Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lao Trip 3.3 - PL2

On my third trip to Lao (Laos), in November 2012 and just before the rice harvest, I went to a very special place that is a lot like Pak Lai, the place I went with Thip on our first trip to Lao last May. Rather than reveal its name or where it is, I will follow a surfing tradition that some of us real surfers have of keeping special spots secret (“secret spot”) in an attempt not to overcrowd them. Because of similarities with Pak Lai, I will refer to my special village as “Pak Lai #2” or just “PL2.”

Although much smaller, one of the main things PL2 has in common with Pak Lai is that it, too, is along the Mekong. As a person who has grown up around large bodies of water most all his 64 years on the planet, the Mekong makes me feel at home. It’s no Pacific Ocean, but it will do and, anyway, it has its own uniqueness.

It doesn’t hurt that the scenery is stunning and largely undeveloped, also.

A vivid memory from this trip is when I went swimming. It wasn’t my first time in the Nam Kong, but first time swimming in Lao. I was surprised at the swiftness of the water. When I first swam in the Mekong in 2000, it was at Khaeng Khut Khu, in Thailand. The bend in the river there is notorious for the deaths that have occurred when people were swept-up by the current into whirlpools that sucked them down. I was extremely cautious that time and this time cautious, too, because I really did not know what I was getting into.

I didn’t stray far from shore and I kept pace with the current, swimming against it so as not to be swept down river. It wasn’t long before I returned to shore, knowing full well that I couldn’t keep the pace up for long.

A piece of advice you may have heard before, but this time from a guy who grew up at the beach, a former lifeguard and a person who has surfed for 45 years: if you ever find yourself swimming in water that takes you away from where you want to go, don’t panic. Swim with the current, but at an angle in the direction you want to go. For sure, you will make land fall away from where you started out, but that’s better than the alternative. Above all, don’t freak out. Stay in control of the situation as best you can. Most drownings, I am convinced, are caused by hyperventilation due to anxiety.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Lao Trip 3.2 - Lao Language

One of my favorite stories to tell is about the first year of my marriage to Thip, when I tried to study the Thai language. It took me a while before realizing that I was boning up on the wrong language. Thip and most of the people of The Isaan really speak a form of Lao, not Thai!

Isaan Lao incorporates a lot of Thai, though, so my usual response, in Laos, when asked if I can speak Lao is:

Wow Lao bo-dai!” (speak Lao cannot!)

This usually cracks everyone up.

I follow this up quickly with some clarification:

Sah-peak Thai nit-noy, nit-noy, nit-noy (speak Thai a little, a little, a little). Sah-peak Lao nit-noy, nit-noy (speak Lao a little, a little – better than Thai). Sah-peak Isaan nit-noy. (speak Isaan Lao a little – best of the three).”

Although a very crudely simple statement, it contains a lot more information than one would think at first glance. It effectively communicates to people that I know there is a difference between the three and that I am focusing on Isaan Lao first, Lao second and Thai third. That somewhat endears me to Lao people as I let them know that Isaan and Lao are close, linguistically, and my focus is on Lao before Thai. I always get a favorable response to this.

Very handy for me has been a pocket-size dictionary/phrasebook entitled “Lao-English, English-Lao Romanized” by James Higbie. Really, I wouldn’t be very interesting to Lao people for very long without this very-portable book. There are no Lao fonts used, but rather half the book is Lao as it is written in English translated into written English. The other half is English translated into what the Lao word sounds like in English. It is a fantastic resource and helps me especially when I get stuck in trying to communicate or understand the gist of a particularly interesting Lao conversation.

Of course, if one has a “smart phone” with the appropriate translation software loaded, that’s even better. But, for me as a Westerner travelling alone, I try to minimize the amount of valuable gear I take with me. I even leave my gold Buddha amulet and wedding ring at home.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lao Trip 3.1 - Lao People

Let me go on the record as saying I made a big mistake in my initial impression of Lao people, in May 2012. When I went back six months later, I discovered that Lao people are very friendly and have great good hearts (jai dee).

I’m not sure, but I think my first opinions of lowland Lao (Lao Loum) were tainted by my travelling with my wife Thip on that first trip. Not that Thip tainted them, but maybe Lao people took her for being Pathet Lao (Lao national) and not Thai-Lao. If so, they might have looked down on our travelling together or maybe just assumed we knew what we were doing.

Travelling alone was a whole different story. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was doing, but people assumed there were lots for me to learn.

The response from Lao people was completely different when I was by myself vs. with another person. At every turn, people were open to me and wanted to help me out or get to know me or practice their English with me or even flirt with me! Really, it was fantastic. There were times when I “felt like a ‘Rock Star.’”

One time particularly stands out. I was shopping in a village market and came upon a group of merchants gathered together having a beer towards end of work day. I was invited to join in and declined, as is my usual, but one person was so insistent, that I ended up caving in and having some beer with some very friendly mostly middle-aged women. One woman (Took Tah) was in her 20s – very small, very attractive and probably very married – and wore a traditional Lao silk skirt and top. I ended-up being invited over to a house next door to the market and it turned out to be the home and of the local Beer Lao distributor, an important man in that village.

I didn't stay too long, but came away feeling I had made some friends and it was all because I said "yes" to a number of invites.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Chedis (Stupas)

Another thing you will see throughout the lands that are primarily Buddhist are chedis (stupas). In the fall of 2012, just before the rice harvest, Thip and I went with a group from our temple to visit a number of famous chedis in the eastern portion of the Isaan, in Mukdahan province. Here are some of the photos we shot that stand out:

Above: The biggest chedi I've ever seen.

Above: Thip on one of the lower levels of the chedi above.

Above: A chedi built almost totally from stone.

Above: carvings and etchings in stone; some details to the chedi above.

Above: a replica of a famous chedi in Indonesia.

Above: detail work on another all-stone chedi; the carving looks old but it's probably just because of the nature of the rock.