Tuesday, June 24, 2008

goin' nowhere

I am still in Laos, in Si Phan Don aka Four Thousand islands.

Over the last two weeks, I have:
- Stayed in seven different cities – it’s a record
- Learnt a lot of Laos (about a 100 words)
- Had a lot of Tom Yum Paa (Fish Soup)
-Explored the countryside on a bicycle
- Attended a village party at 2 PM on a Tuesday (for just long enough to introduce myself and take a few pictures – there was too much lao lao (rice whisky))!
- Briefly worked In a rice field
- Petted a black piglet who eats cherries
- Taught a card game to a Laos woman using 2 Laos words (no, good and their combination- no good)

Just when I am beginning to have conversations with the locals (even if its the same 10 questions I ask), its almost time to leave. A few days island hopping and then I will cross over to Cambodia.

Since I can’t say goodbye (I can't find a word for that in my phrasebook), I guess I will just have to come back :)
Ngaam (Beautiful)!

Friday, June 13, 2008

dark side of the moon

June 12, 2008
I went on a boat ride yesterday. There were limestone cliffs all around, a rocky river bottom. At times, we hit some rapids, and the motorized canoe trembled before the two boatmen took control and steered it in the right direction.

And I shuddered throughout! After all, it was on a river running 7 Km through a pitch-black, winding cave.

As Nadia found out two weeks ago, after a 30-minute, steep, rocky, slippery climb, I am not a “cave” person. I couldn’t go further than about 2 meters into the cave, just when it becomes a real cave (even with its golden promises of a reclining Buddha and a swimming lagoon!)

I get claustrophobic, and can’t wait to run out to the open skies.
So there I was, trying to soothe my nerves by listening to dance music, while struggling to recollect synonyms of 'fear' to look them up in my Lao phrasebook, so I could tell the boatmen to not stop in the middle of the cave to look "closely” at the stalactites and stalagmites. I saw enough for my lifetime in the first 15 minutes of the 90 minute ride, well, as many as I could in the dark.

Finally, it got over , and it was time for the good part. I was going to live in the village for a night.
Feeling the real Laos, Lonely Planet says, is through a homestay.

I am put up in a home with 4 beautiful little girls, Ta (12), Te (9), Dali (7), Ami (1) and their mother Teng.

I walk around the village, following the kids racing their “bottle” cars, have café Lao in the village noodle shop, while taking in the views, and spend the rest of the evening trying to learn Lao and teach the three girls English.
After an early dinner of noodles with cabbage and egg, everyone is in bed by 9.

A few observations:
- Men and women sleep in separate homes (maybe my host family was well-off to have two houses)
- When a kid gets sick, there is an endless stream of neighbors inquiring about the kid’s health.
- Everyone watches a lot of Thai television.
- The older children get up before dawn. The 12 year old goes to the paddy fields by 5, the 9 year old helps in the cooking and then walks to the field, with the breakfast.
- A quick baasii ceremony is performed if a kid is sick, to help her attain equilibrium or for falangs, who are clearly crazy to be taking photos of their bed and food served to them, among other things

The roosters wake me up at the break of dawn to a rainy morning. At 6 AM, I am fed a lot of fried rice, all of which I ate (because it was yummy!). Then I take their leave, with 2 white threads on my left wrist and a pocketful of memories.

Would I do it again?
The cave – Never, Homestay – Sure (but won’t eat up all the fried rice), Baasii – that’s something I need most – equilibrium !

Friday, June 6, 2008


Paradise, I haven’t seen the last of it, I suppose.

I decide to step away from the french cafes with their fresh croissants and toasty baguettes, banana pancake stalls, restaurants with backpacker’s, California, and American breakfasts on their menu and view the other side of laos, the one which exists without the oui influence. So I head to the northeast.

Vieng Xai is the kind of place where you want to empty your backpack and air it out for a bit. There are man-made lakes with the limestone karst peaks as the backdrop (man-made by the bomb craters), hidden waterfalls, paddy fields, white and yellow wildflowers, (and hence) drunken butterflies, a fresh produce market with a buffalo head, and mangoes and bananas.
Every restaurant in town has a net submerged in the lake for the “fresh catch of the day”, for your order of fish soup. There are no cafes- internet, french or others..

This is the birthplace of Laos PDR, the former headquarters Pathet Lao (Land of the Lao) revolutionary headquarters. The evidence is the caves – the former meeting rooms, houses, hospitals, printing presses, a theatre - all housed in caves. Around 23000 people sought shelter in them for 9 years during the war.

After three days of playing catch up with history and then playing cards, arranging my itunes music, reading, relaxing, I head to Phonsavan.

On the way is Hintang Archaeological site with ancient stone pillars, a mini Stonehenge- a 6 Km hike from the main road. Christian, whom I met in Sam Neua, and I keep our backpacks at a motorcycle repair shop in the village and begin on what, at times, seemed to be an endless hike.

The lonely planet mentions the way to get here, some history, but what it forgets to mention is that the hike is all uphill (and it is 8 km, I am convinced). So, with my daypack with one soymilk, 3 bananas, one mango, a laptop, 2 books, a big camera, a 5 lb. poncho, more snacks (for the bus ride), extra batteries, memory cards, I drag myself up a muddy trail to the mountain top.
The site itself is a small one but spooky, with 1.5m upright stones, stone discs. The views are spectacular.

Of course, coming down is the best part on a hill. Christian walks by a little snake on the trail and doesn’t flinch when I mention the snake. “Do you know how many snakes they have in Australia? They are everywhere.” he says. Hmm, one country I might have to think twice about visiting.

Once in the village, we flag down a bus to phonsavan. I doze through most of the 6 hour journey.
In Phonsavan, I am handed a key with a bullet as a keychain. I have reached the most devastated province in the most bombed country (per capita) in the history of the world.

Here, Cluster Bomb Unit casings are used as fence posts, planters or plain decorations. Bomblets, which can be bought for as little as $2-3 are used as lamps and ashtrays. There are warnings about UXOs (unexploded ordnance) everywhere. There are songs about UXOs, which are a part of school curriculum.

I don’t quite realize the gravity of the situation till I see a bomblet (click on the picture!) – by the road we were driving on, in a ditch.

Our van had a flat tire on our way back from the customary ‘Plain of Jars’ tour and that’s when a girl in the group discovers it.

For a brief moment in time, I feared the ground I was walking on. I can’t imagine living with this fear. But the people here do, and sometimes, they pay a price for their own land, a heavy price- with their life or a limb or an eye. 30% of the bombs dropped were estimated to be unexploded.

After a 10 hour bus ride, my eyes constantly searching for more bomblets in the roadside ditches, I am on safer ground- Vientiane for a quick trip to Thailand, to get another 30 days in laos.

soul kitchen

Mitu wrote poems, beautiful poems, words in perfect harmony. Mummy handed out a beautiful diary to her. I expressed the desire for one.

“You have to earn it. Write a poem and it’s yours”, she said.

So I did. It was about spring- 12 lines, every alternate line rhymed (the rule for poems, I thought). It was 1985.

The third poem I wrote was about my love for books.

I have rediscovered that love. At any given time, my backpack has four-five books – that’s more weight than my toiletries (and that says a lot). My third most-visited website on this trip after gmail and flickr is Shelfari.

In a part of the world devoid of Barnes and Nobles and the used bookstores like in SF and because of my inability to order on amazon, I find myself wandering the streets of a big city in SE Asia, searching for the familiar-buy, sell, trade books sign.

So I publish a list of book exchanges I have found in the two major cities of Laos that I have visited.

Luang prabang:
• Hive bookshop – the only one in LP
• Book exchange at Three elephant café- the café is mentioned in LP but book exchange isn’t.
• A small collection opposite Café Toui on Th Sisavang Vatthana
• A small collection in a restaurant on Th Kitsarat opposite the Post Office

• Kosila bookshop (mentioned in LP)- the best collection on Th Chanta Khumman
• Oriental bookshop, 121 Chao Anou road, 856.21.215 352 – opposite La Gondola – the second best collection
• Book café –053/2 Heng Boun Road, Haysoke 020.6893741- adjacent to the Bank on Heng Boun Road - owned by a british expat, Robert Cooper.
• A good bookshop opposite Douang Deuane Hotel (I think its called Kosila 2)
• A small bookshop opp Mixay Boutique on Th Nokeo Khumman
• Monument Books (mentioned in LP) sells new books only, very limited collection
• Vientiane Book Center (mentioned in LP) limited collection but buys, sells, trades books
• A small bookshop on Th Setthathirat next to Wat Hai Sok.

Phnom Penh• D's bookshop II- next to Number 9 guest house- the best collection i found in Phnom Penh
• London Book center has closed

Siam Reap
• Blue Apsara (Old Market Area next to Capitol Tour, 012-601-483) the best collection and best value for old books
• D's bookshop #112 Mondol 1 Village, Siam Reap - great collection- opposite Angkor What? on Pub Street
• Le Tigre de Papier (012-659-770, pub street next to Angkor What? bar) free wi-fi and free book exchange with a meal, great collection of french books
• Siam Reap Book Center (#699 Pithnou Street, Phoum Mondol 1, Khum) limited collection

Monday, June 2, 2008

Guest entry...

Hello there! I'm not the normal blogger here, but rather a guest here. And, here are my thoughts on my last two weeks in Laos:

One of the first questions I got from people, when I told them I would be going on vacation for two weeks, was “where are you going?” The second question happened to be the same question, “where?” Sure, to many, Laos is not the typical place you would hear from someone who wants a real vacation, which is what I was wanting. But, when your good friend, almost cousin (as we referred to ourselves in Laos) is on a globe-trotting adventure, you go to meet her, in a destination you may have not gone to otherwise, right?

My trip started in the sleepy capital of Vientiane. I was assured that this is not what Laos is like, not just by my friend but also by the folks on the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum, which I frequented daily before my trip. Next up was a, longer than what was suppose to be usual, bus ride on a local bus. Local buses in Laos are those that leave the bus station once every seat is full, and those that stop along the road to drop off passengers in their villages, which equal very long. Vang Vieng is a haven for 20 something year-olds wanting to “chill out” and be “happy.” By happy, I mean you can order bags of pot and opium for as little as $10 US. Also, this haven served as a place for some biking on rocky and gravel-filled dirt roads (as a side note, I broke my foot on a bike, on a similar road on a vacation in the past). But the bike trip was successful, and quite beautiful. We biked along the limestone caves that surround the picturesque Vang Vieng, and even dared to enter one cave.

On route to Luang Prabang, I was filled in on where to stay and what to do by my friend, as she had already spent several days there. I was not prepared to meet so many around-the-world travelers, as I was about to meet in this city. Each day, I felt as if I met a new traveler, who was traveling until the money ran out, or had already been traveling for months. I was the odd person out, who was only in Laos, and who would only be traveling for two weeks. Regardless, I tired to pull off the “I’ve-been-traveling-for-months” look with my North Face gear and giant backpack. Luang Prabang is where I was told I would want to spend most of my time, and that I did. We spend about six days there, instead of the original three days I gave us on my rough itinerary. I was able to take a slow boat ride on the “mighty” Mekong River, saw the amazing Kuang Si waterfalls, saw more wats (temples) and monks than I could imagine, spent plenty of kip (Laos currency) at the night market, played several frames at the local bowling alley, and even assisted in teaching English to the local kids and monks.

Although Laos is not a typical vacation destination, the country does know how to treat its visitors. I think I have traveled a fair amount, and I have to say the country is probably the friendliest, laid-back place I have every visited, along with being a place I felt very safe with my belongings. It has been a rough transition from flip-flop wearing, sun block wearing, 90 plus degree temperature to fleece-wearing, closed-toed shoe wearing, 60 dgree temps in a matter of days. My friend asked me if I would return to Laos. Initially, I said no, but perhaps I will. There is still the South to see, which is where my friend will be spending the next month. As the Laos people say, it will be “same same, but different.”