Thursday, June 30, 2005

Cultural Exchange

I've already mentioned how the French have been influenced by their colonial subjects (see Lao Cuisine), but the traffic has been two-way and it's interesting to see what the locals (both here in Cambodia and in Laos) have adopted from their erstwhile masters. It was inevitable that the French leave a culinary footprint here, but it was not to be in the form of haute cuisine like foie gras, or confit de canard, instead the memory of the French is kept alive by the humble baguette. Baguette and paté is a firm favourite and vendors can be found from Vientiane in the north all the way to the gulf of Thailand.

Although baguettes aren't exactly classy, the colonial era architecture of Phnom Penh and Battambang (colonial buildings are far rarer in Laos as it was a bit of a forgotten backwater) more than compensate. Some of the villas of central Phnom Penh are grandiose. But perhaps the most endearing reminder of the French can be found in Savannakhet, where on weekends and late in the afternoon groups of older men get together in the quiet streets to play pétanque.

Some of the newer cultural influences are not as charming. While I've been traveling in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia there has been a continual irritant that I've never been able to get completely away from: karaoke videos. You just can't get away from them as the locals are completely obsessed by them. If you're unlucky enough to get a bus with a TV then you know you're in for an unpleasant ride. Or just wandering around any residential area in the evening one can see whole families huddled around the TV either watching dire Thai soap operas (Latin American telenovelas look like top-budget productions compared to these) or endless karaoke videos. It's a shame really, as some of the music I've heard round here isn't bad at all, but this stuff is in a league of its own.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Taxi Musical Chairs

Blink and you'll miss me. My time in Laos ended with a couple of relaxing days in Si Phan Don (literally Four Thousand Islands) in the Mekong by the Cambodian border. At Si Phan Don the Mekong is at its widest until it reaches the sea, and resembles a marshy wetland more than a proper river. The area is also home to the rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin, though unfortunately I didn't get to see any as whilst I was on my way to catch a boat to see them I tried to take a shortcut and ended up getting hopelessly lost (though I assure you that I usually have an impeccable sense of direction. Honest.).

In Si Phan Don I met a couple of, not unpretty, German girls, and together we decided to travel all the way to Phnom Penh in a day (there not being much to see along the way). This wasn't perhaps my best idea ever, but we got there in the end, which is what counts. You see, even though there is a road that goes all the way from Laos to Phnom Penh, there are no public bus services so one has to rely on hiring pick-ups or cars through some rather unscrupulous characters. The worst thing is that, as western tourists, we are seen as cash cows and everyone wants a piece of the action. For example, on the 15km drive to the Lao-Cambodian border we had to change pick-ups twice, and each time money changed hands. The second time was along a shoddy dirt road in the middle of an eerie forest. Our pick-up suddenly stopped and a short while later another one hove into view. My all too vivid imagination started into overdrive, inventing ambush and ransom scenarios. Similarly with the shared taxis in Cambodia. We bought (exorbitantly priced) tickets all the way through to Phnom Penh, but our third taxi driver refused to take us any further without an additional payment, paying no notice at all to our cherished tickets. And there we were: newly arrived in the country; not able to speak a word of Khmer; without a guidebook; and stuck in the wrong city where it looked increasingly likely that we would have to spend the night. After more than an hour of hand waving, discussions and gentle cajoling he finally relented and took us to Phnom Penh (though I think the arrival of an extra passenger proved the decisive factor).

All these trials and tribulations lead me to form my first impression of Cambodia and its inhabitants: they'll try and get their cut out of you any which way they can. I sincerely hope I'm wrong though.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Lao Cuisine

In the south of Laos there is an area called the Bolaven plateau, where beautiful waterfalls (somehow it doesn't seem to matter how many I see, I always find them stunning) cascade over sheer cliffs to the plains below. Due to its elevation, the plateau has a mild climate that is perfectly suited for coffee plantations, and allegedly Lao coffee is very good, though since I don't drink the stuff I've got to take other peoples' word on that. This little intro, however, leads me nicely onto today's topic of conversation, and a subject very dear to my heart: food.

Though not tremendously varied, I find Lao cuisine not unappealing. Apart from the standard noodle soup (called foe in Lao, the oe pronounced as in the French word oeuf, making it sound something like feugh) that is found throughout eastern Asia, the main staple of the Lao diet is sticky rice. In my month here I've really grown to love the stuff. Not only does it taste better than ordinary steamed rice, but it is also the perfect travel food as it can be stuck in a bag and handily eaten using one's hands (the grains stick together very well and barely do so to your hands, so you can have no end of fun sculpting it into fun shapes). To accompany their rice the Lao generally find some animal, skewer it on a stick, and grill it. They're not too picky as to what type of animal they eat; so far I've seen (whole) chickens, giblets, frogs, crickets and even a mole (just to show that I'm not kidding, here's a hilarious article from the New Scientist from last month). In actual fact I'm persuaded that the French habit of eating frogs' legs and snails originated here, as neither beastie is an uncommon sight in Lao markets. Another delicacy they have is called laap, which is a salad of minced meat, mint, coriander, chillies and lime (to be eaten with sticky rice, of course) and is very reminiscent of Mexican food. But all this pales in comparison with the national drink: Beer Lao. According to one story (perhaps apocryphal) Germany sent over some beer specialists, to help improve the taste of Beer Lao, as part of their development aid, and apparently the Germans said there wasn't a thing they could do to improve it. Whether that is true or not, the fact remains that Beer Lao is probably (south east) Asia's best beer (and probably cheapest too!).

Monday, June 20, 2005

Follow The Ho Chi Minh Trail

The infamous Ho Chi Minh trail was a supply route used by the North Vietnamese army during both the first and second Indochinese wars and consequently got the bejeesus bombed out of it by the Americans. The Americans had so little success with conventional bombs that they even tried bombing the trail with detergent (to make it too slippery) and crates of Budweiser (to get the Vietnamese drunk?), as well as the standard issue Agent Orange. None of these strategies worked and the trail was a decisive factor in the North Vietnamese victory. The trail, contrary to popular opinion, is actually almost entirely within Laos, running parallel with the Vietnamese border from north to south, and not in Vietnam at all.

As I've already mentioned I do take requests, and a friend of mine asked me to travel the Ho Chi Minh trail. So off I went. Unfortunately the trail remains a series of dirt tracks, and since it's the rainy season they are difficult to travel and public transport along them is non-existent. Still, I managed to get to the trail, where it bisects one of the main roads to Vietnam, and clamber around some war junk (a couple of tanks and an anit-aircraft gun barrel) left over from a disastrous, American backed, South Vietnamese assault on the trail. Apparently, further along the trail, there are even more war relics, but it's quite risky looking for them due to high number of UXOs still present.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

New Career?

On the east bank of the Mekong, Savannakhet was a very important trading post for the French and, as such, retains more colonial buildings than any other town here in Laos. I'll begin to sound like a broken record if I were to say that the town is very relaxed, so once and for all I'll just state that the whole country is laid back, and it seems to me that the further south you go the more recumbent the people get. It's great fun just walking through the town as all the little kids, upon seeing you, start shouting Sabaidee! Sabaidee! (Hello! Hello!) The cheerful shouting carries on even after you've answered sabaidee back and walked round the corner. Furthermore the smiles on the faces of young and old alike are similarly wide and genuine.

I had planned to visit some obscure ethnic group in the far east of the country while I was here, but the national park in which they live is closed for the duration of the rainy season; so instead I settled for a local Lao homestay, and I'm quite glad I did. For a start I didn't feel any of the embarrassment that I felt before when visiting hilltribes because ordinary Lao villagers have TVs and scooters and go to school, and so I don't feel like I'm ogling some museum exhibit, but instead can interact with the community. The highlight for me was when I got down and dirty and helped out the farmers with rice planting in the paddy fields. The sensation as you're wading almost knee deep in warm mud, though at first odd, is very pleasant, but I'm not sure if my contribution was of any material help. Whilst the villagers (again, mostly women) had the planting down to a fine art, the seedlings going up like a reverse domino rally, I was floundering and leaving wonky seedlings in my wake. This was all part of the fun for the villagers because, even though the work is backbreaking, rice planting is a social occasion and every opportunity is taken to have a laugh and lighten the atmosphere.

In the evening, as well as a lovely dinner (I'll have to write a post about Lao food at some point), we were the recipients of a traditional Lao ceremony of good luck. The village elders came round and, with us, formed a circle around a classic cone-shaped charm made of banana leaves and flowers. After a few general requests of good luck from the spirits (despite being Buddhists, there is a great deal of spirit and ancestor worship amongst the Lao) each of the elders, in turn, came up and tied a white band of cotton around our wrists whilst wishing us good luck, long life, many children, etc. I have so many wristbands now that it looks that I've just had an unsuccessful wrist-slashing attempt. After the ceremony there was music and singing; each of us having to add something to the festivities. Therefore the unfortunate elders were subjected to a horribly out of tune rendition of Flower O' Scotland (perhaps the worst performance in history?), which, to my great surprise, they seemed to like (though I'm sure they were just being polite).

All in all it was really good fun and I learnt a great deal of Lao as well. Plus now, if I'm unsure of what to do when I get back home I can always set up shop over here as a cabaret act for the local farmers (I don't think my planting skills are up to scratch for that particular vocation).

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


For a capital city with a population of over 200,000 Vientiane feels small and cozy, nestled into a bend of the Mekong river facing Thailand. The inexorable march of change (and progress?) is obvious to see: many of the smaller roads in the town centre are finally being paved; NGO Landcruisers can be seen plying the streets; and it seems to me that Laos is gearing up for even greater numbers of tourists in the coming years.

The two must-sees here are That Luang, the nation's most revered religious shrine, a 48m high gilded stupa that, when it catches the sun, seems to glow (though when it's overcast it just looks like it's been dipped in custard), and Patuxai, Laos' very own answer to the Arc de Triomphe, which by their own admission is "a monster of concrete". They're OK, but more intriguing for me were the Lao National Museum and the nearby Buddha Park. The museum particularly because it has a good coverage of Lao history with explanations in English, except when it comes to post WWII history where the translations seem to be carefully lacking, especially with regards to the communist party's involvement. Though they do manage to label the photos, often decrying the "imperialist Americans" and their "puppet lackeys". Joking aside, it is also important to see this side of the story since the bombing of Lao civilians by American warplanes, using chemical weapons no less, is not often discussed in history lessons back home. The Buddha Park, on the other hand, is not at all educational, but it is highly entertaining. Built by an eccentric monk, the park is full of concrete statues depicting Buddha in various poses as well as a gaggle of various oligolimbed Hindu deities. There doesn't seem to be any order in the placement of the statues, they're just dotted around higglety-pigglety.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Up A River Without A Paddle

Any country where backpackers travel (pretty much every country in the world) has at least one place where they congregate in greater numbers than anywhere else. In Thailand it is Bangkok's Khao San Road; in Peru it's Cusco; in Mexico it's San Cristobal de Las Casas, and so on. Here in Laos it's Vang Vieng. The town is about 200km north of Vientiane, (actually pronounced Wieng Chan, so blame the French) the capital, amongst the fertile lowland valleys that feed into the Mekong river. There must have been something that attracted the first tourists here, probably the pretty karst formations similar to those found in southern Thailand. Although I was warned about Vang Vieng I never thought it would be as bad as it is. There is no local town at all, all of the shops and businesses cater to the tourist droves, creating a soulless mix of tour agencies, guesthouses, bike rental shops and ridiculously overpriced restaurants. It is the latter that are the worst culprits. Each one is a carbon copy of the one next to it with identical menus (literally) charging the same prices (even having the gall to charge $2 for a sandwich) and all with TVs showing non-stop episodes of Friends. You can sit in one restaurant watching one episode and simultaneously listen to 3 other episodes from the neighbouring establishments. What's worst is that the so-called backpackers (though I use the term loosely) who just sit there like zombies lapping it up, thereby feeding the crazy cycle.

There are several activities on offer here, the most famous being tubing along the Song river in huge, inflated inner tubes from tractor tyres. Tubing has gained such notoriety here that it has almost become obligatory for any Laos trip. Personally I don't understand the hype as, even though we are in the rainy season, the river is too sedate to get the adrenaline flowing. I suppose it's quite relaxing, what with the occasional riverside bar and accompanying shouts from the proprietors of "beer lao! beer lao!", plus the nicely unfolding scenery. But still, I'll be happy to get out of this place and on to Vientiane.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Jar Jar Bombs

The Nasca Lines and Macchu Picchu might be known the world over as archaeological mysteries, but Laos has its very own, albeit slightly less well known, mystery: the Plain of Jars. Located in the northeast of the country, where the sharp mountains give way to rolling, grass-covered hills and pine trees (actually I'm not sure they were pine trees, but they were conifers of some description at least) are collections of huge, stone jars. The jars vary in size from about 50cm to over 3m in height and are either carved out of single blocks of stone or moulded from sandstone and pebbles, and are clustered in groups ranging from just a handful to over a hundred. They are as ancient as they are imposing, dating back over 2000 years. Though nobody is certain as to the exact meaning and significance of the jars the most widely accepted theory amongst archaeologists is that they were used for funerary rites (although the locals disagree, claiming that they were constructed under the orders of a king after a victorious battle to hold the whiskey for the after-slaughter booze-up). Whatever the reason for their construction they are definitely an intriguing sight.

Perhaps one of the reasons why so little is known about the jars is because there hasn't been much excavation done around them. There is a good reason for this though, as the area around Phonsavan (the closest town of any size to them) was bombed to kingdom come by the Americans during the Second Indochina War (which most of us know as the Vietnam war). Between 1968 and 1969 this part of Laos was more heavily bombed than anywhere in Vietnam during the whole duration of the war (the scars of which are still apparent in the surrounding countryside where bomb craters pockmark the hillsides). This means that the region has the highest concentration of UXOs in the country; no mean feat for what is probably the most bombed country in the world (I'll come back to the war in a bit). Therefore before any excavation (or farming, or building, or anything else for that matter) can be done the area needs to be demined first; a laborious and time-consuming exercise. The evidence of UXOs is all around for you to see, with assorted war junk being used for building materials (rocket-cone flowerpots seem to be particularly popular). That also made it the first place that I have visited so far where I felt no urge to "walk off the beaten path".

Everyone knows about the Vietnam war, especially from the countless Hollywood movies that have sieved through the topic from every angle. Very few people, however, are even aware of how much the war affected Laos (for those that actually have some idea of where Laos actually is). The war in Laos is often referred to as the Secret War as it was always denied by the US government and most operations were run by the CIA rather than the armed forces (for example the Americans used unmarked planes and pilots in civilian clothing to drop bombs on the Lao, not that that made the bombs any less deadly for the people they hit). Laos also ended up as a dumping ground for unused bombs by American bombers: if, on returning to their bases from bombing raids in Vietnam, the bombers had any bombs left they would just find a handy Lao town and "offload" their cargo onto them. Such tactics completely erased several Lao towns completely from the map. To this day people are still dying and getting injured from the effects of the war when they happen to set off old,decaying UXOs (of these a large proportion are children who like to play with the yellow bomblets left over from cluster bombs).

P.S. After trying unsuccessfully to make a map with my trip-so-far on it I've placed a permanent link to multimap so you can look up where I am (although if anyone out there knows how to make such a map I'd be more than thankful for your help).

Monday, June 06, 2005

Living With The Lotus Eaters

Luang Prabang is the old royal capital of Laos, even during the years of colonialism when the French allowed Laos to maintain the monarchy (although the royal family was finally done away with when the communists took over in 1975). However it has remained a sleepy little town with little development, which allowed it to gain world heritage status from UNESCO. In fact the place feels more like a rural village, albeit with paved roads, than a proper town: children play football in the streets; it's not uncommon to spot the odd chicken wandering about; you can hear the chanting of monks late in the afternoon; and when you climb the hill in the middle of the town you can hardly see any buildings as they're all hidden under a treetop canopy. It's also heartwarming to see visible signs of improvements in buildings and the local infrastructure due to its world heritage status, which just goes to show that the UN isn't without its uses. All in all it's a very relaxed place to stay for a few days to take a break from the buses (see previous post), and just to watch the world drift by (it's here that you realise that you realise why the French colonialists that were sent to Laos ended up being known as the Lotus Eaters).

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Granny Dealers

If you want to visit a country where you can get around easily, hassle-free and in comfort then forget Laos and go to Argentina instead. My first bus journey here was a real baptism of fire. It's less than 200km from Huay Xai, on the border, to Luang Nam Tha, so when I read that the journey should take 9 hours I thought someone was pulling my leg; and indeed they were as the trip took 12 hours instead! Of course the road is unsealed and windy, but I knew the trip would be special when we first broke down. The driver rummaged around in the engine; pulled out a deformed, yet important-looking, rod; then proceeded to fix it by setting up an impromptu smithy by the side of the road with a little fire, a hammer and a handy stone as an anvil. The other passengers were nonplussed by the DIY reparations, taking it as par for the course, though it did seem rather alarming to me. Still, he got it fixed and the engine troubled us no more. An hour or so later and it had started to rain (did I mention that the monsoon season has begun here?), the water mixing with the dirt to form copious amounts of thick, sticky mud. Needless to say, a fully laden bus (a point I'll get back to later), driving up a steep incline, in the mud, is just not going to get anywhere. There was only one possible solution. So everyone got off the bus into the pouring rain, the men pushed, the unfortunate ones getting splattered by the uselessly turning wheels or slipping and falling in the miasma, the women stood by watching, each and every one of us barefoot (there's no point getting your shoes dirty too). Finally we made it, though at one point I honestly thought we'd either have to turn back or spend the night in the bus (neither of which are unheard of here). At least I was rewarded with the spectacular scenery of northern Laos: impossibly steep mountains shrouded in clouds and covered in lush forests (except where it has been cleared for agriculture).

Lao buses seem to have Tardis-like qualities (for non-Brits wondering what a Tardis is I recommend you watch an episode (or two) of Dr Who) by being able to squeeze in immeasurably more people than one would think possible. This is partly due to the fact that they don't even have enough legroom for a leprechaun, but also because the aisles are overflowing with boxes and bags of all descriptions. Just getting to your seat is a mission of not inconsiderable proportions. Even the VIP buses, coaches with the double luxuries of a modicum of legroom and air-con, don't escape this fate. They're always overbooked, but instead of turning passengers away little, plastic stools are placed in the aisle for the ultimate in comfort travel. Tough I shouldn't complain really as they are being environmentally friendly by maximising the space available. So if any of you are planning to travel in Laos here's my advice to you: get to the bus (at least 1 hour) early; find a decent seat; sit in it; and don't leave it until you reach your destination.

Talking of destinations my last one here was a town called Meung Sing, right in the northwestern corner of Laos. This small area (smaller in size than London) is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them originally from the mountains of southern China and Tibet (ethnic Laos prefer the low-lying valleys of the Mekong). The area is also part of the Golden Triangle, famous for its opium production, a fact which became evident as soon as I stepped off the bus and was surrounded by a swarm of grannies. You could tell they were all from hill-tribes as they were wearing traditional costumes and had the classic gory smile that comes from years of chewing betel nuts. At first I thought they were just selling bracelets, but then I noticed that they were surreptitiously pointing to little plastic bags of opium hidden underneath, as well as wads of hash in their embroidered shoulder bags. However it is a bad idea to buy drugs here as a common scam involves the seller going directly to the police and getting a cut of the consequent "fine".

I managed to find two people who were interested (a German nurse who used to work for MSF and a French guy called Steve) and together we hired a guide to take us to an Akha Pouli hill-tribe just 5km from the Chinese border. Although we were there for only a day and saw only a fraction of their lives it was still an eye-opener. Their lives must have changed but little over the past 1000 years. Domestic animals (pigs, cows, water buffalo, dogs, chickens) have free reign of the place; dirty little kids climbing about everywhere; basic houses made of wood and bamboo; and the classic division of labour that I seem to notice in all the traditional societies I've witnessed so far: women toiling in the fields, collecting firewood, looking after the kids, cooking meals and the men sitting around shooting the breeze (I exaggerate perhaps, but the women do seem to have a disproportionately larger share of the burden of work than the men).

This leads me nicely onto my little thought for the day. In the West people who deal in such anthropological matters say that we should maintain as little contact with remote tribes as possible so that they can keep their traditions. But is that what the tribespeople themselves want? If they were given the choice between the severe manual labour required to eke out an existence in the mountains and the lives we lead, I'm sure there would be more than one trading in their picks and shovels for Playstations and microwaves. Who are we to say what is best for them? And this could apply just as well to our own societies: if no-one wants to learn Morris dancing any more should we see that as a cause of concern, or just the natural order of things? Perhaps our view of traditions is too nostalgic and rose-tinted, or perhaps we're just afraid of what the future may bring.

P.S. If you've made it this far: well done and thanks for bearing with me. Unfortunately Laos is not as well developed as Thailand and so internet access is not only patchy, but rather pricey as well. Therefore my posts here may be slightly more infrequent and also a bit longer.