Sunday, September 28, 2008

261206 Luang Prabang night market

The sixth precept was broken (by the cat, not by its friend) at a noodle stall across the road from Wat Hosieng. One stove + one cooking pot + two low tables + wooden stools in a little space outside a house. A few farang ladies were having dinner there, not sure if they were solo travellers - they sat apart & kept to themselves. For them the tables were just too low - when seated their knees came up to table height. Just as the cook took a break & disappeared into the house, two of the farangs tried to pay the cat for their dinner, not realising that it was a fellow customer & not the noodle stall owner. If this carries on the cat's going to earn $$$ plus free meals simply by eating out in Laos :P

The Luang Prabang night market, where the cat bumped into Mr Belgian 2 again =)


This market was a much more pleasant experience than the Chiangmai one. The students in English class #1 were right - the Lao sinh sold in this market were all tailored to fit larger-sized Westerners. The stallholders themselves also told the cat to go to Talat Phousi to 'dtat sinh' (lit. 'cut skirt') - some of their wares were so huge that adding shoulder straps would turn them into calf-length dresses for the cat :P

All internet cafes were closed tonight - for some reason all connections were down. News of the Hengchun earthquake that struck Taiwan just after the cat's parents flew off from Taipei finally trickled in via Thai news a day later. Undersea cables were damaged & telecommunications in Asia were disrupted, & the cat would no longer be able to use the StarHub link with Laotel to make/receive calls & SMSes. It would be a full week before most services were back to near normal.

end of day 10 (261206):
noodle soup/pho/feu/khaaw soi eaten to date = 08 bowls

261206 English class #1

The cat didn't have much of a plan for exploring Luang Prabang town, except to adopt the same 'strategy' as it used for exploring Kyoto - to visit a few of the guidebook-listed places at odd hours (e.g. at dawn or during meal times), when most tourists have yet to drag themselves out of bed or are ensconced in restaurants & cafes enjoying lunch or dinner, in order to avoid crowds. Stray cats that dig dustbins for food have highly flexible meal times anyway.

The rest of the time would be spent wandering around 'black holes' - those tempting empty blank spaces in guidebook maps, or areas totally left out of the maps - & just allowing the town to show itself to the cat...things will always happen if you just allow yourself to notice them, & one thing will always lead to another...& the cat ended up having too much to do & forgetting at least one meal per day!

After attending the evening chanting session, the cat was asked to join new friends at the nearby Pasarinda College for evening classes:

(Photo taken the next morning)

The cat isn't even sure if the class it ended up teaching that night was part of Pasarinda College, or merely using the premises - classroom space seems to be in tight supply, with Souphanouvong University being housed in an old rundown secondary school, & even Luang Prabang Primary School morphing into Manivanh College on weekends.

Outside the building, there was a guy sitting at a desk in the dark collecting money & issuing what seemed like receipts (or even tickets) to students - seemed like a pay-per-lesson operation, & a lot like the 'box office' of some outdoor movie screening event (think 'Starlight Cinema'). With the only lighting coming from within the classrooms, the backlit figures of students streaming in, parking their bicycles, crowding around to make payment & milling about in the darkness seemed rather surreal. The cat was asked for its receipt/ticket as it followed one of the friends past the desk, but got past after the friend had a quick word with Mr. Box Office.

A young girl made space for the cat to sit beside her, introduced herself thinking that she was welcoming a new classmate, & seeing that the cat had no textbook, offered to share hers :) This was the cat's first encounter with the New Interchange series of English textbooks. The cat had gone through a secondary school & junior college that didn't use any textbooks for English lessons. This was also the cat's first encounter with what seems like the Lao student's penchant for posing with dictionaries & textbooks:


Whenever students see the camera, they'll ask the cat to wait while they grab hold of the familiar green English-Lao dictionary (e.g. two guys in front plus guy in brown at back, above) or New Interchange textbook (girl in orange jacket, above) & pose with it, some even taking care to hold it open, as if asked to be a model for a photoshoot for some textbook advertisement. Perhaps not so surprising given that textbooks are still a luxury for many in this country.

Not all students appear in the above photos - there were others crowding around & leaning in through the windows & door to the left. To get your money's worth, you arrive early before your class for the chance to listen in on classes before yours, like what one of the friends had done.

The teacher was a rather interesting character, who absolutely loves preening & posing for the camera & teasing two of the prettiest girls in the class. Today's topic was 'Talk about the Lao National New Year':


The students were asked to speak about their plans for celebrating the public holiday on 1st January, termed the 'National New Year' to distinguish it from Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year celebrated in mid-April). The typical answer from the guys - when they could actually be coaxed into speaking at all - was, 'I will stay home. & sleep. Because I don't have girlfriend.'

For one guy it was, 'because I don't have any friends'.

For Mr. Teacher, the students thought it was, 'because Teacher don't have boyfriend' (the class thinks he's gay because of his totally camp behaviour).

Mr. Teacher wrote all questions & answers on the whiteboard, & the students strained their eyes to make out his writing from the blue splotches on the whiteboard & religiously copied everything word for word into their notebooks, regardless of whether it was grammatically correct (Mr. Teacher was confused by things like the use of 'will' vs. 'would'), & even if 'I don't know what the teacher is talking'.

From time to time Mr. Teacher would ask the cat if what he wrote was correct, putting it in a spot - do you point out mistakes & risk making the teacher 'lose face' in front of all his students...or let the whole class parrot grammatically incorrect sentences (knowing how many of the students have scrimped & saved in order to attend English classes)? The cat ended up telling him, 'it's OK, but [corrected version] sounds better', & he would beam, make the necessary changes to his writing, & then stand back looking very pleased with himself - no one had said that he was wrong ;) Thirteen erasers & pens/pencils would then make similar changes to the writing in 13 notebooks. The friend who attended this class would later tell the cat that they knew that this teacher wasn't the best, but this was the most affordable class for them.

Out of the blue, Mr. Teacher then pounced on the cat & asked it to take over the class for conversation practice. This was when the girls finally started speaking up. By the end of the class, the students had offered the cat a whole list of suggestions for things to do & see in Luang Prabang, told the cat that climbing Phou Si hill was easy (one of them climbs it daily on his way to school as a form of exercise because he wants to 'look good', growing fat is 'not handsome'), & that the best way & place to buy Lao sinh (skirt) was to get them tailored at Talat Phousi.

Only after this class did the cat realise that it hadn't had lunch nor dinner yet. The friend who walked the cat (nope, not on a leash) back to the back entrance of Wat Mahathat was stunned that the cat had inadvertently 'observed the sixth precept' :P

Saturday, September 27, 2008

261206 Evening in Wat Hosieng

A cat that wandered into this temple to take photos of the khom dao lanterns made for last October's Boun Lai Heua Fai found itself quickly surrounded by all of the residents, minus those who had just returned from afternoon session at school & were still bathing. According to the residents, few tourists wander in here. Most of those who do are Westerners, who barely give a passing glance as they make a beeline for the Lonely Planet-ed Wat Mahathat next door. Hence the residents' curiosity about the cat.

Some residents were in full robes, some in just angsa (one-shouldered 'vest') & sabong (sarong), some in only their sabong or phaa aap naam (bathing cloth)...something the cat had never before encountered up close in wat baan ('urban area' temples, as opposed to wat bpaa 'forest temples') outside of Laos. It had also never before encountered such a young average age of residents in temples outside of Laos, nor temples where novices far outnumbered full monks, except during Thai school vacations when some temples hold mass novice ordinations.

Conversation started off in Lao, & quickly switched to Thai, & then as the cat's miserable Thai vocabulary sputtered out *BINGO* - this cat could speak English! They lit up. Opportunities to test their spoken English on tourists didn't come by as easily as for their counterparts in travel guidebook-highlighted temples that see far heavier visitor traffic. There was no escape - they'd already sussed out that the cat 'ja phak yuu Luang Prabang sii kheun' (was going to spend four nights in Luang Prabang). Smart guys. Fine, the cat wasn't going to let them get away without teaching it some Lao!

Many of the residents frequent My Library (click here for someone else's video) located somewhere behind the temple (in process of moving to new location as of early 2008). Run by The Language Project, it loans out cameras, so a few of them are pretty handy with digital cameras & the cat had no qualms about them handling its little Olympus. Interesting to see their world from their point of view & find out what matters enough to them for them to want to photograph it. They find themselves constantly in the crosshairs of the viewfinders & LCD displays of cameras & videocameras aimed at them by tourists, fun to have the tables turned & roles reversed for a change.

One of their living quarters, & three & a half of their wat-mates:


Many of the mini stupas are not perfectly straight, like the extreme example on the right (above). Likewise for the multi-tiered umbrella' finial atop many stupas, many appear to be deliberately bent. Don't know if it's due to lack of plumblines or some belief that it is rude to 'point' directly at heaven?

Some of their laundry - bedsheet-sized jiworn (outer robe) & sabong, & yellow ochre thin strip on the right that is the belt - & half of their friend:


Just before 5.30PM, whoever's on duty strikes the temple bell, & (almost) everyone assembles for the daily evening chanting. Waiting for stragglers:


Odd one out with a freshly-shaven pate - his last day as a novice, 'upasampada' ('higher' ordination as full monk) tomorrow:


White building in the background is the abbot's kuti (monk's quarters), & the tuktuk belongs to his cousin. In his early 30s, he's the youngest abbot the cat knows of, even though at least one other Luang Prabang temple had an even younger abbot (younger than the cat!) at the time of the cat's visit.

The closest they got to belling the cat - venue for Lao language classes for the cat right beside the temple bell over the next few days:


The cat had planned to do the tourist thing & catch sunset from atop Phou Si hill, but the monks & novices of Wat Hosieng had different plans for it - evening chanting. Didn't matter that Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sanma Sambud Tassa in the Lao transliteration of Pali comes out of the cat's mouth as Nanwu Dasha Bajiawaduo Alahaduo Sanma Sanbu Dasha in the Chinese transliteration of Sanskrit...same same but different ;)

Hence the Luang Prabang version of naga fireballs, or sunset as seen from Wat Hosieng instead of Phou Si: