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Monday, March 30, 2015

Das Visits!

After my ninth trip to Lao, it was time to get ready for the visit from my oldest son Das and his wife Jonnie, who both live and work in California.

It was mid-December and getting cold, which meant that comforters over the beds were mandatory and sweatshirts and jackets deployed in the day and night times.

In several email messages, I sent them some suggestions on what to bring and be prepared for. In the first email message I wrote:

  • The weather when you arrive will be much like it is in Carpinteria and Santa Barbara in August/September.
  • Bring a light jacket, that's about it for cold weather gear. If you need more, you can always buy here; stuff's pretty cheap.
  • Pack as lightly as you can, so you can bring stuff back with you.
  • Sneakers will be your best footwear. I do not advise wearing sandals both because of the lack of traction (many slippery surfaces here, when you least expect them) but also as bumpers to protect your feet when you bump up against stuff.
  • Caps are a good idea, to protect from the sun.
  • Mosquito repellent is a must and should contain at least 13% DEET. I use a lotion every evening and no adverse skin effects; I shower before going to bed.
  • If you are not in an air-conditioned room when you go to bed, make sure you have a mosquito net over your bed.
  • Bandaids are also a must. Whenever you get a bruise, clean it thoroughly, let dry, and then put a band-aid over it. Take the band-aid off when you go to bed; put a new one on in the morning after a shower, if necessary.
  • Buy a Lonely Planet travel guide. I believe they have one especially for the southern Thai Islands. This will be better for you than buying one for Thailand, as the islands are quite a bit different environment than the rest of the country. It's a good investment and will provide stoke reading for you on the plane if not also before, as well as help guide you when you're here.
  • You'll have problems buying vegetarian dishes, believe it or not. We'll come up with some phrases for you to use to request non-meat dishes.
  • I haven't had problems buying fruit from unknown vendors.
  • You will most likely get diarrhea at some point if not all the way thru your trip, off and on. Don't worry about it.
  • Pay increased attention to staying hydrated.

In a second email message I wrote:

  • it's the coldest time of year, but you will be fine with packing sweat pants and sweat shirt with hood.
  • jonnie, a scarf always comes in handy.
  • don't travel at night, unless you can't help it or you're with a large number of people.
  • justice and equality do not carry much weight here. if you feel you're not treated fairly or ripped off, just keep it to yourselves and realize things are cheap here, anyway, and you're on vacation.
  • do not get angry. Thai's don't know how to handle it and it won't get you anywhere.
  • there is random stopping of foreigners and taking pee tests going on in Bangkok. if stopped, comply and be polite and friendly.
  • we have wifi, so bring your smartphones and laptop.
  • bring sunglasses with cases.
  • on the flight over, make sure you're in comfortable clothes. it is a very long two flights.

I finished with a third email:

  • I changed my mind about sandals. Bring a good pair. You'll be able to wear them comfortably in the countryside and on the beaches.
  • Sneakers are still best for you moving through areas of high population.
  • When you're in populated areas, keep your eyes on the walking surface ahead of you. You'd be amazed how poor the sidewalks are, here, and downright dangerous.
  • Pack your sweats (pants and shirt) on top of everything in your suitcase. You'll need to change into these when we pick you up at the Udon Thani airport. It'll be a little bit of a cold ride back to the village.

Thip and I knew that Das and Jonnie would be spending the bulk of their time in Thailand Down South, with a little bit of Bangkok thrown in, so we focused on having them experience what the Thai Countryside lifestyle is all about.

(playing "Set")

First days, we ate and partied with our Thai-Lao family, both at our village home and out at Bann Nah, the site of our new home under construction in the middle of our larger of two rice farms.

A visit to our temple and meeting Lungpaw took place about mid-way through the five days we had together.

We wrapped-up their stay with a trip to the Mekong at Khaeng Khut Khu and a visit to the cave Buddha at Erawan.

It was great to see my oldest son and his wife, again. Das and I have been very close for most all our lives. My retirement on the other side of the planet has caused a bit of an unavoidable drift. So, to see him again, here in my new life in The Isaan was super special.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lao Trip 9.4

I decided to leave Lao a little earlier than planned. I was anxious to get back to the Bann Nah project. There’s so much more you can do at home. When you’re travelling, you see a lot and meet different people, but I’m a task-oriented person. I like to get stuff done, not just look around.

So, I had my favorite tuk-tuk driver Lou take me to Pak Lai’s southern bus station around 9am. En route, he told me when I come back, he’ll take me out of town to “see beautiful girl,” which I interpret as there being some bars with bar girls outside Pak Lai.

On the ride south to Ken Thao, I counted myself fortunate not to have run into Nuey. Had she even come to Pak Lai to meet me? Probably not and probably I’ll never know.

At Heun Phair, yesterday, before I met Duangtar and his students, I got a great shot of a long tail family motoring by. After that, and after Duangtar and his students had left, and after I shot footage of the moon rise, I called Nuey one more time, when “our song” was playing on the karaoke machine. I just let the song play for about 20 seconds, then rang off.

Will I ever see her again? Probably not. Will I ever hear from her again? There’s always that possibility. Will I initiate contact again? Doubtful. If she knew a little English, it would still be pretty hopeless, but there’d be a better chance of becoming friends because we could communicate without third person interference.

At the border, I stopped in at the Lao-side market, bought Thip some T-shirts, had a Beer Lao dark, then bought a case of it, arranging transport across the border. I did not realize it at the time, but they actually smuggled it across for me, taking the bottles out of the box, distributing them in covered bags, and the box broken down. Hey, I could get fined for that! Oops, and they could go to jail! Probably me, too.

The sawngtheaw ride from Tha Li to Loei and the bus ride from Muang Loei to Nong Bua Lamphu both seem to get shorter and shorter each time I take them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Lao Trip 9.3

Seyadeth’s room #8 was a nice one, actually. South and facing onto the main Nasavang/Sisavang street that runs along the Mekong, with houses on each side of it. I could easily watch the everyday routines of some of my neighbors from the second floor.

After my morning routines, I made my way over to the port area restaurant, had a beer, and then made it over to the outdoor market for a pear, chicken, sweet bread and iced coffee (“kafe yen”). I swung around to the hill above Khoun Ten, saw it quiet, so assumed it closed. Then, I went over to Heun Phair where there was, surprisingly, some activity.

I was warmly received by the owner, whose name I still don’t know. I had been attracted here, originally, back in 2012, by the music he played, which leaned significantly toward the “Songs for Life” strain (Thai folk songs). We patted each other on the back and it felt like coming back home.

There was only one other table occupied, but I got good looks from the two girls there and the guy who was with them (Somneuk). I ordered my usual, then let my mind drift along with the Mekong.

It looked as though I wouldn’t see Nuey/Kay Noi this time; maybe never again, but I still wanted to. Even so, I hadn’t called her from my Lao sim card, so if she was in the area, she wouldn’t have been able to call me unless she remembered or noted my Lao number previously. That’s kinda how it went. I wanted it to happen, but I didn’t do the extra little things to make it happen because I increasingly felt it was a lost cause for a number of reasons that I’ll share at a later date.

So, my face probably fell a lot as I drank my Beer Lao.

Later, at the end of the afternoon and a slightly older guy joined the other table, I found out either Dar or Dao had called their teacher to come join us, saying there was a sad Falang on the floater who needed some cheering up. They proceeded to do that, the additional guy being their business teacher who also emphasized the use of English in their classes.

Duangtar is a really friendly, fun guy, and now a friend of mine on Facebook, as is Dar and Somneuk. I was invited to their table of four and had a great time with them; mostly helping them practiced their English.

In the early evening, a little after one other student joined us and then they left to eat dinner, I stayed. I knew the moon would rise a little later than yesterday and wanted to shoot some video of it from Mekong level. I did that, although the results were not as good as I hoped.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Lao Trip 9.2b

On the way to the market, I walked by a big party going strong, with singers and overflow seating onto the riverside road; probably celebrating a marriage, birth or other family event. I was strongly invited to come in and drink, but it was a table of all-guys and I knew how that would end up. Anyway, I had my “Date with Destiny” awaiting me; or maybe not.

I stopped in at the haircut shack that has now been taken over by mostly younger guys and was well received. I remember only two years ago, the barbers were in their 30s-40s and I wondered if I was putting my life in their hands when they shaved me with a straight razor; I mean, maybe they had a relative who was killed by an unexploded American-made and dropped bomb (UXO)? Now, the barbers are in their early 20s, no straight razor shaves, just electric razor cuts; took my young barber ten minutes to cut mine.

I walked to the outdoor market to get some eats and then headed for Khoun Ten. It was open, this time, but with only one group of Thais as customers. I wasn’t even sure the floating bar/restaurant was really open or whether they were just catering to the Thais as a special deal and allowed me on board as a long-standing customer.

Seeing the lack of people, I kept thinking that something must have happened while I’ve been away. Did the local authorities restrict their operations in some way? Was this a seasonal low (don’t think so) or might they be losing market share to the bigger, newer floating bar/restaurant in Pak Lai?

At any rate, I had my usual: a 640 ml bottle of Beer Lao, a bucket of ice and a glass to drink it all down with. As sad as I am to write this, I must admit I almost breathed a sigh of relief that Nuey/Kay Noy did not show up.

Heading back, I circumvented the big party, checked out the dead and closed Heun Phair, watched the temple gongers and then made my way to the restaurant I’d hung out at in the morning, near the port. Here, I had my usual, as the sun sank low (or, as we all should know, the Earth from viewing location rotated beyond the sight of the Sun).

From my vantage point above, I could see and hear the action going on, on the new and bigger floating bar/restaurant, so after a while, I made my way down there.

It was big and friendly, but not as intimate as the smaller, older places in PL2; darker, too. So, not as easy to make eye contact and different levels to the place made it difficult to see who might be singing karaoke. Customers seemed to be aged 16-22 or thereabouts. Some gambling and drinking guys – also young – were camped on the hillside in what looked like a regular hangout above the floater. Inside, I got some friendly looks, but the layout hindered making friendships. Next time I go, I’ll take the highest point of the barge so I can see better, and try earlier in the day. It was already dark when I first boarded.

After a bottle of Beer Lao and ice, I walked back to the Seyadeth to get on my smartphone, thinking to do a video call to Thip. Here’s where I found out the wifi signal wasn’t strong enough in the guest house and that I would have to go to the restaurant if I wanted to get online.

In the Rim Khong, I was invited to a table of two Falang; two Canadian bicyclists in their fifties (I guessed), who had been school chums together back in Vancouver. One guy seemed pretty shy but nice; the other one had been in Southeast Asia on and off for 20 years and still talked bad about Asians. This always surprises me when I come up upon it. I don’t understand travelling in countries if you don’t appreciate their peoples.

It was a six beer day, stretched from 11am to 9pm, which worked out to about .6 beers/hour.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lao Trip 9.2a - Goodbye, Seng Chalerm

Yes, it’s a bit sad to see the Seng Chalerm guesthouse – only five years ago, the best guesthouse in Pak Lai – go down. Whether due to family changes or changes of fortune, the place is just getting run down. It used to be that I’d have a few hangers in the closet, now I was lucky to find one. The coffee pot quit working sometime last year and, as I mentioned yesterday, the one useable electric outlet is now non-functional. Like writing on the wall, the electric hot water shower has been getting colder and colder each trip.

I’m loyal and always honored to get the best room in the house, but sometimes – you have to make changes and adjustments to maintain your standards. Subsequently, I switched over to the Sayadeth, after paying for my night’s stay at Seng Chalerm. I took some parting shots of #B15 with some regrets. I have some good memories, here; especially of friends I’ve met during my stays here, like Ay, Savang, Savat, Nout, Khampou, Pom and Nuey.

After emptying it, I took my backpack to the guy that has a sewing shack right on the river road, in front of his house; within sight of Say Khong restaurant that looked to be closed this season.

I walked to the BCL in Pak Lai and withdrew kip from the ATM. After taking some photos of the town’s fairgrounds, a somewhat attractive, small Lao woman who could speak pretty good English struck up a conversation with me. I would have pursued it, but I noticed the make-up and the jewelry and I figured she was either “out of my league” or I out of hers.

While I was waiting for my backpack to be repaired, I went to the port and took some pictures there, feeling very much the tourist at this point.

 I had a Beer Lao at the small eatery on the Pak Lai side of the port ramp. They’re back in business and cleaned up; a great location, actually. While admiring the Mekong, the pristine views on the opposite banks, and the activities and non-activities at the port, I took note of a new floating restaurant, close-by. It looked pretty big.

I picked-up my repaired backback. The guy had done a pretty good job repairing and also reinforcing some stress points. His price was reasonable; about $3 USD. On the down side, that’s about a third of what the pack cost, originally. Oh well, I thanked him and returned to the Seyadeth, where I did laundry, showered and changed clothes in preparation for the second part of the day…

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lao Trip 9.1b

Dropped off right at my favorite guest house in the area, I was checked into my usual room (B15). Almost immediately, however, I was disheartened to note Seng Chalerm’s continued slide downwards in terms of upkeep and service. Most notable was the lack of a functioning recepticle for plug-in electricity. So, even though I had lights and air-conditioning, I was without TV. What was as bad, was the new somewhat attractive girl who checked me in had even tested it and found it not working. She just left me to it; no follow-up action.

After doing laundry and showering, I headed into town to buy minutes for my Lao sim card, called Thip, and bought some bread and fruit at the outdoor market. I was surprised to find both floating restaurants closed, so headed back to PL2 and the Rim Khong restaurant, where I knew I could get a beer and some dinner.

The owner definitely acknowledged that she recognized me, this time, and asked where I was staying. After I told her, she pointed to her new guest house across the street, at the same price, with free WiFi. I thanked her and proceeded to order some spicy beef, basil and rice (#23), along with a Beer Lao and bucket of ice. The food was good, but would have preferred a leaner cut of beef. The one beer grew to two as a motorcycling group from Thailand dominated the scene along with a smaller, separate group of local movers and shakers.

After eating, I tried my smartphone out and discovered a hole in my smartphone translation plans. The software I had loaded onto the phone could only function via the Internet, which rendered its usefulness minimal given that most conversations I have with Lao people are not in areas covered by WiFi, nor do I invest in data plans via my carrier. So, I would need to download stand-alone dictionaries if the smartphone was to be any use in helping me translate and be translated.

I got caught up on world events and was happy to see my oldest son Das sworn in for his third and final term as a California Assemblyman, representing the greater Santa Barbara area.

As the second beer kicked in, I found myself thinking more and more about Nuey and our possible reunion. Whenever I thought about it, now, it got me on edge, because the situation was just so impossible. I’ve written about it before, in private, so I won’t go over it again, but some of it can be found in the Lao Trip #7 series.

Before leaving the Rim Khong, I said good night to the owner, who was busy cleaning huge, 4-feet-long Mekong fish, along with her daughter or daughter-in-law; never had seen a fresh water fish so big.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lao Trip 9.1a - To PL2

In early December 2014, my oldest son Das shared with us his and his wife’s plans to visit us, from the United States, at the end of the month. This coincided with my quarterly travel permit renewal, so I upped the schedule on that and took time out of Thailand a couple of weeks ahead of schedule, returning to my favorite PL2.

Every time I’m about to leave Thailand, I get both a little excited and a little jittery. This time, my jitters were compounded the night before I left, after I sent Nuey an SMS letting her know I was coming back to Lao for a few days.

To my surprise, she called me back quickly and I had a hell of a hard time trying to figure out what she was saying. I subsequently received some SMS messages back from her saying: “Kay Noi want money,” which helped me grok what she had been saying. Whether the message came from her or her mom or her brother, sister or boy friend, I have no idea.

But, it got my hopes up, none-the-less, that I might get to see her again, this trip.

I was surprised she called back so quickly because after I had met her a half year before, I had made efforts to stay in contact with her. Part of the reason I went to a smart phone, after dissing them not more than nine months before, was so I could improve my English-Lao/Lao-English translations. I tried using it on Nuey and didn’t get much of a bounce-back. I attributed it to the machine translation software, but also feared I was as much work for her as she was for me and that determination would be the only thing to see us through.

Next day, after a light breakfast and coffee, Thip drove me on her motosai to the bawkasaw where I grabbed a second class bus to Muang Loei. En route, a late twenties-ish woman made some overtures to me, but I didn’t respond much besides being polite. I had heard her talking on her cellphone earlier and didn’t like the tone of her voice; figured she was being nice to me only on good behavior.

On the sawngtheaw from Loei to Tha Li, there were some teenage girls talking a lot about me, but not out of interest. I was more like a curiosity. After I watched them for a while, I got to reminiscing about the route I was on; first time had been with Thip; then there was the excitement of my first trip alone; then the time trying to figure out how to become friends with that Lao country girl; then, last time, that weird guy pocketing the Kopiko’s

At the Nam Heuang border crossing, I met a Lao guy who had been living in the United States for forty years and now was coming back to his homeland for the first time, unannounced in order to surprise his family. I wonder how things went with that and him.

This being the weekend of the Thai king’s birthday, there were many Thai travelers in small groups and large. The tour groups tended to slow things down, but I wasn’t in a rush. The Lao army guys and tuk-tuk drivers seemed impressed that I knew a little of the Lao language.

At the Ken Thao “bus station,” I once again found myself without public transport headed for Pak Lai. So, I had to hire my own. This has become my biggest travelling extravagance: nearly $30 USD for a two hour drive from Ken Thao to Pak Lai. At least this time it was in a van with moderate air conditioning.

Along the way, I again noted the many Thai license plates and asked my driver about them.

“Khon Thai pai Luang Prabang,” he said, having seen it often; Thai people going to Luang Prabang by way of Nam Heuang, Pak Lai and Xayabuli.