May 31, 2007

Adrift on the River (or why make clay figurines)

Looking North from Boyee Sang Mai.

After fifty miles or so there is the place where the Nam Ou curves back to the west, then after another long way it goes to the border of China, then after who knows how far there is a road.

Ban Wa Tai

Above is a photo of the Nam Ou in Ban Wa Tai above Hat Sa. The river is quieter up here, it sees a lot less traffic, everyone headed for Phongsali jumps out at Hat Sa. At the time I took this photo I was very happy to be headed downstream, in retrospect I should have been headed up, ever further up the river as Kurtz would have it. I was on the last day of a 5 day walk in the mountains drained by the Nam Ngam, Nam Long, and Nam Ngay, the last of which I had been crossing back and forth the day before. The thought of hot showers and clean sheets filled my mind. I was also looking forward to Chinese food and fresh coffee at the Phongsali Hotel.

How quickly we grow to miss our creature comforts. A few days in some windy hills and I go rushing back to the relative comforts of a remote Lao provincial capital. I had been spending the nights on the ridges, so it was nice and warm to be in a valley.

The Nam Ou I was leaving winds many miles upstream without a guest house, English language menu, or bus schedule in sight. Also no roads or cars or busses. Electricity, what there is of it, is by small generator. The river first heads north through the Phou Den Din NBCA a place I’ve never heard anyone talk about. It’s not as if the Den Din NBCA backs up against any population centres either, just Lai Chau province Vietnam. After the Ou leaves the Conservation Area it curves west and then north again to Ou Tai then straight north another hundred or so kilometres to Bosao and the border with China. China just stretches on and on forever with even bigger mountains and valleys and more mountains that no one has ever heard of. It’s Yunnan province, without the hype.

I should have turned around and headed on upstream. There are boats, it is a river, I can communicate after a fashion. Heck I can even talk more easily to the folks in Ou Tai than in Phongsali. Ou Tai people are Thai Lu. I should say most the townspeople are Thai Lu, I saw plenty of ethnics I didn’t recognise. Phongsali people are Phou Noi. Pasa Thai Lu is plenty close enough to Lao or Thai, Pasa Phou Noi is like no language I’ve ever learned to howdy in.

I started out this posting thinking about Thai Lu, and Thai Lu culture, (more later), my thoughts just kind of drifted on up to Ou Tai. I’m fascinated by the town. I know some other people that have been there, but I don't know anyone who has gone for a walk. A police man and a career army guy (party members?) offered to take me around, but by the time I got there I just wanted to go home and hang out with my wife and kids. It was the end of a trip not the beginning.

Crags across the river Ma, Muang Long

What started me thinking about the Thai Lu was I found some notes I took from my second trip north last winter. The notes were about a kind of religious offering I wandered into while going for a walk outside of Muang Long, another Thai Lu town, on the other side of northern Laos, over by the Mekong.

I had to kill a day while waiting to go for a guided walk, so I walked across the river to the crag. I crossed the Nam Ma and then a narrow, but almost deep enough, tributary. I was happy to keep my flip flops from being washed away. I wanted to get a view of the good sized hill above town I would be walking up the next day, and also I just wanted to get out of town for a while.

The Raft

There was an irrigation ditch close up alongside the crag and I found the little woven mat below with the figurine made of clay. I knew immediately that I was looking at some kind of folk religion type thing. I was unsure how it had gotten there. Surely it couldn’t have floated down the irrigation ditch. The woven matt looked like a small raft and the woven horse with rider and figures made of clay had been carefully crafted. It seemed as if the clay figure even had a bed or blanket to lie on.

Are we too originaly of clay.

I of course touched nothing but saw no harm in taking a photo. I have my eyes open when walking and hadn’t seen anyone. When I got back to town I showed Tdui, the tourism official, my photos. He was very excited to see what I’d found, and explained that when someone is sick or has troubles they make the figures and the raft as I call it, to draw away the bad spirits. A shaman is consulted and he says words and tells them where to leave the raft. The figures are kind of sacrifices to the bad spirits.

Update 6/16/07
laomeow asked some Thai Lu monks she knows. They confirmed that the figurines are used to draw away bad spirits. The name for the figurines is “Sataong”
I believe the “transferring” of bad spirits away from oneself into the body of a third thing is a common theme throughout cultures.

638 Headed Downhill

638 headed downhill in Wyoming Photo by Scott Lambert

May 26, 2007


Barber Shop Ban Nong Tang.

Above is the place down the road that I went to most often. Creag was usually well behaved. It was also my chance to take a picture and have him sit still, that or get his ear cut off.

What you are seeing in the photo is this barber's entire house. There is a small bathroom off the back, and they cook in a pot outside the back door. Behind the cabinet that contains all of their earthly possessions, is a bed to sleep on during the day.

Finished Product

There is something universal about getting a haircut in a barber shop. Same set up everywhere and for some reason not much talk needed. You go in, sit down, notice who is there before you, get bored until it’s your turn, get up sit down, get cut, pay.

One time a few years ago, I stopped at the side of the road and was overcharged. There was a sign stating the price in English and Lao. My wife was with me and can read Laotian. I just paid. Kind of weird ripping someone off for fifty cents. He’ll probably come back next life as a head louse if not worse.

Osama's Barber

In mid February we moved to the other side of town, out past Ban Tat Luang, and I had to find another barber. We only went to this guy once and it looks as if he could have used the clippers on himself. I have no idea what the pencil sketch of Osam Bin Rotten, was all about.

I've tried to not use that most famous terorist's full name in fear that automatic web crawlers might filter out his name and put me on some kind of terrorist-watch-body-cavity-search-at-airport list. Phil if you are reading this please use your influence to get my name purged.

May 23, 2007


The dalat, or market in English, is where it’s at. If you don’t raise your own food, someone from your household goes to the market every day.

Above the Dalat an Nong Nee-ow, the closest all day market to where we were living. About 5 kilometers off the end of the aproach to the runway in Vientiane, sometimes an incongruous passenger jet would fly through about two feet above the Wat.

Even with refrigeration, many people buy the food only when they need to cook a meal, cook it, eat it, and go to the market all over again. I don’t think most people understand the idea that refrigeration keeps meat from spoiling and it can be kept for days, or that vegetables don’t wilt. I still see lots of cooked food kept under cover on the table until eaten.

Remember also that for 99.9% of the populations food is cooked at home, not bought at restaurants, that’s why we as tourists have such a difficult time finding restaurants in small towns. For people who don’t grow their own rice and raise their own animals a trip to the market is a daily routine. In larger towns the market is open all day.

Fish Dalat Tatluang

Most markets have at least a basic noodle restaurant, it’s for people waiting to take the bus, shoppers who can’t withstand the temptation for a bowl of foe, and the people working at the market. In bigger towns you can get all kinds of to-go food. Baguette sandwiches, laap, barbequed meat, sticky rice, just about anything to eat. If there is a stand selling soft drinks in plastic bags, often they will have coffee too. Sometimes one of the soup restaurants sells coffee. I look for the telltale can with the sock for filtering, the only method that seems to be in use for brewing up coffee.

Often the bus station is at the market or right next to it. People bring their produce in on the bus. “Bus” often means a pickup truck with a couple benches to sit on. It’s a tossup where I go first when I get into a new town, the market to see if there is any food, or the guest house to get a room.

Dalat Muang Long

Depending on the season there can be a distinct lack of fruit at the market. The only fruit I can almost always count on is bananas, if close to China the mandarin and blood oranges are a treat. Every market, even in Vientiane contains fruit, vegetables, and meat from the forest.

For many people the market is the primary people watching venue. Early in the morning is best, between six and seven. Many times people bring their babies with them to show them off. Local farming women come to the market to sell some vegetables, to make some pocket change, then go home an hour or so later when they have sold what they brought. People often wear their early morning clothes, a pair of sweat pants and flip flops, even pyjamas.

There are two kinds of market, or more often two parts of the market, the dry and the wet side. Dry markets usually have concrete floors, and permanent roofs. Items for sale include cloths, soaps, tools, stereos, even the money changer and jewellery. The wet market is all the vegetables and meats. The wet market has some type of drainage plan even if it’s just a ditch to carry away all of the dripping bits from the meat and fish. Wet markets in the rainy season can get pretty soupy if they are set up on dirt. The dirt becomes mud and you walk on planks propped up over the mud.

Pieces of Mai Dtak, it's very resinous and used to start the charcoal that everyone cooks on. Banana leaves in the background

My favourite market in Vientiane is Kua Din, it’s next to the central bus station in the centre of town. Kua Din is sprawling dirty and unregulated. It contains a wet and dry market and the prices are cheaper than Tong Kahn Kaem. They used to have parking out front, now it’s inside and less convenient. It also contains my favourite foe shop which I blogged about here.

The main path running into Kua Din from the front is a dirt track often with water on it and busy with those push carts called lau, coming and going. The push cart guys make ten or twenty cents a trip and are the only method most people use to bring goods to or from the market. I never noticed the lau guys until I started looking at the carts themselves. I saw a beautiful one being made at the wood shop that was making some doors and windows for me.

New Lau stacked

The sides are joined to the top and bottom using blind mortise joints and most of the other joints are through mortise and tenon. A well made cart goes for about $35 without the wheels.

Lau at Dalat Tat Luang

The most famous market in town is Dalat Sao, misnamed the morning market, it doesn’t open up until 8 or 9, hardly a morning market in Laotian terms, and I think most shops close at 4. Dalat Sao is exclusively a dry market. I think it used to be both, therefore it’s name. Many people go to the “morning market” to buy souvenirs, for Laotians it’s also a good place to buy a fridge or a cell phone or a pair of jeans. Upstairs are a very concentrated number of gold stores.

Lau loaded up

My main market in Laos this time was called Dalat Sii Kai. It’s out past the northern bus station on the road to Luang Prabang, just where the road makes the turn to the north out of Vientiane. It used to take me about twelve minuets to make the drive if traffic was light. Dalat Sii Kai was busy enough to rate a couple policemen with folding automatic rifles, one just behind the BCEL bank with a view to the gold stores on the West side of the market (bored to tears, view is bad for people watching and no one to talk to, it‘s an alley between the fruit sellers and the front of the market no one uses), and another on the South in front of another gold store. I used to see a lot of people coming in from quite a ways up the Luang Prabang Road going there. I think the next big market to the north is at that Hmong town Lak Ha Sip Sung. Dalat Sii Kai is all concrete, and there are a lot of food stalls in the middle. The bank even changes foreign currency. There are enough vendors to avoid price fixing and there’s even a fruit lady who sells durian out of season for 15K a kilo as I remember.

Creag has a drink at Dalat Sii Kai

Often the market chore was left to me. My youngest kid was a lot to lug around and when my wife didn’t feel like going so she would just send me. Sometimes I’d take my oldest kid Creag. Last time we were in Laos in 03, or maybe the time before that in 01, my wife and sisters in law were positive that I would get ripped off going to the market. When quizzed as to how much I paid for stuff I never remembered anyway. Soon I started remembering and my answers were met with silence and steady looks. I was getting the same price.

By now after a few more years of training I notice how much everything costs and I remember. If someone quotes me a price that’s way too high I don’t negotiate, I just go away. If the price just seems steep I buy it but go elsewhere next time. Nineteen times out of twenty I seem to get the right price first time. The merchants used to treat me very well anyway. Replacing the bruised fruit with the good ones, or showing me how to choose the ripe ones. I was probably pretty noticeable, I’ve never seen another falang in Dalat Sii Kai. Too far out of town for the curious tourist, (other than you know who), also too far out for expats to be commuting.

Dalat Sao Roof

Bear in mind that I’m speaking a mangled pathetic but understandable Laotian. Other than learning how to flirt, learning how to buy stuff is one of the first things one learns in a language. More than likely the market ladies are just taking pity on this poor old guy that has to try to buy stuff.

The only time I do negotiate is up north when buying from Chinese. By Chinese I mean the Chinese from China, like within the last five years from China. Even then the negotiations are brief and friendly. I’ve only seen Chinese selling dry goods which I don’t have much occasion to buy anyway. Once I didn’t know the price of something so I just counter offered half the stated price, the merchant simply replied OK, I guess he was about five steps ahead of me. You have to laugh at the setting, here we both are in a public market in Laos, which might as well be the end of the earth for either of us, talking price in a language very foreign to both of us. I try to at least use the numbers in Chinese and I call everyone comrade or good friend but when I try to speak quickly all that comes out is Laotian.

Dried Game for Sale (civet?)

The closest real market to where I stayed outside Vientiane was Dalat Nong Nee-ow. It was halfway to Dalat Sii Kai so I used to just go all the way for the better selection and lower prices. The exception is if I only wanted a couple things or if it was after 5 in the afternoon. Seemed like after five I’d see one accident per day and I didn’t want to be that accident. Lots of high school kids out then and young guys just off work, and commuters, and people just going to the market like me.

Dalat Nong Nee-ow charges an extra twenty cents a kilo for sticky rice and everything else in proportion. I liked and willingly paid the higher price for the BBQ chickens (Ping Gai) at 27K. I’d buy a large chicken dinner for six with all the trimmings for seven dollars. Besides two chickens I’d get the sour vegetables, and a couple jeaos, with three or four kilos of sticky rice. Usually jeao mac len and jeao pa dek. I’d eat the mac len as long as it didn’t have too much pa dek. The jeao pa dek I’ve learned to take a pass on, not that hungry yet.

Laos doesn’t yet have a supermarket, but it does have a few mini marts where foreigners can buy chocolate and blue cheese, or the newspaper from Thailand. For now, if you want to cook meat, you have to go buy it from the meat lady and bat the flies away. I wonder for how long. Already there is the first attempt at a shopping centre, the new Dalat Sao. From reports it’s a big flop without many stores being rented out. We'll see when the first golden arches and Walmart appear.

Dalat Sao New next to the Old

May 6, 2007


On the cutting board at home in Ban Nang Tang

I used to call this stuff Vietnamese sausage. The Vietnamese in America make it for sale. I have no idea who actually invented it, they sell a heck of a lot of it all over Laos. Sometimes 15K other times 18K there are a couple different sizes.

One variety includes some kind of pig skin, I don’t’ like that kind. Different people put in different amounts of black pepper, I like the pepper in big chunks. The basic ingredients are pig and rice flour. Not much of the meaty parts of the pig. It’s wrapped in many layers of banana leaves and steamed.

Different yaw at a restaurant

I love it, packs well and tastes great, plain or with anything else. Often it’s used in yam. Lasts a few days without refrigeration. It doesn’t taste very meaty due to the rice flour.

Saap Lai duh!

Em Loi Ha Sip

Lao coffee despite being thick enough to eat with a fork, contains not enough caffeine for me.

Once in a while I drink M150. I like it’s sugary chemical aftertaste and it’s unpretentious following. This stuff is not some kind of new age Krating Daeng (red bull). The high seems unlike caffeine. Enough so that I don’t drink it that often, I’m afraid it’s made from some kind of solvent by product.

I have no idea why it’s called M150 but when I did a google search this is what I found.Cat. No. M-150