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"

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