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"