Feb 28, 2007


OK here we go, my first blatant plug of a business.

A few years ago while in Muang Sing I met a guy Vong who worked at the bank. His English was very good and it turned out I had rented a motorcycle from his business over in Luang Namtha.
That night he took me to a guest house opening party. The guest house was owned by a local oficial. While there, through him as a translator, someone asked my why bother coming to Muang Sing or even Laos it being such a rural out of the way place. I replied (speaking in my limited Lao) how the Lao food was so good, I waved my hand at the view we could all see out the front of the restaurant, the sun was setting over fields of rice all the way to the mountains, and said how beautiful the countryside was, and I mentioned the easy going manner of the Lao people. Actually the normal type of thing you say to anyone when they ask about their own country. The lao lao had already been flowing, and they loved my praise of Loas, hard to go wrong praising a country to it's inhabitants.

When I went back to Luang Namtha this year with photos of Vong and Sai’s young daughter he was standing in front of his brand new guest house. Good connections to be had at the bank? I stayed there that night and a few more nights when I went back up to Luang Namtha province.

Here are the details as of this writing.
All rooms are $6 except the two rooms available out by the kitchen that have a shared bath and are $2. All rooms have hot water but as of now no AC. They are large, clean, have a place to hang clothes, wooden furniture, a painting, ceiling fan etc, There is a lot of wood used in the construction. Most of the walls are brick painted with some kind of sealant to make them shiny and clean, similar to the outside of the guest house.
The restaurant has an extensive menu kind of in the style of large western orientated hotels in Vientiane. (What that means is that if you are expecting something to be like back home fugetaboutit. But it will be very palatable by western standards, look back at my post about Yam Moon Sen three posts ago. Made not very hot, and not too spicy just for you) If you are looking for regular Lao food order from that portion of the menu. Coffee comes in coffee mugs and the restaurant area is a quiet pleasant place to while away time reading or writing post cards.
The entire guest house itself is fairly quiet being set back off the street down as small short alley. The way to find it other than asking or looking for the small sign is to look for the tallest thing on “the street”. That’s the brand new four story tall guest house that was being built by their neighbours next door. Highest building I saw in Luang Namtha.
When I urged Sai, that’s Vong’s wife, to up the rates so to make them comparable to similar rooms in the area she replied that she was more interested in having a full house every night than making tons off one room. They do seem to fill often. Mostly word of mouth but also the mini bus drivers like to take the guided tourists there. The standards meet the requirements of the guided tours and they save ten or fifteen bucks. There is no pressure to eat in the restaurant, rent a motorcycle, change money, or use any of the other services they offer. They are happy that you stay with them.
The hotel is run by Sai, the motorcycle rental by her mom, bikes are serviced by Vong’s brothers, and there are many brothers and sisters working throughout.
The name Zuela comes from Vong and Sai’s little girl who is now of an age to pretend to have tea parties with her friends and is cute as a button.

My Man Purse

Murse: A purse made for males.

While waiting to catch a bus out of the Luang Namtha dirt parking lot cum bus station I saw a guy with a bag like this. He was dressed entirely in hill tribe clothes so I assumed he didn’t come from a town on the road. It seems as if men who come from close to the road don't wear traditional clothes. His were hand woven, black, slight bits of coloured embroidery, the whole nine yards, all in a very new and clean state.
What made him stand out for me was that even though Luang Namtha bus station is pretty much on the map with a direct to Vientiane and a lot of foreign tourists in town, this guy wasn’t acting like the shy guy from the countryside. He was pretty broad shouldered and had a lot of muscle. His wife was strong too. They were negotiating the rate for some cartons or bags to somewhere by the back of the Sawngthaews, and unconcerned with the people around them. Pretty self assured for country folk.
I noticed the tong the guy was carrying, it looked a lot like the one in this picture. A tong is that over the shoulder bag that a lot of people carry around in Laos. They have been adopted as a good carry on the bus and around town bag by a lot of westerners, particularly the fisherman pant, rasta, full moon party, crowd. When I walked in the woods with a Hmong local guide I noticed how easily he shifted it’s weight while ducking through the thick brush. I wanted one, I thought they looked totally cool.
I hadn’t really warmed to a style until I saw the one in Luang Namtha. I liked the way the woven pattern went closer together towards the top and then became strings using the same pieces of thread. Partway up the strap where mine has one piece of coloured thread the one I saw at the bus station had a couple of tassels and a small piece of silver.

When I got to Muang Long I asked Tdooee the director of tourism what hill tribe made this type of tong and where could I get one. He laughed and said Akha and that I could get one during my trek. I’ve seen a lot of Akha of late and I was surprised I hadn’t noticed the tong before.
The trek was a little fast for discussing and buying tongs but I kept my eyes open and sure enough I started to see them hung on walls and even carried by people. I didn’t see any that even remotely matched the workmanship I’d seen in Namtha.
I had severe reservations about trying to buy someone’s tong also. It didn’t feel right. Once in Muang Long market a few months ago I watched a mini van tourist, (that’s the kind that blows in with a tour guide and minivan) stop at the market, long lens the hill tribe women selling vegetables, then have the guide negotiate a price for a basket a young girl was selling her greens out of. The transaction was over in ten seconds and the girl was left to search for a plastic bag to carry her stuff off with. The whole scene left me wondering about the righteousness of buying handicrafts that someone was using as personal items, especially since I’d done something similar to a kid in a computer gaming store in China.
At the government crafts cooperative in Muang Long I did buy a tong that was Lanten. There weren’t any Akha ones. Back in Vientiane I dropped by the cooperative across the street from the morning market right next to the post office. Free parking he he.
Sure enough there were some pretty nice Akha tongs. I asked the Hmong lady that owned the stand what kind of people made the tong, she replied Lao people. True enough I guess. When I told her Akha she was happy enough to know and thanked me for telling her, she can use it as an informative selling tool. She had stuff from many peoples in the shop. Yao women’s shirts with the fuzzy collars, lots of Hmong stuff, all kinds of things.
There is a specialty industry in making Hmong style dress up cloths for particularly overseas Hmong from America.
I was concerned after I bought the tong that it had been made of fishing line. Tdooee told me sometimes they are. Makes sense, nice strong string, but I was hoping for something a little more green as in natural. Low and behold my wife informs me the string is made from the bark of a small tree. How she knows I don’t know.
The man purse label I read in a story by a guy who traveled into Sayabuli province. The name is great because it seems to poke fun at guys who carry them without being homophobic. Well I’m one now. I wore it to the market yesterday and liked it. I can see where everything is inside it. Of course so can everyone else but the strap is so short it hangs just below my armpit, and the weight of things hold it closed.
In the Lao alphabet they have certain words that remind people of the letter. Kind of like our “A is for Apple”. In this case it’s Taw-Tong for the T sound. Forever enshrined in Loa language.

Feb 27, 2007

Road Dangers

This is a bus Guard at the Kasi Lunch stop

Nothing like a picture of a folding AK strapped to someone’s back to grab the readers attention. Actually the most dangerous part of this bus journey was about to unfold fifty feet away. As I walked around the other side of the bus I saw the driver and door guy at the back table being fed shots by the restaurant proprietor who was hanging out drinking with his buddies. Shots of hard liqueur in Laos are looked upon as elsewhere as a measure of ones manhood. The driver in his mid thirties was being fed booze by the restaurant guy who was in his fifties.
I was taking a direct bus Vientiane to Luang Namtha. Scheduled for twenty three hours, they usually do it in twenty. The easy part of the driving was over, the next sixteen hours are twisty mountain roads on a good surface, a lot less bumps but the speeds are a lot faster, they don’t drive those busses like they love them, they put them through their paces. Before lunch the driver had been adjusting up the brake pads, I’d bet they go through a set every other trip.
The restaurant owner had no work to do, his wife ran the restaurant. The driver needed all his facilities intact. My sincere hope was that he was also doing amphetamines, otherwise I’d be scared of him falling asleep. Twenty hours of mountain roads is too much for anyone. At the end of the ride I asked him how he felt and he said great, looked wide awake to me.
Don’t think me a prude, I too have driven long drives in the mountains while drunk and on meth, just not lately and definitely not with 33 people on board. I counted just for fun.
I was on my second trip to Laos in 1996 when I first heard of a problem on the road. I’d been sitting in the same noodle restaurant in Vang Vien all morning with a Lao policeman, a girl who was then my then fiancĂ©, and her mom. We saw a bus roll in from Luang Prabang, it had taken 26 hours thus far, (rainy season delays), sounded like fun and my suggestion to go there got an enthusiastic reaction. Except from the policeman. Don’t do it he said, bad people in Kasi, lots of problems. OK,, policeman advises against it, ok with me I thought. Maybe that long bus ride isn’t worth it.
My mom in law went back three weeks later anyway. It was the new cool place to have been for Vientiane Laotians. The cloth for the skirts is distinctive and it shows you’ve traveled. A resident Frenchman in a minivan fifteen minuets ahead of my Mae Thaou, and everyone in the van got shot to death. Oops.
Ever since then over the years there have been other “incidents” I lose track of when and the particulars. Truth be told I don’t pay that close attention. Seems like every couple or three years something happens. If there is a foreigner of necessity it’s known, if only Lao people it’s hushed up if possible.
I noticed the last time I came to Laos a presence of government police for the entire trip to Luang Prabang as well as lots of regular army guards who got on and off at random places along the most troublesome part of the road.
This winter I’ve traveled the road many times back and fourth to the north while going for little walk-abouts. There seemed to be a lot less of an army presence, I saw none on regular bus duty, and the federal police seemed to be making an effort to be inconspicuous, often wearing a coat over their gun and wrapping up the gun while eating. Often I don’t even spot a police man on the bus until maybe the end of the trip, or like here when he got off for lunch. I liked the way this guy was watching the back of the bus while we ate, no bombs.
I had assumed that the guards would be removed from the busses soon altogether. They scare tourists and cause tongues to wag. I’d say that they’ve done a pretty good job of pushing the whole story under the rug. Most tourists I’ve talked to are unaware that there is a low level counter government insurgency going on. Insurgency sounds too organized a word for scattered groups of Hmong including their women and children trying to hide and keep from getting shot.
Lately with the good coverage of cell phones and the ready availability of digital video cameras more news is starting to leak out of what’s called the Xaysambon Special Zone. Most famously there was a video taken of the raped and disembowelled bodies of young Hmong teens and the interviews with the survivors of a government attack. Gruesome stuff. Often there are desperate calls for help to relatives in America relayed to their small sympathetic press, the Huntington News, of being encircled and out of ammunition complete with starving children and so on, then nothing.
I guess the Lao government probably knows better if the guards on the busses are superfluous or not. Five days after I took the photo all heck broke loose with the regular dry season offensive somehow making it’s way into the daily rumour mill, and even worse onto the road north of Vang Vieng, but most importantly not the press.
The following is from the Travelfish website which must have very good sources indeed. I suspect an off the record report from someone at the US embassy. It seems too well informed and factual to be a guest house owner or tour operator. My only reservations are due to the use of the term bandit, usually used by the propaganda arm of the Lao government to classify the insurgents as common criminals. For the record armed robbery of foreigners is extremely rare in Laos, and robbery with firearms unheard of.

Link to Travelfish site

"Sources who were in Vang Vieng on the weekend of 10th / 11th Feb, reported they had seen very large numbers of Lao troops to the north of Vang Vieng. The most obvious area of activity on R13 North is understood to be around 15km north of Vang Vieng. It's not clear what precisely took place, but some locals believe it may be Lao Govt "attack" on people in nearby Hmong villages connected to the Hmong refugees in Nong Khai who are scheduled to be returned to Vientiane. February through April are known to be the months of highest bandit - Lao Govt conflicts.Vang Vieng Town itself is considered safe, but travellers should exercise caution on R13N, and for the time being - should probably avoid cycling and/or trekking too far north of Vang Vieng.The "troubles" do appear to have spread south of Vang Vieng as well, with arrests being made as far south as Phonhong (around 70km north of Vientiane) and skirmishes taking place south of Vang Vieng over the past few days. Partly as a result of this there remains a high profile troop presence throughout Vang Vieng District. The risk to tourists is still very low indeed. The bandits are not a competent, aggressive fighting unit looking to blow up bridges and kill tourists -- they are really just "on the run" and only fight back when they have to. Having said that, as a tourist, it is probably not the best time to be in Vang Vieng right now simply because there are restrictions on what you can do. Certainly doesn't sound like time to try the Happy Pizzas anyway!"

I was out trekking in the mountains in the north of the country which might as well be on a different planet. I got a text message from my wife when I re entered an area covered by cell phone. “They have a war going on in kahsii vangvien right now I want u to take arplan back” She had been getting calls from folks we know in the Lao army who know I often take the bus. Of course if you are in the army and people are getting killed you tend to look upon it as serious.
Searching for a good excuse to give my wife for taking the bus I asked a friend who might well be a party member. He reported that the situation was way overblown. Just a case of a few drunk soldiers shooting each other up. I think the misinformation came directly from the top, when repeated many times it’s a great way to dispel concerns over safety.
After reading a warning from the US embassy I took the bus, plane was full. It took me a whole extra day, oh well. I realize that the road carries some risk. So far the insurgency isn’t over and there is always the possibility. It’s trying to asses the likelihood of that possibility that becomes problematic.
When I used to climb we would asses risk all the time. If there is a one in one thousand chance of a piece ripping out of an anchor we consider it to be very poor odds, do something a hundred times and you’ve brought the likelihood down to one out of ten. Put in another piece of equal quality and the odds are back up to ten thousand to one, add another and you are up to ten million, back in the realm of acceptable odds.
If there are bus attacks on average once every three years with three hundred sixty five days in a year your chances of being on the road that day are one out of eleven hundred. Ride the bus six times in that time span and it’s one out of a hundred and eighty. Mind you we are talking about being on the road that day, not in the actual bus. As I remember they have attacked only passenger transport, not cargo or individual vehicles. Sixty busses and mini vans per day? Your odds just went up to around one out of eleven thousand. Significant enough to make me think about it.
I know and accept that amount of risk. It’s interesting to hear some deride it as being non existent or similar to the chance of getting hit by a meteor, or safer than walking city streets in America.
It’s also interesting how people perceive risk. If something appears scary the risk is assumed to be much higher. The chance of being in a plane or building attacked by Al Qaeda are infinitesimally small, in the millions, yet for years after the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked all people could think about was being the victim of a terrorist attack. I think it has a lot to do with those images of planes hitting buildings and buildings falling down.
Juxtapose those images with ones of forty hot tourists falling asleep on a long bus ride and you can see where the insouciance comes from.

In googling around to find background for this blog entry I also found this from an old Time Magazine story called “unlucky 13” after the route number. Great name.

“Around 8:30 a.m., the gunmen as many as 30, say witnesses jumped out from behind bushes along the road. Waving their guns, they stopped a crowded public bus, several cars, a tractor and the two Europeans who were heading north on a bike trip. Survivors claim the gunmen fired M-16s and grenades from rocket launchers, then stepped over fallen bodies and executed the wounded. The two Europeans, who have yet to be identified, tried desperately to flee on their mountain bikes. One was shot repeatedly in the back.”

Ouch, “repeatedly shot in the back” now there’s some guys without a sense of humour. Of course I doubt they were shooting M-16s, the rifle would have to be thirty years old. More likely the ubiquitous AK. Makes great reading though and I think puts a date on the last bus attack at 4 years ago.

Here’s the link
Time magazine

Months ago I ran across the photos by a guy named Roger Arnold who managed to get into the Special Zone, link up with the insurgents, take photos, and publish them. For most of the world it was the first glimpse of something they had heard about but sounded too otherworldly to be true. Soldiers from a war that was over thirty years ago still fighting in the jungles of Laos.
Being a taker of snapshots I liked the photos. A very wide angle and lots of natural dark light from the forest. I can hear the dew dripping of the trees. When I looked carefully at the photos I noticed that very young guys carrying soviet style rifles seemed to be doing most of the running around with guns. The M-16s look to be saved but not in use.

Link Here for photos or read the Story Here.

Hard to imagine as I sit comfortably typing on my keyboard and as my wife and kids sleep peacefully upstairs that this is all going on less than a hundred miles from here. At this very moment people are quietly waking from a nights sleep, looking around, and wondering if the day will bring government soldiers. It is an overcast day. The beginning of the end of this long dry season? Let’s hope so.

Feb 25, 2007

Second Trek into the Nam Fa Watershed

Mongla (probably old landing site LS358) as seen from below Jakune

After my Green Discovery trek I still had energy and the ambition for more. I called Tdooee but his cell phone wasn’t yet within range of a tower, as I suspected he was still trekking. When I got through the next day he said come on over.

As usual with Tdooee things were still up in the air when I arrived. He knew and I knew that he was by far the best guide in Muang Long. Not only is Tdooee the only person who speaks Akha with any degree of fluency but he is also clued in to the traditions and habits of the people which is one of the things I’m very interested in while trekking. The sticking point was his brothers upcoming wedding on Saturday. Tdooee likes to party. He sings in the band, drinks whiskey daily and is still at that magical age of mid twenties when having a good time is pretty important. It was obvious he couldn’t miss his own brothers wedding.
Tdooee pretending to work

The next day at eight in the morning when we were to leave there was a delay for a day. Somjit my guide had other duties to take care of, who knows. Tdooee offered alternatively to take me with the Europeans for a guided gawk at a Lanten village just down the road.

From the moment we got out of the minivan you could tell this type of thing wasn’t unusual for the village. The kids gathered around but there was no begging, perhaps because they were Lanten, maybe they had been taught that this wasn’t the thing to do. While we were there another minivan stopped with three foreigners to also gawk. At first appearances such a visit might seem like the typical stop and take pictures as in a zoo type thing. Having a guide knowledgeable about the village changes your perspective.

Euro Jester

We walked up the street and stopped to look at a loom where someone was weaving. One of the Europeans who works as a jester at renaissance re-enactments gave a juggling and mime show. A lot of people gathered around to watch and laugh. It’s a common enough occurrence where you are a stranger and kids are curious and amused. I’ve seen foreigners doing some pretty stupid things for kids, god knows what the kids think, I know they aren‘t laughing with. I was less put off than usual as at least this time the entertainer was doing something that he also does in the west. My goal when visiting a hill tribe village isn’t to be the focus of attention however flattering it might seem, but rather to be a quiet observer.

After a few minuets we continued our stroll up the street and I learned some things well worth the drive. I’d heard the name Lanten before but knew nothing about the people. The following is as I remember.

The Lanten have a written language similar to Chinese or Japanese. Most hill tribes I’d encountered had none. They made paper using bamboo shoots and lime. They weave their tongs (the hill tribe over the shoulder bag) in a distinctive striped pattern. They had a nice forge made using the charcoal that many use to make fires in Vientiane and also a bellows made from a large piece of bamboo and a plunger type piece of wood. The Lanten seemed a more settled community than say the Hmong or Akha.
Lanten Forge

Tdooee of course knew the headman and we stopped at his house for a chat. I liked the attitude of the Europeans while at the headman’s house, respectful without fawning, and curious as to what the relationships were between all the members of the family. While there the supervisor for the crew putting in electric poles came by marking the places to put the poles. I don’t need to say that electricity coming to Muang Long and all of the small villages in the area is a big deal.

There is no full time trekking program in Muang Long, just a very few guys with basic English skills and the willingness to go for a walk. Altogether there have only been five treks Into the large road less area East of Muang Long. Technically not within the Namha Protected Area it is still encircled by the same roads. To the west and north the road running from Muang Sing to the Mekong, and to the south and east the road running from Luang Namtha to Huay Xia. The area drains with the Nam Fa, not the Nam Ma and it’s fairly remote for being so close. I’m always amazed at how far removed one can get from a lot of things by just walking a few hours away from the road.

Tdooee took the first walk back there with at least two trekkers in 04 or 05. Somjit who was my guide for this trek took a lone 18 year old Dutch guy back there for a very quick hike in November of last year. Then I took my trek with Sii Phan when we got lost in December, and Tdooee took his second walk with three young Europeans just before I arrived. My trek was to be the fifth. Tdooee, Somjit, and myself have all been there twice now.

Me and Tree

A quick conversation with a couple of guys headed to the village that was our destination for the first night revealed an eight hours for hill tribe people type walk. For reference Green Discovery seems to double a local persons time, in Pongsali we were probably adding one hour for every two and a half, but then we were hiking pretty quickly. My guide Somjit spoke almost no Akha and all conversations were in Lao, so I could eavesdrop somewhat. No one can match hill tribe times. I like to trek to watch and learn not as a hiking marathon. Plenty of big hills where I come from in Colorado.

Seeing as we had quite some elevation to gain I figured we would be lucky to arrive half way through the night. I had a bag and ground cloth adequate for a night out but the guide didn’t. In looking at the map now I can see we had over 4 thousand feet to gain and the same amount of descent. I’d looked at the mountain from a distance across the valley the day before to get an idea of what was involved and I knew it was a good sized hill. I didn’t like starting off a trek knowing that we’d bitten off more than I could chew, especially since I’d gone on two established treks recently, one with a government tour office and one with the biggest private operator in the country. I know things don’t have to be that hard.

Phou Mon Lem, we crossed the ridge just right of the summit.

A bad attitude doesn’t do anyone any good. I decided to just see what would happen. Worst case I was still going to get a decent nights sleep even if it was a little cold. It was either that or turn around right then.

I recently bought a hooded fleece jacket that has no zipper in front and is very roomy. They custom made it up the road from where I’m staying in Vientiane for three dollars. For another four dollars they sewed a small bag out of the same piece of fleece that comes about to my armpits. The two together along with my reflective ground cloth give me the ability to get at least some sleep even on a pretty cold night out.

I also carried 3 litres of water, a change of cloths, a pair of flip flops in case my running shoes gave out, a headlamp, four pair of good socks, a kitchen knife, my reading glasses, ten single portion packages of instant coffee, (my drug) and four packages of instant noodles. A small Gore-Tex rain coat was my back up stay warm and dry when all else fails piece of gear. Also my camera.

I’d caught Tdooee making a little sketch map for Somjit the afternoon before, so I was aware that despite Tdooee’s assurances that Somjit had covered this ground before, there were unknown factors. Turns out Somjit hadn’t been up this particular trail before until it joined the regular one at Jakune Gow. What we were doing was taking a short cut directly to the point in my last trek where we had started to go wrong, visiting a new village that Tdooee had recently stayed at and finally exiting via Som Pah Yow and walking in to Xiengkok as planned a couple of months ago. The direct trail to our mid trek point of before was quite a hike.

Mongla house with expensive roof, our first night’s destination.

Somjit easily out hiked me and we traded packs. I don’t like someone else carrying my pack when we aren’t even in trouble yet but he only had one litre of water and a machete. I swallowed my pride and concentrated on walking up the hill. The old trail stayed to the top of the ridge. Overcast skies, cool temperatures and a stiff breeze made the uphill slog a lot easier. I’ve gotten stronger over the past four months and we made good time.
The forests we were walking in were all old growth for the entire trek except where there had been slash and burn. Typical of treks in Muang Long it had more resemblance to a forced march due to the distance between villages. Until there are huts built mid way to sleep in, that’s how it’s going to be. Undoubtedly some days are twenty kilometres or more. Not much time for examining plants or identifying trees. Hill tribe villages are a place where you don’t have to walk for a few hours. The upside is a window into a place and time that in another half a breath will be gone, with no more like it.
The hill tribes aren’t primitives. They have a language and a culture that is unique to each one. They work metal, they have frame houses. They are aware that there is a great big world out there, many have contacts across national boundaries within the clan group. They like electricity and tin roofs on their houses, who wouldn’t. Besides the little compact fluorescent light bulbs some also have DVD players which they power up the generators and use precious gasoline to run. Thai music videos are an essential part of life even if they don’t understand the words.

We were walking directly up the highest point around called Phou Mon Lem in Lao which means hay mountain in English. The top of the hill is unforested and always grows hay. In no way do the mountains of Laos even come close to tree line, I’d hesitate to even call them mountains, no glaciers or snowfall of any kind. They remind me of the Adirondacks or the Green Mountains in the north eastern US. They are steep. Without being cliffs they are some of the steepest things covered by dirt that I’ve ever seen. Not much chance for erosion to have it’s way, they are typically covered with some sort of plant. Often when you kick a rock off the side of the trail it keeps on rolling.

Click here for the map to the area

Find Muang Long by moving the map to the upper left. Phou Mon Lem is marked 1751. Our walk took us just west of the top of the hill, from there we walked side hill and down (southeast) to our village for the night, Mongla, which is probably at about the same place marked by the red dot LS358. An extremely old helicopter landing site from the war.
From Mongla we walked the south bank of the river half way to the bend, then re crossed to the north side, and crossed the tributary before heading up the old trail to what is marked Ban Kou. Our route actually walked along the back side of this hill a short ways to Ban Som Pan Yao. Ban Tdaw Sum was further along this ridge at the top of the second to last spur headed down to Xiengkok. The spur we followed to Xiengkok points right towards the letter “a” in Nam None. This is the site of Xiengkok old town.
Click here to see the adjacent map for reference
On any map of Laos you can see the sharp bend in the Mekong where it says “Shan State” you can even see Xieng Kok (Xiankok) written in. That big sharp bend is most of the way up the left side of Laos along the Burma border below China. The hill labeled 1156 is on both maps due to the overlap. 1156 is where we walked down towards Xiangkok from. 1156 is also the approximate location of Ban Tdaw Sum.

The trails themselves are old, often I suspect very old. I’ve noticed them cutting deeply into the dirt on the tops of hills. Villages seem to move, I’ve never seen one that was in it’s present location more than thirty years ago, but I’d wager the trails have been used ever since these hills had people.
Before the top of Phou Mon Lem we were joined by a middle aged friendly guy and a ten or twelve year old boy. The man was carrying four litres of petrol for the generator, and the boy was carrying one litre in an old bottle and a new sleeping matt. They had left Muang Long forty five minuets later than us and caught up by noon. They remained with us for the rest of the day. We had the same destination.
As soon as we began heading downhill I took back my pack and kept it except for a short stretch the next day. We paused for lunch at the first drinkable water on the downhill side of the hill. Both the hill tribe folks and Somjit drank from the small stream. I carry all my water to avoid drinking surface water if possible. I’m scared of all the parasites, from animals and humans. Last time here I drank from the streams of necessity. When I got home I took a three day course of worm pills, better safe than sorry. Three litres is just enough to allow me ten hours of strenuous exercise. We all shared lunch but I ate very sparingly. No energy to waste digesting food.
After lunch I continued to go as fast as I could. Until we hit the trail junction at Jakune Old town we were on trails that neither Somjit nor I had been on before. We were worried about how long it might take. After an hour or so we stumbled down to the trail junction. I looked at the very faint path we had followed to get lost last trek and marvelled that we had even taken such an unused trail.
Jakune Gao was the first abandoned town from my last trek to the area. We didn’t even break for a rest.
At Jakune Mai, (Jakune New Town) I walked directly to the Naibans house where I had stayed last time. Tdooee had said that he found the people of Jakune Mai not friendly. That hadn’t been my experience and I owed them a thank you for putting me up. When I’d been there before things hadn’t dried out yet, and I was still in pretty poor shape. My spoken Lao had been a lot worse. The Naiban’s wife’s had given me a massage and they’d even brought a basin of water for me to wash my legs and feet which were extremely muddy, before I slept on their clean blankets.

Naiban Jakune, yes I know I have to photo shop out the poster next to him left and right.

I figure all these villages that are a long ways off the road are still growing opium. Tdooee represents the government, his dad is a Naiban and war veteran. Probably the villagers don’t like people nosing around what is now an illegal crop. I could care less what they are growing. Opium has been the traditional cash crop for as long as anyone remembers. The soil is poor. For a people who know nothing of modern medicine it is also a lot less painful way to die of sickness. The average life span has lengthened with the decrease in malaria but I think for most life lasts maybe forty or fifty years.
The two pictures I’d sent via Tdooee had been given pride of place being tacked to the outside wall of the Naiban’s house next to the door for all to see. They are the only photos of anyone in the village. When I arrived the Naiban was shirtless and wearing the traditional hand woven baggy trousers that hill tribe men wear. His head was completely shaved except for a wisp of a topknot sticking out of the top of his head. He kind of looked like something out of a Chinese Gangster movie. Knowing more about things now I immediately asked to take his picture and promised I would somehow see that it got into his hands. Unfortunately the Naiban donned his hat and jacket for the photo. You have to remember the photo is for him not for us.
I spoke directly to the Naiban, not through an interpreter, remaining off his porch so to place myself below him. What I said was mostly about how indebted I felt over his hospitality for the last visit and that I had brought some small gifts that were very meagre but I wanted to show my appreciation somehow for putting me up last time. I’d brought him some aspirin type stuff, disinfectant for cuts, throat lozenges for soar throats, sterile cotton swabs, and some spices that I thought his wives would like. Chicken soup base, whole black peppers, shampoo, and of course a couple bags of bang nua. The medical supplies were at the suggestion of the government doctor for the area. I took a pass on the other medicines I didn’t understand, I was afraid they were antibiotics which everyone takes for the wrong reasons and in the wrong doses.

Good Sized Hill below Viongphuka as seen from Jakune

The Naiban again invited me to stay at his house but I declined saying the tourism office had made plans for me to stay at Mongla. We hurried out of town, we still had a river crossing and unknown hours of walking in front of us. I saw our local guide from the last trip also at the headman’s house, I think he is a sort of advisor. Also on the way out we saw the Shaman.
Our walking companion hadn’t accompanied us to the headman’s house and we quickly made our way downhill to the river. Waiting at the river were some young teenage boys. Soon after we took of our shoes to cross our companions from earlier in the day joined us. They had missed our exit from the village.

Young teens by the river

The Nam Fa was never deeper than mid thigh where we crossed, but the water was quick and there was a fair amount of volume. It’s easy to see how this might have been impassable in December when things were wetter. On the other side the middle aged man took off all his clothes and rinsed off. The boy retained his underwear and went for a swim. I too took off all my clothes and dove in, on the way out I wiggled for the teenagers watching on the other side. The bath felt good.

Crossing the Nam Fa

The remaining miles to Ban Mongla seemed to go quickly through the very old forest close to the river. The trees were larger than I’d seen before on this side of the Namha Protected Area. As we walked through the beginning of the village my guide asked the middle aged man we had been traveling with for the day how to get to the Naiban’s house. The man replied “follow me, I am the Naiban”.
The Naiban had recently married his second wife. I thought she was a friend of his wife’s. I caught on as he started explaining how there were too few husbands in the village and some of the men had needed to take second wives. Right. I’ll try that on my wife. Actually the two wives seemed to get along very well. I wouldn’t be surprised if the older wife had a lot to do with choosing the second one.

Second Wife of Naiban Mongla

As I started to jot down my notes in my notebook his youngest son came over to watch and I showed him my sons picture. They are about the same age. The son called the Naiban over to take a look and he also looked at my other two pictures, one of the kids and my wife posing in the water at the beach and another of my wife kissing our daughter and smelling her neck. Babies smell nice. The Naiban looked at the kissing picture a long time even though you can’t see anyone’s face. I think everyone in the world loves kids, especially babies.
The next morning while out on the porch the Naiban and his second wife eagerly posed for photos. Being the most important personages in the village it makes a lot of sense. A lot more than photos of kids or chickens.

Naiban Mongla

Dinner consisted of one very thin chicken, I mixed the soup with the left over sticky rice and ate a lot. Other people waiting devoured the remainder of the chicken stew quickly. Not much food in the village. Dinner had taken a long time to get together also. My guide Somjit was only twenty three or four and reticent in the presence of important peoples. My instant noodles were the only breakfast which is fine by me. For lunch Somjit took left over mountain rice from the night before and left over barbequed duck from the day before.
We left at eight, not as early as I’d like but better than most treks. After an hour along the river we crossed it, on the other side we chatted to two men carrying two gallons of homemade whiskey and headed in to Muang Long. They quoted a regular time to our destination of four hours.
When we started walking again it was with a feeling of the pressure being off. The day before we had done eight hours in nine and a half. We hadn’t taken breaks except fifteen minuets for lunch and we’d moved as quickly as possible. A four hour walk shouldn’t take us longer than six I reasoned. Somjit wasn’t so sure, he remembered having a hard time when he had walked this trail before. It did go up. The grade was more like I am used to in Colorado, uphill without fooling around. The two men from the village were in great shape and when I stepped around them to get in the back they quickly left us.

I had at first thought the guys were carrying gasoline for a generator, same type bottle as yesterday. When Somjit explained they were off to sell whiskey in town I asked more questions. How much do they sell a litre of whiskey for? One dollar US. Why would someone go to Xiengkok to take the tuk tuk to Muang Long to sell whiskey for less than the cost of the ride? No answer. Xiengkok is kind of a wild east town. Remote border crossing to the refineries in Burma, access to the Mekong and therefore the rest of the world via shipping containers from China. The mind is just chock a block full of possibilities.
We hit the approximate top of the hill a little after noon. We had been taking breaks, not long ones but breaks. Somjit pointed towards the horizon and said he could just see Som Pan Yao. When I asked him to describe where, he had a difficult time. When I tried to nail him down it turns out he was referring to the reflection off a roof a long ways away. His memory of places was very sketchy. I think he was following the trail but paying little attention to which side of the hill or drainage he was on. In short even though he came from a farm in Muang Long he was more of an in town guy than a mountain kid. He had spent a long time going to college in Luang Nam Tha. He also walked with feet slightly splayed, not such a great indicator of someone who had walked a lot.

We needed to walk behind the left of the three bumps to get to our place for the night.

The prospects had shifted again. I knew that it was a long way to the reflection of the roof no matter how many hours the hill tribe guys said it took. Also Somjit was low on water. The tributary we had crossed at mid morning was a little large to drink out of safely. Again we walked in a hurry. Four long hours later we came to a spring that was fine for drinking. An hour later we entered Som Pan Yao which had a road to it.
Having a road always changes the character or a village, or maybe it’s just my perception. Thankfully Som Pan Yao was on the nearer side of the mountain from where Somjit thought. The trail also had traversed the back side instead of following the top. The Naiban wasn’t home but was up watching the cutting of the posts for the new schoolhouse. To cut the posts he had contracted out to someone with a chain saw from Muang Long, Thai Lu people. We could hear them doing the rip cuts as we came into town.
While we waited for the Naiban to return we ate the rice we’d taken for lunch dry. We also had the old piece of barbequed duck but I was afraid it was too old what with all the hot weather and all. It was at least 30 hours without refrigeration. When the Naiban finally returned at around dark with all the men that had come to cut the wood it was a little late for cooking. Somjit reported there was no food to buy in the village.
The woodcutters had food from somewhere and ate with an appetite. After they were done they started to amuse themselves with the foreigner. They started by giving me a “sabai dee OK” with the thumbs up signal. This is supposed to be some sort of foreigners talk. It’s what everyone says to the foreigners in these parts especialy after they're in their cups. I replied that yes indeed I was sabai and they could go ahead and speak Lao as I’d been following their conversation throughout dinner. Silence. Some nervous laughs then some questions. Where did I come from, how long had I been in Laos, and all the usual ones. Then I got one I’ve been waiting a while to hear. ”Why do you come to these small villages, what interests you here?“ My answer was only partially true. I said that until very recently my family and all families in the world had lived much the way the people of Mongla did, and that now almost no one lived that way, I want to see these things before they are gone forever. Unstated was also my interest in the great variety of species existent in the old growth forests. I also like walking.

Naiban’s Second Wife Again

I lay down after a while intending to eventually drift off to sleep. Somjit roused me with the announcement that he had cooked some food. Fine by me. I sat down to chicken stew again with the Naiban and Somjit. The Naiban lifted out the gizzard, liver, and intestines, and dropped them in my cup. I was appreciative, best parts. The woodcutters took off with the announcement that they were going to find some girls. I asked them to bring one back for me.
As I once again drifted off towards sleep the woodcutters returned with a few drunk girls that were of an age that even I thought was young. Thankfully none for me. We were all sleeping in the mens room. Akha houses are divided between men and women, this house had separate rooms for sleeping by gender. Our room was about five by six meters. The girls sounded like they were intent on getting drunk and getting laid, I wondered how all this was going to occur with such a lack of privacy. Thankfully I once again drifted off and so missed the details. I had to ask Somjit how it all went in the morning. I hope they looked upon my deep snores as mood music.
After three months of it I’m fairly used to sleeping shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of Akha people but this was a new one on me. When you think about it they do have children, and they sleep communally. Of course all the wood cutters were middle aged married men Thai Lu men. As for the Akha girls I think the Akha are allowed promiscuity before marriage.
A long time ago I had an Akha friend in Chang Mai. He was a trekking guide and I would hear him regaling the backpackers about the sexual practices of the Akha. Mostly I ignored it, he was always joking around especially to get people to sign up for treks. I wish I’d listened more closely, I think he was telling mostly the truth.
Ten years ago he was doing time in Chang Rai for heroin, I wonder if he’s even still alive. A big job hazard of being a trekking guide is becoming addicted to opiates. Many of the tourists want to try smoking opium and the trekking guide being the jolly fellows they are of course join in. A few years later the tourist has moved on to life in the corporate world back home and the guide is still taking people trekking and smoking opium. If you have a habit, heroin is a lot easier to do in the city where the smell of opium would be dangerous.
The Lao government is trying to avoid these pitfalls by tightly regulating it’s trekking industry. They have studied what happened in Thailand closely. I myself am ambivalent about opium and it’s use. Like any drug I guess it’s best avoided. I only wish there were such a stigma attached to alcohol and tobacco consumption the two biggest killers by far. The drinking of hard liquor in Laos in such quantities is new. With so many making so much money now the untaxed moonshine is within everyone’s budget. Labelled, factory made, lao lao sells for half a dollar for a half litre. Cigarettes are twenty cents a pack. Seems like ten years ago I never saw people smoking.

Lao Lao and banana flowers on sale Muang Sing

The next morning we took off walking down the road. I’m usually not big on walking down roads, better to ride. After a half hour we cadged a ride for a couple miles off a motorcyclist, the only thing that passed us. At the town of Muang Kan we turned off the road and onto a path, the old trail to Xiengkok.
I haven’t talked about the trees and terrain or animals that we were passing through. There was no time to talk as we were walking. Unlike Green Discovery this trek was about getting to the town of our destinations. I also don’t think Somjit had an extensive back ground with hill tribes or the forest. I had been telling him a lot of the traditions and culture that I had learned from the Green Discovery guide, and it seemed like it was new to him. Everyone knows that you don’t walk through the gate to a village. Not many know what the carvings and symbols are for on top of the gate, or why it is moved out but never in. Likewise it takes a long time to learn a few of the different trees and their uses, or to recognise all of the signs of animals.

The gates when leaving Mongla

The area we were in was the next drainage south from the Nam Ma, the river is spelled Nam Pha on the topo map but I call it Nam Fa, seems simpler, the ph sound is a Vietnamese spelling.
The trail down to Xiengkok was surprisingly pretty. It took four hours and much of it was through original forest cover. From the ridge we were following down off the mountain I could look across and see a fair sized Akha villages sitting on the last ridge off our mountain, called Ban Tdaw Sum. It’s getting so I feel as if Akha villages have a certain look about them even from a distance.
Somjit and I had always been more evenly matched on the downhill, I had gravity helping me out. Now he began to drag. He was wearing shoes for maybe the first time. Fake Converse All Stars. His toenails were digging into his toes. I gave him my flip flops to wear much to his relief.

The Mekong from above

Soon before Xiengkok we spotted the Mekong headed for Thailand below us. I for one was happy to see it. Old Xiengkok is a kilometre down the road before the new town which all are familiar with on the river. I sat there at Somjit’s grandmothers house and waited for him to rustle us up a ride. Forty five minuets later he brought the borrowed motorcycle back announcing there were no rides and we might have to stay in Xiengkok. I didn’t believe and offered to go take a look myself. He came and gave me a ride on the motorcycle before I’d walked too far.
I’m not shy to talk to people. I know that all we needed was something that would move and someone who wanted to earn the ten dollars of whatever it took to get to Muang Long. Of course there is no telephone so I couldn’t call Muang Long and ask them to send a minivan. I felt sheapish approaching groups of middle aged men who were slowly drinking beers on a hot Saturday afternoon and calling the oldest one uncle enquiring about renting anything that moved to get to Muang Long, all this while a fluent Lao speaker is waiting on his bike. Of course soon I struck pay dirt, a guy started walking around with us looking and he found us a ride on a truck carrying bricks. Somjit warmed to the task also once he learned that you don’t only have to look for the usual transportation.

Fast Boat headed down towards Thailand out of Xiengkok

After arranging to get on the truck after they had filled it with river sand I took Somjit and the guy who had helped us to the restaurant across the street and I sprung for a lunch. The only soup on the menu was Tom Yum so I ordered us up three bowls. It was surprisingly good. Thai food. Looking around the restaurant I wondered to Somjit how such a place could stay in business. There were maybe three of four foreigners a night in Xiengkok, maybe being the important part. Probably none, certainly not enough to support the number of restaurants there. Then Somjit referred to a girl walking down the street in Lao Language as a night worker. I asked what he meant. I’m more familiar with the term “Sao kai beeya” (girl who sells beer) or less politely “galee” which I won’t even say in English.
Suddenly I got it. But where from the customers? Somjit said mostly Luang Namtha. Seems like quite a ways to go to buy girls I thought. Just another facet of Lao culture I’m fairly ignorant about. Xiengkok in general seems like a sleepy little town where it’s probably better not to wonder what people are up to. Whether someone is there for business or pleasure best not to guess what business, what pleasure.

Xiengkok Restaurant

Tdooee’s brother’s wedding party was in full swing when we got back to Muang Long at around five, the only restaurant in town was also closed. The market was out of rice and of course meat, I grabbed some cooked sausage and a big bag of sompac the pickled mustard greens made with rice water, one of the vendors went into her shack and grabbed me a cold chunk of sticky rice out of her pot. I hadn’t eaten much over the past few days and was hungry. In my room I took a cold shower, the only kind there is in Muang Long and washed every piece of clothing I had with me. At six thirty the generator kicked on and there were lights and a fan.
The truck to Luang Namtha left at 9:30 and was fairly uneventful except for the problems with the brakes. The road to Muang Sing is unpaved and one hardly needs brakes. The hard surface to Luang Namtha is another matter. The brakes were way past soft, the driver would pump till his leg fell off. He bled them and bled them without seeming to have much luck. We stopped up the road out of town again to try to bleed them. At the police checkpoint fifteen or so kilometres out of Muang Sing, the whole truck got the going over. Everybody out while they check us and the bags. They slit right into the rice sacks and felt around then closed them up with cellophane tape. A big truck full of rice in front of us was being re stacked so that they could stick a metal rod into every sack. I think they were more interested in meth coming out of Burma than heroin or opium. Who knows, guns? TVs? I wouldn’t think anyone smuggles opiates into Laos. It would be like bringing maple syrup to Vermont.

Bleeding the brakes at the Wat just out of Muang Sing

After messing with the brakes one more time we all got back on. Then they put some poor Chinese fellow in the back and handcuffed his hands to the frame of the truck. Illegal immigrant. A lot come over from Boten. We dropped him off at immigration in Luang Namtha where they had a key that fit his cuffs. Rather him than me. Looked like a well dressed studious kind of guy, I’ve heard they beat them pretty well on their return to China.
As I left Muang Long Tdooee asked how long it would be until I come back. Smart man, it had only been two and a half months since my last visit. Unfortunately I’m sure that it will be more than a year. In that time the number of treks into the Nam Fa will have doubled, perhaps even one of the villages will relocate down to the road. Things change quickly, must seem even quicker for the Akha of Muang Long district.

Feb 23, 2007

The Money Changer

New Market Muang Sing

Above is the lady who can get it done for you. Kip, Baht, Dollars, Renminbe, silver, and gold, all can be changed at a fairly good rate, sometimes better than the bank. It’s up to you to know the rate. No she doesn’t accept travlers checks or visa card.

Upper left inside the glass fronted case are 100 quai renmenbi notes, the bricks third shelf down are bricks of 5000 kip notes, one of the most useful pieces of currency. She also has a few hundred US on the outside of some tens and twenties as well as thirty or forty thousand baht in thousands with a few five hundreds. I don’t know about the gold, I’d assume it’s 95% or more.
Link below for latest rates in most currencies for kip, be sure to look in the column for buying or selling, some variation due to geography, Chinese renminbe get a better rate close to China likewise Baht close to Thailand, dollars should be new and in good condition.

The Road Back From Up North

Dump Truck Full of Crushed Rock Road to Huay Xai

My ride home began as a way to avoid a road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vien in Laos. My wife had called and asked me to fly and my embassy had asked all citizens not to use the road. I’ve always been aware that there is a risk associated with using this road even if somewhat small. Not able to book a flight from the town I was in I went down the road to Huay Xai where there are flights four times a week and boats down the Mekong as well as the border with Thailand and all of it’s modern transportation system.
Some day soon the Luang Namtha / Huay Xai road will be the best road in Laos, that day can’t come too soon for me. For now it’s a hundred and eighty kilometre long construction site. To be fair probably a third is surfaced and graded, another third is graded with crushed rock road base and the remainder is graded but two inches deep in dust. Dust drifted up through the floorboards and covered everything.
The new bus station is convenient for the taxi mafia fifteen kilometres out of town and near the airport. The next days flight was full. I crossed the river into Thailand and waited for a six pm mini van to Chang Mai. All the mini vans headed in the opposite direction seemed to disgorge at the guest house where I was waiting. The guest house workers graciously arranged Lao visas for all the arriving backpackers for no charge. I guess they didn’t count the extra ten to twenty dollars apiece they were charging, or maybe my calculator was malfunctioning. They were making an extra hundred dollars an hour while I was there. Slightly sleazy. They should have been up front about the commission and not lied.
The minibus driver wasn’t that great, kept playing with the gas pedal but at about a half past midnight we rolled into Chang Mai and without a how dee doo the driver parked at a guest house a half a block from the Tapae Gate in the old quarter. For a tourist it doesn’t get much more down town than that.
I’d given up talking to the other passenger a few hours ago. All he wanted to do was talk about all the wood he was exporting from Laos into Thailand for re export to Italy and Australia. I’m not real big on Laos being turned into a scruffy dry low canopy country like Thailand has become and he just couldn’t seem to drop the subject. Of course what he was doing is very illegal. It seemed as if half the north of Thailand was on fire. Not the big blazes from slash and burn but only the small creeping flames from leaves, all over the hillsides.
Sengthian and I left Chang Mai more than ten years ago on the first leg of our trip to the United States. I’m familiar with the city even when it’s a long ways past my bedtime. I told the tuk tuk driver to take me to the arcade bus station even though there weren’t any busses running.

I was now in a hurry. My youngest daughter had been having diarria and on my last cell phone call before I went out of range of Lao cell phone coverage in Thailand my wife told me she was taking her over the border to Thailand and a good hospital in the morning. My daughter Thipalada was starting to droop. The international clinic in Vientiane recommended she be put on an IV to rehydrate and so on, but they didn’t want to take the responsibility of doing so themselves. Our insurers help line had suggested we cross the border for treatment at a modern hospital. Our daughter is only fifteen months and I know for babies in Laos having the squirts can be cause for concern.

The big hotel at the bus station looked like a big massage parlour, all gaudied up with Grecian motifs and rooms for twenty dollars. The tuk tuk man took me around the corner for less than half the price and no hot and cold running girls.

Five hours sleep and a shower later I caught the first thing moving south to Pitsianalook, a major hub on the way to Bangkok with connections to Isaan. The route south should have been all familiar territory, I’ve driven it on a motorcycle many times but in ten years things change. One of the really nice parts was that the whole road is now two lanes in both directions and mostly a divided highway. We stopped in Lampang where I first taught English probably fifteen years ago.

Ticket taker in front of the bus at the Lampang Bus station

There were no buses out of Pitsianalook headed in my direction until six at night. The bus to Udonthani was an ordinary without assigned seats. I got a place to sit at around eleven thirty as people got off and the bus became less crowded. The first few hours were very hot, I couldn’t see well but I saw the signs for Lamsak and knew we were in my old stomping grounds where Isaan blends with central Thai. I could tell we were on the road to Loei just by the contortions the bus was put through over the mountain roads. I drove that road on a Honda crotch rocket my first trip to Laos making a visa run. I kept telling myself that what was taking one hour in Thailand often took six or ten on the roads of Laos.

I thought I was familiar with Udonthani, walk thirty yards to get out of the station and stumble rightwards to a cheap hotel. The walk out of the station at half past one in the morning kept seeming five times as far, I did it twice trying to figure it out. Nothing seemed to be clicking. A tuk tuk carrying a monk stopped and I got on before I even negotiated a price. I kept trying to remember if the bus station I was thinking of was in Udonthani, Nong Khai, or any one of a million other towns in Asia I’ve been in. Too little sleep and I had dozed off on the bus.

For the record there are two bus stations in Udonthani, I was at the other one. After another five hours sleep and a shower I wandered back into my familiar bus station and was immediately pushed onto an overnight sleeper bus that had rolled in out of Pataya, they didn‘t even give me a ticket. I was half groggy and no longer even attempting to speak Thai, I figure if they don’t understand Lao in Isaan well the hell with them. What the other passenger thought was funny was that my Lao sounds like I come from the country side. For Lao speakers of Isaan, the Lao from Laos sounds old fashioned.

Sengthian anticipating that I would be coming into range of Lao cell coverage had gone out close to where the elevators were in the hospital and there was good reception. About ten minuets out of Nong Khai she told me what hospital they were at and that Thipalada was fine. I was pretty happy to see them.

Both of my girlfriends

They were just about ready to go but had been waiting for me to get there. The Thai paediatrician hadn’t given Thipalada any antibiotics yet proffering to let her fight off the infection herself as long as possible. When I got there a nurse injected the initial dose into the IV and the doctor came in to talk to me and write a prescription for more doses so that I could pay the bill and buy the drugs downstairs all at the same time.

At the window for paying bills I quickly scanned the itemized bill looking for the grand total first. Baht 4,250, a little over a hundred dollars US. Of course I paid first then brought the receipts upstairs to get us all checked out as the nurse had suggested.

Later I looked at the itemized bill, it was in English. Three days two nights private room with extra beds for my wife, her sister, and my son. Six charges for the paediatrician, various IV solutions and needles, drugs, a long list of tests on urine and blood and stool I didn’t understand, friendly English speaking nursesI should cross the river more often.

Feb 21, 2007

Yam Moon Sen

Yam Moon Sen
Above is a photo of some yam moon sen we ordered up in the food court in the Tesco in Nong Khai. Ya I know, where’s the moon sen? Under all the veggies, I snapped the photo before we sent the order back for some fish sauce and a re mixing.
Yam means salad, sen means noodle, and I would guess moon refers to this particular type of noodle, mung bean noodle. I’ve also heard the noodle called glass noodle as it is clear when cooked. Ideally I like the noodles cooled after cooking so that they remain at the proper done ness. They should be firm, biteable and slippery.
I’m a obsessive about yam and I like all cooked ingredients cold before mixing with any of the fresh veggies. I like all the vegetables fresh without a hint of being cooked. Crunchy.
The best yam moon sen I’ve had was next to the McDonalds close to the night bazaar in Chang Mai. Often you had to wait a little to even sit down. People ate quickly though and it was never a long wait. I think they dipped the noodles in ice water just after cooking. The yam by which all others are judged.
This yam moon sen in Nong Khai included mung bean noodles of course, tomatoes, sweet chunks of uncooked onions, green onions, squid, prawns, celery leaves, cilantro, pieces of hot dog, pieces of pork, bits of lettuce, a white sea animal that resembles a sponge and is sold dried, and now the good bits, fresh squeezed lime juice, fish sauce, fresh hot peppers, salt, sugar, bang nua.
Yam moon sen is supposed to rock. It’s a good light lunch for a hot day. The flavours are supposed to set you back on your heels a little. Fish sauce and lime juice in proportions that would be overdoing it by a factor of five under normal circumstances. Double the normal hot peppers. Anyone who eats it needs to be drinking lots of ice water and fresh steamed rice to help put out the fire.
Now I’m going to pan the hell out of an expat Vientiane restaurant so if you are an expat living in Vientiane stop here, please don’t send nasty emails, I already warned you.
I heard about a restaurant in Vientiane selling “real Lao food” and best of all “no MSG”. I had to go see how the heck they cooked “real Lao food” without MSG, and yes I realize that when that cook book was made with the old Kings favourite dishes in it there was no MSG as MSG is a recent arrival on the Lao cooking scene. I have yet to go to a place so remote in Laos that they don’t use MSG. Plenty of places without plah dek, and the hill tribes don’t use fish sauce, but everywhere MSG.
When I went there I felt a little out of place at first, all foreigners dressed up for the office or else rich tourists who dress up for lunch, I couldn’t tell which. The only Lao people seemed to be either staff or friends of the foreigners. It was the kind of place with a menu, written in English so that you had to guess what you were getting. I thought I recognised yam moon sen so I asked, I think on the menu it was noodle salad with pork or something. I know you are wondering what I’m doing ordering Thai food in a Lao restaurant. It was on the menu and I like it.
My goal was to get food with MSG, first I had to get the idea through that rather than checking to make sure there was no MSG I was checking to make sure they put some in my food. Wonder of all wonders they were able to find some in the kitchen and add it as asked. I guess with a restaurant staffed entirely of Lao people they have to eat somewhere.
What I wasn’t ready for was a lack of hotness. The name of the restaurant was Hot Chilli peppers in Lao, I thought they might have hot food. In fairness I also got this exact same yam moon sen in a friends new restaurant catering exclusively to foreigners. When I asked the cook where he had learned to cook so many different foods he replied at a large hotel in Vientiane. So I guess this is an evolving specialty food. Dumbed down Thai food for foreigners.
At first I thought there was absolutely no hotness at all to the food. Careful tasting and looking revealed sauce sri racha, that stuff that looks like catsup. Yuch, like adding catsup to lemonade. If there was fish sauce I couldn’t taste it. I’m sure it had lime juice. Overcooked noodles arranged on a plate to look beautiful. In fairness the rice was fresh, hot, cooked just right and of excellent quality. I told the staff how delicious it all was and smiled continuously. There is a certain pasted on Lao smile that one uses when the situation is simply irretrievable. I must have been bowed to about 15 times on the way out. Felt like I was in Thailand or something, all that bowing and scraping.
The following is how I make it. You can add or subtract as you see fit, especially with the meat and fish, any ingredients work.
In the coke crush twice as many fresh hot peppers as you are used to, add tiny amounts of salt, sugar, and bang nua. Then buckets of lime juice, and fish sauce. Should be enough left on the plate after you are done to drink the stuff from a glass. I like to cool all the cooked ingredients on ice before adding them. Prawns, squid, the white spongy sea food, even some mussels or oysters, glass noodles, cilantro, celery leaves, white and green onions. You can make it with pork instead of the fish or that white sausage called yaw. The ingredients are turned over with a spoon in the coke to mix with all the liquids.
Below is a photo of one of my favourite spices also from the Tesco in Nong Khai.

Bang Nuea

Feb 8, 2007

Pai Ying Nock

That's Lao for gone bird hunting, similar to gone fishing in English, I'm up North wandering about and will probably be blogging again sometime after the 15th of February. Cold up here.

Well,,,, maybe after the 20th. Warming up.

Feb 3, 2007

My Camera

DPReview of the new Pana FZ8

Panasonic just released a newer version of the camera I’ve been using. I was very happy to see not much had changed.
They added another pixel and an upgraded processor but the sensor, lenses, and body are all the same. I’m not so crazy about cramming tons of pixels into a tiny sensor anyway. The new camera is called the FZ8, I’m using it’s older sister called the FZ7, still the best thing I could find in it’s category called super zoom, or sometimes “SLR like“. With enough batteries and a couple huge memory cards it set me back a little over three hundred US. Empty it weighs around 300 grams, too light to bonk somebody over the head with when they steal my bus seat. I protect it because it’s the only camera I have not because it’s worth anything.
My pana (that’s shutter bug language for a Panasonic) doesn’t have interchangeable lenses but that’s just fine by me. I spent years switching from my telephoto zoom to the wide angle while shielding my camera from desert dust and mountain snow. Now I have the equivalent of a 38mm wide to a 430mm zoom all in a very good Leica lens. The image stabilization is nice too, now I can hand hold shots of almost everything. It helps that I can’t use the tripod because it’s at home.
My favourite mode is program mode. I can change any setting I want and other things will sort themselves out automatically. The other mode I use a lot is Manual because it allows me to adjust the lighting the way I want. Sometimes things just have a light filled background and I still want a shot.
One weird thing is that if I leave the camera to it’s default wide angle setting I can get real close, move the zoom to get a little closer and I have to jump back to a couple meters or things aren’t in focus. Don’t know why. The super VGA movie mode was broken from the get go. Oh well. I’ve tried taking some movies, don’t know how to get them up on the blog anyway.
All in all I’m very happy. My last and only other real camera was a Pentax Manual SLR. It had a light meter. It was sturdy but I had to work to get a good shot. I used to shoot with very slow Fuji slide film and I liked the colours better than this camera, I don’t care if they weren’t real.
This camera also has a scene mode that I often use for food. It also has a “simple” as in stupid, mode. Has a big red heart on the dial just to let you know. I’ve never been able to get a good picture out of it, always seems to be some kind of compromise.
Now that I can half way figure out these cameras I look at other peoples equipment when I’m traveling with them for any length of time. They usually use scene mode.
For fixing up the pictures after I shoot I’m still a neophyte. Let me preface by saying I used to think that doing things to an image after shooting was cheating. I don’t have photo shop, but use the stuff that came with the Google picture management software I downloaded off the net. Mostly I use it to crop or to add fill light. Some of the really bad shots have already been sharpened and everything else I could think of. There is also a feature called, “I’m feeling lucky”.
I realize not all the photos are that great, often they are used to move the story along. Sometimes they are just all there is of a person or situation I wanted to tell about. I keep thinking about going back to the villages I first visited and bringing them copies of the pictures. It looks as if I’ll be headed in that general direction Monday.

More from between the trips

Vientiane / Kunming

I was down trying to refind my way to the Northern Bus Station in Vientiane and while looking around found this bus getting fixed at a garage. Takes three days, costs 380 renminbe or 513,000 kip. Leaves every day at around 2PM, probably that gets it to the border mid morning if everything is working out alright, bet they use new tires every chance they get. Sleeper bus.
The reason I was going to the terminal was to ask about the bus to Luang Namtha, leaves at 8:30 AM arrives 7 AM. Lot less formalities than the plane, just show up. Plane is booked out a week in advance.


This is an NGO worker I met through the internet who helped find a friends body last month in Sichuan Province China. She was working in the provincial capital when she got an email message from someone who sent emails to any organisation he could think of in the area. Charlie had been overdue on his flight home for a few days with no word to anyone. Shortly thereafter while at the bus station Kara on a whim went in a guesthouse nearby and asked if Charlie had registered there, and low and behold there was his name.
A few people from the town Charlie lived in immediately flew over and began a search. I can understand their reasoning, often climbers break a leg or something and crawl out. Happens more often than you might think. Every day that goes by the chances of a happy ending diminish. I saw the story in the newspaper, “Two climbers missing in China” and so I read on, you never know. I didn’t follow the story much after that. I was aware of the odds.
At first they weren’t sure of which province Charlie and his partner had been climbing in. The area is where Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet all come together. Lots of mountains not many climbers, good place to bag first ascents. Coincidently the last time I talked to Charlie was just before I went to live in Dali, just south of there thirteen long years ago. By a lot of hard work by Charlie’s friends and probably some luck they found the driver that had dropped them off and narrowed down the search to one mountain. They found Charlie but not his partner. Looked like an avalanche.
Kara was in Vientiane on a visa run and to relax in the warm climates a little. She was headed back through Vang Vien and wanted to try climbing on the limestone crags there, then off to a new job in Tibet with the UN. Kara if you are reading this perhaps don’t take up Alpinism. Charlie if you’re reading keep a cold one handy I’ll be right there.

Butt, Namphone, Thipalada, Hong on the porch

This last picture is of the completed shacket I built for my brother and sisters in law. Total price around $3500. A generous mom in law gave Butt here three cows to watch and he gets to keep the calves. One has popped out already. Butt’s work for the season is pretty much over until the rice is ready to cut in May, it’s about ten inches high now.
I asked Butt about insecticide and fertilizer. He said there is no need for insecticide and he does use fertilizer, 16-20-0. Lots to make the stalk and grains grow, nothing for the roots. From the rai he farms he gets about 7 bags per rai during the dry season, and maybe 9 or 10 during the wet. Right now he and his wife and baby eat 30 kilos a month. That leaves over a ton of his crop to sell, maybe just under a thousand dollars a year. Not counting expenses.

Feb 2, 2007

Nothing to do with Laos

But a nice picture of 504 on a November afternoon in Utah none the less.
Photo by Scott Lambert
Scott used to use Kodachrome most of the time. Fairly slow film too. maybe 100. The shutter speed has to be pretty quick the blades are stopped. Nice colour saturation. I’ve enlarged this on the computer and I have no idea who the pilot is, someone I don’t think I knew very well. The rock in the background looks like that chocolate stuff that is on top of the Navajo sandstone that the skids are about ready to set down on.

Between Trips

I took a couple of weeks and went down to Pakse to look at a piece of land we were given and then we went down to Ko Samet in Thailand for a touristy type vacation.
Pakse was a nice change from Vientiane, only a few fellow tourists wandering about, the town seemed to have more money or be better taken care of, felt clean and more pretty. After getting a hotel we rented a motorcycle and the four of us piled on Lao style and headed up to Pakson district and Ban Lak Sam Sip Paad. As the name might suggest the town was thirty eight kilometres up from Pakse, just as you get up onto the Boloven Plateau itself.

Gate and flowering tree at headmans house Lak 38

The Boloven Plateau although nothing inspiring is a lot higher and cooler than Pakse. The road rises at a steady rate for all 38 of the kilometres, we could have coasted back to Pakse. The dirt is also noticeably much more fertile than around Vientiane. Right now our land is planted with tea, although most of the neighbouring land is in coffee. It was time to pick and everywhere you looked there were bags of coffee, and people drying coffee in their front yards.
The big bragging point of our land is that it’s just up the road from the only viewing point for Tad Fan, one of the biggest waterfalls in Laos. It’s actually two falls which makes it even prettier somehow. There is one very expensive guest house with bungalows for forty dollars a night and up. I think it’s called the Tad Fan Resort. They also own the trail with access to view the falls. I took this picture from the front porch of the reception restaurant area.

Tad Fan

I really don’t know how to give it perspective. The falls themselves are probably two hundred feet in height. The English speaker working at the guest house that I talked to said he didn’t know of anyone who had walked to the bottom and that it was a full days walk just to get to the bottom of the canyon. I wonder. One of these days I’ll have to check it out.
Our land is about a five minute walk from the resort. I guess on the weekend there is a tremendous amount of Thai tour busses. Just outside the entrance is a whole market full of shacks selling useless trinkets and a couple selling soft drinks and chips. Amazing how people feel the need to buy things when they go places.
I have no idea what we will do with five thousand meters of overgrown tea bushes up on the Boloven Plateau. I have no desire to build a guest house and without someone there to watch the house it’s useless to build something. So if anyone wants a nice piece of land in Southern Laos let me know.
The next day we went to Ubon in Thailand and it felt like entering another world. Everything seemed rich and modern. The first thing we did while waiting for a connecting bus to Rayong was to eat ourselves sick on Thai food. It felt amazing that you could just go into a restaurant at a bus station and get any food you wanted.
The night bus to Rayong seemed like a never ending journey of driving down the wrong side of the road on a modern highway. Less than twenty four hours after leaving Pakse we stepped off the ferry and were on Samet. Sengthian hadn’t felt like dilly dallying.
The part I liked best about the island was this tree. It’s mai yang, a very common tree used for lumber all over. This is a big one. I figured the trunk was still three feet thick in places at eighty feet where the branches spread out. There were about twenty trees in this patch. Too bad the island wasn’t covered.

Mai Yang

I wasn’t so impressed with Ko Samet. It was fun swimming in the salt water every day but that’s about it. Food didn’t seem inspiring, and the bungalows were too pricey. Twenty five dollars for something that’s just ok seemed like quite a bit. The bungalows are jam packed onto the beach and the road is hardly walkable from the sawngthaews drag racing up and down it all day. The taxi mafia is in force, as a matter of fact there seemed to be a lot of price fixing on the island. Motorcycles were double price as was the internet, all prices were noticeably the same everywhere. Seven Eleven which probably has prices set by some anonymous corporate headquarters was half the price on most things and very busy. Lots of trash everywhere.
Oh, and all this was taking place in a protected national park. Like they say the finest people money can buy. The redeeming part was that there were a lot of Thais there on vacation from Bangkok. An interesting mix with the half dressed Europeans. I personally had no problem with topless twenty something Swedish girls. Most Thai girls were swimming in shorts, and usually a thick tee shirt. My son is very good at befriending beautiful Thai girls and I asked them what they thought of the near nakedness of the Euros. They didn’t mind at all, just wondered why the girls didn’t feel shy.

Fishing Boat, sorry no topless pictures

The day before we left a middle aged Thai woman went up the beach making all the girls cover up, they left, and people put out their cigarettes, and she also hit up people for money to clean up the beach. An older solo tourist beach type guy told me the woman was one of the original inhabitants of the island and owned half the beach, he said he was very tuned in to the local situation and knew these things. I asked our bungalow owner and she laughed. Said the lady was a drunk who liked to get money out of people and had lived there less than 15 years just like everyone else. Said no one owned the beach, all bungalows were on rented land.

Thai Tourists and big Mai Yang