On Sunday my neighbor and I rode our bikes to Nong Khai, Thailand. He does it every weekend, and told me it only takes about an hour. An hour and a half after leaving my house, we finally got to the Friendship Bridge. After crossing the Mekong and going through customs, we were finally in Thailand, but still had a ways to go to get into the town.
We rode around downtown Nong Khai for a while, stopped and got some food, and tried to find a swimming pool, but failed. Then we went spent the rest of the day in the air conditioning at the mall. After eating a delicious meal of american-style pizza, we got on our bikes and started to head home. Just as I got to the middle of the bridge, it started pouring rain. We waited out the rain on the Lao side of the bridge for about a half hour, and then it let up, and we continued on our way. A few kilometers from home, it started pouring again, so we stopped under the nearest tree, and there happened to be a wild party happening at the bar across the street. We ducked inside, and ordered a Beerlao, and I was suddenly mobbed by drunk bar-girls. They caressed my hands, and arms, and one of them even kissed me on the top of my head. They kept insisting I join them for dancing, but I was so exhausted I couldn’t do it. They served us a round “Lao style”, meaning somebody pours a glass half full of beer, and then you have to drink it in one go. One of the girls noticed I had a box of donuts on my bike, and kept asking for one, even after I told her they were for my colleagues at work. “Just one!!” “I want a donut!!” “Please give me one!!”… it went on like this for a while, and then alternately the girls pulling my arms so hard it actually hurt, saying “dance!! dance!! dance!!!!”.
We made our escape as soon as the rain stopped.
A few kilometers later, we finally arrived back at home, wet and tired. My neighbor’s odometer indicated we ha gone a distance of 61 kms. Thats the most I have ever biked in a 12 hour period. I also got a really bad sunburn.
Saturday I went to see my friend Phouvieng who is normally the Children’s librarian at the National Library. On Saturday she works at the Children’s Cultural Centre, doing storytelling and helping out with other activities. I got there a little late, so I missed the story telling, but I did get to sit in on a music lesson, and learn how to play some traditional Lao instruments with the kids.
After that, a bunch of kids performed a choreographed dance for, including this one:
and I hung out with these little girls:
and then ate some pho with congealed blood in it:
before I played table tennis with Phouvieng for a while, and then headed home sometime in the afternoon. It was a lovely day!
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”.
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.
They all sang me happy birthday in english and then I blew out some imaginary candles.
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.
Things have been going pretty well lately here in V-town. I had quite an interesting weekend. It began with me cleaning my house and doing laundry because the sun was actually shining for a few hours, meaning my clothes might dry in less than a week. Then, I stepped out to the Talat Sao Shopping Mall to try and buy a new pair of shoes.
Yes, there is a “mall” here. But there are no Baby Gaps or Bath and Body Works. It’s basically exactly the same as the market, just inside and air conditioned. And there is a food court, where you can get tripe served anyway you like.
My only pair of shoes besides a pair of flip-flops broke on Wednesday, but the market closes at 5 pm so I couldn’t make it there to get a new pair until Saturday. I tried going to some “boutique” shops around my house but they only kind I could find were all a size too small for me and involved 3-inch heels. So I planned my weekend around finding a new pair of shoes, which I knew would invove a trip to Talat Sao.
It seemed like everyone in the entire Vientiane Province had shown up at the mall on Saturday. The place was jam-packed with tourists and locls, and little kids running up and down the escalators (probably the only ones in the country). I saw one lady who works at the library named Bountie, and then 2 minutes later, another lady from the library. After making excuses to get out of watching them shop for sarongs, a few minutes later I ran into Mee, a young lady I know from the University. She is a teacher in the Faculty of Letters in the Department of Lao Language and Litterature, and also in the Faculty of Education in the English for Special Purposes Department. She is also doing a Master’s in Education right now, and her English is flawless, and she is like 23 years old or something unbelievable. She invited me to come eat Pho with her and her friend, and then they wanted to go sing Karaoke. I hadn’t know there was a karaoke place in the shopping centre until then.
They led me to a corner of the mall and after much rapid discussion in Lao with a lady, finally into a little private room, containing a small bench, a computer, two microphones, really big speakers, and a book full of Lao and Thai songs.
I searched in vain for any song I knew, but alas, there were none even printed in roman script, so I just watched. After a half hour of karaoke entertainment (pain), the girls went off to do something else, but not before inviting me to join them for Korean food later that evening.
I finally found a pair of shoes, and then stopped at the market to get some food before heading home to collect my laundry as a thunderstorm gathered.
Once the rain abated about 6:00 I left to go meet Mee and her friends at the Korean restaurant. First I got lost, second my bike light fell off of my bag and the batteries rolled somewhere in the middle of the street. It was dark and I couldn’t find them, and then some guy on a motorcycle stopped and helped me look. I put the batteries back in and the light worked fine, but the guy wanted to chat for a while. I didn’t want to be rude since he had helped me, but I was late already, so I made some excuses and then pedaled off to the “7 Plus Korean Food Health Centre”.
I’m not sure if the food we ate was really “Korean”. There was no Kim-Chi, and no Soju! But there was some kind of hot-pot thing that was pretty delicious.
The best part of the evening was getting to hang out with some interesting, smart Lao people who were around my age and I could actually communicate with. At one point in the evening two of the people present started teasing another guy about how he used to be a “ladyboy” but then changed his mind and started dating girls instead. I thought this was really interesting because a.) at first I believed them, and b.) they were all pretty open minded about homosexuality and trans-sexuality.
Anyway, after eating a lot of Lao-Korean fusion cuisine, my Lao friends all went home, and I went to meet my friend Laurie-Anne at the English Bar, where we drank a beer and she talked about her trip to Pakse and the 4,000 islands, which sounded amazing. Meg also wrote an amazing blog post about her trip there, and I have decided this area is next on my travel itinerary, as soon as the Director of the library stops being so paranoid and permits me to travel.
We also made arrangements to meet on Tuesday at my house for a music-exchange soirée.
I spent most of Sunday cooking up Lentil Tacos, including making flour tortillas from scratch and using my thermos as a rolling pin. Yes I spent like 6 hours cooking them, but in the end it was delicious and well worth the effort.
As much as I enjoy the food in the restaurants around town, I also love to cook. So I finally got a stove and some cookware yesterday, and went out searching for raw materials today.
My first stop was the Laos Organic Market.
The Laos Organic makret is some project that is funded by germany or something that encourages the farmers to grow food organically and bring them to the market every weekend. There was a wide variety of items for sale, from organic papayas and mangoes to organic sticky rice and organic “rat’s ear” mushrooms.
My neighbor and I picked up some stuff, including some “Red Tea” from North-Eastern Laos that I am really excited about.
Then, we headed to get some Pho in the Vietnamese neighborhood, with a niced iced coffee.
During our morning jaunt, Ariya (my neighbor) also informed me that the popular “JoMa Cafe & Bakery” that has several branches around town (with delicious but very expensive pastries) it owned by some religious zealots from Canada, and “JoMa” is short for “Jopseph and Mary”. Now that I know this I will of course be referring to it as “Chez Jose and the Virge”.
Ariya dropped me back off at home before he headed back to his office to start working on this idea I am partially responsible for – reusable “Green Lao Now” shopping bags to sell at the organic market, and other places, like the fancy ex-pat grocery store. He’s a graphic designer. It was 9:30 on a saturday morning and I had already accomplished so much, including coming up with a money making scheme to save the environment!! I decided to hit the Talat somethingorother for more produce, where I got the impression that unlike the Talat Sao, they’re not used to seeing white folks around there. However, compared to Dangtokpa in Cotonou, even the local, non-foreigner conditioned market was extremely calm, laid back, and hardly overwhelming. Nobody even yelled at me! I did see a wide variety of produce, a large percentage of which I had NO IDEA what it was or what it was for.
I will admit that I had some trouble finding some items I was hoping to get, namely fresh coconut milk, due to the language barrier. Hopefully I can convince some Lao-speaking person to come with me next time. In the end, I brought home a huge bag of groceries including:
kaffir lime leaves
rice paper wrappers
…and a whole bunch of other stuff I am forgetting, for less than $5.
Now I just need to get some other basic ingredients (salt, oil, etc.) and I’ll be ready to roll.
I took a picture of my house, also:
No, that’s not my bike in front. It’s “decoration” according to the landlord’s sister, and too rusty to be functional. But I like it!