Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

November 25, 1997

Sheung Wan Walking Tour; Reaching the Peak

Filed under: Hong Kong — Andy Carvin @ 8:49 pm

Incense coils, Man Mo Temple

The next morning began with a moment of confusion as I awoke to the sound of a muezzin making the call to prayer. I was briefly transported back to Cairo and Amman, my mind drifting to the cadence of his plaintive song. But this was Hong Kong, I remembered: there were no camels here and the air was too damp. Just up Nathan Road, it turns out, is the largest mosque in Hong Kong, used primarily by the city’s Malaysian, Indonesian and Pakistani residents. I could barely make it out through the right side of my window. I guess I never imagined I’d wake up to Islamic prayers in Hong Kong.
The Man Hing Lung Guesthouse didn’t have any breakfast available, so Susanne and I began the day at a local McDonalds, enjoying a traditional Hong Kong meal of Egg McMuffins and hash browns. I personally would have preferred some cereal or something less fast food-like, but at least McDonalds had the distinction of being perhaps the only eating establishment in Hong Kong where local prices were comparable to US prices. I might not have cared for what I was eating, but at least I could afford it.
The dark storm clouds of the preceding afternoon had been replaced by a sheet of damp, gray fog. Scattered showers were in the forecast for the day, so we brought our umbrellas along with our cameras this morning. Today would be our only full day in Hong Kong, so we decided to take the ferry to the island for a walking tour of Sheung Wan, Hong Kong’s old historic district, before catching a ride to the top of Victoria Peak. I didn’t have much of a sense whether this constituted a full day’s worth of activities or not, so Susanne and I agreed not to make any definitive plans beyond that. But Susanne also had a friend from Denver living in Hong Kong, so tonight we’d try to track her down as well.
The Star Ferry was crowded with mid-morning commuters, all dressed in designer suits and sporting cellular phones. I couldn’t imagine taking a ferry back and forth to work each day, but I suppose the down time on a slow boat might be a fine way to decompress after a hard day at the office. We followed the crowd off the ferry across Statue Square, a small park in the center of Hong Kong’s financial district. The square once played host to numerous stone effigies of Britain’s royal family, but the statues were carted away during the city’s World War II Japanese occupation. They were eventually recovered but never reinstalled – British colonialism was on its way out. From here we had a 20 minute walk to Sheung Wan.
Susanne and I conveniently followed the double decker trolley line along De Voueux Road Central as our trail of bread crumbs to Sheung Wan. Apart from the preponderance of Chinese pictograms on billboards and signs, we could have easily been in New York or London as we wandered past Gucci, Fendi, Cartier, Rolex. It seemed every major player in the world of high fashion and shopping had a store along the road, in between entire blocks of international banks and luxury hotels. But down the alleyways to our left we saw a different story: thin passageways packed with market stalls and shoppers. We veered down one of these alleys to get a better look at what was available here: sheets of silk by the yard, Peking duck, vintage clothing, fake designer shoes. There also seemed to be a large number of stalls selling personalized wood block chops: stamps that might print a stylized character for your name, your zodiacal sign, etc. There must have been a chop shop for every two or three stalls along these thin markets. The people of Hong Kong had modern tastes indeed, but they were still very conservative, superstitious people. You never know when just the right chop might come in handy.

Hanging baskets in a fruit market, Sheung Wan

Parallel rows of alley markets continued to appear as we worked our way west towards Sheung Wan. The Lonely Planet guide to Hong Kong contained a walking tour that would lead us through the winding streets of the district now best known for its dried herbs, antiques and hidden temples.
We entered Sheung Wan along Des Voeux Road before cutting left on Sutherland Street. There were no particular landmarks that announced our entry into the district apart from the conspicuous appearance of signs with drawings of sharks and birds’ nests. Over the decades, this particular strip of Sheung Wan had grown into a wholesale goods market for restaurants. Herbs and roots of all shapes and sizes could be found in the many shops along these roads. But there are two real reasons why restauranteurs bring big money when they come to this neighborhood, and both of them were soup. Bird nest soup and shark fin soup are sophisticated delicacies in Hong Kong, and diners pay top dollar for the best soups they can get. Along the walls of the shops we could see giant dried shark fins, some as large as a meter in length. These yellowish, leathery strips would then be chopped up and used to make a broth. Similarly, in store windows we found fancy boxes of bird nests, most of which were small enough for you to fit two or three of them in the palm of your hand. Compared to the shark fins I found the notion of using nests in soup a little more difficult to grasp. Apparently each nest contained a bed of nettles collected by certain species of birds in southeast Asia. The birds secrete a glue-like liquid that they use to cement the nettles together. When heated in water, the secretions and the nettles impart a unique (and apparently highly cherished) flavor to the soup.
To much of the world, Hong Kong is known as the Fragrant Harbor, originally due to its steady trade in exotic perfumes. Nowadays that reputation is often pegged to the unfortunate stench of rotting marine life and harbor pollution. But Sheung Wan carried a fragrance of its own, a combination of the numerous ginseng shops, flower vendors, fish markets, and car exhaust. I hadn’t really noticed Hong Kong’s famous maritime stench during my stay here, perhaps because I’m used to the scent of stagnant sea water from having grown up on an island off the coast of Florida. But Sheung Wan’s smell was quite distinct; neither pleasant nor unpleasant, merely unique. There have been certain places I’ve encountered that have possessed unique and memorable smells: the woody incense of Kathmandu and the melange of roasting sweet potatoes and tobacco of Cairo both come to mind. Sheung Wan, it appeared, might now add itself to this short list. I wonder if I read this again in 10 years if I’ll still be able to remember it.
As we left the ginseng district we wound our way up a steep cobblestone road to the competing sounds of temple bells and construction equipment. Two old women sat at the bottom of a series of high steps that appeared to lead to one of the local Taoist shrines, the Pak Shing Temple. I looked up towards the top of the steps and saw the pagoda-like entrance to the small temple. One of the women motioned to us, signaling we should climb up and investigate. Feeling somewhat emboldened by her gesture, I motioned towards my camera to see if they would mind if I took their picture. The old women barked at me in Cantonese, causing me to bow my head in embarrassment. Apparently we could visit their shrine but not take their picture.
We climbed the steps and crossed through a small courtyard. Long yellow spirals of some unknown material hung from the ceiling. There was a picture of similar spirals on the cover of the Lonely Planet book, but we hadn’t figured out what they were. Hopefully we could get a better look at some point. The shrine itself was made up of two small chambers, both full of tall candles and offerings. Chinese traditionally believe in ancestor veneration, which often manifests itself in the form of leaving offerings at shrines. In front of each temple alter I could spot a variety of gifts to the dead: fresh oranges, coins, pictures of new grandchildren, even bottles of beer. An older gentleman was sitting below the main altar, chanting in Cantonese while lighting a tall candle. The entire temple wasn’t much larger than a small kitchen, so I felt as if we were getting in his way, so we decided to head out. A young man in a suit squeezed past us through the entry way, carrying a large plastic bag. I wondered what he had to offer to his ancestors that day.
Further up the road we reached the beginning of Sheung Wan’s antique district. There were few bargains to be had here: most shops had the reputation of carrying either museum-quality pieces or junk, so if you wanted to shop you had to bring a heavy wallet. Susanne and I decided to poke our heads into one shop. It was a dusty mess, with piles of antiques rising up to the ceiling, sometimes even obstructing the thin aisles through the shop. The family owners huddled in the corner, chatting loudly and eating rice washed down by large bowls of shark fin soup. The shop apparently specialized in large pieces, from ceramics and vases to intricately carved wood paneling. With my backpack slung over my right shoulder I felt like a bull in a china shop (a bull in a Chinese shop, perhaps?), so I delicately made my way outside, hoping I wouldn’t have to commit my life savings to having accidentally shattered a Ming vase.
The Lonely Planet guide had mentioned a particular coffin shop in this neighborhood that sounded as if it would be of interest. Apparently the shop specialized in a traditional form of rounded coffins each built out of four logs of wood. A few shops down to the left of the antique store I noticed several large wooden trunks outside of a doorway. We briefly peered inside and saw several rows of coffins, all in various stages of assembly. I had hoped for something a little more macabre that a woodworking shop, but there really wasn’t much more to it. We decided to continue down the road.
As we paused for a moment at the top of a hill I realized I was covered in sweat. We had hoped that Hong Kong would be a well deserved respite from the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia, but this November it was much warmer than usual, courtesy of El Nino. Just across the road I could see the Man Mo temple, one of the oldest Confucianist temples in Hong Kong, but Susanne and I agreed to head down a long row of steps to a McDonalds first. Man Mo wasn’t going anywhere and we really needed to sit down for a few minutes. To the left side of the steps were several rows of antique dealers and souvenir shops. In some stores I’m sure the distinction between heirloom antiques and cheap souvenir reproductions was a fine one indeed, but at least two or three of the shops appeared to be the type that would only buzz you in if you flashed your Gold Card at the door.
Inside the McDonalds we grabbed a couple of Cokes and sat for a while, listening to a strange audio loop that appeared to be promoting a new Happy Meal or something. I had no idea what the actual promotion was about because it was in Cantonese, but we had a difficult time drawing our attention from it because of the accompanying sound effects, straight out of a 1960s Hanna Barbera cartoon. I honestly expected the voiceover guy to shout out “Hey Booboo!” or something. The loop repeated itself a dozen times or so before we decided to get out of there in order to save ourselves from losing our minds. (I can even here it right now as I write this. Make it stop!…)
I didn’t realize how steep the climb was back to the Man Mo temple until we attempted to head back the other way. Apparently this was Ladder Street, an appropriate name for such a disturbingly steep ascent. Having finally cooled down in the McDonalds, we didn’t want to break out into a sweat again so quickly, so we made the climb in stages, pausing at some of the antique stores on the way up. One shop features a massive Khmer statue of Vishnu, at least seven feet tall. I didn’t see the price tag, but it made me think of all of those mutilated statues at the south gate of Angkor Thom, whose heads had been removed and smuggled to Bangkok for sale on the antiques black market.

Man Mo temple, Hong Kong

The Man Mo temple appeared as an undistinct, squat building from the outside. From the pagoda-like design it was obvious this structure was a temple, but compared to the many other houses of worship we had seen during our trip this temple seemed surprisingly unassuming. The inside, though, was far more impressive; a dark, smoky chamber filled with burning candles and incense, with large golden shrines built up along the sides of the room. Man Mo is considered one of the oldest temples on the island, though no one is exactly sure just how old it is; the only thing people can agree on is that it was a thriving temple when the British first arrived on the island. Man Mo is dedicated to the worship of two deities: the civil god (Man) and the war god (Mo), both of whom were based on real Chinese men. The civil god is believed to be a representation of a successful Chinese statesman from the 3rd century BC, while the war god is attributed to Kuanti, a 2nd century AD warrior.
Near the center of the temple I once again found several dozen hanging yellow coils, ranging in size from several inches to several feet long. I decided to give them a closer inspection but as I approached one of the larger coils I was momentarily overcome with think, acidic smoke. My eyes burned as my nose was filled with a powerful, sweet scent. The coils, I now realized, were enormous incense sticks that burned every so slowly, around and around. Incense as sacred, yet ephemeral artwork.

I popped my head outside the temple and noticed it was beginning to drizzle. The main shrine was hot and uncomfortable, so I allowed the drops of rain to land on my face and cool me. The stiff-looking temple guard, perched in a small enclosure, briefly let down his cold visage and smiled, motioning his hand in a gesture of approval. Susanne was taking pictures of the coils inside the temple. I doubted there was enough light to capture the scene, but I hoped for the best.
No trip to Hong Kong is complete without a visit to the top of Victoria Peak, with its stupendous view of the island 1200 feet above the city. As the rains came and went, I knew there was no way we would be treated with a clear view of Hong Kong, but nonetheless felt it was important to make the pilgrimage to the top. We cut back down to Queen’s Road Central and headed east towards Central, where we hoped to find the terminus for the tram ride to the top. Queen’s Road was packed with business people returning to work after lunch. The crowds were amazing; I was instantly reminded of midtown Manhattan. In the heart of the Admirality business district we passed a large upmarket ginseng store that displayed samples of its various dried herbs and animal parts, each with their peculiar medicinal purposes. While men in business suits purchased large boxes of ginseng, Susanne and I marveled at the display: dried seahorses, powdered cow gallstones, shark fins, even goat testicles. It was a quick introduction to traditional Chinese medicine, though probably not appropriate show-and-tell for the animal rights crowd.
We headed up D’Aguilar Street through Lan Kwai Fong, a dense collection of bars and pubs, largely regarded as an expat’s ghetto. Beyond the bars the road the city became quiet as we reached an area between Government House and the zoological park. There really wasn’t much to see here and we were feeling pretty sweaty at this point – I could see Susanne was eager to get to the tram. Within a few minutes, after briefly getting lost alongside a busy road, we found the terminus and paid the HK$21 for the round-trip ticket. The tram brought us up at a severe angle, with the crowded streets of Hong Kong passing further and further behind us. I really couldn’t see what was ahead of us for there was a large growth of trees and rocks obscuring the view. Eventually the trees thinned out and I could see the Peak – not the peak of Victoria, per se, but the Peak Galleria, an observation deck and shopping mall shaped like a metallic postmodern pagoda. Hong Kong had gone out of its way to capitalize on the number of people who wanted to visit the summit of Victoria Peak by developing the Galleria, despite complaints from traditionalist who said it would be to crass and commercial. Well, it is crass and commercial, as far as everyone seems to be concerned, but it hasn’t stopped thousands of people from visiting it every day, including us.

A foggy day on the Victoria Peak viewing platform

After disembarking the tram we climbed up to the observation deck, a large metal and stone slab where hundreds of people can cram at once and admire the view. The first thing I noticed was the fog. No, not fog. Clouds. The peak was completely enshrouded with dark gray stormclouds, whizzing through the air at 20- to 30 miles per hour. Run-of-the-mill fog can be a creepy experience, but this was down right surreal. We were standing in the middle of an actual storm cloud, thick as smoke. My glasses were quickly coated with a layer of moisture. We managed to keep our camera lenses clean as we tried to capture the view of the city below, in between bursts of clouds. I had seen pictures of this view of Hong Kong and had always thought that they were taken with wide-angle lenses – the buildings always seemed so distorted around the edges. Now, as I stood above the countless highrises below, I realized that these pictures needed no trick lenses, for the sheer angle of looking down upon the city caused a distortion of the senses. We’re so used to seeing cityscapes from head-on, it’s a bit unnerving to experience one from above. Clouds or no clouds, this was truly one of the greatest city views in the world.

I could have easily spent hours here gazing down upon Hong Kong, enveloped in flowing sheets of black and gray mist, but Susanne and I were both a little worn by this point. We retreated to a cozy restaurant where I hoped we could relax for a while, but we were soon scared off by the menu – HK$100 iced tea, HK$300 sandwiches. I had hoped we could get through the rest of our trip without having to cash any more traveler’s cheques, and there was no way we’d want to blow 75 bucks just for the pleasure of eating on top of Victoria Peak. We returned to the main Galleria and found a small cafe that had croissants and coffee for HK$30 – much more reasonable in my book. I read a copy of the South China Post while Susanne attempted to call her friend Jennifer and see if she was available for dinner that night. After leaving a message on Jennifer’s machine, we decided to return to our room and rest. If Jennifer were available we’d hang out with her. Otherwise there were some free musical events at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, just down the street from our guesthouse.
Back in Kowloon, Susanne managed to get ahold of Jennifer, who had plans for later in the evening but was available for dinner. We met her inside the Peninsula Hotel at 7pm. Susanne had introduced me to Jennifer two years ago in Denver, when the two of them were working for the Encore cable network. Jennifer jumped on an opportunity to transfer to Hong Kong last year, where she’s lived ever since. Once we found each other, Jennifer suggested we first visit Felix, one of Hong Kong’s hippest restaurants, which happened to be on the top floor of the hotel. I didn’t see what the big deal was, especially if we weren’t going to eat there, but Jennifer insisted we check it out.
The restaurant itself was a typical postmodern art deco joint, with lots of neon and marble. “I think you may want to go to the bathroom while we’re up here,” Jennifer said to us, a devilish smirk on her face. I had no idea why she had dragged us up here, but I agreed to visit the men’s room while she and Susanne went the other way. Inside I found a similar marble motif, but I didn’t see any toilets. A restroom steward smiled at me and pointed me towards a wide bay window, where I found a row of cylindrical brass objects protruding three feet from the floor. These were the urinals, pressed right up against the window. It was the strangest restroom experience I’ve ever had, standing right against a bay window, 100 floors above the ground, relieving myself in this little brass contraption that was so small it made me feel like I was whizzing right into Hong Kong harbor itself. Fortunately, there were no tall buildings between me and the water, so no one could peer back and observe me, but the experience was still discomforting to say the least. Back out by the restaurant, Jennifer eagerly awaited my impression of the restroom. “I wish I had taken a picture,” I said.
The three of us caught the MTR to Wanshai, where we had dinner at a trendy noodle shop. The restaurant reminded me of Seattle. There were a good range of Asian noodles on the menu, along with french fries, buffalo wings, and all the other staples of Nouveau-Cantonese cuisine. Dinner was a little rushed, but the food was tasty, if not authentic. Since this was our last meal in Hong Kong, I was glad we didn’t blow it on just another Pizza Hut.
After dinner, we caught a cab and went to Lan Kwai Fong, Central’s pub district. Jennifer was meeting friends here later on, and we were within a short walk to the Star Ferry terminal. The Lan Kwai Fong scene was just beginning to pick up, with large groups of expats in suits standing outside bars with drinks in their hands. But tomorrow was going to be a long day, so common sense got the best of us as we walked up Queen’s Road Central to catch the ferry back to Tsim Sha Tsui. We strolled through Statue Square, marveling at the Bank of China building in the background. We tried to get some pictures of the night scene but knew that our film was too slow to capture it well. So once we got back to our hotel we grabbed a roll of 1000-speed film Susanne had been saving and hit the streets.

Cornwall Avenue, Kowloon

Hong Kong is a marvelous place at night, so alive with light and color. We wandered up and down Nathan Road and its surrounding thoroughfares, hoping we could capture Hong Kong nightlife on film. Just around the corner from the guesthouse we found Cornwall Avenue. Susanne wanted to get a picture of her namesake road; its multitude of neon signs made it an easy target. I really wish we could have spent a few more days in Hong Kong, but as we wrapped up our evening, taking those final pictures along Nathan Road, I felt totally at ease, ready to go home. Like Cambodia and Laos, Hong Kong had been good to us; I knew I would miss this place.

November 24, 1997

Hong Kong Reunion

Filed under: Hong Kong — Andy Carvin @ 10:44 pm

Susanne contemplates Hong Kong Harbor

Susanne and I checked out of the Reno Hotel bright and early, well before sunrise. Our flight to Hong Kong had originally been scheduled for 10am, but during our down time in Bangkok, we realized that this itinerary would get us into Hong Kong just after 2pm local time. By the time we settled into our hotel in Kowloon, half the afternoon would have already been wasted. So having paid a visit to the Cathay Pacific office the day before the flight, we were able to re-book ourselves on an 8am flight instead.
Despite starting our morning departure in the heart of Bangkok’s Siam Square area, traffic was surprisingly light, especially by local standards. We managed to reach the airport in less than 45 minutes, just in time for the 6am check-in time. We were both quite excited about our first visit to Hong Kong, but I must admit that the burden of my backpack was beginning to take its toll on my body. To complicate matters, I was now lugging around that wooden folk banjo I had purchased in Chiang Mai. Though the Lisu woman from whom I bought it had been kind enough to wrap in several layers of newspapers and tie it in a plastic bag, I was concerned about its safety in transport. I didn’t dare check it at the counter – I barely trusted people with my unbreakable backpack, let alone a delicate instrument – but I was nearly forced to do just that by customs officials, who insisted that the banjo’s length exceeded acceptable carry-on standards. Frustrated and impatient, I returned to the Cathay Pacific counter and begged them for a size limit waiver. They took mercy on me and placed a tag around the banjo, granting it safe conduct through customs, to the dismay of the officials who had earlier obstructed its passage. Our next challenge was immigration, usually a simple process, but today we were forced to face the peril of queuing behind a British family that hadn’t filled out its departure forms ahead of time. If this had been any other flight, I probably wouldn’t have been bothered by the delay, but Susanne and I were clearly ready to get the hell out of Bangkok. As much as we had enjoyed our trip overall, Bangkok just didn’t really sit well with us.
We arrived inside the departure hall 45 minutes before boarding. Our gate wasn’t officially open yet for some unknown reason, so a group of us stood outside its large glass doors, waiting for an airline representative to let us in. Once we were allowed inside the gate, time passed quickly, and before I knew it we were back in the air again – our ninth flight of the trip – and on our way to Hong Kong.
Once again we had the opportunity to view our progress on an in-flight map displayed on the monitor in front of us. As we crossed over Laos and Vietnam into the South China Sea I realized that this was the beginning of the end. Indeed, we had two full days in Hong Kong to which we could look forward, but our visit there would only be a glorified layover, a stop-gap measure stalling our inevitable return to America, to our homes and our jobs, to our usual routine. Usually I don’t get nostalgic about our journeys until we’re halfway across the ocean, but for some reason I felt as if the trip were truly over at this point. Perhaps Hong Kong’s metropolitan urbanity would be a taste of home, an all-encompassing Chinatown of sorts. No matter what, though, I was truly glad to be away from Bangkok. As much as I like big cities, Bangkok did not work for me. It possessed all that is wrong with the West – smog, traffic, fast food, crime – and all the while seemed to have lost its connection with its history, its culture. Bangkok is indeed a city of the modern world; it’s just a shame it’s struggling to maintain a lifeline to its past.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a city of the modern world because it has no past. Once considered a worthless, desolate island, Hong Kong’s earliest claim to fame was as refuge and hiding place for pirates of the South China Sea. The British arrived and claimed the empty landscape for themselves in 1841. In 1898, they signed a treaty with China that would allow them to lease the property until the end of June, 1997 – a term of 99 years. The popular press at the time lambasted the lease as a grievous error – who on earth would want to settle on a barren island, especially when you could enjoy colonial splendor of Shanghai or the exotic, royal atmosphere of Beijing?
Over time, the Hong Kong colony attracted more Europeans, but the city itself had yet to blossom. It took the communist takeover of China in 1947 to force Hong Kong through an awkward puberty into adulthood, as tens of thousands of Chinese citizens fled the mainland and took refuge there. Suddenly, the British found themselves with the last bastion of capitalism in China, and Hong Kong soon emerged as a commercial powerhouse.
Over the last 50 years, Hong Kong became one of the most successful cities in the world; and for the British its last (and most profitable) major colony in the Pacific Rim. But on July 1, 1997, less than six months prior to our visit, Prince Charles officially handed over the island and its surrounding properties to the People’s Republic of China. Though many people feared a radical transformation in the city, the Chinese government was smart enough to recognize a cash cow when they saw one. For the next 50 years, Hong Kong will keep its special status as a unique province of China, with its liberal economic policies intact; in 2047, China will have the option to change the policies if they see fit (assuming there’s even a communist government to make that change at that point). But for now, the People’s Republic and the residents of Hong Kong chant the same mantra: One Nation, Two Systems. Only time will tell how well it will work.
The July 1 handover has taken its economic toll, though; worries over the future of Hong Kong has caused severe fluctuation in the Hang Seng stock market, not to mention fluctuation in the confidence of would-be tourists (in fact, one of the reasons we came to Asia this year was because of great flight bargains through Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific airline). But from everything that I had seen in the press, it sounded as if very little had actually changed in the daily life of Hong Kong. I would soon find out if there was any truth to this claim.
Our flight arrived on time, just before noon. As we descended through the clouds we were treated to a closeup view of the crowded apartment blocks of Kowloon, on the Hong Kong mainland across from Hong Kong Island. I had been told that when landing in Hong Kong you could practically see apartment residents looking at you at eye level; there was literally no exaggeration in this claim. One of the most population-dense cities in the world, Hong Kong has built up its living space wherever there was room, including the land surrounding the airport. A growing number of Hong Kong residents could afford building spacious homes on the side of Victoria Peak, but for the six million Hong Kongers who didn’t have $50 million to spare for such breathing space, they have to make do with the cramped vertical highrises that are so prevalent in this city.
Having completed immigration and customs, Susanne and I boarded the A1 shuttle bus to downtown Kowloon. While Hong Kong island is the financial heart of the province, Kowloon is undoubtedly its soul. Everything from concert halls and luxurious hotels to strip clubs and tenements can be found all within a few blocks at the southern tip of Kowloon, an area known as Tsim Sha Tsui. The majority of visitors to Hong Kong stay in Tsim Sha Tsui along Nathan Road, its roaring traffic and neon lights a 24-hour-a-day affair. Susanne and I intended to stay at the Man Hing Lung Guesthouse, a family-run place on the 15th floor of Mirador Arcade. Mirador Arcade is the smaller (and undoubtedly less notorious) neighbor of Chungking Mansions, an monstrous conglomeration of several dozen guesthouses infamous for trash-littered hallways, terrible elevators, and occasional police raids for either illegal immigrants or prostitutes. Happily for us, Mirador Arcade enjoyed a much better reputation – better choice, better value, better safety. We made our reservations there a month in advance, not wanting to take any chances of being homeless upon our arrival. I was very curious to see what the Arcade would be like, especially after hearing numerous (and often hilarious) backpacker horror stories about Chungking Mansions.

Hong Kong street scene

Twenty minutes after leaving the airport we reached Nathan Road. Each side of the road was packed with double-decker buses, taxis, luxury automobiles and hundreds of people. As soon as we climbed out of the bus we were accosted by an Indian man who demanded we follow him to his guesthouse at Chungking Mansions – an obvious scam in search of just the right sucker. He continued to hound us even after I made clear we had reservations elsewhere, so eventually we shoved him aside and marched the half block north to the entrance of Mirador Arcade. Through the archway we found what appeared to be an indoor mall packed with junk souvenir vendors and money exchangers. To our right stood two elevators, one for even floors and the other for odd ones. We waited for the even elevator as a crowd gathered and crammed their way into the odd elevator. Politeness is not a trait common in the Hong Kong archetype; it was shove or be shoved as people pushed their way inside. After seven or eight of them had successfully made their way through the elevator door, the elevator let out a series of loud beeps; apparently its weight limit had been exceeded. The last man to get inside dutifully stepped out and allowed the elevator to proceed upward. At least we now knew how the game was played here.
Soon enough we charged our way into the even elevator with Machievellian precision; the weight of our backpacks alone probably prevented one full person from joining us for the ride up. We climbed out at the sixteenth floor and found ourselves in an open courtyard, with paths running ahead and to the left until they formed a square. The hallways were littered with open cans of paint and splattered drop clothes; dozens of clothes lines hung across the courtyard, one floor after another. As we walked towards our guesthouse I could see what appeared to be sewing shops through several open doorway. Taoist shrines with burning candles and incense stood beside two of the doors, leaving an odd blend of exotic perfumes and wet paint hanging in the humid air.
Inside the Man Hing Lung Guesthouse we were greeted by an older man who told us he had a room for us on the 15th floor, directly below, for HK$300 a night – about $39 in US currency. He insisted that we leave him with one night’s deposit, so we secured our bags inside and accompanied his friendly wife to one of the moneychangers downstairs. I didn’t feel great about using one of the local shysters for exchanging dollars, but the presence of the guesthouse manager’s wife apparently caused the exchanger to give us a reasonable rate. Back upstairs, the older man brought us to our room: a cubicle of five by eight feet, plus a bathroom big enough for standing room only – sitting on the toilet, I’m sure, will be a challenge. The bed was a tad larger than a standard American single. Somehow, we would make due here for two nights. Otherwise, we could choose to spend hundreds of dollars more for a modicum of comfort. But the room was clean, the water was hot, so all things considered we didn’t see the need to get uptight about it.
It was now a little past 1pm, so Susanne and I planned out a cursory itinerary for our stay. Tomorrow we would visit Hong Kong Island, walk around its neighborhoods, and ascend the top of Victoria Peak, which undoubtedly possesses one of the most famous city views in the world. Today, though, would be a day of colonial leisure, for we decided to kick things off with high tea at the Peninsula hotel.
I’ve always had a thing for grand hotels; in Hong Kong, the Peninsula is as grand as they come. Like the Raffles in Singapore, the Peninsula harkens back to a time when only the rich would travel – and would demand the comfort of traveling well. Even with the demise of British colonialism, the Peninsula has successfully maintained its historical ambiance and continues to attract the wealthy. Staying here would have set us back about $300 a night for starters; high tea, therefore, would have to satisfy our fix for elegance and pomposity.
While the culture of high tea isn’t what it used to be (even in England) high tea at the Peninsula remains the hip thing to do during an afternoon in Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s a quick five minute walk down Nathan Road from Mirador Arcade to the Peninsula; the difference between the two structures could not be more evident. At the Peninsula we are greeted by giant wooden nutcracker soldiers (Christmas starts early in Hong Kong) and a magnificent glass entrance. Inside we find a spacious room decorated in red oriental carpets, antique furniture, brass, marble, opulence. To the left and right dozens of visitors sit at small tables with classic three-tiered high tea sets filled with delicious snacks. A string quartet played Beethoven’s Fifth on a balcony in the far left corner of the hall. No wonder the British never wanted to leave this place.
Tea time had just begun a few minutes earlier, so we were lucky enough to get a table without having to queue up, as subsequent guests had to do throughout our stay. A waiter quickly took our order of high tea, with Susanne having Earl Grey while I requested Darjeeling. As the waiter departed, Susanne and I looked around the hall, observing well-dressed guests come and go as Beethoven continued to fill the air. We then looked at each other and immediately burst out laughing – what the hell were we doing here? As much as the two of us revel in mocking the whole colonial globe trotting lifestyle, we both knew that we secretly coveted it. I certainly would never defend the imperialist exploitation perfected by the British empire, but I still admired the occasional elegance they left in their wake. Two years earlier in Luxor, Egypt, we decided to spend a night at the grand Winter Palace, Egypt’s answer to the Peninsula. Having survived a nervous night at a Luxor pit-of-despair guesthouse, we rewarded ourselves with a night in comfort, a night where we could play Upper Crust. While none of our nights in Southeast Asia had been so terrifying as to compel us to throw away several hundred dollars for a stay at the Peninsula, we both knew that a relaxing afternoon of high tea would certainly help make up for some of the less desirable moments we had endured in 20 days of travel.
The waiter soon returned with our layered tray of snacks and our teas. It was a nice selection of food, including bite-size salmon sandwiches, pink frosted cakes, shortbreads and chocolates. The tea was good and strong – strong enough for repeated fresh dousings of hot water. As tempting as it was to waste away the entire afternoon here, we knew time was precious in Hong Kong, so eventually we left the splendour of the Peninsula and made our way towards the waterfront for a leisurely stroll.
Down the road from the Peninsula we reached the Star Ferry Terminal, the main crossing point to Hong Kong island for seafaring commuters. The terminal itself blocked much of the view of the island, so we proceeded left beyond the old colonial clock tower to a long paved boardwalk. From here we enjoyed our first view of the new Hong Kong, its scores of magnificent skyscrapers darting upwards just below the cloud enshrouded summit of Victoria Peak. Easily as glorious as Manhattan’s skyline, Hong Kong’s possesses the added bonus of Victoria Peak and its surrounding foothills. And all of this, built in the last 50 years – I was truly amazed at the capacity for humanity to construct such a testament to the modern world. Hong Kong is indeed a city for the 21st century; even one glance of its infinite skyline would confirm this for skeptic and believer alike.

There were surprisingly few westerners on the boardwalk that afternoon; perhaps the black-as-night storm clouds hovering over Victoria Peak had steered them away today. Along the water we spotted numerous people fishing with a simple rod and string, sometimes alone, sometimes as a family. A large wedding party crowded around a plaza as professional photographers captured the happy bride and groom, with the Hong Kong cityscape as their backdrop. Two old men play a game of backgammon inside a stone stairwell, both guzzling large bottles of lager. For such a massive, crowded city Hong Kong at least had the waterfront to offer its people peace of mind.
The storm over Hong Kong island grew steadily. The city had been blessed with near perfect weather for two months; as luck would have it, showers were forecast for the entire week. But the impending rains did little to dampen our enthusiasm for Hong Kong; we had both waited a long time to visit this city, rain or shine. All we could do was cross our fingers and hope for the best.

A junk manouvers stormy Hong Kong waters

We stood awhile along the boardwalk, observing a traditional Chinese junk amble to the island and back, its sturdy red sails giving it an almost plastic appearance. The afternoon was getting late, so we decided to find the nearest hotel and use their phones to call my friend Susie. Susie and I had gone to school together, from first grade through high school graduation. Not unlike myself, Susie had been possessed by the travel bug and had spent much of college in Paris, where I last saw her in 1991. It was only appropriate that the two of us reunite in Hong Kong, so far away from home. I wasn’t totally sure if she was even in Hong Kong, though; last I had heard from her family she was planning to visit Thailand. And since we hadn’t the good fortune to bump in to each other somewhere in Southeast Asia, it would take a phone call to verify her whereabouts.
We entered the Regent, one of the many large hotels along the waterfront, and went in search of a payphone. After an extended period of wandering, we found a row of phones but soon discovered we lacked the right combination of coins to make a call. I headed down the hallway into a bar and asked the bartender if he had change for 20 Hong Kong dollars. He gave me a handful of one- and two-dollar coins, but then inquired, “Do you need to use the phone?” When I said yes, he pulled a cellular phone out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me, asking, “it’s a local call, right?” I smiled back and nodded, taking the phone to a comfortable stool by the bar.
As luck would have it, Susie was indeed in Hong Kong, and we agreed to meet for dinner at 7pm in front of Chungking Mansions. This gave us ample time to stop at a cybercafe to check email, get back to the guesthouse, shower, and relax for a bit before going out for a night on the town. Susie suggested that we head to the island for dinner with her boyfriend Ian and a friend. I guess we’d be visiting the heart of Hong Kong tonight after all.
Right on schedule, we found Susie in front of the Mansions at 7pm. She looked pretty much the same as she always had; some things never change, I guess. Susie suggested we take the Star Ferry to Wanchai, where we would meet Ian and his friend at a bar and then find a place to get some good Chinese food. Since Hong Kong is largely populated by Cantonese Chinese, I suggested we go for Cantonese cuisine. Susie grimaced and recommended otherwise; Cantonese, she said, was probably too oily for our Western palates, even if we were in an adventuresome mood. Instead she suggested the Peking American restaurant, which despite its name was actually Pekinese and Szechuan style, with no Americanized dishes to be found. It sounded great to us.
For less than three Hong Kong dollars each we boarded the ferry to Wanchai. Each ferry comfortably sat several hundred passengers, though this particular boat had plenty of seats available. The ferry slowly pitched and rolled with the currents as we made the short ten minute journey to the island. The sun had set and the island was illuminated with the glow of neon billboards and architectural backlighting, much of it reflecting and diffracting on the churning waters ahead of us. The skyline drew nearer as Susie and I caught up on each other’s whereabouts for the last several years. Susie and Susanne, not surprisingly, got along well, though I always feel bad whenever I conduct a reminiscence marathon with someone from my past while someone from my present must endure it.

Hong Kong Harbor at night

After disembarking the ferry, we started our walk by climbing atop a long cement skyway that linked up numerous buildings several stories above the ground. Susie pointed out with considerable disdain the central immigration office, which had recently denied her an extended visa and was forcing her to return to the US by Christmas. We soon reached Wanchai, a colorful neighborhood known for its trendy nightlife as well as its pricey red light district. We arrived at BB’s, a popular expat bar filled with Brits and Australians drinking expensive imported beer. We hung out and enjoyed the scene until Michael arrived first. Michael was a half-Cantonese, half-Italian Australian who specialized in supermodel photography (I swear I’m not making this up). He had just returned from a successful photo shoot in the Philippines. Ian was running a little late, but he eventually caught up with us around 8:30. Ian, a Hong Kong Cantonese, moved to South Australia as a child and had since become an Australian citizen. Both his and Michael’s Cantonese heritage made it much easier for them to stay in Hong Kong for extended periods. If you’re not Chinese, you need to demonstrate that you have an essential work skill not easily found among the permanent Chinese population. Susie, unfortunately, had been working as a software trainer, and over time, that particular skill had become more common among the locals. Thus, Ian and Michael could stay, while Susie eventually had to go.
After a couple of beers our stomachs started to rumble so we walked a few blocks to the Peking American restaurant. Its one dining hall was already quite crowded with an even mix of Asians and Westerners. Somehow, though, we managed a large round table without reservations. As we settled in with some tea and a couple of large bottles of beer, Ian asked us what we’d like to eat. Having no idea what the house specialties would be, we strongly suggested that he play it by ear and order for us. He spoke to the waiter in Cantonese, which only added to the suspense, but he promised us that we didn’t have to worry about getting platters full of Crispy Serpent Head or Fried Lard with Blood (again, I’m not making these things up). Apparently on previous occasions Susie had eaten with Ian’s family, who delighted in ordering Cantonese favorites that would turn even the strongest American stomach inside out. Since then, Susie has forced Ian to promise not to subject her or her friends to such stressful culinary abuse again.
The first course to arrive was the soup, a basic hot and sour that our tastebuds recognized as both familiar and safe. The rest of the meal arrived as a series of individual courses – not in any particular order, just in terms of what came out of the kitchen next. There were no western illusions of serving every entree simultaneously; as is true in other parts of Asia, Hong Kongers eat family style, so each entree should offer a little something for everyone at the table no matter what time it arrives.
The first entree was a bit of a stumper for us: a plate of large lettuce leaves, a dish of some dark, ground up meal that was generally unidentifiable, and a bowl of dark liquid that appeared to be hoisin sauce. I was right with the hoisin sauce and the lettuce leaves were a no brainer, but the main plate was a mystery to me. Ian explained we were about to eat ground pigeon mixed with peanuts, soy sauce and garlic paste. The proper method of eating was scooping a couple of pigeon/peanut spoonfuls into the center of a piece of lettuce, drizzling it with hoisin sauce, and finally folding it like a tortilla wrap for eating. Susanne and I were shocked at how much we liked it. There wasn’t a discernible meaty taste to it (let alone a pigeon taste) and the peanuts gave each bite a delightful crunch. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the dish was the combination of hot food and cold lettuce – the Chinese figured this out probably centuries before McDonalds came up with the hot and cold McBLT.
The waiter soon brought out the other dishes, which included a chicken and pepper stir fry, a marvelous platter of seared scallops, each the size of silver dollars, and a plate of what appeared to be slivers of beef jerky. The jerky was actually fine, fried strips of dried meat in a caramelized sauce. Accompanying the strips was a generous pile of palm-sized bread pockets. Ian demonstrated the proper method of stuffing the beef strips into the pocket and eating like a jerky sandwich. The meat itself was delicious but I thought the combination of fried beef and bread was too dry for my taste, so I improvised by stirring dollops of hoisin and seared scallop sauce in order to give it some moisture.
The five of us stuffed ourselves to the breaking point. Susanne and I both thoroughly enjoyed the meal and we commended Ian on his varied selection. It was just after 11pm and I couldn’t decide if I was feeling tired yet, but Ian and Susie suggested we get ourselves some cans of shandy and head out to the waterfront. This sounded like a great idea to me, but I naively asked, “Is it ok to have open containers in public?” Our hosts laughed. “Where do you think you are, America?” Ian joked. “I guess not,” I replied rather meekly. Hong Kong certainly had its restrictions, but drinking on public property apparently wasn’t one of them.
We stopped at a local convenient store and purchased several bottles of shandy. A large basset hound barked at a small group of Chinese who were standing outside having a drink. I thought it was rather strange to see a basset hound in the context of downtown Hong Kong, but I suppose it’s a little silly to think that America has a monopoly on stumpy old dogs.
It was a ten minute walk back to the waterfront. A continuous glow of neon helped guide along the road as we passed one skyscraper after another. Even at night, Hong Kong was an intimidating metropolis, but I felt quite at home nonetheless. Susanne too seemed to be in awe just as much as I was; I could tell she was thinking this would be a great place to live for a while.
We reached the Wanchai waterfront and walked around the outer edge of the Hong Kong Exhibition Center, which hosted the official handover ceremony this past summer. I immediately flashed back to the changing of the flags, the lowering of the Union Jack one last time. But Hong Kong had moved on since then: the exhibition center was again just another convention center, its waterfront just another gathering place for a few friends to have a late night drink. We made ourselves comfortable along a metal railing, enjoying a splendid view of two of the island’s most famous buildings, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building and Jardine House. The conversation quickly turned to politics as we talked about the fate of Hong Kong as a Chinese province. It was interesting to get the Australian perspective of US-China relations; Ian’s friend felt rather strongly that if the US was willing to choose Chinese engagement over containment, it was hypocritical for us to try to contain other countries such as Cuba or even Iran. I didn’t necessarily disagree with him in that regard but nevertheless played devil’s advocate for the sake of argument.
Midnight had now come and gone, and the last ferry had departed for Kowloon. We’d have to take the subway back to Tsim Sha Tsui. We made the short walk to the subway entrance and descended underground. While the subway was a much faster ride than the ferry, it certainly lacked the ambiance of shuttling across the water, the view of the Hong Kong skyline behind us. We departed Susie and Ian’s company at Tsim Sha Tsui station. I’m really glad we had the chance to see each other, even if just for the evening. As we left, I said to her, “Well, I doubt I’ll see you in Florida any time soon. Maybe in London or something.” “Who knows,” she smiled.
Back at Mirador Arcade, we returned to our lilliputian abode at the guesthouse. The low roar of street noise fifteen floors below lulled me to sleep.

November 23, 1997

Doi Suthep and the Hmong Village “Poppy Field”

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 9:29 pm

Opium poppy in Hmong village garden

We had another day and a half to kill in Chiang Mai and we planned to spend most of that time relaxing at cafes, doing absolutely nothing at all. We were quite successful much of the time but we did manage to spend a few hours visiting Doi Suthep, a mountain to the west of town. Doi Suthep is best known for a large wat that sits on its eastern slopes. It’s one of the holiest shrines in northern Thailand, attracting large crowds for both the temple and the view of Chiang Mai from the top of the mountain.
A few steps outside of our guesthouse we hired a cheery songthaew driver to take us for the 45-minute trip up the mountain and back. As we reached the outskirts of Chiang Mai the road climbed slowly into a series of hairpin turns. Our driver was in no rush; we ambled all the way. Though Doi Suthep is only 1676 meters high the number of winding turns stretches the actual drive uphill to over six miles from the base of the mountain. A continuous stream of touring buses and minivans passed us in both directions. I guess it’d be a bit crowded up top. Our driver dropped us near the steps leading to the temple and told us to meet him down the street when we were ready to go back to Chiang Mai. I asked him if we could also go to a Hmong village on the far side of the mountain but he said no, for he wasn’t allowed to drive past the Doi Suthep temple checkpoint. We’d have to hire a second taxi – only a handful of them were allowed to proceed. “Nothing I can do,” he said. ” It’s mafia. Taxi mafia. They control who goes where.” Wonderful. I guess we’d worry about visiting the Hmong village later.

Doi Suthep temple

The marble steps of Doi Suthep teemed with tour groups, school children and devout pilgrims – certainly more people than we had seen at any other site in Thailand, save the Royal Palace in Bangkok. We walked up the steps, marveling at the glimmering stone and mirrored tile serpents that slithered down each side of the steps. Susanne tried to get a picture of me near the top of the steps, but a continuous stream of tourists kept getting in the way of the shot. At the summit we reached a large marble platform with a golden temple at its center. I had a brief flashback to the Swayumbunath stupa in Kathmandu – the long climb, the incense, the crowds – yet here I didn’t feel that same sense of mystic awe I had felt in Nepal. Doi Suthep, as beautiful a temple it is, is also one large souvenir shop; the Coke signs and enormous amounts of tourist paraphernalia detracted from the supposed sacrality of the temple. Fortunately, inside the temple itself you could get away from the crass capitalism, so as long as you retreat within this marble and gold sanctuary there is fleeting peace. Many visitors lit candles and incense at shrines in the four corners of the temple. A frisky little kitten mounted surprise attacks on peoples’ socks as they walked by – I occupied its attention for several minutes by dangling my camera strap above it, which it playful stalked with feverish abandon.

Outside the main temple crowds admired the view of Chiang Mai. Susanne and I paused for a moment and looked. No temples, no rolling hill country – only urban sprawl and distant billboards for Johnny Walker and Pizza Hut. Chiang Mai from above, Chiang Mai from below, it all felt so disappointingly familiar.
We took a brief tram ride down to the bottom of the temple steps, where we hired another songthaew to take us around to the Hmong village and back for 200 baht. We were getting ripped off for sure, but apart from a five mile walk in each direction, this was the only way we’d get to the other side of the mountain. The air was chilly as we drove further up Doi Suthep. We descended after a reaching the summit, winding slowly to the western slope and eventually to the Hmong village, which occupied a prime spot in a valley 4000 feet above Chiang Mai.

Hmong woman, Doi Suthep

I had no illusions about this particular village; there may have been a time when one would have found a pristine Hmong community, untouched by modernity, but now this small town was a thriving spot on the Chiang Mai tourist trail. The songthaew deposited us in front of the village in a large, unpaved parking lot full of motorbikes, minibuses and pickup trucks. I expected to see hordes of Western tourists inside, but there weren’t too many people around; perhaps some of those trucks in the parking lot were owned by the Hmong themselves. The village itself occupied a series of rolling hills, with several small streets extending to a steep valley that served as the community’s growing fields. It was a lazy afternoon market, with shops selling Hmong clothes, musical instruments, blankets and medicinal herbs as their keeps napped in the corner while listening to Thai pop music.
As we wound through the village I noticed a cardboard sign with the message “Hmong opium” and an arrow pointing to the left, back towards the hill-sloped gardens. Hmm. The Hmong, like other Thai hilltribes, are allowed by law to cultivate a small amount of opium poppies for their own use, but it was technically illegal to sell it to the outside world. What on earth could they be advertising here? We decided to investigate. A man sat under a shaded gate with a roll of ticket stubs and a small metal box. He pointed to a sign that said “ten baht entry,” so we paid him the small sum to enter the gardens. We really had no idea if they were growing opium openly, but assuming they were, it made great sense to charge admission. I guess if you can’t legally sell the stuff, you can make some money allowing westerners to gawk at it, growing out of the ground like any other weed. Whether or not these Hmong knew of the current heroin chic in America made no difference, I guess; as long as hippy trekkers came to town asking about poppy fields, why not make them pay 10 baht to see it? Besides, it’s safer than allowing a bunch of stoners trek through the backcountry of the Golden Triangle, looking for it themselves. Burmese bandits or Karen rebels would probably blow them to kingdom come before they ever even saw their first poppy.
The fact that there were opium poppies to be found in this enormous garden made little difference to us, though, for the setting was lush and picturesque. A burst of colors, the valley was both a flower garden as well as a functional farm featuring fruit trees, corn, marijuana and soybeans. The fields sloped down the valley as a series of steps, with each earthen platform featuring a different combination of crops. We followed crescent-shaped footpaths through the gardens, winding back and forth along each tier. A large wooden waterwheel turned near the bottom of the gardens, spinning ever so slowly from the trickle of a mountain stream that cut through the heart of the valley. The tribe had their own little piece of paradise on the side of this mountain.

Andy and Susanne mug for pictures in the Hmong garden

The air was thick with a syrupy sweet scent from the thousands of flowers blooming along the terraces. Yet we hadn’t seen any poppy plants. We descended further into the garden until we reached the bottom, just above a tool shed. Here, I noticed three or four lonely long-stemmed flowers with bulbous heads and beautiful purple petals. Opium poppies. These delicate, humble blooms were the scourge of millions of addicts around the world. They just didn’t seem to fit the job description very well. I took a couple of pictures of the flowers and managed to save a pair of petals pressed in my Lonely Planet book.

Hmong carpet maker, Doi Suthep

We eventually made our way out of the village to the other side of the mountain, where our ever smiling songthaew driving was waiting for us. Back at the hotel, we relaxed for the rest of the afternoon before spending our final evening at the Chiang Mai night market. On this particular evening I showed up with a particular goal in mind – I hadn’t purchased any souvenirs in Thailand and was determined to find something acceptable in this vast bazaar. But as had been the case in previous visits here, I didn’t see anything that struck my fancy; there was a lot of flea market junk, a lot of cheap clothing, but nothing that stood out and screamed “Thailand!” in my face.
Dejected, I suggested we return to the hotel. As we cut through the back of the market we stumbled upon an artist’s cooperative made up of hilltribe families. I noticed a Lisu woman had several sets of placemats for sale, each embroidered in the tribe’s distinct style of concentric oval loops. They appeared to be a great value but I didn’t care for the colors she had available that night. When she said she didn’t have any in green, a woman at an adjacent table said “Come here! Come here!” as her young daughter pulled out a huge cardboard box full of placemats of different colors. I quickly found four matching mats and negotiated a price of 125 baht, about three dollars, for the set. As I began to search for spare change, the woman who had displayed the first set of placemats came by with another set of four green mats. Apparently she had just found the set and now wanted me to buy from her instead of the little girl. The girl looked at me, wondering what I would do next. It seemed so petty to make them compete over a measly few bucks, so I apologized as politely as possible to the first woman and completed my transaction with the girl and her mother.
Elsewhere in the co-op, an Akha woman displayed a fine selection of wooden goods, including a four-stringed Thai banjo. It wasn’t of professional quality – I’m sure there’s no way the instrument would ever stay in tune – but it was the first item at the market to get my attention. I asked the woman how much she wanted for it and she said 700 baht. 17 dollars wasn’t bad, but I’d have to lug this thing around for the rest of the week. I initially declined the offer, but she then began to pester me, saying “Very good, I need money, buy yes buy yes….” I started to think that if she just shut up for a minute I’d consider buying it. Eventually I said I’d take it for 200 baht. To my surprise, she then said 250 – six dollars. Having cut the price by two thirds, it suddenly seemed like a fine deal. The Akha woman wrapped it in several layers of newspaper, tying knots around its neck to hold the paper in place. It wasn’t exactly a stellar packing job, but it would have to do for the moment. I now had my prize.
The next day was a total write-off as we waited for the 4pm overnight express train to take us back to Bangkok. Susanne and I bought postcards and hung out in a bakery by the eastern gate of the city. Before grabbing our bags at the hotel, we said goodbye to its two resident mascots, the old blind mastiff and his curly haired poodle mutt friend. They barely acknowledged us, for nap time was too precious in the heat of the afternoon. At the train station I purchased a bag of buns and a bottle of water. Hopefully this would be enough food to keep us full for the trip, since I had heard that Thai train food was expensive and dull. Unfortunately, because I couldn’t read Thai I neglected to notice that I had purchased pork buns accidentally. I tried to eat one but the sight of the pork filling was enough to make me a vegetarian for life. We ended up ordering a mediocre meal of fried rice and pineapple slices for the bargain price of seven dollars. We should have slept on empty stomachs instead.
Back in Bangkok, we had another day to kill before heading out the next morning to Hong Kong. We checked into the Reno Hotel, a Vietnam War-era establishment that catered to low-end business travelers. It left much to be desired, but then again, so did Bangkok. I had really enjoyed my first day in Bangkok, with the temples, the palace, and especially the Thai boxing. But apart from these isolated highlights, Bangkok was a city without a soul. There was little for us to do apart from waste away a local shopping mall, where an ever growing mass of teenagers in designer jeans and sunglasses shopped for platform shoes. Our authentic Thai experience was not to be – at least not today – so we went hog wild with our western crassness, hanging out at the local Hard Rock Cafe before hitting a movie theatre for a showing of Air Force One. (The film, at least, had one unusual moment when the entire audience stood up in honor of the king while the theatre played a brief montage of royal photographs, all to the tune of the royal anthem which the king composed himself.) Watching Harrison Ford bash the hell out of Gary Oldman and his commie thugs gave us the craving for meat, so we ate at McDonalds before crashing at the Reno for the night. Apparently Bangkok had taken its toll on our sense of adventure.

November 19, 1997

Three Wats and a Massage

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 9:24 pm

Dragon head, Wat Chiang Man

During breakfast we talked about our plans for the week. We’d considered flying up to the town of Mae Hong Son for a few days – at $18 roundtrip, it was probably the cheapest flight in the world. But Susanne and I agreed that we had done enough hotel hopping on this trip. We’d stay right here until we needed to get back to Bangkok. Today would be a semi-restful day for us. Susanne wanted to get a message somewhere while I wanted to see some of Chiang Mai’s famous wats. The day was young so we wanted to squeeze in a little of both.
We spent the morning at three of Chiang Mai’s oldest and best known wats: Chiang Man, Phra Singh and Chedi Luang. Normally I would expound on the virtues of each individual wat, their personalities, etc., but today I felt distinctly underwhelmed by them. I think this lack of enthusiasm had less to do with the wats themselves than my recent experience with wats in Laos. Luang Prabang’s wats all gave off a living presence; they were serene, yet full of activity by monks and young novices. The city of Luang Prabang itself also served as a natural complement to these monasteries. Its wats were living, breathing neighborhoods that flowed naturally with the slow pace and friendliness of the community.
In Chiang Mai, wats are always encircled by vulture-like tuk-tuks whose drivers hounded you in aggravating succession. A 7-Eleven store or a go-go bar might share the block across the street from the monks’ living quarters. The wats of Chiang Mai were past tense, anachronistic monuments instead of present-day members of the Chiang Mai family. They were out of place, awkward. Perhaps if I had visited Chiang Mai soon after our arrival in Bangkok I would have appreciated their beauty and magnificence, which architecturally speaking they all possess. But having experienced the grace and vitality of Luang Prabang and its wats, Chiang Mai seems all but a smoggy, traffic-clogged open-air museum.

Wat Chiang Man

Mind you, I don’t want to come down too hard on this city – I mean, it’s a great place to unwind for a few days. But Chiang Mai seems so service-oriented, so tourist-centric, its long history and culture has been superseded by the desire to cater to the throngs of Americans, Australians, Japanese and British tourists who come here. I don’t want to sound naive, but Chiang Mai is a bit of a disappointment. Or perhaps we had reached our saturation point for Buddhist monasteries – that must play a certain role in how I’m feeling at this moment. We’ve been out-watted. Time for a good old fashioned Thai massage.
Susanne had included Thai massage on her short list of must-do’s in Southeast Asia, so we made an appointment with the Rinkaew Povech spa to pick us up at the hotel and take us to their resort on the outskirts of the city. This plan gave Susanne a couple of hours to shower and nap, while it gave me the time to run two important errands: buying train tickets to Bangkok and arranging a hill tribe trek. I caught a tuk-tuk to the train station, about two kilometers from the hotel. The jerk of a driver spent the entire ride pestering me about going to see ceramic shops first. Despite my insistent refusals, he wouldn’t stop asking me, so I ordered him to stop the tuk-tuk. “Train station now, or I walk and pay you zero baht.” “No problem, no problem,” he said. Just outside of the train station he stopped the tuk-tuk and said I should get out here. “You walk, I wait for you and then we go to shops,” he said, displaying mystifying chutzpah. The cheapskate wouldn’t even drive into the station itself – he wanted to avoid going through a police checkpoint. I paid him 10 baht less than we agreed upon initially and walked away. He began to yell at me, so I turned around and pointed to the police kiosk. The driver grumbled something to himself and climbed back into his tuk-tuk to take a nap. I quickly booked passage on the overnight express train for Bangkok leaving Chiang Mai Saturday afternoon at 4:40pm, arriving 6am. This gave us more than enough time to relax in Chiang Mai for a few days.
Next stop: Panda Trekking and Tours. Susanne and I had stopped at Panda along with several other trekking agencies to find a one day walk through some of the northern hilltribe villages. Practically every outfit offered the exact same packages, but for whatever reason I sensed that this particular company had its act together. They were also certified by Thailand’s state tourism regulating authority, which certainly didn’t hurt. We decided to take a five-tribe package which would bring us through small villages around Phrae, two hours outside of Chiang Mai. We had initially discussed flying to Mae Hong Son to visit the famous “long neck” Padong Karen tribes, but this tour gave us more variety for our baht. Seven hundred baht per person, around $15 dollars, would get us transportation, lunch, a guide who happened to be a member of the Lisu tribe, and the chance to visit Lisu, Akha, Lahu, Karen and Palong villages. And since we wouldn’t have to spent the night at a village, that would give us even more time to unwind in Chiang Mai, which was our main reason for being here in the first place.
I got back to the hotel with just enough time to shower before our 3pm ride to the resort picked us up. I should probably note that traditional Thai massage, our massage of choice, has nothing to do with the infamous Thai massage parlors of Bangkok’s Patpong district. Traditional massage is a primary element of traditional Thai medicine, which bears some similarity to Chinese medicine and India’s Ayurvedic medicine. Basically, massage is used to either relax a patient or solve a particular medical ailment through accupressure techniques. For our purposes, though, we’d stick to the relaxation side of the therapy.
Massages cost 200 baht an hour, about five dollars, so we purchased tickets for 90-minute sessions. We were led to a dimly lit cubicle with two mattresses on the floor. Susanne and I both put on a pair of baggy pajamas that were loose enough for a good massage job yet eliminated the need for your masseuse to touch your skin directly. I found it quite hard to relax initially, for the pantaloon pajamas made me look like some 19th century maharaja or some Gilbert and Sullivan pirate character. Susanne and I laughed hysterically for some time until my masseuse walked in, a squat Thai woman who bore a strange resemblance to Rosanne Barr. She was quite serious about getting started, gesturing me to lie down on the bed. I tried to explain to her that we both wanted massages for our back and feet, but she stared blankly at me. I repeated my request, pointing at my back and feet. She shook her head and made the same motion for me to lie down face up on the mattress. I got the message. Don’t tell me how to do my job. This was to be her show and I was in no place to dictate the terms of the program.
Another woman entered the room and ordered Susanne to get on her back as well. They sat below our feet and began to twist, crush, rub, press, knead and squeeze their ways across our bodies. I had expected the message to be a lot of complex hand movements but my masseuse used her fingers, knuckles, elbows, knees and heels to exert incredible pressure all over me. For example, while massaging my calf, Rosanne ground her knuckles in a rolling motion – I thought I was going to get a cramp. But for the shin muscles, which are much harder and denser tissue, she held my leg in place with one of her legs while thrusting her elbow in a wave-like fashion. I didn’t know whether to scream or sigh in relaxation. The entire massage was really just full-body accupressure therapy. Some times she would press her whole body weight into my back and then hold it for 10 seconds. As she worked her way up my feet, hands, legs, arms, back, neck and head, Rosanne would talk in Thai with Susanne’s masseuse. From their tone and their snickering it sounded like they were both ripping on their husbands or something. Yet they managed to shoot the breeze while twisting and shoving every muscle group on our bodies in the allotted 90 minutes.
Early on in the massage I tried to pay attention to her technique, just in case I ever wanted to attempt it myself. But sometimes when the pain was so exquisite I was unable to think of anyone on whom I would want to inflict this ancient Thai torture. At the 90 minute mark, Rosanne gave my head a triplet of light karate chops, a movement she used to end each muscle group massage. I was quite relaxed, as I had hoped, but yet I was exhausted, sore and limp. Was this the intended result, or was my farang body just not used to such refined traditional attention? It’s hard to say.
Walking back to the van my body was a dead weight, my mind blank. Susanne and I tried to discuss what we thought of the whole bit, but I didn’t have much to say. Hell, I didn’t have much to say about anything. Tabula rasa. There’s something very Buddhist about being clear of mind and body, so in that sense my traditional Thai massage treatment was an unqualified success. But the accompanying sores and bruises had me wondering out loud as to how we’d feel the next day during our three hours of hill walking. Until then, I guess, I’d enjoy the agony of utter blankness.
We ate dinner at Pizza Hut, a sign that we were already pining for the flavours and relative hygiene of American cuisine. The streets outside were crowded with shoppers, for we were eating in the heart of the night bazaar. Stall after stall tempted us with t-shirts, faux leather luggage, fake Rolexes, Hello Kitty backpacks, African masks, Tibetan thangka paintings and hundreds of other items I could have easily gotten elsewhere. I was actually surprised at the limited amount of distinctly Thai items available at the bazaar. Sure, you could get elephant paperweights and Singha Beer t-shirts, but most of the available products were generic items you could get at a US fleamarket. Perhaps most disappointing was the lack of selection for hilltribe-related souvenirs. I didn’t have any specific purchases in mind, but if I did buy hilltribe goods, I’d at least like to buy them from actual hilltribe vendors. Perhaps it was just a matter of finding them – this was a big market.
At one point we stumbled upon a row of seedy bars, all on one side of a thin, dark underground hallway. There was practically no light apart from the neon and black lights that were prerequisite, and each joint seemed to have their resident prostitute sitting at the bar trying to entice prospective customers. Business did not seem very good, apart from a couple of backpackers playing Nintendo with one of the hookers. A bar at the far end of the strip was playing Hendrix. Foxy Lady. Susanne and I looked at each other and said, “Saigon. Shit.”, as if the words themselves were flowing out of Martin Sheen’s mouth in Apocalypse Now. Further along, the music switched to the Police and that damn “I’m a Barbie Girl” song. On this particular evening, the Chiang Mai go-go scene just didn’t seem as hip as the night market. We returned to the streets to browse the bazaar, soak in the atmosphere and head back to the hotel for a good night’s rest before a long day trekking in hilltribe country.

November 18, 1997

Chiang Mai Bound

Filed under: Thailand — Andy Carvin @ 10:51 pm

It’s Tuesday morning, less than a week before leaving Thailand for Hong Kong. The last two weeks have been somewhat frantic, moving around every couple of days. So we’ve decided to head to Chiang Mai, the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, and use it as our base for the rest of the week. Maybe we’d take a trek for a day or two, maybe not. As long as we weren’t on the move with our backpacks every 48 hours, I’d be happy.
A little after 9am we checked out of the Golden Triangle Inn and walked to the bus station down the road. I purchased two first class tickets to Chiang Mai, a four-hour trip for about $2.50 each. The only trouble was that the bus didn’t leave until 11am so we returned to the hotel and worked on our journals in the cafe. Eventually we returned to the station and boarded the bus. Air conditioning was a major bonus on this particular trip, since half of the road was under construction and unpaved, causing a billowing cloud of dust and debris wherever the bus went. But air con couldn’t save us from the bumps and bounces. I’d never felt so carsick before that day, but each bump brought me one step closer to puking on the poor monk sitting in front of me. I’d hate to ruin those saffron robes of his. I managed to focus my attention on the people in the bus, allowing my nausea to recede. Susanne, however, looked quite uncomfortable and kept her head tucked down between her knees. I’d have to go shopping for Dramamine in Chiang Mai, I guess.
2:30pm, we pulled into Chiang Mai Arcade Station on the northwest outskirts of town. The moment we disembarked the bus we were propositioned by a horde of touts for a taxi ride. I asked one woman how much to the Galare Guesthouse, a midrange hotel near the Ping River. She said 50 baht, about $1.25. We got into her songthaew, a Nissan pickup, and we were on our way.
Chiang Mai has the reputation of being a big Thai city without all the troubles of Bangkok. Traffic was steady, but not an obstacle to our progress – a significant plus over Bangkok in my book. We drove by several large hotels, a bright yellow superstore of some kind, several Shell and Exxon stations, even a big white church. This was Thailand? I had my doubts. Susanne turned to me at some point and said, “We’re in Fort Lauderdale.” Quite possibly, it seemed. Perhaps Chiang Mai was a darling of westerners because it was the West, plain and simple. We’d soon find out.
The Galare Guesthouse is actually a pleasant hotel with a riverside view, a nice garden, teak bungalows and two resident canines: an English terrier and a large, crazy-eyed boxer that seemed to enjoy nothing more than sleeping in places where guests might accidentally trip over him. Susanne wanted to chill out at the hotel, so I spent an hour walking around, trying to get a feel for the place. First impression: there are no Thais in Chiang Mai. Seventy-five percent of the people I see are westerners. Deadheads in tie-dyes. Snowbirds with Gucci bags and excessive makeup. Partygoers in muscle shirts and bikini tops. My God, Susanne was right – this was Fort Lauderdale! All of the businesses here are either tourist oriented or automotive. Trekking tours. Mechanic’s garage. Money Exchange. Auto Body Repair. Pizza Hut. Muffler Shop. I concluded only two types of people were allowed to enter Chiang Mai: tourists, and people who drive tourists around.
A few blocks from the hotel vendors were setting up stalls for the daily night market, perhaps the largest night market in Thailand. Stall after stall, row after row, I could see fake leather goods, fake watches, fake antiques, fake Nikes. Alarm clocks, socks, statues of naked African women. It must get better than this, I thought. Back at the hotel, I got Susanne and we wandered the neighborhood until sunset. The night market continued to gain strength but it was still early – perhaps getting dinner would kill enough time for things to rev up. Susanne wanted to splurge on a good meal that night, so we ate at Piccolo Roma, an Italian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. To my greatest surprise, it was a wonderfully authentic Italian restaurant experience, from the Pavarotti on the stereo to the chef coming out of the kitchen to take our order personally. We both ordered onion soup; I then had gnocci al pesto while Susanne got a stuffed pasta platter. Fresh, hot, thoroughly delicious.
We sat next to a Norwegian couple: the wife was in Asia on business while her husband, a professor of insect biology, was on sabbatical and traveling along just to enjoy himself. We chatted about our Thailand experiences as well as the ecology of the country and Thailand’s inability to protect it. They were going to Burma the next day, and when we told them of all of the tiger and clouded leopard skins we had seen, the husband went off on the lack of realistic protective measures to stop the extinction of these cats. Sensing he would sympathize, I briefly brought up Norway’s whaling policy, which they both agreed was barbaric and totally unnecessary for such a wealthy western nation. The husband’s specialty was beetles, and he had spent a great deal of time in Costa Rica. We asked if he had seen any good bugs here in Thailand, and he pulled out a live beetle out of his pocket, kept safely in a polished wooden box. Yep, he was a beetle biologist alright.
After dinner, we decided to have a stroll through the night market. There were surprisingly few people out and about, which made sense a few minutes later as rain showers began to pelt down on us. The rains felt good hitting my face – it was easily 90 degrees outside, even after dark, so the cool waters were a pleasant relief. Market vendors scurried around in a humorous panic, pulling their goods under tarps, further into the tents. Most of the market was covered with these large tents, so it was interesting to walk along the inside as rain dripped from roof drains, the sound of the storm pounding away outside.
As the rains came down, Chiang Mai finally transformed from Fort Lauderdale to Thailand for a few hours. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but the sound of the rain, the dampness of the air and the smell of the ozone all served as powerful reminders that were indeed in Southeast Asia. As hard as Chiang Mai tries to seem western to Westerners, the rain exposes it for what it is, a Thai town getting healthy a dousing during the late monsoon. Though the rain lasted only an hour or two, it was my favorite moment in Chiang Mai. The rains slowed activities to a crawl. No more crowds, no more hard bargaining. Just another Asian city in a warm evening shower.

November 17, 1997

Daytrip to Burma; The Chiang Rai Night Market

Filed under: Burma — Andy Carvin @ 10:27 pm

Tiger and snow leopard skins, Thakhilek market

Neither Susanne nor I had a good night’s sleep, so we decided that the first thing we’d do after breakfast was find a better place to stay. The garden setting at the Mae Hong Song Guesthouse was certainly quaint and the staff very friendly, but all of that was pretty meaningless when you wake up with bruises on your side from sleeping on a rock-hard bed. We did, though, want to visit the guesthouse’s trekking office to hear about any two-day treks they offered. The resident guide told us about an exciting, yet grueling trek that would include about four village stops. We’d think about it. The trek sounded like fun, but we recognized we were nearing the end of the trip and probably needed some rest. Susanne hadn’t slept well in days, so this two-day trek might be more than she bargained for. I suggested we check into a better hotel, take a day trip to Burma, and then head to Chiang Mai the next morning. This would give us several days to reevaluate our ability to handle a trek.
A tuk-tuk brought us a kilometer down the road to the Golden Triangle Inn. The Inn had received high praise in some of the travel guides and it seemed like a lovely place, with lush gardens and blocks of teak bungalows. And at 600 baht ($15) a night, including breakfast, it was a really great deal, assuming we could find a vacancy at the place. The front desk told me they had one double available as long as we didn’t plan to stay more than three nights. That wouldn’t be a problem for us, so we settled into the room and cleaned off the grime from the guesthouse, the bus, a ferry, a sampan, two speedboats, two samlors, a jumbo and a couple of tuk-tuks that we had taken in the last 24 hours. Feeling refreshed and groomed, we headed down to the city bus terminal to spend the afternoon in Burma.
Burma, now referred to as Myanmar by its isolationist military regime, shares a long, sealed border with Thailand, save a handful of crossing points that allow visitors to take daytrips. One such crossing point was at Mae Sai, the northernmost town in Thailand. Mae Sae sits in the heart of the so-called Golden Triangle, the region containing the point on the map where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. Mae Sae sells itself as a frontier outpost town where Burmese traders ship legal and illegal goods from China to the south while Thai traders do the same with Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian goods going north.
But gone are the days when the Golden Triangle was the legendary epicenter of regional insurgency and violence. Over the decades you could find a variety of rebel armies calling this area home: the Burmese Communist Party; the Shan United Revolutionary Army, the Shan State Army and the Shan State National Army, all associated with the infamous opium warlord Khun Sa; the Kuomintang (KMT), its aging units living in exile following the failed nationalist struggle in China; the Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party and Karen hilltribe separatists fighting for independence from Burma; the Thai Serai (Free Thai), the anti-Japanese resistance movement left over from World War II; the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand, one of the few Indochinese communist insurgencies not to make any headway in this part of the world; and the Hmong Resistance, General Vang Pao’s reknown anti-communist, CIA-supported counterinsurgence force that was defeated (though not eliminated) by the communist Pathet Lao in the 1970s.
At one time or another, most if not all of these forces exploited revenues raised from the Golden Triangle’s prosperous opium and heroin ventures. Many also received support from the CIA, Vietnam, or the Myanmar military, sometimes even playing one covert supporter off the other just to get more cash. The Triangle’s most notorious rebel is undoubtedly Khun Sa, the Shan/Chinese opium smuggler and guerrilla leader who spent the better part of the last 40 years making enormous sums of money off processing opium into heroin. Khun Sa occasionally received support from the Burmese military and the CIA when the opportunity presented itself. Today Khun Sa is in semi-retirement on an island off the cost of Burma, but the struggle continues: his successor, Sao Sai Nawng, has successfully merged the Shan United Revolutionary Army with the Shan State Army and the Shan State National Army under the new, yet longwinded title “The Shan State National Organization and Shan State Army,” or SSNOSSA. With a reputed strength of nearly 15,000 men, Sao Sai Nawng’s SSNOSSA will undoubtedly be a thorn in the side of the Myanmar regime. Apart from these rebels, the Golden Triangle is decidedly mellower today; the communist movements have either fizzled out or become mainstream political parties, and the Hmong forces now focus their energies on diplomatic resistance instead of guerrilla warfare. Only SSNOSSA and the Karen separatists continue to make noise in the Triangle, mostly within the confines of Burma. Mae Sai, once a Who’s Who of Indochinese intrigue and conspiracy, has now resigned itself to being a seemingly endless duty-free shop.
A bumpy two-hour bus ride brought us to Mae Sai for 20 baht each. From the bus terminal we caught a songthaew in search of the Thai Immigration Office, where we would supposedly leave our passports and get the paperwork to let us into Burma for the afternoon. Riding the crowded pickup truck, we saw a large billboard sign reading “Thai Immigration Office” with a huge arrow pointing right. We stopped the songthaew, paid the driver and went to the office, only to discover that it had moved a kilometer north; they hadn’t the time yet to take down the old sign. Irritated, we waited for another songthaew to take us to the real immigration office – or so we hoped it would be real. Once there, we discovered it was closed for lunch. We crossed the road and sat at an Inter-Suki sukiyaki joint for half an hour, drinking Pepsis and watching a fascinated wait staff wonder why on earth we came there for soda but not sukiyaki.

Myanmar border crossing

At 1pm we entered the immigration office (finally), which sent us across the street again to a copy place to xerox our passports before heading to the border point, one kilometer north. The border immigration officers, it turned out, required neither the xeroxes nor the need to hold onto our passports. We each paid 200 baht and crossed the bridge into Thakhilek, a prosperous Burmese border town. A sign over the bridge welcomed us into the “Union of Myanmar.” Several beggars waited for us in No Man’s Land, standing in the middle of the bridge – how on earth did they get permission to do that? They harassed us as we crossed but soon lost interest in us when they saw we were ignoring them. At the opposite end of the bridge, a greasy Burmese immigration officer stamped our passports, inspecting each page one at a time. His arms were covered in cheap graphite tattoos and he was sweating through his khaki uniform under his arms and along his collar. As we stood there, he stared at us with the grin of a boy who’d been up to no good. Our right to enter this country rested in his hands. Eventually, he looked at us and said in a stilted English, “Thank you – have a nice visit,” before waving us on to the streets of Thakhilek.

Snow leopard skins, Thakhilek market

Beyond the bridge I could see a large Burmese pagoda to our left; upon closer inspection I realized it was actually a duty free shop. Burmese tuk-tuk drivers hounded us for rides, one after another, like camel guides at the pyramids of Giza. There wasn’t much going on in Thakhilek apart from the markets and its many itinerant shoppers, so we spent the early afternoon wandering the maze of stalls just to see what’s hot in a busy Asian border town like this one. Many of the shops specialized in teak goods – mirror frames, masks, Buddha images, drink coasters. Nice wood, but mirror frames weren’t exactly a portable souvenir. Deeper into the market, though, the commodities got distinctly seedier, with illicit goods hanging besides household appliances and flea market junk. In any given shop you could easily find opium scales (smuggler’s desktop scales – not your run-of-the-mill addict’s pocket scales), Mr. Microphones, pornographic videos, wristwatches, decorated monkey skulls, fake leather jackets, men’s underwear, animal skins. Lots of animal skins. In the course of the afternoon we easily saw about a dozen tiger and snow leopard skins. The skins of these increasingly rare cats are contraband in Thailand in the US, but here in Burma they were all available for the right price. The commercialized carnage continued with leopard skulls, tiger heads, canines, claws mounted into ashtrays and cup holders. Even the legitimate shops sold an incredible variety of pulverized animal parts for medicinal purposes, all in bags labeled in Chinese, most of them sporting a cartoon picture of a tiger on the front.

Wandering the Thakhilek market. Note the peacock feathers for sale.

It all felt so immoral, so tragic that endangered animals like the tiger and snow leopard would be killed and sold alongside beauty cream and fake Calvin Klein dress socks, just like any other item for purchase. I know I can’t judge a nation by its border towns – Juarez is not Mexico, Niagara Falls is not Canada. Yet Thakhilek left a terrible taste in my mouth, already soured by stories of the despotic Myanmar military regime. While I had talked with many travelers about their wonderful experiences in Burma and the ever-giving kindness of the Burmese people, Thakhilek was just one of those examples of a country putting its worst foot forward. Someday, I’m sure, I’ll visit Burma and get to see its beautiful pagodas and people, but for now, until this Myanmar business and its backward dictatorship get brushed aside by the struggling democratic opposition, I’ll just have to wait.
Back in Thailand, just across the border, a group of hilltribe girls were posing for tourists in their traditional costumes. While I hate having to pay for photographs, the sun was shining and the light was good, so we figured it might be worth a few baht just in case. The girls crowded around us saying “Group picture – 20 baht!” – not exactly what we had in mind. We offered them 20 baht for several individual pictures instead of the group shot. They accepted, but this development caused arguing over who would get to pose and thus get to keep the money. None of the girls would smile, so at the time it seemed a bit frustrating. (Now that we’ve developed the pictures, though, you can judge for yourself if it was worth it:)

As we waited for a ride back to the bus station, I realized something else that hadn’t occurred to me while we were in Burma: the high number of vendors selling prunes. Pitted prunes. Unpitted prunes. Sunsweet Lemon Essence prunes. Prune juice. Prune jam. Prune extract. And when we jumped into a songthaew we were joined by two Thai men who were both sporting bags of prunes, more prunes and a couple of cans of raisins. Was there some kind of laxative tax in Thailand? Was regularity considered a luxury or a sign of status among the Thai people? I was tempted to ask them straight up: “Why all the prunes, guys? Not feeling very regular this year?,” but I couldn’t think of how to say it with a straight face. I would just have to wonder. But if I had only known that dried plums were such a prize in Thailand I would have brought a second backpack with me for smuggling purposes. Better send a letter to the Sunsweet folks and ask for a finder’s fee.
Back in Chiang Rai we had dinner at a Thai diner – chicken soup, minced chicken and rice. Pretty unextroadinary stuff overall. We saw an elephant outside the restaurant but couldn’t figure out exactly what it was doing. Delivering goods perhaps. We then decided to visit the night market just to check out the local action. As we entered the bazaar I found a great red Gumby tie for two dollars. Susanne wanted to buy an embroidered elephant baseball cap for herself and her sister. The initial asking price was 100 baht each, but we managed to bargain down to 40 baht. They probably cost only a dime to make, but a buck for a baseball cap was decent in my book.
There were several older women in Akha tribal costumes, black caps covered in silver coins on threads with a large flat plate of silver over the back of the head. One of the Akha sold opium paraphernalia – pipes, scales, etc. I noticed she had some dried poppy flowers as well, so I decided to inspect them. For dead flowers they were very pretty but I didn’t think I wanted to deal with the customs hassle, to say the least. She also sold small T-shaped scalpels. I picked one up and asked in Thai, “For opium?” The old Akha picked it up and moved the metal in a scraping motion, nodding her head in affirmation. This was the tool used to nick the poppy bud, causing the opium resin to flow out and harden for collection. Next to the scalpel were several nondescript leather boxes. “Nee arai?” I asked – “What is this?” She opened it and showed me a smaller box inside. Oh, I thought, a dull version of Russian matryoshka dolls, boxes within boxes. I put the box down, but she quickly handed it back to me and motioned for me to open the rest of it. Inside, I found yet another box, but inside this one there was a dark, gummy substance wrapped in foil. Uh oh. The Akha had a large smile on her face. “Fin, chai mai?” I asked. Was this really opium? “Chai,” she nodded, “fin dee mahk mahk.” Very good opium, apparently. I didn’t know how to say the Thai equivalent of “No thanks, lady,” (Mai khop, khun Akha, perhaps?), so I shook my head and smiled, politely placing the box on her carpet. “Mai pen rai,” she said, laughing. “It doesn’t matter.” Interesting how the local drug dealers were so grandmotherly, I thought.
But my image of playful elderly opium hawkers was shattered within 30 seconds when a thin, shady looking fellow grabbed me hard by the arm and shoved another handful of foil in my face. “You want? Yes? I know you want.” “No,” I responded, “Go away. Pai!” He gave me the evil eye and walked away, staring at me as he backed into the shadows and vanished in the crowd.
I rejoined Susanne and we walked through the back of the market where numerous artisans displayed carvings, paintings and handicrafts. An old couple from the Yao tribe sat next to a pile of woven blankets. Susanne found a large yellow blanket with an elephant pattern on it. “How much?” I asked. “See loi baht,” the Yao woman said. 400 baht, about 10 dollars. Even if this blanket had been machine made, which I somewhat suspected, it was worth ten bucks, and Susanne clearly liked it. But just to test my bargaining skills I offered 200: “Phaeng pai, khap. Song loi baht.” The couple laughed. 200 baht was a joke and they knew it. “Very good, very good,” the woman said. “Yao made. Saam loi baht.” So now we were down to 300 baht. I tried for 250 but got nowhere as her husband chimed in, “Yao made. Help Yao. Very good.” At 300 baht, it was only eight dollars. Susanne gave me a look that said “Stop messing with these people. They need the money.” “OK, no problem,” I said. “Saam loi baht – OK.” Susanne had her blanket. Now we could go to sleep.

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…

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