Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

November 16, 1997

Riding the Mekong Express

Filed under: Laos — Andy Carvin @ 8:42 pm

Andy braves the Mekong at 50 mph

I had long looked forward to the day when we would travel up the Mekong into Thailand. Perhaps I had seen Apocalypse Now and Aguirre: Wrath of God a few too many times, but I’ve always been fascinated by river adventures. The Mekong carries such great historic and geographic imagery – to use it as our highway through northern Laos seemed like it would be a great thrill. Sometimes, though, I’ve found that I can be a bit romantic about these things; perhaps I’d live to regret it. We’d find out later today.
Susanne and I bought our last loaves of banana bread from the bakery – our meals for the long ride – and then met our boatman at the docks by Wat Xieng Thong. Boua Geun was supposed to meet us here as well, but we and the boatman were both early, so he wasn’t anywhere to be found. Oh well; we’d still send him those books he wanted.
At the speedboat pier I purchased two tickets and checked in with the local police – standard operating procedure in Lao PDR. There were six of us plus our speedboat driver heading north that day, including a tall and dour Frenchman and some Lao nationals. The boat was about 20 feet long and no more than four feet wide. We sat two by two in little wood cubby holes barely big enough for our legs. The Lao men, having grown up in a culture accustomed to squatting, looked quite comfortable in their boxes, while Susanne, the Frenchman and I grimaced each time we feebly shifted our legs to avoid having them fall asleep. The first hour of the seven-hour journey was a real rush – riding through the water at 70 kph with no seatbelt, protected only by a crash helmet. Sitting as we were, mostly in pairs of two, all of us in helmets, I felt as if we were a bobsled crew touring Disney’s Jungle Cruise ride in a speedboat. The image was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
Ninety minutes into the trip we stopped briefly at a police checkpoint, where a Lao officer chatted with our driver while smoking a large homemade cigar that smelled distinctly like pot. A local villager missing half of his teeth, smelling of cow manure and smoking the largest joint I’ve ever seen, came up to the boat and thumbed for a ride upriver to the next village. Because the seat to my right was unoccupied, he climbed in next to me, putting his smouldering zeppelin between his toes to keep it away from the wind. As soon as we took off it became obvious that this poor little fellow had never traveled in a speedboat before. His mouth locked in a huge smirk as if he were riding his first rollercoaster, while matted layers of hair flew up over the back of his head, dangling horizontally in front of the Frenchman’s grumpy face.
After a minute or two, the villager began to grin like a madman, not unlike that famous picture of Charles Manson. I offered him the extra helmet that sat in front of Susanne, which he put over his unbelievably small head. He unwisely flipped the visor up and down until he raised it so high that the wind pressure snapped it backwards and nearly took his head off. Once he settled into this new element, the villager then realized that the visor would deaden the wind enough for him to smoke that joint of his, so he removed the cigar from between his toes and began to puff at it under the helmet. I struggled to maintain a straight face as the smoke filled the inside of his headgear and billowed out the sides. When we reached the village 10 minutes later, he took off the helmet, looked at me and said “Thank you” in slow but precise English. He then offered me his rank, blackened joint. I politely shook my head back and forth, gesturing with my hands to my helmet in the hopes it would mean something to him. The villager smiled again, jumped off the boat and threw the cigar into the Mekong – I guess it had served its purpose. He then walked up the beach and vanished from view into a lush thicket of trees.
Halfway between Luang Prabang and Pakbeng, our lunchtime stop, we picked up three new passengers. Two of the men carried Chiang Mai University faculty briefcases, so I figured they were along for the duration. That also meant we were overloaded by at least three too many bodies; the water sprayed heavily as we cruised up the Mekong. Susanne and I were seated up front where the spray wasn’t too bad but the bumps were like someone swinging a mallet into your ass every other minute.

View of the Mekong from Pakbeng

In three hours we reached Pakbeng, a river outpost town where we would pause for lunch and change into a new boat. The outpost was a glorified wooden shack that floated precariously on the northeast bank of the river. Inside the shack several Lao families crowded together with their children and chickens, slurping down bowls of hot noodles and breastfeeding their babies. A pair of Australian backpackers and an Israeli couple sat somewhat uncomfortably at a picnic table, waiting for their ride south to Luang Prabang. Susanne and I ate our banana bread while the Israelis ordered their own bowls of noodles with fresh cilantro and bean sprouts floating on top – brave souls, I thought. The shack had an outhouse to the side, its toilet being a missing plank of wood in the center of the floor. Happy I could finally relieve myself, I wasn’t bothered pondering the fact that there was nothing separating me from the flowing Mekong below except this square foot hole in the floor. Back out on deck, a Lao military officer got off another boat carrying what appeared to be an overgrown guinea pig on a rope. He left with the furry beast before we could get a close look, but Susanne concluded it was a river rat, despite my insistence on having discovered the previously unknown Mekong wombat.

Susanne rides the waves

At 1pm Susanne and I were herded onto another boat, this time to all the way in the back, just in front of the driver and his 120 decibel motor. The ride was smoother from back here, but there was even less room and our extremities were getting drenched by the spray. I almost forgot to notice that we were traveling through some of the most breathtaking river country in the world. By 2:15pm or so, we stopped at a no-name Lao village for fuel and another police checkpoint. The gas station was an aging houseboat with glass gas pumps installed on the port side. When we pulled ashore two passengers got off from the front of the boat, so we motioned to the driver to see if we could again sit up front. He smiled and then removed the back board for the very front seat, thus allowing us to sit up front with twice as much leg room. I was really touched by this gesture, but I also began to imagine he saw us as just some damn American tourists always wanting the creature comforts of home. I couldn’t tell if he was being sincerely generous or just humoring us, but either way we had a comfortable ride for the rest of the trip.
Time began to fly and before I knew it we were pulling into Huay Xai around 3:30pm, the sun waning low over the Thai side of the river. We caught a jumbo through Huay Xai, a very attractive little river town, to the border post, which comprised of an “immigration officer” in a BeerLao t-shirt who was sitting around having a drink with friends. He cheerfully stamped out our passports and sent us to a sampan ferry for the two minute crossing to the Thai city of Chiang Khong.
Back in Thailand for the last time on our journey, we caught two separate samlors – one-seater bicycle rickshaws – to the bus station, where we waited with a group of novice monks for the three-hour ride to Chiang Rai. There was a fresh food market nearby, so I bought some angel cake and listened to “The Best of The Scorpions” blasting from a PA system. Two Thai men sat on a bench, mouthing the words to “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” The bus left promptly at 5pm but the bus ride felt much longer than three hours as we stopped every few minutes to pick up new passengers. Apart from two or three middle-aged women on board, Susanne and I were the oldest passengers, the rest being schoolkids. The un-airconditioned bus looked very much like an American school bus, so as more and more teenagers climbed aboard I felt distinctly as if we were going on a field trip. “Bring your permission slip from home?” I asked Susanne. If not, she’d have an 18-hour ride to Bangkok before a 20-hour flight to America to pick it up from Mom and Dad.
In Chiang Rai we checked into Mae Hong Son Guesthouse, highly recommended by Lonely Planet. The room smelled like mold, the bed was a slab of concrete, the walls thin as paper. Yes, for 100 baht a night, it was cheap, but who cares about managing to spend less than three bucks when you can’t sleep a wink all night? This would be the last time we’d listen to Lonely Planet when it came to “budget guesthouses.” From now on, we’d upgrade to midrange accommodations – spending $12 a night would at least give us some comfort.

November 15, 1997

The Pak Ou Caves; Finding Our Missing Monk Friend

Filed under: Laos — Andy Carvin @ 10:22 pm

Buddha statues, Pak Ou Caves

Susanne and I had a 9am rendezvous this morning with the middle aged boatman we met during our first visit to Wat Xieng Thong. Destination: the Pak Ou caves. We got up early enough to pause at the bakery for our morning breakfast before meeting him just before 9 o’clock.
We climbed down the stone steps to the river bank where he and his wife maneuvered their 12-seat, 30 foot sampan into position with their oars gliding them through the muddy water. We stepped into the boat and headed north, cruising through the waters as a heavy fog loitered over the surrounding mountains. I loved the fresh breeze hitting my face but the rush of cruising peacefully up the Mekong faded as I realized I was not padded with sufficient layers of clothes to keep warm. Susanne, ever more practical than I am, pulled her pocket anorak and sweater out of her backpack and enjoyed a comfortable ride upriver. Meanwhile, I shivered and hoped for the sun to break through the clouds and warm my chilled bones.
We motored through the morning waters for over 90 minutes when I noticed a large sheer cliff hanging ahead of us. As we got closer the cliff got higher and higher, probably upwards of 1000 feet. But before we reached the base of the cliff the boatman slowed the motor, for I had neglected to notice the mouth of the Pak Ou caves on the left bank of the Mekong. From the boat I could now see the gaping entrance of the limestone cave, with polished white steps leading up from the riverbank. Inside the cave were shadowy, almost alien figures, staring out at me from the distance. These faces were but a few of the many Buddha statues that made Pak Ou famous.

Entrance to the Pak Ou Caves

For centuries, the Pak Ou caves – the lower Tham Ting cave and the upper Tham Phum cave – were sacred sites to local animist tribes. But when northern Laos converted to Buddhism by the 14th century, the caves too were converted, and by the mid 1600s the kings of Lane Xang were making pilgrimages here to pay respect to the thousands of Buddha images inside. These royal pilgrimages continued each year until 1975. Despite the loss of royal patronage, Tham Ting and Tham Phum remain an important sacred shrine in Lao Buddhism.

Buddha statue, Pak Ou Caves

We jumped out of the boat on to a floating bamboo platform that allowed us to step to dry land. We then paid the resident attendant the 500 kip entrance fee and climbed the stairs to Tham Ting. The caved echoed with the sounds of swallows that made their home deep inside, far away from where we’d be allowed to enter. Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes occupied the cavern, many covered in candle wax, facing the open mouth of the cave. It was an unusual blend of the geological and the mystical – an eons-old cave with its primeval timelessness, the eternal gaze of the Buddhas contemplating the universe and all of its complexities – I could see how a monk could spend months here if he wanted to.
There was a long climb of steps to reach the Tham Phum cave. Though not as visually stunning as Tham Ting, Tham Phum is more subtle, more surreal. An old teak gate welcomed us at the cave’s entrance. Once inside, all was dark save a few small candles scattered about the cave. As we walked the 200 feet into the cave, we soon needed the aid of the small flashlight I had packed. First time in three trips I had actually used it, actually. From the light of my torch we could see several hundred Buddha images ranging from just a few inches tall to more than life size. Each Buddha was a surprise lurking in the darkness, popping into view like a ghoul in a haunted house. There was nothing particularly ghoulish about the statues themselves, but their shadows danced on the high cave walls, the rhythm of their motion determined by the baton movements of my flashlight. Shadows from a single Buddha statue multiplied when other visitors targeted their lights at it, causing random afterimages on the wall – a ghost of a ghost of a Buddha, if you will. The cave conjured images of Halloweens past – not exactly what I had expected from such a holy Buddhist shrine. Perhaps some of this was meant to show that even the Buddha could have had a sense of humor. Who knows.
We paused for a Coke and a rest room stop before returning to the boat. Our boatman steered the craft closer to the cliff on the eastern shore. Beyond the cliff was the mouth of the Nam Ou river, which joins the Mekong at this intersection. I imagined trekkers from Colorado scaling the face of the cliff as part of some REI-sponsored expedition – perish the thought. The boat then doubled back south down the Mekong. Our final scheduled stop was a Lao village known as Ban Xiang Hai, the Jar Maker Village. For generations, villagers here created the jars used for storing Lao-Lao, a popular, semi-illicit moonshine made with fermented rice. Archaeologists apparently have found shards of jars dating back nearly 2000 years, suggesting that these folks really knew what they were doing when it came to jars. Lately, though, the locals have started to buy ready-made jars from elsewhere and focused on brewing and bottling Lao-Lao instead.

Lao Girl, Jar Maker’s Village

We were met on the beach by eight or nine young children, all eager to pose for pictures for the right amount of kip. They were the only children we encountered in all of Laos who demanded tips for their cuteness. When we realized they wanted money, we stopped taking pictures because we didn’t think it was appropriate for kids to be touting for a quick kip in this manner. Above the beach and in the village we found numerous stilt houses opened up and selling souvenirs of all types. A large group of French tourists were herded around like cattle, many of them handing out 1000 kip notes to the kids for no apparent reason. This is how it all begins, I thought. It starts as a village that opens itself up to visitors to help sell some goods, but it ends up becoming just another tourist trap fully dependent on farang visitors with handouts.

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I steered around the tour group and followed our boatman, who brought me to a friend’s hut that offered free samples of Lao-Lao. He handed me a shot glass of the clear liquid and said in French it was “le distillant de riz blanc fermentee.” I swallowed the moonshine, let out a resonant, tubercular cough and replied, “Le distillant de petrol, peutetre!” He laughed and offered me a second shot, which I declined politely as my eyes glazed over. The boatman then handed me another glass, this one containing a syrupy red liquid with the consistency of cough medicine. “Fermentee riz noir et sucre,” he explained. I struggled to remember the name of the traditional rice wine popular in northern Laos. “Lao khao… Lao khao…,” I started to say. “Oui, Lao khao kam,” he replied. “Dee lai lai!” I swallowed the shot and immediately thought of cough syrup again. Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but the wine left a stale rice aftertaste that almost had me longing for another shot of Lao-Lao. The boatman’s friend offered me a bottle, which I could take home for only 2000 kip. Tempting, but I decided to cherish the memory instead.

The ancient Lao spirit Pu No

I paced through the village with the boatman, watching all of the French tourists crowd around one souvenir stall after another. “Beaucoup Farangset,” I said to him in a weird French/Lao melange that for the moment came naturally to me in his presence. “Mai dee lai.” “Not good for you, peutetre,” he said back in Franglais, “mais tres bon pour les villages.” This was an argument I knew I didn’t want to get into, especially with a man who spoke at least three languages better than I spoke one. “D’accord, okay,” I replied, and left it at that.
Once the French had cleared out, I stopped at a stall run by two teenage Lao girls. They were selling a variety of knick-knacks including small wooden statues of Pu No, one of the pre-Buddhist pagan spirits associated with the founding of Luang Prabang. Pu No had a big, round cartoon face with a huge mane of rope dreadlocks that covered its entire body – sort of an animist Lao Oscar the Grouch. One of the girls asked for 7,000 kip, and I soon got her down to 5,000 for one of them. I bet it would look good on my desk at work.

Our boatman on the Mekong

As we returned to the boat, I asked our guide if he knew what it would cost to catch a speedboat for the 300km ride up the Mekong to Huay Xai, at the Lao-Thai border. He didn’t know the answer offhand but he agreed to take us to the speedboat landing north of town to find out how much it would cost. Twenty minutes or so into our ride we pulled along side the speedboat docks. I expected he would let me climb out of the boat and up the earthen steps to talk with the speedboat drivers atop the cliff. Instead he yelled out to them in Lao and had a brief exchange with several other boatmen at the top of the cliff. “When do you want to go?” he asked me. “Tomorrow,” I said. “Meueun,” he yelled up to the boatmen. They shouted back and forth for a few moments until he turned to us and said, “OK, tomorrow I take you here at 8am, you pay 30,000 kip per person, you go to Huay Xai in six hours. OK?” That was less than $18 each – fair enough. We agreed to be there at 8am the next day, and the boatman would give us a ride back to the speedboat pier.
Back at the docks by Wat Xieng Thong, we disembarked and paid the boatman 30,000 kip for the tour – 25,000 for the ride plus a 5,000 kip tip. He thanked us and returned to his boat, reminding us to be there the next morning. I figured we’d get some lunch soon but first we decided to visit the wat to see if we could find our young monk friend. Before we got halfway across the wat, he reappeared from a small building with a big smile on his face. “I’m sorry for the other night,” he said. “I was not feeling well so I did not go to the concert.” So he had stood us up, just as we had thought we had done the same to him. I felt a lot better. We told him my story of sinking into the mud that night, and we all laughed about how none of us had bothered to show up at the concert. “Did you see me last night?” he then asked. “I tried to say I was sorry then but you did not understand me.” Apparently he was the monk in the orange hat. Again, we embarrassingly covered ourselves by saying, quite honestly, that we didn’t recognize him with the hat and his freshly shaven head. He seemed to be sympathetic to our excuse.

Group Portrait: Susanne, Boua Geun and Andy

We sat with him for 30 minutes or so, talking about America and his life at the wat. He had a brother and sister, but he doubted his brother would become a novice as well. In two years he planned to go to university in Vientiane to study law and Buddhism. He also wanted to study abroad, so he asked us if we had any English books he could read. Apart from our travel guides we weren’t carrying any other books, so I offered to send him an English grammar book and some conversation tapes from America. He gave me his address – finally, a chance to see his name on paper:

Novice Boua Geun, Wat Xieng Thong. Luang Prabang, Lao PDR.

How we got Wong out of Boua Geun I have no idea. But at least we now knew his name.
Our stomachs were growling so we bid Boua Geun goodbye, promising to drop by at least once before leaving Luang Prabang. Next stop, the bakery. During this particular visit, I discovered the simple pleasures of homemade muesli with yogurt, fresh coconut shavings, pineapple, papaya and banana. I wanted to kick myself for all of those days wasted on banana bread.
We promised ourselves a lazy afternoon so we chilled out at the hotel for a couple of hours. We returned briefly to Wat Xieng Thong in a feeble attempt to sketch pictures of the main sim, but we found the architecture too complex and the sun’s heat too ruthless. Boua Geun reappeared and applauded us for the effort. He soon returned to his studies, so we decided to head off and get dinner.
Another evening at the Villa Santi. It began on a clumsy note as I knocked a salt shaker and a box of toothpicks off the table and down from the balcony to the grass below. No injuries. For dinner, we again ordered spring rolls and the mushroom soup, and split an entree of minced chicken with basil for our main course – the first boneless white meat chicken of our entire trip. We bumped into Keith, the 45-year-old New Yorker we had met at the bakery yesterday. We invited him to join us, and we spent the better part of the evening listening to him tell tales of go-go bars and Thai boxing shows in Chiang Mai, smoking bad opium with hill tribes, and why American marijuana was better than its southeast Asian counterparts. Clearly here was a man with a mission in Laos, a man who had taken us as fellow pharmacological aficionados. Maybe not, but his stories were still quite funny.

Singing a song for Grandma
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After dinner we decided to walk back to the hotel, hoping to say goodbye to those two cute kids we had played with the night before. Like clockwork, we found them resting on a small table in front of grandma’s shop, half asleep. The little girl was pretty groggy and kept drifting back to sleep, but the boy got up and gave my leg a big hug, slapping my hands when I held my palms out. I tried it again, and this time he fell forward, putting his entire weight on my hands, closing his eyes. Definitely nappy time for this little one. Grandma smiled and told him to wave bye-bye as we left. “Bye-bye!” he said in English, “Bye-bye!” A fitting farewell for a city of children we had gotten to know so well.

November 14, 1997

Lao Bicycle Tour

Filed under: Laos — Andy Carvin @ 8:12 pm

Boy with bicycle, Wat Aham, Luang Prabang

Today was Wat Day in Luang Prabang – not that anyone had declared it as such, of course. As I mentioned earlier, Susanne had worried at Angkor that she wouldn’t see enough monks. Luang Prabang, with its 32 monasteries, I assured her, would essentially be One Big Monk. And today was the day we would go out in search of that Monk.
Breakfast at the hotel wasn’t very satisfying – the sliced baguettes were so stale they scratched the roof of my mouth. At 8:30am a heavy fog hung over Luang Prabang, with only the river valley visible in full. Until the sun situation improved, picture taking would be a questionable task. I suggested we visit the royal palace, which was open precisely from 8:30am to 10:30am each day – two hours the Lao government would allow its people a peak into its glorious, yet all-too-recent monarchical past.

Hmong woman, Luang Prabang

I received a permission slip from the hotel for 1000 kip; without it, we wouldn’t be allowed into the palace. We then walked down the street to the palace, past a row of Hmong women selling patches of woven fabric. From the side the palace looked like a flat, one-story college campus building. But as we crossed to the front of the palace, it began to show off the regal splendour that I had expected. A wat-like spire reached upward from its center as marbled steps led way to the entrance, where we were requested payment of another 1000 kip each, the stowage of our bags and cameras, and the removal our shoes.
Before actually going through the front door of the palace, we were ushered off to the far right side, where we could see a collection of royal Buddha images through an iron gate. Among these relics sat the Pha Bang, the 83 centimeter solid gold Buddha that gives Luang Prabang its name: the City of the Great Pha Bang. According to legend, the Pha Bang is almost 2000 years old, having made its way over the centuries from its birthplace in Sri Lanka to Laos, where it was given to Fa Ngum, the Lao warrior who used his connections in the Khmer empire to wrestle northern Laos from the Thai kingdom of La Na (Lanna). With the Pha Bang is his possession, Fa Ngum declared himself the first king of Lane Xang Hom Khao, A Million Elephants and a White Parasol. Along with the famed Emerald Buddha, the Pha Bang served as the legitimator of Lao sovereignty. Over the years, though, the Thai empire managed to capture both the Emerald Buddha and the Pha Bang. Though Siam kept the Emerald Buddha for themselves, King Rama IV returned the Pha Bang to Luang Prabang in the 1860s, where it has remained ever since.
Or has it? Many Lao believe that the Pha Bang on display is actually a gold plated replica, while the original statue is kept in Vientiane or (even worse) Moscow. Lao officials deny this, of course. The Great Pha Bang was truly a marvelous statue, but in all honesty, if I hadn’t known the history behind it, I might have easily overlooked it. The Pha Bang’s unusual display on the outside right of the museum and its lack of fanfare was a far cry from the near-idolatrous homage paid to the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, or even the simple dignity of the Gold and Emerald Buddhas in Phnom Penh’s Silver Pagoda. This Buddha inspired no holy awe. I wondered if that’s exactly what the current communist government intended.
Susanne and I entered the royal audience chamber, with its splendid tile murals and grand throne. The other rooms of the house, equally regal in their arrangement, were more scaled back, at times seeming utilitarian. The King’s and Queen’s bedrooms appeared as they were left in 1975 – empty rooms apart from basic sets of teak beds, chairs, and tables. A small dining room was decorated in a 1950s art deco style – more tasteful than Graceland, but a distance Asian cousin nonetheless. The final rooms displayed gifts from other nations to the Lao PDR, including a moon rock given by President Nixon. According to the Lonely Planet guide, gifts were labeled as being either from socialist or capitalist nations, but since all of these labels were in Lao I couldn’t tell the difference.
We stepped outside and put our shoes on. The sky was opening up, the fog beginning to clear. Susanne and I were both a bit hungry due to our poor breakfast, so we walked to a bakery on Luang Prabang’s main road. It was crowded with farangs eating muesli and baguettes, so we got comfortable and enjoyed an order of banana bread and coffee. We talked about renting motor scooters that day, but next door the asking price was $20 a bike, much more than we wanted to spend. On the other side of the bakery a bicycle shop rented bikes at 2000 kip a day – about $1.20. We rented two of them and went on our merry way.
We didn’t have a particular itinerary for our bicycle tour so we started by heading up to the tip of the peninsula and then to the left along the quiet boulevard along the Mekong. There was a slight decline in the road so we coasted along as other bicyclists and the occasional motor scooter rider passed us in the other direction. The road curved away from the Mekong eventually, so our view was no longer as pleasant. Upon reaching the perimeter of town we cut left, past the town’s lone Shell station and the Malee Lao Food restaurant where we had eaten the night before.
There wasn’t much of interest in this part of town, so we took another left and soon reached the quaint wooden bridge over the Nam Khan that we had crossed yesterday. Because it was a single lane bridge, we waited for a stoplight to signal our turn to cross the river. I looked to the right as we rode over the bridge and saw a wat perched over a hill beyond the river. We parked our bikes on the far side of the bridge and doubled back by foot to get a better view. If it weren’t for the wat I could have pictured this bridge, stream and valley scene to be at home in New Hampshire rather than Lao PDR.

Wat Tao Hai

Schoolgirl, Wat Tao Hai
Listen to Lao kids playing with RealAudio!

I knew there were some minor wats on this side of the bridge, so we continued past a market and hung a right along a dirt road until we reached Wat Tao Hai. We found a small sim decorated with scenes from the Buddha’s life, apparently designed by children judging from the painting style. Inside the monastery buildings surrounding the sim several young novices peered out at us and smiled, mouthing the words “Sabai dee.” I thought it was pretty cool I could actually read lips in Lao, even if it only was one phrase that every visitor here knew. Susanne got a nice picture at the back of the sim with her wide angle lens while I walked back around it, where I met several young kids on their way to school beyond the monastery. I gave them my best Lao small talk – hello, how are you, what is your name, how old are you, I’m from America – and they giggled with each feeble attempt. Meanwhile, I noticed Susanne was now sitting next to a novice, about 16 years old, which I thought was odd since novices and monks aren’t allowed to come in direct contact with women. I went over and said hello, just to see what was up. The novice spoke a little English, but I surmised he was most interested in sitting so close to a young American woman. Several of his novice friends sat on a porch nearby, watching intently to see how close he would get. Susanne didn’t seem to mind; it was harmless enough.

Susanne and her eager young friend… …And their curious audience

We returned to our bikes after pausing to say hello to some more children who were on their way to school. Then we headed back down the dirt path, over the main road and onward down another semi-paved road where more wats awaited us. After 200 yards or so we reached a fork in the road by a small wat. Our Lonely Planet map didn’t show a fork at this particular point, so we took a guess and went right. Numerous schoolchildren passed us on foot, yelling “Hello!” in English. There was a very small wat at the end of the street, but we figured we had gone in the wrong direction, so we turned around and continued past the earlier fork in the road.
There was a residential neighborhood with houses ranging from small shacks to shiny teak cottages with fresh flowers on every window sill. Scores of butterflies hovered over rows of rose bushes. So many butterflies in this country, I thought; I had never seen anything like this before. Land of one million elephants? Land of one million butterflies seemed much more appropriate.
Just beyond another wooden bridge we found Wat Sa-At, a minor monastery with a beautiful view of Luang Prabang and the Nam Khan river. Three old monks sat in a wooden hut, apparently in the midst of a reading, but they paused to smile at us and say hello. I sat for a while on a bench near the river, contemplating the serenity of the scene before me. It was now around 12:30pm and the heat of the mid day would soon be upon us, so we decided to return to the center of town. But a young novice approached us and said hello, then asked if we spoke any Lao. Naively, I responded with “Phom phoot phasaah Thai nitnoi, khap” – “I know a little Thai.” The young novice grinned and called out something in Lao to a friend, but I knew exactly he was saying: “Hey, come over here! This farang says he speaks Thai!” His friend, another novice, approached us and said to me, “Sawatdee khap, khun phoot phasaah Thai, chai mai khap?” I timidly responded, “Phoot Phasaah nitnoi, mai mahk, khap” – “I speak a little, not very well, though.” We then began a difficult dialogue (difficult for both of us, I imagine):

“Khun cheu arai khap?”
“Phom cheu Andy, khap.”
“Khun Andy, khun maa chaak tee nai khap?”

“Maa chaak Washington DC, khap. Pen khon American.”
“Khun chohp PahtLao, chai mai?”

“PahtLao. Khun.. Chohp… PahtLao… chai mai?”

I was stumped by this one, and responding “huh?” again and again probably didn’t give him the answer he wanted. The novice repeated it one more time, smiling patiently and gesturing to the air around him with his hand. “Oh!” I exclaimed. “Do I like Laos?” Woops, I should have expected that question. “Chohp khap! Phom chohp Pathet Lao mahk mahk!” Both he and the other novice understood my response and grinned, nodding their heads approvingly. With each new question, though, my comprehension got worse. I knew he was asking me how long we had been in Laos, when we planned to leave and the like, but I didn’t know how to say the answers in Thai, apart from throwing out a few numbers. So I started to spew out a laundry list of simple Thai sentences, just enough to cover any potential questions he might still want to ask. He smiled as I talked, nodding in comprehension with each comment. Eventually we said goodbye (“Shohk dee!”), as I gave a quiet sigh of relief that I had survived my first real dialogue in Thai – a chat with a nice young Lao who didn’t speak a word of English. I just wondered if I’d ever get a similar opportunity in Thailand. Perhaps I should have studied Lao instead.

A Monk in his prayer chamber, Wat Aham

Susanne and I returned to our bikes and crossed back over the wooden bridge to the Luang Prabang peninsula. We caught some shade at another minor wat and then continued right to Wat Wisunalat, locally known as Thaat Makmo – the Watermelon Stupa. Originally constructed in the early 1500s, Thaat Makmo was one of the oldest wats in Luang Prabang. Though its sim is nothing unusual, Wisunalat is best known for the large stupa in front of it, a hemispherical structure built in 1513 that looks like a half of a watermelon jutting out of a white stone base. Just next to the stupa was Wat Aham, a quiet monastery best known for two large Bodhi trees and its former role as the residence of the Sangkhalat, the Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism. Outside of the sim an old monk showed us around and into the sim, where he offered to sell us “wats in a bottle” – glass bottles with wooden sims inside, not unlike a ship in a bottle. He then sat in a small gilded booth, barely bigger than he was, and invited us to take pictures. We smiled, took some shots and thanked him, eventually leaving the sim as he remained quite comfortably inside his booth. As we crossed through the compound, a group of boys played with a bicycle. They laughed and mugged for pictures enthusiastically.

Back at our own bikes, I looked up the road and saw a splendid view of Phu Si, the 100 meter hill that sits at the center of the Luang Prabang peninsula. At its summit I could see Thaat Chomsi, the 80 foot stupa that dates back to the early 1800s. I had a momentary flashback to the stupa of Swayumbunath near Kathmandu, its mystical eyes peering out in four directions from its hilltop perch. There were no eyes looking down at me from the top of Phu Si, but yet I felt the same serenity here that I had last felt in the Kathmandu Valley. Luang Prabang was truly a special place.
We dropped off the bicycles at the shop around 1pm and grabbed some more banana bread at the bakery. There were two Americans inside – a man from New York and a woman who happened to be from DC – as well as a tall, mysterious Englishwoman. The man was on a round-the-world meditative trek, while the American woman had taken six months off from the World Bank to travel across Asia. I’m not exactly sure what the Brit’s itinerary was, though she did talk about how she thought bald men were very attractive. Susanne and I finished our snack, so we retreated to our air-conditioned room at the Hotel Phousi for a couple of hours – we were sweaty and in dire need of showers at this point.

Lao cloth seller, Luang Prabang

By mid afternoon we decided to visit the two wats just behind the hotel, Wat Ho Siang and Wat That. A group of novices horsed around near Wat That’s drum house, tossing a ball at each other and occasionally banging on some large cymbals. Susanne was looking a bit tuckered out – she had been suffering from insomnia for a few nights – so we decided to take it easy for the rest of the afternoon and focus our efforts on souvenir hunting. Most of the shops carried similar items – carved teak, cymbals and gongs, opium scales, and above all, a wide selection of beautifully embroidered textiles, a specialty of many of the local hilltribes. The workmanship was both complex and delicate, yet most pieces sold for less than 10,000 kip – about seven dollars. Susanne wanted to buy some cloth even though we couldn’t figured out what to do with linen shaped in a 2″x7″ rectangle. Hang it, I guess. At one shop run by a severely hunched over old woman, Susanne found a gorgeous red woven cloth for 6000 kip – four dollars. The old woman even appeared ready to settle for 5000 kip until her husband arrived, at which point she steadfastly stuck to 6000 kip. Either way it was a great bargain, so Susanne bought the cloth.
Down the road we could hear drumming from Wat Mai, one of the largest wats in town. Novice monks were hammering out a fast rhythm in the drum house, using the main drum, two gongs and some large cymbals. Some tourists crowded around the drum house trying to get pictures, and the monks managed to ignore them. We eventually joined in the intrusion and got some nice pictures up close. We then headed further down the street in search of my own souvenirs. I settled on a piece of carved varnished teak – a profile of a menacing Lao demon.
At 5pm we opted for an early dinner at the Villa Santi, commonly known as the Villa de la Princesse. This 120-year-old colonial mansion was the home of Crown Princess Khampa, the highest ranking member of the Lao royal family to survive the Pathet Lao takeover in 1975. The villa was confiscated in 1976 but returned to the princess in the early 1990s. She has since renovated the place into a luxury inn and Lao-French restaurant, whose chef is the daughter of the last King’s private chef. The inside of the villa glistened with varnished teak, but we opted to sit on the balcony overlooking the town.
Susanne and I decided to splurge that night, ordering our meal course by course. We started with bowls of soup – a buttery vegetable soup called Soupe de la Princesse, which was too oily for my taste, and a marvelous onion and wild mushroom soup. The mushrooms, I realized, were those delicate pasta-like fans I had enjoyed the night before in my soup at Malee’s restaurant. Next, we ordered a plate of seven small spring rolls, each packed with cellophane noodles and ground meat. The soup and spring rolls could have been a meal in itself but we continued with entrees of a lemongrass stuffed chicken baked in banana leaves – white meat, finally! – and traditional Lao sausage which tasted not unlike a hearty German sausage, though I dared not ponder its ingredients. Steaming hot rice complimented the entrees – the waiter would scoop fresh heaps of the stuff each time we came close to cleaning the plate. Feeling as if we would burst, we arrogantly pushed forth, ordering a dessert of fresh pineapple and papaya and the best creme caramel I’ve ever had. Fully engorged, we slumped over in satisfaction, smiling in earnest. It was the most expensive meal of our trip – a little over 20,000 kip total, around 12 dollars. We promised ourselves we’d be back tomorrow.
We enjoyed a slow walk back to the hotel, passing the many wats and streetside shops we had come to know so well. Out in front of the old woman’s shop where Susanne had purchased her cloth, her two grandchildren played with one of the neighbor’s children. We had seen these two kids before – a two-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl – in our previous walks, and even managed to get some pictures of them. This time, though, upon seeing us they charged along side, putting their hands together in a prayer-like wai and said “Sabai dee!” in a quick and cute way that only a small child could. I greeted them back and they repeated the gesture. “Sabai dee!” they yelled. This went back and forth as the boy explored my camera and even gave me a small vanilla cookie, about the size of a dime.

A quick game of patty cake
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I then jokingly held out my hand, palm up, and said “Gimme five,” to which Susanne responded by slapping her hand onto mine. I did the same to her and we repeated the process as the two kids gazed in wondrous fascination. I then put out my hand to the boy and said “gimme five” to him. He stared back blankly for a second, but his sister, apparently a quick study, slapped down her hand into mine. Getting her to turn her hand over in reciprocation took some coaxing but she soon got the hang of it. Eventually the little boy caught on and slapped my hand while letting out a joyful “Gaa!” noise. The kids now had their first taste of inane American culture. Within a few minutes, the little girl had graduated to doing both hands at once, while the boy did his best to keep up. Their mother and grandmother sat by and laughed as we played together, but I could see it was getting well past their bedtime – ours too, for that matter. So we waved bye-bye to them, and the little boy gave us a valedictory “Sabai dee” as we parted.
Not far from the hotel, three monks walked past us from behind. They all said “sabai dee” and “excuse me,” but one of them, a tall, headshaven young man with a huge orange knit cap sitting on the top of his head, said “Excuse me for yesterday” as he walked on by. At first I attributed his comment to developing English skills but I then wondered if he could be the novice who had invited us to the concert. There was no way I would have recognized him in the orange cap and freshly shaven head. I hoped he had simply misspoken.
Another group of novices caught up with us from behind. One of them, a lanky fellow with a confident smile and an easygoing gait, strode right next to us and said, “So where are you going?” which is a common form of hello in Thai and Lao (not unlike “How’s it going?”). “Hotel Phousi,” I said. “Long day.” “We’re going to a concert. All the local monks will be there,” he replied proudly, as if he were in charge of community events himself. We chatted with him and eventually asked if we could go to the concert, but he pointedly said “No.” He paused for a moment and then continued, “Village people only. Special religious festival.” It was a Buddhist full moon event and it probably would have been inappropriate for nonbelievers to stroll in with cameras in hand. That’s OK. We talked about his shaved head for a while. “Shaved today, for the full moon,” he said. Apparently the novices would shave their heads again for each full moon. The tall novice had a street-wise air to him that I hadn’t noticed in any of the other young Lao men we had met. Clearly this kid was the leader of the pack. We parted company across the road, just by the hotel gate. “Good luck,” he said to us, smiling. “Shohk dee,” I replied, translating it back into Lao. “Shohk dee!” he laughed. “Very good, very good…” He waved goodbye and walked down the road, his band of younger novices trailing by several footsteps.
Susanne and I returned to the hotel and got ready for bed. As I shut off the lights, I thought of the little boy and his sister shouting “Sabai dee” to us. I went to sleep with a smile on my face.

November 13, 1997

Luang Prabang Pilgrimage

Filed under: Laos — Andy Carvin @ 10:21 pm

Andy at Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

After grabbing a baguette at the Scandinavian bakery down the road, we checked out of the Lao Paris Hotel and caught a jumbo to Wattay Airport, about 15 minutes away. Wattay reminded me of a small community airport that had been closed for a few years and then reopened without warning. It was in bad need of a shave. After some searching we found a check-in counter: a wooden table with a sign above saying Luang Prabang. I gave an official our tickets, but after a few minutes of him fondling the papers, he told me they were only good for the 11am flight. So for four hours we waited, observing a Swedish tour group munching on crackers and Lao women hoisting carry-ons of live chickens and eels in wicker baskets, slithering around like Jim Henson animatronic swamp creatures.
At 11:15 we boarded a rickety Soviet-era Tupelov prop plane that read “Lao Aviation” in stencil block letters on the side. There was barely enough room for a dwarf’s legs to fit behind each seat and the only in-flight reading was a blank air sickness bag. The plane managed to get off the ground without falling to pieces, and soon we were on our way to northern Laos and the city of Luang Prabang, the former royal capital and the spiritual center of Lao Buddhism. Susanne dozed most of the flight as I stared out the window, observing the Lao landscape as it transformed from Florida flatland to Scottish moor country to karst mountains from a Chinese watercolor scene. The texture of the land was stunning, with shards of rock and forested hillocks rising farther and farther upward. We then descended through the hills – we must be near Luang Prabang, I thought. The plane touched down with a violent certainty and I was ecstatic to get off of that Cold War antique. We paused briefly for immigration – all foreigners must register with the local police every city they visit – and then hired a jumbo to take us to the Hotel Phousi, an affordable three-star in the middle of town.
We crossed a quaint old wooden bridge wide enough only for one-way traffic and curved through the local market area, busy with more shoppers and vendors than one might expect in a town of only 16,000 residents. We soon reached our hotel, a turn-of-the-century villa that served as the French secretariat during colonial times. The jumbo drove through a wrought iron gate and past a tranquil garden cafe until we reached the hotel doors. A French family ate sandwiches in the teakwood verandah as we entered and checked into our room. The Hotel Phousi certainly seemed like a fine place to relax for a few days.

A monk leans against a songthaew by the Mekong

Luang Prabang is known mainly for its royal heritage and its many monasteries – over 30 wats, at least 20 of them maintained since pre-colonial times. Every street, every alley seemed to possess an intangibly regal and old-world character. Older children bicycled to and fro while younger kids played tag along the side of the road. Street vendors sold soup and noodles to passing customers (probably their neighbors). Everything had a small town feel to it; people would smile and say “Sabai dee” to us when we walked by. It was early afternoon and the sun had just passed its peak – I’d guess it was about 90 degrees outside. But that didn’t deter us as we strolled the boulevard along the Mekong for the first time. About 15 feet to our left, just off the edge of the street, the earth took a steep 100 foot drop down to the river valley floor. Along the beach families tended crops in small, neatly aligned vegetable gardens as boatman plied the shoreline in their motorized sampans.
The historic part of Luang Prabang is a thin peninsula surrounded on three sides by water: the Mekong and the Nam Khan (a minor tributary) cover the city’s left and right banks respectively, meeting at a promontory point at the northeastern tip of the city. The Nam Khan side of the peninsula is lined mostly with farm plots, but here along the Mekong side there are small riverside cafes and intimate guesthouses with flower-covered terraces. There’s a silversmith shop with its doors wide open – a handful of apprentices delicately pound out their precious crafts. I later read in the Lonely Planet book that the shop’s owner was once the royal silversmith, but with the abolition of the monarchy, he’s had to find new patronage with the royal family in Thailand.
Despite the outward friendliness and laid back atmosphere, I still sensed a sadness here – a residual sadness left over from the destruction of the royal family 22 years ago. For over 600 years this city was associated with the Lao monarchy, from the early days of the Luang Prabang fiefdom to the unified Laos of French colonial times. Even through most of this century, the Lao monarchy received strong public support. But soon after the Pathet Lao’s consolidation of power in 1975 the communists abolished the royal court, despite promises to keep the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic as a constitutional monarchy. The royal family was labeled as traitors and eventually assigned to “re-education camps” near the Plaines des Jarres along the border with Vietnam. It is believed that the king and queen died some time in the mid 1980s of starvation, malnutrition and neglect, banished to a damp cave for their final years. No one knows exactly what happened to them – they just evaporated from official public memory, without any outcry or questioning from the international community. So now some two decades after the death of the monarchy, Luang Prabang remains a town of prosperity and vitality, yet with an essential piece of its soul left for dead in some unknown northern cave.
Despite this tragic, unspoken history, Luang Prabang certainly overcomes the past by putting its best foot forward. We turned right – away from the Mekong – and found Wat Nong Sikhonmeuang glistening gold in the sunlight. It’s a minor wat by Luang Prabang standards, not to mention a young one – originally built in 1729, rebuilt in 1804 after being sacked by the Thais in 1774. But it’s our first wat here and the sun reflecting so powerfully off of the west side of the sim made this small wat seem so grand.

Wat Nong Sikhonmeuang

As we continued past Wat Nong Sikhonmeuang I noticed a group of kids playing in the open doorway of a house. I quietly approached them, trying to get a candid photograph. But one of the boys looked up at me and blew my cover, causing the girls to giggle and scurry behind the door, peeking their heads out from behind the teak wood frame as if to tease me and my camera. I playfully charged them, holding my camera to my face. Again they laughed and let out a giggling scream, running behind a wooden pole. The boys taunted the girls for not being brave enough to mug for the camera; eventually, some of the girls relented. An older man, perhaps one of their grandfathers, stood inside a garage just across the street, smoking his pipe and laughing while gesturing at the kids to pose for a picture. I got a few decent shots and thanked the kids: “Khop Jai, lai lai,” thank you very much. “Sabai dee,” they shouted back. I figured we had stumbled onto an unusually gregarious bunch of Lao children, but as we walked the streets of Luang Prabang Susanne and I concluded that outgoingness and joie de vivre was par for the course for the people of this lovely town. I could tell I was going to fall in love with this place.

A novice shaves his head, Wat Saen

A block up the road we reached Wat Saen, the 100,000 Wat, so named for the 100,000 kip endowment that helped found it in 1718. Wat Saen had been refurbished in the late 1950s so it felt quite contemporary, with its many small sims looking freshly gilded, each sporting fine bronze Buddha statues inside. Behind an open-air boat house, two young novice monks at a water pump washed themselves in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Their heads appeared freshly shaven. Susanne approached them slowly – clearly this was a private moment for them, but oh, what a photo op. Then one of the novices noticed her, smiled and said, “Shiny hair” – a reference to Susanne’s blondeness or their baldness, who’s to say. Susanne smiled back and soon they were introducing themselves to each other. I had stood back for much of the conversation – I wasn’t as bold of a photojournalist as she was – but when I saw them talking, I joined in the conversation and introduced myself. We talked for a bit and then left them to their washing. They, like many of the other young novices of Luang Prabang, were eager to practice their English. We didn’t get beyond the basic smalltalk with these two but they could say more in English than I could ever say in Lao, so I was quite impressed.
Near the end of the peninsula we found the southeast gate to Wat Xieng Thong, the most venerated wat in Luang Prabang. Built around 1560 by King Saisetthathirat, Xieng Thong remained under royal patronage for the next 415 years. Its main sim is also one of the finest examples of the Luang Prabang style of architecture. Unlike the sims of Vientiane, which tend to be built tall and thin, Luang Prabang’s sims are low to the ground, with two layers of sweeping tiled roofs on each side, giving it the shape of a stubby triangle from the front. The Luang Prabang style is one of the only living remnants of Laos’ golden age kingdom of Lane Xang – the Land of One Million Elephants – that reigned proudly from the 16th to 18th centuries. Unlike other wats we had seen, which tended to be centered around the sim, Wat Xieng Thong was an ensemble of 12 minor stupas, small temples, the sim itself, and a carriage house that held the processional carts used for royal funerals. While other wats crowded many buildings in whatever space was available, Xieng Thong had room to spread out and fall into place naturally like a Japanese garden, with ample space left to accentuate each building.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

The main sim of Xieng Thong shone with the light of a thousand little suns as small tiles of colored mirrors enveloped the western wall, forming a mural of a large tree, two peacocks and numerous mystical figures. We stood around in the heat marveling the wat and its mural when a novice leaned out of the window across from the sim and said hello. He asked us where we were from and how long we had been in Laos. He introduced himself as well, but with his accent I had a hard time telling what his name was. Bu-Wong of Bu-Zhuong, perhaps. I felt bad, but didn’t want to pester him to repeat it so many times.

Our new friend at Wat Xieng Thong

He was 17 years old and from northern Sanyabuli province. “Not far from China,” he said. Despite his thick Lao accent – he couldn’t pronounce Susanne’s name very well- his English vocabulary and grammar were quite good. He said he had only studied English for a few months, which I found shocking, but I guess that a bright young guy could pick up a lot in two or three months of intensive study. He then invited us to a concert at Wat That Luang that night, which caught us off guard, but we eagerly accepted, despite having no idea what the concert would be like or about. He told us to meet him in front of the monastery at 8pm, which I thought would work well since I wanted to try a particular Lao restaurant not far from there. We talked a little while longer and then said goodbye, looking forward to see him at the concert that night.

Schoolgirls playing along the Mekong

On the northern side of Xieng Thong we found a high row of stone steps leading down to the Mekong river. I walked down to the shore, where a group of four teenage girls in blue school uniforms sat on a sand bar and tossed rocks into the water. One of them turned and saw me. She quickly pulled her friends into a huddle and started to whisper and giggle. One of them started to talk rather loudly, saying “mon cheri, je t’aime,” and then “Oh yes, I love you, yes,” while the others laughed hysterically. They looked back at me to see if I was embarrassed. I blew them a kiss instead. They screamed in surprise and started to laugh even more. A minute or two later some boys pulled up on a large sampan. The entire group then climbed up to the road and headed into town.
Back up top I found Susanne, who was sitting on a marble banister admiring the view. A thin, middle aged Lao man approached us and asked me in perfect French, “Parlez-vous Francais, monsieur?” “Un peu,” I responded, “mais je prefere Anglais. “If you prefer English, that’s fine,” he said, switching languages with ease. “Would you like to go to Pak Ou caves? 25,000 kip.” That was about 15 dollars, not an unreasonable price. Younger boatmen had pestered us before about visiting these famous Buddhist shrines 25 miles upriver, but I liked this man’s laid back nature, so we accepted his offer. 9am Saturday sounded good at the time, so we planned to meet him then.
Back along the boulevard along the Mekong we stopped at a small wooden cafe for a short rest. We ordered some Cokes and enjoyed the view over the river, watching sampans going by and naked children joyously prancing at the water’s edge as the sun sank lower in the southwestern sky. One of the waitresses was having a few drinks with two men. The three of them had already put away six one-liter bottles of BeerLao, the national drink, and they seemed deeply engrossed in discussing the day’s gossip. I stepped down to the balcony to admire the view over the river. Every time I looked back at the table, I caught sight of one of the two Lao men in the corner of my eye. He was smiling brightly at me, as if to say “I’m so glad you’re enjoying my home town.” In all of my travels I’d never felt that kind of genuinely welcoming presence before, and it made me feel all the more comfortable in this distant, unknown land.
After polishing off our Cokes we returned to the hotel for a much needed shower and change of clothes. Everything we had to wear smelled terribly so we committed to doing laundry the next day, no matter the inconvenience of having to buy some t-shirts just so we’d have some clean clothes to wear. We then caught a jumbo to Malee Lao Food, a friendly Lao restaurant just southwest of the old town. Even though it was an open air restaurant, the tables and walls were free of pests, not including the ever present geckos that we always regarded as signs of good luck. In the back corner of the restaurant Malee’s children huddled around a television watching a Chinese import soap opera Kung Fu adventure flick. I felt like we were eating in Malee’s Living Room, but that was okay.
Susanne and I split a large bottle of BeerLao – surprisingly tasty and refreshing, we thought – as we snacked on a couple of small bananas while waiting for the main course. For dinner we had a plate of ginger chicken, thick chunks of ginger and bony dark meat chicken that was flavorful but somewhat disappointing; chicken laab, a Lao specialty of ground meat, watercress and mint, lightly sauteed but practically raw- very good but risky from a gastrointestinal point of view; and sticky rice, the ever present, super glutinous Lao rice served in steam baskets. I noshed on the laab and peeled off fingerfuls of rice, rolling it into a ball with one hand and dipping it into the entrees, as is the Lao custom, while Susanne pragmatically used her fork with much more success. We also ordered a backup of tam yam gai, spicy chicken soup with lemongrass that’s usually a safe bet. This time the soup contained a pasta-like substance that fanned out in the shape of a poppy flower – I couldn’t tell if it was a plant, a piece of chicken skin, or what – but it was really delicious.
After dinner we walked down the road to the That Luang monastery to find Bo-Wong or whatever his name was – boy, I really felt bad about not knowing his name. Maybe I’d find a polite way to ask him again or even write it down for us. It was dark and the monastery was hidden deep behind a large field which we approached cautiously. As we navigated the compound I felt my left foot sink deep into the ground – I had stepped into a swamp- and my hiking boots, socks and my only pair of clean trousers were enveloped in thick, warm, gooey mud. “Jesus Christ!” I hissed, almost ready to throw my camera into the ground. I saw a monk rinsing his plastic sandals and feet under a water pump. He looked at me and gave me a classic Asian giggle of embarrassment, shaking his head back and forth. In that singular moment of clarity, I understood the wisdom of wearing sandals instead of Nikes. The monk continued to smile in humorous disappointment. I could feel my socks drip with warm dampness – there was no way I could handle a concert in this condition.
Upset over my troubles, we caught a jumbo back to the hotel. I washed off my shoes and trousers in the shower, hoping that the brave hotel laundry staff could repair the damage done. And I hoped that our young monk friend would forgive us for standing him up, if we could only find him the next day. And if I could only remember his name…

November 12, 1997

Visiting Vientiane

Filed under: Laos — Andy Carvin @ 8:38 pm

Lao monk, That Luang Festival, Vientiane

I awoke around 7am with the calls of roosters from across the road. Downstairs, no one was up except Joey the brown boxer and his little poodle friend. The two of them pounced on me as soon as I sat down. Alan came out of his bedroom 30 minutes later, wearing only a sarong around his waste. I saw several Thais walking down the road wearing a similar sarong get-up, but in Alan’s case, to me he was just a guy in a towel. He pulled out the visa paperwork for us to fill out. We paid him the fee for the visa and caught a tuk-tuk to the Nong Khai bus terminal at 8am. We soon climbed into a minibus to take us over the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Mekong River separating Thailand and Laos. After stopping at a Thai border checkpoint to get our passports stamped, we crossed the bridge into the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The road’s pavement shifted from flat and smooth to cracked asphalt as we reached the Lao side of the bridge. At the Lao immigration checkpoint a travel agent who worked for Alan took our papers and passports through the various steps required for entering this small, isolated communist country. Susanne and I leaned against a railing and waited. Once our passports received the proper stamps and papers, we climbed into a jumbo – the Lao version of a tuk-tuk – and began the 30-minute ride to the capital city of Vientiane.
As we approached Vientiane, I expected the light flow of traffic to increase, but even inside the city limits there weren’t that many vehicles about. Vientiane has a population of less than 150,000 people, so it manages to retain a sleepy, colonial atmosphere. The roads were terribly dusty, but besides that it seemed like we were coming to a fairly pleasant place. People smiled at us as they rode by on motorcycles and jumbos. I could see the Mekong through some trees on my left as we approached our day’s residence, the Lao Paris Hotel. From the outside, the Lao Paris looked like any other poorly whitewashed guesthouse. Inside, though, we found a sparkling wooden lodge covered in freshly polished teak paneling. It felt like a Swiss mountain resort. The man at the check-in desk gave us a nice room with a/c, a refrigerator, and the hottest shower in Laos for $20, though I could pay in Thai baht or Lao kip if I preferred. We dropped off our bags, changed some money into kip (at 1704 kip per dollar, about 700 kip better than the last exchange rate I had heard in the US) and headed out for a walk through the city.

Wat Si Saket, Vientiane

Guardian of the Wat Si Saket Guestbook

Our first stop was Wat Si Saket, a rustic old monastery across from the presidential palace, about 10 minutes from the hotel. Wat Si Saket has stood since 1818, making it the oldest wat in the entire city. Most of Vientiane’s buildings and temples were razed by the Thais during their 1828 sacking of the capital but they spared Si Saket because it was built in a Bangkok style, which they apparently appreciated. There were a couple of German tourists inside the wat, but apart from them we had the entire monastery to ourselves. Its inner courtyard contained scores of sitting Buddha statues as well as several thousand thumb-sized Buddha amulets set in niches along the wall. A Chinese tour group, all sporting light blue pajamas, entered the monastery and walked the perimeter of the wat’s sim, stopping for pictures and lighting incense along the way. A small cat dozed below a wooden table with an open guest book on top. I thought it was ironic that the cat had chosen to sleep under the one place where each visitor was expected to sign in. I guess they don’t get many visitors around here. Didn’t look like anyone minded, either. This was Laos – you’re welcome to visit, just don’t mind us while we nap.

One of the many Buddha images of Vientiane

Across the street, just to the left of the presidential palace, we entered Wat Pha Kaew, formerly Vientiane’s royal monastery. The wat was built in the mid-16th century and for several generations it held the ever-wandering Emerald Buddha statue that has resided in Thailand since 1779. In 1828 the temple was destroyed by the Thais and it wasn’t rebuilt until the late 1930s. Particular attention was paid to the carving of its rococo walls, which were still in excellent condition. As with Wat Si Saket, you could argue that Wat Pha Kaew was in need of a thorough dusting and a paint job, but in all honesty, I enjoyed its antique character. While the wats of Bangkok were exquisite they also exuded a Disneyesque quality – every stupa, every garden, every roof was immaculate, bright and polished. Here in Vientiane, I could sense an aged presence in these wats. They were no longer the fresh young temples they once may have been, yet they still possessed a wise, reserved dignity that seemed to be lacking elsewhere. Like the Lao people, the wats didn’t feel a need to be flamboyant or over-the-top. Simplicity was the key here.
Two monks with instant cameras posed for each other in front of the main sim. We took off our shoes and mounted the temple platform. Several dozen bronze sitting Buddhas dating back as far as the 15th century stood guard around the platform, facing away from the inner sim. Sun reflected off of the eyes of the Buddhas, many of which were fashioned with semi-precious stones. The Chinese tourists we had seen at Wat Si Saket then arrived, and they made their way clockwise along the platform. As they reached each sitting Buddha they performed a wai – the traditional greeting of respect, their hands in a prayer position and their torso leaning forward modestly.
It was now around lunchtime and all the wats would be closed until 2pm, so we walked down Thanon Fa Ngum, Vientiane’s boulevard along the Mekong. We stopped for an hour at the Mixay Cafe, a popular outdoor restaurant with shady trees, a good view, and refreshingly cool breeze from the river. We split a couple of rice dishes, one fried and the other a basket of sticky rice, the translucent gelatinous rice popular among the Lao. Susanne looked a bit tired and worn from the hectic pace of Cambodia and our long travel day, so we returned to the hotel so she could nap and I could shower. The bathroom looked recently tiled and the water was scalding hot – I could have stayed there all afternoon.
Around 2pm we walked to Talaat Sao, the morning market, which actually remains open until 6pm each day. Susanne was suffering from chronic indigestion so we found a pharmacy beyond the eastern side of the market and bought some plastic pouches of Maalox. We then caught a five minute jumbo ride to Pha That Luang, Laos’ greatest monumental treasure. First built in 1565, That Luang is a 150-foot golden stupa surrounded by several dozen gilded spires, and for centuries has served as a major pilgrimage site for Lao Buddhists. And since the time of independence from France, That Luang has represented Lao nationalism and unity – its image can be seen on much of the currency today.

That Luang, Vientiane

This particular week also happened to be the annual That Luang festival, when Buddhist monks from all over southeast Asia gather at the stupa to celebrate the November full moon and the completion of the annual monsoon rains. On the evening of the full moon, about two nights from now, there will be a sacred procession by all of the monks, followed by an evening of fireworks and all-out revelry. Until then, the stupa will play host to a convention of sorts, where hundreds of monks of all ages camp out in the surrounding courtyard. It reminded me of the annual convergence of Boy Scouts on Washington DC, except in Laos the boys wore saffron robes instead of khaki uniforms and socks pulled up to their knees. There’s a carnival-like atmosphere outside, where vendors have set up an entire market of goods and amusements.

Three novice monks visiting That Luang, Vientiane

That Luang gives off a blinding reflection as the sun bounces off its golden surface, regilded in 1995 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Pathet Lao’s proclamation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. We paid our 200 kip entrance fee (about 12 cents) and entered the main courtyard. Loudspeakers beamed the voice of a Lao gentleman speaking in a continuous drone. At first I thought it was a monk’s chant or perhaps communist propaganda, but then I heard him pause and give out a hearty belly laugh, as if he had just told us a joke or something. The more I listened, the more the man sounded like he was a radio DJ giving an on-location broadcast, though I still have no idea what on earth he was talking about.
The four stairwells that led up to the higher platforms of the stupa were obstructed by shrines of flowers and candles which grew steadily as more visitors arrived with offerings. But because the platforms were closed off, our only view of the stupa had to be from ground level. We walked clockwise around the stupa in the hot afternoon sun. Hundreds of novice monks were camping out in the shade along the perimeter of the inner courtyard. Some of the young boys tried to catch some ZZZ’s while the others played cards, brushed their teeth, read a book, or horsed around with friends. Some stared at us; I began to feel rather obtrusive. If this were a convention of sorts, it seemed like I was stalking the hotel hallways prying through open doors. “So you wanted to take pictures of monks,” I said to Susanne. ” Here’s your lucky chance.” Actually, it wasn’t the finest opportunity since the monks were all preoccupied with the festival. A few of the adolescent novices paused and let us take their pictures, but most of them had a “can’t you see I’m busy?” look on their faces. Perhaps it was best to leave them alone instead.

Novices having fun at the That Luang Festival

I sat in a shady corner of the courtyard, enjoying the breeze and the grand view of stupa as monks and novices walked about. Susanne vanished around the other side of the stupa, probably to take some pictures. We soaked up the atmosphere for a while and eventually headed outside to visit the market. Loudspeakers played Lao pop music while vendors fried Chinese donuts and invited young novices to play a game of ring toss: get the ring around a bottle of Pepsi, get the bottle of Pepsi. We caught a jumbo back to the hotel, where we tried to write in our journals downstairs, but the hotel TV was blasting MTV at full volume, making it impossible to concentrate. The room didn’t have a proper writing desk so we walked down the street to a brand new four-star hotel. We sat in its cafe drinking coffee and Sprite as we wrote for at least two hours. The cafe’s PA system quietly played the greatest hits of Zamfir on the pan flute, on which he covers hits by the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and showtune standards. Somehow we managed to focus on our journals despite breaking out into fits of laughter at the beginning of almost every song.
Back at the hotel we had a late dinner of lemongrass soup, rice and “Lao Baked Chicken,” a plate of cut up chicken bones, each holding a gram or two of meat. I stopped trying to pick at it when I realized I was holding a complete chicken foot in my hand. At least the soup was tasty.

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