Thursday, November 03, 2005
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Laos : Luang Prabang : Rafting : Rapids; Blue Hmong and Saisonbun Special Zone
We were in a rush the next day – it was RAFTING day! We went to the bakery down the road for a quick breakfast. The Lao service kicked in. The people moved as if underwater, prepared exactly the wrong sandwiches and never smiled. The sandwiches were pretty good.
Our guide, Seg, was great. He perched at the back of the raft with a grin on his face and a cigarette in his mouth. We spent a lot of time drifting downriver, lying on the bouncy red rubber and flanked by the steep hills and beautiful scenery. We passed small waterfalls, festooned with fishing baskets. Swallows swooped and skimmed.
Jakob was a Scandinavian who seemed a lot like Gilderoy Lockehart, but turned out to be knowledgeable about local culture. He paddled along beside in a kayak. He couldn’t Eskimo roll and so the guides were very hesitant about letting him go, but he was very insistent. We thought he was nuts but he turned out to be fine. We even used his upturned kayak as a table over lunch.
We were also travelling with Lauren, an aid worker for ‘Number One’. Number One produce and give away condoms. This got her knowing looks from Seg. She was dead sharp and even spoke some Lao.
The rapids were easily the best bit, such a rush after languishing on the raft and doing flips into the water.
Seg had lots of commands we would frantically practise before launching into rapids. They would start ominously with calm water. We got sucked in and thumped about, all the time being hollered at and paddling madly. Hiding behind a white-cap, a hole in the river opened out and the raft dropped down. The water pounced in and the raft threatened to throw Liv out. The raft would then rise up a sheer wall of water…suddenly all would be calm and clear again.
Time easily overtook us – we pulled into the landing spot at sunset. Lauren told us a fantastic travel disaster story – some friends of hers took a two day rafting trip through Saisonbun.
Saisonbun Special Zone is the final stronghold of the Blue Hmong – a Lao tribe who were used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. They were trained and financed by the U.S. to fight a mutual enemy - the Pathet Lao (translates as ‘Land of the Lao’, i.e. the Communists). The Americans were extremely secretive about this war – pilots flew civilian planes in cut-off jeans, checked shirts and Ray-Bans. U.S. soldiers further protected their operation (and themselves) by firing flares only – these acted as targets for the native Blue Hmong on the ground. Official communications referred only to ‘The Other Theatre’.
The operation financed itself through opium export in U.S. planes. This drove up demand both at home and abroad, increasing Lao production but also dependency. The U.S. are now pressuring Laos to halt opium production, but still deny involvement.
The Blue Hmong deny that the war ever finished – they are still fighting the governing Pathet Lao in Saisonbun. The Government has officially declared amnesty and are willing to reintegrate individuals into society. However Amnesty International has been searching for hundreds of individuals the Lao Government has named as ‘reintegrated’ without success.
Early on in their trip, they had doubts about their guide’s competence. By the afternoon of the first day, their raft had overturned on a nasty rapid and everything (tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food, digital cameras) fell out. They were forced to sleep on the side of a mountain and scavenge for food. The second day they overran and were forced to sleep on a mountainside again – the guerrillas roaming round them. At this point Seg chipped in – the tour company had hired out Wildside (our company) to go out and find them.
The villagers were dotted about in the river for an evening wash. It was a surreal sight – dark bodies, half covered with colourful billowing cloth, half reflected and distorted, topped with pure white soapy fluff.
Heads turned and villagers emerged to stare at six tired and drenched farang struggling under a huge red rubber boat. The entire village turned out to gawp, but any hint of a camera would repel the forest of eyes.
When we got back we tried to pack, only to be accosted by a SUN CREAM EXPLOSION. The inside of my bag was embalmed. We ended up scraping up the precious gloop. This was the fourth time. Out sun cream is now a dim grey.
Monday, July 26, 2004
Laos : Luang Prabang : Waterfalls - Tat Sae, Xuang Si; Massage
Our rattling tuk-tuk took us further out. Tat Sae waterfall was a barren bubblescape – the cascading water was so rich in limestone that it grew over everything the water touched – even bridges and fallen trees had a stodgy coating. Feet and hands stuck to the stone resolutely. We clambered around the stout falls in dappled light – the water tried to flip us about.
Xuang Si was fearsome – a flood of water created huge limestone bubbles and arcs from the cliff-face and spat billows of spray at the bottom. We froze in the pools at the bottom and so climbed the side of the waterfall – sloshing through hot mud and jungle. A rail allowed us to walk right across the top edge of the fall – the water tugging and threatening to sweep away our legs.
Back in town we had a massage. It was lush.
Laos : Luang Prabang : Local Villages - Rice Whisky, Saa Paper; Pak Ou Caves; Lao Service; Lao Democracy
Luang Prabang is a very small city, a tiny urban island amid the thick mountainous countryside.
The village brewing laolao (rice whisky) was such a direct contrast to Talisker (on Skye) it was comic. At Talisker, the whisky was produced in an enormous wooden and copper plant, polished and gleaming. A wizened expert in overalls would go around checking readings, tasting and occasionally adjusting settings by the fraction of a degree.
The rice used for laolao was fermented in clay jars – often covered with some salvaged corrugated iron but occasionally open to the clouds and chickens. The fermented rice was slopped into a paste by hand, boiled and distilled in a recycled oil drum.
The clear pink stuff that came out was much yummier that Talisker. It was sold in hilarious bottles bearing communist inspired wheat sheaves and the inscription “Lao Standard Alcohol”.
Another village made paper. Anything was used – bamboo and banana as well as teak and other woods. The pulp was measured out onto a submerged grid and a concentrated old woman used myriad hand flicks to evenly spread the pulp over the mesh. Once dried this would give beautiful light paper.
We wandered down to the water’s edge. The mountains surrounding Luang Prabang are like enormous rocks jutting, forced from the earth. We crossed the Mekong in a long-tailed boat, the pale cliffs crouching over us. As we approached the cave mouth, my eyes resolved the hundreds and thousands of Buddhas which filled the cave. The cavern was dimmed by overhanging rocks. The ceiling rose away into darkness, capped by a small gold stupa.
The cavern above only had a small entrance with a daft ornamented door. It was pitch black inside. The place ballooned out and our torch beams were feeble in the vast darkness.
We booked this guided tour of the caves and the villages through ‘All Lao Service’. The name was comic, the service abysmal. Our guide didn’t utter a single word throughout the day, even when he wanted to leave. Questions were answered with nods, grunts at best. They were all smiles until they got your money, the manager promised us half an hour each of free internet (worth quite a lot in Luang Prabang) however when we came back to claim it, he insisted on 10 minutes, one person. He later smilingly sold us airline tickets, however neglected to put us on the passenger list for that flight! We made the flight after much argument.
Communism doesn’t inspire good customer service. It also seems not to inspire good democracy. The democratic system in the ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic’ is also comic. The Politburo makes all Government decisions. The Politburo committee are selected by the Party General Committee. As per ‘The Mikado’, Khamtay Siphandone is President, Secretary General of the Politburo and holds all positions on the General Committee. He therefore hand-picks all Politburo members from those elected (all of whom must be a member of The Party (i.e. the Communists)
Sunday, July 25, 2004
Laos : Luang Prabang : Royal Palace; Vietnam War; Western Food
The Royal Palace was very jaded. An understated airy colonial building was sparsely fitted out, except for the throne room – a grand deep red with sparkling glass murals everywhere. Another room was fitted out with completely incongruous paintings/murals on large canvases that totally covered the walls. They were nevertheless beautiful – idealised depictions of Lao life. Muscular men and demure women caught the light in broad brush and flowing brushstrokes that were almost luminous. Time and light progressed around the wall giving a warm tropical feeling.
Despite the opulence of these rooms, it was apparent that the Lao people were very downtrodden. Compressed by powerful neighbours and colonials, the Lao nation has flickered in and out of existence through history.
The country became caught in crossfire in the Vietnam war – the U.S. ran circles around Laos. Long Tieng became the second largest city in Laos (i.e. larger than Luang Prabang) as it was the main U.S. air-base. Meanwhile, the U.S. were flattening all of Eastern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh trail (the supply line from Communist China to Vietnam) with both carpet bombing and Agent Orange. The area was quickly deserted and is still uninhabitable due to the high soil toxicity. The U.S. only ceased Agent Orange use when GIs began having deformed babies and chemical traces were found on U.S. coastline.
To add insult to injury, the U.S. pilots would clear out their bomb bays over Eastern Laos to fulfil their orders of releasing their entire bomb cargo. Laos is the most bombed country (per capita) in the history of warfare.
One room in the Royal Palace had become the Lao National Theatre. The place was sparsely fitted out with a makeshift stage and seating. Most of the dancing and music was repetitive and underdeveloped. It had a school play feel to it. But it was rescued by the beautiful costumes and the MONKEY DANCE.
The Monkey Dance was sharply observed and dynamic – lots of prancing and scratching armpits. One jumped down to pinch a banana from a punter.
We continued eating WESTERN. Lao cuisine seems pretty basic – does exactly what it says on the tin. If you order fried chicken and rice you will get fried chicken and rice, possibly a few pieces of cucumber but no sauce or spice flavours. The bakery across the street did great bacon cheeseburgers. We savoured them after the long absence of anything similar. One evening I had naga – giant Mekong catfish. These huge creatures are about as long as a bus and have venomous green eyes. They taste pretty much like fish (but they do have a strong meaty texture).