vientiane (part 2)

Posted in laos, vientiane by moonwire on September 3, 2009

Just a few days before leaving, Vientiane has definitely unleashed its charm on me. I remember how I arrived here at first and thought ‘this is it?’ After having spent a week here, I’ve discovered there’s so much more to it than initially meets the eye. The people here, just like in Luang Prabang, are amazing. They are nice and helpful and interested in your whereabouts (and like to practice English). Everything is so mellow here, even the traffic. It’s strange that a town like this is the capital of a country.

My last few days here were really good. The weather was also cooperating more. There were still heavy rains overnight and in the early morning, but none of the 6 hour downpours that I experienced at first. And though I’ve gone off rice and noodles, I did have a really good Lao noodle dish here. Spicy (and very salty).

This morning I got up early to visit the morning market. Because it had rained a lot overnight, it was very messy and muddy but that didn’t seem to deter anybody, including myself. Absolute mayhem. Just like any other South East Asian country I’ve visited , there are a lot of motorbikes. There were major traffic jams right in the market.

And of course, seeing all the flies on the meat and fish made me hurl my cookies (again) but I did end up having brekkie with a girl I met, Leah. She’s 10 years old. Speaks a tiny bit of English and doesn’t go to school because there’s no money (this breaks my heart). She helps out her family by selling packets of chewing gum. Heart breaking. We had breakfast (though I skipped the mystery meat) and I gave her my umbrella. Later in the afternoon, I saw her walking down the streets again, with my umbrella. She didn’t see me but it made me smile.

Some more images from the morning market:

This afternoon I went back to Wat Mixay, the temple just around the corner from my hotel, where I had met a few giggly monks earlier. Well, I was right on time. The monks were shaving eachother’s head and eyebrows in preparation of a big festival on Sunday. I chatted with them for a while and they let me take photos of the shaving event. One of them, monk Syriya, the one who’s getting the close shave in the photographs, asked if I could email him the shots. Somehow, this cracked me up.

I’m off to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, tomorrow. I can only hope it will be even remotely as good as Laos. This is my first trip to South East Asia, and I’m trying to do a ‘best of’ but I’d like to return to Laos one day, and see more of this beautiful country and its people.

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Posted in laos, vientiane by moonwire on September 1, 2009

On Friday morning I packed my stuff  and I headed to the airport. Luang Prabang airport is tiny. They only have two terminals. One domestic, one international (Thailand only, though now that I think about it, there might be flights to Sieam Reap (Angkor Wat) as well). I saw an ATR72 plane land and I thought that would be our plane. Nice on time. I had flown into Luang Prabang on a turboprop like that and though initially I was a bit nervous; it was fine. Then, when it was time to board, I noticed that people from the International terminal bound for Chiang Mai were getting onto that plane. So I looked around, and what did I see? An even tinier turboprop, a Chinese made MA60. Oh lord. I wasn’t expecting that. However, the plane was only half full and I had two seats to myself and the ride was fine. Got a good view of the Laos landscape –  mountainous jungle and the Mekong river.

It didn’t even take 40 minutes to get to Vientiane. I was so glad I had taken the plane instead of an 11 hour bus ride. And the beauty of domestic flights is that you’re out of the airport in no time. Within 15 minutes of landing I was already in downtown Vientiane. I hadn’t booked a hotel yet, but I had a few names I wanted to check out. The first one was the Vayakorn Guesthouse and though they didn’t have any single rooms available, I could get a double for only a few dollars more. And it’s worth it. It’s a big room with windows on two sides so it’s bright and airy. Wooden floors, good bed, nice bathroom. After roughing it in Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, I was really hoping for something half decent and this is more than that. The only thing missing is a balcony, though the hotel has a patio where you can have a drink and watch life go by. And there’s good wifi there 🙂

However, my initial reaction to Vientiane was a huge disappointment. I expected more of a city. Luang Prabang is tiny, but there’s a lot more going on in terms of vibrancy and beauty. More restaurants, too. I checked out the ‘downtown core’ and was done with that in about an hour. So, on Saturday I wanted to book a flight to Phnom Penh for the Tuesday or Wednesday. Well, it didn’t work out like that. All the flights are full so I’m stuck here til Friday. Though I was a bit down about it at first, I’m okay with it now. Vientiane and I might never have the love affair I was hoping for, but at least we’ve become friends.

I’m trying to make the most of my time but there isn’t much to see or do. I visited a few temples, did the touristy things like the Vientiane ‘Arc de Triomphe’ but something is missing here. It’s the hustle and bustle. It’s so quiet here. It reminds me of Krabi Town in a way, which is nice to check out  for two days, but a week would be overkill. However, I am still enjoying the quiet days, the breakfasts at one of the many bakeries and a good Beer Lao at night.

The other day I walked around for about an hour and I already found myself  in the outskirts, not too far from the airport. It was interesting to see but seeing poverty is heart wrenching. I don’t even feel like taking pictures of these people. It’s just too much. Depressing. If I could describe Vientiane in one word, it would be “crumbling”.

The food… well, Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang were heaven. Here, the only decent thing I’ve had are the baguettes. And well, they’re good. They also do know how to make a good cup of coffee, which always makes me happy. I think I’m just so sick of Asian food that I can barely enjoy it anymore. I remember the days in Bali where I’d happily eat nasi goreng (fried rice) three times a day. I can’t even stomach the thought of rice and noodles at the moment, but I sometimes still eat from the cholera cart. Just for fuel.

This morning I went to the COPE Laos Centre. This organization deals with victims of UXO (unexploded ordnance). How little did I know. I had no idea that Laos is one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. During the ‘secret war’ the US pretty much carpet bombed the entire country as part of their mission in the Vietnam war. Many of those bombs (about 78 million) did not explode at the time but have been wrecking havoc in Laos on a daily basis ever since.

Teams are working hard to uncover these potential explosives but it will take more than a hundred years for laos to be UXO free.

I watched a Canadian documentary called ‘Bombies’ but the most heartbreaking one was a short interview in which a woman tells the story of her 8 year old son. How he got severely injured by one of the bombies. He was taken to the hospital but they didn’t have any ogyxen and blood, so they took him home to die.

I cried my eyes out.

Off to Phnom Penh on Friday. I’ve been reading so much about the history of the places I’m visiting, I can’t get enough. Though mostly severely depressing, it interests me a lot. Visiting the Killing Fields will be something else.  I’ve got my Kleenex ready…

A few more for your viewing pleasure:

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luang prabang (part 3)

Posted in laos, luang prabang by moonwire on August 27, 2009

So I’ve spent a week in Luang Prabang and have definitely caught up on French baguettes and some red wine. I decided to rent a bicycle again as I enjoyed it so much in Chiang Mai and though I enjoyed it here, too, it is not really necessary to have one as this is a very small town that can easily be done by foot. There isn’t all that much going on here, either. I did want to get ‘out of town’ a bit, but not too far as the rain can come on suddenly and ferociously, however, that brought another set of problems… the roads. Or lack thereof. I wanted to check out what was on the other side of the Nam Khan river so I crossed the little bridge. Well, soon enough the road stopped and all that was left was just a dirt road with rocks. Quite steep as well so it was hell trying to get up there. Also, a different kind of world. While the ‘downtown core’ of Luang Prabang is pretty, just outside of it is where the real poverty starts and makeshift houses of corrugated sheet metal and plastic are everywhere. Lots of dust and sand. Not a pretty sight.

What amazes me here, and I’ve seen this everywhere in South East Asia,  is how hard the women work. While a lot of men drive their tuk tuks (basically motorbikes with a carriage attached to either the side or the back), they also like to take breaks and you see them sleeping on the benches of their tuk tuks all the time. The women are often the ones running the guest houses, restaurants and little shops, and doing the shopping while taking care of the kids and sweeping the sidewalks. Most of them don’t have a real stove, they do it the old school way with fires. I cannot imagine.

My days were low key here. I’d usually wake up at around 5 or 6 am and go out to shoot for a bit. Then I’d have brekkie at this tiny little restaurant run by a lovely young woman. Warm baguette, eggs and black Lao coffee. After brekkie I’d usually go for a ride on my bicycle. By that time, at around 9, it would already be too hot and bright to shoot. I’d go back to my room to chill a little. Then in the afternoon I’d go for lunch and ride around some more or sit in the shade by the Mekong river. Back to my room to take a nap, then back out with my camera for a few hours and eat at one of the veggie buffets at the Night Market. Great concept. You pay about 60 cents for a plate. Load it up with a whole bunch of dishes and eat it at a long table with everybody else. The food wasn’t spectacular, but it was cheap and cheerful enough to keep me happy.

After I walked around the old part of the city some more I would usually go back to my room with a Beer Lao (which is light and crisp) and read til I went to bed at around 10 PM. Yes, that early. There’s nothing going on here at night. Most bars close very early and well, I didn’t feel like it anyways.

I finished a bunch of books here. One of them was ‘The girl in the picture’ about Kim Phuc, the girl in that famous shot by Nick Ut, who’s running naked down the highway after getting hit by napalm. After reading ‘The rape of Nanking’ I didn’t want to read anymore depressing stories but I’m glad I did pick up this book. Interesting read.

So, I’m off to Vientiane, the capital of Laos for I think a day or five to a week. I haven’t booked a hotel yet as I’ve found it’s actually cheaper if you just show up. Also, I want to check out the bed before I take anything. After roughing it in Chiang Mai and here in Luang Prabang as well with not such good rooms and beds, I’m ready for a bit of comfort. My back is starting to hurt from sleeping on ‘concrete’.

Some more shots for your viewing pleasure:

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lao life – photos from luang prabang

Posted in laos, luang prabang by moonwire on August 26, 2009

Lao Snake Whiskey. No, I didn’t touch it 🙂

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luang prabang

Posted in laos, luang prabang by moonwire on August 23, 2009

Sabaidee! I took a plane from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos on Friday afternoon. It was a tiny turbo prop plane and I felt a bit uneasy about it first but it was totally fine. It was noisy as hell, but I enjoyed the ride. We didn’t fly too high so I had great views of Northern Thailand and Laos, which is mostly mountainous jungle but it got really cool when I could see the Mekong river.

In flight entertainment magazine from Lao Airlines.

It only took an hour and we arrived on time. Immigration and getting my visa was pretty quick and painless and before I knew it, I arrived at the Spicylaos hostel. This hostel is located in an old colonial building and it has lots of character. It’s not a big hostel; just 22 dorm beds and 4 double privates. I chose one of the privates. I don’t think I can deal with the dorm thing anymore. Still, people stumbling into their rooms at 1.30 and then proceed to talk loudly while there’s no glass windows (only mosquito netting) is not my idea of a good time.

Anyways, I had just booked it because I expected delays and didn’t feel like lugging my pack around town in the dark, but I could have easily done that here. There are so many guesthouses; it makes me wonder how they are ever going to fill them. Today I looked around for another place and I found one, close to the Mekong river. The room itself is not impressive at all. A tad dark, but it has a little patio area and a small common area with couches where you can use wifi. I have seen some really gorgeous places overlooking the Mekong and I’m thinking if I’m going to stay for more than a week, I will check into something really sweet for the last 2 nights or so.

French toast at Joma Bakery. One of many bakeries here…

So, Luang Prabang. I cannot believe this place. It’s probably the most touristy place in Laos (and maybe even on South Asia’s main land) as it’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The architecture is mostly French colonial. It could easily turn into some Disney theme park, but it’s not. Not sure if it’s because it’s not the high season, so it’s not overrun with tourists. Of course, there’s a night bazaar with the usual stuff, though quite a bit more upscale than the one in Chiang Mai. More silks etc.

Anyways, these kinds of places do not interest me, though there’s something redeeming about them: food stalls. Lots of them. And even better. A lot of them sell crepes and Lao sandwiches, which are just baguettes with the filling of your choice and they’re cheap and yummy. I never even knew about the baguette thing. I pretty much assumed, after Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur and Thailand with the exception of Chiang Mai, that good breads are not to be had. Well, I’ve had them. I also noticed there’s a Lao version of Khao Soy, the spicy broth noodle dish I had in Chiang Mai. Yummy.

So far, I’ve basically spent trying to get a feel for the place. The lack of street names doesn’t help, but Luang Prabang is actually very small so it’s hard to get really lost. The Mekong river is an excellent point of reference.

The food frenzy from Chiang Mai has continued. They don’t have the granola veggie traveler’s cafes here, but I can’t complain. Lots of bakeries, which makes me very happy.  But my favourite place so far is probably a bookstore/cinema/tea house/restaurant called ‘l’Etranger’. Good coffee and sandwiches and an amazing collection of books at a very reasonable price. I am oh so tempted to just take it really easy here and spend a day or 10. A bit of exploring in the morning and late afternoon and for the rest just laze around with a book and a cup of tea. This is definitely one of my favourite places so far. I love the relaxed vibe and it’s very photogenic. Haven’t shot much as I got up too late this morning and in the afternoon I was walking around with a dead battery in my GRD, but I certainly will make an effort here.

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