Monday, February 8, 2016

Lao Trip 13.6

The unseasonal rain continued on and off this fourth day of my trip to Pak Lai. As a result, I was limited to my room during much of the day. In fact, all during this trip I never got to hang out in PL2 very much at all, which is where I usually go when I’m visiting this area.

In the morning, I watched footage of Lao National Day, as celebrated in Vientiane on December 2nd. But, in fact, celebrations were happening all across the country, this week, as different provinces celebrated on different days. This allowed those who could afford it to celebrate at the nation’s capitol. Pak Lai’s celebration of the revolution would be in two days’ time.

During a break in the rain, I made it over to the main market where I was successful in finding a pair of dress pants I could fit into. Actually, it was the merchant who should get all the credit. She dug around in her inventory in the back for a good long while, determined to make a sale. Xaysana had invited me to a big ngan dawng (wedding party) that night and I really needed to dress up.

While at the market, I dropped in on Savath, who has been a friend of mine for about three years and thus my oldest friend in the Pak Lai area. He’s the main alchohol distributor for Pak Lai and also a hardware salesman. It was good to see him again and I was pleased to find that he had made his way onto Facebook and Line – both of which will make it easier for us to maintain contact.

On the way back to my guesthouse, I stopped in at Khemkhong for a beer and ended up helping the owner’s daughter’s daughter with her ABC’s. It was mid-afternoon and the temperature was dropping – never a good sign.



(views of Heuan Phair, from a distance; without rain and with)


Back in my room, the temperature continued to drop. I hadn’t brought a jacket with me, this trip, so I had to rule out the ngan dawng. I called in my apologies to Xaysana and Savath, both of whom had been counting on me being there. Later, I heard the distant sounds of the party as I lay under covers, in bed, watching “The A-Team” movie. As I have many times, I remembered fondly how my sons and I used to love to watch the light-hearted TV series, back in the mid-1980s.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lao Trip 13.5 - A Day With Duangtar

My third day of my thirteenth trip to Lao was mostly spent in the company of Duangtar, a teacher at Palisard Business College. We had become friends a year ago and I had kept in touch. This trip to the Pak Lai area was pretty much centered on renewing that friendship and seeing where it would take me; somewhat of a departure from previous trips to Lao.

At Palisard – a school of about 500 students – Duangtar introduced me to most of the administrative staff who also double as teachers. They were proud to prepare a catfish for me from the school pond. We drank it down with some Beer Lao, right outside the administration offices – something you would never see, even in Thailand.


(Tong Sian and Boon Tan)


(Xaysana)


(Duangtar)

Before the fish and beer, however, Duangtar took me for a walk through to visit various classes of seniors about to graduate. He and other teachers attempted to get the students engaged in talking English with me, but to little avail. Lao students are shy!

Pictures were taken and I made special greetings to those few students I recognized.

At morning’s end, Duangtar took me back to the Sayadeth on his under-powered motorcycle, to get some rest. I really appreciated this, as I had been in the spotlight all morning.

After school let out, Xaysana – a teacher I had met just that morning – picked me up on his motorcycle and drove to Duangtar’s house near the southern kiu lot. Duangtar was busy getting the barbeque pit together and beers were sent for. As she had done that morning also, Dao was our attendant and looked after us in the girl fashion, while her boyfriend joined us, too. Truth is, I had set this reunion with Duangtar up through Dao, on Facebook. Duangtar doesn’t spend much time on the Internet and cross-border telephone calls are expensive. So, in a way, if it hadn’t been for Dao, this trip would not have happened the way it did.


(Dao)

Rain began to lightly fall as we found shelter under an awning, ate pork BBQ and drank Beer Lao. Xaysana proudly told us about his coffee plantation down in Champasak and Duangtar marveled that I would spend my vacation hanging out with them rather than going to tourist sites.

It was a fairly intimate gathering, as night settled in, so I asked the big question I sometimes ask khon Lao (Lao people) when the conditions are right:

“During the war [The Second Indochina War, aka “Vietnam War”], my country was not so good to the Lao people. I would expect khon Lao to not be friendly to Americans.”

“We love America!” is always the reply.

Xaysana added, in explanation:

“That was long ago. We look to the future, not the past.”

One of the reasons I love Lao so much is because of how well I am received in the country. I once wrote about “feeling like a rockstar” and it’s true. Yet, it still amazes me how – despite all the ordinance my country dropped on Lao and the long-running “Secret War” – Laotian people have become so positive towards Americans since then.

Before leaving, Duangtar introduced me to his wife’s parents, his wife and newborn baby. He encouraged me to take pictures of the traditional way Lao (and old time Thai) men look after their wives who have just given birth: production of wood and charcoal coals spread out on metal sheets under a bamboo bed to keep the mother and child warm.



This is what I’d been hoping to hit, this trip: to get to really know Lao people and how they live. It was a special moment for me as I clicked the pictures of Duangtar, his wife and baby.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Lao Trip 13.4 - Duangtar and Students

On the sawngthaew headed north to Pak Lai, it was a beautiful day and I had a great spot out the back of the truck to take it all in. I felt great, too, beginning to get excited in anticipation of what lay ahead and also just being in the moment.

We passed the small Nam Kay Bridge. As we passed Tak Daet, I thought about Nout. What was she doing, now? How had she fared since we met three years before?

Tuk-Tuk driver Lou was at Pak Lai’s southern transit center as we rolled in and I got in with the group he was transporting.

This time, I decided to go back to the Sayadeth, part for the wi-fi that worked on the ground floor (but still not in room #8), part for the south-facing room, and part to continue my acquaintance with the owners of Khemkhong restaurant, who also owned Sayadeth guesthouse.

After doing my laundry, a shower and change of clothes, I went over to Seng Chalerm’s Mekong-view restaurant where the 130 ML bottles of Beer Lao were still 10K Kip. I had one while renewing my acquaintance with the owners there.

Then I moved on to the port area in hopes I could have a bit more privacy and hang out at that sleepy restaurant above the dock and ramp. It turns out that it is now a catering spot for weddings and big functions – one of which was in progress, complete with double decker buses, people dressed up and even a few Lao army uniforms scattered about. So, I walked over to the port’s small service store on the other side of the ramp, where my Beer Lao was a staggering 13K Kip – the most I’ve ever had to pay anywhere in Lao.

I called Duangtar and set up a rendezvous for after school let out. Then, I went to the outdoor market and bought some ping gai (barbeque chicken) and fried bread. These I ate over at PL2, on the banks of the Mekong, looking down on Heuan Phair Tha Phow. It was closed, so I headed back to Pak Lai. Having previously noted that the Mekong Restaurant was open, I went in and had another beer while waiting for Duangtar and some of his students. The Mekong Restaurant had been closed the past couple of times I’d been in Pak Lai.

Duangtar and three of his students soon arrived – Dao, Samneuk and one other guy whose name I forget. They also seemed to bring the rain with them. After switching tables two times to get out from under it, we quickly walked through a break in the rain, down to Khemkhong for dinner.


(a look back at the port when the rain started to roll in)

At Khemkhong, we had a good meal, protected from the rain, with plenty of food and beer. We even invited a German cyclist to join us and I reminded Duangtar, Dao and Samneuk about the similar way we four had met just the previous year.


After we made plans for the next day and my friends and the cyclist departed, I had another beer while I availed myself of the restaurant’s wi-fi. I got caught up on world events, communications and how Thip was faring without me. Given the rain, I had the place to myself.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lao Trip 13.3 - To Pak Lai

In the process of leaving Ivy Guesthouse the morning of my second day in Lao, it became quite evident that Ivy is the preferred guesthouse in this area of Ken Thao. Whereas Minta seems to attrack Westerners (possibly because it’s cheaper), Ivy is all Asian. I was the only Falang to be seen.

While grabbing a free cup of instant coffee (“3-in-1”), I crossed paths with “A Suit.” Unlike it might have been in my much younger days, I no longer use this term derogatorily (“Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” comes to mind). It was just a Thai or Lao big-shot going on his way to Thailand, accompanied by a retinue of guys to look after him – none of whom looked like a bodyguard. We talked for a bit – how are you, where are you going, etc. – then proceeded on our different paths.

The Ken Thao transit center, next to the market, features not only the petanque court I am fond of picking on, but sawngthaew’s to Pak Lai and other local locations, a bus to Vientiane, a van to Xayabuli and a small bus to Luang Prabang.

When the sawngthaew to Pak Lai was loading up, it got to the point where I wondered if I would get a seat. I usually load in last on sawngthaew’s because I don’t like being cramped in the center near the driver’s cab. I prefer being toward the back, so I can look out more easily, which sometimes is hard to do in the center.

Well, people kept loading in and packages, too. While waiting, I had stood up most of the time and even done some stretching exercises in anticipation of the hour and a half ride north. Now, it was looking like I was going to have to continue standing – this time on the rear step of the sawngthaew – something I’ve done before, but not for an hour and a half.

Luckily, we were all able to load in. I got the last seat on the left side – well, a half a seat. I padded the tailgate with a cotton shirt from my backpack to make up the other half. Once underway, I could see that I had the best spot on the truck, with wide views out the back, just like I like it; just had to hold on all the way in case of a big bump or quick turn.

Not long after leaving Ken Thao, we passed the Nam Tan Resort and I was reminded once again that I’d like to stay there some time. It looks like a neat spot.

Fuel tankers from Thailand would pass us when they could and the drivers all waved at me. Once again, I remembered how good it feels being a “big fish in a small pond.”

Of course, I did my Kopiko’s thing.


At one point, I had to shift one of my legs and thought about my knees. They’re not good. Similar to my morbid thoughts the day before, I recognized that there will come a day when I will no longer be able to take trips such as this. All the reason to live each moment to its fullest (Be Here Now).



(some views that awaited me in Pak Lai)

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Lao Trip 13.2 - Ken Thao

In Ken Thao, Xayabuli province, I checked into the Ivy Guesthouse instead of the Minta, where I had stayed before. It was more expensive at 120K Kip vs. 80K – about 11 beers vs. 7. Yes, this is actually how I do my conversions in Lao: in numbers of 130ML beer bottles full of Beer Lao.



(Ken Thao transit center)

Typical of most Southeast Asian guesthouses, I had to watch my step. Smooth and shiny wall tile is preferred on floors; rather than floor tile which has some grip to it. Consequently, if there is any water on the floor, it is very slippery. At my age, one good fall could be a show stopper.

After I settled in, did my laundry, showered and organized myself for walking around, I had a little bit of an ATM scare.

The one outside of Ivy indicated I did not have funds to complete the transaction. So, I went down the street to the bank only to find it closed. This is when I found out that today marks the 40th Anniversary of the Lao Revolution, which is celebrated annually as Lao National Day. Of course, all banks and government offices were closed. Luckily, the bank had an ATM outside the bank compound and I had no problem withdrawing my Kip.

The next minor problem was with my Lao sim card. The first place I went to, in the market, the teenage girl was not helpful at all; she really could not have cared less. All I wanted was to reactivate the card and put some minutes on it. So, I went to another cellphone shop – of which there are many both in Thailand and in Lao. Two Japanese guys set me up with a new sim card and calling minutes. Apparently, it has been so long since I had used my original sim card that the number had been completely deactivated. The first girl hadn’t known enough to recognize this. I think the last time I had used that older sim card was when I “said goodbye” to Nuey, a year before.

In the market place, I looked around for stuff to buy. I always have specific things in mind and have grown used to probably not finding them in my size. Not that I’m all that big. It’s just that Westerners have a considerably bigger bone structure than Southeast Asians.

I ate dinner at a small restaurant that had little raised platforms outside for eating on mats. I ate, drank a bottle of Beer Lao and then joined a middle-aged women’s party at a restaurant across the street. I had heard the music and was drawn to it, never imagining what I would find. I was warmly received and by the time I left, had contributed six Beer Lao’s to the cause.


Back at Ivy Guesthouse, I Line’d my wife, caught up on Internet communications (especially my gaming clan) and called it a night.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Lao Trip 13.1 - Death and Sickness

The day after the 2015 rice harvest, I was on my way to Lao (Laos).

The timing of the trip was not dependent on the harvest, although it all worked out well. Rather, my main consideration was my travel permit expiration and the planned celebrations in Thailand surrounding the King’s birthday and especially the “Bike For Dad” day when I expected most highways to be clogged with bicylists. I just lucked out with the rice harvest – giao khao. If it hadn’t ended when it did, I still would have had to leave.



Coming on the heels of my days in the fields, I hadn’t had much time to pack or even think ahead about the trip. Consequently, I made a few planning omissions which is uncommon for me. I’m usually quite good with planning. It’s generally the execution where I have my problems.

As I rode the bus from Nong Bua Lamphu to Muang Loei, I passed the familiar villages, towns and locations I was getting to know pretty well: NB Apparel, Nam Som Bun, Nam Kham Hai, the sugar plant, Na Klang, cave rock, Na Wang, Erawan Cave, Erawan, Wang Saphung and finally Loei.

While I rode, I thought of what our head monk Lung Paw Boon Long told Thip and others one day at jann hahn: that we should think of our death often and try to get everything done that we feel should get done before we die. Perhaps he was thinking of his own mortality and his plans to build the chedi over the course of the next couple of years.

As my old friend Jackie Bales is fond of saying: “No one gets out of here alive.” Certainly, death awaits us all and just as certainly, I have some things hanging that I should wrap up before I get older and closer to my own demise.

My morbid thoughts halted as the bus rolled into the Muang Loei bawkasaw (Lao: lot may). I made my way to the back, where the local sawngthaw’s service the province of Loei.

I caught the 10:50 A.M. “sick sawngthaw” to Tha Li. I call this one that because it seemed like most of the 20-25 people jammed in the truck had some kind of health issue. There was the usual coughing and hacking that is common at this time of year, when the season changes and temperatures drop. Then, there was a baby with a rash all over its face that made me slightly uneasy to be seated next to. One girl was travelling with a crutch and an eye patch, seemingly in pain the whole ride through – most likely the result of a motosai (Lao: lot jak) accident. At one point, a teenage girl travelling with her mother dropped to the floor and was made to breathe-in a strong smelling salt that many Thai females carry with them at all times; something like “Tiger balm”, but not exactly.

My guess is that many of these Kon Thai from the Tha Li area had travelled earlier in the morning to the big city of Loei for doctor appointments and were now rushing back home as fast as they could.

Anyway, I eventually made it to the Ban Nakraseng Boundary Post, stamped out of Thailand, crossed the Nam Heuang bridge, and stamped into Lao.


In the process, I noticed I’m not so much in a rush to get across the border like I used to be. There are reasons for this. One, when I take it slower, I make fewer mistakes. Second, taking it slower puts me in greater control of my timetable. I may not get to my ultimate destination as fast, but it’s more relaxing, I enjoy it more and it’s certainly less stressful. When travelling in Southeast Asia, I’ve learned to factor in a lot of “float” time and don’t expect things to run on time. Lastly, I genuinely enjoy talking with the border guards on both sides – the Lao army guys are especially interested in me, as Westerners generally do not travel alone.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Favorite Songs of 2015

Music plays a large role in my life and always has. I think this would be surprising to my elementary school music teacher. I was just such a cut-up in class. I didn’t see the relevance of what she was teaching when I was listening to the great era of 1950s and 1960s Rhythm and Blues and it was totally dismissed in class.




Living in Thailand, I’m exposed to a completely new music set. The following are my favorites from this year. Most were not released this year, but had major play in the places where I hung out:

From my March Visa run to Savannakhet and meeting Jittzy:




This song sung as story: https://youtu.be/601ttvldATU



This song sung as story: https://youtu.be/F9yINYrNsXQ

The ladyboy song: https://youtu.be/7o_ycvVSrDA





https://youtu.be/0PobDNvpjNA - gets a Line call at night - female singer




https://youtu.be/bS-s3LVFxyY - drunk guy cleans up - male singer




Later on in the year:

https://youtu.be/i9v7jw8DV-U - he thinks she’s cheating on him, but she’s dumping the other guy – really a sweet video



https://youtu.be/w_ZFwa_P-4I - The Bann Nah song - great video still shots


... and, lastly, a song I’m always reminded of, when travelling in Lao:

Looking Back, John Mayall: https://youtu.be/j94TIZBj2Vk