A new Year and some more adventures.
Well, another new year, and I really cannot believe so much has happened and already 10 years since the Millenium. Where did the time go? I saw the New Year in with a very pleasant young Irish couple called Jacinta and Keith who currently live in Sydney and were whizzing through Lao and Cambodia in a couple of weeks. They were quite jealous of my ability to travel at leisure. I am though, as usual, getting ahead of myself, so where were we? Undoubtedly in Luang Prabang where I appear to have become somewhat stuck, although there are much worse places to be stuck.
I have been doing a number of things predominantly, it appears, involving walking about in the hot sun during the day. I am beginning to understand why the Lao tend to keep out of the sun, it can get really warm here. I am currently writing this in the shade of an umbrella in a restaurant on the banks of the Nam Kham awaiting my Luang Prabang salad, a local delicacy (further report, written later, it was delicious).
I think last post I was ranting about the appalling behaviour of the tourists towards the monks, and I have had my view of the situation confirmed. I was speaking to an Australian lady not an hour ago who has lived in Lao almost continuously since the early 70's. She was telling me that the behaviour had become so bad that the senior monks got together and decided, much as they were reluctant to do so, that the Tak Bat should be stopped. Apparently they were told in no uncertain terms by the Government that they would continue to walk as it was a tourist attraction and they wanted the tourist dollar. I find this almost as reprehensible as the actions of the tourists themselves. Right, I really must get off my high horse now.
After that debacle, I went back to the guesthouse, had a small doze, then got up again ready to face the world. I decided I needed to spread my wings a bit so I decided to hire a motorbike. The standard Honda 100cc was on offer at a place near where I stay. What a heap. 71,000 kilometres on the clock (and Heaven knows how many more not on it), it didn't idle properly which is tricky on a semi-auto and the brakes were soggier than an Irish Ferbruary. That was the pick of the bunch, so it would have to do.
Off I headed along Highway 13 to see the famous caves at Pak Ou. The highway itself was OK, but the last 11 km to Ban Pak Ou (literally village at the mouth of the Ou) were pretty amusing. An unpaved road with some quite steep inclines and declines with sharp bends. All of this is easy enough to handle but what caused the real bother was the other traffic. Jeep and minivan drivers ferrying their loads of tourists driving like complete lunatics and kicking up choking dust. I had to resort to the old bandana over the face trick. I must have looked a bit like Billy the Kid although I suppose the image was somewhat ruined by the baby pink helmet they had given me. The helmet would have been about as useful as a politician in a crisis had I had an accident. The strap did not fasten and, at anything over about 25mph the wind got under it and started to lift it off my head. I had to resort to the expedient of gripping the loose strap in my teeth. What a bloody performance.
Despite everything I made it to Ban Pak Ou in good order and decided I was in need of refreshement so I sat down at a shack run by an old couple and ordered a cup of the excellent local coffee and a bottle of water. It was there that I was treated to one of the most extraordinary demonstrations of ingenuity I have ever seen. Four local guys were constructing a small house, well sleeping shack really. The old man told me they had started that morning and they already had the basic frame together. I made an inventory of the technology on the "site" which runs as follows. Two machetes, one hammer (minus grip), a bucket of nails (some pre-used) and two small shovels. That was it. The structure was being made entirely of bamboo save for the pre-woven and pre-used woven mat flooring. A beam was put up and, if it dod not fit, was taken down and hacked at until it did. The nails were only used for the largest beams with most of the joining being achieved my means of thin strips of what I think was also bamboo which were used to tie beams together. Needless to say, I couldn't resist and had to offer my services. This caused the usual amount of hilarity as I was wielding a machete with the best of them and tied off a couple of beams under supervision. To think that some poor Lao is going to be sleeping in a construction partly put together by yours truly is pretty frightening.
Leaving my Bob the Builder hat off for a while ("Can we build it? Can we Hell!) I went for a walk down to the place where the boats depart for the caves which are on the other side of the river but when I got there there were so many tourists about and I could see swarms of them at the caves who had come by slow boat from LP, I decided not to bother. I suppose I was still feeling a bit anti-tourist. Instead I set out to explore the village, not that it took much exploring but I did spend an amusing time kicking a football with a vouple of youngsters wchich they seemed to find great fun.
After about an hour I went back to where I had parked the bike and I couldn't believe it. The construction gang had got the floor completely finished, the mats cut to size and laid, the roof beams and rafters all ien place. I cannot believe how quickly they did it. Unfortunately, it was knocking off time so I didn't get to see any more of their considerable skills. Back the way I had come and a fairly uneventful trip back to LP for the evening. I am happy enough driving after dark in Thailand but the driving standards and the roads here seem much worse so I didn't fancy it.
Another fairly quiet evening with a delightful duck dish for my evening meal at my usual late night place and off to bed, where I watched quite a disturbing BBC World documentary about a 12 year old heroin addict in Afghanistan. She was a pickpocket and her mother, another addict, a beggar. It was quite distressing in many ways. That really is a country and a region I would love to visit although obviously not any time in the near future.
New Years Eve dawned fine and bright and being still in possession of both my trusty steed and useless helmet, I decided on another little adventure. I am having quite a lot really. There are two waterfalls near LP, one of which I visited last time round and it is indeed very beautiful. However, in my guidebook I had read that on the far bank of the Mekong there was another waterfall called Tad Hoykhua (Tad being waterfall). It suggested it was 14km West of Luang Prabang in Ban Pakleung. No problem, I can do that on my head. I will quote exactly from the guidebook as to the instructions I was given, "cross the Mekong by boat at Tha Heua (boat station) in Luang Prabang to Xiang Men village and then travel the rest by road. What could be simpler?
I took myself to the rather good Tourist Office to ask about directions or maybe a map, and the young man there admitted quite candidly and smilingly that he did not know anything about the other side of the river. I found this a bit odd but determined to go anyway. It appears the river forms a barrier (much like the Thames) and if you live on one side, you don't really bother with the other.
I arrived at the boat station and the well meaning security guy was not going to let me onto the pier thinkng I had taken a wrong turning presumably. I mimed that I wanted to go over with my bike to Xiang Men and he looked at me slightly oddly. I was beginning to get the impression that this is not a trip often undertaken by tourists. Having been thus admitted, it was the work of minutes to get onto the "car ferry" (pictured) and across to the other side. It may as well have been the other side of the moon, never mind the Mekong. After negotiating the almost vertical track from the boat on an underpowered machine I arrived in the village and it was obvious I was right, this is not tourist country. No paved roads, no road signs (in any language) and astounded looks all round. Halfway through the vilage one lady nursing an infant started shouting with glee and encouraging the child to wave at me and say "Saibaidee". I had to stop the bike and do the waving thing, it was heartwarming.
So we have a problem. No map, no signs and no idea where I am going. Ideal, my favourite way to travel. I worked out West easily enough due to the position of the sun (old Boy Scout trick) and immediately proceeded to head East on the principle I had lots of time, I had a bike (of sorts) and I might see something interesting. The further I penetrated into what is effectively traditional rural Lao, the more incredulous did the looks on the other road users faces become. I use the word road advisedly because it was a boneshaking dirt track. I felt so totally alive. It is hugely liberating to be away from any sort of support network, completely self-reliant. If I had had a mechanical failure or even something so prosaic as a puncture, which would not be unlikely on those roads, I would have had to sort it out myself one way or another. I may have said this before on a post but, whilst not in any way on the level of people like Ranulph Fiennes, Eric Newby or even my old mate Mike Asher (look him up on Google), in my own small way it pleased me.
I had sort of hoped to find a village but as the miles went on it was looking unlikely so I turned back knowing I would have to retrace my steps. Back to Xiang Men and off the right way, West. Off the other road out of town, past the police station and then the road forked. What to do. Well, they say "ask a policeman" so I went back there and sat outside as there is no obvious public office or anything. Eventually a cop turned up (at least I think he was, he might have been the cleaner for all I know) appeared and I hailed him. Asked for Tad Hoykhua - blank look. Ban Pakleung - blanker look. Maybe it was my pronounciation, maybe something else but he eventually settled on telling me where Ban Pak was. Thinking this to be a local way of saying Pakleung, I followed the directions, assisted by the fact he mentioned "resort" and I knew there were a few bungalows for rent at the falls.
I went along not a bad road for about two miles and the road forked again. With no-one to ask, I decided on the right fork as I thought the falls were more likely to be towards the hills than the river. Half a mile on and the road stopped. Now I don't mean it became rougher or petered out into a dirt track, I mean it stopped. One minute decent hard dirt track, the next jungle. OK, only half a mile wasted. Back to the fork and took the left turn, which led me to a village. After a few dead ends I met a smiling old man. "Pakleung?", I enquired and he smiled, nodded and pointed confidently along a track. I followed it and it led to, well, the same dead end as before. As I had not seen any other roads going West, I decided the fates were against me and I wasn't going to find my waterfall.
Back into the centre of the vilage to find all the youth of the town gathered and playing petanque / boules (they call it petanque in Lao) in what would pass as the village square. Well, sensing, if nothing else, a good photo opportunity I stopped the bike and wandered amongst them. A quick Beer Lao was secured and I sat down to watch the game. There was much shouting, friendly argument and general good humour about the games that followed.
Obviously I had not fathomed the rules (still haven't really) and eventually the inevitable happened. You must have guessed what is coming next. They thought it would be great fun to watch the farang make a fool of himself and I was dragged into a game of doubles. My partner was a youngish Lao guy and we played two other Lao guys. The women also play (very well) and mixed games are common but this was an all male affair and taken very seriously although with a lot of laughter. I was terrified I would make a complete Fred Karnos of it but to my great surprise I found I have some sort of aptitude for the game. Shall we say I didn't make a complete ass of myself and played a couple of shots quite close to the jack (or whatever it is in French / Lao). It was great fun.
Many more games were played and the system, should you be asked, is this. The losing team buys a big bottle of Beer Lao. Now, this is not merely for the winners but a single glass is available and the beer is distributed in mouthfuls to victors, spectators and apparently any passing stranger! This is the Lao way, eating and drinking are always communal affairs, and they found it most odd that I wanted to drink a whole bottle of beer myself. By the end I felt a little odd doing it.
I mustn't have messed up too badly as I was invited to play several more times and we even won a few games. I got quite into it by the end but a glance at my watch showed that it was four o'clock and the bike was due to be returned by five so back down the road amidst many fond farewells, on the boat and back to LP where the venerable old machine was returned. Wahtever the Buddhist equivalent of the last rites is, I suggest this bike recieves them now because it cannot have long to live.
So, showered and dressed, it is New Years Eve and what to do? Well, I wasn't going to go too mad early on, as the bars were going to be open all night and I fancied a party (this turned out to be wrong, in the event) so I had a small bite to eat and took myself to the Utopia Bar where I met the Irish couple as above. One of the more unusual ways of spending New Years Eve, I would suggest, is playing beach volleyball but that is what was going on. In a bar in a totally landlocked country there is a beach volleyball court and groups of already drunken young tourists were making a frankly pathetic attempt at the game.
I had planned to see the New Year in at the Lao Lao bar but the best laid plans and all that. We toasted in 2010 and they went shortly after, having an early bus to catch. I wandered round to the Lao Lao and had a couple of drinks there but the place was already dying and, despite all advertising and personal assurances to the contrary, the bar was closed at 0300. I went home, very sober, and so to bed.
Up relatively early next day, well early for a New Years Day anyway. A new year and just another day in paradise, literally. A fairly quiet day, had a wander round, visited another couple of wats (there are 34 in total and I have seen about 10!) then back to my favoured Saibaidee restaurant for a snack of spring rolls with chilli dipping sauce, as I wasn't really hungry, and then to the Chillout Bar to avail myself of the Wifi for a couple of hours and post a few very overdue tips on my Virtual Toruist website.
This town suffers big communal hangovers. The Lao Lao bar didn't even bother opening and the rest of the bars were empty. The massive Utopia had four others and myself in it and they were friends of the Canadian manager, a nice bloke actually. I think a lot of the travellers had decided to have New Years Eve here and then head on as the town was noticably quieter and still is today (2nd January). Yet another great meal in the late night place near my guesthouse and off to my comfy bed.
Up again this morning courtesy of my friend the rooster. I swear that bird's life expectancy is diminishing rapidly. So what to do? I was too late for Tak Bat and I would not want to witness that obscenity again ever, so I made action on a plan I had been forming for a day or two. It is easy to make yourself feel good about yourself here, there are a number of charity places where you can donate or volunteer or contribute your old books for sale or whatever, with the results being put back into the local villages especially those of the minority ethnic tribes.
This morning I went to a place called Big Brother Mouse, a strange name I know. Big Brother Mouse specialises in trying to attain literacy in the poorer areas round LP. In fact, I read today in the Vientiane Times that 30% of females aged 6 - 25 have never been to school. When I get a connection I will try to find a weblink for you. They commission books for which they need sponsorship and distribute them in the Province but their shop / office / classroom serves as a drop-in centre every day except Sunday as a learning facility for Lao people wanting to learn English.
I speak about ten words of Lao, have no teaching qualification, well no qualifications at all unless you count my Cycling Proficiency Badge and a couple of swimming awards, but this doesn't matter. Many Lao can now speak English as learned at school from Lao teachers but they want to work on pronunciation etc. Heaven forbid there should now be three young men in Lao speaking with Belfast accents! It really could not be simpler. There are a couple of tables, a few maps on the wall and a few childrens English posters of the A is for apple, O is for owl type, and you just sit down, introduce yourself and talk. God knows I am good enough at that.
I have always respected teachers and now I begin to realise why. I had no classroom plan or whatever they are called, so what to talk about? It really was quite nerve wracking at first, especially given the natural shyness of the Lao. What do you talk about? There is no guidance at all from the staff there so you just wing it. My "group", although it is all very informal, consisted of three (H)mong lads, two about 20 and one only 12 years old. They were all from far flung villages in LP Province and the two elder lads were working in town whilst the youngster was studying at school a few miles out of LP. We had two books, an English / Lao dictionary and a book of kids games that Big Brother Mouse produce. So off we went.
We started with the usual, "What is your name?", "Where are you from?" routine, so I came to Northern Ireland. That had to be shown on the very useful world map on the wall, so it gave me a plan. Northern Ireland - North. All the guys had notebooks which they assiduously wrote things in, so I got out the pen and did the points of the compass, using my guidebook to demonstrate. LP is Northwest of Vientiane etc. That led to compass and sailors / boats etc. and we discussed long tail boats and slow boats on the Mekong. I could not mime or demonstrate sailor so the dictionary came into play. Remember sailor, it becomes a little freaky later on.
Sorry if I am going on a bit, you may want to skip the next paragraphs, but this is etched on my mind and it afforded me so much happiness I am going to write it down for me if no-one else.
So, we had done the compass thing and then I noticed one of the older guys, the quiet one, was wearing an Inter Milan top. I asked if he supported them, trying to start a talk about football which the Lao love, but he told me he had bought it because it was warm! In about 30 degree heat and me sweating like the proverbial pig, I found this odd. However, I then regaled them with the story of the founding of that club in 1908. The kids play book was then brought into play, so I got the young lad to read aloud from it (it is in English and Lao) and it started to get difficult. It has long been the butt of humour that Eastern Asians confuse our L and R sounds, thereby rendering farang as falang etc. They also, like the Germans, have a serious difficulty with the W sound and render it as a V, so a fairly extended session on that, correct pronounciation of walk was the big one.
We were having a great laugh, and one of the games was "write your name in the air with your bottom". I can just imagine the hilarity this must cause in a village. So, bottom led to the concepts of bottom top and sides, which went well. Then I was writing something in one of the guy's books and I noticed on the opposite pages a drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge, a map of San Fransisco etc. and a Chinese female name. Apparently, one of the large Chinese community in that city had come here to do what I was doing. I explained that San Fransisco was Spanish for Saint Francis. "What is a saint?" was the inevitable question. How do you explain the concept of sainthood to someone with only the scantest knowedge of Christianity? Go on, try it yourself. I think I managed. This is where it gets freaky. In the two hours I was there we probably looked up about five words, so we looked up saint, and what was it adjacent to? Sailor, as above. What are the chances?
Somewhere in the middle of all this I thought to explain how odd a language English was. I did this to make them feel better as they were obviously trying so very hard and it was difficult for them. In fact, their thirst for knowledge was a truly humbling experience, not lost on one who basically squandered the opportunity of a very good education. You English speakers have a go at this. I wrote down BOW and explained it meant a thing you tie on your shoe, bending at the waist, something with an arrow and the front of a boat. Confusing enough until I told them BOUGH as in part of a tree was also pronounced the same as bending at the waist. English is my mother tongue and it confuses the life out of me.
Then he hit me with another one. "What is Engand and what is Britain?" Here we go again. I am sure there are British passport holders (or is that anybody now?) who would struggle to differentiate between Britain, Great Britain and the UK. Cue another trip to the map and a discourse on the political makeup of the UK, the passport being used to demonstrate. Which led to more discussion of the perversity of the English language. I was talking about the visa stamp in my passport for PDR Lao. You are undoubteldy ahead of me already, dear reader. Stamp. What is in your passport, what you put on a letter and what you do with your foot. Three entirely different concepts served by the same word.
The older, quiet guy hit me with another couple of questions and I realised how little I actually know about my own language. He asked what did "somebody" mean and he asked me to explain when to use the word a and the word the. Go on, try it. Try to explain that. I know when to use them but damned if I knew how to explain it. I tried my best though.
All too soon the two hour session was over and I have to say I left feeling pretty drained. It is bloody hard work that teaching lark, glad I never took it as a profession. The place is closed tomorrow and I have things to do on Monday as I shall explain but every day I am here I will be down there, it really is so rewarding. The looks on their faces are a joy and there is no expectation of you, you don't need to be a formal teacher, although I might jot down a few topics for next time should the conversation falter. If any of you ever venture this way, I strongly urge you to do this, it costs you nothing except a bit of a taxation on your brain, and mine could do with it, and the results are so, so wonderful. I didn't want to stick a camera in these young mens faces so you will have to take my word for it.
Away from Big Brother Mouse and along the main street to another place I had seen before, the central library, book exchange and just about everything else. The scene here is you buy a book for a mobile library which goes on a slowboat and is distributed amongst the outlying villages about twice a month. If you happen to be in town you can go on the boat but I don't think I will be here. The cost per book is a mere $2 US or about £1:50. Think about it, two books is about one pint in a London pub, it is nothing, and in the 23rd poorest country in the world it means such a lot. I bought some and wandered about town feeling very good about myself.
I often listen to celebrities on TV ranting on about various causes, and it normally makes me very sceptical, which is my normal state of being. It does not take huge donations or Live Aid concerts, all it takes is a small investment of time or a very little money to change things. OK, so I am starting to sound like Mother Teresa now, I'll stop it, but this place really does change your perceptions of things. I read in the Vientiane Times today that the average wage in this country is $400 US annually. That means that my monthly pension equals about four months wages (give or take) for an average Laotian. Think about it. All things are relative. All future correspondence should be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org
I will go and get this posted now, and will keep you updated in due course.