Sunday, August 19, 2007

241206 Pak Mong 龙门客栈

A few steps away, the owners of a little stall cleared away their wares from a little table outside the front of their home. Two guys waiting for onward transport to Vieng Kham & Sam Neua took over the table & sat down to a simple dinner of a small plastic bagful each of sticky rice & what looked like reddish beans. Younger guy invited the cat to share their little meal & sit with them while waiting.

PS (younger guy) asked if the cat could speak English, for he wanted to practise what he knew. Together, the three of us watched uniformed men at the junction stop & check every passing vehicle. ทหาร thahaan (soldiers)? No, ตำรวจ dtamluat (policemen). The cat found out that police wear olive green, whereas soldiers have darker green uniforms.

The last songthaew from Udomxai arrived - no luck. Before the cat knew it, the 'Pak Mong Welcome Committee' sprung into action, & daughter of stall owner took care of its backpack while PS led it to the 'white guesthouse' that everyone in Pak Mong had recommended. The doors of 'white guesthouse' were wide open, but the only response we heard when PS called out for the เจ้าของ jao khawng (owner) were echos.

PS decided to try another guesthouse across the road, but apparently the only water available for washing & bathing was from a concrete tank of stagnant water in each room. When asked if there was any place to bathe, the owner showed us to the room with the fullest tank - of equally stagnant water =P There were no taps nor pipes, & we wondered how on earth did they fill the tanks, which were all on the second storey - run a hose up the narrow winding stairs? PS joked that 'baw dtong aap nam - baw aap nam kaw suay ngam laew' (lit. don't need to bathe - without bathing already beautiful). Seems that even locals considered the tanks filthy! =P

Back at Bountham Vonethabing Guesthouse (aforementioned 'white guesthouse'), a daughter of owner finally appeared. For the same price (30,000kip) as 'stagnant water guesthouse', the cat had access to a shared bathroom with the biggest fattest water heater the cat has ever seen in all its 9 lives, & a room in this 龙门客栈 long2 men2 ke4 zhan4...

PC240221 PC240220

龙门客栈 (Dragon Gate Inn), the title of a Chinese swordfighting movie, is the cat family's term for mysterious guesthouses in the middle of nowhere. In the movie, some guests at the isolated inn never leave, but end up as fillings for 'pork' buns (something like what Thais call 'salabao') served to other guests ;)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

241206 Udomxai to Pak Mong

The cat spent the journey peering over the roof of the 'driver's cab' of the songthaew as it wound & wound its way past villages busy celebrating the Hmong New Year. Girls dressed in their best finery tottered down rutted slopes from their wooden houses & along the road in shiny gold & silver high heeled shoes, protecting their faces & make-up from the sun with umbrellas. Music boomed from beside the road in one of the larger villages, with a huge crowd of people surrounding an unseen stage beneath a canopy. Once in a while, horns blared & people jumped back as the songthaew swerved to avoid Hmong teenagers lined up along both sides of the highway playing the ball-tossing courtship game.

Three hours later the cat found itself with a bunch of empty songthaews at the main junction in Pak Mong where highways 13 (to Luang Prabang) & 1C (to Sam Neua) meet. There was no one else heading eastwards to Nong Khiaw, not even Nam Bak. The drivers agreed that it made more $ sense for the cat to spend the night in Pak Mong than to charter one of their songthaews, althought they were willing to drive the cat to Nong Khiaw if it had to get there urgently. They suggested hanging around till 7:00PM when the last songthaew from Udomxai would pull into town, in case there might be passengers heading towards Nong Khiaw, & if there weren't any, go to the white guesthouse around the corner.

& so the cat parked itself by the roadside, passing time & attracting quite a bit of attention from locals by making 'friendship bands':


One by one, Mr One-of-the-Songthaew-Drivers, a grandpa from Boten, a shopkeeper, a lady who turned out to be Mrs One-of-the-Songthaew-Drivers, & others came up to talk to the cat, asking to watch the process:


& asking the cat what phao son (ethnic group) did it belong to, where it was from, etc. Apparently many Lao & some farang get the mistaken impression that 'friendship bands' are a traditional craft of some Lao ethnic group that the cat belongs to - one that they have not met before! =P Six days later the cat did the same thing on the boat from Pak Beng to Huay Xai, & ended up photographed by some farang tourists, & surrounded by a bunch of curious Hmong wanting to examine the threads.

The cat has no idea where 'friendship bands' originated from, it learnt the ropes (strings rather) from its best friend in primary school. They are far lighter to carry than books, great for passing time on buses & boats, useful for breaking the ice with locals (especially women), & can be given as gifts to people one meets along the way =)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

241206 Muang Khua to Udomxai

Yesterday's route in grey, today's route in blue:

Plan was to continue down the Nam Ou from Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw. However it was a Sunday & the whole bunch of boatmen concurred it was unlikely that there would be (m)any locals heading downriver, & no one had seen any other tourists in town. Their advice was not to wait a day nor to charter a boat for USD100 (way beyond the cat's budget!), but to take the bus to Udomxai & then Pak Mong, & find a connection to Nong Khiaw. & so the cat found itself at Muang Khua bus station:


One of the reasons why there are no female bus drivers in Lao?


European & American colleagues have asked the cat why Chinese, Lao, Thai, etc consider it taboo for women to sit or stand above men, & the cat cannot think of any scientific explanation for its fellow scientists...well it's 18 years of scientific training versus 27 years of living in cultures where older relatives (especially gamblers) cry murder should ladies undergarments ever be placed such that men might have the 'misfortune' of walking beneath them. In the Thai-Chinese households that the cat has lived in, even placing them in the same laundry basket together with men's clothing was a crime! *scratch head...with hindpaw*

For the 'import' & 'export' of humans & other stuff from Muang Khua:


Red sign with white letters below has a better translation for 'khao' & 'ork' (arrival & departure) =P What does 'bpor. kor. sor.' (three red letters at upper left) stand for? Cat guess is that the last two letters are short for 'kaan song' (delivery).

A bunch of locals came running after the bus, hoping for a ride back to their village not far out of town. Smiles all around as Mr Bus Driver declined to accept any payment from them =) The road from Muang Khua to Pak Nam Noi & Udomxai is paved & in pretty good condition, & we pulled into Udomxai bus station 28,000kip poorer & about 2 hours later at a little past 11:00AM, only to find that the 12:00PM transport to Pak Mong had already left as it was full. The next songthaew for Pak Mong would leave only at 14:00PM.

& so the cat found itself back in the company of the same bamboo sticky rice & doughnut sellers who had kept the cat company as it waited for the Phongsaly bus a few days earlier. Seller #1 rested her head on the cat's backpack, hugging the entire pack & using the rolled up sleeping bag as her pillow. She drifted off into the slumberland where many Lao spend their lunchtime in, where she might meet seller #2, who was napping right beside the cat. With its backpack thus secured, the cat was free to concentrate on writing its journal & wandering around to find lunch =)