Saturday, November 28, 2009

A tuk tuk brought me back to the ferry landing in the morning, and I crossed to the other side of the Mekong in a long-tail boat. Long-tail boats are long narrow wooden boats with a sunroof, and an exposed car motor that drives a propeller at the end of a long drive shaft, which is lowered into the water and generates a lot of spray. Took a crowded bus to Hat Xai Khun, which is just a cluster of bamboo houses an hour down the Mekong. Another long-tail boat brought me to Muang Khong, an even tinier and even sleepier village on the island of Don Khong.

Don Khong is a member of Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands in the middle of the river. In the rainy season, the Mekong expands to a width of 14 km here. There are not really 4000 islands here, but there are a few hundred. Don Khong is the largest and one of the few that are inhabited.

Muang Khong consists mostly of a single road along the river; the village extends for a few hundred meters. The riverbank is quite steep, and most of the few guesthouses have restaurant terraces on stilts overlooking the river. There is very little to do here other than read and walk. The island gets very rural very quickly outside the village; all houses there (and most in the village) are on stilts and made from wooden planks and bamboo. There are lots of animals. I tried to rent a bicycle but the only one with working brakes had a loose saddle, which promptly broke off when they tried to tighten it.
The regular bus to Pakse in southern Laos would have taken 18 hours, and the VIP bus runs at night only, so I figured I might as well fly. In Pakse I connected to a songthaew (a brightly colored flatbed truck with benches and a roof) to Chamnpasak, which promptly left after waiting for an hour to fill up. At Champasak, we had to cross the Mekong using a ferry (really just a wooden raft bolted onto a pair of canoes), after another hour of waiting. Every thing here moves slowly and it's a welcome change after Vientiane. Met a guy with a chicken on his lap, and a cynical bitter Australian who has been travelling for 30 years.

Champasak is a sleepy one-road village along the Mekong. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants have terraces built on stilts on the bank of the river. People come here to see Wat Phu, a Khmer temple eight km towards the mountains. It's built on three levels connected by steep broken stone steps. The architecture is very similar to Angkor, and it's about as old, but far smaller and in worse shape. Most windows are bricked up, and the walls are crumbling, roofs have fallen, and scaffolds hold up leaning walls and columns. Yet there still is a buddha shrine. It feels like a Tombraider set after the final showdown. Impressive, in a country ravaged by wars where few buildings are older than a hundred years.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wat Si Saket is Vientiane's oldest temple. Arcades along the outer walls of the compound have hundreds of sitting buddha statues, and thousands of little ones in niches in the wall. The walls of the central wat with the buddha shrine are covered with murals, but they are crumbling and chipping, and in some places the bricks are exposed and in others repairs were done rather inexpertly. The temple is very peaceful and in a state of picturesque decay.

More than half of Talat Sao, Vientiane's morning market, is already gone, they are building an eight-story mall in its place. What's left is mostly clothes, electronics, and pirated CDs and DVDs. It appears that if you want to sell an mp3 player these days, you must ape Apple's logos and design, but never mind the quality. Talat Khua Din is Talat Sao's slummy little brother, complete with narrow dirt paths, shredded tarps, corrugated metal roofs, and a covered meat market with buzzing flies.

The National Museum has a few pots and tools, but otherwise mostly photos. If I get the gist of it right, it's about the courageous heroic patriotic comrades of the glorious victorious revolutionary Lao Liberation Army, which won the war against the fascist reactionary aggressive US imperialists and their puppets, traitors, savage murderous henchmen, and mercenaries, and Laos has been a communist paradise ever since. It's especially relentless on US imperialists and puppets. To be fair, the US brought enormous destruction and suffering to Laos - unexploded US bombs kill people even today - and the US did lose that war like every other war they ever started.

I went to numerous other temples, but the one that stood out was Pha That Luang (picture), a huge golden shrine with many spires. It's a symbol of Laos and reproduced on the 2000 kip note. I talked to a smiling young monk holding a parasol and a Lao/English dictionary.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vientiane, Laos' capital, runs along the Mekong river. The height of the river varies, and large sections of Vientiane's riverfront get flooded seasonally. A dam, freshly reinforced with sandbags, protects the city; children play soccer at the shore. The Mekong also divides Laos from Thailand. Late in the afternoon, I watched the sun set over the Thai side of the river.

Vientiane is not as pretty as Luang Prabang and not as peaceful as Vang Vieng, but it's a real live city that hasn't signed over its body and soul to tourism. The pizza parlors are there if you look for them, but the people who live and work here have other concerns and the tourists get lost in the crowds. Vientiane is quiet enough to be pleasant, yet alive and humming like an Asian city and capital should be.

Patuxay, the vitory gate, is said to resemble the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but doesn't, at all. It looks imposing from a distance. But from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete. The preceding sentence is a verbatim quote from a large sign mounted on the gate. Honesty is a virtue... Inside, the gate is packed with souvenir vendors.

Vientiane used to be a French colonial capital, and French language is visible everywhere. And they have good honest Laotian food. I'll stay here a little.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The minibus took six hours to Vang Vieng, a small town at the foot of the northern mountains. The bus was packed but I snagged the front seat. We went over two passes at 1000 and 1400 meters with views above the clouds. The mountain scenery is beautiful - craggy karst peaks all around us, forests, lots of banana trees, and small bamboo villages full of children.

Vang Vieng is an unassuming town with few tourist sights that stretches along the Nam Song river. The big thing here is rafting and tubing on the river. Sadly, an alien invasion force has crash-landed in the center and is building big concrete hotels with no consideration or respect for the old town. All around them, nearly identical restaurants with pseudo-western food are springing up. I rented a nice quiet bungalow at the edge of town, but soon the cancer will spread to the whole town and it will be just like Luang Prabang, except ugly. LP, at least, is pretty.

Several swaying bamboo bridges cross the river to Dom Khang island, which is still green and quiet, with just a few bars and huts overlooking the river and the dramatic mountain background. I had real Lao food for the first time: pizza. It's difficult to ruin a pizza recipe but the restaurant was totally up to the task. At the next table, a group of girls were ordering, quote, a jug of vodka, end quote. At least the menu didn't list happy pizza or happy drinks, where the "happy" indicates marijuana, meth, or cocaine. I wonder whether the monks at the temple here are sometimes treated to happy alms.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Early in the morning, the monks from the temple went through the village chantin g and collecting alms. Returned to Luang Prabang by boat, minibus, and songthaew. The minibus managed to run out of gas 250m before the gas station. This time I didn't bother to reserve a room in Luang Prabang, I just went to a cluster of guesthouses and picked a nice one.

Luang Prabang's National Museum, and former royal residence, is forgettable. It's modern and quite bare and sterile, except for the boxy reception room with red walls with gold trim and mirror mosaics. The royal apartment is almost depressing, by place at home is fancier than that. This king must have come down in the world.
In the morning I was woken by roosters. I was planning to stay only one night in Muang Ngoi, but I decided to enjoy the quiet village life one more day before returning to the cities. Late in thge morning I went with ba few others up the river to Sopjam, a native village that is just a cluster of bamboo houses on wooden stilts. Palm trees and a backdrop of green mountains create a very pleasant atmosphere. They make those narrow Laotian scarves here that are sold in Luang Prabang's night market. Very colorful. The village is full of playing children; families here have four or five children.

We visited a cave, but since the guide brought only a weak flashlight and a little candle, there wasn't much to see. The reral attraction was the narrow path from the river bank through the dense forest up to the mouth of the cave anyway.

We stopped three times to catch fish with a net. The result was one small fish, and a handful of smaller ones. We built a fire on the beach and grilled them. That must have been the freshest fish I ever had, and it tasted great, but it was far too little.
It takes three hours by minibus to the village of Nong Khiaw northeast of Luang Prabang, and another hour in one of the narrow, long Laotian boats up the Nam Ou river, to reach Muang Ngoi. The river is winding its way through densely forested mountains with steep rock faces.

Muang Ngoi is a small peaceful village that consists of a single dirt street lined with small houses built from bamboo and wood, with just a few brick buildings. A long stairway leads up there from the baot landing, where many of the narrow boats are moored. I was staying at the Phetdavanh guest house; it, too, has a wooden frame and bamboo mat walls. There is a nice upstairs terrace with hammocks. It's very quiet in the village - there are almost no phones, no Internet, and my guest house is one of the few houses with electricity. Most others run a generator for a couple of hours in the evening, so the village is very dark.