Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Lao Trip 17.2a - French Fries

Leaving Anusone guest house the next morning, I went up the street and had a Beer Lao at "Banna," the restaurant that overlooks the Mekong, which is part of Seng Chalerm guest house, where I used to stay when I visited here in my early years. I would have liked to have had breakfast, but the menu is all in the Lao language and doesn't have any pictures. I knew how to order a beer and ice, though, and that's what I did.

The two women who had been around for years recognized me and greeted me warmly. Since I had an Internet connection here, I got caught up on my communications and worldwide news.

After one bottle, I walked to the market and ran into the owner of Khoun Ten. She seemed genuinely excited to see me, urging me to go on down to the restaurant and she'd be back soon.

The place wasn't open yet and there was no one around. Often, I'm the first one here because I don't like to stay up late. Moving around in the daytime, I can see things better. Plus, it's just safer in a number of ways.

I was relieved to see Khoun Ten still operating and under it's old name. They had gone for a name change awhile back, but I don't think it caught on. After a few other people showed up, I was also happy to see the floating restaurant/bar/karaoke spot still had its special vibe.

When the owner came back, she showed me a potato and suggested she fix it for me. I said "french fries" and she knew we were talking about the same thing. Although they seemed to take forever, the fries were good and went well with the Beer Lao.

Nothing much happened that early afternoon, but I enjoyed being back in my sweet spot. I really like being along the Mekong, at river level, looking out and not having to see buildings. Thoughts here often drift to some of the memorable moments that have taken place at Khoun Ten in just a period of five years: the late afternoon the rainstorm blew in (2012); the night one of the owner's daughters had to help me up the rainy banks to the cement stairs (2013); the afternoon I met Nuey and swam with the boys in The Kong (2014); the afternoon I met Duangtar, D'Dao, Somneuk and K'Kong (2015); times watching cargo boats motor by; many karaoke songs sung by boys and girls... Few adults venture here.

Seeing the list above, I have to admit that within the past couple of years I have not had a real stand-out moment at Khoun Ten. This may reflect my becoming more boring; aging; moving away from meeting young girls; and my focus shifting to friends that I already know.

After a while I made my way up to the market for my rendezvous with my friend Savath. At first, I forgot that he had moved his hardware store over to his house across the street from the market. Little to know overhead there.

Savath and his store manager welcomed me into the shop where I sat down and traded some simple conversation. I could see that Savath was in the process of closing out his financial books for the day, so I kept to myself and just watched. During that time, Savath sent out for his traditional gift of an inconspicuous plastic water bottle filled with lao khao from the vats he has them distilled somewhere not far away. He is, after all, the Beer Lao distributor for Pak Lai.

After Savath had completed his paperwork and prepared the bank deposit for the take of the day, we moved over to his house for beers and snacks. I got to meet his wife again and the grandmother -- not sure if it's his mother or his wife's.

Savath's associate Lav Su Sai showed up and the three of us prepared for the night activities. Last year, Savath had his sons' school teacher Sone as his interpreter for our conversations. This year, those duties fell to Lav Su Sai.

Being in Savath's house drinking beer, joking around, looking at the many pictures on his wall, I remembered the times I had been here before...

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lao Trip 17.1b - 1st Night in Town

On my way to look for a guest house, I was pulled into a party at the Saybaidee. Workers from the tourist boat we're losing no time getting wasted on Beer Lao and insisted I drink with them, which I was happy to do, even contributing some bottles, myself.

I re-met the manager who goes by the name of “Pinkie” on Line. She and I had done a karaoke rendition of “Sai Wa Si Bor Tim Kun” last year when I had visited the bar with Savath. In a way, this was a special place for me because this was where I first learned how to hang out with Lao people in a bar setting, back in 2012. A group of off-roaders had set the example and I followed their lead. I’ll always be thankful for that and appreciate their encouraging me to insert myself into the mix.

Here at the Saybaidee now, I broke away from the group when things started to get a little too wild. I moved to the back of the restaurant and got friendly with one of the girls working there. I was now getting a bit high and the girl at first looked like Tae. On closer look, she could have been her older sister. She was nice, but did not know any English.

Sayadeth guest house had become my go-to place when staying in Pak Lai, but this time I stopped in at the brand new Anusone guest house. I found out that for as little as the equivalent of two Beer Lao’s a day more, I could get a corner room on the third floor with a Mekong view. I treated myself.

After showering and an early dinner at Khemkong Restaurant, I made my way to PL2.

When I first arrived in Pak Lai, I had discovered the new floating restaurant -- Houane PairKok PairKham, originally moored in back of the bank -- had gone. Now, when I walked to Heuan Phair ThaPho, I found it moored right next door. I could not imagine how either floating bar/restaurant could make a profit in such close proximity to each other.

I had a beer Lao at Houane PairKok PairKham. While there, I noticed a Falang with a Lao sao and the manager/owner. The guy was in his upper twenties and sported some tatoos. I found out later he was involved with mining in the area.

Things that I had noticed about this bar before I was reminded of again. It was difficult to meet anybody. Everybody was into their own thing. So I went next door to Heuan Phair Tha Pho and had another Beer Lao. This floating bar/restaurant I had patronized many a time before and had had various memorable moments in. Tonight, I noticed that they are now set-up for live music. Maybe this is the way both floaters can coexist so close to each other: differentiation.

The owner and somewhat of a friend to me was not around. The guys running the karaoke music box I had never seen before. They played a bunch of English language songs over the sound system -- probably for my benefit, but I would have rather listened to Thai or Lao songs, to be honest.

Navigating my way through the barking soi dogs, I made it back to Anusone and collapsed.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Lao Trip 17.1a - Tourist Boat

The day after our temple’s annual two-day celebration of Boon Katin, I headed for PL2 to fulfill my Thai Visa requirement (in this case, leave the country within a 90-day period and stamp back in for a new 90-day travel permit). In the process, I wanted to visit Lao friends I had not seen in a year and two, and see the changes that must have taken place in the year since I’d been gone.

On the bus ride from Nong Bua Lamphu to Muang Loei, the most interesting thing along Highway 210 was the highway, itself. Construction on widening still continues, but 210 is now mostly a four-lane highway. In spots, it even has bike paths. The entire length of highway now has painted lines, including lines for the shoulder -- something the highway did not have when I began traveling it 17 years ago.

At the Muang Loei bawkawsaw, I discovered the local sawngtheaw’s are now consolidated into the main bus station. Local transport no longer has its own small station. That area now looks like it is being reconstructed as a shopping area.

This trip, I made good time both going and coming back. There was a real advantage to leaving as early as I could from Nong Bua and then again at Pak Lai.

After switching sawngtheaws at Tha Li; stamping out of Thailand; taking a tuk-tuk to cross the border; getting my Lao visa and stamping in... I switched to another samlor to reach the Ken Thao kiw lot (bus station) in easy time to catch the sawngtheaw to Pak Lai.

The beautiful hour and a half ride from Ken Thao to Pak Lai I spent hanging onto the back of the truck; inside the truck but at the extreme back -- like I usually do. It gets a bit crowded inside. When we arrived at Pak Lai’s south bound bus station, I was not surprised to find my tuk-tuk driver friend Lu. He gave a bunch of us a ride into town and asked about my trip back to Thailand. I told him I would give him a call about what day and time I needed a pick-up. Later, I found out I did not have his new number, so missed him when I left several days later. Something like this has happened before, so I need to check with him each time what his telephone number is.

Once in Pak Lai, I went to the restaurant above the port: Par Sai. It has wide vistas and you get a real sense of the mighty Mekong from here. I had a Beer Lao, but the service wasn't that great and I kind of had to fight for my ice -- something I really don’t like to do. If they’re gonna be skimpy on ice, I’d just rather pay extra for what I need for one complete bottle and not have to hassle.

While I was enjoying settling into Lao, the tourist boat from Luang Phrabang docked at the port -- easily seen from my vantage point. It was a beautiful boat and I could only imagine how much a ticket cost to ride it. The boat would spend an overnight here before going on to Vientiane the following day.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Monsoon Season, 2017

With the end of the Southeast Asian Monsoon season, I reflected back on some of the storms that had rolled in over the past 7 months.

The rains came early this year. They afforded us the opportunity to plant a little earlier than we normally do. So, that was a good thing. On the downside, it was a good half year before I could get any serious brush cutting in, other than to do the lawns. And, then there were the nyoong (mosquitoes).

Temple chedi under construction and pool 
between our 9 rai farm and the government road.

The biggest storm came fairly early on, when we were wrapping up construction of the bungalow at our 9 rai rice farm. Although I’m constantly monitoring the government meteorological hourly radar shots, the storm caught me by surprise -- not so much that it arrived as it was so strong. Both Thip and I had opted to sleep that night in our village house because of it. When the storm subsided and I got back to the farm the next day, I found the refrigerator blown nearly over and making noise. Everything we had was soaked and strewn about the pad. We had been totally unprepared for the strength of the storm and, as the bungalow was not quite finished, all our stuff had been out in the open, under Bann Nah. It took us a full two weeks to clean up.

There were other storms, but not as bad and I got better at reading the radar images via my cellphone.

I watched a couple of the storms roll into our farm house complex. Others, I advised my wife that we should sleep at the village house -- mostly due to our dirt road leading to the farm from the government road. If it gets soaked repeatedly over the course of a couple of days, it’s just a real hassle to pass through. But, we got good at that, too.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Day Thailand Stopped

Thailand’s King Bumibol Adulyadej died, last year. Although long expected, Khon Thai still felt a sense of profound loss.

During the one-year mourning period, the departed King’s body stayed in state in the Grand Palace and the Palace stayed open for people throughout the country and the world to come to pay their last respects. My wife made the two-day round-trip journey to do so and I think whoever felt close to the King and thought they could afford it, made the trek no matter what the distance was.

While the Grand Palace received twelve million visitors during the year mourning, an ornate cremation structure was constructed.

On the day of the funeral, 14 October 2017, most all Thais stopped their daily routines to participate in some way. Many were on-site near the Grand Palace and at replica cremation structures that had been built in each and every province in the country. TV’s and smart phones were glued to the day’s proceedings as they went on.

That night, the night of the actual cremation, it was like Thailand stopped completely.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Ant Battles

This is a follow-up to my Home Alive! series, parts 1, 2 and 3.

It used to be that, here in the Thai Countryside, my major problems with living things were with mosquitoes, rats, termites, scorpions, and dogs.

Although I've seen more snakes this year than at any single time in my life, my main battles are now with ants.

The most common ants in the Isaan are:

The Pharaoh Ant (Monomorium pharaonis)
These are the smallest ant species measuring only 1.5–2.0 mm in size and yellowish/light brown in color. The mother colony starts outside buildings and workers ants spread out inside your home to set up sub colonies inside.

They live within cracks within walls, electric sockets and in between tiles – anywhere where they can set up a new colony with multiple queens in any nest. They feed on anything with a preference towards sweet foods. They can eat dead insects, blood, meat and sweet left-over food. They breed all year round and after the queen has mated, she will split up and move on to a new nest to set up a new colony. These ants can bite and will produce an irritation, but no pain.

Indicum Ants (Monomorium indicum)
These ants are small, but a bit bigger than the Paraohs, measuring 2.5 mm to 3.5 mm in size and dark brown in color. They generally make their nests outside, but as they forage for food, they will certainly invade your home in that pursuit. They are sweet feeders and also like protein food. They bite, but it’s no more than irritating.

Fire Ants (Solenopsis geminate)
Just like the ones I was introduced to in South Texas so many years ago. These are nasty little ants with a worldwide reputation to bite. They are 2 mm in length. Workers have powerful stings. If you mistakenly stand on a nest, workers will slowly cover your feet and lower legs and then seemingly sting all at once. You usually don’t know they’re on you until your feet start to feel like they’re on fire -- hence the name. I always try to watch where I’m walking and definitely where I am standing.

Odourous Ants (Tapinoma melanocephalum)
These ants are 1 mm in length, with head and chest black in color. They make their nests on top of the ground and within the root zone of trees. They particularly like bamboo trees and any tree where there is moisture. These ants also bite, but they’re only irritating.

Crazy Ants (Paratrechina longicomis)
Crazy Ants are between 2-3 mm in length with yellow and brown hair on their black and brown bodies. They live outside the house and workers scatter to forage for food. As they forage, they leave a pheromone everywhere. This causes other workers to try and pick up the strongest scent that creates their “crazy and erratic” behavior.

They like to make their nests in cracks of wood and where there is a damp surrounding. You can sometimes see these ants move their eggs to new nests. These ants do not bite but just tickle with their movement on your body.

Weaver Ants (Oecophylia smaragdina)
These are a red rustic color and are 7-11 mm in length. These are the ants whose eggs are somewhat of a delicacy to Thai/Lao people – Kai mut dang. They make their nests on the tree leaves, like mango trees. They make the leaves roll up and stick together by a sticky substance the ants secrete from their body.

These are very aggressive ants and will defend themselves effectively by biting and spraying an acid on any living thing that attacks them or thinks is attacking them. They can leave the skin feeling itchy and local swelling can occur. I never climb trees because of these guys. When I’m brush cutting, I’m also careful not to have my head brush up against any lower tree limbs.

Ants at our village house are not a problem for the most part. They’re all around, but they haven’t tried to take over.

The ant battlegrounds are out at our larger farm; specifically at Bann Nah, our farm house complex.

You can't blame the ants, really. Our dirt pad is raised and solid in the middle of the rice fields. We are surrounded on all sides by a quarter of a mile of rice patties -- wet for almost half the year.

It has long been a tradition of my family to leave ants alone.

There is this famous family story about my first son Das and his defense of ants in an altercation with another kid at school who was squashing some.

The story is funny now to look back on but I was brought up somewhat in the Buddhist way along with Christian and I passed the guidance on to my sons: no need to kill anything unless it’s for food or defense.

Now that Thip I are living out at the farm half of the time during the rainy season and most of the time the rest of the year, ants have become a real problem.

They get into everything. The real tiny Pharaoh ants really drive Thip nuts. They make homes even in-between fabric. So, you can’t have folded clothes or bedding around un-moved for any length of time for fear those Pharaohs are gonna set-up shop.

I have joked often about how ants are always crawling on my body here in the Isaan. More hours out of the day than not, I have ants exploring what they can find on my skin. But these ants don't really cause any problems. They’re usually Pharaohs or Indicums and generally don’t bite unless provoked.

The ant battles I engage in are when I can see clearly ant trails going upstairs and/or into the bungalow. I do my best to keep them out by spraying their trails and destroying their homes when set up close to our living areas. Insecticide for the trails and detergent water for the mounds are enough for them to get the message sooner or later.

It's not so much a war as a bunch of pitched battles. Forget fights; you’ll lose every time. Each battle I learn how better to fight the next one. But, I don’t have any illusions of a win. I’m not interested in annihilation. My strategy is to wear them down and make it more of a hassle for them to bother us than just do something else and live somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be far away, just not where we sleep or hang.

Some Ant Facts

· Ants have a natural built-in barometer that can detect rain. So if you see ants carrying eggs, you can accurately guess it is going to rain.
· Ants can gnaw through paper and plastic bags.
· Ants have two stomachs – their own and a social stomach that feeds the young and the queen.
· Ants are the strongest living creature, with the ability to lift 10 times their own bodyweight.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ohpensa 2017 / 2560

Wan Ok Phansa -- or what I refer to as Ohpensa here in Northeastern Thailand -- is the end of Vassa, the annual three months long “Rains Retreat” observed by Theraveda Buddists.

Ohpensa is celebrated in different ways at different temples, but all have their main ceremony at night. Part of the ceremony involves walking around the wat with lit candles, burning incense, and sometimes lotus blossoms. Fireworks are shot off and sometimes sky lanterns lit. I usually attend the morning ceremony and save the night time for myself out at the farm.

Just two weeks before, the morning sun looked close to Venus.

In 2014, due to the lunar eclipse that Ohpensa, I decided to forgo the night time temple ceremony and opt for the lunar show. I was not disappointed. That Ohpensa remains my most memorable to-date, not only because of the eclipse but also because of the many sky lanterns sent skywards all around me. Although we had lit some on the temple grounds and also were part of 2014’s Washiku Karen harvest ceremony where many where lifted aloft, I hadn’t realized until that night that most all temples and some communities also light sky lanterns. So, being out in the middle of the rice fields, you get this show of orange lights within a 360° field of vision.

The Isaan’s most well-known and popular celebration of Wan Ok Phansa takes place at Nong Khai, along the Mekong, on the other side of the river from the road to Vientiane, Lao. Naga Fireballs or Bung Fai Paya Nak (Mekong Lights) draw thousands of people to the riverside city in the hopes of catching a glimpse of them. Many Thai and Lao people consider these spiritual mysteries, others dismiss them as a hoax or, at best, subjects of skepticism. Either way, if the Naga Fireballs really do exist as a natural phenomenon, then they have not been scientifically proven.

Out at the farm, I could see periodic fireworks all around -- just as at our temple or if I were in Nong Khai. In fact, it seems that within the past three years, the popularity of fireworks has grown and the number of sky lanterns become less. For me, the sky lanterns are more interesting. They last longer and drift across the sky in unpredictable patterns. But, I'll take both!

Now that Bann Nah is a year old and complete with roof and porch, watching the light shows -- in addition to the full moon -- is even more enjoyable than before. With the added plus of a cellphone, I even watched the show while listening to music. Tom Petty had recently died and while I was not a big fan of his, he and his Heartbreakers did a number of songs I like. This night, although it had nothing thematically in common with what I was watching, I played my favorite song of his. Because it was somewhat chant-like, I played it a good number of times, over-and-over.