Monthly Archives: March 2012

Oi Goi Oi!

Again my eyes open early though I can’t capture a sunrise on my lens due to the fact that the hotel is in a very busy area of Ho Chi Minh City.  Not much of a sky to see here.

After our morning ritual of coffee, breakfast and climbing on the bus we are all set for our day-long trip to Chau Doc via Cantho.

A few hours in, most on the bus need either a coffee or a bathroom  break so we stop at the Vietnamese version of a Starbucks.   Much more relaxed atmosphere than the chain, with much better coffee!  They use this aluminum coffee filter and place it on top of a glass, one-third filled with condensed milk.  They pour hot water on the filter of ground coffee beans and when the condensed milk and freshly brewed coffee meet, the result is heaven to the taste buds! Don’t know how these people remain thin!     

There are hammocks all over and when you order your coffee they will bring it to your selected hammock.  We congregate around some low, small tables so we can chat.  Again, Vietnam unexpectedly is providing me a flood of memories of my childhood and my country.   Hammocks are a standard in Paraguay.  Rarely will you see a back yard that doesn’t have one.  The shade from the trees they are usually tied to, providing a perfect setting for a siesta and shelter from the brutal sun, while the hypnotic side-to-side swing helps keep the flies away and you sound asleep.  But no time to sleep now.  I do not waste the chance to go back in time and space and lie on one, nonetheless.  I recall, while I do so, that it takes a bit of balance to climb on!  

After a few more hours (observing daily life alongside my window)  

and a stop at a lotus plantation

we arrive to Cantho   and it’s time for lunch near the river.   

Lunch of vegetable soup,  steamed shrimp with mango sauce,

stuffed pumpkin flower   and crispy pork with mushroom sauce, is divine.  Heavenly coffee, divine lunch… there’s an out of this world theme in this post. 🙂

There is a market on the side and I buy yet another scarf and t-shirt.   Our guide has taught me to say “Oh my god!” in Vietnamese and when I exclaim:  “Oi gioi oi!” when a vendor quotes me the price, I get a look of total surprise and the most charming  of giggles  as she calls the other vendors and has me repeat it.  This was me just before I said it.  They are having a ball.  Didn’t get me much of a discount but it did make for fabulous interaction.

A short distance from there we climb on scooters for another of what my tour company calls UFE’s (Unforgettable Experiences).  Scooters and drivers wait for us to take us to a bird sanctuary at the other end of the town, Banglang.    Didn’t spot many birds.

They leave us and we walk through town.  My “inside quietness” surfaces as I photograph their faces, their houses, their town.   


Back to bus.   Karaoke or Internet anyone?  

Long Xuyen is our next stop where we visit the Cao Dai Temple.  Not a promising start…  

Then a surprisingly pretty building…  

Then puzzlement when I see the monument in front with a reverse swastika embedded. Turns out that the reverse swastika, which happens to have a Buddhist influence, is sacred to many Vietnamese.  The swastika (a Sanskrit word) is also a tantric symbol to evoke ‘shakti’ or the sacred symbol of auspiciousness.

Cao Dai is a religion that aims “to unite all of humanity through a common vision of the Supreme Being, whatever our minor differences, in order to promote peace and understanding throughout the world.  Cao Dai does not seek to create a gray world, where all religions are exactly the same, only to create a more tolerant world, where all can see each other as sisters and brothers form a common divine source reaching out to a common divine destiny realizing peace within and without.”  May get my vote on that premise.   I am mesmerized by its colors and by its principles.  About 2 million people practice it in Vietnam.  Persecuted by the communist rule, it gained in the ’80’s its acceptance.

Back on the bus.  Am really liking crossing the countryside.  We are taking this route so as to be near the Cambodian border.  Tomorrow we are cruising from Chau Doc, Vietnam to Pnom Penh, Cambodia on the Mekong River.

On the way we view a bit more of daily life.  School is out and some girls are in the traditional ào dái dress, used as uniforms in the school. They are heading towards the local ferry which will take them home.  A lot of life takes place on the river; they are so dependent on it.  

We arrive to the Dong Nam Hotel in Chau Doc.  I take a shower and again get on the bus to go to dinner at a local family’s house.  It’s actually a bakery by day and at night she hosts small dinners for tourists.  I try taro and rice soup –purple in color with what to me was a pretty strange taste.   Egg noodle with seafood –great.  Stir-fried morning glory (a plant not the same as the one in the US which is not edible) –delicious!   Catfish cooked in a clay pot –good.

When we arrive it was pouring. First downpour in almost 20 days of travel. It reminded me so much of the storms that hit Asunción and used to scare my mom so much. Ay Vietnam, what are you doing to me?  You have generated so many memories!

The rain brings in a visitor that was not invited to the table.    Mom did not like them; I liked them less.  She got accustomed to them; my aversion got stronger.

Back to the hotel.  The rain is steady and strong and turns into the prequel of dreams of times long gone.

Categories: BLT+ (Burma) Myanmar, Cantho, Chau Doc, Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Long Xuyen, Ramblings, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Fruit Memories, Courtesy of Vietnam

The morning is young though I am definitely not feeling as young as when I went to bed.  Got very little sleep and can feel the fuzziness in my brain.  My step is slow.  And this without drinking a drop last night.  The dancing did me in.  Muscles I didn’t know I had are making it known that they were there all along.   Muscle ache and lack of sleep, however, have no power against adrenaline and after I take a shower I’m all set to go.  Let’s see how long it lasts…

Today we are heading to the Cu Chi tunnels, the base for the Vietcong guerrilla fighters during the Vietnam War.  I am wary of this visit for two reasons: am a bit on the claustrophobic side and don’t know how I’ll handle the tunnels (or if I’ll dare go in) and am not sure I’ll want to hear the propaganda that may go with it.  But I’m in Vietnam and I’m going.

On the way we stop at a rice paper factory and rubber plantation.  I am learning so much about processes of elaboration of things I had never given a second thought to and am acquiring a new appreciation of them.  

I get the opportunity to try my hand at making a rice paper roll.  This rice paper is used to wrap vegetables in a sort of spring roll (which is not fried).  It’s delicate and much harder to make than it looks.

It begins by spreading the mixture of rice and water on a hot plate.  

Then you pick up the roll with a roller. (How à propos.)  Cook didn’t trust me to do it by myself and helped.  

Then it’s transferred to the bamboo to cool.  Hopefully without a hole -mine had one  😦   

Once I’ve humiliated myself enough for being so inept at it, we spot a cashew tree.  In Brazil is where I first was familiarized with one.  The top part of the fruit is the nut that we know as cashew.  My mom used to make juice of the cajú (in guaraní) fruit –or cashew apple-.  Brought back a lot of happy times to my mind.  

A little girl was fascinated by our group.  

The group went on to view a rubber tree.  I preferred to stay on the side of the road with my memories, while snapping pictures.

I find it interesting that when aware of having a picture taken, most in Southeast Asia will flash a victory sign.  

Though the passengers on the same truck did not.  

We arrive at the Cu Chi Tunnels.  

First thing to greet us is an imposing US Air Force helicopter. 

Then we are off to cross a tranquil looking setting  into an area that at wartime was as far off from tranquil as you can think of.

Breathing Hole

Breathing Hole

The tunnels were an elaborate maze (75-mile long).  A veritable city from which the Vietcong operated, coming out only at night for food and supplies.   A place of little breathing room both in space as in oxygen.

And very difficult to detect.

    

They took care of their wounded underground.  

And even had entertainment. The artist in me smiles that even under dreadful conditions that part is taken care of. 

You can go into three tunnels.  One is very claustrophobic even when it has been widened to accommodate tourists.  Tom, the most adventuresome of the group, went in and looked a bit frazzled coming out.  Another is shorter and I did go into that one.  I survived it thanks to Amarjit’s voice on the other side saying: “It’s not long.  You can do it.”  Can’t imagine what it was like to live in them!  I learned a lot about the war.  Even more so after going on the Internet to read both sides.

After this visit we need a bit of downtime which the bus ride back provided, as well as the market visit that followed.

Ah, but the flood of emotions and remembrance is not to be curtailed as I encounter a fruit that my grandpa use to grow and lovingly pick for me when I visited:  a cherimoya.  

Enough of memories?  No, as in the next stall I spot sugar canes.  Don Eladio, my gramps, used to peel the sugar cane for me so I could chew on it, enjoying the sweetness of it for hours.  Grant you, not great for the teeth but the memory of it is!  

Now that we built up an appetite we head to a local restaurant: Phò Hùng.     I would later find out that it is one of the best in the city for Phò, a Vietnamese noodle soup, pronounced “fah”.

The food was absolutely delicious.  You add ingredients that are already on the table to a huge bowl of soup.

I also sampled yet another local beer.

A wonderful meal!  

From here we are free to be on our own.  I, to meet with Jeff (my LA friend who lives in Ho Chi Min City) and maybe experience what locals do.  He picks me up and here comes my first taste of being Vietnamese.   I don a helmet and climb onto the back of his moped towards a café.  

In less than a few minutes we encounter a motorbike accident, a very common occurrence in this city.  Though he is a good driver my immediate reaction was, can I get off now?  

At the café, which is very LA’ish, talking in English with a familiar face, and about common subjects I nearly forget where I am.  

I lived!!

He drops me off at the hotel so that I can reunite with the group.

After my experience surviving as a moped passenger in the chaotic Saigon traffic, I am fully prepared for my cyclo-rickshaw tour of the city!  

For the record is was not as tame as it looked or as I had expected.  We encountered another accident on our route to the water puppet show!  

The water puppet show  did not impress me much, particularly since I had attended another traditional puppet show, albeit not a water one, in Myanmar that was very special.  I think I enjoyed the live music most.   The mechanisms for the puppets are under the water, while the puppeteers are waist deep behind some screens.  In earlier time these performers where prone to all sorts of waterborne diseases but now they use knee-high waders.  

Leaving the show I felt the zipper of my bag opened.  Looking down, my point-and-shoot camera was almost falling out.  Mary, from the tour, was wide-eyed when I looked up.  Yep, someone had tried to steal my camera!

We went off to a French restaurant where strong chili sauce on the table -and a power failure- reminded us we were not in France.

I was going to meet with my friend and his girlfriend afterwards but by the time I reached the hotel, I could not muster the energy even to call.

Tomorrow get ready for Chau Doc and another day chockfull of experiences.

 

Categories: Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: “Through”

It is through the many sunsets in life that we learn to appreciate its sunrises…

Many a light will shine through in the corridor of life…  

 

Categories: Weekly Photo Challenge | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Xin Chao

I wake to an almost eerie sunrise, tinting the haze in an orange-red color becoming a grainy photograph in my mind and on my lens.  Laos has been special.  Unexpectedly so, beautifully so, and my heart sinks a little as I put my bag out the door for it to be picked up.  But I am missing my name written on my ID tag in Vietnamese and Cambodian, so the journey continues.  Besides, in Vietnam I have a familiar face of a friend waiting.  It will be nice to catch up and hear about his life as a local.

We will experience flying a new airline for us: Vietnam Airlines.       Just right to get us in the Vietnam mood.  Somehow, Robin William’s voice as he says “Good-morning Vietnaaaaam” doesn’t seem to get out of my head.  Our flight is delayed an hour which allows me some time for coffee which comes in a heart-shaped cup. I add the local paper and some Thai music on my headphones.  I close my eyes for a moment and think of how enriched I am by all the experiences I’ve had so far.   The silly grin surfaces on my face once again.

 As we arrive, it surprises me that the airport is not very congested.  Sufficient immigration officials for all of us so we spread out, almost one to a line.  “Paraguay?” mine asks inquisitively.  “Yes”, I smile.  I am used to this interaction.  Happens in every country.  Sometimes they chat about it, sometimes they have to look it up on their list to actually confirm that such country exists.  Here I get a scowl.  Alone?  No, with tour.  Where?  To Myanmar, Thailand…  NO!  Where tour?  Oh, they cleared immigration already.  I get a shrug from him.  From?  Laos   Another shrug.  Ticket?  Uh, which ticket?  Next to??  Oh, here’s my itinerary.  By bus to Cambodia next.  I’ll make it short for you guys… In total I got (in about 10 minutes) around 7 shrugs, numerous scowls, a request to produce my alien card from the US, and when he ran out of questions and reasons to question my visa he just stared at me scowling and I at him, still smiling.  He still has my passport.  My mind was wondering what next and my heart at this point was racing, racing to nowhere but exerting itself nonetheless.  GO!, he says and I enter Vietnam as I see my guide coming back for me.   Turns out that all the nastiness could have been avoided had I slipped a few bucks.  Or then again, I could have ended up in jail trying to bribe a public official.  I wasn’t going to take any chances.

It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday in Ho Chi Minh.   The city seems to be on speed. The sounds of motorbike engines punctuated by horns, people talking loudly and my gasps, as I see more than one unsafe driving condition and near    miss, are not melding together well at all.       

It’s Bangkok craziness times three.   We are instructed that when we get off the bus, if we cross the street we should not stop in the middle, not walk back, not run.   Supposedly they will skirt us if we just walk calmly. If I raise my hand, as in Bangkok, will they stop?  Giggle.  Nope, but you can raise both arms in signal of defeat says my guide.  Ay, ay, ay!

We go to the Ming Phuong lacquer factory.  They give us a fan upon arrival that I will use throughout the rest of the trip.  The process of lacquering is so time consuming and involves so many steps that I now understand why it is so expensive. So much patience involved.  This woman is breaking the duck eggs to apply on one of the steps.  These men are varnishing, seemingly unaffected by the fumes that emanate from the pool.  And, yes, two of them are smoking away as they work.  The result is astounding on some of the pieces.  

I buy two small items.   Little old me, who never buys anything on vacation, must have had a crash course ‘cause my suitcase is getting mighty heavy!

Next we head towards the Notre-Dame Basilica in the center of the city.  For the record, I don’t think I’m in France, there happens to be one in Saigon that was built in 1877.  It is pretty though not that impressive when compared to the European cathedrals.     

We turn around I see a vendor.  Like the colors.  Snap a photo.  

Remember April 29, 1975?  On April 30 Saigon fell and the reunification of Vietnam into a Communist state began.  This marked the end of the Vietnam War.  On April 29 the CIA personnel was evacuated from the top of the CIA building.  A famous photo by Hilbert Van Es captures the moment for posterity.   We are staring at that building now.  The actual building will be demolished in a week’s time to give way to a new development.        

We have to cross the street to the Central Post Office.  We live to tell the tale. The building is beautiful. Inside as well.

Guess whose portrait overlooks it all?  

On the side are phone booths with world city clocks on top.  

I immediately spot California. 

As we again cross the street to the bus (and survive) I hear that Amarjit has had her camera stolen in less than a few seconds.  We are all heartbroken.  She had all the photos of the trip in the one SD card that was in it.

We go to the hotel.  The group will have dinner there.  I was going to call my friend but no need.  His girlfriend and he are in the lobby waiting for my arrival.  I take a quick shower and go to dinner with them.  I leave my camera or I would share photos.  Tried a soda, lime and sugar concoction that I loved and my first Vietnamese-style soup, which was great.  We eat outdoors.  It’s really crowded and I am reminded that it’s a Saturday night.  The evening is still young and we (actually they) decide that we should go dancing at The Sheraton where there is a live band.  Haven’t danced in years and made up for it tonight!  Haven’t gone to bed this late in a long time either.  The cab tries to charge me much more than what he told them he would.  Hey, I’m good at this by now and give him only what was arranged and open the door to the lobby at 2:00 am.

Feeling young all over again.  Let’s see if I still feel like that tomorrow.

Hello! (Xin Chao) I have my name in Vietnamese now.  Does that make me a local?  

Categories: Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Kob Chai Lai Lai

I am a bit disoriented.  Where am I?  Oh yes, Vientiane, Laos.  It is the capital and its largest city.  Sabaidee@Laos hotel (I promise to have a Review Page on all soon.) I had left the curtains open before I went to sleep and am rewarded with a pretty cool sunrise.  It is still dark.  I grab my camera from my bedside table and snap away as it gets lighter.   

I get up and notice that I have not unpacked yet.  I wonder why and go about doing so.  As I hum a song to myself and go into the shower I realize that I am feeling absolutely, completely well.  Was I really sick yesterday?  Was it a nightmare?  Did I imagine it all?  Definitely not!  My imagination is pretty developed but for good.  Never would have I imagined being so sick.  The main thing is that I am well and ready to go.  Later on I would consult with a doctor friend and he said it was most certainly a case of mild food poisoning, otherwise I would not have recovered in 24 hours.  I wouldn’t call it mild but it is now forgotten. Down to kow sao (breakfast  in Lao). I go with a smile on and a “goooooood morniiiiiing” to all.  It is so nice to find some of the group in the restaurant, remarking that it was good to see the old me come back.

We are taking a tour of the city.   Laos gained its independence from France in 1949.  Vientiane certainly has a “Frenchness” to it.   We pass by the Presidential Palace , which is not open to the public and only used for formal ceremonies, on our way to Ho Phra Keo “Hall of the Emerald Buddha”.  It was there that the Emerald Buddha, taken from Chiang Mai, had its home until King Rama I, repossessed it and took it back to Thailand.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t figure out whether to point my camera at the flowers…

Or at the Buddhas around the museum.   One in my favorite pose of “stop the war, make peace”   

Another in a pose –and attitude- I should adopt:  walking meditation  

In any position (or mudras as they are called) these Buddhas are beautiful.  This one is in the Bhumisparsha mudra symbolizing the enlightenment of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. 

Or at the Nagas  (mythical serpents, protectors and guardians of treasures) flanking the steps going in. 

 We continue to Wat Sri Saket, home of 6,840 Buddhas.  Some in little niches.  Fascinating to see so many in one place.  

Really sad to see the storage room of the ones damaged in the war.  

But the surroundings are also worth exploring.  This is where I find a Smiling/Happy Buddha.  The story –according to our guide- goes that Buddha was so handsome that many where those he attracted while meditating.  To avoid interruptions he transformed himself into a plumper and less attractive version and therefore happily gained solitude for his meditation.  Looking it up it seems it may have other versions but the constant is that the parasol is for protection. 

Our trip leader finds a nest in a tree, of what is a delicacy in Thailand and Laos:  ants.  He points and pokes at it.      And the ants get angry.  

Then they are really, really mad.     So we leave them alone!

Next is That Luang stupa, said to contain remains of Lord Buddha.  It is impressive.  

The day is brutally hot, there is no shade at all and I can barely stand it, so head back to the bus.  Snapping photos on my way back.

It’s hot even for the monks! 

This building is a Monk’s Center.  The streetlights look very French to me. 

Off we go to Patuxai or Victory Gate.  It was built to commemorate those who fought in the independence from France.  At first sight it is a copy of L’Arc du Triomphe in France and when I ask our guide if he doesn’t find that fact ironic he doesn’t seem to believe so.  It is, however, decorated with mythological Buddhist half female, half bird figurines (kinnari) which makes it quite Laotian on inspection.     

Other details also make uniquely Laotian.    And as I climb steps up to the top on each level there is a mini shopping mall of Lao crafts and souvenirs as well as architectural details that continue reinforcing the Laotian side of this monument.       

The view from above.   

From there, the rest of the afternoon and night is on our own.  I decide to have a mani/pedi since it’s on our way to our hotel.  Will be my first in Southeast Asia.  Unfortunately, though the ambiance was unique the service was not the best.    My feet are happy campers anyway for the little TLC I have provided them.  Little do they know that in the afternoon I will join our guide and some of the group for a walk on Vientiane’s boardwalk and will make them work all over again.

The boardwalk is a surprise.  I am finding that in laid back Vientiane there is much more to see and do than I expected.  Again I wish that I knew how to ride a bike.  Though even as it gets darker the heat is quite oppressive.    
King Anouvong overlooks all this activity.      Giving his back to the “new” aerobics craze and the free class that is held in open air behind him.  
Which I decide to join… for less than a minute. 

I have a feeling he wouldn’t approve of this girl’s attire, an American flag printed on her shirt.  

Alongside freestanding exercise equipment stands this banyan tree, completely ignored by most.  I just stand in front of it awed by its intricacy (and dutifully avoiding –due to highly allergic reaction to exercise- even looking at the exercise machines in front of it 🙂 

At night I join part of the group to eat a pizza, of all things, at a French restaurant in Laos.  Kinda weird, huh?

We leave Vientane, and Laos, tomorrow morning.  I, once again, will be leaving part of my heart.  The Lao people have an acceptance of all things ingrained in them by their religion.  Acceptance… something I should add to my vocabulary and to my life.    Kob chai lai lai (thank you much) Laos for giving me a life lesson.

What will Vietnam (our next destination) teach me?

 

 

Categories: BLT+ (Burma) Myanmar, Laos, Uncategorized, Vientiane | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Unexpectedness

I have been waking up earlier than usual on all our stops.  When I don’t think I am going to be up on my own, I ask to be woken up at least 1 hour before the rest of the group.  The group is woken up 1½ before any departure.  I wake up 2½ hours before.  I unpack everything when I arrive to the hotel room, even when we are somewhere for just one night. The extra time allows me to pack calmly and a lot of times enjoy a sunrise with a cup of coffee in my hand.  Tonight is different.  I’m too exhausted to unpack and since we are leaving at 7:00 am, wake-up call is at 5:30; I ask for a 4:30 am call –or a 4:30 am knock on the door since the hotel is quite basic and has no phone.

I plunk onto bed almost hurting myself ‘cause it’s so hard.  Regardless, I fall asleep immediately.

And I wake up just as suddenly, earlier -way earlier- than my wake-up call and at an hour that is quite indecent to be awake.   My eyes shoot open so violently they almost hurt my upper lid.  My stomach is in knots.  My head feels like it’s burning –I touch my forehead and it is- and feels like it is going to burst open at any moment.  My legs are shaky and I am sweating.  Then I feel a dry heave. Now I know I am very ill.  I don’t throw up, ever.  If I even feel like doing so, it means I am violently, horribly sick.  Fortunately I am organized and fumble towards the Azitrhomycin/ Loperamide combination the Healthy Traveler’s Clinic gave me.  I’m going to take it even if I don’t have, you know, diarrhea… yet. The instructions are blurry and move side to side defying me to grasp them, but I decipher them and with the pills in my hand I crawl to the bathroom where usually a bottle of drinking water has awaited.  Not now, not in this hotel, and not when I need it the most.  I drag myself to the open-air restaurant (fortunately next to my room) where I intend to raid the refrigerator.  There it is.  I plaster myself against it searching for the handle so as to open it but find around it a big old lock preventing me from doing so. I go back to my room, actually bathroom, where the next 3 hours are spent being grateful that I wrote my will while alternately bent over and on the toilet.  Hoping I won’t inconvenience the tour.  Don’t think I have ever thrown up for that many hours.  I hear noises out in the restaurant.  It’s 5:00 am and they haven’t come to my door.  I ask for water, feeling like I’m in the desert and after traveling hours under a midday sun, encounter a nomadic tribe that will give me some life liquid.  I take my pills, open my door, close my suitcase, look outside and see it is light.  I have missed the sunrise and my morning coffee, but I am alive and am as relieved as I am surprised.

The group passes by my front door.  I rise (it really feels like from the dead) and join them.  The doctors say I look very pale.  I tell them I’m sick, though I can safely be away from the bathroom from now on.  The prospect of many hours on the bus, on the death road, bopping up and down, is almost making me sick all over again though.  Another one in the group is also sick.  Misery likes company they say.  I just want to recover.

We are headed to Vientiane, Laos.  It is the capital and largest city in Laos though as of 2012 its population is still less than a million. On the way we will stop at Tham Jang Cave then continue to an organic farm where the group will have lunch.

The group is concerned about my wellbeing and check on me periodically.  I feel cared for and well-liked.  When they stop at the cave they ask if I can make it.  There is a suspension bridge leading to it.  Am feeling better but extremely weak so don’t want to chance it.  Our trip leader, Otto, and others in the group offer to take photos for me.  I hand Otto the camera and this is what I didn’t want you to miss, though I did:

Beautiful!

I think he took this photo just to make me feel less bummed about not having gotten off the bus.  

  Wouldn’t have made it up these steps.

Or down this tunnel.    

I’m bummed anyway.  They seem beautiful.  

They are back, so onward we go to Vang Vieng Organic Farm.  

I am still weak so will not join the group with the owner of the farm, Mr. Tim, on the walk around the farm.    I ensconce myself under a thatched roof, able to enjoy the slight breeze by slathering myself in bug repellent. I still seem to be a magnet for mosquitoes.   

Up from a snooze I feel well enough to slowly walk around.

The farm is really involved with the community.   

Found a jack fruit tree.  Strangest fruit.  The taste is really sweet.  Orange in color.  Texture sort of like an oyster.   I can relate this not from tasting it then, but on another day.      

The only thing I am tasting today is my mulberry tea. 

And a little bite from this fried leaf which actually was tasty.  However, the oiliness prevented me from having more than a tiny bite.  

I take a photo of the group and they all cheer as they say: “Lidia is feeling better; she is taking photos, wonderful!!”  Their reaction made me feel even better.

I did not have dinner, however, when we got to Vientiane.  Needed to get more rest.

The city surprised me.  Will tell you why on the next post.

PS:  As you may have surmised, I am behind in my posts.  Just didn’t want you guys to worry about my health so rest assured… I am fully recovered!

Categories: Laos, Ramblings, Vang Vieng | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

P.D.R.

I do not want to leave Luang Prabang and am seriously considering letting my inner child take over and let her stomp her feet, throw herself on the floor, little fists in a ball, face streaked with tears and yelling: “I don’t want to gooooo!”  But the adult in me knows that it won’t go well with the rest of the group and primarily, that it will do me no good.  So my bag is packed and out the door.  I delight myself in some local flora and pretend I’m here to stay.  

Laos P.D.R. is the full name of the country.   P.D.R. stands for People’s Democratic Republic though it is also an acronym for the country’s way of life:  “Please Don’t Rush”  I don’t want to rush in its discovery.

But then comes a tuk tuk ride to the bus.  A daylong bus ride to Vang Vieng is ahead of us.  We are warned that most of it will be on a windy, bumpy road.  We are going to stop for bathroom breaks and to visit hill tribes along the way.  Noon will find us at a “pretty for pictures” mountain-high restaurant.  I mistakenly wrote I was on the “death road” yesterday.  Well my mind got things mixed up and it was today.   It is going to take us –on a good day- between 6 to 8 hours to get to our destination.

At the beginning, the road offers the usual scenery.  Fields along the way, houses, sky, mountains in the distance.  Then I doze off and awake to this…     

Suddenly the words “bumpy”, “windy”, “hill”, and “mountain-high”, connect!  I add “death-road”, “vertigo”, “ouch”, “Can I get off now?”  Later I would read that the road was “not recommended for nervous persons”.  There are few to no barriers separating the bus from a vast ravine.  Someone asks if I had fallen asleep because I was too quiet.  No, I say.  I’m just too queasy to talk!

No wonder my head hurts.  It’s been bouncing against the window.  Sort of like the head of those dogs they use for good fortune (the ones that their head bobs on any movement.) Fortunately, my palpitations will be reduced by a walk in the hill tribe village we stop at. 

We are the local entertainment.   

A protective older sister wraps her arm around her sibling and as I press my shutter gives me a look of  “don’t you mess with my sister”. 

We are invited by a local to visit his home.  In all the villages and homes we have visited there is a television and satellite alongside abject poverty.  But these people do not live in misery for they are content with who and where they are.

Kitchen at entrance.    

Our host lives in this home with his wife and 11 children.  He answers all our questions and I see in his eyes wonderment and disbelief in some of the things we are curious about.

There is a strange flickering noise in back of me that is a bit unsettling (Is something alive there?) but I don’t want to be rude, turn and potentially run out screaming if I find a strange animal resides in that corner.   

Other kids join us or come in.   

And we leave.  We are still the entertainment.     

Can you tell who will be the gang leader from this photo?  

After a few hours –many more than I like- we arrive at the restaurant for lunch.  Mr. Peng laughs as he sees my expression of horror as he parks the bus head first, facing the precipice.  Lucky me is in the front row.  Okay, you are close enough, please stop the bus, stop please, STOP, NOW!!!  

We go to “happy place” (local speak for bathroom) first.    

Then a little walk uphill towards the restaurant.  To my left a view of the road. 

To my right, a scene that could be labeled many ways.  My whole being quiets and settles.  

A view of where we came from.  We are at approximately 5,000 ft.  

Reaching the restaurant, a little figure, advertising god-knows-what, seems so out of place that we all gawk at it and name it “little happy laughing girl Buddha”.     

We eat.  Wash our hands.  Explore the surroundings a little more.  and back to the bus for another couple of hours till we stop at a mountain food market.  You aren’t tired already, are you?

We are instructed not to point our cameras at any of the dead animals that are offered (head and all).  Seems that these vendors are fully aware of Facebook and that a photo may go up that will force authorities to come in and fine or confiscate.  They sell some animals that are not supposed to be sold.  Fortunately I see none with a face to it.

There are a lot of “normal” selections of fruit and vegetables. 

Bamboo shoots.  

Banana blossom. 

Taro.  I would later have taro soup and then taro ice cream. 

And something that is nowhere near common or normal in my book.  Our guide points out what looks like a stalk of something and says that it is a delicacy in his country.  I am leery.  Delicacy = very odd, strange, gross, inedible, retching-induced!

Our vendor starts the process.

She peels.  

Almost done.  

And out comes the yuckiest of worms.  It has been cooked in the stalk but that doesn’t make it any more appetizing.   Our guide repeats it’s a delicacy and proceeds to eat it.  Amazingly, so did one of our group who told everyone it tasted like chicken.

Ohhh, the Americans ate the worm!  

Back on a bus that, at this point, nobody wants to be in.   Another hour and another stop at another happy place where, believe it or not, they sell Kit Kats and Snickers. I buy them and eat them both in a nano second!  I don’t even like chocolate but somehow it was appropriate and satisfying to do so. It didn’t stop me from trying the local taro ice cream, either.

A million years more of a bus ride (or so it seemed) and my sore bottom and me arrive in Vang Vieng.  The bus is too big for the city streets so we shall walk to the hotel.  Vang Vieng has the reputation of being a backpacker’s paradise and it lives up to the fame with advertising for tubing, zip-lining, trekking, parties, etc.  I get a kick out of one that is none of those.

Are you over seacall?  Busticker anyone?  

Sign with all the familiar breakfast (at least for the Brits) 

We had seen an ad for a balloon ride in the plane and wanted to do it but once we saw the balloon and how incredibly close he got to that building we change our minds.   

The ever-present temple along the way.  

As I look towards a street vendor, I capture her expression right before she gives me the thumbs up signal.  

Graffiti in Laos? 

Then a road that becomes indicative of the type of resort we are staying at. 

Though it hardly matters where we sleep for this is the view before us.       

We eat well.

Pumpkin soup.  

Remnant of my tilapia.   

After which I dive, literally dive onto my not so soft bed.  Lots of excitement to be had tomorrow!

Categories: BLT+ (Burma) Myanmar, Laos, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Day Sawng (Two) in Laos.

The day is only an hour or two past its midpoint and we have seen so much, felt so much.  I feel a bit spent, but adrenaline keeps me going.  Walking away from the village presents me with snippets of this village I doubt I could experience otherwise.  

The shield that comes up for protection when in an urban jungle is non-existent here.   There is no need of it in this village of hospitality, smiles and curiosity.  Somehow, a sudden hug or touch does not surprise me and I welcome and succumb to it.  Mostly, their sense of gratitude is shown with even-broader-than-usual smiles.  Not that they don’t try to sell and earn.  They do.  Lady pleeeease buy from me beautiful scarf.  Little kids add on the guilt thick with a sad look if you don’t.  But that doesn’t seem to cool the warmth they generate in me.  Wish you could see it in the photos, but I realize that when I point a camera the smile is modified.  

The town is dirt colored, peppered with burst of colors from unexpected sources.

Like a lime-green plastic rack with men’s boxers out to dry.  

Or corn on a cake-dried soil, out to dry for a purpose unknown to me.  

Or a cement house painted in a color that sharply contrasts with the straw used for most. 

But we must walk to the Hmong village.

Even as I go, this town calls me back in the guise of a confused, surprised, curious little boy that stares at us passing.

And then it happens.   That one moment I will cherish.  A little boy in the balcony of his hut,  as I pass by, joins his hands as if in prayer (the way they say hello and good-by) and I see the beginning of a smile.  He has given me his respect and his appreciation in that simple gesture and he did it with a shyness that is absolutely disarming. 

At the Hmong village we go into the home of the leader. His wife is already there.

He joins us once we are settled.  

Children and part of the village follow us to the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music is important in Hmong life; we are joined by the village qeej player who plays for us.“A player must be trained; it takes years of practice to memorize the flowery language of the instrument. Its music contains the entire repertoire of Hmong knowledge and wisdom.” (Quote from Wikipedia)       

Villagers get a kick out of one of our tribe (aka: as the travel group) that gives it a try.

The village returns to daily life as we leave. 

We head down the hill where kids from our first village (Kia Luang Village) run along the waving good-bye.  I don’t think I have a heart left.  Been leaving a piece in almost every place I go!

Next is a cruise on the Mekong river “the mother of all rivers”.  The Pak Ou Caves, (which means Caves at the Mouth of the Ou River –Ou River is a tributary of the Mekong) is our destination.  But, as expected of this country, much to see before we board…

Another weaver and scarf vendor.  “Close your eyes!”  (That’s me talking to myself.)  I don’t need another scarf!  

An elderly woman looking at us pass.  Gosh, I am marveled by these faces.  

And the piece de resistance”: home made liquor stand.  I tried it.  The crystal clear one was my first taste and it burned my inside more than anything ever has!  Think it was 70% alcohol!  The cloudy one had a    slight sweetness to it and not as strong, but then anything would be mild after the first one!  The reddish one was actually not bad, much sweeter and passable.  And what can I say about the one with the snake?  No, I did not try it and don’t regret not doing so.  

Our captain and his boat.

  

There is a breeze that is refreshing.  The boat movements are just right, providing a “motion lullaby” that would put me immediately to sleep if it weren’t for the fact that I don’t want to miss the sights that the river offers me.

The Mekong glows.  The river is said to produce balls of light along its surface, which the locals attribute to the Phaya Naga, or Mekong Dragons.  I am starting to believe…    

Am I seeing orange?  Yes!  Monks bathing along the river.  

Are those cows?  No, water buffalos also enjoying the water!

  

And we arrive!  

Climbing.  Looking back.  Really just catching my breath.  Which the landscape takes away.

  

We head back. 

The Mekong shows its beauty. 

We arrive back to Luang Prabang.  Most of the group climbs on a tuk tuk to go to the hotel to freshen up before dinner.  I and other 4 head out with our guides to a local place to have a little appetizer and the local beer (of course) at a place where we will see no other white face but us and where they only serve duck in all its forms.  

The menu. (Not for the squirmish.) 20,000 Lao Kip to the dollar. 

The Westerners are brave enough only for the beer and the grilled duck –in that order.

  

Our tuk tuk driver, which has joined us, orders blood soup.  I try to look away.  Our local guide says he used to have it and like it but his cholesterol is high and was told not to order it any more.  Our Thai trip leader has never dared.  Two girls in the table next to us are merrily enjoying theirs.  Oh my!

We take a stroll along the riverside.  Luang Prabang is beyond quaint.  It is just a perfect combination of elements that produce a lovely peaceful “I want to live here” feel.

Riverside 

Side street 

Tuk tuk back.  Obviously there is no “hands-free” law here.  

Hotel pool looking mighty tempting now but no time.  Going to dinner with the group and then dragging myself to bed!

Tomorrow you must eat a hearty breakfast because we have a loooooooong ride ahead of us.

Ready?

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

I Get a Laotian Kid

I don’t usually start with an excuse but on this one I must.  Either this will be the longest post ever or I will have to do it in parts.  So much was done today, and I have so much to share, that as I write I am trying to figure out how I will do it.

Laos, as you know, has me prisoner.   Loatians or “Lao peoples”, as our guide so endearingly calls his countrymen, are gentle people.  There is no aggressiveness in their demeanor.  Even their smile is gentle: slowly, but steadily, corners of lips rise to remain in a smile for as long as you care to look.  Their eyes reflect the same.   I want to be awake as much as possible so I can soak up more of Lao.

Our tuk tuk driver has his headlight on.  It is pitch black outside but a convoy of 3 tuk tuks head out to the streets of Luang Prabang.

We woke early for we are giving alms.  Monks eat only twice a day.  They come out of their temples and collect their morning meal (around 5:30 am) from locals –and now tourists. Our guide has found a street away from most and in front of a temple.

There is a ritual that goes into our offering.  We put a scarf over our left shoulder, around our back, under our right arm and over our left shoulder again. We kneel.  We will offer sticky rice from a basket, still steaming hot, prepared by a local. They will not stop as they walk past us.  With our hands we will pick the rice and throw it into a basket they will open. We are ready.   We wait.

It’s light now and with it comes the river of flowing orange.        

I have finished my offering and concentrate on faces.  It is in observing that I see the children in some of them

the belief in their faces

and some generate in me cartoon-thought-blurbs, which change depending on their expressions.

I am not being irreverent or making light of it at all.  I was lucky to kneel next to a local giving alms and she gave me an insider’s look.  It has been special forming part of this daily ritual.     

Today we will have a “home-hosted” meal in a village in the mountains so, since we are up and in this daily ritual thing, we head to the morning market where Khamsouk gives us each a piece of paper with the name of the ingredient we have to buy for the meal.  

He also gives us the exact amount that we are allowed to pay.  Not that easy of an assignment when he refuses to tell us what we are looking for and where it might be sold in the market.   In Mission Impossible, weren’t they allowed to decline the assignment before the tape autodestructed?  Seems that’s not the case here.  Off we go!

The place offers such a wonderful array of colors, shapes, and textures, along with smells that could never attempt to be aromas, sounds of women bargaining, animals not yet silent, and odd noises –as that of a vendor keeping flies at bay by shaking a plastic bag at the end of a stick– all tangoing together in a not so graceful dance. 

 Yet this market is small and not quite as chaotic as others.

Am I buying carrots?  I say the name of what I want and the vendor shakes her head as she laughs and points further down the road.   Carrots are so big anyway I don’t think I’d have enough money.

Why does that bucket have a net?  Oh noooo, I’m not even asking if it’s frogs that I am buying.  Much less live ones!  So glad that Americans are known to be squirmish about such things and they wouldn’t expect us to buy them! 

Eggs, why can’t eggs be what I need to buy? 

I meet the others empty handed.  We go tuk tuking (freshly coined term) to the bus where our luggage awaits and a long ride, up a winding road to the village where the parent company of my tour supports a school.

The ride goes on for hours and the road is starting to look like the Death Road in Bolivia.  Thankfully, as I am starting to not like this much, we are directed to look to the right where our school children and their teacher are lined up with a little flower bouquet in greeting. 

One kid each.  

Each kid will give us a flower and take our hand and walk us to their classroom. 

We introduce ourselves writing our names on the board, then sit with them in class.  When I go to my kid he has written my name on his notebook and under it, his name in Lao.  I point at my name, then at myself.  He points at his, then at himself. 

They sing to us their anthem, we sing to them the Star Spangled Banner.  Then we sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It…”  They are having a blast.  We are too.  I look and at the window is a mother with her child observing us.  

He repeats everything I say and I thought he understood very little until we go to the library and he brings me a book “Do Kangaroos Have Mothers To?”  (Of Course they Do.  Just like me and you!)  It repeats, with the only variable being the animal.  At one point I take a breath after “Just like…” and he fills in –pointing at me-, “me”.  I say “and” and he says “you” pointing at himself.  I am smitten and want to take him home.

We say good-bye.  They go back to class as we head towards the meeting hall to be received by the village chief and the woman’s leader.  He will host lunch in his house for 8 and she will for the other 8.

On the way, these little girls captured whatever is left of my heart.  

The chief tells us about life here.  They support themselves by weaving.  I am fascinated.  Later I would buy a scarf at each of the vendors.    

For those interested in an authentic hand-woven scarf from Laos, just give me a ring.   Didn’t want any to feel left out.  Just tug at my heartstrings and I am putty in your hands.

Then off to lunch.   Our host is one of the warmest and joyful human beings I know. She is generous with her hugs and as solicitous as can be.

The meal is simple but really good!  Our main course is wrapped and cooked in banana leaves.

One more hug… 

And we say good-bye.  

We are headed a little up hill so that we can meet with the Hmong people in their village.  For that we must cross this village and go to the other.  You’ll see that tomorrow though, or this will never post!

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Sa bai dee, Lao!!

How do I begin to explain Laos and its effect on me?  Perhaps it is when you least expect something that you receive what you will treasure most.  I had no expectations about this country.  Almost considered it a bridge between Thailand and Vietnam.  How wrong I was to do so.

We leave the craziness of Bangkok.

Bye, bye Bangkok

In Lao Airlines.   We arrive to Luang Prabang, Laos; what lies beneath me seems like one more scenic landing.  I have no thought of much more.    A huge fun (aka: tacky) bus  is waiting and then a tuk tuk   ride since the bus is too big to enter the city.  We are told that a 40-passenger bus for all 16 of us will be more comfortable when we are on a bus in the incredibly winding and steep road we will take in a day or two, more on that on next post.   My, was he right!

I smile seeing the “traffic” which boils down to ladies on bikes holding umbrellas guarding themselves from the sun.  

Our driver Mr. Peng –who will turn out to be one of my heroes- is all smiles.

Mr. Peng

We drop our bags in the Muang Thong Hotel, which is as lovely as can be.  All teak (a big thing in Laos) corridors  and a balcony I plan to write from later on.  Of course it’s time to eat again.  Oh Lord I am going to just roll back to LA!  By now they expect everyone is tired of Asian food and take us to Joma a café that would feel right at home in my hometown.  As cosmopolitan as it comes.   For my Mexican contingency there’s burrito on the menu!   I sneak out before we head to our next stop and walk down a street to the river.  I pass by a reflexology place and realize that I have yet to have a massage.  

Then I pass a bike rental place that makes me regret that I never learned how to ride a bike.  I have a balance inadequacy that hindered my learning along with a tad of “I don’t want to get hurt-itis.”

I reach the river.  This town can’t be quainter if it tried.

I run back before they leave me.  Another tuk tuk and we arrive at the Luang Prabang National Museum They don’t allow photos but the museum is truly fascinating.   Some beautiful glass mosaic walls.  A throne room.  Bedroom quarters of royalty.   The outside is beautiful too. Next is Vat Xieng Thong. It is one of the most important monasteries in Laos.  One of the structures holds the royal funerary carriage.   Buddhas line its wall.   Some in my favorite position of “stop the war, make peace”. The main temple’s roof is being repaired due to weather fluctuations.  If this country has not taken me hostage before, it certainly has me now.

Flowers are all over the place.

Some live Some dried

We walk to the main temple whose roof is being repaired.   What a sight.

Our guide, Kamsouk, was a monk for 6 years so he prays with us for a safe journey.  I would much need that prayer in a few days.

We go outside to another building,    

where turning the corner a young monk awaits to tell us about his life.  He lives with 30 others.  3 full-fledged monks and 27 novices            

As he talks I glance around the corner and catch this moment when a monk wraps himself in his robe.

           

Next is Mount Phousi, pronounced by our guides in a way that may make it really hard to say in America. J I climb around 350 steps to the top.

Almost there!

The temple on top I am fascinated by doors and windows… aaaand the view from the top        

As I go down I can see the night-market where I will buy souvenirs I didn’t think I’d buy.  

Along the way I stop to snap this photos of two little girls that are more fascinated with their game than worried about selling their wares.

A beer in town (BeerLao –the local beer) then dinner at Ak Houay Mixay Restaurant (try saying that fast)

A staple in SE Asia's diet: Sticky rice!

Chicken Curry

Then “Did I really do all this in a day and not felt hurried or tired???”

Good night my friends.  Tomorrow we wake up early and leave Luang Prabang while every inch of me is refusing to leave.

Destination a surprise.

Categories: Laos | 23 Comments

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