Life on the Mekong and Other Rivers

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog, including strong statements in support of weinerdog-riding monkeys, are our own, and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A couple outside views of the Sunset Bar, our local after-work watering hole that is in danger of falling into the river, although I think it has faced that danger since the day it opened.

The sun is strong in Laos

Katherine and I are ready to play naughty nurse and patient. The doc at the Australian Clinic gave us plenty of rubber gloves (okay, a box of them) and other paraphenalia for a weekend of bandage changes. My incision is still open, with a gauze wick stuck in, so the changing is a bit more problematic than just changing a bandaid, so Katherine got a couple lessons with the Aussie Doc.

our night guard, Vilaysock and me in front of our guard house. He doesn't use it though, because it doesn't have a light. He reads all night. A voracious reader, who likes to borrow books. He sits with the book and a dictionary and reads. Problem is, he then likes to talk about the books I give him. He's a talker.

The Last Supper. Luther has his last Lao meal. They leave in the morning for Angkor Wat. Marilyn had white rice. Luther, gasping for breath and reaching for anything to cool his burning mouth (we'd asked for 'not very spicy') wheezes to her, 'you don't know what you're missing'. I don't think she felt bad. Anyway, i think I have a bit of the crazy eyes going on, not sure why. Katherine stayed home with Jak, who is still groggy after having a little surgery today. As they say in Lao, we made 'him' an 'it'.

funny story about these guys. As we were leaving a village North of Muang Ngoi Kao and heading back to our boat, these guys were sitting on the riverbank with their bags waiting to flag down a passing boat going downriver to another town. I told them if they were still around when we came back (we were going up river, then heading back later), we'd let them hitch a ride.

They said fine, then the guy on the right excitedly asked if I would take his picture. I said sure, at which point he undid his belt and pants, tucked in his untucked shirt, redid up his pants and belt, theatrically smoothed his shirt and pants front, took off his hat and smoothed his hair. All to great effect, as you can see. His sidekick did much the same thing, but less theatrically.

So I took their picture, at which point Mr. Vain says "please bring a picture back to me," which, given that he didn't know I'd be returning to the area in 3 weeks, seemed quite a request to me. But since I was returning, I said sure, which made him very happy. There were smiles, handshakes a wais (the hands together, short bow thing) all around.

Okay, not such a funny story.

Lunch time for this kid.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

And here's our cat.

Not a before, but an after picture. Sure, you cannot see my gross deformity, but I do have a tough-looking bandage on my face. Katherine took my parents out to eat, and I am still convalescing after my first day back at work.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sir Lance (a lot)

So my furuncle (boil) is no more. It has been lanced...twice.

The local anesthetic hurt more than the actual incisions, but the worst part was the squeezing of the 'stuff'. Anyway, I should be well on my way to normalcy, although (and apologies in advance) the doctor put a wick (a small piece of guaze) in the incision to keep it open so that the pus can continue to ooze out over the next few days (yes, it's bandaged).

I'm home again, watching episode after episode of King of the Hill. Turns out a co-worker has seasons 1-5 on DVD, and they are now in my possession.

An interesting start leads to an interesting trip

I guess I haven't really talked about the trip in and of itself. So here goes.

Ari and Jennine, you might want to skip this and the pictures, since we'll be doing much the same thing in a few weeks.

Thursday morning my dad and I went to the airpot to fly to Phongsaly. We had tickets, but it turns out the flight didn't exist. Not that it was canceled. It wasn't scheduled in the first place.

After some shouting by me (which is counterproductive) I talked very nicely to the women behind the counter and they got us on the 10:30 am flight to Luang Prabang, even though it was technically sold out. The alternative would have been to wait until the next day, when the flight to Phongsaly was scheduled to go.

So a quick change of plan. We called to the hotel in LP that we would be staying at over the weekend, got them to send a van to pick us up at the airport and drive us North. So instead of hiring a boat in Hat Sa (up near Phongsaly on the map) and floating down the Nam Ou to Luang Prabang, we hired a boat in Nong Khiaw (North of LP, inside the circle) and went north to about the top of the circle, then came back down to LP, all by late Saturday morning.

We got to Nong Khiaw about 1:00 pm and I started the negotiations with the boat guys. There's a boat cooperative of some sort, where the man in the booth negotiates the price, then whoever's turn it is takes the fare. So we told them what we wanted to do, they quoted $280, we countered with $160, and settled on $200. We got a husband and wife team who live near Nong Khiaw with their six kids. The older kids look after the younger ones when they are off on the river.

Thursday we motored upriver about 90 minutes to Muang Ngoi Kao (Old Ngoi Town, named so because once the bridge went in in Nong Khiaw, the district seat moved there, so now Nong Khiaw is also called Muang Ngoi, making the one up the river with no roads to it the 'old' one. Makes sense, no?) where we were greeted with preparations for the end of Buddhist Lent celebration. We found our $1 luxury accomodations (actually, it found us, in the form of a 15 year old girl named Lak who talked us into following her through her family's yard to their 5 room shangri-la).

We walked around the town a bit, which means up and down the one main walkway. We headed to the town square and town temple at sundown for the celebrations, which were relatively muted, and conisted mostly of kids throwing firecrackers. But it was still fun.

We got up the next day and headed further North up the river. We stopped at Jop Jaem Village and another village whose name I forget, which was fantastic. Plenty of pictures below. We'll go back to Jop Jaem with Ari and Jennine next month to deliver many pictures, and probably plenty of books, pencils and notepads for the school.

After about 4 hours we turned around and came back downriver and stopped in Muang Ngoi Kao for a beer, at which point we picked up some passengers for the return to Nong Khiaw (story below).

We spent the night in Nong Khiaw at our $2 resort. It's a beautiful crossroads, where the river meets the road amidst canopied mountains and limestone karsts. We got up the next morning for a 7:00 am departure, to find that our boat drivers couldn't make it, and would be conveniently replaced by a guy named ThiThuey who lives about 40 minutes from Luang Prabang. No worries, because his boat was newer, had a higher roof, more comfortable chairs, was quieter, and was faster.

The 5 1/2 hour ride to Luang Prabang was broken up by a stop at a Buddha Cave at the confluence of the Nam Ou and the Mekong where we met up with Marilyn and Katherine. A Buddha cave because it is filled with thousands of Buddha statues that have been left by pilgrims over the years.

Luang Prabang was lovely, but maybe Katherine can tell you all about it, as she was there longer. Suffice it to say, the beds at the Sayo Guesthouse in LP were more comfortable than those at the $1 or $2 hotels up North, the food was better, the cable TV better, etc.

All in all, the river trip was pretty damn good.

Last, but not least (for now, anyway), LUTHER on the Mekong

Arrival in Luang Prabang. This is one of Lao Air's BIG planes.

This is Lak, the 15 year-old proprietress of our fantastic $1 per night luxury resort in Muang Ngoi Kao. She learned English at school in Oudomxay, about 5 hours away, where she went to school for a few years. Then her mom decided that she needed to return, because noone else in the family spoke English and thus their guesthouse business wasn't doing much. Plus, school in Oudomxay cost $12 per semester, and school back home only cost $8 per semester, so it was win/win (just not for Lak, who works her ass off). Her plan is to go to Luang Prabang to nursing school.

Talking with some other kids after taking their picture.

Showing some pictures to some kids.

Making pre-fab walls. They cut the bamboo into strips, then weave them to make walls, as you can see in the background.

Talking with the kids at the school in Jop Jaem Village

unexploded bomb casings make a good retaining wall.

Okay, I'm just sitting at home, and am a little bored (which I guess is a good sign that I'm getting better, as the past 36 hours I've mostly just slept). Anyway, why not more's a group of people I met in Nong Khiaw in the back of a shoe shop. I inquired whether they had flip flops in my size. They didn't, but insisted I join them for some Lao Whiskey (in the big bottle at the far end of the table). They had been there quite a while enjoying their whiskey.

Oh, yeah. And before we left for up North, we went to the boat races in Vientiane. 50 or so people per boat. Pretty cool.

Prison? Nah, just a holey wall of a house. In the villages we visited, we were quite a draw.

Even monks have to do laundry...

And here we are in front of the lovely Kuangsy waterfall.

My blind tiger t-shirt next to a real tiger. It had been confiscated from a poacher or trader or something, along with two brothers, when just a cub. The two brothers died, but she lived, and now has a lovely, large enclosure near some waterfalls near Luang Prabang. Very cute tiger.

Okay, a couple pics from Luang Prabang. Here's a procession of monks early in the morning out to get their alms (food) from the locals. I was sleeping. So was Katherine.

The end of the road. At the boat landing in Luang Prabang.

Our boat owners' house, just south of Nong Khiaw. This was our first boat driver's house. We didn't get a picture of our second boat driver's house.

Luther had suite #14, and I had #13 next door in Nong Khiaw. $2 per night. Twice the price of our lovely place in Muang Ngoi Kao.

Heading down to our boat from the village up North. If you haven't guessed by now, these are not in chronological order

heading to Luang Prabang on the boat with the ladies.

She made it on this loom.

Back up North again. Luther with the Village Chief and his daughter, who made the little scarf Luther is wearing.

Back to the village up North. It was pretty primitive. Here's how they would pound corn or rice.

Marilyn and Katherine in our 2nd boat driver's village, about 40 minutes North of Luang Prabang

Rice ready to go.

Luther in a rice field just waiting to be harvested.

So we made it down the Nam Ou, and came out onto the Mekong and went to the Ting Cave (called Pak Ou caves in most guide books, but that just means mouth of the Ou river cave. The real name is Ting) where we met up with Katherine and Marilyn. They had taken a tour boat out from LP. The cave is famous for having thousands of Buddha images in it. Here is a cool picture from inside . After the cave, Katherine and Marilyn joined us in our cool boat and we all returned to LP. But, our boat driver (a new one we picked up in Nong Khiaw for some reason), needed to stop off at his village for a few things, so we did that on the way.

The State Department has a narcotics affairs project center (called a Lao-American Project) in Nong Khiaw, the town we hired the boat in. Anyway, on our return, while Luther napped I went to find the project center. Our American contractor employee wasn't there at the time, so I just kind of looked.

The LAP finances roads to villages so they can grow things besides opium and get them to market, runs a detox center, and does other community development stuff.

Our boat owner's wife and two of their six kids in their house.

A cute Lao girl from our boat owner's village

some girls in a village near Nong Khiaw.

On our way back to Nong Khiaw after going North, we passed by Muang Ngoi Kao again and had a beer. On our way to the boat, our boat owner asked if we would mind giving them a ride to Nong Khiaw, about an hour away. So I said, sure, but I was selling them tickets, not our boat owners, as we had hired the boat for a tidy sum, thus making it 'ours'. So it's usually 15,000 kip for the trip per person, so I gave them a deal. 10,000 kip per person. Now that's a 33% discount. Not bad. They took the deal. As we were walking down to the boat, my generosity got the best of me, and I lowered the price to 5,000 kip per. The boat lady collected the money, then gave it to me. 20,000 kip ($2) for the 4. But I noticed she was also holding 20K, meaning she had charged them 10K per, but kept 50% for herself. So I took that from her and gave it back to them. Then about 20 minutes later, I gave the rest back to them too. They were 4 Hmong brothers going to visit their parents. I think they appreciated the free ride, even if I did make them pay at first.

Strict rules for those $1 guesthouses. This was on my door in Muang Ngoi Kao.

monks by candlelight

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Part of Luther's Bird Flu series

Here's their kitchen. The boat driver's wife's brother's wife asked us to stay for food (bush meat, which could be anything from deer to rat). We politely declined.

Here's their living room/bedroom/entertainment room

our boat driver's wife's brother's house.

What one should not do when traveling in Northern Laos. Being fed an unknown substance by a local woman. Luther did the same.