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 - Khem Khong Restaurant

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 Khem 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 Khem 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.

The "Story of Nuey" continues at Lao Trip 9.2b

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.

"The Story of Nuey" continues at: Lao Trip 9.1b

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bann Nah 15 - How Plans Grow!

Most any man that plans to build a structure with his wife’s active participation will attest: those plans usually escalate and can take radical turns in the process.

Our “farm house” (aka “Bann Nah”) is a perfect example.

 I started out with a simple plan of slightly upgrading the former “Love Shack II” (built in 2012), which had been the successor to the original “Love Shack” (built in 2001). But, as I’ve explained elsewhere, what would have been “Love Shack III” got upgraded to a full-on farm house with quality wood and craftsmanship part of the plan.

"Love Shack I," summer 2001

My wife played a big part in this basic change from shack-to-home and I’m not complaining. Although it has been frustrating at times, many of her ideas and reasons have been very good and solid. Other influences have been our head monk, Lungpaw, as well as various members of Thip’s family.

 The most radical change of plans occurred when we decided to build a house for Thip and I, as opposed to just a shack to be used by family when working on the farm.

 The second most radical change of plans was when Thip decided she had to have a kitchenette and bathroom up on the second floor. Gee, I wish you had told me that earlier! Thankfully, we were able to make that change before the second floor work had begun.

… and, now as I write this, it occurs to me that we’re only about 50% done and, certainly, more changes are a’comin’!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bann Nah 14 - Fresh Karma

During the three months work stoppage between October and December 2014, I would occasionally go out to the building site of our “country home” (aka “Bann Nah,” Thai for farm house), to verify that no thefts had occurred, to clean-up a bit, and water some plants and trees Thip and I have already begun to grow there. I even did a bit of wood staining – the lightest stain possible, so to easily see the grain.

 On one trip to Bann Nah, it struck me that since we were constructing our living space in the middle of the larger of our two rice farms, it was very likely that no one had ever lived in this spot before – at least since the introduction os rice cultivation into this part of Southeast Asia.

Rice agriculture is believed to have spread from southern China, in the area below the Yangzi, over the course of the Third Millenium BCE. Before that time, most of the rice fields of Southeast Asia must have been low-lying semi-swamp areas that thrived during the Monsoon Season and dried-up during the dry season. Or, just part of the once-vast Southeast Asian forest that hunter-gatherers moved about in search of food. Certainly, what is now cultivated land must have been low-lying since before the conversion to rice paddies and, as such, not really habitable comfortably.

 What also occurred to me was that since we were at a spot that had “fresh karma,” so to speak, it was even more important to keep it a place where, along with the rice, only good, fresh karma will grow.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Prayuth's 12 Values

In summer 2014, Thai junta leader and former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha offered "Twelve Values" for the nation to continue to strive toward. These were introduced to Thai children in a televised broadcast in July and draw from His Majesty the King’s teachings:

1. Loyalty to the Nation, the Religion, and the Monarchy

2. Honesty, sacrifice, endurance, and noble ideology for the greater good

3. Gratitude for parents, guardians, and teachers

4. Diligence in acquiring knowledge, via school studies and other methods

5. Preserving the Thai customs and tradition

6. Morality and good will for others

7. Correct understanding of democracy with the King as Head of State

8. Discipline, respect for law, and obedience to the older citizens

9. Constant consciousness to practice good deeds all the time, as taught by His Majesty the King

10. Practice of Self-SufficientEconomy in accordance with the teaching of His Majesty the King

11. Physical and mental strength. Refusal to surrender to religious sins.

12. Uphold the interest of the nation over oneself.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why I Never Fought in Indochina

Most often asked questions of me by people in Southeast Asia are: How are you? What is your name? What country are you from? How long have you lived in Thailand? Where are you going? Where do you live?

A question that was often asked in relaxed, sitting down, social moments – most often by older Thai men – is: Was I a GI? That is, did I fight in the Second Indochina War (aka Vietnam War). Nowadays, I’m not asked that question much, but back when I first moved to the Isaan, it often came up.

“Baw,” I answer No. Very rarely am I pressed for more detail, but occasionally I have and I further respond that I didn’t agree with it. Here’s my story and it’s different from most others you may know of or have heard about others who did not fight in that war but were of age to be able to do so. This is a long story, so settle in:

When I was in junior high school, about age 15, I read all the Ian Fleming James Bond novels and I got into spies and spying. The James Bond movies had started to come out and even while they entertained me, they were nothing like the novels and I think should be considered separate entities entirely.

Anyway, I went so far as to write the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency – then the main spy agency of the U.S. government), about how one becomes a spy in this day and age. Of course, later I found out that there are many ways to go about it and none of them as straight-forward as my question implied. I received a letter back from the CIA! One of the people charged with writing back to such inquiries advised me to go for the Green Berets, which was a new division within the Army that President Kennedy had initially been instrumental in its formation. They were supposed to be our country’s answer to guerilla warfare; our counter-insurgency force. Many of the skills taught to Green Berets were closely linked to Intelligence work; the gathering of intelligence about opposing forces. They were active in the Vietnam War, which the Americans had taken over from the French, in the 1950s. The massive opposition to this war, by the American people, had not kicked-in at this point (1963-64).

So, I went down to an Army recruiter to find out how to enlist in the Green Berets. The recruiter explained that once I enlisted in the Army, I should indicate my preference for the Green Berets and test myself into it. He underscored that the Green Berets were the best of the best of the Army, so it wouldn’t be easy, but that I could do it if I was determined and fit the kind of profile they were looking for. I was now just getting into high school and felt I should at least complete that before moving on to the military; certainly, that’s what my foster parents advised.

As time went on, I read about counter-insurgency warfare and the Vietnam War. I mean, I really got into it. I read stuff nobody my age would bother with. The subtleties of insurgent and counter-insurgent warfare intrigued me. The more I read, the more I knew I wanted to pursue this further, in real life.

The problem, though, was that in the course of reading up about the Green Berets and counter-insurgent warfare, I read a lot of stuff on the Vietnam War because it was the proving ground for much of the theories developed by the British, French and Americans up to that point. The more I read, the more I came to realize a shocking fact that few authors of the books I read meant for me to realize – except for one writer by the name of Wilfred Burchett. He came right out with it and used the plain ole simple facts to back his perspective up. That was, that America – the United States – was actually backing the wrong side in what we call the Vietnam War, but which many Asians refer to as the Second Indochina War (Americans vs. Viet Cong; the French vs. Viet Minh being the first). It didn’t help, either, that I read Graham Greene’s A Quiet American.

My realization came more or less at the time that opposition to the Vietnam War was beginning to be enunciated by singers like Bob Dylan. By 1966, marches against the war started to attract larger and larger amounts of predominantly young people – the same people who were expected to fight in the war.

On top of all this, I found out from more than one source that enlistment in the Army would not guarantee me matriculation to the Green Berets. The government could put me wherever the hell they wanted. I was turned-off to this scenario and lacked the confidence to just forge ahead and make my way. So, I never pursued a military career, though at times I was tempted and have always felt I had the mindset for it.

Of course, there were also technical details that kept me out. As long as I stayed in college, I couldn't be drafted. Then, when the government went to a lottery system, I was fortunate to get a very high number, which put me at the bottom of the list of who could be drafted.

A little known fact about me is that even as late as 1976, I tried enlisting in the Navy Seals – the Navy’s answer to the Green Berets. With the Vietnam War over and my sons just born, I felt the military had become a real option for me.  I would be a better fit for the Navy Seals than the Green Berets, due to my comfort and abilities in the aquatic environment. The only thing that kept me from being accepted was that I was so na├»ve as to believe that I could be honest about my past drug use. That honesty washed me out of my would-be enlistment in no time.

Getting back to the Vietnam War: I was never against it for pacifist reasons. While I wasn’t thrilled about the possibility of getting killed, it wasn’t fear of my own mortality that kept me from it. I was against it because I had done the reading on insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. I came to realize that if America was going to be in Vietnam at all, it should be in support of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists; same way with the Communist Pathet Lao in Laos, although I didn’t find out about The Secret War there until much later.