December 25, 2001

Back in the land of smiles

I didn't want to leave Laos, but my visa expired and I continued a recent
trend of using every form of Lao transport that I hadn't yet used. First, I
got up at 6AM, which isn't hard when there's no electricity and 10PM is bed
time. Then I took a boat from Don Khon, where I, along with two Flemish
people staying in the guesthouse, the friendly manager, some cases of empty
Beer Lao bottles, and some plastic chairs. We went to Nakasong on the
mainland, and from there took the new transport of the day--circus bus.
Well, the locals just call it a bus, but I've seen it described as something
you'd expect to see in a circus--a russian flatbed truck with a multicolored
wood seating area on the back. Inside are 6 bench seats, no aisle though
there is no back in the middle. In addition to humans, the animals today
consisted of whatever was in 6 buckets (maybe fish, maybe rice, we don't
know), some other dead fish, and a sack of 40 or so Parakeets, probably
headed to Thailand. This went up the good road for three hours to Paxe, and
from there it was the normal tuk-tuk to saengtaew to motorcycle to walk
across the border to air-conditioned Thai bus to a random Thai town, where
not having any other info I went with the first person who offered to take
me to a hotel, an actual car taxi. Total cost: $7. Should have been $5.

But what about where I was? I'd been on Don Khon, in Si Phan Don, or the
four thousand islands. A tropical paradise if you will, though like much of
Lao it may get overrun soon, you can only hope it won't. It's about as far
south as you can get there, where the Mekong goes over waterfalls just
before the Cambodian border. Oddly enough, the south of Lao is dry deciduous
scrub land which made me think of the pine barrens, but the islands can pump
water from the river and are pretty lush. The big attraction there other
than doing nothing is the waterfalls, the big gorges, the remains of the
railroad the french built to portage the falls, and doing nothing. Oh, and
partying. But more about that later, right now it's time to go back to my
hotel room and take an actual bath.

My hotel is in Sisaket, a small city in Issan (NE Thailand). Thailand is not
Lao, you can tell first by the fact that they drive on the wrong side of the
road, and later that there's commerce everywhere, late at night, with many
different things in the shop, even simple things like fresh fruit
everywhere. And they're up late with lots of electric lights--oddly enough,
supplied here probably by electricity generated in Laos. There are night
stalls set up everywhere in this town, in the market proper and elsewhere. I
ended up eating in the department store (with KFC, possibly the only fast
food place in town), in M.D., aka Master of Delicious. A sukiyaki joint I
think. It was delicious.

So what did you do for Christmas dinner?


P.S. I forgot to mention that Vang Vieng has a large enough visiting Israeli
population to warrant a hannukah ceremony for at least a few nights,
sponsored by I don't know who.

Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (1)

December 15, 2001

Vang vieng

[editor's note: this is out of sequence because my previous message was lost
in a power outage after i spent about half an hour on it; i will write it
again some day]

The bus ride from Louang Prabang to Vang Vieng is sickening. Why? Because it
goes over the top of the mountains, for about 170 km or 5 hours. Very
beautiful mountains, but none the less it's reccomended that you take motion
sickness pills before hand. At least it's a real bus, and even a half decent
one if you're lucky. After the mountains it's another easy 40 km from Kasi
to Vang Vieng itself, the standard stop off between the two cities. It's
become a tourist town, but it's still a good place to stop.

It's famous for a few things. One is the, uh, special shakes and pizza which
I didn't try. Another is tubing down the Nam Song river, just relaxing.
Another is the many caves nearby. So that's what I did for two days--tubing
down the river (with two different gruops of people) stopping at different
caves along they way. The first cave you encounter is not far after the
standard starting point. You hike up the mountain about a quarter mile, then
go through the caves for about 2.5 km. Apparently it even goes through the
other side of the mountain, 3km later. Some of the caves are famous for
spectacular rock formations, but this one was, well, a cave. The fact that
most people had only candles makes it quite itneresting however.

The next day we stopped at the next cave. This one you swim into, or bring
your innertube. Then go through the mud for a bit, and squeeze through an
opening back out into the daylight, not all that far from where you started.
The trick of course is that you brougt your inner tube part way through the
cave and now need to swim back to grab it.

Then it's back to the river to float very slowly back to town.

Two nights ago they celebrated national day in vang vieng. Never mind that
the 2nd is national day, this is on Lao time. Or maybe travelling festival
time--there was a decent sized orchestra, dancers, singers, and, on another
stage just around the corner, a lao rock band. The dancing was often similar
to the dance shows you see in thailand, but no real effort appeared to be
made to make it look authentic. (Never mind that in thailand it's not usuall
authentic at all). In fact, they dance in ballet shoes, and a ballet number
was one of the most popular. I'm not sure where that came from--maybe the
French a long time ago, or maybe the Russians more recently. Whatever, they
troup was good. Only foreigners usually applaud, the locals are silent,
except for the few who bring up leis to place on the signers. Finally, this
was the festival I was waiting to see on the day itself.

A day or so later I headed down to Vientienne. A little closer, but
basically flat roads. Because the area is flat, it's much more populated
than the north. (In fact, there are lots of people going in and out of vang
vieng, using the normal tuk tuks on the left bank, but weird asian tractors
on the left bank--they can drive right across the river to get there, but
have a top sped of about 5-10 km/h.) Anyway, this was a brand new bus,
possibly given by the Japanese. Of course it was full when we left, and as
we made it down the road we picked up more people. By an hour into the trip,
the aisles were basically full. By two hours, the aisles were packed to the
point that we wouldn't pick up people with luggage. But just people, there's
always room for more.

So here I am in the capital. It's a real city, small one, but it has lots of
city things--decent internet connections, lots of people, higher prices,
etc. I'll probably stay here one more day then head south, away from the
crowds again.

Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

December 05, 2001

Louang Phabang, city on the edge

Louang Prabang is a bit of a boom town. It's been aroudn for centuries, but
due to its remote location doesn't change very often.
In the 1930s, the French came to town and built it up a lot--lots of
shophouses, government buildings, houses, hospital, probably even the
drainage system in the streets.
Then nothing really happened for 60 some years. The place was left on its
own in the middle of nowhere, accessible mostly by boat.
In 1995 it became designated a UNESCO world heritage town. I'm not sure
which came first, that or the foreign aid, but it came, and now lots of
streets have been rebuilt, they've clearly put lots of effort into drainage
systems again, and are installing lots of septic systems. If you want to
help the developping world, don't worry abuot electronics. Figure out how to
build cheaper sewage and water treatment systems.
Then the tourists came. It's becoming more and more of a tourist town every
year. The main street in the old part of town is quite pleasant, but
dedicated to tourists.
Children still play at night, it's the first place I've really seen that.
Games like marbles, and throwing your shoe at a pack of cards, and badmitton
are all popular, in addition to the regular running around and screaming,
It will be an interesting place to see in five years, as most people now
have TV and computer games are easy to find.

Tomorrow I head north for a few days, I know not where. Perhaps Nong Khiaw
to start with, then probably back to the south.


Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)