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.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Ghosts

When I think of Thai ghosts, firstly, I am reminded of the people who plaster their faces with talcum powder during the New Year. Secondly, I think of the young girls usually in high school or college or older who religiously apply whitening cream to their skin -- not only ruining the natural sheen of their skin, but causing a distortion to their overall beauty.

You can't talk them out of it. The appeal of white skin to Southeast Asians has a long history. It goes back to the time when the white skinned Chinese dominated commerce in this part of the world. The Chinese themselves are hung up on white skin and this was passed down to the locals. In order to be beautiful (read: successful), one must be white. So, everyone wants to be successful like the Chinese. This is another reason why Westerners are looked up to: the color of their skin; as if it were confirmation of perceived Falang success.

Girls, especially, think they will look more beautiful with white skin. Unfortunately, due to the “wonders of modern science,” it is now chemically possible to achieve the color, if not the beauty.

But, the subject of ghosts in Southeast Asia is a serious matter. I’m not talking about Songkran partiers or young girls and whitening cream. I mean: the ghosts of living beings long dead. In this part of the world, mysticism is ever present and it is not a long jump between mysticism to superstitions. Everyone here believes ghosts exist and are active. When my wife touches on the subject, I am careful to be attentive. Should I dismiss the subject in an off handed way, I would just be showing my ignorance and my credibility would be diminished. So, I pay a certain kind of lip service to the subject of ghosts.

To be sure, ghosts are a problem. But, it is the fear of ghosts, really, that cause the problems. One case in point occurred recently. Thip was regularly riding our farm road back and forth to the temple for evening chanting. That was until her niece started talking about all the ghosts in this area (as if she knew). Thip hasn't been on our dirt road at night since.

Spirit houses used to be prevalent in our area of the Isaan, almost as much as home Buddha altars. A Thai spirit house is “the house of the guardian spirit.” They are found not only in Thailand, but also in Lao, Cambodia and Mynmar. They are placed in an auspicious spot, most often in a corner of a property. The house itself is in miniature in the form of a house but most often a temple. It’s mounted on a pillar or dais. It’s main intention is to provide a shelter for spirits who could cause problems for the people residing at that location, unless otherwise appeased (by food offerings, chanting, prayers, burning incense, etc.). The shrines often include human and animal figurines.


Kamattan Buddhist leaders have discouraged the installation and maintenance of spirit houses in recent years. As an example, when I first met my wife 18 years ago, her family house had a well-maintained spirit house and now they have none. My wife has never asked me if we can put up one, ourselves.

You still see many spirit houses throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia, however. They are especially popular with places of business who want to show they are appeasing the local spirits.

The main Buddhist ceremony connected with ghosts is Boon Khao Sah, where the dead are remembered and their spirits honored. During this time, as if they were living entities themselves, the spirits are allowed to move around and, in fact, encouraged to do so -- as if they’d been caged up for a year.

I can't say that ghosts don't exist. I also can't say they do. Although I've heard many stories of people who have claimed to see them, I never have.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Communication Technology

When I retired to the Thai countryside from California, in 2012, I was an active multi-player gamer. I had friends who I’d never met face-to-face scattered around the world. We would meet up at a set day/time and play together in a virtual environment in real time. First, the game was Call of Duty, then I moved to Battlefield.

I wasn’t sure if I could continue to play “video games” once I was in Thailand, due to the importance of not only download spped, but upload as well. It turns out that it never became a problem. We bought a plan to deliver a cellular signal to the provincial hub and it worked fine. A couple of year later, we upgraded to fiber optic. Can you imagine having a fiber optic connection in a Thai village of 500 people?

Having first the cellular and then the fiber optic connections enabled us to create a wifi hotspot that gives all our Internet-capable devices access. There’s my computer, the Playstation gaming console (also used for movie watching) and both Thip’s and my cellphones. It used to be that we’d get visits from family just so they could use our connection, but that doesn’t happen much, anymore, as more and more people are buying and daily using data plans for their cellphones.


Of course, Thip and I also have data plans for our cellphones, so that when we are not near the wifi, we can also access the Internet -- basically, from anywhere in Thailand. It comes in handy out at the farm. Thip likes to watch YouTube videos -- instructional videos, Buddhist teachings and Chinese historical drama. Me, I use the phone primarily to keep an eye on the weather radar, but at night sometimes I’ll watch a Netflix show or movie. Staying in contact with each other and our friends and family is also an important aspect. Both Thip and I can be on the go, but we’re easily reachable -- as long as we have our cellphones turned on!


The electronic technology has been there for a while, it just took me time to figure it out and how to use it to maximum benefit. Actually, I was a little resistant to heavy use of cellphones having noted how it has negatively affected inter-personal relationships. But, I had to remind myself of my longtime attitude toward television. It’s neither good nor bad. It just depends on how you use it.


(A favorite shot, Spring 2017... look closely and you'll see Thip watering plants and... viewing her cellphone screen!)


Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Bit Like Camping

When my wife and I are out at our 9 rai farm, it’s a bit like camping.


In my experience, there’s three basic ways to camp. One is what I consider pure: where you head out with a pack on your back and hike to a location where you set up a temporary camp. A second type is what my sons and I call “car camping,” where you park in an area or campgrounds and pitch your gear within sight of your transpo. You can even sleep inside it, if there’s room and you’re set-up for that. A third, I guess, is “RV camping,” where you have your own self-contained living unit that you take with you to a campground specially made to accommodate recreational vehicles.

Well, out at the farm, it’s a little like Car Camping. Our campground is the area around Bann Nah (the farm house), all outdoors. Of course, we sleep upstairs in a very nice teak walled bedroom, but otherwise, we’re outside.


Even though she likes being out at the farm, I know this camping aspect wears on Thip a bit -- especially rainy days, some of which if they are too heavy, cause us to retreat to our village house. I’m a lucky guy to have a wife with me on this adventure, who puts up with living so basically and without so many comforts.

The other day we were talking about the many problems people have with each other and the general turmoil that churns all over the world. Thip said we are fortunate to be able to live so simply, in the figurative shadow of our local temple.

As usual, she’s right.



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Lao Trip 16.4 - What Price?

When Mr. Loi dropped me off at Nongsoda -- after our trip to the bar girls bar -- we made arrangements for him to drive me to the border next morning, as soon as immigration opened up (8:00 a.m.) I would need the entire day to make it home late afternoon that day.

After he left, I showered up and then “made my rounds” for one last time, this trip.

I had a beer at the riverside vendors, but no food. I was still full from eating pah merk (squid) at the bar girls bar. I then walked up the riverside road and had another beer at the new “The View,” ending-up at Savan Khaim Khong.

During these three stops, I kept thinking back to that afternoon and the girls I had met. Now, as I watched Thai luktung and pop videos, my thoughts turned to a person’s price.

I wouldn’t go so far as to declare that “everyman has his price,” but I’m pretty sure most of us do. For the Lao sao I had met, they’re price is low probably due to their family situations. Most bar girls I have met sell themselves to make money for their families, their offspring and themselves lastly.

Now, there are bar girls who make a career of prostitution and, in Thailand, they’re pretty easy to spot because they’re very attractive, well made up, well dressed and -- increasingly these days -- sport tatoos. For these girls, they enjoy the lifestyle and the comparatively high income garnered by easy work.

In between professional bar girls and the ones who will be in the occupation for a much shorter time, are the college girls who attract “sponsors.” They show them a good time while they’re going to school but usually dump them once graduated.

  
But, back to the average bar girl: she’s just a regular attractive girl who lacks other skills that would earn her the same level of financial return. She’ll probably stay with the job until she meets a guy who has enough money to take her away and marry her, or until her attractiveness wains. Then, she’ll most likely go back to her village, often with children and a Lao husband.

Now, about price... what about me? What is my price? After all, I probably could have afforded to have any one of the girls I met today or had them all. But, I declined. Sure, I wrote about taking the High Road and that is admirable, but just how honest am I being?

While I drank Beer Lao, I mused about Nuey. What if she had been in the line-up? Or, another girl who was just so attractive to me that I couldn’t resist? I mean, could I have resisted?

Before I left my favorite Savan bar/restaurant/karaoke place, I asked my waitress if I could take a picture of her and she agreed. I forget her name, but I remember her well. Several years back, her family had her working in the kitchen and would not allow her on the floor. During her breaks, she would stand in the kitchen doorway, looking out on the scene of people eating, drinking, talking, laughing and having fun.

Well, she’s grown a little older -- I’d guess she’s around 17 now -- and the family lets her wait tables. It was my good fortune, this trip, that she waited on mine.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lao Trip 16.3 - Bar Girls

The way they do visas at the Thai consulate in Savannakhet is they take the applications in the morning and then you go back with a number to pick yours up the following afternoon.

So, I basically laid around at Nongsoda in the morning of this third day of the trip, catching up on Internet communications and news. The day’s slow start would prove deceiving.


Mr. Loi picked me up at 1pm and dropped me off at the Thai consulate a bit early. I had to stand around and wait for the doors to open at 2pm. Luckily, I was in the shade. Usually talkative Westerners also in the line were kind of quiet today, possibly because of the heat.

After I received my one year, multiple entry Thai “O” (Other) Visa based on marriage, things started to liven up.

I mean, it was inevitable, really. Tuk-tuk drivers know where everything is. I remember Pak Lai samlor driver Lu offering to take me to “see beautiful girl.” Somehow I got out of that one, but this time, Mr. Loi didn’t bother to ask and even when we arrived and I lightly resisted, he was determined to show me a good time.

I learned several years back that it’s just best to “go with the flow” in Southeast Asia -- in most cases. You definitely do not want to dampen a friend’s good intentions. So, that’s how I found myself at my first-ever Lao bar girl bar on the outskirts of Savannakhet. Actually, we never made it into the physical structure. Pretty girls were hanging outside at a cement table, under the shade of a tree near the gate.

It was fun and I had a good time, but I had to learn quickly as time went on. The young guy who ran the place kept asking me “who?” I just sloughed it off each time, laughing. He knew I knew what he was talking about and, of course, the girls did, too. I just pretended that I didn’t quite know what he meant.

The four girls were attractive, ranging in age (I guess) from 16 to 26. The youngest one (I’m guessing again) was probably just “in training.”

The night I had spent with Jittzy, back in 2015, taught me that I no longer have my plumbing “up to code” nor the emotional wherewithal to deal with sleeping or having sex with another woman other than my wife. It’s an age thing, but it’s also a loyalty thing.

Irrespective of all this, I generously paid for lunch and beers for the seven of us and enjoyed myself a lot; this despite my friend and newfound friends knowing very, very little English. It was a challenge for me and I just wish that I had packed my translation gear (book and phrasebook). Although smart phones are the best way to go, I had not purchased a data plan after I crossed the border, so my cellphone was of little use in this setting -- at least for translation purposes.

In an attempt to keep things from getting out-of-control, I did use my phone to show the girls pictures of Bann Nah and my wife. Here was another plus for phones that have evolved into mini-computers. Nevertheless, the girls were undeterred and I could have had any one of them, including the girl I estimated at 16. Do the math. That’s about a quarter of my age. Can you imagine?


I kept to the High Road, not letting my eyes linger on any one girl too long. Eventually, Mr. Loi and I left. I let the girls know I’d be back -- gap ma -- but neglected to add that it probably wouldn’t be until next year.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Lao Trip 16.2 - Lao Derm Savan

I spent part of my visa fee barring, last night, so this morning I had to hassle a little bit to get the full 5k baht. The Thai consulate does not accept Lao kip, so I had to have the full amount in baht. My friend Mr. Loi helped me, providing transport. I got to see his daughter Jinta very briefly.

I submitted my paperwork and application without problems. Tomorrow afternoon, I will hopefully pick up my passport stamped with another lease on life in Thailand.


Back at the Riverside, I got caught up on my writing at Lao Derm Savan. The Nam Khong was rougher than usual, so I shot some video trying to capture it. I just couldn’t get it. Being on a floating restaurant off the banks of the Mekong after days of rain and flooding eluded my ability. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed it although the waitress clearly did not. It reminded me a little bit of that time in PL2 when the rain storm blew in as we were partying at Koun Ten.



Towards sundown, I ate some ping gai (bar-b-que chicken) at one of the Riverside vendor’s tables, stopped for a beer at both Savan Khaim Khong and the live music place which I think is called something “View,” then retired to Nongsoda, calling it somewhat of an early night -- at least not late.

Another popular video, currently: https://youtu.be/2dg9oc78Kv4


Monday, August 14, 2017

Lao Trip 16.1 - To Savan

It used to be that my wife would drop me off at the highway (210) and I would catch a sawngtheaw from the side of the two lane highway to the Nong Bua Lamphu bawkawsaw. Now that the highway’s gone to a divided four-laner, Thip takes the ring road to drop me off at the bus station on her motosai.

The bus leaves Nong Bua at 6am for Khon Kaen. From there, I switch to the 9:50am going to Mukdahan.

By the end of the afternoon, I’m at the Mukdahan bus station where I board the bus for the border. The border bus drops you off at the Mukdahan immigration complex on the Thai side of Friendship Bridge II. Here you purchase your bus ticket; seems a little off, but this is how they do it. To me, it makes more sense to buy the ticket when you first board the bus at the Mukdahan bawkawsaw.



Anyway, be sure to get your ticket before stamping out of Thailand. Once on the other side of the kiosks, you show your ticket to the bus driver who has advanced the bus up the driveway a bit. The bus then takes you across the bridge and drops you off at the Savannakhet immigration complex where you purchase your one-month Lao visa and stamp in to Lao. From here, you arrange local transpo into town. Be careful of taxi or tuk-tuk prices. If they sound a bit over, then they are. Feign disinterest and you can bring them down in price. It’s actually a game they love to play.

I was quoted 200 baht into town. I laughed and said “mak, mak” (too much), turned away and then let the drivers that had crowded around me know I was going to call a tuk-tuk friend of mine. It was all good fun, as they realized I spoke a little Isaan and they liked that. One guy came down to 100 baht and pointed out that my friend wouldn’t charge me any cheaper. I knew he was right and agreed. Turns out, he was going home for the day, so it worked out for him, too.

I had him drop me off at Nongsoda Guesthouse, in the Riverside section of town, not far from where the old Thai consulate used to be.

I’ve been up and down about Nongsoda ever since the day I really needed a decent room and got a very poor one. But, it is my preferred place of stay as it is right next to the Mekong and within an easy walk to bars, bar-restaurants and the “Riverside vendors.” Sometimes I stay at Intha Guesthouse which is more private and right on the Kong. If I had my wife or a girl with me, this is definitely where I would go. But, the price is better at Nongsoda, so if I can get one of their sunny rooms, I will take it.

After a shower, a visit to Savan Khaim Khong is always in order. I liked the old location better, but I had one of my standout nights at the new location, in 2015, when I met Jittzy and her friends.



This late afternoon/early evening was uneventful, but I had fun drinking Beer Lao (can’t easily get in Thailand, yet), eating squid (pah-merk), watching Thai luktung and pop videos... and reminiscing on the times I’ve been here (2014, 2015, 2016).

The relatively new Korean bar-b-que place was already out of business, but next door in the location of the old Savan Khaim Khong was a bar (View) featuring singers and musicians. So, of course, I stopped in for another beer.



I was happy to see the Riverside vendors back in operation. Something had happened with the planned riverside “improvements,” so the city let things revert back to the way they had been. Fine by me. This is a part of Lao I will enjoy until I no longer can.

Popular Thai video/song, currently: https://youtu.be/zCLZL-RV1tY



Monday, August 7, 2017

Lao Trip 16.0 - Preparations

Soon after returning from my annual trip back to the USA to visit family and friends, I made preparations for my 16th trip to Lao (Laos). This was to be my fourth visit to Savannakhet to obtain my one year, multiple entry Thai visa based on marriage to a Thai national. I could have gotten my visa in California, but it’s easier, cheaper and more fun for me to go to Savan. Even so, by necessity, I had to be well organized ahead of time. I had to have all my documents in order:

· application form
· two passport pictures
· passport
· original marriage certificate
· one copy of marriage certificate
· one copy of my passport page, dated and signed by me
· one copy of wife's Thai ID (front and back), dated and signed by wife
· one copy of wife's blue book (tabian bann), dated and signed by wife
· 5k baht
· letter from my wife showing we are still married


Thip and I had pretty much had this stuff already. It was just a matter of putting them all together, signed and dated...

Friday, July 28, 2017

New Bungalow

For their 17th wedding anniversary, most women would ask for a diamond ring, gold, exotic vacation or at very least a costly weekend shopping spree. Not my wife. All she asked for was a small bungalow near Ban Nah for her aging mother and also her sister, who has been their mother’s primary caregiver these past six years.

As you can guess, if you’ve read about my honeymoon being over, I did not really want any members of my wife’s family living in close proximity to us, out on the farm. But, how could I deny my wife? I was so proud of her for thinking of her mother and sister so much, rather than herself. But, that’s not unusual for Thip. That’s the kind of jai dee (good heart) wife I have.


We hired Thip’s cousin Summai and his two helpers to do the work for us. As usual, I assisted with staining, painting and morale maintenance (beers at end of day). Back in 2013, Summai had helped us fix up our village house downstairs and put a new roof on the ground floor section.


The most interesting thing I learned during the bungalow construction was about old windows. They sound bad, but there are several reasons why old windows -- windows and window frames salvaged from torn down traditional Isaan houses that are still in good shape -- sometimes are superior to new ones: they’re cheaper, most of the time better constructed, fully constructed (windows and jams already put in) and made from better wood. It was Thip’s idea to help keep costs down and still have plenty of windows for good air-flow and light. I was actually surprised they were so much better... and a coat of stain dressed them up just fine.



Turns out that Thip’s mother -- Khun Mae -- is so fragile, Khun Paw and family thought it better not to move her out to the farm with us. At first, I was a little mad because of the money invested. But then I realized the decision was a good one. Reasons: 1) last thing we needed was for Khun Mae to die out here. We would certainly be blamed. 2) Since she’s in full dementia, probably better to keep her in the same house where she spent most of her life and raised her family. 3) Certainly easier to take care of her in the village. 4) This way, Thip and I get to maintain our privacy.




Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Songkran 2017

Getting back to our lives in Northeastern Thailand, in the beginning months of 2017...

After the Boon Pakwet warm-up, we -- along with the whole country -- celebrated Songkran during the hottest part of the year -- April. It is based on the Buddhist lunar calendar, not the solar. In Thailand, it is called the Thai New Year; in Lao, it is called the Lao New Year; in Cambodia it is the Khmer New Year. I’m not sure about other parts of Southeast Asia, but I’d bet their new year is the same time, too.

Technically less than a week long, Songkran goes on for a full two weeks during which numerous Buddhist ceremonies are held. It is the time of year when all families come together.


There are so many ceremonies and rites that I can’t remember them all. I leave it to my wife to be my scheduler and even then, I’ll opt out of them if I feel I’v gone to too many in too short a period of time. I’m careful not to get “templed-out,” something to which my wife will never be afflicted by.


My strategy in dealing with Songkran is basically to keep off the roads as much as possible and stay away from public places or gatherings of people celebrating -- Attendance at wat ceremonies not necessarily included in my personal travel ban. Riding even on back roads, you might be weigh laid by groups of kids throwing water on vehicles -- and especially effective -- riders on motorcycles. They might even ask you to stop so that they can apply baby powder to your face and chest. As for staying away from groups of people and -- to a further extreme -- dropping out of sight, well, some people get absolutely drunk they’re not much fun to be around.


So, if you’re looking for me around the Southeast Asian Buddhist New Year, you’re gonna hafta do some detective work.