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Category Archives: Laos

Bangkok, Thailand

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Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

This was my third visit to Bangkok and I decided to revisit the area around Rama I Road where I was last time in 1994. After hanging out for a while on Khao Sarn Road and having a breakfast, I got a tuk-tuk that dropped me in the Pratunam market close to Baiyoke Hotel for 100B, quite a lot but I did not have the energy or the time to haggle. I gave him $3 that was roughly what he asked for and I found myself near the tallest building in Thailand. I checked the market that was selling mainly for locals and I went on the streets and alleys nearby that are like a bazaar, lots of stalls selling tons of clothes mainly foreign brands counterfeit or possibly extra stock. I went back and forth, doing some shopping and I walked up latter to Ratchadumri Avenue where is a grand mall, Central World Plaza, adorned with huge pictures of Mr. Bean right in front of a Ganesh shrine where lots of people come to pray in a continuous flow. I wanted to see and shoot a little in the grand hotels, and first I went to Bai Yoke Hotel, the tallest building in Thailand, that has a restaurant on its 84th floor, but the time of the day was wrong and I planned to come latter in the evening, a thing that did not happen. Latter I walked on to the Grand Hyatt and further to the old Hilton, bought recently by Raffles, that has an interesting linga fertility shrine on its grounds. Obviously, when you are in that area you cannot leave without doing some shopping so I bought lots of gifts from the streets stalls, maybe too much.

I walked on Rama I Road and took the metro to Oriental and Shangri La, where I hang out in their restaurant and lobbies to cool from the outside heat and after a short walk in the area I took the boat on Chao Phra, a ride that I always enjoyed that brought me to a restaurant on the river’s shore, close to the main temple area, a place where I spent some hours every time when I was in Bangkok, where I enjoyed the sunset with a cold bottle of Singha beer. The clock was ticking and I had lots of things to do back on Khao Sarn Road so I had to start going but on the way I passed through Sarang Luang, that was full of people running kites in the sky, a famous pass time in Asia, in a show of carefree living and enjoyment that hardly you can see in the West. I watched it mesmerized for a while, flying kites with the palaces and temples lit on the background and reluctantly I had to rush to pack and make the final arrangements for departure. This was a smart move, because there were many things to prepare and last minute purchases and, I found out in shock that the ride to the newly built airport, that I did not know about, takes now 90 minutes. So instead of 10pm I had to leave the city at 9pm and I rushed through everything I had to do, skipping dinner and most of the last moment shopping but still I went to buy a new Paul Auster book for the 18 hours direct flight to NY. The hourly airport minibus from Khao Sarn Road drove very fast at 100-120km/hour on the newly built and glitzy highway that connects the city to the airport and we arrived at the airport in 50 minutes due to lack of traffic at that time of the night. The airport was packed like I never saw before.

The line to the Thai check-in was as long as the size of the terminal and I was really lucky that I came one hour earlier because I had to wait more than one hour to do the check-in, that trickled down to a huge line for passport check and a last one for security, at the gate. So, no matter that I left Khao Sarn Road at 9pm I was able to enter the plane at 12:15am and all this time I kept waiting in lines……At the check-in, being obsessed by the long flight, I asked for a door seat and, by miracle, I was able to get one and this saved the day for two reason: first I got a great seat to stretch my legs and second I got a very pleasant travel partner in Tasha with whom I chat a considerable part of the flight. After dinner with a little wine and a shot of scotch, the previous sleepless night on the bus from Vientiane kicked in and I was able to sleep for 8 straight hours being awaken by the steward who was bringing breakfast. Tasha was coming from Bali, another 4 hours flight, and was going to Boston, another 1.5 hours with some 4 hours layover in NY. Quite a journey! She is a jewelry designer her work being shown and sold in her mom’s gallery in Ipswich, MA and she works as a bartender in Boston to make some money trying to find her pace and sense in life. We had a great conversation and the time passed like they were just 3-4 hours. Thanks Tasha for the great time we had in this flight! I watched the movie The Queen that was great and soon they announced that we are landing on JFK where the temperature was 37F and we were still in sandals and silk pants..Wake up. The dream is over. Back to reality!

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2007 in Blog, Laos, Thailand

 

Vientiane

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Vientiane

It is said about Vientiane that it may be the most peaceful capital in the world. The streets are calm, the traffic is limited and lazy and is hot. The dinner I had at Cote d’Azur was great with soup of fish cooked Provencal by made out of dried fish and some kind of beef flambe, very tasty. I walked latter on the streets and I got to see the new hotel, Don Chan Palace, built with Malaysian contribution, the only tall building, besides the stupas, that exists in Vientiane. It is located off center, on the Mekong but inside it looks “Chinese luxurious”, meaning kind of bland and with no traits. Just a lobby with nothing, so different from the hotels built by Europeans and Americans architects. I left the hotel and went to take a walk on the Mekong, not a good move because is dark, so after a while I met some guards with a gun who asked me to go back because it is dark and it may be a little dangerous , no matter that in Vientiane crime is almost non existent. So I walked back and continued to walk to the hotel on the main promenade, towards my hotel that was closing the doors at 11:30pm. When I booked they did not have single rooms and I asked for a double room with bathroom, so they looked suspicious and they told me that the hotel closes at 11:30pm and …. no visitors. Laos, like most of the countries in SE Asia, is a major destination for sex-tourism and after dark, like In Thailand or Vietnam, the street is populated by a different crowd that congregate around the guest houses and hotels frequented by foreigners.

During the evening I was trying to book a train to BKK for the next day but the offices were closed. I was convinced that is no problem to find a berth and I was wrong because the next morning when I started more convinced to do it, there were no more AC berths available, just with fans. I hesitated and latter on when I checked there were none left, the entire train being booked including first class. So I bought a bus ticket, that had some advantages, one of them was that brings you directly to Kao Sarn Road so I did not have to schlep my luggage from the train station. In the morning trying to find seats on the train, I got to a guest house where I tried to make a booking. One guy who was at the reception asked me where I want to go and I said that I will go with a tuk-tuk directly to Pha That, that is a stupa famous in Laos, the symbol of the country that is also on the national flag. He said that he will go with me for free on his motorbike because he is a student in English and wants to practice the language. So, still waiting for an answer for the tickets, we left and visited the stupa located in the northern part of the town. Very interesting and beautiful, the stupa was full with people from Thailand who came in a weekend visit to Vientiane. I shot some video and I noticed a blemish that I did not notice before on the filter. After I figured out how to clean my viewfinder I noticed that the blemish is still there so I had to replace the filter with the UV one and shoot again. We visited also the two temples nearby and we left to their Arch located in a park close by, that is the symbol of the city. I climbed in the arch for a great view of the city, that as I assumed is flat with no tall buildings. After this visit we left back to the guesthouse where he dropped me and left to school and I continued to investigate for my ticket. In the end not finding anything I bought from my guesthouse a bus ticket, that also had the advantage that instead of 15:00 they were picking me up at 17:00, extending my time in Vientiane for 2 more hours. I started around 11:00 the tour of the city, that is small enough in terms of attractions to be covered in 4-6 hours. I went to the market and I had some great shakes, looking through the overpriced items sold there. In Laos the asked prices are much higher than in the other countries in Asia, and you have to bargain hard to get to the real price. I bought another milk shake and I went to visit two important wats, Wat Phre Kaw and Wat Si Saket. the first housing now a museum of religious objects and the other is the oldest wat in Vientiane. Most of the wats in Vientiane were destroyed in various wars in the 19th centuries and rebuilt in the 20th century, sometimes in a different style than the original. From there I continued to see an old stupa and several other temples, chatting with the monks that are kids getting their education in the wats, this being for many of them, country boys, the only way they can afford. All of them study English hoping to become guides and they want to practice, so they come to you to talk in English, asking mainly the same questions, where are you from, how many days in Laos, etc. I chatted with them everytime the possibility came by. Following my way to the other temples, that more or less look and feel the same, most of the having the “sim”, main building, built in Siamese style, I passed by a handicraft store where I purchased on the spot a great hmong wedding jewelry. Great stuff that I could not find anywhere else! I got another shake to cool off the heat, it was very hot in Vientiane, and continued my tour and at 4:30pm I went to the hotel to change, pack and be ready for the bus.

The minibus came at 5:00pm and picked me up and several others to the border, where we exited Laos and got in the no main land. We left our luggage in the bus that is a two tiered one with super AC and reclining seats and we waited one hour tlll 7:00pm for the bus to leave. I chatted with a German student from Mainz and two Japanese sisters from Okinawa, one of them impressed me a lot because she spoke English extremely well with the high school vocabulary all the kids in America have. I asked her if she studied in the States and she said that she studied one year in high school. The kids are like sponges and they absorb right away. She was not perfectly fluent but she had an American accent and ALL the expressions of kinds in school: “amazing”, “actually”, and a lot of “like”s. The funny thing is that the German student was speaking in the same way without ever being in the States. He got it from movies I guess, but obviously the attraction of America is fascinating among young generation. We left at 7:00pm and we stopped in Udon Thani that is the border to Thailand, we crossed after a passport check, got on the bus and stopped again after 15 minutes in a place on the shore of Mekong where they fed us, some veggie rice. I chatted with a girl from Vancouver who was on a long journey like most of the people here, going now for the wrap up to Pukhet and with one middle aged Italian from the Po delta who was traveling also for a long time, telling me that he suspended his job for 4 years (!) in order to travel. After that the bus stopped only at 12:30, a classical stop for all the buses for the driver and the assistants to eat. This is not great because they wake you up and is hard to get asleep after that. The ride was great, the entire way on highway of several lanes where the buses are driving very fast. The bus was very good, (yes, we are finally in Thailand), and we arrived in Khao Sarn Road at 4:30am, much earlier that planned. The street just started to wake up, only the girls and the other “girls”, the boys, where pondering it looking for late customers. I left my luggage at a hotel, shaved, washed, got a quick fix with a watermelon and I am ready to go for a day in Bangkok. My flight is tonight at 12:35 am

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2007 in Blog, Laos

 

Vang Vieng

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Chilling in Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is quite of a place. It is populated with young backpackers and is surrounded by karst peaks with tons of caves inside. Also, the river that crosses it represents its major attraction for water sports and the mountains are enticing for biking and rock climbing. It is an outdoor sports place like Moab, UT or similar. Meanwhile, the place is full of guest houses that charge ridiculously cheap prices, around $5/night, and is full of restaurants that have these style table-beds with pillows like in Dahab, Egypt, with the difference that the pillows are not directly on the ground/sand, but on these elevated beds like in the chaikhanas of the Middle East. So all the “falangs”, foreigners, and locals are stretching their bones on these beds, eating on a small table in front of them and watching a large TV that is playing mainly “Friends” or soccer. I knew about all this but I said that is worth seeing to believe it! Most of the backpackers are hanging out there for many reason one being the cheap accommodation and food, the great crepes on the street very popular in the night and lots of sport activities , that make many of them to stay for at last a week in Vang Vieng.

In the morning after I had my breakfast of eggs and coffee, I started to explore the places around and what better way to do it than by bike. So, I rented a bike for $1 and I went to see a cave on the other side of the river Nam Song. The cave was interesting but no big deal, but the beauty was the nature around, with the beautiful river and the karst peaks that were magnificent. I biked around, in the forest on small paths where the legends says that the entire area is populated by spirits, and I came back in town, going again on the other side to see a beautiful guest house a German woman on the way mentioned it to me. The guest house named Maylin, held by an Aussie I guess, is charming with adorable gardens and cottages on stilts and everybody living there were like living in paradise. It was funny that I got to talk with two Irish. She was laying in a hammock and was so sorry that she had to leave because the whole setting was marvelous. She kept saying that she is very sorry and very sorry, but she has to be in BKK by tomorrow. I consolated her telling that I have to go to work myself and I asked her where she has to go from BKK, expecting something like Dublin, but she said that she has to go to ………..Sri Lanka. I felt her pain into my soul! What a trade off: Vang Vieng to Sri Lanka. I said good bye to them and planned that we will meet at the bus stop because they were taking the same 1:30pm VIP bus to Vientiane. Meanwhile I talked in the guest house with a couple from Vancouver who were already traveling for about 4 months, 3 in Vietnam and they were going for an entire year. From Maylin guest house I went directly to the bus station to buy my ticket and when I arrived the guy from the booth asked me if I want to go with the local bus at 12:30pm for only 25000. The price was irrelevant but because I had nothing special planned, I went back and dropped the bike and took my luggage and I made it in time for the 12:30 local, on a bus in a very bad shape (where I met the Irish couple) but it did the trick and reached Vientiane in exactly four hours, at 4:30pm. The ride was good, with all the windows open for fresh and non-AC air. A tuk-tuk brought me for 15000 kips to the Mekong promenade and after choosing between two guest houses I ended up in Joe’s Guest house where I have AC and I am right on the Mekong for $14, quite expensive for Vientiane standards. I walked a little and found all sorts of Internet places and overseas call centers and I plan to eat tonight at Cote d’Azur, a French restaurant and after that, to have a beer on the Mekong.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2007 in Blog, Laos

 

Phonsavanh (2 days)

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Phonsavanh – The Plain of Jars

After I finished my blog I left to my guest house, Hoxieng, to drop the bike and pick up my Romanian passport that I left it as guarantee. The guy was astound when he saw the passport because he never heard about Romania and now he saw somebody from there. But before I was able to reach home I bumped into Hunter in the market and we started chatting. He told me to go to the agency because the guy was concerned that I did not show up today to pay so he did not know if I will come with them the next day. He told me a little about himself, studied System engineering, that is applied math for solving engineering problems and he worked in MA for a defense contractor till last year when he left for Thailand, where he liked it a lot and decided to try to live and work there, so he posted his resume on a website in BKK. A high-school in Phisanoulok found it, called him for a math teacher position, interviewed him and offered the position at the interview. He was the only applicant and they offered him around $900/month a large salary for teaching in Thailand. The job was easy because the expectations are very low, just to be presentable and to be able to get along with the other people, so they liked him and they wanted to raise his salary and offered him another year to teach, but he decided to return in the States where he wants to teach math so, after his return, he will apply for the certification and start teaching math in high school. He found his way in life in Thailand! We kept chatting about my own family connection with math and I had to leave him to solve my immediate and non-math problems, in any case we would have met next morning for the trip. I went to the agency, I paid and I dropped the bike and eventually I took the passport latter in the evening, because the guy was not there, and I left to visit the night market for the last shopping, that are always a lot and the result was that I filled up the new backpack I bought in Vietnam with things from the market….

I went to sleep at 11pm and next morning, the host started to knock in a door and woke me up around 5am but I did not get down from bed till 6:15am when I went to see again the monks, but just the ones coming near my guest house. I packed and I went for a coffee that was good this time at Joma, reading the paper to see what is still going on with the hazy air that was settled over the city and country in the last days, caused by the fact that the peasants are burning the rice fields to clear them for the new plantation. The haze is terrible and it is also over Chiang Mai in Thailand causing a number of people to check into the hospital and obliging the Thai government to spray water from the planes to try to clear it. I paid the guesthouse and I asked them for an extra receipt, and I got both stamped by the travel agent, and they give me some water and bananas to have it on the way. The van was in front and the driver loaded my luggage and we went to pick up Hunter and Dana from their guesthouse and at around 8:15am we left towards Phonsavanh, the capital of the province Xieng Hoang the place where is located the Plain of Jars. The trip was more than awful because was on a continuous winding road the same way as the one when we crossed from Meteora to Metsovo, the only road where as a driver I got nauseous. But this road was not one hour like the other one, but 7 hours and continuously winding. We stopped several times to get air and all three of us were kind of nauseous. Each time I had to stretch on the car bench to calm my stomach but in the end none of us threw up. At least this! Obviously that the landscape was beautiful, we continuously crossed mountains, the country being very mountainous. Winding road with lots of hair pins going up and down for almost 7 hours! And if this would not have been enough, on the way Hunter mentioned to us that the road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng was listed in February 2007 on US State Department Advisory list as a no-go destination for Americans. There were attacks on buses that happened in the past and the road was listed as unsafe. The Hmongs conducted a guerrilla war against the government forces that lasted since 1975 till 2004 when they gave back the guns but in situations like this, many guns still remain available used by wrong doers. These guys were coming from the mountains and attacked villages and buses but the book said that these incidents did not happen for a long time. Still on the way, in each village we saw at least one person carring an AK47 but when we asked everybody told us that they were government soldiers guarding the village and we should not worry because the road is very safe…

Finally at around 2:15 pm the road got to be in a lower plain and we arrived in the nondescript town of Phonsavanh at 3:15pm. I got a room for 70000 kips at “Nice Guest House” and we went for lunch of sweet and sour fish and rice. After lunch the sun was towards sunset so we went for a walk in the market that was full of unknown products and we tried some of them. Hunter has a passion for languages and he learned German and studied some Arabic and in Thailand learned Thai so he was able to talk with people here in Lao, the languages being very close to Thai. He knew a lot about the world, traveled in Eastern Europe also and he impressed me by the fact that he knew that my name is Romanian. Dana grew up in a farm in CT and he was a horse trainer. He went to the university on a scholarship for polo, a sport she told me many things about, and she worked in Hawai as a polo player and horse trainer. Now she wanted to play polo just for fun, staying away of the glitzy crowd that populates this game, and to work more to train horses . I lost them in the market and when I finished my visit I started walking the main street but it was nothing to see, just a beautiful sunset, so I sat in a restaurant to have a beer and read my book. The restaurant named symbolic “Craters” is located near the MAG office, that is the office sponsored mainly by New Zeeland to do demining here, the main danger in a region that is littered with mines and UXO, all sorts of detonable devices from the American war and also from the war between the Vietnamese and Royal Lao Forces. The area was bombed to oblivion by the US because the Vietnamese settled here and they were running the front from this area, so the number of sorties was extremely high to the point that the capital Mueng Sai was completely obliterated and after the war was over, they had to move the capital of the province in Phonsavanh, because there were no buildings left standing in the old capital. MAG did the demining of the main sites in the Plain de Jars and the sites can be visited since 1990 but still you have to walk only on marked path, being a slight possibility to still exist undetonated explosives. The number of bombs that were thrown from planes was so large that their cases are used for decoration in town, “Craters” having four tall cases standing in front of the restaurant and there are many more in Bomb Cafe and other. You can see all sort of bomb cases, both from aluminum and steel, the ones from aluminum used to make pans and pots by the villagers. I had my book and beer till 9 00pm and I went to the hotel earlier for a shower and a good sleep but unfortunately I was awaken latter by some noisy guests.

Next morning I woke up at 6:00 am I packed and I went outside in a nice sunrise for a quick walk and breakfast. I met Hunter and Dana and at 8:00 am the driver came to pick us up in the hotel. I went to the bus station to buy a ticket for tonight bus, (VIP bus at 7:00pm – 6 hours to VV , local bus at 4:00pm – 7 hours to VV) and I noticed that the price dropped considerably at the bus station compared with what I spoke with people in the city! No surprise! From there we left for Plain of Jars, an area that has a lot of jars, huge stones sculpted inside used probably for storage, but about which nobody knows anything when or by whom were built. It is a megalithic mystery of Laos, the only place where these Jars/stone exists. There are several legends, each minority having his own, but the bottom line is that nobody has a clue. There are about 60 sites in the area with jars like this but only 3 are visitable being demined. The bombs thrown from the American bombers left many craters and destroyed many of jars in the area named in the war, PDJ, a French acronym for Plain de Jars. We met or guide, Mr. Yeung who joined us latter on, and we visited Sites 1,2 and 3, all being relative close to one another but still you have to go by car. What is interesting is the large concentration in each of these sites and nothing in between. The supposition is that the jars were used by the villages for storing various things, including people , alive as jail or dead as in a cemetery. Some jars have lids but very few still remain. Mr. Yeung gave us all sorts of stories and we visited also a cave used by the Vietnamese army as a hospital. Some jars were short but several were as tall as the height of a person. The whole visit was short, maybe about 2-3 hours and it proves that it can be done in one long day RT from either Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng but the agencies want to do it in no less than three days. Because we still have lots of time on our hands we went to visit a destroyed Russian tank and the old capital, the obliterated city of Mueng Sei. The only 3 things that remained standing was the old French Office, the old temple dating from the 16th century and an old stupa. All three are kept as they were with no renovation, a relic of the bombardments. We visited all three and we went back to Phonsavanh. On the way back, realizing that we have a lot of time left in the day, we decided to change gears so Hunter and Dana asked to be driven that day to Eastern Laos, instead of the next day, an me , after a short stint at the Internet Cafe to complete my story I picked up a tuk-tuk for $1 and I went to the bus station where I changed my ticket for a local bus at 4:00pm, and they even gave me 10000 kips back. The other local bus in the morning at 9:30am did not leave because of lack of passengers. Because I felt so nauseous the other day when we came by minibus I was horrified by the prospective to take again the same road, even for only half of it. So I did not eat and drink anything all day, except some fruit in the morning. I had a bottle of water with me and that’s it and I kept pondering if the VIP bus from 7:00pm would be better that the local, that has small seats and no AC. But to my surprise the ride to Vang Vieng was very smooth with no problems and no nauseous feelings. I understood once again that these minibuses, that are great because they pick you up at the hotel, are a pain because they drive faster and you are less comfortable in them. After a good part of the way with the local bus when I saw that I feel perfect I ate a sandwich and bananas and drank some water. I chat with two Dutch girls from Rotterdam who were traveling for 3-4 months and they plan to visit so much in SE Asia that even I thought that is a little exaggerate. We talked a lot about Burma where they wanted to go but they were reluctant. The VIP and the local bus takes the same 6-7 hours to Vang Vieng and I reached Vang Vieng at 10:30 pm, the bus station being on a long Airstrip built by the Americans in the war, Lima site 27, and right away I got my luggage to Nana guest house very close to the bus station, that for $5 gave me a spotless room with two beds and a perfectly clean bathroom. I did not have too much time, people in Laos go to sleep early so I went right away on the main street, got a crepe with chocolate and a beer, weird combination, watching in awe the restaurants and discotheques that populate this town, where people are not sitting but they lay down on some kind of elevated tables, with another table in the middle, similar with what they have in the tea houses in Central Asia or in Dahab, Egypt on the beach. I watched a snippet of Friends, that runs on all TVs in Vang Vieng, a snippet of a soccer match of Manchester United and went to bed. During the night it rained twice, strongly, but when I woke up in the morning the rain was over.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2007 in Blog, Laos

 

Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang- Alms offering at sunrise

Laos is the dream come true. I spoke with many travelers in this trip, here and in Vietnam who were in Laos and all of them went more or less through the same experience: they planned the trip in Laos for 1-2 weeks based on what they were able to read in the book and all of them ended up extending their visa and no necessary because they found much more to see or explore. It is just the atmosphere of, probably, one of the best kept secret in SE Asia.

Sabaidee! This is the salutation you hear continuously from everybody. It is for “Hello” and “Goodbye” also and it is used also by the foreigners and is nice and comfortable to hear it. In Vietnam everybody says “Hello” or “Hi” and everything is very pro-American, surprising after such a difficult past, but maybe the new market economy makes people try emulate America. Here a lot of things remained French, including the inscriptions on the major institutions, like the Post Office, but still the salutation is local. Last night, after I had my email done, I went for dinner to the oldest restaurant here in Luang Prabang, dating from 1960, and I had Stuffed Bamboo shoots, a very good and interesting dish. Inside the bamboo shoots they put some meat and they fried it, the dish being delicious. As a matter of fact the food I had here is exquisite, maybe caused by the large number of tourists and travelers who can afford to pay just a little more on dishes. Not the same thing is in Vietnam, where if you want to have good food you go to the best restaurants, that comparatively with the rest of them are slightly more expensive, (still very cheap comparing with USA or Europe). Otherwise the food in Vietnam is repetitive and unappealing. After dinner I walked on the main street and I bumped into Susan who was nursing a beer in one of the restaurants. We chatted for two hours, a great discussion about many issues. After she raised in Virginia her two daughters, who just finished college, she retired from a job of photography, graphic design and product conceptualization and marketing, sold her house and she began wandering throughout the world. She got a voluntary position with Peace Corp in Essaouira, Morocco where she lived for two years working with the Berbers who were making handicrafts, helping them promote their products. She learned one of the Berber languages and when she was done she decided that she will keep traveling. So, now she wants to spend half of the year traveling in SE Asia and other places and half of the year working with the guys who bought the Silk Mill in Pittsfield, MA, who want to create there a artist commune with work, living and exhibition spaces. We are invited to the opening of the first exhibit in June. I left Susan at 10:30pm and I went home to take a shower and go to sleep because I had to wake up in the morning to see the monks. Again! The monks did their tour of duty the same like the day before, long rows of yellow robes, taking their rice in silence and peace. I met Gunther and I walked with him, losing him latter in the crowd. From there I went back home to dress for the day and I went to have breakfast on the Mekong, Lao black coffee, banana shake and omelette with a Mango cake that they sell in the city. Plus the views over the Mekong in the morning! When I left the restaurant I bumped in a middle aged Aussie that I met yesterday on the boat. She was telling yesterday about the hellish experience she had riding the bus from Hanoi to Vientiane. The bus was crammed to maximum, having a bench in between the chairs to fill it to more than capacity. It was an AC bus, so the windows could not open being sealed, but….the AC did not work and inside was like in steam bath. The entire trip took…23 hours, leaving at 8:00pm and reaching the border at 8:00am and entering Laos at 9:30 am. She said that she would not wish it to anybody, but she was lucky because…. the other day the bus broke down and the passengers missed the border opening so they had to sleep in the border town and it took …45 hours to get to Vientiane. So I guess that my one hour flight did the trick ! She will travel till her money run out, somebody was renting her house in Australia implicitly paying her mortgage, and she traveled a lot when she was young but she told me regretfully, with no too much interest in those times for cultural travel. And I know what she talks about because I see many young travelers who are here to have a great time, not knowing most of the times what great opportunities they have to see these great sites. It is just about hanging out and living in a cheap place where money is running longer and they chill more without work. Obviously, most of them are not like this and they are deeply involved in seeing, exploring and understanding the culture of the place. After I parted with the Aussie, who was going to live in a tree house for three days to see and hear gibbons, a successful ecotourism program that she decided to join.

I went to rent a bike for $1 a day and I start exploring the city. I did not have any plan today and I wanted to wander with no checkboxes or lists of to-do things. I saw several temples that I missed last time but this was not the intention, I just bumped into them. I crossed a bridge trying to get to a place and I found a meditation temple, about which I read but I had no idea how to reach it. It was looking and feeling like the one we saw in Chiang Mai, with inscriptions on trees but his time just in Lao not in English. It has a beautiful gilded stupa on three tiers. From there I came back in town and biked lazily to other places and I visited two more temples. I stopped around 2pm in a very hip coffee place, Jabo, close to my guest house, a sort of local Starbucks with pastries and nice assortment of coffee, but the frappucino I had was more than disappointing, so I may skip it tomorrow no matter that I planned it for breakfast. After that I stopped in several stores to buy some things and I went on Mekong to cross it to see some temples on the other side, not very convinced but still… But maybe the weather noticed my visiting mood so it started to rain and I took refuge in a store waiting for the rain to stop, forfeiting my plan to cross the river. The rain continued and after I got some info from an agency for the next time I come to Laos, to go to Mueng Sing, I biked through rain stopping in some other stores. The stores are expensive here. They know that the ones who are buying from them have to have money so they jack up the price ridiculously. I bought a hanging from Sapa for $4 that here they try to sell for $62!!! The same one! There are also very beautiful stores with remarkable things. I found extremely beautiful weaving that they sell, different ones, in the market for $4-7 but in this store they were, of a different quality and an exquisite taste, for $300-650. Eventually, I decided to go to eat something so after I stopped at the guesthouse to take my book to read I went to a great restaurant that I saw on some ads named Tamarind, that makes traditional Lao food. They served me sticky rice, that you eat with your hand making a ball and getting the food with it. The food was more than delicious, was an experience in itself on all sort of spices and dishes from Luang Prabang, a seaweed from the Mekong that they dry outside with sesame, garlic and tomatoes, eggplant salad cooked in a different style, coriander as salad that I never ate before and some sweet tomatoes all with a local hot sauce. They are specialized in these kind of specialty dishes and they do not serve dinner so I told them that I will link them to the blog http://www.tamarindlaos.com , one of the best culinary experience I had in Laos. When I finished lunch/dinner it was almost 5:30pm and the monks in the wat across the street started to chant, a thing that all monks do at that time. I joined them and I shot some video inside and moved latter for more chants and more video and sound recording in another wat nearby that I missed to see inside. I wanted not to miss any more the chance to call home so I came and at 6:30pm I spoke with Victor who just woke up and was very happy when I told him that we will play together soon.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2007 in Blog, Laos

 

Luang Prabang – Pak Ou, Keung Si

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Pak Ou Caves

Last night after I wrote the blog I walked a little in the night market where I bought several things and I was pondering what to do. I kept entering in agencies and talk with guides to see if I can go to the North. Apparently, the guy who gave me the first information, was misinformed and the night bus ride to Luang Nam That, that he told me that is 7 hours is actually around 10 hours and the ride to Muang Sing that he told me that is 1.5 hours is actually 4 hours and not back to back, Muang Sing being all the way in the North at the border with Burma. These are the ways you have to deal on travel, especially if you go on sites that are way out of the beaten path and no information you receive, including this one is not guaranteed. So this destination was out of question and I started to investigate for the original plan with the Plain of Jars. I found two guys leaving today and coming back to Luang Prabang in 3 days but that did not serve me at all, no matter that it was a possibility riding a night bus to Vang Vieng, so I put it as an option and I thought that the morning will bring something and it did. The monks are the heart of Laos. When the Commies took power in 1975, sweeping in victory the entire Indochina they banned the offering of alms to the monks, that represent the core belief for Buddhists. As they got in trouble, because one year later there were riots in the streets, they had to reinstate it and live in a communist system with religion on the side. Still they banned many children for going to monasteries and introduced the indoctrination in temples but the alms offering remained. I was in the morning at 6:00am and latter at 6:30am to see this alms offering and is a spectacle by itself to see a long row of monks aligned on the side of the street coming from far away to the place where are seated people who give them rice. A long row of yellow robes with a large bowl of rice that they open and accept the offer. Begging for monks is a major element in Buddhism in order to make you humbler and accept that you don’t mean anything. This alms offering is important both for the believers but also for the monks to strengthen their religious education. The long line of yellow robes passed in front of my camera, impressive and silent, the whole procession that lasts somewhere around 15-20 minutes happens in silence in the dark light of the early morning. On the sidewalk were lots of people aligned on straw mats with bowls of rice giving each monk a little rice…. And throngs of tourists to see the show, some of them making also the offer. It finished around 6:45am and I went to have breakfast on the shore of the Mekong, coffee and omelet with the always present fruit shake. Right after breakfast trying to get in contact with a guy from an agency with whom I spoke yesterday, I entered another agency and I asked about the trip to Plain of Jars, a place that is quite out of the way and few people go because is not cheap. The guy told me that he has two Americans going there on Wednesday and continuing to the border with Vietnam. No matter that in my mind was to leave there on Tuesday, tomorrow, I found it very convenient and I decided in my mind to go with them. Actually, returning to the agency later today for the day trip I booked, I met them in the agency: Hunter teaches Math in Physanoulok, Thailand and is from MD and Dana is from CT at the border with RI, close to Cape Cod. I chat with them a little and they were happy latter on in the trip when I told them that I may join.

The trip of today, a classic of the area is a two part trip. In the morning we left with a long boat on Mekong admiring the life on its shores with the fishermen in full action. We arrived, after we stopped to a village that makes whiskey, as they call it, a typical tourist trap, to some caves, Pak Ou, where the kings of Laos brought every year statues of Buddha as offers, most of them standing, Luang Prabang style. The statues are small and they fill several ledges in the cave and the whole experience would have been great if I did not visit the Buddha cave in Kalaw , Burma, where the statues are huge, gilded and you walk through them like through a forest. So for me the cave was a total disappointment. There are two caves and the second one, in spite of being dark was more interesting than the first. The good thing was that the caves are somewhere up the cliff that confers great views over the Mekong. From there we returned directly to Luang Prabang.

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Keung Si Waterfall

I had lunch, papaya salad and two(!!!) fruit shakes and I left for the second part of the trip that visits a waterfall 30 km out of Luang Prabang, Keung Si. I did not expect much, I saw enough waterfalls to be weary of them, but what was there enchanted everybody. It was a tropical forest with cascades that were falling one from another in blue small pools of waters, like you may see in movies and the guys from Las Vegas try to recreate in Mirage Casino. Actually the first impression when I got there was that I saw this in the lobby of Mirage Hotel!!!!! If you keep walking up you get to the main cascade, so tall and beautiful on several tiers falling from one to another, each in a blue pool. Absolutely everybody was more than enchanted to see it and is hard to describe in words and maybe even in pictures, the impression that lasted on us. From there we returned directly to Luang Prabang and we did not stop in a Hmong village as the schedule was. I met in the bus an American, Susan, who will be for 3 years in Pittsfield, MA where some guys bought the old silk mill and try to convert it in an art space, for the artists to show their work. She is the artist that will conceptualize this conversion. I went home took a shower and came back in town, crossing the busy night market, bought some scarves and came here for the phone and internet. Latter dinner and tomorrow I want to rent a bike and go around the town. You don’t want to leave this place!

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2007 in Blog, Laos

 

Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is magic. It is Thailand 20 years ago, because Thailand now is so touristy not being anymore the calm paradise of the forgotten hippies. Lunag Xueng Prabang was the capital of Laos till the communists moved it to Vient Cheng, the “sandalwood city”, renamed by the French, Vientiane. The king built here a palace, that was originally supposed to be the French governor palace, at the beginning of the 20th century and ruled the country from here. But the roads were terrible and Mekong unreliable so a trip on the Mekong from here to Saigon took longer than an ocean crossing to Paris. So Luang Prabang remained unspoiled by times and modernity and just recently the road got renovated and you can get to Vientiane in 10 hours by bus on a switchy mountain road. It looks like a larger village but is full of temples called wat like in Thailand, built in a similar style, and lots of restaurants, bars, internet cafes and outfitters who wants to take you in all sorts of adventures, by bikes, elephants, rafting or kayaking. I woke up early but I laid down in bed and I had my breakfast of fruits with yogurt and sandwich on French bread finished at 9:00am and just after that I left in exploration. I visited most of the wats in town, the town being small and if you rush a little you definitely can cover in a day or two. I took it very easy, chatting with monks and visiting slowly the sites and the Royal Palace. The king, after was appointed by the Commies “Supreme Adviser”, on the same model they did in Vietnam, was jailed in a cave and he died in the 80s of malnutrition and lack of medicine. Officially…. it is not official version but his picture, statues and portraits are all over the palace, that look exactly the way it was when he was evacuated from it. His two daughters are living in Paris, two sons in the USA and another one of them, the Crown Prince is here in Luang Prabang in his previous residence that is transformed in hotel nowadays, after Laos also adopted market economy policies. I walked the entire day through the wats, on the shore of the Mekong and his tributary, Nom Kham, Luang Prabang being located on a sort of peninsula between these two rivers. I stopped at lunch for a cold beer in a very shi-shi bar Kili Wine Bar, rested a little and after that I climbed the steps on top of the hill, Phu Si, to see the view of the city, unfortunately covered in a sort of smoke the entire day that makes the visibility limited. It gives a hazy look to the sun. Coming back to the main street I tried to call again at “bunici” but to no avail and I had an early dinner of Indian Food, not so good like the great Lao dish of fish I had yesterday in Tam Tam Bamboo. Now I will go in the night market, something similar with Chiang Mai with the difference that it closes around 10pm because the entire city does not stay late at all, except several bars for foreigners.

I tried during the morning to arrange a trip to the Plain of Jars but it is not so easy. If you go by bus it takes one day each way and you spent one day there. I tried to go by minibus, just two days but I have to find other people to do it and it may be more difficult. So, if it does not work out I may skip it and do something else in the North in an area with markets and many other minorities. It is a great difference between Laos and Vietnam, a difference that the French tried to ignore and failed. The Annamite Line separates the two people and this mountain range is actually the demarcation between the Chine influenced people and the Hindu influenced people. In spite of the fact that Champas were Hindus they were complete absorbed in the Vietnamese state that had a huge Chinese heritage. Everything there is Chinese, starting with the temples that look and feel like in China, with the Buddhist tradition that does not have the Buddha statues we were used to, the Confucius influence that is the core of the belief and finishing with the people that act like the Chinese, but being more gentle and nicer that the Chinese, with the food that resembles the style of Chinese cooking, that after 3 weeks I could not take it anymore and I went for an Australian Steak…. Besides, the Chinese influence and the new market economy made Vietnam the new capitalist Mecca, and people act this way. Everything is business, calls for ” buy from me”, “cheap”, money photo”, “one picture one dollar”, “give tip”, “same same…but different” are regular and all the foreigners are amused or annoyed by them. They made it as logo on T-shirts and the worst place is Sapa, where the Black Hmong are the most intense. The tranquility you expect in SE Asia has nothing in common with Vietnam and the worst is in the big cities where the traffic can make your life a hell. But after a while, maybe a little more than 1 week, you learn to walk in the middle of a hellish traffic thinking about your stuff, ignoring and being completely oblivious at the cacophony of sounds that surrounds you. Absolutely anybody who has any form and size of a horn, be sure that he will use it continuously and after a while in your mind the noise disappears… Maybe you were able to stop the world! When you land in Luang Prabang the shock is huge. The fact that the buses are not pressing the horns and nobody is peddling towards you is so surprising that you think that you landed in paradise. Everything is very slow, like the flow of the Mekong, people do not smile all the time but they are extremely nice and very polite, the time stops and you realize that you landed back in time, maybe sometimes in the 60s in a dreamy Thailand. Everybody who stays here, stays much more than they need, hang out, take a bike, nurse a beer, or chat with others. This looks to be the place where everybody comes to relax after a “tour of duty” in India, Vietnam or China. And me too also, because now my vacation starts from here!

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2007 in Blog, Laos