boat racing festival

It’s the end of Buddhist Lent!  That means a huge party in the streets of Vientiane.

In preparation for the Boat Racing Festival, the street along the Mekong has been filled with stalls and a carnival for weeks.  The music has been blaring non-stop, the traffic is unmanageable, and there are people everywhere.

On Tuesday night, all of Vientiane gathered along the banks of the Mekong to put “Koutung” into the river; a small boat made of banana leaves and flowers, with a candle.  The idea is that you light the candle, say a prayer or make a wish, and then let your little boat float out into the Mekong and down the river, and then your wish will come true.  There are also fireworks and lots of other exciting things to do during this time, and everyone, everywhere, was drunk, for days.

The following day rowing teams from across the province came to Vientiane to compete in a Boat racing festival.  Here are some pictures:

me with my banana boat
me with my banana boat
I won’t tell you what my wish was.
Tuesday was also an exciting day for me because not only did I get to climb down the muddy sides of the Mekong to float a banana boat down it (which promptly got stuck in some tall grasses and then the candle went out…), but earlier in the day, at the library, we had a little celebration, and dined on DOG MEAT!
Yes, that’s right, I finally ate dog.  And it wasn’t that bad. The funniest thing was that the Lao all pretend they don’t eat dog, and I went around asking the ladies “Gin ma bow?” (want to eat dog?”), and Mr. Chansy, and Mr. Somephone, would say “Shhhh!! Don’t sayit out loud!”, as if they were ashamed that people would know the Lao eat dog.  But then, when we brought out the dog, everybody was like “Sep lae!”  (very delicious!). Quite a few people even pretended they had never eaten dog before… and would say “oh…. I can’t eat dog.  But I heard it was the most delicious meat.”  and Mr Chansy kept telling me “You know, in Korea, and Vietnam, they like to eat dog.  But not in Lao.”
Anyway, the moral of the story is, almost everybody eats dog here, or has at least once in their life, but they probably won’t admit it.
Ok, so more pictures form the Boat Racing Festival and Night of the Candles:
Bumper Cars!

flood crisis averted

It seems like most of the flood danger has passed.  Laurie-Anne has some nice pictures on her blog of the water when it was at it’s highest.  I went out on Friday and actually got some day-light pictures of the river, but by then most of the Mekong restaurants were back open.

mekong riverside restaurants
mekong riverside restaurants

However, I find it important to note that normally the water level is a good 2m below these wooden platforms.  But things have mostly returned to normal.

mekong flood emergency response team

The Mekong is flooding!  The Mekong is flooding!

Everyday the water has risen a bit higher and now it is dangerously close to flooding the entire city.  I live about 200m from the Mekong so, of course, I am concerned.  I went to go look at the river last night, and ran into a group of teenagers who were making sandbags and putting them along the river.  One young lady (who is actually a pretty interesting character…) approached me and invited me to help them out.  I felt like I should do something, so I accepted.

I helped the kids shovel sand into bags and then tie them closed, and helped haul them to a wheelbarrow.  I had the easy jobs, mostly just tying the bags shut, or holding them open while other people shovelled.  This went on for about an hour last night, during which time some guy on a megaphone kept yelling “Kop Chai Miss USA!  Kop Chai Miss USA!”, which eventually turned into “Thank you, Miss World! “.  The megaphone guy then insisted I take a juicebox and a little package of cookies for my work.  I tried to say “No thank you”, but they would not take no for an answer and told me that all volunteers receive some snacks.  The megaphone guy also told me he would be staying at the river all night, on watch, and would sound an alarm if the waters rose too high.

Even though I didn’t really do much, I got a round of applause from everyone present when it started to rain and I decided to leave around 11 pm.

The girl who invited me to help asked me if I wanted to see her house, which was right on the bank of the river.  She is the one in the picture standing on the sandbags.  I’m not exactly sure what her deal is.  She lives in a huge house by herself, and told me that she has a 42 year old canadian boyfriend in Vancouver.  She also told me that she really wants breast implants and her boyfriend might pay for them for her.  Maybe she’s been reading the Bangkok Post?  I think she was somewhat drunk during the entire time.  I asked her if she had a job and she said she had been a maid for a handicapped man before, but his girlfriend got jealous and made her quit in April, and she hasn’t been working since then.  She seemed really eager to be my friend, but I’m not really sure where this relationship is heading.

The library was also required to form a Mekong Flood Emergency Response Team (I have just decided to call it that, I don’t know what the actual name is for their effort), and 6 of the staff members were required to go to a certain part of the river last night at 11 pm to help sandbag, since they are technically government employees.  I haven’t seen any of the 6 around yet this morning, but I know that it started pouring rain right around 11, so it could not have been an enjoyable experience for any of them.  I hope they took the day off.

These events have resulted in some strange, almost mefloquine-like dreams.  Last night I imagined that the dam at Ban Koen (about 50 km upriver from Vientiane) had broken, and a giant tsunami wave was washing down the Mekong, sweeping all the houses away.  In my dream, in the pouring rain, somewhere Hannah E. Carmichael was playing “Mad World” on the piano, and I was shoveling sand into a military truck.

But the people at the library have assured me that while dams have broken in other countries, this could never happen in Laos and I have nothing to worry about.

ending radio silence

I just got back from a 4 days trip to Luang Prabang, and I have lots of news!

Firstly, I went to Luang Prabang to celebrate my 29th birthday.  Just thinking about it makes me feel old but I had a lovely time in the former royal capital.  I took a bus Saturday morning from Vientiane, and the route took us through the mountains and jungles of central Laos for 12 hours, around twisty curving narrow roads and through tiny villages.  Despite being extremely remote, I actually saw a full-sized drum kit through the doorway of one of these wooden shacks perched on the top of a mountain somewhere between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

My impression of Luang Prabang: the contemporary city, is that it exists solely as a tourist destination.  It is now “Low season”, yet the town was absolutely crawling with tourists.  The overwhelming majority of them were dirty, smelly, loud, obnoxious, drunk young europeans and americans.

Maybe I’m just getting old, and jaded, but I felt extremely disdainful of all the half naked tourists walking around Luang Prabang.  Visiting there made me really remember why I was never all that interested in visiting Asia in the first place – I find the whole “Backpacking around South East Asia” thing to be just a big cliché, involving little more than drunkenness and sleazyness in most cases.  I’ll admit that I did meet a few nice people who were doing everything in their power not to perpetuate that stereotype of the dirty, smelly, drunk, ignorant, culturally insensitive tourist, and I really like those people.  But I’m still really worried about the overall impression Lao people must have of all these tourists, and therefore their respective countries, considering some of the behaviour I witnessed.

Sunday was my birthday. Thanks for all the kind birthday greetings from everybody!

This day I climbed to the top of Phu Si, gazed out over the Mekong river valley in the rain, and discovered that my camera was not working.  I spent the rest of the day at the spa, and then ate a huge and delicious and extremely expensive dinner.  The family sitting next to me was also celebrating their son’s 8th birthday, so then they even let me share their chocolate mousse cake with them!

While in Luang Prabang I also visited a few Wats and took a boat to some caves.  It was mostly rainy the whole time I was there.  The Mekong kept rising higher and higher each day.  On Tuesday I participated in a cooking class at Tamarind Cafe, which I would highly highly recommend.  Our group included two really funny guys from Britain, a young British lady doctor who had been traveling around India for the past thee months, and a couple from Philly.  We learned to make Mok Pa, fished steamed in banana leaves; Buffalo Bile Laap (yum!); Luang prabang stew; lemongrass stuffed with chicken; sticky rice; jeow; and probably some other stuff I am forgetting.  It was really fun. I made plans to spend some time with the British folks when the pass back through Vientiane.

I took the night bus back, 12 hours which where mostly horrific, and sleep was nearly impossible.  I woke up from a strange dream about being in a bicycle shop where there were millions and millions of bicycles arranged by colour; like a rainbow of bicycles; to find I was back in Vientiane.  And it was still raining.

Other than that, Luang Prabang was quite lovely.  It certainly has a lot more charm and is much more attractive than Vientiane.  However I don’t think I would want to live there.  It’s very tiny and bursting with 19 year olds in thai pants and beerlao wife-beaters.

However, before I left for my jaunt up to Luang Prabang, the folks at the library threw a little birthday party for me.

We had lunch on the 2nd floor, and the ladies brought out a huge feast, including Lao Lao and Laap and sticky rice ball salad, and some of my other favorites.  I baked a cake, and everybody said it was “sep lae”, which means “very delicious”.

most of the library staff, and me!
most of the library staff, and me!

To the left of me is Mr. Chansy, the library director.  In bright orange is Sisavanh, one of my best pals.  Mrs. Bounsalome is on the very right, poking her head out.  She is my Lao teacher.  Next to me on the right is Mr. Vay, the only person at the library around my age.  He speaks almost flawless English and is going to Australia next year to study Information Science.

ucl staff singing happy birthday
ucl staff singing happy birthday

They all sang me happy birthday in english and then I blew out some imaginary candles.

me and my library ladies
me and my library ladies

It was a lovely lovely day.  I don’t know who that tall guy is though.

The big news of the moment is that the Mekong is on the verge of flooding the entire Vientiane area!  The library has created some kind emergency-action plan that involved shovels and sandbags and I also volunteered to help if needed.  If the river continues to rise… it will be bad news.  My house is about 200m from the Mekong so I will probably be in a lot of trouble if there is a massive flood.