Friday, December 30, 2016

Lao Trip 15.2b - Xaysana's Students

I never really know what’s coming next. This is another reason why I love vacationing in Lao so much.

When I had arrived in PL2, I messaged Dao that I was here. She is my contact to teacher Duangtar; herself a former student of his who had just graduated from Palisard Business Administration College in Pak Lai. She had married Luy shortly afterwards and now had an administration job somewhere in the town; possibly at the school.

Dao was the girl who, two years ago, had spotted me looking a little down at Heuan Phair and had called in Duangtar, as his English is good. That’s when I first met them and their friends K’Kong and Samneuk. It was a time when I was finally reconciling myself to probably never seeing Nuey again. That was the reason for my long face that afternoon.

Anyway, I wasn’t surprised when she messaged me today, asking what I was doing. Through her, I was hoping to link up with Duangtar again. She told me she was drinking beer with friends at Thavekhoun Restaurant in Houaysaykhum village about 15 minutes away. So, I hung out in the shade of the river road and waited for a tuk-tuk to come by.

Another reason I love traveling in Thailand and Lao is that local people will look after you -- like I had those French off roaders. The owner of Khem Khong and Sayadeth noticed me and asked if I needed a samlor. I replied that I did, thanking her. A neighbor I’ve ridden with before came and picked me up shortly thereafter, taking me straight to where I needed to go.

Thavekhoun is just a private home with some raised and roofed platforms in the backyard; a very local scene.

Dao had left, but teacher Xaysana was there with some of his students who were graduating from Palisard. I saw Samneuk again and greeted him. Xaysana invited me into their group; a little surprised to see me, I think.

We all had fun mixing Lao and English. The girls were especially interested in my wife, our ages, children and what color skin does my wife have? I said same as Xaysana’s and they all laughed, as he is much darker than Lao in Xaiyabuli (aka Sainyabuli) Province.

Lao girls and women -- like Asian women generally -- value white skin highly. Most who can afford it apply whitening creme to their skin daily. When out in the sun for any length of time -- including riding a motorsai -- they will either use an umbrella or wear a hat or cap. Actually, baseball caps are getting more and more popular because of this reason. Although it looks cute and picturesque, riding a motorcycle with one hand on the accelerator and the other hand holding a small umbrella is a lot more work. Whenever I see girls riding this way, it always reminds me of how, as lifeguards back in the USA, we worshiped the sun and proudly displayed our deep tans.

One of the girls -- Tae -- has eyes that light up. Young people have clearer eyes than those of us who are older, but some have a brightness -- a twinkle -- that is beyond the norm. Tae has it and it is beautiful to watch. She caught me watching her more than once.

Tae's the one with the baseball cap.

Just before sundown, we broke up. The girls would not let me pay for any of the beer. I got a ride with the main group of them and told Xaysana I’d see him again. Later, I ate dinner at Khem Khong and then had a beer over at Banna; first with the French guys before they left for dinner and then by myself.

The woman who runs the restaurant -- I’ve known her for a couple of years. Last time I was in town, we even drank together with a group of her middle age women friends. Now, she had a younger friend join her and when her friend wasn’t looking, made gestures to me that I should sleep with her. Her friend was attractive; maybe late 20s. I declined with a smile, thanking her for thinking of me.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Lao Trip 15.2a - Dirt Bikers

Last night at the Khem Kong restaurant, I had a very tasty meal of pad ka pao kauai (fried beef and basil) with jasmine rice and a bottle of Beer Lao with ice. The food was really excellent. I remarked on more than one occasion to the owner that it was “sap lai” (very delicious). She responded as any proud owner would do that everything they offer is superb. Well, I doubt that only because I’m always suspicious of “everything.” For sure, I’ve only tasted a very small fraction of the menu, so I really couldn’t verify. No matter the place, I am always careful of what I eat and usually stick with bar-b-que of some sort.

In the morning I was able to call Thip around the time we usually wake up when we’re sleeping in the village (4:30-5am). Then, after that, my Lao cellphone data sim crapped out on me -- or so I thought. I later found out that I had just run out of minutes was all. Anyway, the guest house wifi was reachable on the bottom floor, so I had coffee down there and got done with my Internet stuff (writings, communication, world news).

After the fog lifted, I went to the BCEL in Pak Lai, got kip and then relocated to that restaurant that overlooks both the port and the newish floating restaurant.

They have really prospered since the time I first began visiting about five years ago. They are mostly geared to big groups and tour buses, with an ample parking lot and lots of bathroom urinals. The inside has also been upgraded and is still a scenic spot to hang.

Here I did some writing, drank some beer and ate/drank a coconut. I had noticed the large size of coconuts (mak pow) in a basket by the kitchen and had commented on them. The proprietor asked me if I’d like one. I nodded right away with a smile, asking her to include the “meat.” When drinking coconut juice straight from the nut, I always request the inside coconut, too. It makes for a meal, if there’s enough, and doesn’t cost you any more.

When I left the restaurant and began to pass the port area, I noticed a few Falang dirt bikers (aka “off roaders”) lounging around and struck up conversation with them. They were French who knew English. I was able to recommend a good guest house for them (the former Seng Chalerm, now renamed Banna) and shared some intel with them on the area.

(Banna on the right; Khem Khong just beyond it)

It was a group like this that first taught me how to make the most of it in Lao. It was my first trip to Lao on my own. They had shown me not only respect, but how they engaged with the locals. There was a birthday party in progress and they took part as honored guests even though they didn’t know anyone and couldn’t speak the language. After they left, I was recruited to fill in and... I’ve been the “roll with it” kinda guy ever since.

The Frenchmen invited me to drink with them, but I declined. A little later, some young Lao guys did the same and I accepted. What was the difference? I have some ideas, but it really only comes down to what you are feeling at the moment. As you “roll,” you also trust your instincts.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lao Trip 15.1c - PL2

The southbound Pak Lai bus station changed locations; not sure why. But, I was glad to see my friend Lu the tuk-tuk (samlor) driver had easily made the transition. I told him I was going to PL2 and he set me up with one of his drivers. My guess is he’s trying to build a fleet, which is smart because there’s also a northbound bus station (of sorts). He can’t be in two places at once.

PL2 is my somewhat “secret spot.” It’s within the Pak Lai zone of influence, but is its own thing and, in fact, unique. I haven’t run across another place quite like it in Lao or anywhere. I am fortunate that I found it with a little bit of research and reasoning early in my retirement in Thailand. With only around ten trips to PL2 to date, I already have a bunch of neat stories of what’s happened to me there. Significantly, I’ve also established friendships and am remembered by some.

After checking into my favored guest house and getting my favorite room (sunny room, Mekong river side), I did some laundry, showered and headed straight for Koun Ten. This floating restaurant/bar/karaoke spot has been the scene of some of my best times in the past five years.

I arrived shortly before the light faded and stayed through sundown. There was only one or two other tables occupied. The owner remembered me and I believe her husband had hailed me from his moving motosai while I had been en route. It had been two years since I had seen them both or even stepped foot on the floater. This is because, back in early 2015, the barge had been hit by a local tornado and most of the roof torn away. It had taken them a while to rebuild. When they reopened, they had a grand party (I had missed that) and renamed the restaurant to Vardsanar (koungtent).

Nothing much happened while I drank my two bottles of Beer Lao with ice. I shot some nice pictures and video and had fun remembering all the times I’d been here before and what had happened.

Afterwards, on the walk back to the guest house, I stopped in at Heuan Phair. Nobody was around except for the gay guy. I’ve often wondered how this family stays in business. The owner’s daughter was in and out. I had visited here a year ago, but this time I almost didn’t recognize her. She’s growing up fast!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Lao Trip 15.1b - Tailgating

When I crossed the Thai/Lao border along the Nam Heuang bridge, I noticed a change to the procedure on the Lao side. They checked my passport number before sending me over to get my one-month visa. It makes more sense than getting the visa and then checking to see if letting me into the country was a good idea. For sure, a list of all the dates and locations in and out come up on the computer one way of the other. Of course, I checked out OK!

The Ken Thao cut-throat tuk-tuk drivers on the Lao side still hadn’t changed their ways. They charged me a ride from the border to the Ken Thao bawkawsaw (Lao: lot) that was all of 10 minutes and four times what the two hour trip from Muang Loei to Tha Li had cost me -- and over twice as much as what Lu would charge me in Pak Lai. In part, this is just part of the economy. Fuel is more expensive than in Thailand (and much of it is imported from Thailand), but I think it’s also a local thing. These guys have locked-in their trade and taken advantage of the situation. They’re all nice and friendly, but their prices definitely are not.

On the plus side, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was an afternoon sawngtheaw going to Pak Lai this day. That meant that I would not have to lay over in Ken Thao -- a delay and added expense.

While waiting for the passenger truck to Pak Lai to depart, I purchased a data sim card in the market. This gave me Internet access on my cellphone while in Lao and also solve the communication problems I’d been having the last few trips.

It was a beautiful, sunny November day for traveling; air clear and crisp. The ride from Ken Thao to Pak Lai (aka “Paklay Town”) is even more beautiful than the ride from Loei to Tha Li. I always hang by the tailgate to get the backwards view; handkerchief mandatory due to the exhaust.

We stopped at the sawmill south of Pak Lai and unloaded a bunch of slabs of thick-cut mai doo -- the same kind of wood as our steps at Bann Nah. While there, I had a good view of the new bridge being built across the Mekong. In a year or so, that ferry trip Thip and I rode back in 2012 will be a thing of the past, unfortunately for those of us who like variety and a slower pace.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Lao Trip 15.1a - To The Border

Adhering to the provisions of my one-year multiple entry Thai “O” (for “Other”) Visa, in mid-November 2016/2559, I left Thailand and journeyed to Lao for my 15th trip to that beautiful country. I’ve technically been in Laos 17 times, but -- like my last one -- two were just mere border crossings -- over and back -- so that I could get another travel permit and keep my Thai Visa current.

I’m not a fan of the return same day border crossings. I much more prefer to make better use of the opportunity to take short vacations. The break from my normal routines is good for me and I haven’t had a bad trip yet -- including the time I got Traveller’s Diarrhea for a couple of days in Southern Lao.

A bit unfortunately, I left Thailand in the middle of our family’s yearly rice harvest. It is important for me to be around during this most important time -- not so much in the fields as the provider of beer, soft drinks, energy drinks and food... and, of course, general moral support.

I did this for a couple of days and then left. The pending expiration of my travel permit (90 days in length), forced my exit. But, I timed it as best I could. Importantly, I made sure the 9 rai road, that had been washed out by the recent flooding, was smoothed out. This not only made it possible for family to drive all the way in to Bann Nah (our farm house: center of pumped water, electricity, kitchen, bathroom and hammocks), but also made it possible for the thresher to get in, once the rice was cut and dried in the sun.

On the day of my leaving, Thip rode me on her motosai (Honda Wave 110i) about seven kilometers to the provincial bus station in Nong Bua Lamphu city. Although sleepier than most provincial bus stations, the Nong Bua bawkawsaw is laid out pretty much the same as most of the other ones. The administration office, information booth and bathrooms are centrally located with a long stretch of concrete bays assigned to certain bus routes. This roofed structure is surrounded by a cement road circling it, with shop houses in a “U” shape surrounding it. The shops sell various things and are not always traveller-specific. People who own the shops generally live in the apartments above them. You can always tell who’s doing well financially by seeing who has new paint and windows on their section of the block.

I always enjoy the ride to Muang Loei. I remember when the road was all two-lane highway, only 6-10 years ago. Now, there’s sections of four and even six lanes. 

From Muang Loei, I caught the sawngtheaw to Tha Li and then another passenger truck to the Thai/Lao Border and Nam Heuang.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Just before the rice harvest (giao khao - cut rice), a bit of bad luck hit the Nong Bua Lamphu region. A day and night’s-long heavy downpour resulted in rice fields throughout the area being flooded and under water for as long as two days later.

Thip's brother Sawt; chedi in background.

Old Timers say that the area’s rice fields hadn’t flooded like this in thirty years. When I first saw it, I thought it was a disaster or a tragedy in the making, but most everyone took it in stride and no one seemed to be too upset about it. Kids, of course, loved it.

Everywhere there was a klong (water canal, routed former stream), the klong and a wide area on either side of them became flowing broad expanses of water that knocked down rice stalks and put rice grain under water. Even in areas where there was no movement of water laterally, the immense amount of rain and some wind associated with it, further knocked down rice stalks, laying them down into the paddies. This typically happens. Some years it is only a little. Some years -- like 2016 -- it was a lot.

The rice can survive being under water for a while, as long as it is not more than a couple of days and then has a chance to quickly dry out. Luckily, this is what happened to our crop and to most others. There was damage to the rice fields, but nothing we couldn’t quickly come back from.

Aside from the laying down of the rice stalks -- which makes it much harder on the back to lift and cut rather than just cut -- the worst resultant problem we had to deal with was our washed-out road leading into our larger farm. For a couple of days, while the harvest was beginning, we couldn’t drive all the way in to Bann Nah. Before I had to leave for Lao (Laos), Thip and I made sure it was smoothed out so that family could get in and out easily and when it was time to thresh the harvest, the thresher could do the same.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Boon Katin, 2016

Boon Katin or boun katin follows each year’s end of Buddhist Lent (Vassa), shortly after Ohpensa (aka Wan Ok Phansa). Ceremonially, it is the time when new robes are offered to local or favored monks, but more importantly is a time of general gift giving to monks and temples. It is our wat’s major time of fund-raising and an opportunity for people to increase their karma and boon by giving.

My wife’s father Khun Paw had let it be known, this year, that he intended to make a very big donation to the temple, with ceremonies and socializing at the family house as well as at the wat. Everyone in the family was involved with this, which included having monks give a special ceremony at the family house and feeding nearly 300 family and friends before and afterwards. As my wife (and I) was one of the major funders of the Khun Paw’s Boon Katin ceremony/party, Thip stipulated that there would be no drinking of alcohol. This would have driven the cost up astronomically.

Boon Katin, in many ways, is a bigger observance in our village and at our local temples than even Khaopensa or Ohpensa. It is celebrated in slightly different ways throughout Thailand and Laos. By the end of the several days-long ceremonies, our temple had raised well over $30,000 USD and Khun Paw had donated around a tenth of that amount. I was happy for him, but a little uneasy about it. I knew he no longer had anymore extra money. This means that if family members needed cash for something unexpected or unplanned for, they will now go to my wife for help.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Two Homes

After we moved into our farm house, our daily routines were split even more between our 9 rai rice farm and our village house; sometimes sleeping out at the farm, sometimes in the village. It all depended on the weather and what we were doing that day and planned to do the day after.

Our Village House

Bann Nah on 9 rai

A bit of a different approach than most people thought we would take. During the construction of Bann Nah, there was often the question family and villagers would ask us: “Where will you live?” The assumption was always that we would live in one house or the other. Thip and I decided to take a more organic approach to the transition -- see what happens.

So, now we live in and out of both houses. I don’t see that changing for a while; at least until we wire up Bann Nah.

The transition period was very busy and somewhat tumultuous. There were the deaths of Thailand’s King and my sons’ grandfather on their mother’s side. There was also our birthdays and the major Buddhist ceremony days of Ohpensa and Boon Katin.

As I knew it would be, I found I liked it more out on the farm than in the village. Yet, I still had responsibilities at our village house and also at our rental property; mostly in the form of tree trimming and brush and grass cutting.

Our Rental Property -- Ban Sao (3 units)
Thip's brother Sawt and crew were moving power lines on this day

I also cut weeds at 9 rai, leaving 8.5 rai to be taken care of by Thip’s brothers who help with the grass cutting at 9 rai also, especially in the early part of the rice growing season.

Cutting weeds on the farm is essential and the timing of it can be critical. You want to cut the weeds before they are mature enough to have their seeds go airborne. The less weed seeds that get into the rice paddies, the less weeds you have to pull the following year. I’ve gotten better about timing it right, but it’s taken a couple of seasons to get it down.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Move In Morning

Thip and I went to our head monk, Lungpaw Boon Long, to ask him when would be favorable to have our house warming ceremony. He did not have a date for us, but he said we could move in the next day. We had thought we’d have to have the ceremony first, before we could move in.

Move-in day was perfect timing, as it was the day after Ohpensa. As we opened up the house and put some things away, the sun was rising in the east and the full moon setting in the west.

Thip’s friend Mai was there to help us and took some pictures:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Ohpensa, 2016

Thai King Bumibol Adulyadej died just before this year’s Ohpensa (aka Wan Ok Phansa), the end of the three month Buddhist Lent (Vassa) which had begun with Khaopensa, back in July.

Ohpensa takes place every October on the day of the full moon. I remember it most for the night ceremony where everyone walks around the temple three times, with lit candles, incense and flowers. As I mentioned last year, I used to attend this observance, but now just limit myself to the morning ceremony. I prefer to be out at Bann Nah that night, to enjoy the full moon and the sky lanterns that are lit throughout the evening and fill the night time sky all around. These symbolize the granting of our wishes going skyward and also symbolize a release of negative karma.

My most memorable Ohpensa had been in 2014. That one came complete with a full lunar eclipse.

This year’s Ohpensa seemed somewhat subdued, possibly due to the King’s passing. Of course, prayers were made for him this day, along with the usual, but I haven’t seen any of the emotional grief and sadness here in the Thai countryside, like could clearly be seen on TV images broadcast from Bangkok.

Then again, I don’t “get out” much. The most interaction I have with people is at the temple, with Thip’s family and people who visit us, which -- right now -- is a fair amount. People want to see the new house. When they get out to our 9 rai rice farm, they also find they really like it out there -- who else has a panoramic view like we have? -- so, they come back.

Kamattan chedi/stuppa being built on land we donated to the temple

Also, I’m more welcoming than I used to be. When I first moved to the Isaan in 2012, I kept our Thai family and potential friends at a distance. I did it knowingly and unknowingly. It is natural for Westerners to be a bit “stand-offish”. Thais are more social and I had to adjust to that -- one of the many things I had to change about myself as I “learned a new way.”

Part of it was practical, though. I had to put the stops on the amount of money we were giving to my wife’s family on a regular basis. As I explained it to her -- in part so that she wouldn’t feel so bad about it -- neither one of us was working at a paying job anymore. Now that we are living here on one fixed retirement income, it was impossible to support them to the degree we once had. Also, they are doing much better financially than they used to; in part due to our help, but probably more so to the improved Thai and Isaan economies.

Well, now I’m friendlier, more out-going, more open to family problems (which always have something to do with money)... and practice my Thai/Lao smile everyday. This contributes to our village and country homes being places of fresh and good karma.

Friends visiting

Monday, October 24, 2016

Rainy Season Ending

The death of the King of Thailand and end of construction at Bann Nah coincided with the winding down of the rainy season.

A week or so after the party celebrating the end of Phase 1 of the Bann Nah project, Thip and I were over at the family farm, celebrating the birthday of her oldest brother Awt. Rolling thunder was going off in the far distance. It’s the sound of lightning that occurs between clouds and generally does not strike the earth. Thip’s brother Sawt, the lineman supervisor, commented that the Monsoon Season was saying goodbye, as it prepared to move to The South before ceasing altogether.

During my first half decade retired in the Isaan, I’ve tried to learn how to read the weather. I did not learn meteorology very well in school and feel not enough time was spent on the subject, both by me and the school system. Throughout my life, I’ve just taken it for granted and not thought much about it until now. I think I’ve learned a bit and am aided by my capabilities with technology, which is rarely used by farmers here -- if you discount radio. Weather plays such a huge role in the life of a farmer -- which I am, I guess, in the gentlemanly way.

One of the major things I’ve discovered about the East Asian Monsoon Season as it relates to Northeastern Thailand is that when it starts, rain storms come primarily from the west (Adaman Sea). Toward the end of the rainy season, rain storms come mostly the east (generated in the South China Sea).

The early part of the Thai/Lao Rainy Season is marked by dramatic thunder storms, sometimes just squalls, and sometimes whole days when it will do nothing but rain. The later part of the rainy season here is marked by sporadic rain storms that keep it wet enough to keep you from burning brush, but dry enough to think the season may have passed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The King is Dead

Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX, recently passed away just short of his 90th birthday. Throughout the land, there is real grief over the loss to Thailand. King Bhumibol was widely loved and did many good things for his country in the 70 years of his reign.

After Bhumibol’s funeral, he will be succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, as King Rama X.

Black and white are worn throughout the country, as a sign of respect, and festivals are put on-hold for 30 days (with the exception of Buddhist holidays and religious ceremonies).

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Bann Nah 43 - The Last Day

Suddenly, it was the last day of the Phase 1 construction at our 9 rai rice farm.

The whole Bann Nah project was just shy of three years in-process, but the Phase 1 portion had taken two years and three months to complete. It basically amounted to building Bann Nah -- our farm house out in the middle of the farm. I think of Phase 1 as the wood portion, although it also involved rebar, cement, aluminum and imitation wood.

Later phases will involve wiring Bann Nah, high pressurizing the plumbing, enclosing the downstairs and building an adjacent 3-room addition in back that will house upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, a guest room and a small porch.

There was no construction on the last day of Phase 1. Instead, it was a day of movement where tools, scaffolding and tables were returned to the wat and left over wood taken back to our village home where we have a roof to protect it. Afterward, we would party in celebration of the completion.

As he had all along, Sam Lott -- aka “Kubota Man!” -- provided the brawn, as well as his mechanical buffalo and cart for the transport. He and Sam Naht returned the things we had been using for over two years to the temple, then all three of us moved the wood. We were done with everything in about three hours.

Returning stuff for storage at our village house:

“Kubota Man” was a joke Naht and I shared about Lott. The premise is that while Gotham City man have its Batman, Northeastern Thailand has Kubota Man. Kubota is the brand name for the most popular mechanical buffalo, which itself is a kind of mini-tractor, and Lott was its best driver.

Thips’s brothers and their wives helped my wife organize and prepare the food -- mostly seafood, a delicacy here in the Isaan. I sprung for a box of Beer Chang (12 620 ml bottles) and Thip’s brothers Sawt and Pawt even contributed a half dozen more.

During the course fo the mid-to-late afternoon and then early evening, there arrived some other visitors, but not many and it was all pretty low-key.

I found myself in surprisingly good mood. I hadn’t thought about it ahead of time -- how would I feel when it was all done? But, when it was, I was ecstatic. I even danced around a couple of times, which is something that I very rarely do at 67 years-of-age.

All tolled, the house cost us 824,000 baht or about $23,222 USD. Labor was around 182,400 baht or about $5,140 USD. Miraculously, even though the site was often without a human presence, not one thing was stolen in the two years and three months of construction.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Bann Nah 42 - Staining & Unsung Heroes

The last things Sam Lott and Sam Naht did for Phase 1 of the Bann Nah project was to construct and put in the porch gate, and also completely spray stain all wood. This took a couple of days. Then, the house would sit for a week -- maybe two -- while the stain thoroughly hardened.

In writing about Bann Nah over the course of its construction, I have proudly pointed to all the natural hard wood we used -- much of it coming from our own properties. I’ve also mentioned about how there are more screws in the building than nails due to the hardness of the wood. By so doing, I have forgotten about one of the unsung “heroes” of Bann Nah: our air compressor. Using it, Lott and Naht were able to quickly and efficiently use a nail gun to button down many areas where only a thin, small nail is most effective. These areas included the teak walls and ceilings and our flooring. Also, the compressor made staining large areas a relatively quick job. It even came in handy when tire pressure of motorcycles, tuk-tuks or mechanical buffaloes got low.

Speaking of motorcycles -- motosai’s -- these also we took for granted but without which we couldn’t have done what we did.

Lott's and Naht's motosai

Utilities like water and power also deserve a mention, neither of which we couldn’t have done without.