...

On the turntable: David Byrne, "Growing Backwards"