Tuesday, December 30, 2008

281206 English class #2 - part 1

Earlier in the day, Mr OD had caught hold of the cat as it returned to the guesthouse from Talat Phousi. He'd majored in English at the National University of Laos (NUOL) in Vientiane, & taught English at a private college in the evenings after finishing his day job at Vanvisa & Villa Lane Xang. Would the cat come to his class tonight?

The cat had never heard of that college before & had no idea where it was. Its Lao teachers didn't think it a good idea for the cat to go off on some strange guy's motorbike at night to what-might-turn-out-to-be-destination-unknown. Lao girls don't do that. Neither should Lao-looking non-Lao girls, in their opinion. Discussion ensued, during which the cat realised that they were rather clueless at reading maps & figuring out directions despite having covered 4-5 years worth of secondary & high school Geography classes. Things straightened out after the cat scratched out a rough map with a stick on a blank canvas of sandy ground. At the end of it they stuck fast to their pre-discussion decision that stocky novice & Monk Tata Young-fan would walk the cat to the college that evening. Forget Mr OD's motorbike.

All photos without humans taken during 2008 visit.

Lovanh College turned out to be a double-storeyed bungalow less than 3 blocks away in Ban Viengkeo:


The college used to be located further away, but moved here when previous lease expired. Current location is a little too small, hence the additional classroom built at the back in the space that would usually serve as the outdoor kitchen area in Southeast Asian homes:


Which was the very classroom Mr OD's class was held in. This being an evening class, there were a few working adults in addition to the requisite novice monk (every college class in Luang Prabang seems to come equipped with at least one representative of the local sangha). As happens everywhere in schools that have a 'free seating policy', the front half of the class was occupied by the keener students...if the cat had its way, it'd start off such lessons by asking the front & back halves of the class to swop seats ;)

Souphanouvong University students appeared to make up the bulk of the class, many of whom were from other northern provinces & admitted under the quota system, whereby a certain percentage of university places are reserved for top-scoring high school graduates of every province. It comes with full tuition & board covered by the Lao government, & is aimed at levelling the playing field for students from more remote & less developed areas. The remainder of the university places are for competitive admission under the 'special system' for self-funding students, with separate entrance exams for every faculty. Sounds straightforward, but things are always way more complicated than meets the eye. Even in the supposedly meritocratic system that the cat is all too familiar with, there will always be the better-deserving who end up making way for the better-connected & better-off.

Among the Souphanouvong students were a few Business majors, a Maths major, & surprise surprise, English majors - what on earth were English majors from the local university doing in this class? Puzzled cat didn't probe further, but two years later it was to learn about some episode where the English majors were left with no lecturer for almost an entire semester after a Lao staff was dismissed by the South Koreans(*) for corruption...when a replacement was found, the students were made to cram an entire semester's worth of curriculum into the remaining one month of term...

Lao people are very shy...or so the cat has heard many more times than it can count on all four paws plus all whiskers. This went straight out of the window, or rather the gaps between the wooden slats (see above photo). The floor was thrown open & time flew by once Novice Phongsaly #2 got the ball rolling...& rolling & rolling - he spoke pretty well but had no pause/stop button! The difficulty was more of ensuring that everyone had a chance to speak & that the cheekier guys didn't reveal anything too scandalous (by Lao standards) about their female classmates under the pretext of practising their spoken English :P

All students were given the option of writing down anything they wanted to say & double-checking with Mr OD for any glaring bloopers - this way the usual excuses of keeping quiet for fear of blanking out mid-sentence or saying the wrong thing were naught. Those who resorted to this usually mustered enough confidence to speak/question off-the-cuff after one or two written sentences/questions.

Another strategy was to get them to speak on topics most familiar to them (family, village, aspects of everyday Lao life, etc), where it is difficult to come up with a 'wrong answer'. Those from Western(ised) societies are so accustomed to MAKING THEMSELVES HEARD without fear of reprisal, VOICING THEIR OPINIONS is second nature...whereas in Asian societies the further one sits down the hierarchy the more one should be seen but not heard & the more suicidal it can be to say the wrong thing *cue dead silence followed by nervous laughter*...perhaps this is one reason why the 'model answer' country where the cat comes from is sorely lacking in the truly articulate who can distill insightful thought into succint word?

Hard to get everyone in even with the photographer's back against the wall:


Glass of water in foreground was served to the cat. But they made the cat laugh so much it couldn't drink.

Most enthusiastic were the 'quota students' from Houa Phanh & Phongsaly, who also had the dustiest feet - after class they walked back in near darkness to their university dorms. Mr Excuse Me doing the usual textbook advert pose with his holey red gloves:


Once upon a time, this 'quota student' was given the impression that the polite way to begin any sentence in English was with the words 'Excuse me (please)'. The largest book (with green spine) held by him is a typical Lao college textbook - 100% photocopied on A4 paper & stapled together or soft-bound. A laomeow consultant uses a stack of such 10,000kip texts for Law school at NUOL. Earlier this morning, the cat had seen the red New Interchange textbook for sale at Talat Phousi.

to be continued...

* The construction of the new Souphanouvong campus was funded by South Korea; Lao academics were also brought over to Korean universities for training & Korean staff sent over to Luang Prabang to get things up & running.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

281206 brown = sii sooker

On the cat's last two afternoons in Luang Prabang, it attended Lao classes taught by many more teachers than it expected. Even in the Oxford tutorial system or Cambridge supervision system, one would never get to enjoy a 10-odd:1 teacher to student ratio, what more with zero tuition fees. The curriculum took a comparative approach (similarities/differences between Lao & Thai equivalents) & was custom-built upon the cat's rudimentary Thai vocabulary. Some of it was rather straightforward:

day before yesterday = meu korn [LA] vs. (meua) waan seun (nii) [TH]
yesterday = meu(a) waan nii [LA] vs. meua waan (nii)/wan waan [TH]
today = meu nii [LA] vs. wan nii [TH]
tomorrow = meu eun [LA] vs. phrung nii [TH]
day after tomorrow = meu heu [LA] vs. mareun(nii) [TH]

Sometimes a little linguistic gymnastics was required:

red = sii daeng [LA, TH]
orange = sii som [LA, TH]
yellow = sii leuang [LA, TH]
green = sii khiao [LA, TH]
blue = sii faa [LA] vs. sii naam ngoen [TH]
purple = sii muang [LA, TH]
white = sii khaao [LA, TH]
pink = sii somphuu [LA] vs. sii chomphuu [TH] (lit. colour of jambu air)
grey = sii thao [LA, TH]
brown = ...

Sii sooker says Monk Tata Young-fan.
Cat writes down 'sii sooker'.
Whole bunch of teachers peer at cat's writing.
No, no, sii sooker.
Erm that's exactly what the cat wrote?
NO, sooooo-khaaaa.
*scratch head*
meuan kan kap phaasaa thai (it's the same as Thai)!! sookha SOOKHA!
Isn't 'sukhaa' (สุขา) a polite term for toilet in Thai?!
You don't know how to write in English? EHS-YOU-JII-

(brown = sii naam dtaan aka. 'colour of sugar' in Lao & Thai)

Come think of it, brown is indeed a colour associated with (filthy) toilets. When we were all able to breathe again after recovering from the mass laughing fit, the cat taught its teachers how to pronounce SHOO-GER. Interestingly, most of the Lao the cat has met have no trouble pronouncing 'sh', unlike most Thais who tend to morph it into 'ch' instead, & love to spend their free time 'chopping' for 'choo' (perhaps they buy only Jimmy Choos) & watching 'cho' at movie theatres. The 'shr' phonetic is way beyond some - can be a little freakish when a Thai tells you that tom yam kung contains 'chimps'.

On the other hand, the removal of the 'ch' consonant from the Lao alphabet means that many younger generation Lao have trouble pronouncing it, morphing 'ch' in any other language into 'sh'. Hence 'do you want share?' when offering you a chair, 'the price is sheep' when the currency is kip, & the rather alarming 'I shat on MSN & Yahoo messenger' & 'he shit in exam for high school'. This also makes it harder for Lao to figure out the difference between 'ch' & 'q' when learning Chinese. The absence of the 'r' consonant in the Lao alphabet gives rise to the tendency to replace 'r' with 'l' or simply ignore it, resulting in car clashes involving bad divers, painting walls with blush, clothes dying in the sun, & monks who play Buddha every morning & evening (Laoglish grammar tends to omit prepositions like 'to').

The French influence on Laos shows up in English too - whatever's spelt with 'ou' in English & Chinese ends up being pronounced as 'oo' instead, & Big Brother Mouse sprouts antlers to become Big Brother Moose...books for Canadian kids? Most of the Lao whom the cat has met (all from upper north except for one) can distiguish between 'v' & 'w' (listening only), & even pronounce the difference between 'x' & 's', despite the fact that the cat's Lao-English dictionary does not list 'x' or 'v' as consonants (the 'x' for elephant is transliterated as 's'). Much easier to teach Lao how to pronounce 'thank you' in Chinese than to teach Americans & Europeans (who tend to morph the 'x' into 'z').

Despite this afternoon's Lao lesson, the cat was still ill-prepared for the next test of Lao language it faced upon returning to Vanvisa Guess-how (final consonant 's' & consonant cluster 'st' do not exist in Lao)...

Younger female staff converge on cat.
Animated discussion in Lao.
Ask it, ask it, it understands some Thai.
Madame Vandara (English-speaking owner) bor yuu (not in)?
Mr OD (sole English-speaking employee) not in either...
Staff grabs cat's paw & leads it upstairs.
English-speaking falang lady emerges from room next to the cat's.
Missing what?
Cat has no idea what bras are called in Lao. Not exactly the kinda vocabulary monks like Tata Young-fan would ever think of teaching it.
Oh good the Lao ladies understand 'seua chan nai' (Thai term for undergarment).
Erm sii muang is purple but no idea what lavender or lilac is called in Lao or Thai.
Madame Vandara's textile collection downstairs!
Point out exact shade from pile of folded silk scarves.
Staff hunt for falang's lavender seua chan nai in guest laundry :)

For the record, lavender = sii muang orn...the same 'orn' (in 'orn bpanyaa' lit. weak wisdom/intellect) used to scold people 'dumb' or 'stupid' :P

Thursday, December 25, 2008

281206 the quiet in the land

The former Royal Palace, now used as the National Museum:


Elsewhere on the grounds directly across from Hor Prabang, a huge statue of the last king ever crowned, King Sisangvangvong:


Behind him is the former Winter Palace that now houses the Royal Ballet Theatre.

ຊ້າງສາມຫົວ xang saam hua (lit. elephant three head) under a parasol,
the symbol of the former kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao (lit. million elephants umbrella white)...


...with each head of Erawan representing the former kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane & Champasak...


...now eclipsed by the national flag of the Lao People's Democratic Republic:


This was the closest the cat ever made it into the museum. Instead, while hunting for the loo, it stumbled upon this...


...& ended up entering the former palace from the back...


...& spent hours viewing these works on display for the exhibition entitled The Quiet in the Land. In an adjacent building, there was more...


...a series of photos documenting the first two years (2004 & 2005) when vipassana medition training was reintroduced for the Luang Prabang sangha & held at Wat Pa Phon Pao, with support from the lay people of Ban Phanom:


It has since become an annual 10-day retreat for final year (Matthayom 6) monk & novice students of the Buddhist high school in Luang Prabang. The cat didn't manage to finish browsing through all the exhibits before the 4PM closing time, & would return the next day - this was one of the highlights of the cat's visit to Luang Prabang.

The exhibition also featured two documentary films. All That's Solid Melts into Air (Karl Marx) by Vong Phaophanit & Claire Oboussier was a collection of all sorts of little details of the sights & sounds of Luang Prabang town - interesting enough for the cat to watch twice. On the other hand, A Short Film for Laos by Allan Sekula started off cryptically with some cowboy western scene (?! *scratch head*), followed by the removal of a drainage tube from someone's (Sekula's?) leg post-surgery (??!!), before abruptly switching to a Lao man in Tham Piew describing (scroll to 1:38 in this video) how on 24th November 1968, almost 400 Lao civilians sheltering from American bombing raids on civilian targets during the second Indochina war (aka. Vietnam war) were obliterated when two of the four missiles launched at the cave found their target (according to the official Lao version of history). The film then moved on to cover the Plain of Jars (also in Xieng Khouang province like Tham Piew) & the blacksmiths of Ban Had Hian, a village near Luang Prabang airport. Most of the few visitors who'd stumbled upon this exhibition walked out of the tiny screening room moments after entering, & the museum staff keeping watch in a corner did his job in his dreams :P

Museum cat happily dozing in the quiet of the land that is Laos - also a member of the museum staff?


281206 cutting skirts

After wandering around the previous day, the cat was a lot more familiar with the layout of the big fat Talat Phousi. The part that appears in this photo shelters mostly clothing stalls, & the middle section with the lower roof has the higher end stalls nearer to the entrance that sell the fanciest Lao outfits made from better quality silk that locals splurge on for weddings. More pocket-friendly Lao sinh (skirts) are found in the left section, which was where the cat was headed:


Stalls selling school uniforms, watches, electronics, textbooks, dictionaries & other books are also found in this front section. The right-most part of this front section has a stall or two dealing in ready-made Hmong traditional outfits including various sizes of headgear & materials for DIY embellishment, & somewhere to the left (& outside) of that photo is a row of shops dealing in big fat items like satellite dishes. Interesting how satellite dishes are sold so freely & found sprouting from the humblest of bamboo-&-wood huts in rural villages in a communist country...when in Singapore ordinary citizens are not permitted to own any, & foreign embassies, etc have to fork out the equivalent of 6.5 million kip per year for a permit, per dish.

Behind this front section are the stalls selling dry goods such as toiletries, & behind them are more stalls selling edible dry goods such as packaged food (instant noodles, biscuits & the like), dried fish, spices, kheua/mai sa khan (spicy wood of Piper ribesioides), khai phaen & uncooked rice. Right at the back, both sheltered & in the open, is the 'wet market' section with stuff like vegetables, banana flowers, fish barely swimming in tubs of water & freshly butchered meat.

The cat's loot - lightweight, practical souvenirs that can be folded & flat-packed like IKEA goods:


Lao sinh are usually sold with a matching hem piece (ຕີນ dtiin, lit. foot) tacked on for display:


Stalls usually have plenty of loose hem pieces (bottom left of first photo in this post) for customers who want to mix & match their own choice of cloth & hem pieces. The formal/wedding sinh that come as a whole outfit are trickier, since the accompanying scarf can be of a pattern identical/similar to that of the hem piece. There are also types of sinh material that do not come with separate hempiece, like this, this & this. There will usually be a sewing machine within the stall for on-the-spot tailoring (ຕັດສິ້ນ dtat sin lit. cut skirt), failing which the stall owner will direct customers to a nearby seamstress; both ways, tailoring can be done as quickly as within an afternoon.

This was the cat's first time ever getting clothes tailored. It walked away with three lessons learnt...(1) moneybelts stuffed with baht & kip skew measurements - dumb cat forgot all about its moneybelt & ended up with three sinh that were too loose! (2) specify whether you want the fold in the sinh to be right-over-left or left-over-right - clueless cat ended up with two sinh of the former & one sinh (tailored at a different stall) of the latter (3) specify whether you want a lining, usually made using thin black cloth, to prevent supplementary weft threads on the inside of the sinh from running & becoming worn by friction - ignorant cat ended up with one sinh with lining & two without.

The fold in the sinh means that if the cloth is not long enough for larger girths, it can be extended by sewing on a narrow panel of cloth (usually cheap black material) such that it will be hidden within the fold when the sinh is worn...something noticed while looking at the falang-sized sinh sold in the Luang Prabang night market. For the record, the cheapest sinh (25-28,000kip) are black or blue cotton with white hem pieces aka. the school uniform for Lao girls, but one has to be cat size or smaller to fit into them :P

Most Lao women appear to opt for darker shades for everyday wear (more practical since dirt doesn't show up that easily), & the prettier jewel colours for special occasions. Guess that might explain why the bright colours tend to be of higher quality & more expensive material? The cat hunted high & low for a nice shade of green but all it could find were dull muted dark greens or light olive shades that look too much like the uniforms of Lao women soldiers & policewomen respectively...it would eventually hit paydirt in Huayxai market just before leaving Laos.

Receipts given to the cat were handwritten on small slips of paper torn from old desk diaries or sheets of A4 paper that had already been used on one side. Nice to see recycling in practice but not so nice to realise how those big fat rolls of paper inserted into cash registers, electronic payment terminals & ATMs to churn out mountains of receipts & transaction records - both merchant & customer copies - in more developed countries are so taken for granted. Looking at the squiggles on the receipts, the cat wondered how long it takes one to learn how to distiguish neat & beautiful from messy & illegible handwriting in a totally foreign language...

281206 flying catfood & rice-eating vehicles

On its way down Phou Si, the cat met locals trying to sell it still fresh & tweeting pre-packaged convenience catfood for lunch...

Many Buddhists believe that one can gain merit through the supposedly compassionate act of releasing flying catfood from cages to the skies & swimming catfood from plastic bags into ponds & rivers. However, merit through 放生 (fang4 sheng4) is supposed to be derived from saving the lives of animals that are facing imminent death (e.g. fish trapped in a pond that is drying up & birds snared for slaughter - see this story - & livestock bound for the abattoir)...rather than animals that have been captured specifically for the purpose of sale & release, leading to the perpetuation of a prolonged cycle of capture-release-capture-release-capture punctuated by spells of imprisonment. See here for a whole debate on the Phou Si catfood sellers.

Vehicles do have sticky rice-chomping ຂວັນ khouan (souls/spirits):


For man-maid:


Because the cat has to try every strange flavour of green tea:


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

281206 Phou Si redux

Up to the top of Phou Si again, since Mr Ticket Seller had stamped yesterday's admission ticket with today's date. The cat decided to skip this route that goes via Wat Thammo Thayaram...

PC280121 PC280121a

...& ascend by a path between some wooden houses further southwest. Two years later the cat would discover that its chosen path lies somewhere near the site of Wat Pa Meo (lit. temple forest cats), one of the 12(*) temples on the slopes of Phou Si, of which only five are still extant. Wat Pa Meo supposedly got its name because 'villagers use to leave their cats over there'...

Paintings drying on shrubs outside someone's kuti:


Phommathat Rd - still hazy, but clearer views than the previous evening:


During this 2006 visit, Talat Dala was being rebuilt, & the province hospital had already been shifted out of the old site diagonally across from Talat Dala to Chinese-built premises south of town:

Click here to see full size image

During the 2008 visit, Talat Dala had been completed & reopened, & the old province hospital was being converted by Aman Resorts into yet another luxury hotel. The latter development was mentioned in a not exactly favourable manner in the 2007 report of the UNESCO WHC-ICOMOS reactive monitoring mission to the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site, which has this to say about the ongoing Disneyfication & gentrification:

At present, however, unprecedented pressure from development is posing new strains on the site which the existing conservation system appears unable to counter effectively. If the Lao traditional heritage, in particular, continues its steady decline, the Town of Luang Prabang is heading towards a situation that would justify World Heritage in Danger listing...

Illegal constructions and rapid land use conversion represent a growing threat to Luang Prabang’s significant intangible cultural heritage and to the spirit of the place (genius loci)...With the movement of local residents out into more peripheral areas and their replacement by tourists and commercial entrepreneurs, the continuity of attachment to place will be lost...

Gentrification by expatriate Europeans or by the Lao themselves may save the physical fabric, but it tends to work against maintenance of the intangible heritage, except in highly commercialised forms such as fine arts, exotic crafts and tourism performances.

(How the cat wishes there was some big-fat-clout organisation to knock this into the Singapore government for what they have done to sterilise + ruin places like Chinatown in the name of tourism.)

During its 2008 visit, the cat also discovered that its favourite roadside khao piak khao (porridge) + pathongko (fried dough fritters) breakfast place had disappeared - the house in front of which it sprouted up every morning had been torn down & was being rebuilt. Too tired to hunt it down, it turned to the busy place opposite Talat Dala that does the same thing (for double the price).


The multi-storey Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel sticks heads & shoulders above the surrounding buildings & trees in the World Heritage conservation zone:

Click here to see full size image

Chomphet district on the opposite bank of the Nam Khong:

Click here to see full size image

In 2008 the governor of Luang Prabang would sign an MOU for a USD2 billion project (article source: Vientiane Times 231008) by Korean & Lao investors to transform Chomphet district into Diamond City, a new town with shopping malls, resorts, business service centres, a 36 hole golf course & a stock exchange on 3000ha of land to be leased for 50 years (extendable for an additional 20 years), & also a bridge across the Nam Khong to link up with Luang Prabang town. Prior to this, there were also plans to build such a bridge to connect the town to a proposed new airport in Chomphet district to be built by Chinese investors. So much for the 2007 UNESCO WHC-ICOMOS reactive monitoring mission report, which states that:

It is now urgent to revise the town’s urban plan and, as part of that, to identify a buffer zone to prevent inappropriate development that would negatively impinge upon the characteristics of the historic urban landscape. In the meantime, a stop should be put to...the development of a new town on the right bank of the Mekong...

A moratorium should be imposed immediately on major projects impacting on the OUV (Outstanding Universal Value) as outlined particularly in Section 4 above, and will extend until completion of the revised Urban Plan. This will include the new town in the Chompeth valley on the Mekong right bank...

Timeline: Immediate imposition of moratorium and notification of such to the World Heritage Committee by 1 March 2009.

Wat Mai:


Royal Palace museum:


Whether khon Lao & falang alike will continue to enjoy these views from Phou Si depends on whether these protective measures put forth in the report will ever materialise, & be effectively enforced:

(a) Chompeth valley – protection of agricultural activities; maintenance of
drainage systems; density and height control restrictions on any new buildings;
(b) Mekong downstream – protection of vista along river banks and up to crest of visible mountains;
(c) Wetlands – protection of agricultural activities and vegetation; any further residential development to be low density and low rise;
(d) Nam Khan valley and mountains – protection of sweeping vista from Phousi along the Nam Khan to the crest of mountains; restrictions might be limited to height control and preservation of vegetation cover.


(*) Twelve temples on the slopes of Phou Si:
  1. ວັດຊຽງງາມ Wat Xieng Ngam aka. ວັດປ່າຝາງ Wat Pa Fang
  2. ວັດປ່າແຄ Wat Pa Khae aka. ວັດສີພູດທະບາດເຫນືອ Wat Siphoutthabat Neua
  3. ວັດປ່າຣວກ Wat Pa Houak
  4. ວັດທັມໂມ Wat Thammo
  5. ວັດຈອມສີ Wat Chom Si
  6. ວັດສາວຫລຽວ Wat Sao Liao (gone)
  7. ວັດປ່າທຽບ Wat Pa Thiap (gone)
  8. ວັດທ້າຍພູ Wat Thay Phou (gone)
  9. ວັດຫໍຄ່ວງ Wat Ho Khouang (gone)
  10. ວັດທາດເນີ້ງ Wat That Noeng (gone)
  11. ວັດຂາມລ່ຽມ Wat Kham Liam (gone)
  12. ວັດປ່າແມວ Wat Pa Meo (gone)
The viharn of #1 was used as the library of the Buddhist high school in #2 & has since been converted into a classroom; #3 is directly opposite the Royal Palace museum entrance gates; site of #7 is now a huge Bodhi tree planted to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Gautama Buddha, up the stairs from #3; the cat suspects that site of #8 is around the former residence of the French governor, & that of #10 is somewhere around the Children's Cultural Centre & National Library, opposite Phousy Hotel.

281206 Nam Khan

Looking across to the Ban Phanluang side of the Nam Khan:


Kataw (sepak takraw) court marked out on the riverbank, with the typical Lao-style kataw court floodlight - a long fluorescent light tube or two mounted on a wooden post standing at the midpoint of the sidelines, with a piece of corrugated zinc sheeting to shelter the light tube from rain:


Guess it's for dry season use only, as the Nam Khan floods well above that level. Every dry season, a bamboo footbridge is built over the Nam Khan as a shortcut to town for residents living on the other bank, & is swept away when the rainy season arrives.


Prized fighting cockerels:


An all-in-one larder + laundry tub + playground + bathroom + irrigation source + swimming pool:


281206 Wat Saen - red Buddha & nescafe broom

Incomplete - the monk who was making it decided to return to lay life:


Nescafe broom:


Lotus hideout:


Anyone knows who the lady at below left is?


Resembles the rice goddess แม่โพสพ Mae Phosop, but she isn't holding a sheaf of rice plants...& also looks like the Beckoning Lady นางกวัก Nang Kwak, but she doesn't have one hand raised in maneki-neko style to attract fortune...

At the base of a bamboo pole holding up a long banner: