A Travellerspoint blog

Phonsavon continued

around town

The few photos to follow will give only a taste of my experience of Phonsavon, but I hope it gives an idea of why I would want to have stopped there even without the special events that were going on. Children were everywhere, so there are shots of them below, at the carnival and going about their routine business. There are street shots too, not in themselves interesting as photographs perhaps, but which give an idea of what the main street (Route 7) looked like. There's a bank sign and a banner announcing the 36th Lao National Day, something on the lines of the 4th of July here or Bastille Day in France -- a big deal. Comments will follow below each picture.

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Leaving the Hmong festival. The traditional garb juxtaposed with the motor bike was amusing, I thought.

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Getting a haircut. I got a good haircut very inexpensively and managed to amuse some of the regulars. If you are in town, you don't have to go to the more nicely appointed shop (in a real building) to get a good clip. Notice the homemade chair, which turned too!

Here are some kids, having fun , just hanging out or walking:

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Friends leaving the carnival

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Girls jumping rope. I remember when all it took here was a stick or piece of rope to keep a child entertained. No more.

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These little guys were walking on the side of the main road when a woman yelled at them, presumably to get out of the street, as they moved onto the sidewalk until they were out of her sight. The older one took good care of the little guy, but staying on the sidewalk was not part of the deal.

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Having a blast on bumper cars

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Who knew jumping around could be such fun!

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Hanging out. Anglo-Saxon formalities requiring three feet between any two males are obviously not in play. Physical affection between friends was ordinary.

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Cotton candy the old-fashioned way

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A quintessential Phonsavon shot. Constructions is everywhere.

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Typical scene on the main street, Route 7. Charlie bought an extra bag at the luggage shop shown.

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I just liked the shot; we didn't go to Nam Kan, but it's only 136Km if you're headed in that direction.

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Harbingers of the 36th Lao National Day. Later in Vientiane a man told Charlie he should know what the day meant, that it was "the day the Lao got back their country." All in all, it's best to let citizens of the country in question decide such things.

Posted by aethelraed 17:16 Comments (1)

Phonsavon

The Hmong Festival

Now that I'm home and have time to play with the thousands of photos I took while traveling, I will finish up my posts in a more leisurely way than during my sojourn in Asia. Eventually I would like to re-upload photographs, now that I have the opportunity to edit them on a calibrated monitor, and to add photos to previous posts. All in good time.

The additional time to dedicate to my travelogue has come at an opportune moment. Phonsavon demands a long and considered treatment, and even though we were there only a few days, my reaction to it is complicated. I liked it from my first drive up its rather ugly main street to our hotel, the Anoulak Lodge (which is not ugly at all and which provided a clean, comfortable stay, with a couple of young people at the front desk who were more than helpful). The town is -- in its way -- a happening kind of place. It is not that you will find a sulfurous night life, disco-a-go-go, or burgeoning opportunities for self indulgent sinning, but you will see buildings going up everywhere and almost as much construction on those already built. There is a lot going on, even if as an uninformed first-time visitor I was hard pressed most of the time to know where it is all headed.

It is just busy. I won't insult the place by speaking of its "gritty" realities, but the city does insinuate itself into your consciousness with a kind of quiet, unsentimental optimism in the face of obvious economic challenges. I do not believe that my overall sense of the place was unduly influenced by the fact that there was a carnival going on quite close to our hotel, and a Hmong Festival on the outskirts of town. The latter was apparently at one time a venue for young woman to dress up and present themselves as possible brides. How much match-making actually goes on these days is open to question, but I would guess less and less. One of the few young men I saw dolled up in traditional finery, who approached our group with a similarly attired friend, broke our conversation short because his girlfriend had summoned him by cell phone. The times they are a changin' I imagine. And the National Holiday arrived the day that we left for Vientiane.

I will begin my Phonsavon posts with photos of the Hmong Festival. It was our first stop after breakfast on our first full day in the city, and its good natured display of tradition among the obvious complexities of modernization set the tone for me for much of my subsequent stay. The last post on Phonsavon will be about Mulberries, a silk producing establishment shown to us by a very sweet man who obviously takes much pride in the work being done there. In between, though, the sad history of war and its legacy of unexploded ordnance, with its continuing destruction of life and limb, will have to be dealt with: We will take a trip to the Plain of Jars, where megalithic stone jars share a vast plain with thousands upon thousands of dangerous munitions from 40 years ago. Only three sites out of almost twenty have been cleared i for the public visits, and those are clearly pock-marked with bomb craters.

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Group of young women entering the festival

Three young women on way into festival

Three young women on way into festival

Father and Daughter

Father and Daughter

Mother and Daughter

Mother and Daughter

large_PB294763.jpglarge_PB294770_copy.jpgYoung girls posing

Young girls posing

Little Hmong boy at festival

Little Hmong boy at festival

Charlie and Mike posing with Hmong girls

Charlie and Mike posing with Hmong girls

Posted by aethelraed 19:31 Comments (1)

Mae Hong Son

peace in the valley

Before putting up the first Luang Prabang post, I neglected to mention Mae Hong Son, a sweet little town nestled in the Mai Pai valley, across the mountains from the nearby Burmese border, with a predominantly Shan and Karen population, and our first refuge after the hustle and bustle of the big city. The delightful Jong Kham lake, fronting the wat of the same name, helps this pearl of a place glitter as it should, and during the few days we spent in the town, I found the night time reflections of the illuminated wats Jong kham and Jong Klang unfailing delightful.

There are a lot of tourists in the place, many, though, coming in briefly to arrange a trek through the rugged local territory; you will see many hearty back packers around fueling this mainstay of the local economy. The humorous sign, below, pointed out to me by my traveling companion, Charlie, advertises a trek for those wanting a true, out-of-town, even beyond civilization experience. We opted for the luxuries of the quite prosperous village, staying in the commendable Baiyoke Chalet and choosing to explore the town itself, and the nearby mountaintop Wat Phra Tat. Prosperity, here as everywhere, hides a dark underbelly; much of Mae Hong Son's economic boom, according to Lonely Planet, comes from providing "rice and consumer goods" to drug lords on the Burmese side of the border.

No sign of scary drug activity mars the city itself, however. It is clean, quiet, and welcoming, with good restaurants and no discernible negatives. The young might find it boring after a day or two, but I found myself thinking I could very comfortably spend a quiet week here even without taking much advantage of the offerings in the surrounding countryside. Like I said, sweet.

Karen woman at night market

Karen woman at night market

Wat Chong Kam at night.

Wat Chong Kam at night.

A woman selling her wares in the night market

A woman selling her wares in the night market

[desktop_PB213812_7x7.jpgBuddha of Wat Chong Kam

Buddha of Wat Chong Kam

The Stupa at Wat Phra That

The Stupa at Wat Phra That

View of Mai Pai valley from a pagoda at Wat Phra That

View of Mai Pai valley from a pagoda at Wat Phra That

A night shot of a building that caught my fancy

A night shot of a building that caught my fancy

Night reflections in Jong Kham lake

Night reflections in Jong Kham lake

Temple at Wat Chong Kam

Temple at Wat Chong Kam

Working Mae Hong Son

Working Mae Hong Son

Jong Kham lake

Jong Kham lake

Advertising for a good and awful trek

Advertising for a good and awful trek

Posted by aethelraed 10:19 Comments (0)

Thoughts on Thailand and Laos

reflections on civility

I am back in Albuquerque now, jet-lagged and tired, but happy to be home -- happy also to have missed so much of the pre-Christmas hoopla and the virulent displays of the worst in commercial advertising. I’ve every intention of finishing up the posts on the blog to include stops subsequent to Luang Prabang, but it is a good time to pause and reflect on recent adventures.

First off, Laos captured my heart. I realize that a tourist without a lot of knowledge of a place is apt to romanticize or overlook the hardships and daily challenges of life elsewhere, and to arrive at skewed notions of a newly experienced culture. The weird and off-putting conclusions of many anthropologists ought to warn us that, despite all good intentions, and even with what passes in the social sciences for objective criteria, we have at least an even chance of being flat out wrong. So I do not advance what follows as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, a standard, in any event, of which we always fall short, perhaps especially in courts of law, though a standard to be striven for.

That said, the Lao people seem to me genuinely friendly, and they are certainly more ready to smile than anyone else I know. Perhaps it is no more than traditional good manners that will disappear with more frequent contact with visitors (and the aggravations and challenges they must pose), but if so, then the very least one can say is that the Lao are generally very well mannered. All I can offer are personal impressions, but I can safely sing to the old tune that “I left my heart some place in Laos”. There is something endearing about the place and the people with which it is all too easy to fall in love.

The Thai I met were unfailingly courteous and hospitable, friendly too, but with a palpable formal restraint that can be quite lovely and, indeed, reassuring, in which etiquette plays an obvious though not oppressive part. Dealings with the Thai people I met were uniformly pleasurable, with special kudos to two young men who work for the Novotel hotel in Bangkok, who went beyond the call of duty to help retrieve the camera bag and its contents that Charlie had left on the courtesy shuttle to Suvarnabhumi the morning of our departure to Sukhothai.

Unlike at Los Angeles LAX, the people who work at Suvarnabhumi were ready to go beyond the bare minimum of walking through their job description and to actually make an effort to help. To anyone used to the gruff self-centeredness of most personnel at American airports, it was a gratifying display of what being aware of living in a world of other people -- all with their bundles of needs and fears and unexpected mid-journey crises -- can achieve. American’s rough individualism far too often turns into a breathtaking, sociopathic narcissism, making disinterested social interactions among strangers difficult. Without good manners and real mutual concern, the law of the jungle overtakes us, or we manage to maintain a semblance of civilized life by letting policing agents decide the least common denominator of mutual civility. It’s not enough. On the other hand, it is not too much to suggest that democracy itself is threatened when simple courtesy is seen as a bourgeois luxury.

Posted by aethelraed 07:32 Comments (1)

Luang Prabang - part 1

Luang Prabang is the Buddhist spiritual heart of Laos; it is also, apparently, at or near the center of the tourist industry in the country. In several blocks of the peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers those of European ancestry outnumber Asians of any country, not just Lao locals. Young Buddhist novices are everywhere, as are, in even greater numbers, people speaking English, French, and German. You can get Belgian beer here, as well as Belgian chocolate, an exquisite croissant or a fine baquette. And excellent coffee. The famous “Beaujolais Nouveau”, widely advertised here, was quickly available after its third week in November release in France. One only hopes that the Buddhist traditions that underlie the historical importance of Luang Prabang will not be overwhelmed by traveling vulgarians deaf to the spiritual rhythms that still pulse at the core of this very beautiful city.

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Reclining Buddha of Haw Tai Pha Soi-nyaat at Wat Xieng Thong. This statue is said to date from the 16th century, and its sinewy repose is very beautifully wrought.

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The view from breakfast on the Nam Khan our first morning in Luang Prabang. We later started eating continental type breakfasts at a French café with wonderful baguettes and croissant.

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Little girl, from one of the ethnic minority groups, I believe, from whom I bought several pieces of silk at the night market. She was quite good at selling, without being overtly aggressive, pulling out piece after piece of cloth until something caught my fancy, confident she would have something I liked. She maintained a winning smile until I trained the camera on her (after her consent), when she quickly composed her features into the serious pose shown above.

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Wat Phahouak, an unrestored wat across from the Luang Prabang Museum, at the bottom of Phou Si. It was one of my favorite sites in the city, still ungroomed for tourist consumption, with an intriguing and lovely, if faded, mural on the wall, and the Buddha pictured above that for my friend Charlie evinced an especially deep and convincing serenity.

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A group of young Buddhist novices. Such groups were ubiquitous in the city, although we met these fellows on our way to a village on the other side of the Nam Kahn. They stopped us to ask us our names, were amused when Charlie told him his, posed for pictures, and teased each other. I suspect their status as novices – as for many of the hordes of such youngsters one finds in Luang Prabang – is more akin to being a parochial school boy than to being a monk. Although well behaved, polite, and friendly in that endearingly Lao way, their behavior toward each other is often more teenage boy than monk-to-be.

Posted by aethelraed 02:50 Comments (1)

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