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.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


It's amazing what you can find on the internet when you follow different links to links to links to links.

Personally, I think he has a lot of insightful points of view.

We hosted a barbecue for about 40 people today (although 12 or so were kids). It was hot too, so standing over two webers for 2 hours cooking hamburgers and hot dogs was hot and tiring business. Katherine was an organizational champion. All I did was cook meat and drink beer.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Our good friend Erin has moved on to greener (or actually, given the fact that Laos is tropical, less green) pastures. She PCS'd today (permanent change of station. I think it's a military term, but is used in the FS too sometimes). She's on her way to a month of home leave in California, then to DC for some training, including a brush up in French, and will ultimately end up in Paris for her next assignment in September. We'll miss her. We find solace, however, in the fact that her replacement, Dan, is a great guy (and a poker player). Dan is on his second tour, having served in Seoul previously. He's here with his wife Dana and their three kids (who are currently going to bed at 4 pm and getting up at 1 am). Tomorrow (Sunday) Katherine and I are having a barbecue at our house to welcome Dan and some other new faces in the Embassy attached to JPAC (Mil POW/MIA folks) and the Centers for Disease Control (the ever present AI threat). I'm off to the South on Tuesday for a UXO trip. Back on Thursday, hopefully with some good pictures and stories.

Time to get your atlases out

Here it is, submitted yesterday, so your advice would be less than design.

15. KIEV (different position)
18. BAKU
20. MOSCOW (different position)

Very former Soviet Republic-centric, because, like last time, we are required to bid on all Russian-language designated posts because I had Russian coming in and got bonus points for that.

Early word is that it is very likely we will be serving in a Russian language post. As such, a late move to put Kiev and Moscow up top because those are the two most attractive Russian language jobs. Katherine is still holding out hope for Windhoek, but we think that is a pipe dream at this point.

So I guess it's vodka and fur hats replacing beer lao and flip flops come 2007. We should know sometime mid-March.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The travails of bidding

Tomorrow is a big day. We need to submit our bid list, and at this point the list is not final (for us, anyway).

We'll see what happens, and we'll let you know what our list looks like.

And of course, we'll let you know where we are going once we know. Should be in about 3 weeks or so.

Our top picks will be in some order similar to:

1. Windhoek, Namibia
2. Damascus, Syria
3. Belize City, Belize
4. The Hague, The Netherlands
5. Kiev, Ukraine
6. Moscow, Russia
7. Bangkok, Thailand (hey, we could just get in the car and drive our stuff down)
8. Chisanau, Moldova
9. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
10. Athens, Greece

and so on (10 more)

We're hoping for something in the top 6, but won't get The Hague and really hope for Windhoek.

Time for bed.

I've got some visitors from our Weapons Abatement and Removal office in Washington (UXO) arriving tomorrow that I will be shepherding around for 6 days or so, including a trip down to Champassak and Sekong Provinces (Sekong being the heart of the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war, and a UXO riddled province now, Champassak being where Pakse is, which is where the airport is).

Finally, an ethnic Lanten village (but not Good Water Village) as seen from a distance.

We all felt for this dude as we walked by him on our trek, but none of us had the guts to go help him clean himself up.

Our lunch the day of our trek. It may not look like much, but it was very good. Sticky rice, green pumpkin with tofu, omelette, pepper sauce, and other things that were tasty.

Clearcutting in the Nam Ha Nationally Protected Conservation Area. Chinese businesses have basically said they will buy all the rubber the Lao can produce. So they will produce it. Even in a national park.

Climbing around the one room, open air school

This little dude was just hanging around on his mom's back taking it all in. Okay, maybe he wasn't that interested in anything more than the fruit in his hand.

Walking down the trail to 'Good Water Village'

Our last night at the Boat Landing, a 3 man musical group played traditional music during dinner. Included was this interesting one-string instrument. It had a very distinct, Asian sound (of course, being Asian music, but you know what I mean), kind of a haunting whine. Put it together with the drum and the balilaika-type guitar thing, and it was really great. Too bad I can't send music through this thing.

This is Vilayphone's older son (Vilayphone from Baan Sy Da from a previous picture. He was a bit taken with Katherine.

Some neighborhood kids playing in a tree across the street from Bryan's house. A large group of neighborhood kids go to Bryan's house every day around 4:00 to learn English and play games. The girl on the left was maybe 12 and had almost no teeth left, the result of unchecked cavities.

The ubiquitous 'truck' seen around Luang Namtha and Muang Sing. I think they are Chinese-built, although they seem to have skimped on the parts a bit.

A few more pictures. Here are 3 young shopkeepers at the Muang Sing market. Seriously, these were the people in charge. I didn't see any adults around them for the 5 minutes or so that I hung around their little stall.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Here's where we were. We didn't take the opportunity to go up the 10KM to see the Chinese border. We figure we'll see China some other time.

After a liesurely morning, a walk around the neighborhood, and a quick lunch, we headed back to the Luang Namtha airport, such as it is. Supposedly they are building a new one, but for now...Katherine waits patiently in the waiting room, which also doubles as the outdoors. Great trip all around.

So here we are, on top of the Stupa, camera askew on a remnant of the old Stupa, so it looks a bit like we are falling over. Anyway, a bit of sun, a bit of biking, and we were ready to go home to the Boat Landing and have ourselves some dinner.

While the Stupa wasn't that great, the view from the Stupa was fantastic. It was a perfect place to watch the sun go down. The Stupa is a replacement for another that "the Americans bombed during the war." While this simple explanation is what most people think, the truth is a bit more complex. Lao Royalist forces bombed Pathet Lao positions on a ridge above the Stupa. The concussions were such as to cause the Stupa to collapse. And yes, the bombs were likely American-supplied. Still not great, but it wasn't like some American was targeting the Stupa.

Biking out to a stupa to watch the sunset.

our ride took us over this bamboo bridge past this lovely village.

yesterday was bike around the Luang Namtha Valley day for Katherine and me. We went North, then East, then South, then West, the North again. Well, you get the picture, we pretty much covered the area. Very picturesque valley full of villages, rice fields, and surrounded by a mountain range.

Who says you can't take a picture directly into the sun? Okay, most people say that.

Too cute.

That night, Katherine and I had a few visitors at our table for dinner. Their parents were eating at a table down the way, but they decided to come over and tell us about their story books. The books were in English, but the girl in blue, Dao, explained in Lao every detail of story in her Disney story book. The girl in pink, who's name we never got, but who we thought about stealing by the end of the night, just sat there commenting and being all around cute.

And another, older Lanten woman holding the piece of paper that I later bought. I like this photo only because the woman's daughter-in-law is kind of lurking in the doorway. She couldn't decide if she wanted to be in the picture or not. I wish she had, as she was wearing a traditional silver necklace that is very cool. I had to overexpose the older woman a bit in order to get the daughter-in-law to show up in the doorway.

Good Water Village residents are noted for their paper. Here, a woman is making a new sheet of paper. They use a mixture of bamboo, water, and other goopy stuff and spread it over a canvas and somehow it comes out paper (that's basically what I got from the conversation). This woman, in addition to having 16 kids (her husband bragged, she just sighed) was particularly adept at making paper. She could make between 4 and 5 sheets a day. There are other sheets drying in the background.

Here is the paper-maker herself. Note the traditional Lanten clothing, includes white leggings and dark clothes, and, for women who have reached puberty, shaved eyebrows. She looked okay for having 16 kids already, but I bet she doesn't let her husband close to her.

Walking out from Baan Sy Da. We didn't have alot of canopy cover on the way out, and it was hot. But we ended up in an ethnic Lanten village called Baan Nam Dii (Good Water Village) that had a little waterfall down a small gorge, which had a cool breeze blowing through it, so it was all worthwhile.

Walking away from Baan Sy Da, Katherine passes a woman on her way home. The villagers forage in the forest for bamboo shoots, rattan shoots, and other herbs and edible plants.

This is Vilayphone and his wife and child. They brought out some water for me to drink and we sat and chatted on their porch. He's a rice farmer and has 2 kids. He's from a nearby village, but moved here when he married his wife, who is from Baan Sy Da. They are one of 8 families in the village who does not have a solar cell.

So this is Baan Sy Da, our destination for the day. It is a village of 58 families that lives about 3 hours from the nearest road. We spoke with the village chief, who let us know that the Sy Da keep their rice stores outside of the village fence, because the rice spirits are stronger than the village spirits. A lot of the houses in the village had small solar cells (you can see one on a tower in the top left hand corner). A commercial outfit has started a rent-to-own project with solar cells. For $1 a month for 10 years, you can own a solar cell, which can fuel a rechargeable battery for a few hours of daily post-dusk light plus a little radio time. No home entertainment system, though, although depending on your point of view, a bare bulb at night might be just the home entertainment system you are looking for.

Katherine thinks pigs are cute, so we have lots of pictures like this.

Here we are on the ridgeline.

Along the ridgeline. You can see the recent clear cutting that has been done along this stretch.

A communal lunch on the ground, with banana leaves for a table and for chairs. It was tasty.

Then it was up, and up.....and up through some pretty close in trails. After about an hour up, we arrived on the ridgeline.

Pretty, pretty valley.

We hiked through some virgin rainforest (although who am I to know what is virgin rainforest and what is just plain rainforest?) that, sadly, was being slashed and burned at a pretty rapid pace in order to plant rubber trees. Again, who am I to say that the virgin rainforest (what's the opposite of virgin rainforest? Slutty rainforest?) is better for the locals than a couple hundred rubber trees. Anyway, we came out of the forest into a valley that had a few farms on it. The houses are used only when the farmers are here planting, harvesting, or otherwise tending to their rice fields.

The next morning, we went on a 1-day hike to an ethnic Sy Da village called, unimaginatively, Baan Sy Da. This was our starting point.

Finally, a purchase (in my hand) from the woman to my left, and her daughter (in front of her). Her daughter did the negotiating, running home to relay our offer, running back with a counter offer, etc. Very cute.

Finally, we took a walk from Bryan's house to a nearby Tai Dam (black Tai) village, where Katherine bought a beautiful weaving from this lady. When I asked if we could take a picture of her, she quickly put on her two jackets with ornate silver clasps so that we would have a picture of a 'real' Tai Dam lady (her words). Note the hairstyle. When a Tai Dam woman is married, they weave a coin into the bun-type thing in their hair.

Then we ran into this woman who was very cute, and wanted to sell us a Hmong thing, so we let her. I mean c'mon. You try saying no to that face.

Later we went to a nearby Hmong village. The family we were there to visit were not around, but these kids were. The little dude was nekkid, but I cut that out.

A baby with a banana, and a mother with traditional headgear, and not much else.

Each Akha village has a large village swing. This one is made of 4 large trees. There is a large festival about a month before harvest time (September or so) when the village will build a new swing, and everyone will wear their finest clothes, party down, and swing. We may try to head back there for the swing festivals next fall.

The kids were taking turns riding this homemade thing down the hills. It's a three-wheeled thingy made of wood. Even the wheels are homemade.

We went into a house with Bryan to see a 17 year old girl he has been working with. A tragic story, really. She had undiagnosed TB, a rather insidious strain at that. It has left her completely paralyzed, and confined to a corner of her family's one room hut. She now has large bed sores that have become necrotic (gangrene). Anyway, Bryan goes out to the village several times a week to make sure that the girl is being cared for by her parents. They need to clean the wounds, change the dressing, turn her and move her limbs. Bryan is very good about getting her siblings (and other village children) involved in massaging her arms and legs (and Katherine helped out too). Massage is actually an Akha tradition, so it works relatively well.

Then Katherine started handing out bananas, both fried and regular ol' bananas, and she had many takers.

Lunchtime in the village

Where we immediately drew a crowd.

Then it was off to an Akha village about 40 minutes outside of town. I don't remember what it was called.