Wednesday, December 26, 2007

261206 Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang bus

Previous 2 days' route in grey, today's route in blue:


Together with three of the Sunset Guesthouse kids, Mr Belgian 2 & the cat made their way through the thick fog & across the bridge, the kids on their way to school, & us to catch the morning bus (32,000kip, approx 3h) to Luang Prabang.

There are always parts that used to work a long time ago, & holes where there used to be parts a long time ago:


The cat cannot recall seeing any of the speedometer or fuel tank gauge needles it saw in on Lao buses ever moving beyond zero. Front seat passengers must take care not to let their legs interfere with vehicle function:


The upper left part (above) is always functioning. When resources are limited, the Lao have to prioritise, & a constant source of mor lam music must never be compromised ;)

Vehicle insurance in the form of white baci string tied around the steering wheel:


& photostated copies of 'yan' (ยันต์ charm/spell diagrams, from the Sanskrit word yantra?) stuck above the windscreen:


Anyone who wants the original size version of these images to print out for their own vehicles, feel free to contact the cat ;)

Such 'designs' also appear in tattoos, on 'seua yan' (เสื้อยันต์) shirts worn by Lanna men in ancient times for protection in battle & during hunting, Lanna 'phaa yan' (ผ้ายันต์) cloth talismans, & on mulberry paper that is rolled around the wick of beeswax 'thien yan' (เทียนผ้ายันต์) candles that Lanna people burnt when they needed 'supernatural' help.

To ensure coverage from all possible angles, an Assurance General du Laos decal on the windshield behind the rearview mirror:


Throughout its two weeks in northern Laos, public transport never failed to get the cat to its destination, & at an average speed comparable to that of public buses in Singapore - strange but true.

Along the way, part of the route ran alongside a beautiful stretch of the Nam Ou. At some point the bus was stopped at some sort of barrier, & the driver had to hand over some kip to a bunch of uniformed guys (no idea for what). As the bus drew closer to Luang Prabang, the distances separating individual villages decreased as the scale of the Hmong New Year celebrations we passed by increased. Not long after the turn-off to the construction site of the Korean-sponsored new campus for Souphanouvong University (presently housed in an old secondary school in Luang Prabang), the bus pulled into the northern bus station.

The cat had arrived in Luang Prabang...exactly one year before this travelog post would be written =P

251206 Silent Night in Nong Khiaw - part 3

As a Christmas special, Mr Sunset Guesthouse got the boys to serve all diners complimentary salads of lettuce, boiled egg, tomato, cucumber, onion & other greens that the cat couldn't really make out in the candlelight =) We invited him to join us, but he was busy trying to fix something under the light of his headlamp.

Meanwhile, the cat discovered that none of the boys & girls working in the guesthouse were his had earlier assumed that they were, based on how it had observed him treating them. According to Mr Belgian 2, they were from nearby village(s). The kids (in their early to mid-teens) walk/cycle across the bridge to get to school on the opposite side of the river, & return after school to work in the guesthouse. The boys have been helping to build the new bungalows, but also help out in the kitchen & with babysitting Mr Sunset Guesthouse's toddler. All have picked up quite a bit of English & French & how to cook both Lao & falang food through their work & interaction with guests & their boss. In their free time they do their schoolwork in the restaurant area, sometimes with help from regular guests, & Mr Sunset Guesthouse pays their school fees.

At night, they stay over in the guesthouse, girls sleeping indoors, & boys in the verandah a few steps away from the cat's room...something the cat didn't realise when it had to make its way past what looked like two thick bundles of quilts in the darkness - the puzzled cat didn't recall seeing that many cushions or any quilts there earlier in the day...& definitely not any that moved!! The mystery was solved early the next morning when the cat watched the two bundles wake up...

A girl whom the cat had thought to be the 'eldest daughter' turned out to be a young divorced mother of the baby the cat had seen Mrs Sunset Guesthouse carrying around. Mr Belgian 2 said that giving her the guesthouse job was their way of helping her. Apparently, divorce rates in Laos are pretty high. A laomeow consultant would later tell the cat about a particular village in his province where the majority of the girls are divorced by the time they are in their late teens!

end of day 9 (251206):
noodle soup/pho/feu/khaaw soi eaten to date = 07 bowls

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

251206 Silent Night in Nong Khiaw - part 2

As for Mr Belgian 2's second statement, that 'Khmer men only want money - money money money'...the cat came across this blog post that quotes from one of Dr Meas Nee's books:

Meas Nee, a Cambodian teacher and activist who lived through the genocide, has written one of the few (the only one that I have been able to get my hands on) accounts of reconstruction and development from the perspective of Cambodian villagers of which he himself was one. In "Towards Restoring Life in Cambodian Villages" he writes:

"Even though we all say that we want to empower the people to be self-reliant, sometimes the work in the village begins with a westerner coming in with the Cambodian team. This is not a wise things to do. White skinned people are seen as rich and naturally the villagers hope they can get something. In one village where I work the returnees encourage the village people to ask the westerner for help as westerners in the border camps gave many handouts. The returnees said, 'This should be given free, not as a loan or as food for work. They are rich. They have the power to help.' If a Cambodian goes into a village with a Westerner the people will believe that the Westerner is the boss. This may be something that remains with our people from French colonial times." (p. 52)

Which basically sums up some of what the cat has been told about the long-term advantages of having local NGO leaders/staff (vis a vis the overwhelming presence of foreign aid organisations in certain developing countries), & the efforts of organisations like Village Focus International to 'build local capacity' & train local staff to take over most of the operations...while the barang (Khmer, not Malay meaning) or falang remain in the background handling stuff like fundraising, stepping in only to help with & pass on (usually technical) expertise (e.g. medical/surgical skills, UXO clearance, etc). & this local/foreign division need not necessarily be in terms of nationality - the cat has heard similar sentiments from hilltribe people about having hilltribe-run NGOs (e.g. AFECT) instead of 'city people' deal with their issues.

The best teacher is one who makes him/herself redundant, by teaching students how to teach themselves...likewise the 'ideal' aid organisation is one that eventually makes itself redundant' in a similar way? The above post & others on the same blog are worth a read. The 'colonial mentality' thing still makes itself felt in many ways here in Singapore, another former (British) colony.

251206 Silent Night in Nong Khiaw - part 1

Power lines cut = no electricity = no TV/radio/karaoke to mar the peace on Christmas day, hence the title of this post ;)

Back at Sunset Guesthouse, guests who had been looking forward to the hot showers 'promised' in the guidebook write-up had to contend with bathing in freezing cold water. Such is travelling in Laos - expect the unexpected! For more predictable experiences infrastructure-wise, the cat recommends destinations like Japan or Singapore...but bear in mind that even Singapore has had a few major power failures in recent years ;)

The cat was glad that the 'Ban Apa instinct' - to bathe in the afternoon during the cold season when the sun is still up - had kicked in Ban Boun Tai (Phongsaly province) it'd seen some locals bathing as early as 1:30PM in the afternoon, at a standpipe right next to the bus station.

There must be something about Belgian men & 100% candlelight dinners (no artificial preservative, colouring, or electric source of light added) in Laos...6 days ago when the cat met Mr Belgian 1, he was cooking & eating his dinner by candlelight on the rooftop of Muang Sing Guesthouse. Tonight at Sunset Guesthouse restaurant, Mr Belgian 2, Mr & Mrs French & the cat sat down to enjoy a candlelit Christmas dinner in what might be the most 'puritanical' sense of the word - food was not just eaten, but ordered, prepared, cooked, served & paid for & the dishes washed by the flickering glow of candles as well.

Mr Belgian 2 spends several months a year in Laos & Cambodia, & was pursuing some rural development project (construction of wells in villages, etc) in the latter with his own funds, hoping to make a small difference to this world. He had plenty to tell us about Khmer society & corruption in 'Kampuchea' (been a long time since the cat last heard this name used). He would often lapse into French as Mr & Mrs French didn't understand English really well, but the cat managed to catch bits here & there, which it could piece together with stuff it had heard from Singaporean friends who have been involved in some projects in that country.

The cat has never been to Cambodia before, but the first film it ever watched was The Killing Fields. At that time it was just a toddler sitting on the cinema floor with rats scurrying around, watching images of a guy eating a lizard & plenty of people wearing black carrying guns & killing other people on the big screen. Years later, it read a condensed version of Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey, learnt the expression 'dam doeum kor' (lit. plant a kapok tree), & realised that the author (who shares the same surname as the cat) was the actor who 'ate' the lizard.

Roughly two months from now back in Singapore, through some strange twist of intertwined fate linked to the people it had met in Laos, the cat would meet with Dr Meas Nee, who had lived & worked in the refugee camps on the Thai border during the years when 'being deaf & dumb' was the way to stay out of trouble with the Khmer Rouge & alive.

As Mr Belgian 2 spoke, two statements kept recurring, about how 'Khmer women are very strong' & that 'Khmer men only want money - money money money'. The first statement seemed rather redundant to the cat, because of the kinda society(ies) it was brought up in - isn't that the (traditional) expectation of Asian women? (Strong or not, you just have to be, since when was it a choice? Like it or not, you are the one who has to hold the family together come hell or high water. & if you're not happy with that, well too bad, you were born a woman...& other lofty stuff preached by the older generation...)

Mr Belgian 2 seemed particularly incensed by the use of the terms 'chicken' & 'chicken farm' to refer to female prostitutes & brothels in Cambodia, & the French appeared similarly appalled. The cat grew up with this slang meaning of 'chicken' (in Chinese, Cantonese, various other Chinese dialects, Thai, Bahasa Indonesia, etc) bandied around in daily conversation & on primetime TV & Hong Kong-made movies, along with 'duck' as the slang for the male equivalent. The cat grew up thinking of it as a sort of euphemism. To the Europeans, it was an insult. On the other hand, some Chinese can be intrigued by the Japanese use of the character 妓 (Chinese for prostitute) for the word 芸妓 (geisha), which technically had no such negative connotation. If cultural baggage could be weighed, all of us could go bankrupt from excess baggage charges? ;)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

251206 Nong Khiaw at dusk

Only now did it occur to the cat to try & take a 360 degree view from the bridge:

larger version here

The cat is lousy at such things & knows peaNUTS, cocoNUTS & chestNUTS about all that lighting stuff. It photographs fluorescent mouse & human cells for work, not scenery & people. & it travels with only a simple little but tougher-than-nails Olympus mju300 & no tripod.

Nong Khiaw Riverside Bungalows on the Ban Sop Houn side of the Nam Ou:


The cat had seen an earlier incarnation of their website when the bungalows were still under construction, where there was info & photos of how the bungalows were being built using wood salvaged from traditional homes that were being demolished to make way for concrete versions. Wished they had retained that info on their current website.

On the right is a signboard & the menu of Nong Khiaw Riverside's restaurant:


& behind the menu are logs with rectangular holes that used to be the posts of traditional wooden houses, probably belonging to Nong Khiaw Riverside?

Chill starts to set in as the sun gets lower in the sky:


People head home across the bridge on pick-up trucks, motorbikes, bicycles & foot as the first wisps of mist appear:


As it stood in the middle of the bridge, a pair of French backpackers approached the cat & were both surprised & relieved that it could speak English. They asked if there were guesthouses with hot showers on the Ban Sop Houn that point in time all 3 of us were unaware that the electricity supply to Nong Khiaw (& many other parts of Luang Prabang province) had been cut off in the late afternoon when some powerlines were damaged. No wonder Mr Sunset Guesthouse had been complaining about not being able to charge his mobile phone.

Nong Khiaw sunset:


The Nam Ou turns to molten gold:


Could this pass off as some loch in the Scottish highlands?


Last of the boats head back to shore, engines softly chugging through the silence, the way home lit by flickering lamps:


As the cat walked back to Sunset Guesthouse, Ban Sop Houn was pitch black save for the glow of candles lighting up the grocery store across from the temple. 'Bor mii fai', grinned the grandma at the stall.

251206 afternoon in Sunset Guesthouse restaurant

Sunset Guesthouse as seen from Nong Khiaw boat landing:


On a whim the cat decided to revert back to 'village style' & bathe in the late afternoon when the sun was still out, so that it could warm up & dry long cat fur by basking in the sunshine like all cats do. It sat down in the al fresco section of the Sunset Guesthouse restaurant to catch up on writing its journal, with a view of this:


& this:


Above it was a tamarind tree full of ripe chewy pods:


& around it were pretty plants like this:


& this Euphorbia milii (aka. crown of thorns), which the cat's mum has growing outside the front gate back home:


251206 life by the river - Ban Sop Houn

The cat's favourite side of the river...


Hauling big fat sack-loads of sand:


Did not realise that this shape was a lady taking a break...


...until she started walking again:


Weaving walls out of strips of bamboo:


The rhythm of machete striking hollow bamboo stem is one of the cat's favourite 'village sounds', just like the 'zzzzzt-zzzzzt-zzzzzt' of machete slicing banana trunk to make pig feed. Not sure why they are doing this by the river, maybe the dampness gives the bamboo strips more flexibility & helps prevents them from 'cracking'? Or maybe it's simply the biggest flattest workspace they could find ;)


251206 life by the river - Nong Khiaw


Nong Khiaw boat landing:


You grow your vegetables & sun your laundry by the river...


& build even more boats & wash even more loads of laundry (bottom right) & bathe in it...


251206 Nong Khiaw tourism info centre

KS, who runs this place at the top of the Nong Khiaw boat landing, hanging out with 2 Nong Khiaw guys:


The cat had excused itself to walk away & take this photo (which it would have taken anyway) in order to get away from endless invitations to join a big fat Lao Lao drinking session with not just these 3 guys, but all the rest of the Nong Khiaw boatmen too. It worked, & when the cat stepped back into the verandah they asked it to join them for their evening drinking session instead, if it was free later on.

It was noon, & the wave of backpackers rushing from Muang Ngoi Neua to Luang Prabang had swept through & been carted off by a waiting songthaew. A lone tourist who wanted to do this journey by slow boat had parted with 1 million kip to charter an entire boat & set off. There was nothing else for the boatmen to do but sit on the boat landing steps to drink & play cards & then crash out in the shade.

Efforts by SNV (Netherlands Development Organisation) to develop tourism in the Ngoi & Vieng Kham districts (where PS' village is) of Luang Prabang province, & Houa Phanh province:


Days later in Luang Prabang, the cat would meet some university students from Houa Phanh, & its guesthouse owner would ask it to visit Sam Neua (capital of Houa Phanh) together with her to see some of the best & most intricate weaving that Laos has to offer...this video of Tai Daeng weaving will make you think hard before you bargain with a weaver when buying her work ;) Unfortunately that invitation has to wait till another trip.

There are 2 NBCAs (National Biodiversity Conservation Areas) where Luang Prabang & Houa Phanh provinces meet, Phou Loei & Nam Et, & perhaps some day they will become trekking destinations when places like Muang Sing & Luang Namtha have been 'trekked out'...

The beautiful posters with the Lao National Tourism Authority & SNV logos:


Similar posters sponsored by other NGOs hang in the Muang Sing tourism info centre. Behind this wall is a little room that serves as KS's office. KS had studied in Bangkok & Pattaya & landed this job with his above (Lao) average command of spoken English. There were maps & a bus/songthaew timetable on the wall, info on the Na Meo border crossing to Vietnam, & a big fat pyramidal metal rack with tourist info brochures, the printing of which were sponsored by even more NGOs (save for those that were leaflets advertising hotels & tour companies).

KS spent quite some time showing the cat around & pointing out how much the posters & metal rack & other stuff had cost, as well as the expense involved in transporting the metal rack here from the city...the cat lost track of the number of zeros in the large sums of kip mentioned. An interesting thing is how most Lao the cat has met or overheard tend to use 'sip phaan' instead of 'meun' when saying 10,000 e.g. 'haa sip phaan' instead of 'haa meun' for 50,000.

We laughed over how much easier, faster & cheaper it would have been to craft a 100% rust-proof (albeit not as insect-proof) rack out of bamboo or wood on the spot, & how they had provided him with a desk - but no chair =P Maybe that's a way to make him sit at the verandah & try to attract the attention of passing tourists ;)

A school girl reading about what falangs shouldn't do, as illustrated in the 'Ecotourist dos & don'ts' cartoon poster:


View from KS' workplace:


Sunday, December 16, 2007

251206 Ban Sop Houn temple - 02

Paintings above the main door:


Decoration above the door, called the 'soom bpra dtoo' (ซุ้มประตู arched entrance?), has a seated Buddha:


First time the cat has seen one with a Buddha, & one that is not gold-coloured. Most are gold stucco, with elaborate designs of plants & animals. Cute how the 'rays' of the flame at the top are drawn with stick-like lines.

What happens to the unfaithful in hell:


The adulterous will end up climbing 'dton ngiw' (ต้นงิ้ว), a type of cotton/kapok tree with thorn-covered trunks. If they don't climb high enough they get bitten by savage dogs & speared, but as they climb higher they get attacked by crows & fall down again to the dogs & spears, & the cycle repeats. This type of punishment was featured in the Thai movie 'Hell'.

In the background, people are thrown into 'kratha thongdaeng' (กระทะทองแดง), a cauldron of molten copper:


Something less violent:


A 'hongsa' (หงษ์ or หงส์? hong, usually translated as swan):


More on hongsa here & here - they often appear in temple decorations & Lanna Tai weavings.

One of the two well-fed 'blind' naga at the main entrance:


This was the cat's first encounter with the Lao practice of 'feeding' naga sculptures. Here & in Luang Prabang it would see naga being fed sticky rice, but in Vientiane they get all sorts of stuff including flowers & chocolate wafers!