Saturday, January 31, 2009
Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Saturday, January 17, 2009
The walk to the bus station south of town was longer than I expected, but a friendly truck driver gave me a lift the final 2 km. I'd been warned that the trip south was on a bad, very dusty road, and a sawngtheuw provides no protection from the elemants. That's my chariot, the silver one on the left.Yes the trip was a doozy, with my hair being a lovely grey by the time I arrived in Pak Lai five hours later. Nothing that a hot shower couldn't fix, then it was a wander around town to appreciate the lovely old buildings surrounding a village green. There was even a place selling coffee with a real espresso machine!The boat trip down the Mekong was a leisurely affair, with bench seats to sit on and even a toilet! Comparing the sides of the river, where one side is Thailand with all the hills covered in intensive agriculture, the other Laos with just degraded forest, was quite a contrast. As the sun set we arrived at the port north of Vientiane and negotiated a tuk-tuk ride into town. Here I've had time to get all the pictures up, have a boozy night on the town with a Kiwi lass from Bangkok, and eat some nice international food. Having a break from the sightseeing for a day or two then it's back on the road.
Photos of Saiyabuly province
Luang Prabang is famous for the daily alms given by the people of the town to the hundreds of monks living there. It's a colourful spectacle of orange robes and devout believers, and has become a tourist magnet as a result. The numerous street sellers trying to sell rice for the monks was my first experience of hard sell since I arrived in the country. I just took a quiet seat in a good vantage point and took lots of snaps.Then I packed my bags and left town!
For photos of Luang Prabang
Friday, January 16, 2009
Back at the village we had to wait for a passing bus, so before long we were the main attraction for the local kids as Frankie convinced me to teach them the "Hokey Pokey". We learnt that if you are a village lady wanting to take your sacks of wood to market in Sam Neua and have been waiting on the side of the road for 3 hours, that the bus just might be too full and you have to wait another day! Luckily our bus picked us up, though we did have to sit on plastic stools in the aisle for six hours. And listen to all the locals spewing relentlessly. Actually they spew quite silently, until they clear their throats with a loud hoik! They're not quite as bad as the Chinese at spitting everywhere, but they are close!!Phonsavan was cold, real cold, but luckily I still had all my clothes from China. The next day warmed up and we went on the no name tour to visit the usual jar sites, a bombed out russian tank and a Lao-Lao village.The Jars date from a similar time to the standing stones, and are mostly made from stone. They are clustered in groups, usually on hilltops, and are thought to be burial sites. Very scenic indeed, though the surrounding landscape was drought ravaged with a few stands of eucalypts. In fact it looked alot like Australia!!The Jars are also smack bang in the middle of one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos. The Americans dropped cluster bombs: huge metal canisters which split in two midair and released hundreds of small "bombies" which spun and armed themselves as they fell. On impact they exploded, spraying ball bearings at high velocity over an area of about 250m. They were designed to kill, not maim, and were dropped in the millions over this area. But it is estimated that about 30% never detonated, and these little killers are lurking everywhere. Kids pick them up thinking they are a ball, farmers ploughing a field hit one, even workers building a new road are at risk. And they won't just kill the person who touches them, but everyone else within 250m!! And did I say there were millions of them out there?All these unexploded ordinance, or UXOs, mean that people are frightened to plough new fields, road building is hopelessly slow because full mine clearance must be done beforehand, and kids try and sell the stuff for scrap metal and can end up dead instead. And still "western democracies" make these bombs! for more info see http://www.maginternational.org/maglao/
More pictures of Phonsavan
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
There isn't much to see in Sam Neua besides a wat at the top of town, but it has excellent tourist services and the next day we took a six hour bus trip to a weaving village called Sam Tai. The lunch stop enroute was in a tiny village which caters to the daily bus service, where you can purchase some sticky rice and some meat. We decided against the cooked rat offered us, I have to admit to being not that adventurous!! Luckily we had fruit to tide us over.Sam Tai is a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere, but it's famous for its silk weaving. Almost every house has at least one loom with a work in progress, so it was just a matter of going house to house asking to look at their wares. Some of the work wasn't great quality, but some was superb, and the prices were reasonable. I'm sure the really good stuff goes straight to Vientiane or Luang Prabang, but it's nice to visit the weavers and buy directly from them.We almost stayed longer, as we got invited to a wedding and to join the bride back to her husband's village, but Frankie's visa was running out and this was the sticks afterall. So next day we took the same rattler back up the road to Vieng Xay.Vieng Xay is spectactularly beautiful. It's a narrow valley surrounded by wooded karst peaks, and in these peaks are hundreds of caves. The caves sheltered the Pathet Laos, a communist group who were fighting a civil war against the US backed Royal Laos Army. Not that the US has ever admitted to being involved, in contravention of the Geneva Accord. The Pathet Laos lived in the caves for 9 years, whilst American planes dropped more bombs than were dropped during WW2 in Europe. Eventually the Americans left, the communists won and have held office ever since.The caves housed military personnel and the top commanders, as well as stores, hospitals, bakeries etc. There is a huge theatre in which even foreign performers from Cuba, Vietnam and Russia came, and ceremonies were held. Many of the caves were modified to be more homely, and after the bombing stopped they built houses outside the caves they'd lived in. Each member of the politburo had different architectural tastes, so the houses are a very eclectic mix of the various Laos styles. One house even has a swimming pool fashioned from a bomb crater!!UXO is a huge problem here, as up to 30% of the bombs dropped didn't detonate. Very little of the area has been cleared, so there's no wandering off into the bush around here!
Vieng Xay has a lovely market, complete with the usual assortment of wildlife for sale. Squirrel anyone??
Photos of Sam Neua, Sam Tai and Vieng Xai
Monday, January 12, 2009
Photos of the river trip here
Monday, January 5, 2009
A three hour bus ride south to Boun Tai saw us meeting our guide at 11 am to be told we'd missed the truck out to the village where we were to start our trek. Aside from chartering a truck for a phenomenal price, we could alter our plans, take a later truck and go and visit a Hmong village instead who were celebrating New Year. This would add an extra day to our trek. What a no brainer! Off to visit the Hmong we went.In Phongsaly Province Hmong New Year is celebrated some time in December and is held on different days in different villages. It involves much chanting and incantations to send away the bad spirits and illness within the village, accompanied by the blood of a chicken or two and the firing of guns. Then everyone cooks up the chickens and the feasting begins. But not before downing two glasses of Lao-Lao, the ubiquitous rice whisky! Locally made of course! Oh no, not again!!!The feasting continues for hours, with invitations to visit many households, drink Lao-Lao and eat. By the fourth place there just wasn't any room left in our tummies, and after the fifth place we managed to retire to bed. But at 3 am the guns were let off again - just to make sure those pesky bad spirits really left town - and soon after the locals were up and about and getting ready for the new day. The children were all dressed in new clothes, many beautifully stitched, looking absolutely gorgeous.After at least 2 breakfasts and some more Lao-Lao, we left the village loaded with New Year rice cakes, generously given to us by five or six households. What a wonderful extra day we'd had, and now we were off to complete the original schedule. But first we detoured to a second Hmong village for our third breakfast and more Lao-Lao, and watched the young girls and boys throwing balls between them. It's apparently part of a courtship ritual, if they keep dropping the ball then there isn't the right chemistry between them, but if they are in harmony with the ball, then they will be in life! Can't imagine western teenagers doing something like that!About one o'clock we arrived at an Akha village as they were slaughtering a buffalo. They were very eager for us to take photos as they too were celebrating New Year. Then over lunch we were invited to stay the night and join in the celebrations. How could we refuse? We were now up to a five day trek but what an opportunity not to be missed. The Akha live on mountain ridges in houses with dirt floors. They have pigs and chickens but no gardens around their houses, growing all their produce at their farms. It's a stark landscape around the houses and it would be hell getting around in the wet season, but the people are unbelievably friendly and welcoming. My bubbles again came in handy for breaking the ice with the kids and soon Frankie's clown antics had the whole village following her like the pied piper! The evening celebrations began with more Lao-Lao, the Akha preferring 2-4 glasses before you can start on the sticky rice! The food for dinner was challenging, with raw buffalo meat and a blood jelly dish as mainstays. Thank goodness for sticky rice!After our second dinner and obligatory Lao-Lao we joined the youngsters in the schoolyard for dancing. These teenagers also indulge in copious amounts of Lao-Lao and young boys can be seen smoking cigarettes. When the music starts its the girls who get up and go and choose a boy to dance with. Although the music was modern, the dance style was comically conservative. Us two foreigners showed 'em a move or two and soon everyone was dancing the new updated style. The commotion when we left was quite moving, they'd never had foreigners celebrate New Year with them and were keen for us to dance the night away with them. But a long day of trekking beckoned, and sleep ins in these villages just don't exist.
Up with the crowing roosters and snorting pigs, we joined the entire village outside the headman's house to usher in the New Year with offerings to the gods to ensure safety in the fields. This involved tying string around the tractor and the young man sitting on it. Then we were treated to an edible breakfast and headed off into the countryside. But not before I'd solved the riddle of just where all the human waste went. There are no latrines in the village so it's a case of sliding down the hill into the forest for a quiet squat. But there's no evidence of where all the villagers go, and the pigs following me to my private retreat explained it all. It helps to take a stick with you, just to keep them at bay until you've done your business, and then it's hoovered up!! Hmmm, not sure I'm eating Akha pork again!Our third day saw us walking along a road and then through paddy fields to a rather disappointing hot springs. But the forest was pretty and it was nice to have a wash in a less public place than the middle of an Akha village. Our stop that night was in a Yang village, in a lovely stilt house overlooking the river and even had the use of a latrine. Luxury! The villagers weren't nearly as friendly as our Akha guests, however we did get a good nights' sleep.Day four saw us walking through a protected area which still had primary forest. At our lunch spot beside the river, which we crossed somewhere between 20 and 30 times in one day, we encountered an Akha wedding party returning to the husband's village. We joined the procession with this very shy young girl and watched her dress ready for her arrival in the village. All the women were there to check her out and welcome her, quite the spectacle. Then we passed another bridal party going the other way!
Later we were accompanied to the Laobith village, our homestay for the night, by the year 5 schoolkids who have to walk an hour and a half each way each day as their village doesn't have a teacher to teach them. The Laobith are one of the smallest minority groups in Laos, and this village was completely isolated, without road access to allow people to reach markets and sell goods. But they too were wonderfully friendly, and soon yours truly had the whole village in stitches teaching the young kids how to dance the "Hokey-Pokey"!
Our final day saw us walking through newly planted rubber plantations and oceans of sugarcane, past a couple of Akha villages, to the border with China. Here, scores of trucks carrying sugarcane were crossing into China for processing. Without factories, Laos misses out on value added income from processing their cane; more money for China!
A sawngtheuw and bus ride back to Phongsaly saw us arrive back in time to celebrate the actual New Year with a few other foreigners. Not that we made it to midnight!
Rest of the photos here.