Monday, May 6, 2013

Backwater of a backwater: Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane (Wieng Chen)

Sai ba dii,

After China's waking tiger I'm am laying back in Laos. Laos is very laid back. After China I felt like I was on speed when I arrived.

Laid back in appearance maybe. But beneath is a powerful sense of something national. Speaking Lao is like cracking a nut. Truism. Some of the ex-pats here are cruel and rude to Laos. Ugly.

The food divine. Reason enough to visit Indochina. Guess I knew that. But to be here. The barbecue is fab. The pork quan mee stir fried noodle, pho (soup), pronounced 'pherr', and dragon fruit juices are just lovely. And Laos understands how to make drinks cold.

Anyone visiting for delicious food in Vientiane should head for Manivanhs at 125 Samsenthai Road. Unashamed promotion. But if you met them. You would do the same. These two women make the best baguette sandwiches I have ever tasted. The best sandwiches. The pork and pate with pickled vegetables, salad and herbs like mint and coriander. Want sticky rice? Try the Kapan leaf stirfry with chicken. There are no words to match the sheer beauty of the flavours. The utter pulchritude of the food design. Astonishing. Astounding. Ast ... Ast. Can't do it.

The traditionalmusic here is rarely performed. But it has its own character. See what you think.

Cycled out to where the city stops. Sat by the Mekong. She's all dried up. Puddles of it here and there. 35 degrees. Read McInerny. A million miles away from this place. A backwater of a backwater of a not very often visited place.
Watched the lone juice seller fall asleep on his moped under a flame tree.
The Mekong.
Some lone canoeist drifting languidly over from Thailand. Sixty metres of water in this season. Europeans swim over for sex. It's illegal to sleep with a Lao. It happens but it is risky. Swim to Thailand and avoid the visa fee. Get caught and its four times the visa fee plus time in jail. People get caught.

At the other end of Vientiane, where it becomes countryside, is Wat Sok Paluang.

Here you can have a massage, a sauna and then 90 minutes meditation.
After a very long massage in the monastery. I staggered in and out of the sauna four times. It was a herbal one. Lemon grass and sweet basil. Steamed like a dumpling.
Sok Paluang was where I met Say. I'll come to him later.

Flame Trees by the Mekong River

Just don't try Laos cafes or restaurants not set up for non-Laos. They just freeze on you. And you get precisely nowhere. I've tried this several times. I think they don't understand why you are there.

Laos is very poor and clearly bigger Asian neighbours like China and Japan help financially here. All green buses appear to have been bought by the Japanese government. Each have 'from the People of Japan' and the Rising Sun flag transferred to the bus bodywork. The Japanese have also built roads and appear to have a special relationship with its spindly cousin. China also builds roads and buildings. See the National Hall of Culture. Looks like Mao Zedong commissioned it himself.

Read more about Laos here.

This newspaper is government run. It's outlook: the particular spectacles of Marxist-Leninist-Buddhist.

Be nice see to the Union Jack on some poor people's buses. Waiting for hell to freeze over might be easier. Japan appears to be funding all manner of activity here; the disabled people's stadium etc. China (Yunnan province) is taking care of of the construction developments. See the proposed World Trade Centre development and the President's Guest Accommodation Project..

Have got round to using some basic Lao which is hugely appreciated. Chinese is easier however. The Lao people are ethnically Chinese. From south west China. As a tonal language Lao it is a monster. They have six tones where China has four. Cantonese has up to nine tones. Still to master the high falling tone.

The night market is something to behold. Most of the vegetables are unrecogniseable. The lines of skewered frogs easy to identify. Maybe 15 frogs go on the grill. The legs are tiny. So you eat the lot. I had chicken hearts. Skewered in the same way. Everything is there at the market. Pork, chicken, duck, beef, intestine, so many fish. Skewered hearts. Tasty. A fish that looked like an aubergine. Nearly bought it until I saw the eyes. The tiny fins.

Been dining on summer rolls these last few nights. What an invention they are. As close to Ambrosia as it is possible to get. Ten pence each with lime and dipping sauce.

No longer a chicken feet virgin.
This hot lady, sweating over coals, was already 38 degrees, specialises in chicken hearts, kidneys, chicken feet and barbecued eggs and sausages. Being me I tried all of them. 3 sausages, 3 eggs, two chicken feet, 3 kidney skewers, 3 heart skewers. And a tankard of iced water. All for 70 pence.

And a dose of sickness. Ill again. Episode 5.

The Dogs of Laos
At last a pariah dog. There are few of them here. This one though had all the classic attributes; the stripes of their ribs pressing against their skin, tormented chewing of their haunches, yellow eyes, baying out to the neighbourhood, patchwork fur. Long-suffering; with the sorry eyes and the violent evenings. Baked by the sun in the day. Set upon by the pack at night. Compelled to bark when they'd rather be resting.

And the outlook is poor for these mutts. Growth in the Asia-Pacific region is subdued at 6%. This can be measured as an output loss for the entire Asia-Pacific region of some $1.3 trillion by 2017. One solution is to broaden the tax base in Asia-Pacific countries. Another to reduce non-develpment expenditure. Metrics provided by Noeleen Heyzer UN Under-Scretary General. Trickle down to the Pariah dog. Unlikely to happen this decade.

To visit GuerillaZ's sister site follow the link to Singing Bird Tea

Wat Sisaphet

Outside Vientiane

The Plain of Jars
Many of Laos 80 million UXOs lie on and around the Plain of Jars

Mother and child sculpture. Running from US bombing. Made entirely from unexploded bomb parts.
 "The thing is, if there is the slightest gap, sky and earth are ripped apart. If you give rise to even a flicker of like and dislike, you lose your mind in delusion". Khmer woman I spoke to in Phnom Penh.

The Cope Centre
Visited The Cope Centre. Where people with limbs blown off go for therapy, new arms and legs. The US dropped 500 million bombs on Laos. 80 million are unexploded (UXO). Every now and then a kid picks one up and it blows. Death, no eyes, no arm, no leg results.
Cluster bombs got great names like BLU66 Pineapple. White Phosporous. Saw a blind boy maybe 16 years old with no hands. He was being comforted having visited the museum of UXO. The homemade legs are too much to see. Heartbreaking. Excellent museum. You find out what the world means to you. What life means.
Laos. Stripped of BS. They are known not to dissemble. Great place in this respect.

I saw this teenager. Both hands had gone. He was blind in both eyes.

Coffee and cake with Konsaly Kaysone.
Say was studying Buddhist texts in Wat Sokpaluang on the outskirts of Vientiane. A smiler he smiled his way over to us. Me and Christoph, a Swiss I was with.
In two minutes we were eating cake, drinking coffee in his house. Turned out Say was a minister in the Laos government before the Pathet Lao Communists ousted it. 1975.

Say was sent to a re-education camp. For 7 years. The King and Queen died in theirs.

Educated in Switzerland and France Say has a list of political qualifications and directorships as long as your arm. He looked 65. Is 83. Had an enquiring mind. Was so open and friendly. Going around for tea again this week. More about Say in the next post.

Beautiful tree. Perfect in Beerlao colours. Yellow and green.

I was in the Institute Francais. I had an image of the Mekong river in my head. And what Say had hinted at during our tea. The trim and disciplined librarian at the Institute tolerated my lack of French. Pointed to some picture books in English.
In the crisp air-con library. Laos entered my body. It had taken eleven days. Some places have never done that. Venezuela, Thailand, Malaysia to name three. Whatever I did I couldn't get some of things Say told me, among the cakes and coffee, out of my mind. I had to go and see him again.
Say is not the character's real name. He requested strenuously that I not reveal his identity.
Twenty times. For the interview with Say lookout for the next two posts.

The Mekong River

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