Jun 23, 2007

Online Stuff

I’ve gone commercial. If you didn’t notice way down the sidebar near my profile I added a google adsense ad. Last month I made two cents, I don’t know how I made this money, if it was because someone clicked on a link or just by volume alone. When my earnings top a hundred dollars, adsense is going to send me a check. I’ll keep my day job for now.

My General Vang Pao posting has generated a lot of hits via google searches. My hit counter has doubled to about a whopping forty per day! I expect things will settle down once a trial is scheduled. I assume Hmong people are thirsty for news of the General and the ongoing investigation. I also got some flames submitted that I didn’t post. The comments are moderated and now you have to register with google or something. If anyone has anything to add please email via link in profile, I’d be glad to post, but please no political flames. You can specify anonymous or not. I reserve the right to edit and completely change your original meaning.

How can I tell people are googling looking for information about Vang Pao? It’s that little thing down the bottom of the right sidebar called site meter. It tells how many people have viewed the web site, what pages they looked at, the geographic area of the server that they used to enter the blog, the link they used to go to the blog, and even which page they looked at first and last.

That’s right, a lot of information about who looks at the site. Every other web page in the world can do this too. If you live in a big town or your server is connected to a lot of computers you could be anyone. If your server is linked to only a few computers your anonymity isn’t as protected.

Also contributing to my hit count, was a complimentary at-a-boy from the Travelfish site. My first thought was, “cool what a compliment”, my second thought was, what do you mean I don’t use a guidebook? When I thought about it I realized Ban Wa Tai and Ou Tai, aren’t in the guidebook. I do take the Lonely Planet Guidebook with me, I just don’t use it for hotels, restaurants, or ideas on where to go, or even maps. What I do use it for is the background about all the towns and the history and peoples of the area. Often it’s the only thing I have to read in English, away from the internet that book gets thumbed through pretty well.

While I’ve been back checking out Travelfish site a few things have caught my eye. A list of ten ways to make your trip cost a lot less that is interesting. It suggests you buy a digital camera and don’t drink so much, suggestions I’d certainly agree with. I also liked a sober look at the safety of Lao Airlines from a logic or statistical viewpoint. Travelfish also has a blog that’s fun to check out for a less official look at South East Asian travel. From a travellers perspective the new downloadable e-guides look like an improvement over conventional guide books, you pay a couple dollars and get sent a link to a PDF guide that you can download and print or just look at on the net. Kind of a way to save you from doing all the cutting and pasting from his site. Less weight than a guidebook and area specific.

Joe’s gone and Andrew’s in. Over the years between the Thai guide and the Lao guide I’ve come to appreciate the writer Joe Cumings, the guy who used to write the Lao guide. He has spent a long time in the area and knew a lot about the language, food and towns in Laos. Often when the only thing written about a town is five paragraphs, and you are the only English speaker there, you read those five paragraphs very thoroughly. If three of the five paragraphs are about the a Wat, well maybe it’s worth going and taking a look. A lot of his information about what types of foods are local specialties and what part of town to look for them in, is as current now as when it was written.

The new writer, who actually wrote the part about Southern Laos in the old book, which I didn’t take with me for my brief mosey down to Pakse with the family, because we were headed to Thailand and my wife thought taking that brick of a bible of a book, was just a little too much, just this one time, if you please, is named Andrew Burke.

I’ve already read something by Mr. Burke on the Lonely Planet Web Site, it’s just the sort of thing I like to read, a short motorcycle adventure into the Xaysambon special zone and the old CIA/Hmong airbase at Long Chen. Andrew also wrote some thoughts about the abduction of Pawn, the co owner of The Boat Landing Eco Lodge. I wish more people would write about Pawn until he is released by whoever took him. If anyone is headed to Luang Namtha please make a point of stopping by the Boat Landing Guest house, and get some food at their restaurant, it will help support Pawn’s family and also eco tourism in Northern Laos. I strongly recomend the jeao macpet, or young chili peppers jeao. I’m hoping more of Mr. Burke’s writing also makes it’s way into the lonely planet guide, so to save it from becoming only a list of restaurants, and guest houses.

I check a trio of personal blogs of Vientiane expats regularly, but they are mostly about expat living. I also check the blog of Jo the physical therapist who kind of invented her own work while visiting Laos as a tourist. She managed to fund herself and has gone back to do a lot of good work. She seldom posts, I think she works a lot. An excerpt of her latest entry.

Through contacts in Muang Sing that work for Health Frontiers we were asked to see a family in another village who were trying to find help for their son who had lost a leg. They told us about another boy that they had heard about, all they knew was that a trekking guide who worked in the town might know where he lived. The directions were vague but eventually we arrived at the village. Santar was sitting on a small wooden stool. His younger brother was wearing a traditional Yao hat and sat silently on his grandmothers knee. We stared at each other for a while.

Link to Jo's Story of Santar

Straycat/Lao Meow continues to post even better accounts of her trip down the Nam Ou from Phongsali Province. If anything her posts have become even more detailed, my favourite of late, is called Wat Sikhounuang, there are actually four parts to this one post, scroll back. I too saw this Wat and took detailed photos, but had no idea what I was looking at. Fun to have it explained. For anyone interested in Buddhism or Lao culture, you have to take a look. It’s still the only blog about Laos that I go back and re read three times.

On the right hand side of my blog I’ve added a new links list called “maps” it includes the largest scale Vientiane map I’ve yet to see. It clearly shows the airport and the Southern bus station, two things usually left off maps as they are outside the city centre. The best part is in the upper right corner where the square walls of the jail at Somke are clearly shown as well as the water tower at Ban Amone. This is the area where I have many in-laws, mostly outside the confines of Somke.

The other map is even better, it shows Northern Laos as well as fifty or a hundred kilometres into the adjacent countries. It’s great for maintaining a perspective on just where the heck you are at, and for border crossings.

Speaking of which, the crossing from Muang Kuah to Dien Bien Phu is now open, which hopefully will bring some much needed traffic to Phongsali province. now if they could just open a border to China up, like that one over by Boun Neua and Boun Tai, there would be some through traffic generated. Also China and Thailand have committed to building the bridge at Hway Xai, making the Kunming to Chiang Rai route, all good roads, and no boats. According to the Bangkok Post the villagers on either side are already being bought out, real estate speculators have bought up adjoining land and work on the roads leading to the bridge are set to begin, with completion of the whole thing for 2011. Makes sense, otherwise why spend all that money for the highway to Luang Namtha. Certainly no reason for a modern highway in that part of Laos to go to the Boat Landing.

Jun 16, 2007

City Food on One Street

This is a street I started eating at the last month I was in Laos.

We moved into a new rental over in Ban Amon, and though nice it didn't have a fridge or stove or internet connection, the basics of life for me to survive. Everyday I would take the short drive into Vientiane.

At first I was satisfied with the baguette sandwiches, with all my fellow tourists, next door to the internet place, but the bread wasn't always the freshest and after a while I had a hankering for more. Most stuff down by the river was out of the question. Overpriced and bland it's special food for foreign consumption. The push carts are good but I wanted to sit down.

I found a street out past the cultural hall off Samsenthai that fit the ticket. Lots of restaurants, not many guest houses, not over saturated with falang.

A portion of a map liberated from the ecotourismlao site, hey its for a good cause.

On the map above you can see the cultural hall across the street from the national museum. The hall is really set back from the street more than the map would lead you to believe, my food street is the one with two dead ends parallel to, and slightly south of Samsenthai. I think the first picture of this blog post is taken from in front of the hotel called "Lao" on the map. You can clearly see the stop sign on Chao Anou, and the ostentatious pillars of the cultural hall down the street.

The first day I had Kao Piak. It was ok, and it certainly filled me up, but I'm a Kao Piak snob. The broth was from pork bones, I like chicken stock, and the noodles themselves weren't as good as mama makes. I wouldn't really call Kao Piak city food, and I don't know that it was brought to Laos by the Chinese, but it sure doesn't seem "loi percent Lao", no insects, no pla dek, no roots and leaves from the jungle.

Sen for Kao Piak

Above are the soft noodles of kao piak before cooking. Most people use half rice flour, half sticky rice flour, my wife uses half tapioca flour. I like the extra chewiness that tapioca brings to the noodles. The noodles are coated with flour to keep them from sticking while rolling them out prior to cutting with a long knife. The loose flour thickens the sauce and gives it that "stick to your ribs" comfort food quality. Hard to feel hungry after eating a bowl.

Kao Piak Sen

Notice the "brown tofu" floating around, that's lueat, or in English congealed pig's blood. Pieces of cilantro, green onions, bang nua, the usual culprits. Actually this isn't just kao piak but more exactly kao piak sen, sen being noodles. Kao piak kao is kao piak rice. To round out the language lesson, kao piak means wet rice. Kao piak kao is known as conge in Chinese, (Cantonese?) and joke in Thai. Kao piak (sen) I've only seen in Laos, maybe it's a Vietnamese invention.

Moo Daeng

The next day I tried across the street at a place that looked vaguely Chinese. The restaurant could have been in Nong Khai or Chang Mai, or even Penang. I had Moo Daeng, red pork, it's sold all over Thailand at restaurants close to the bus station. It was good, and the rice was very fresh and good quality. So good I had to try the rice before taking this shot. Cucumbers on the side and a bowl of very thin soup in the background.

Kao piak, and moo daeng are fine, but I've eaten them a few hundred times, when I wandered back down the block towards the cultural hall I hit pay dirt. Notice the pot this young lady is pouring the batter on? It looked like an upside down cooking pot, except the handles are reversed, as if this is the way the pot was designed to be used. She is cooking up Bun Guan. The filling is some sort of pork, mushrooms, cilantro, onions, mixture, and the wrapper is a very thin almost translucent chewy pancake. I suspect there is Tapioca in there somewhere but I don't know.

The whole thing is served with a sprinkling of deep fried shallots across the top and a very thick peanut, lime, fish sauce, bang nuea, chillies, sauce on the side. I could gain weight eating these.

I wasn't familiar with the food. My wife doesn't cook it, I haven't seen it around at all the markets or restaurants. When I asked the girl cooking it what food it was, she replied, "Vietnamese food" of course I didn't mean where does it come from, but rather what's it called.

House above the bun stand

Looking around I noticed that the card table I was eating off of was set up by an alley leading to some very old houses. out front was an old sign advertising suits I presume, and next to it a laundry. I could barely understand the signs as they were in Lao and French, there were old paintings showing a suit. I imagined a scenario of a Vietnamese family left from the days of Indochina, surviving the various changes in regimes and wars. A Scent of Green Papayas compete with whirling fans and long lost histories.

The next day when I went back I struck up a conversation with the granny who seemed to be in charge. I noticed she was speaking Lao to the girl. She told me the reason she spoke Lao to the girl was because the girl was Lao, when I asked if the house belonged to her family she laughed and said she commuted a long way into town every day. So much for assumptions. I didn't dare ask if she was Vietnamese, I wanted to leave some of my imaginings intact.

Bun Xiao

The other food sold there was a similar food in that it was a filling wrapped with a pancake type thing they cooked right then called bun xiao. The ingredients besides including rice flour also include corn flour and turmeric. The whole thing is a bright yellow. It came with a heaping plate of mint. I know the word "home laap" means mint, but I don't know the name for the different kinds. This kind has smaller leaves and a very delicate flavour. Great for eating as a green on the side.

Sun Saap

Jun 11, 2007

General Vang Pao Arrested in the US

Above, one of the amazing photographs by Roger Arnold who last year ventured into the restricted Xaysambone zone above Vang Vien to document the plight of the Hmong peoples living there. From the front sights on the two rifles shown they look to be old style soviet AK -47s. Photo by permission.

The other day I opened my google account to see that the news filter included nothing but headlines about the highest ranking Laotian General from America’s secret war in Laos, being arrested for conspiring along with other prominent Hmong Americans to violently overthrow the Laotian Government.

Vang Pao

From the L A Times

"A retired California National Guard lieutenant colonel and a prominent Hmong leader were charged with eight others Monday in an alleged plot to buy missiles, mines, assault rifles and other arms to topple the communist government of Laos."

Whenever I hear of one of these government busts I always assume there was a lot of indstigating being done by the government informant. Like the supposed terrorist jihadists they are always aresting in the US. In this case the government got involved in an already ongoing plot. No one seriously considers they had a chance of overthrowing the Lao government, but they sure could have gotten a lot of people killed.

I guess their plan was to take over government buildings in the capital Vientiane. I have no idea what sort of reception they thought they were going to get but I know one thing, they wouldn't have been received as liberators.

Most of the people in Vientiane have a positive attitude towards their government, more so probably than most Americans do. Imagine if a bunch of guys started shooting up the town where you live. Would you up and decide that the government sucks and it’s time to also start running around shooting people? For most Laotians the bad stuff that happens in Xaysambone is something on another planet. Kind of like the way we look at Iraq only without any media coverage or news at all.

I know a lot of Lao guys and their families that were on the losing side of that war. They like going back to Laos and have plans to retire there. They hold no grudges and neither does the new government. The war was a long time ago. They left as young men, they return as grandparents. Many of their children were either born here, remember nothing of Laos, or have vague recollections of a refuge camp.

The flip side of the coin is a long and brutal largely unknown insurgency that has been simmering for the entire thirty years, and the unexplained and mostly ineffectual bombings of many markets and even places such as the airport, customs check points etc. The bombs always seem to be so small that hardly anyone is injured. Still they do happen. And also the many attacks on transportation passing by. The last four years have seen a marked decrease in reported insurgent activities and an increase complaints from the human rights community about Laotian abuses.

No one knows exactly how many Hmong are left within the confines of the Xaysambone special zone. Supposedly the zone itself was abolished last year and divided up amongst the adjoining provinces. No zone, no problem. Most guesses put the number of people at no more than a few thousand. Over the past couple of years news of mass surrenders have made the news, and then nothing. No word of the fate of those who do surrender.

My Hmong Guide from last December a long long ways away from the Xaysambone Special Zone

Many Hmong, if they can, escape to Thailand. Over the years hundreds of thousands have taken the route, following mountains and avoiding roads, bribing a boatman to cross the Mekong where it flows in Lao territory, then across the mountains of Xayabuli province and down the mountains into Phetchabune province Thailand. The problem is the Thai don’t want them, for Thai people all others are "Meao", a pejorative for mountain peoples.

I found this background piece by Jim Pollard in the respected Thai paper, The Nation.
News that General Vang Pao may have been plotting to overthrow the Lao government will come as little surprise to people in Laos, or groups and individuals within the region who have been following the plight of the "jungle Hmong", which is particularly bad at present.

Remnants of Hmong groups that have survived since the war in remote areas of mainly northern Laos are in their death throes, given several years of a reportedly brutal crackdown by Lao and Vietnamese troops in the Saysomboom (Lao spelling Xaysabone) restricted zone, a series of large surrenders by the main jungle groups and a mass exodus across the Mekong to Phetchabun province.

The recent bilateral agreement by a Thai-Lao border committee last month - to forcibly return any new arrivals to Laos "no matter how many bullet wounds they have", as one sarcastic observer noted - was probably the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back.
Vang Pao would have been acutely aware of how dire the situation has become in recent weeks, which have seen a series of alerts of looming forced deportations from detention centres in the North and far Northeast, where Hmong from Laos have been detained.

Websites in the US such as factfinding.org carry regular updates on the predicament of Hmong refugees here, which is now an issue of international attention thanks to activists such as Joe Davy, Laura Xiong, Ed Szendrey and Rebecca Sommer.

Sommer, a German, recently showed her documentary on the plight of the jungle Hmong - "Hunted Like Animals" - in New York. She had initially planned to screen the film in the UN building itself, "but Vietnamese officials stopped that", she said.

Early last month, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sent a senior official to Bangkok and Vientiane to stop the forced repatriation of 155 Hmong at Nong Khai Immigration Detention Centre, all of whom are listed as "people of concern" and believed to be at genuine risk of persecution or even death, if returned. That group remains, in a pathetic state of limbo, but the two governments have virtually thumbed their noses at the UN by sending back many similar groups.

Indeed, Reuters reported recently that Thai officials have ordered UNHCR staff in Bangkok to stop processing refugee applications because of the large number of Hmong and North Korean seeking refuge here. Hundreds of people with serious claims to refugee status have crossed into Thailand this year but none have been listed since late last year.

At least two large groups of Hmong with serious claims to refugee status (strong links to groups that have survived in the Lao jungles) have been forcibly deported in recent weeks. And a third group of 45 people is now crammed in Lom Sak police station awaiting the same dismal fate. This group allegedly includes survivors and relatives of 26 people killed in a notorious massacre near Vang Vieng on April 6 last year. (Photos have been posted at rogerarnold.net by the US photographer taken to the site several months later.)

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the whole crazy Vang Pao "plot" is that the US government actually opted to prevent this latest alleged scheme going ahead.

Why? Because many in Laos and Thailand suspect Washington has either turned a blind eye to such activities in the 30 years since the Vietnam War - or has actually encouraged efforts to destabilise the tiny Asian regime and its socialist leaders, many of whom are ex-military and seen as bitter ideological foes.

French journalist Cyril Payen is one of about eight Western journalists and photographers who have sneaked into the military zones in Laos in recent years. He has just published a book, "Laos, the Forgotten War", which details one of several raids into Laos in the 1980s or 1990s by foreign mercenaries allegedly backed by Hmong exiles abroad, and even the Thai military.

Payen said his interest in Laos grew after he met two French mercenaries on the Thai-Burma border after the fall of Manerplaw in 1995.

"They told me about the Hmong. They said they undertook a security mission in 1989 allegedly organised by [a high-ranking Thai military official], to prove there were some resistance groups still existing. They went with a group of overseas Hmong, crossed the Mekong, and made a six-month trip to Phu Bia, a huge mountain where rebels were based. They lost about 200 men - mostly Hmong from America, who were killed by the Vietnamese. But they found 4,000 to 5,000 people - Hmong. The group included kids who were victims of chemical weapons.

"They [the mercenaries] said they later made a film and wrote a book about this, but nobody cared. They had gone later to join the Karen [fighting the Burmese] but were crying when they told me about the Hmong they met years before."

However, not many realise current Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former Army chief, but one regarded as having a far greater grasp of moral issues than the military official Payen spoke of, is fast gaining a bad reputation because of his regime's treatment of the Hmong. Some have argued that the Surayud government has agreed to summarily deport all Hmong because it needs help from Vientiane, as the Council for National Security fears the "former power" or Thai Rak Thai heavyweights may seek to use Laos to funnel weapons or mercenaries, or simply large bundles of Thai baht to buy the next election.

Jim Pollard
The Nation

Every day now the papers report more Hmong repatriated, despite the objections of the United Nations.