Tuesday, 9 September 2014

N 19.53.21 E 102.08.16 Laos: The French influence

We were in Laos for 8 days in late August and early September. We started with a two day slow boat cruise down the Mekong River along the border with Thailand for the first day of our journey. After an overnight stop in a small town which provides quality accommodation and good food for the overnight passengers between Chiang Hong and Luang Probang, we spent three days exploring that city before taking our first “not Calypso” bus to the capital Vientiane.  A day there then off to explore the jungle and Phu Hin Bun National Park  before heading to the border with Vietnam.  It was a lot of long days driving in cramped bus seats designed for small southeast Asian bodies and not enough time to explore the places we stopped at.  Definitely, Laos is on our list of places we would like to return to.

It was a family affair.  Dad was pilot and youngest helped.

Trucks are universl

And mum was first mate and did everything else.
With a bit of help from Wayne

As soon as we would dock it was into the sand to play

Local hill village we stopped to visit

Banana tree and flower.  Everything is edible

Mark and I were pretty sure that if this bull really wanted to visit the ladies he could get out of here.

Big brother boat to ours.  Full size two story house at the rear and cargo at the front

Pak Beng overnight.  A bit of elegance in the middle of nowhere

Morning alms giving from our balcony
An important part of Buddhist practice in Laos

Checking out caves along the way.
Every April, Buddha statues are brought and washed with holy water
People also donate statues to the caves

Capturing the elusive butterfly

A tree wrapped in monk's robe to designate as sacred

Impression:  Lonely Planet describes Laos as a very poor country that suffered through the 2008 financial crisis (many of its major investors withdrew from projects because of problems at home) and is just now starting to recover.  We were pleasantly surprised by what we saw – certainly not booming as much as Thailand, but infrastructure was present, houses and businesses were immaculate and in good physical condition.  Basics of food, clean water and shelter were evident.  Yes, there was evidence of NGO involvement in projects (hill villages, assistance with UXO disposal, literacy and small business assistance), but there was also a sense of vibrancy and hope that we did not see in India.  The French influence was very much in evidence – often when we would say we were from Canada, the next question would be “parlez vous Francais?” Restaurants served French meals and pastries as well as real coffee.  Particularly in the two cities, there is a strong expatriate community; some just visiting while others live there full time.
The weather was full blown monsoon season – gray skies most of the time and several rain showers daily.  Locals were skilled at placing their umbrellas just so to keep dry; we just accepted that often we should have brought that rain coat rather than walking through the rain.

Things I will remember:

1. Hand dying and weaving workshop with Ock Pop Tok, an organization that supports weaving and dying arts in the remote villages of Laos.  More in another post.

The master weaver who guided me every step of the way.
  She would have started learning when she was nine or ten.

Our finished projects.

With our guide for the day, Duoa.
My project (lemongrass and teak leaves)
Hand dyed silk fibers - beetroot, indigo and sapon wood
Another lovely scarf

2. The night market and a bit of retail therapy – more direct support to the artists themselves.
Two cushion covers reverse applique in Hmong style.
The artist signed the back of one (she thought I was crazy)
and had also hand woven the outer border of local cotton.
 I was the first sale of the night, which blessed her shop
Hand painted and signed by this lady's husband.
The paper is hand made sa (mulberry) which was used for all important documents
My painting.  The background is calligraphy and is the prayers that monks say daily.
The image was everywhere, but this was hand done and just a bit unique. 
3. Taking the local passenger ferry across the Mekong to track down the local monasteries. The saffron coloured robes of the monks are everywhere; they are the ones who were responsible for preserving knowledge during the wars. You will also occasionally see the robes tied around a sacred tree to preserve it.  Actually, the traditional dye for the robes is marigold which also festoon all the various altars and temples.

4. Food, glorious food.  Fresh and well prepared.
The Hive in Luang Probang.
Glorious pizza and we got to watch the breakdancers warming up
The backdrop in beer bottles filled with water and one light bulb behind

Temple on the way to lunch on the river

Coconuts in the grounds of the National Museum

Small cafe on the river had these plastic lights suspended from the huge tree that became a backdrop

This little guy was doing meet and greet at a local cafe.
No English spoken but bilingual menu and creative pointing got us some great food

On the road from Luang Probang to Vientiane.
Food wasn't spectacular but the view certainly was

Laos is very mountainous.
  The folds of the Himalayas are heading toward the ocean.

And the loo with a view.
The best of some pretty spectacular photos I've taken while squatting.

Lime fruit juice with mint
Small cafe across from the hotel in Vientiane
Yes, I am drinking liquids not in bottles and with ice.

Fish in a TV at the local sandwich shop
Baguettes and other french delights

5. The Cope Center in Vientiane.  Laos is the most bombed country in the world.  More than 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War (or the war against American aggression as it is known around here), more than 300 people a year are still being injured or killed by unexploded ordinance.  COPE is trying to make a difference.

Map of where bombs landed in Laos. Basically everywhere.
The red areas - 30% of the land - have still not been cleared of unexploded ordinance (UXO)
The Australians are working to train locals to demine.

For my favorite OT.  Locally made wheelchairs so they can be repaired locally

Some of the mountains of prosthetics that have worn out and replaced by COPE

The story with this picture is that the man lost his leg to a US bomb.during the war.  He made his own prosthesis with the bottom metal part coming from the metal of the same t;ype of bomb (there is a huge business in recycling metal, one of the causes of people beinng injured by bombs still).  36 years later, he got a "modern" prosthesis from COPE and willingly donated the old one to the museum.

An exercise for my favorite OT

6. The caves of Phu Hin Bun National Park and staying at a “basic” resort.  Not the best weather, lots of mud, not much food, but overall a fun time.  We got to ride the local tuk tuks with the rototiller like engine we had been admiring since China.

Fishing in the drainage ditch along the road to where we stayed.

Absolutely amazing what these things can go through

View from our balcony.
Yes, it is raining

Skillful use of umbrella

Heading into the caves.
Traditional river boats great for shallow water, but
don't rock the boat

Wayne working at capturing one more perfect photo

Exit from the cave

Our boat, held together with string.  Pretty artsy photo, mind you

Water buffalo keeping cool between the rice paddies

Albino water buffalo (we saw lots in Laos)
Unimpressed with me taking his photo

Of course there is a quilting connection.  This was the signature on our duvet
Obviously locally made.

What I want to remember most about Laos is the fact that the country and the people seem determined to get on with things.  Despite being in a constant state of war (at times undeclared) for sixty years, in the last forty they have rebuilt their society and have the stability to hope for the future.

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