Monday, February 12, 2007

Sabaidee - Listening to the Rice Grow

After our respite in South Africa, Edith & Rick head off for Laos via Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Carol is staying in South Africa to spend quality time with Bailey. This leg of the trip turned out to be the only problem on the Round the World Frequent Flyer ticket program. Get this - since we originally made reservations to go to Hanoi, the only way to change these reservations was to go to Hanoi via Bangkok and then make new reservations back to Bangkok. Delta said there were no remaining frequent flyer tickets from Amsterdam to Bangkok and we had to keep the reservations we had. It turns out it would take us about 48 hours to go from Cape Town to Bangkok. Ridiculous, huh???!! The airline said we could not get off the plane on our first stop in Bangkok. If we did, all remaining reservations on the rest of the trip would be cancelled!?!?!?! Not a good thing for sure!!

That being the case, we decide sitting on airplanes for two days would not be well spent days so we got another frequent flier ticket through Singapore Airlines (outside of our Round the World ticket) which took us from Cape Town to Singapore to Bangkok in a total of about 16 hours. Go figure?!?! Of course, flying Singapore Airlines is pure torture since many people consider Singapore Airlines to be one of the best airlines in the world.

We spend one day in Bangkok before heading to Chiang Rai. We fly into the new Bangkok Airport which has only been open for one month. It is quite nice and during our various layovers, we find the shopping and restaurants to be fantastic. We stay at the Peninsula Hotel - our first time! Last time in Bangkok, we stayed at the Oriental Hotel. The two hotels are about the same quality, though we do find the service much better at the Peninsula. The only slight downside is that it is on the wrong side of the river for all the action, but the hotel provides a nice water shuttle. The pool is very nice with cozy cabanas (left pic), lots of exotic drinks and a great view of the river. We have a very romantic dinner in their outdoors Thai Thipara restaurant as shown on the right.

Now along the way, we have sent home many of our purchases, extra clothes and things we find that we don't need. We each only have one small roller board for carry-on and one small bag for our toiletries and medicine since we are not sure other countries have the same liquid restriction in the cabin as the U.S. It turns out for our entire trip, only the U.S. has liquid restrictions. Since we're going to be on a boat in Laos, we take only one roller board and one small bag for the two of us - it is amazing how little you really need to travel. We leave our other suitcases at the Peninsula to pickup on our way to Myanmar. This works out nicely both in terms of less luggage and less clothes - boy, do we hate those clothes now!

The next day we're met in Chiang Rai by our guide for a short tour of Chiang Rai. We visit Wat Phra Kaeo which is where the Emerald Buddha was first discovered in the year 1434, when a bolt of lightning struck a pagoda, revealing a small and seemingly insignificant stucco Buddha image. After many years, the plaster began to crumble away, revealing a beautiful green jade image beneath. When the King of Chiang Mai heard of the discovery, he sent an army of elephants to take the image. The elephant carrying the treasure refused to take the route back to Chiang Mai, instead heading south towards Lampang. The Emerald Buddha is now in Bangkok where thousands of Buddhists pay their respects to the fabled image since several miracles have been associated with the good fortune Buddha.

We take a longtail boat ride down the Kok River where there are restaurants with individual hut like rooms on the banks of the river where people eat, fish (if you catch something - the restaurant cleans and cooks it) and also sleep. We're told that many couples come and stay overnight or people have big parties in these huts that last for days. Interesting concept since everything is visible from the river. No hanky panky here!

Before going to our hotel, we visit a small market. What is interesting are the number of insects for sale as food. We see four kinds of insect dishes, all northern delicacies: rot duan, a bamboo caterpillar; meng muan, a woodborer; mang dah, giant water bugs (looks a lot like big Palmetto bugs) and ging gong, a type of cricket. The Thai also eat silk worms and fried scorpions, a delicacy we tried on an earlier trip to China. Having missed the photo shot of the giant water bugs, I run back to take a picture, only to find that they have sold all of this well liked delicacy.

We spend the night about 1.5 hours outside of Chiang Rai, in a small town right on the Golden Triangle. This is where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand all meet via the confluence of the Mekong and the Sop Ruak River. It is also called the Golden Triangle because this area was the major opium growing region for SE Asia. Of course, the Wild, Wild, EAST no longer exists, though many say this is still 'gold' in them thar hills.

After a very quiet night and a great hour-long foot massage, we take off to catch our boat to Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos. Upon arriving at the 'dock', after clearing customs, we find that we have to take a small long tail boat over the other side of the Mekong river before boarding the big boat which is going to take us down the river. Thank goodness, we have little luggage as the small long tail is shared by the locals! After exchanging some money (10,000 kip to $1) and getting our visas for Laos in a little shack on the river, we join about 20 people for the overnight trip down the river.

The boat trip is uneventful and peaceful. The river is relatively untouched with lots of jungle and a few hill tribe villages. There are a number of house boats on the river where people live. As for Rick's re-entry from the Vietnam War, this is one of the toughest for him as there is little change and many reminders. During the war, he actually traveled the Mekong many times.

We stop at one village which has just been discovered in recent years. The village is Gon Dturn where the Yao tribe lives and the women specialize in weaving. They grow and spin their own cotton which must be grown in the hills about a mile up from the river and their homes to avoid the moist climate. The weavings are quite beautiful, an array of wonderous color. The housing is interesting - built on stilts with walls of woven bamboo. Some walls were simply a flat piece of woven bamboo standing on end in a circle - quite simple, but beautiful.

For the evening, we are staying at Luang Say Lodge, a lodge run by the boating company. Since the river is so low, it is quite a trek up to the lodge. Luckily we have porters to take our bags up. The individual cabins are quite nice and arranged so that everyone has a great view of the river. The only negative thing is that our room does not have hot water and it is actually quite cool at night. Much to Rick's dismay, we end up trudging in our bathrobes to another room for the shower, but at least it's hot.

After breakfast the next morning, we strike out on the boat again, stopping at another village. Here we're amazed that in the middle of nowhere, they're selling goods from China. The Chinese can reach anywhere!! Edith is so glad that she bought some weaving the day before as it seems there are no authentic local weavings at this village. We do see how they make rice whiskey and several people buy a bottle to enjoy. The only buildings with color in both villages were the Buddhist temple and the monks' quarters. On the door of one of the buildings the following was written - Welcome to Room In Love. Wonder what that is?!

Later in the morning we see working elephants on the river moving and helping with the logging at a saw mill. This is one of the only countries in the world where they still use elephants to work.

We meet interesting people on the boat. One couple, Pascal and Yolanda Kiener live in Spain, but are from Switzerland. They retired to Spain and really like to travel a lot. Kathy and Terry Gamble are from Ottawa and are on their way to visit their son living in SE Asia. Rick and Francis are a young couple from Switzerland and have been touring SE Asia non-stop since Nov '05. Their blog is Roger and Jane Elliott are a father and daughter team from Great Britain. Jane is a retired foreign diplomat who was in Hong Kong during the turnover and her father, Roger, is a physics professor at Oxford who had been at Berkeley during the atomic bomb heyday and had worked at a number of nuclear plants in the Western world. In fact, Roger once worked in the same town in Ottawa where Kathy and Terry live. What a small world!

Near the end of our boat ride, we stop at the Pak Ou Caves - caves containing thousands of Buddha. The caves were originally dedicated to the spirits of the river and were converted into Buddhist temples in the 15th century. On the Laos New Year, the king of Luang Prabang would visit and perform the washing ceremony where the Buddhas were washed in a highly decorated vessel in the shape of a water dragon (naga). The last king of Luang Prabang was deposed in 1975 after the communist revolution. We climb many many steps to see both caves and on the way down, Kathy hurts her knee. What a bad break when you're on vacation!

Luang Prabang is one of the jewels of Indochina. Sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan River surrounded by mountains, this ancient royal once-capital city is a wonderful, beautiful fusion of crumbling colonial and traditional Laotian architecture. The people are beautiful, happy and generous, especially the children. Highlights for us include:

  • Night market - the goods are mostly from China, but it's great fun to walk among all the vendors from different parts of the country with their traditional dress, lovely faces and wonderful smiles. Many are hill tribe people - there are a total of over 40 ethnic groups in Laos. Rows and rows of vendors, their displays are quite lovely with all the bright colors of the fabrics and twinkling fairy lights strung about.

  • 5am Alms - the Buddhist priests march in procession for their daily food from the locals in exchange for good karma. Even though we are barely awake,it is a beautiful sight seeing all the orange robes and baskets en mass - a virtual sea of orange as far as the eye can see. Children from the small villages come with their own baskets to get leftovers from the monks to feed their families and village. Many people are on their knees to give offerings. It is not polite to look directly in the eyes of the monks so most heads are bowed. People usually give rice, but our guide recommends we offer ramen soup. The priests are delighted! We only wish that we had more.

  • Ban Xangkhong - a weaving village where you watch the women weave and see all the lovely silk and cotton scarves, shirts and skirts (phaa sin - traditional wrap arounds). Edith is fascinated with supplementary weaving where additional warp or weft threads are introduced apart from the threads already on the loom. This form of weaving is very complicated and time consuming. It takes hours for just inches of supplementary weaving to be made. We try to get further explanation of the process, but alas, no English spoken here. Even our guide cannot translate for us.

  • Learning about and buying old weavings. We bought two pieces - one done by the grandmother and another by the mother of the shopkeeper. The design of each piece is unique and the symbolism has special meaning to the weaver, depending on what is happening in their lives and what they are looking for. Examples of the many symbols are the Naga - water dragons which appear in Lao mythology as powerful rulers over water and a symbol of fertility; the Garuda - a sun-bird and the opposite of Naga. In the Lao dualistic view, everything must have an opposite for stable balance in the world. Also as a heavenly being, it wanders between human and heavenly worlds; the Elephant - a guardian of travellers and a symbol of wisdom, strength and nobility and the imperial crest of the former Lao kingdom; the Rajasiha - a mythic mixture of lion, dragon and bird which protects from natural catastrophes and accidents and is the king of the animals.

  • Just walking the streets, seeing kids playing boce ball; the tuk-tuks carrying passengers to and fro, visiting various shops to see crafts unique to Laos, such as silversmiths, wonderful paper making, basket making, beautiful embroidery, seeing and listening to the monks chant; chilling out with coffee, tea and beer in the many coffeehouses.

  • Going to the amazing waterfalls of Kwang Xi - besides having wonderful cascades of water, there were pools where you can swim. Even though it is about a 1 hour drive, it turns out to be well worth it. The color of the water is one of the most beautiful blues we have ever seen and absolutely impossible to capture on film. Many people also swim in the cold pools formed by the falls.

  • Climbing the 328 steps to the top of Mt. Phousi to watch the sunset and see the rivers and all the sights below.

  • Visiting the temples and other tourist sites. It was interesting to see a Buddhist temple and an animist temple (pictures of the spirits on the right) on the same temple grounds. About 60% of the population is Buddhist and the remainder are animist who believe in earth spirits. The Laoists believe that if you do good, then good things will come to you and if you do evil, then evil will occur. Many people try to gain 'merits' in this life by practicing Buddhism and many of the young males become a monk to gain 'merits' for their families. Upon their desire to marry, they take leave as a monk, but may return when they reach their senior years.
Since Kathy hurt her knee, walking is difficult for her so Terry and she spend much of their days in Luang Prabang in our van to see the sights. We were sad that Kathy's knee was painful, but enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time with them.

So why do we call this posting 'Sabaidee - Listening to the Rice Grow'. Sabaidee is 'hello' in Lao. In colonial times, the French had a saying about Indo-China - 'The Vietnamese plant rice; the Cambodians watch it grow; the Lao listen to it grow.’ The Lao people are very mellow and laid back. As we travel through SE Asia, we find this to be an apt saying.