Friday, December 30, 2011

A Lad in Saen

January 13, 2010

The dawn light was still gray as we climbed the steep stairs of Wat Jom Khao. The temple hall was decorated with paintings of Buddhist lore--most of them quite surreal. The male figures had the cheesy mustaches of a silent film villain, and the Buddha himself was quite ugly, his face old and out of proportion. Beside the temple was a low squat tower. From this hilltop, we could watch the sun rise behind the old French fort, watch the light take hold in Thailand across the water.

Back down the hill, the monks were finishing their final alms rounds. About a dozen women were kneeling in the street. Upon a certain verbal cue in the monks chant, they all simultaneously began to pour water from soft, shapely vessels.

Miki and I hustled up our own breakfast, then walked down a slope to the Mekong that served as the border. We were processed out of Laos and jumped into a waiting pirogue to make the crossing. It was ridiculous how easy it all was, how casual everyone was. Infected with this spirit I tried to talk the woman at Thai immigration into giving us 18 day visas rather than the usual 15. She seemed to go for it, until an official little man in a starched brown uniform popped his head in the window and explained (politely, but slightly aggressively) how to pay the overstay fee. Fifteen days it was.

We took a song taa-ou, following the Mekong to Chiang Saen. we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the quiet little town, past the old ruins which were much like those in Ayuthaya, usually a broad platform of raised brick, with a few chedi or a seated Buddha at the end. Unlike the segregation of the ruins into parks as at the old capital, here the town had been built to encompass them, houses and shops constructed right up to the leaf-covered grounds. Three of the old city walls remained, the fourth having crumbled into the Mekong long ago. We walked the north wall, under large trees growing through gaps in the brick.

The waterfront was lined completely with Chinese boats, their crews loading them with various goods. We watched one group carrying 5 cases of Red Bull, holding a chopstick in one hand which the foreman would take as a means of keeping count.

We spent the better part of the day at Wat Chedi Leung. The chedi is --was-- massive and furry with weeds. There was a variation on the broken platform theme in that this one had had a roof built over it to protect the large gold Buddhas it housed. A group of monks from Chiang Rai came and filled the floor with their orange forms. Two guys had unmistakable gang tattoos, and one was probably a ladyboy, very delicate in face and gesture. I found myself wondering why, if they didn't take food after noon, were so many so fat? After a brief chant, they were off again, filing in pairs through gaps in the ruins. The head monk came and found us, a nice young man of 24, who seemed eager to practice his English. Such a dichotomy, this young guy overseeing such an ancient site. Adjacent to the main hall was a small outdoor cafe called 'Heaven on Earth.' It did have a semblance of such, with thoughtfully arranged flowers, colorful art, and comfy chairs in which to pass a couple of hours.

We had a massage while the light faded, followed by a simple meal by the river. Then began the worst night of the entire trip. Our quiet, peaceful bungalow by day became the center of the party by night. Voices drifted from the vendors across the street, eventually drowned out by the thump of 3 or 4 competing sound systems. Our pipes must've backed up at some point for the air in the room became thick with the reek of raw sewage. No, I don't believe I can recommend the Chiang Saen Guest House...

On the turntable: Nirvana, "Bleach"
On the nighttable: John Nichols, "On the Mesa"

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mekong, Upriver

January 12, 2009

...we made our way down the dusty hill to where the slow boats were moored. The trip upriver to Huay Xai was touted to be 5 -6 hours, but it took us 9 1/2. Such is Lao Time. I felt sorry for those trying to cross into Thailand as we docked just 5 minutes before the immigration post closed. But this was the way I had intended to pass the day, and it was heaven to drift quietly up the Mekong, watching the mountains drop away into jungle. Our boat had long, ornately carved rails, between which soft bus seats were laid in rows to pamper spoiled white asses. The passengers were all European at first, including a French woman who seemed unable to sit still for 5 seconds. As we continued upriver, the pilot stopped about a dozen times for locals who stood on the high rock crop banks waving shirts. We stopped at one village that had a market right on the bank, and seemed to be selling nothing but T-shirts. Nearby, a couple sat eating in their pirogue, clearly embarrassed to be the subject of every one's photos.

Our pilot steered us past the low jungled hills, past the shores of rock and sand. The rocks had been carved during rainy season in a pattern that was almost purposeful, methodical. He used a proper captain's wheel, unlike the single bamboo shafts attached to the afts of the pirogues. Both his steering house and the bow contained small altars, the latter more ornate, its joss sticks lit before launching. On board, an old woman sat with her three granddaughters, none of whom moved for the entire trip. The woman seemed to have knee trouble, and was asking the French bata-bata butterfly for treatment. Again, interesting how Europeans are seen as a source of medical treatment. A Frenchman sitting nearby rubbed some sort of salve into the afflicted joint. I watched all of this to the soundtrack of my iPod, listening mostly to '60s stuff, and slightly chagrined that the "Oldies" setting now includes music from my college days.

We reached Huay Xai at dusk and grabbed a room. The owner was a gorgeous woman in her '50s, with the glamour and dress of a beauty queen. There were photos of her in her younger day, resembling two daughters well represented in the adjoining photos. Clearly brought up with great expectations, I wondered how they felt about waiting on and cooking for tourists.

We walked up the main street, taking all of 5 minutes. It was all very Thai, even on this side of the river. At the base of the long steps leading up to the Wat, a man whispered hello from the shadows of the naga's head, a clear attempt to sell drugs. We ignored him and found a restaurant on a deck overlooking the Mekong, the sun's final act being to accent the purple hills with pink. A Korean girl sat behind us, filling out her journal, and across the room, a man sat at a keyboard, his crooning being a vast improvement over the previous BGM of bad pop songs. As the Xmas lights came on, Miki and I raised our final toast with Beer Lao...

On the turntable: Genesis, "Plays Live"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winding out of Laos

...Laos wakes early to chickens and shouted voices. Music was coming from somewhere, and like all trad music I'd heard since while in country, was of the "more cowbell" variety. This was Saturday -- market day. The town had swelled with villagers from the surrounding hills, which explained the voices and all the boats moored at the bottom of the steps. Being hill-tribe people, there was an array of colorful clothes and interesting headwear. A few women had their hair tied up in interesting buns, many at the front. They had gathered to buy or sell veggies, tobacco, silks, and meat carried in bags or arranged like a crime scene. One woman stood chatting and smiling to a friend, holding bovine forelegs with the shinbones protruding. The old-timers, as expected, had beautiful faces.

We waited fro Liu to buy a couple of chickens for his sons, then boarded a boat for the seven hour trip upriver. It was a chilly morning, but warmed up once the mist burned off. It was a pretty smooth ride, the mountains reflected off the glassy surface, with occasional rapids, which the boat seemed to climb. We passed fishermen, people damming small streams, a boatload of monks, bathing buffalo, women placer panning gold, and naked kids having kung fu battles on the beaches, complete with high kicks and flying sand. Norman Lewis talks of the monoscape of the jungle. It is the perfect camouflage, as people literally just popped out of the dense foliage. Other times, in straining your eyes, you could make out these figures and small huts, like viewing a Chinese landscape painting.

We stopped in a few villages along the way. The first was a Tai-Dam weaving village, with a sign out front saying, "No Slash and Burn Village." The villagers rushed to hang their wares in front of the homes for us, the first customers of the day. A few women were at their looms, all four limbs moving independently like a drummer. One woman was boiling silk worms and pulling the yellow thread out of the pot, while her baby slept in her lap. She offered us a each a worm to eat, which tasted just as bad as the ones I had had in Korea 13 years before. I found one scarf that I liked, weaved in remarkable detail by a women in her '80s, with failing eyesight.

We had lunch in a different village, eating in front of the hospital, closed for the day. As we ate, a large palm frond fell onto the electrical wire. I doubt that the hospital will have power when the open tomorrow.

The third village was a very poor Khmu village, which we'd noticed by its small hospital built high on a cliff overlooking the river. It was a steep scramble up sliding sand. A couple of men were repairing fishing nets, one with great dexterity considering that his right hand was gone. He'd made the bad decision to fashion a knife from a UXO. Based on the reactions we got, not many farang have come here. There was the usual parade of kids, as well as a very old man who was brave enough to come up and take Miki's hand. We passed a few old women bathing, completely unconcerned with covering bare pendulous breasts with their sarongs.

Later, we did a pee stop on a remote stretch of sand. As I did my thing, I had a fantasy about Liu and Suan, the boat pilot, pulling away, marooning Miki and I here at the edge of the jungle. Would we be able to survive, to get out? My answer came a few kilometers upriver. The entire right band had been cleared of jungle, for a new road leading to the nearby Vietnam border.

In late afternoon, we arrived at Muang Khua. The waterfront was a construction site, and the rest of the town not much better. The hotels were large, characterless concrete boxes, and before them garbage and food was strewn everywhere. People walked by doing the patented projectile nostril clear. Definitely a Chinese town. There was a hard edge here that I hadn't yet found in Laos, both from the Chinese and Vietnamese locals, and the tourists. Greeting two foreign men with a "Hello," one answered with a gruff "Bonjour." He was of the age to have possibly fought at Diem Bien Phu, 50km away. A daily bus leaves here at 6 a.m.

We met our driver from the first day, who said that the town "isn't beautiful, too noisy." We concurred. A friend of his had a guest bungalow in a village one hour away. "Great view," he promised.

We arrived in a village flanking the road, like a hundred others during the last 3 weeks. Our bungalow turned out to be a pile of blankets and a mosquito net in the back corner of a shop. Um, no. Had I been traveling with the driver from point A to point B, and these were the digs, offered up at, charitably, $1 a night, I'd be fine. The trouble was compounded by the driver's buying our dinner at a stall beside the road, whose meats were of an age slightly less mysterious than that of Dick Clark. Again, had this been part of the flow of travel, I'd be a good sport. But we'd pre-paid $70 a day, and found the food and accommodations sub-par. So we mutinied. We asked to go on to Oudomxai. Liu and the driver acquiesced, but there seemed to be some unspoken tension there. I hated this loss of trust, after three days, of what felt (naively perhaps) like friendship. Once the driver turned up, the vibe changed. There was a definite aggressiveness in both his manner and technique. What was unfortunate was that Liu seemed to have shifted sides, in deference to him. He was no longer in charge , it seemed. And our tour had begun to suffer -- the itinerary became less interesting, the amenities, less amenable.

We reached a sort of armistice over dinner in Oudomxai, the laughter and good feeling returning. What rankled though was my pride. I didn't want the driver to think I'd refused the "bungalow" because I was just another spoiled tourist looking for comfort. It was all a matter of me wanting services equaling payment rendered. Yet even this left me uneasy about how conservative I've become. Almost as amends, we wound up in what was perhaps the nicest accommodations of the whole trip -- a Chinese hotel, that while reasonably plush, couldn't offer protection from the sound of a loud TV echoing from down the hall...

...Oudomxai is a Chinese town, and the market reflected it, in the broccoli and bok choy, in the imported smokes. There were a few hill tribes about, but more often there were men in Mao caps. We drove south, stopping at a couple of uninspiring villages. One of them was a cold place, the people not interested in us at all, not returning our smiles or greetings. It was almost like an unspoken comment on cultural tourism being a trip to a human zoo. Miki were by now tired of these village visits, uncomfortable with this very point. Far better to spend a week or a month with them, offering work as an exchange for food, and hopefully, mutual understanding. A lot of these villagers are obviously unhappy with busloads of tourists dropping by to gawk and shoot photos. We quickly took the hint and fucked off.

In a single roadside stream, people were washing farm equipment, their cars, themselves. An old man smoked a cigarette through a waterpipe. Tall corn stood in rows on badly deforested hills. Banana trees extended their fingers to high-five the sky.

Our driver made quite a few stops on the way for his own personal needs--for rice, sugarcane, ice. I didn't mind much, but we spent perhaps a cumulative total of a couple hours waiting on him. I like him, despite myself.

The hills dropped, then we were at Pakbeng, a single dusty road leading up from the Mekong. The town itself wasn't much to look at, but the surrounding hills, and the river, added charm. Most of the hotels and cafes had waterfront decks, on which we had a pleasant way to pass the afternoon. There were only a handful of foreigners about, including one who lounged on a bed sitting on the veranda of a guesthouse next door. Farang began to arrive en masse in the late afternoon, trudging up the slope laden with bags like pack animals.

Our own guesthouse was pretty nice, a wooden affair of dark teak. It was noisy though, mainly from the karaoke coming up from the street. Judging solely from the thumping bass patterns, Laos has only 5 songs. And Lao people are outright bad at singing. One could argue that the pitch of the music is different from what we know in the West, but most of the singers (ahem) I heard were miles off the key of the song itself. As the bass thumped on, I began to curse the Japanese for inventing karaoke in the first place. One cafe offered a diversion in some Thai radio. I found it amusing mainly because the top news story was about predicted tapioca shortages in 2010. We live in interesting times...

On the turntable: "Still Swinging" (Various)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nine months after...

I wrote this not long after the quake and tsunami of March 11. It appears in a less vehement form in the Quakebook collection. Buy yours here. Every cent of the proceeds go to charity.

That Friday, I awoke before dawn, in order to get to my early morning yoga class. As always, I swallowed a splash of coffee to fully rouse myself, then quickly checked my email before setting off. I noticed a message from my sister wondering if my wife's family was okay. I didn't have time then to check the news, and it was difficult to concentrate on my teaching that morning. It was only later that I saw the videos of the water rushing in. I watched one video after another, as if not quite convinced that this was real. NHK was streaming in another browser window, and in a third, I followed Facebook updates from friends. This last was the most surreal. From the nature of the messages, it was obvious that cell phone reception in Kanto was down, Facebook being the only reliable means of communication. But it was unsettling to this vicarious experience of the post-quake confusion in real-time. One post: "Where are you? Did you get the kids?" Another: "Trains stopped. Walking home. Google Maps says I should be home in seven hours." For the rest of the day I imagined my friends walking through the cold night. That night I couldn't sleep, my head filled with images of all that moving water.

The next morning, I checked in to see that a great many people I cared about were having a pretty rough time. It was also apparent that we had better access to news, when the media was still giving facts and hadn't begun squealing like nervous nellies. I went off to work, but couldn't keep my concentration. Even though my wife and I were safe in Santa Fe, loads of people checked in on us. My co-workers could see that I was disturbed. I'd already begun to hear about the sense of calm amongst the Japanese, about the absence of looting or advantage-taking. Yet minutes into my work shift, I watched a woman try on sweaters, then toss them in a heap on the shelf, all before the eyes of her two young children. In the big picture, retail came across as pathetic. My manager let me go home early . Once there, my wife told me how she'd seen a car rear-end another, then quickly U-turn in order to flee. What the hell is wrong with my countrymen? After a year back in the States, we are quite depressed about the state of things here, at the behavior we witness daily. A day before the quake we began to reassess things, and I began to look at grad schools back in Kyoto. The moral strength and cooperation we witness in Japan becomes almost the justification for a return, the sort of society in which we want to raise the child now deep in my wife's belly. I'm not such a pollyanna that I don't recognize the problems there, the things that once rankled. Over 15 years in country they'd slowly worn me down, in what one wit called "death by 1000 cuts." But America's flaws glare by comparison. (Though that's a rant for another day.)

By Sunday, we needed to turn off the laptops and go for a walk. The news was no longer fact-based and entered the realm of speculation. As the week went on, I relied more on Facebook and Twitter than any media source. The foreign press sickened me. On the first day, as I desperately tried to find out if people I loved were still alive, these websites forced me to wait for 30 seconds as they tried to sell me stuff. Their later sensationalized coverage will always be remembered as they created a panic of fleeing foreign Tokyoites and drew attention away from the true suffering going on further north. Again, the priorities and morals of my birth country astounds me.

As the week went on, our lives began to revolve around what was happening with the reactors. Online, silly humor interspersed with drop-dead seriousness gave me the impression that Tokyoites were slowly losing their minds under the worry about the radioactivity, as they were jolted yet again by another aftershock. By the following weekend, they began to write of other, more normal things, and in the international media, Japan dropped out of the top headlines.

And as we continue to live here safely in America, my sleep is still disturbed, I still finds myself occasionally shedding tears. It's incredible how emotionally attached I am to Japan. It appears the quake caused some profound seismic shift within me, as I begin to seriously consider where to live the rest of my life.

On the turntable: Asleep at the Wheel, "Live at Billy Bob's Texas"

Monday, November 21, 2011

Afoot in Laos

January 2010

...set off for a five day trek. The van left Luang Prabang, winding higher and higher into the hills. We got out in a Khmu village, where a boy of about three was playing with a large knife. We had lunch on a tree stump on the far side of the village, the floor of the jungle around us littered with dry leaves. Local people had a way of just popping out of the trees. Nearby, a couple of men were in the middle of a transaction over a water buffalo. The going rate was $500.

The path formed one section of a dike around rice fields, now brown and out of season. We crossed streams over stones, dodged large piles of scat, and scrambled over fences built to keep the buffalo out. One animal stared us down as we passed, protecting her baby which hid itself in the shrubs by the stream. Further downstream, we stepped over the crushed body of a centipede huge and nearly a foot long. Our guide Liu told us that its bite was deadlier than a cobra, bringing death in less than half an hour, unless the victim takes in opium, which will counteract the venom. Beyond this was a tall tree stump that held an egg, a few flowers, and some rice. Spirit shrine for the mountain beyond.

Above us to our right was the new road, a mere scar cut into the ridge. Some kids were sliding down the dirt slope. Spotting us, they cut across the fields to intercept. They were all pre-teen, doing their daily 90 minute commute home from school. In the morning, they leave at 5 a.m. We became a makeshift schoolbus as they followed us the rest of the way to their village singing a song, each kid taking a different verse.

The village was a mix of Lao Loum, Khmu, and Hmong. There was some sort of party going on in one of the houses. This being dry season, there was more time to play. Our appearance shifted the attention our way. We sat beneath the chief's house 'talking' to his wife and a dozen kids who'd surrounded her. One of the kids was a girl who'd followed us, who Miki and I agreed was a great beauty. She also had a certain obvious sweetness and intelligence, but what really endeared her to us was the fact that she'd done the long school commute without shoes.

We left town, along the road now, with a different set of kids in tow. They left us when the pitch became steep. The road was built in the past six months, but sections were already crumbling down the hillside. Near the top, we found some women who were lugging large branches back to their village. (Earlier, we'd seen kids as young as 5 doing the same.) This village was where we'd spend the night.

It was actually two villages; the Hmong scattered along the hilltop, and the Khmu homes just below it, built in two parallel rows bisected by a single road. We paid a visit to the chief, in whose shack we'd be staying the night. He brought us tea, which I sipped while watching his one year old grandson bathe from a spigot. He was perpetually naked and had a bell around his neck. Pigs, dogs, and chickens ran around him in the yard. The chief caught one of the latter, took it to the kitchen, and slit its throat. His son held a bowl for the blood to spill into. We'd eat its flesh for dinner. I thought about my stance on killing, how I usually insist that nothing be killed specifically for my personal consumption. I think now about how weak this is, that buying any kind of meat is always second-hand complicity in that animal's murder.

As I was thinking this, I'd been hearing a sort of gamelan, and closer inspection revealed that it was coming from the shaman's house. He was chanting in front of the spirit altar, shaking a rattle and stamping his feet, hoping to bring a cure to a sick girl in the village. Liu told us that he'd carry on like this for two hours or more, neither tiring nor stopping for food or drink.

We walked the dusty road between the Khmu homes. The huts were set back aways, with small garbage baskets sitting at the roadside like mailboxes. Unlike the Hmong and their smokey kitchens, families here had built fires out front. A group of kids were running around and jumping over shrubs and sleeping dogs. We stopped to buy some kind of sweet rice snack at the village's lone shop, and here a woman asked us to look at her sick toddler. It had gotten spots a few days before and the mother wondered if we had any medicine. The child didn't seem bothered at all, neither itchy nor in pain. I assumed it was some kind of allergy, though couldn't say for certain. Our first aid kit wasn't with us anyway. But this experience made me feel some guilt and helplessness, and solidified the fact that Westerners are seen as some kind of reverse witch doctors, bringing aid from distant realms.

We walked back below the ring of mountains fading in the light. The village had no electricity except for a single bulb hanging behind the chief's house. We sat below it, eating soup and eating the chicken that had been running in the yard an hour before. Afterward, Liu talked about the origins of the Hmong, which he'd then translate to the chief. It was interesting to see Liu's bird's eye view, having removed himself from village life to the city. The chief and his son hung on his every word, the oral tradition at work. It's amazing how well people listen if they aren't spoiled by TV. They did compromise on radio. (I'd often seen people carrying what I'd though were transistor radios in their pockets. They turned out to be cell phones with music downloads.) We listened to a Hmong radio program, a woman's a capella voice singing forlornly across mountains, valleys, and borders. When it was over, devoid of further distractions, everyone turned in by eight. I read for another hour before following. As I read, two teen girls watched me, squatting just out of sight in the darkness. (They'd watch me again as I bathed by the spigot in the morning.) And the shaman continued his chants well into the night...

...I awoke to voices and chickens. People were busy in the pre-dawn hour. We took a walk in the mist, watching kids trying to goad their chickens into a fight. They tie their bird to a string, then throw it at another bird that is just going about its business. I only saw two fights, both ending with one of the parties retreating within seconds.

At breakfast, the chief hurled stones at a pig that had bullied his own piglet away from its sop. The piglet was sleeping nearby amidst a pile of rubbish. I really liked the chief, always smiling and happy. He'd been elected just after the communists took over in '75, and had moved the village from the deeper mountains three years ago. Based on this latter info, I wondered if he'd been one of insurgents who'd terrorized the high roads for decades.

We left the village up a narrow dusty path, as the mist burned off to reveal beautiful peaks. Closer in, rice fields surrounded small huts used for rest, naps, or the occasional overnight. The road led to a Lao Loum village at the edge of the Nam Ou. We sat awhile on its bank waiting for a boat to take us up river. Below us, a boy removed water from his flooded pirogue, then set out fishing. Our own boat eventually turned up, and we rode through a glorious day, the sun on our faces, cooled by the spray.

Muang Ngoi eventually welled up on the Western bank. Fishermen and kids did their thing below the long concrete steps which we ascended to out guest house. We got a bungalow overhanging the river, with a hammock to serve as metronome for a lazy day.

The village was a single dirt lane lined with small shops. It was only about 500m long, with a wat at either end. We had lunch in a small restaurant/shop midway, where the cooking took ages. As we waited for our food, who should turn up but Ian from Dreamland. He'd had a nice day as a mahout and had arrived here after a couple of days on the river.

After lunch, we walked out of town behind an old monk sheltering from the hot sun beneath an umbrella. Liu followed suit, pulling from a tree a leaf about a meter in circumference and holding it over himself. Further along, a girl in a tree dropped tamarinds to us. Later, ducking under a low branch of bamboo, I came up too quickly and smacked my head on the next. Liu warned me about a small venomous snake that lives in bamboo. It usually minds its own business unless disturbed in the manner I'd just demonstrated.

The trail led to a wide-mouthed cave, little more than a single room. There was a pool just deep enough for wading, which deepened toward the darker, rockier back. A tourist had once slipped and died here. Looking back toward the cave mouth, the light spilling in tinted green, the sun backlighting the jungle just outside. In front was a stream that flowed from the cave next door.
Large fish, some a foot long, swam in and out of the shadows. This stream met another under the shade of a large tree overhanging the water. An Asian tourist sat in one of the branches, pondering something important. Nearby, a village girl swam naked, her mother squatting on the bank, eating taro.

Back in town, I spent the rest of the day in my hammock, watching the water moving between immobile mountains. Boats came in and out, some poled, some powered. On the opposite bank, a herd of cows were moving in one direction, a herd of buffalo in the other. Where they met, they mingled and began to graze. I liked this. Small pigs ran around and stopped, ran around and stopped.

At six, the electricity came on, so we went to eat. Afterwards I wrote, until the 10pm electricity curfew left me in mid-sentence. I went back outside to watch the stars awhile, brilliant in their full voice...

On the turntable: The Cure, "Wish"
On the nighttable: Douglas Preston, "Cities of Gold"

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pak Ou

January, 2010

...about 100 of us are herded onto different boats. Our group is led to a small vessel that is little more than a roofed canoe powered by a small engine. The pilot sits crosslegged, hands on the steering wheel, his son of 4 or 5 at his side. The boy shivers in the cold. We're all cold. This morning, like every morning, is overcast and chilly. The cold wind at this speed isn't comfortable. But it is a delight to be on the Mekong again. The usual scenes are there: old boats trawling up-, down-, and cross-river; a new boat being cobbled together. Dozens of people on the banks, others in small fishing canoes, all of them equally photogenic. Banyam trees rising from the riverside, their root systems forests in themselves. Cows graze the rivergrass, elephants are ridden along the low jungle trees. An old truck 'liberated' from the US army is used for construction. Deathboats race by like Hot Rods, carrying their helmeted passengers. Rock reefs rise like the spines of dragons, with watermarks showing what the river can do in rainy season. We round a bend to a new series of mountains, rockier, more foreboding. Up there is the cave of Pak Ou. As we pass this point, the sun comes out, compounding the mystery.

The upper cave's darkness nearly hides the hundreds of Buddhas placed in small nooks and cracks in the rocks. The lower cave is more overt, Buddhas of every size are stacked up the front entrance, capped with a gold chedi. A warrior guards them, sitting spread-eagle at the cave mouth, though missing a head. Wonderful metaphor...

On the turntable: Spoon, "Transference"

On the nighttable: Mary Austin, "Land of Journey's Ending"

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Papers Tenth Anniversary Edition

I mourn those who lost their lives that day. And I mourn those who were killed in their memory.

America, I hope you get over your national nervous breakdown soon. Ten years of violence and suspicion just weren't worth it.

Perhaps if we didn't cling so tightly to our identity as Americans. Seems to me that we are 'people' first...

Friday, September 09, 2011

Lazing in Luang Prabang

January 1-6, 2010

...our first act of the new year is to catch a bus bound for Sam Neua. Far to the north on the Vietnam border, Sam Neua was the stronghold from where the Pathet Lao launched their attacks against US forces. Curtis LeMay is famed for his comment about bombing enemy forces back to the Stone Age. Yet it could be argued that the Pathet Lao had never left the Stone Age, living and plotting their raids from a series of caves. It was these caves that I wanted to see, a bookend of sorts to the Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi that I'd crawled through over a decade before.

So we waited for the bus. And waited. An hour after it was to leave, it hadn't. "No problem...Maybe this afternoon...Maybe tomorrow." We could stick around Phonsovan, attend the wedding to which we'd been invited. As we made our deliberations, a bus bound for Luang Prabang revved up behind us. We boarded and left within 5 minutes.

The trip seemed repeat of the one two days before, a dreamy floaty meander along mountaintops, Hmong villages like pearls on a necklace. One village seemed populated only by children. In another, a young man kicked a cow, sending the rest of the herd spinning like bowling pins. In the next, young women play catch with prospective suitors. At a pee stop, a hilltribe woman squatted in full view beside the bus and let fly...

...for 5 days we settled in Luang Prabang. There was little to do but wander the streets, hide from the sun on the grounds of shady temples, or sip coffee on the veranda of an old colonial French building. We liked the pace, tried not to plan, not to fill our days with things to do. One day, we went up the mountain at the center of town. On another, we visited the 'museum,' little more than a tribute to a long dead king, housed in a beautiful old building. Rings that had formerly been on the fingers of US Marines were on sale in the lobby.

One hot afternoon, we crossed the river on a rickety bamboo bridge to a small village before doubling back to town along the riverbank. A few foreigners had stripped down and entered the water, letting the current pull them toward the Mekong.

I especially liked the small alley down which we were staying. We'd first stayed in a different, grungy place across town, after searching for an hour, in a town swollen for the long New Year's weekend. Hotels were booked nearly solid with 500 Thai tourists. After a mosquito plagued night, we moved to our current digs, run by a friendly Hmong couple. In the afternoons, a man across the street played a wooden marimba, accompanied by his teacher on a gamelan, who also did double duty in singing out the notes whenever his pupil got stuck. Next door was a shack whose outdoor kitchen looked out on the alley and served as center for the alley's social scene. The baby that lived in our house was slightly croupy, and the mother spent a good part of the day soothing it in a sing-song baby voice that I at first had thought was a children's program. On the other side of us was a gallery, its European owner always reading a newspaper by day, merrily drinking wine with friends at night. Across from him was the Heritage House, a one hundred year old building built on stilts and partially hidden by tall trees. At the end of the alley was a large wat, and beside it, the peaceful Mala Cafe.

The cafe was where we relaxed during the blackout, amongst the trees and the ponds and the fish. Without TV, the staff seemed bored, except for one girl who, with a small baby on the seat, rode a bicycle up and down the alley, giggling as she was chased by dogs. The blackout also caused problems at the night market, quashing the usual tunnel of light. Some vendors had their own power generators, but I felt sorry for those who didn't, as they'd have no business. But it was pleasant to sit in the garden of the guest house basking in the complete absence of man-made sound. Nothing but the voices of people coming from out of the dark, inciting the barking of dogs, all accompanied by that omnipresent marimba. When the power eventually returned, the son at our guest house turned on the TV within seconds.

The town quieted considerably after the third day of the year. Most of the time I spent sitting and watching life as it is lived in Luang Prabang. Watching the tuk-tuk drivers gossip as they'd awaited fares. (They nap in the seats, rather than slung out in hammocks like their corresponding brethren in Vientiane.) The mystery of what goes on behind the louvered blinds above the shops. Joma like a US cafe, done up with murals and warm colors. Muggy, overcast mornings burning off to become hot afternoons. The social politics of southeast Asian;  the Laotians hate the Thais for looking down on them; Vietnamese backpackers telling how they are still discriminated against by non-Viet expats.(I feel like an ass after telling the backpackers: "Ten years ago I was backpacking through your country!")  A Western tourist guy with dreads, drunk everyday by afternoon, talking to ghosts, holding a beer in one hand and a book by Coelho in the other. His local counterpart, walking down the center of the main street in a sarong like a checkered tablecloth, topped by a coolie hat. Other times, he'd be squatting in a storefront smoking his pipe. Running into White Lotus's Beatrix at breakfast one morning. The sound of Lao, like backwards English, especially in the tones of men. Watching incense swirl into beams of sunlight at Xieng Thong, inspiring thoughts on transcendence and flexibility in travel. Zigzag walking the side alleys, looking at centuries-old human technology -- cooking, weaving, carpentry. Being sniped for a photo at Art House Cafe. Monks begging at dawn, along two parallel rows: one of orange garbed boys, the other of foreign photographers right up in their faces. The ever-present rivers. With the sun high, the river looked like someone was pulling a sheet of plastic wrap over dull-looking stones.

Every night we had dinner with the Italians. After they left, we ate at a couple of fusion cafes, one screening Casablanca on the bare white wall...
On the turntable: Jerry Jeff Walker, "Navajo Rug"
On the nighttable: Craig Childs, "House of Rain"

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Toasting the New Year on the Plain of Jars

December 30-31, 2009

...caught a minibus bound for
Phonsavan. An overcrowded vehicle pulled away to reveal another one with ample space, allowing for a peaceful ride but for the driver and his morose humor. Every time our vehicle would chase an animal off the road, he'd make a chopping motion with his hand and say, "Laap! Beer Lao!"

The road snaked along mountain ridges, the valley floor dropping further and further away, with higher, prouder, peaks rising up on all sides. I remembered how incredible Laos had looked from the air, and now I was riding over some of the same unbelievable shapes I'd seen back in 1997. Closer in, things were equally fascinating. Hmong village followed Hmong village, each of them at the highest point of their respective mountain. Many people were hard at work digging a trench beside the road. Others were taking a bundle of reeds they'd gathered, then smacked them down with great force. These would become the roofs of houses, or the mats within. Nearly everyone seemed to be at work, from the aged down to the youngest kids.
Nearly all of the women were busy doing something, including pre-teen girls carrying wood on their backs, counterbalanced by a strap around their foreheads. The only people I saw idle were the men, lounging under bamboo shelters, or leaning against pillars playing guitar. A few new homes were going up. The one's we'd seen in the lowlands were raised above ground by posts, but up at this height they were flush to the ground. Where all the wood came from was a no-brainer. The Hmong are infamous for their slash and burn approach to agriculture, with the entire region devoid of trees, completely picked clean. I saw one restaurant being built at the edge of a hilltop whose sides had been cleared for the wood to build it. I can picture the entire thing sliding away with the return of the monsoon.
In one town, we passed a long line of schoolkids heading home. In another, a man, badly injured on his motorcycle, was carried off and loaded into a car. An Italian guy who had helped now washed the blood from his hands. We stopped for lunch at a
sizable town that had sprung up at a T-junction. Here we picked up a Swiss bicyclist who, upon reaching this spot, had found himself out of money. Bicycle touring through Laos seems to be quite popular. I'd already seen two women riders earlier in the day. The Swiss joined us for the final 3 hours of our drive.

Phonsovan was a one street town built upon a high plateau. At night, the only lights to be seen were spilling out of the open fronts of restaurants, or from the passing vehicles, dust swirling up through their beams...

...had breakfast at Crater's Cafe, located beside the UXO museum. At nine, we joined some new friends (including the Italian with bloody hands) for a one day tour of the area. We started at a Hmong village that sat atop a red earth mountain high in the clouds. The guide seemed bemused that our biggest reactions were to the animals. Pigs and dogs ran everywhere. A few buffaloes were tied to stakes, including one with an immense set of shoulders and a gnarled ear, the blood from it still staining his upper right flank. There were pigeons in coops, and a monkey on a chain. The latter was connected to a defused bomb ringed by a tire. This village is famed for using bomb casings as fencing, or as the support beams for structures. A few were also used as planters, or as cooking implements. This is unusual in itself, of course, so our finding greater enthusiasm in the monkey was highly amusing to the guide, his high pitched giggles heard frequently. Carlo, the Italian, mentioned that there had been more bomb casings on his visit here 5 years ago. The guide said that the Vietnamese had bought much of it for scrap.

I was greatly impressed with the visit to the shaman's house, with its immense spirit altar of origami paper and light, beside an ancient poster of Bruce Lee in 'The Big Boss. " Outside, a small girl seemed absolutely terrified at the sight of us, bawling in tears and clutching tightly to her older brother. Other kids were less bothered, including two boys who pushed bricks through the dirt like they were race cars, and one girl with a curious shock of blond hair. (I saw two others while in the area, complete blondes framing dark Asian faces.) As we left, a small gang of kids walked through the village, playing war games with their water machine guns. I found it chilling, since up to a few years before, boys not much older than they had been robbing and killing bus riders with arms of a similar type. Having ridden through their villages up along the ridgelines, I could see the ease with which they could.

Our next stop was the Plain des Jars site 1. We wandered the jars that spilled across the grassy hills, taking care to stay on the paths. The dozen or so bomb craters were reminders of the perils which still exist here. Many of the craters are filled with pretty wildflowers. After lunch, we went to site 16, opened just 2 months before. There was a real sense of danger as we walked the trail through the quiet forest. Our guide chose this moment to make a phone call, and we weren't exactly sure which places were safe. (His call seemed rather important--he showing furious and manic body language as he pleaded with his 15 year old sister's boyfriend not to elope with her.) I set off alone up the trail in order to pee, and nearly shit myself to see that I was standing amidst a group of holes where UXO had been dug from the ground seemingly days before. Carlo yelled to me that he'd found a safety marker, one that I had strolled 20 meters past into the red.

Our final stop was at the Old City of Muang Khoun, which the American Air Force had flattened in a single night. It reminded me a lot of Ayuthaya. We visited a large Buddha seated on an open brick platform between two broken pillars. A group of Thai were up here, the girls posing like supermodels, the camera toting boys down on one knee in search of the perfect angle. A short drive away was a single stupa that rose like a missile into the sky. It had been hollowed out by Chinese thieves, revealing an older stupa within. A trio of girls were sitting on the grass outside, playing a game where they'd throw a stone into the air and pick up as many sticks as possible before catching it again. An older woman sat with them, laughing at everything.

Back in town again. As Phonsovan is close to the Vietnamese border, that language can be heard everywhere, particularly in its Vietnamese restaurants. We chose one near the UXO museum, me enjoying my first water buffalo meat in over a decade. Some street kids were stealing food from the plates left behind by foreign tourists. We took a portion from our own plates, put it in a bag, then gave it to them conspiratorially. This didn't endear us to the owners. Then off to bed at 10, trying to ignore the karaoke and fireworks that counted out the last hours of 2009...

On the turntable: Richard Hell, "Time"
On the nighttable: Earl Ganz, "The Taos Truth Game"

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"

Friday, July 29, 2011

I am Irony Man

I'm a huge fan of irony. I've never demonstrated irony so perfectly as on that April afternoon in 2009 when I sat for an hour in front of Akihabara Station, reading an actual book.

On the turntable:
LCD Soundsystem, "LCD Soundsystem"

Friday, July 22, 2011

Door to Door

December, 2009

...slept poorly, with a bad stomach. Awoke at 4:40, vomited at 6, on a bus by 7. A long day of praying that my bowels would hold. Miki vomited at 8. No toilet on board, with a bathroom break on the side of the road, trying not to think about mines.

There was an Englishwoman on board who was finishing a long stint with an NGO in the jungle. She loved Cambodians, said she never saw one angry. Unlike Thais or Vietnamese, who were just looking to rip you off, the Cambodians are more friendly. They always seemed to be helping one another.

Further conversation was drowned out by the karaoke videos blaring through the bus speakers.
The music was catchy in its own way, Ram Wong sounding like lazy calypso, with gentle free-styling rap lyrics, the hands of the dancers tracing small circles. The girls in the videos all wore traditional dresses, and had tall hair and long lashes, looking like they were at a Kennedy era garden party.

Got to the border at 2, processed through quickly. Met some farang on the other side, including a laid-back Canadian tennis instructor. For a few baht, we joined their minibus ride to Bangkok. Miki and I had originally planned to head due north, taking a couple of days to get to Nong Khai. I also knew that there was a train leaving Bangkok at 8pm, though I doubted we'd make it. Yet our driver, unasked, seemed as if he was trying to get us there on time, driving at dangerous speeds, passing on the left, and forcing oncoming traffic onto the shoulder.

We got to Hufflepuff Station five minutes before the train left.
There was only one sleeping berth remaining, but Miki said she was fine in a reclining seat. She was comfortable enough, but didn't sleep all that well due to the cold air blowing through windows left open all night. I didn't mention to her that I'd had an excellent night's sleep in my cozy bunk. I did awake often, but I'd pull back the curtains to watch the jungle pass by in the dark.

The train arrived on time, which got us to Mut Mee Guest House by nine, allowing us to score the last room at this popular place. We had a lazy breakfast, our first food in 38 hours. In the afternoon, we rented bikes and rode out to the bizarre Sala Kaew Ku, with massive concrete nagas, Hindu and Buddhist gods, and walk through diorama of the wheel of life. In the temple itself, beside all the Buddhas, was the corpse of Luang Pu himself, as if contained by a snow globe, the hall flanked by photos of him, all doctored with a magic marker to fill in lips, eyebrows, and hairline. Back intown, we biked down the Mekong. Very slow pace here, tourists and locals chilling on cafe verandas. Cars and tuktuks drive sanely for a change. Climb up to the rooftop Buddha of Wat Lam Duan, look at the submerged chedi of Phra Tat Nong Khai. Even the market here is laid back, wide and clean, with no pushiness.

The rest of the two days I spend at Mut Mee, rocking back and forth in a hammock, watching the Mekong race by. The river is fast here, pulling fishing boats along quickly. I think how I've been on it twice before, hundreds of miles away both to the north and to the south. A boat repeatedly crosses between here and Laos on the far bank, transporting goods back and forth. I eat, read, get a massage, doze in my rustic bungalow with its wooden decks and shower open to the sky. After three weeks of hard and fast travel, it feels great to come to a complete stop. This pace, this life here is addicting; I could easily finish out my days here. Nothing to do but laugh at the cat siblings who ambush one another amidst the leaves and the rattan furniture. I think about how much cleaner Thailand is in comparison to Cambodia; how much more pleasant to be here, and I'm not sure why I felt so much resistance to the country to the east.

I have another massage, the most intense of my life, this small woman's elbows grinding into the areas I most need it. But the pain. As she presses onto my outer chest from above, she inadvertently gives me an Indian burn, and I howl in pain. "Too tense," she says. Afterward, I fall asleep in a hammock, and am spacey for the rest of the day. An excellent night's sleep follows...

On the turntable: Louis Armstrong, "Stockholm 1959"

On the nighttable: Eric Blehm, "The Last Season"

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pehnning Phnom

December 2009

...Bustling, noisy, expensive city. People less friendly than in Siam Reap, but then again, they've had a harder history. More beggars and amputees. One guy had shriveled legs folded well past his hips like an extreme version of Cow Face Pose. Far more bicycles than cars, but Black Lexus SUVs prevail, the apparent replacement for the white Landcruiser legacy of the UN days. Motorbikes everywhere, some with up to 4 riders, including kids. One woman has her child tucked under her left arm as she worked the throttle with her right. Some girls use an underhand grip, on the handlebars, nearly all wearing gloves and long sleeves. Other girls sit side saddle behind their beaus, completely relaxed, not at all concerned with the wind mussing their hair or clothes. Traffic is less hectic than in Bangkok, but it is more anarchic, cars and bikes rush into every intersection, stop, then steer to untangle the snarl. A white woman pedals through it all, prudently wearing her bike helmet...

...monk begging in late morning, a woman on her knees before him. The jingle of ice cream vendors. The riot of noise of funerals. French buildings with ornate trellis designs on balconies. Cyclos more often seen ferrying goods than people...

...great respect for life, more so than in other parts of Asia. Then again, these people know suffering. The love of children is especially strong. The rebuilding of a culture can be measured in its number of children...

...when I was in Vietnam in 1997, I'd spent some time with European aid workers who'd fled the coup that summer. They'd told me that the average Cambodian was fairly stupid and unskilled, the majority of its educated class having been executed by the Khmer Rouge. I don't find this to be true now, yet Phnom Pehn seems a little less educated than the tourist-savvy Siam Reap. Two of three tuk-tuk rides end up with me giving the directions...

...didn't sleep well at all during my time in Phnom Pehn, disturbed perhaps by the ghosts of those who'd died there. Physically felt ill as well, my nervous stomach constantly upset. I felt much more at ease after crossing back to Thailand...

...the name "Lucky" for the supermarket really sums it up. US goods at US prices. A few Westerners are shopping there. I'm baffled by Cambodia, this 3rd world country with a 1st world economy. Far too touristy now. I realize that every place has its 'heyday,' but to visit afterward is perfectly valid. The experience you create will forever be your own. Yet I feel that I blew it in not coming here sooner, either in 2003, or in 1997, as I'd planned. Had I come in '97, I couldn't have seen much of Angkor, but I would have seen the country at an important time in its development...

...had a burger at Rabbit Cafe, staffed with handicapped workers. Likewise, I'd had a massage from a blind masseuse the night before. She hadn't been that good -too soft - and seemingly had a cold, constantly sniffling throughout. But I liked the gentle birdlike chirping of her conversation with the woman beside her. Later, when I saw a sign in front of another place with the words, "Massage by Blind Person," I cringed a little...

...Chan Muslim school and town, women in headscarves bike to the mosque...

...two naked children play with a bicycle tire...

...Cambodians laid-back about haggling, not too good at it. Thais, by contrast, will actually walk away rather than offer a counterprice...

...motorbikes attached to what looks like a rowboat, with slats of wood running the length, atop which passengers sit...

...monkeys and elephants and beggars around the base of Wat Phnom. Hundreds of statues inside...

...a taste of colonial flavor in a coffee in the Elephant Bar at the Hotel Le Royal. Now restored and part of the Raffles chain, this legendary hotel had once been a star on the SE Asian colonial circuit. It served as a refuge for foreign journalists during the Vietnam War, then a sanctuary once the Khmer Rouge rolled into town. Continuing the theme, we finish the afternoon at the Foreign Correspondents Club. Happy hour beers drunk at the window, watching the last boats of the day go up the Tonle Sap. We talk with a brother and sister from the States. He's taking a group of 18 year old on a 10 month world trip. She works for an art group in Marin, most recently having hosted Gary Snyder at a reading...

...peace from the city's bustle found at the mellow history museum. Beautiful arched roofs around a lovely courtyard, the statues open to the air. Incredible to see the pieces that were missing from Angkor...

...fat cops arbitrarily point their red and white sticks at cars and trucks, pocketing wads of rolled-up baksheesh handed through windows...

...OK Guest House just that, merely okay. The staff a little surly. One guy actually seemed angry when we caught his mistake on the bill. Rather than apologize, he simply said, "Pay what you like"...

...The Killing Fields. Such a beautiful morning. Surreal to hear the voices of children as we look at the tower of bones. Chickens peck in and around the mass graves. Miki and I circumambulate the as yet disinterred mass grave, filled in as a swamp. A boy follows along on the opposite side of the fence, begging for money. In a patois strangely similar to JarJar Binks, he goes on about not going to school, about the cops always beating up on him. As we say our multiple "Sorrys," he begins to plead, his voice raised in volume and fervor. It adds an bizarre, somber accent to an already somber walk. We come back to the excavated graves again, and Miki begins to weep. She tells me later that coming from Hiroshima, she feels a kind of affinity with these victims of mass violence.
We finish our visit with a short film in the museum. It is so badly produced that I would've laughed had I been anywhere but here. The soundtrack had cliche'd horror movie music, along with occasional werewolf howls. I think that the true power of this place is enough to move anyone. The film's overwrought emotion is almost parody. In the yard again, we see a palm tree pushing up through the dead trunk of an oak, proving once again the resilience of life...

...Toul Sleng,a shop of horrors. Being in the torture rooms makes me feel physically ill. The wooden cells aren't much better, like narrow rodeo chutes. The photos of the victims are surprising in their complete lack of emotion on their faces, showing no fear, no anger. It is like they've already accepted their fates. I wonder what was going on in the minds of the children. In the final building is an interesting photo display by a Swedish socialist who'd been a member of a group brought to Cambodia in 1978 to tour the country. Interesting to see his comments from 2008, written from the vantage point of history and hindsight. As I walk these grounds, I watch the other visitors, and am unable to grasp the mentality of those who want to shoot video here, or at The Killing Fields. I can't take much more and make for the main gate. It feels strange to walk out of Toul Sleng prison, considering that, between 1975 and 1979, almost no one did...

On the turntable: Son House, "Father of the Delta Blues"