03.04.2010 - 08.04.2010 41 °C
John:....We had a fierce but brief storm a couple of nights ago. 1 minute perfectly still the next minute rain lashing down, palm trees bent nearly to 90 degrees in the hot wind. The rain poured through the window, exploiting the unfilled gaps in the window frame. The glass covers on street lights outside started to crash onto the road below and the frequent flashes of lightning seemed to hit the ground near the hotel. Above us the red neon hotel signage seemed to be on fire although this was a trick of the fierce wind and torrential rain. The first rain we have seen since mid January and a spectacular reintroduction. The temperature barely moved, steady at 38-40 degrees outside but as close to 20 degrees in our room as we can get it.
A sudden start and, as suddenly, the storm abated 40 minutes from the outset. The next morning we woke to what sounded like 3 policemen loudly blowing whistles. We looked outside to see....3 policemen loudly blowing whistles. The electricity supply in Vientiane, tenuous at the best of times, was seriously disrupted over night. Trees down, traffic lights out and other such damage. They give the Police very good whistles here.
We're in Laos having arrived on the straight forward Siem Reap - Vientiane Laos Airlines flight. Our hotel, 15 minutes walk from the centre of the town, is ideosyncratic to say the least. Staffed by very nice people but hopelessly organised it currently scores 1 out of 5 on the Trip Advisor ratings. In some ways I can understand why but I also think that is a little harsh and reflects the difficulties experienced by places like this where the rating scale is the same wherever you are in the world. Anyway it is cool and comfortable and that is good enough for us at the moment.
We are struggling to 'get hold of Laos'. It has had a miserable recent past history, first badly treated by the French and subsequently bombed by the USA under Nixon (US$ 7.2 billion, 580 944 sorties, 2.1 m tons of bombs. Per head of population the most heavily bombed country ever). Internal power struggles and fighting resulted in the Laos People's Democratic Republic headed by the Soviet and North Vietnamese styled communist party Pathet Lao. As with Vietnam in recent years there is a gradual relaxation on restrictions but Laos has a long long way to go to reach the level of development attained by Vietnam, if that is where it wants to be. The Laos National Museum is a good indicator of the national and spritual ambivalence about how to deal with the past. In parts an interesting collection of artefacts relating to the various sub-cultures in Laos, accounts of the wars over the past 200 years and in part a bewildering array of photographs of men in suits seemingly doing little to help their people. If reports of corruption are anything to go by many of these 'good party members' are the ones riding around town in black Mercedes, Lexus and Honda cars. Go to the museum if you want to catch glimpses of where Laos has been and the burden that it still bears.
COPE is the name of the NGO running the National Rehabilitation Centre. A large concern that has an interesting exhibition on the problem of traumatic amputations through unexploded ordnance being salvaged for scrap metal value or through children stumbling across some of the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs (and bombies, the ironically cute name for the small anti-personnel bombs that are scattered from cluster bomb casings). The display also illustrates the creativity amongst the rural people in using wartime scrap metal, making leg prosthetics from shell casings, fishing traps, oil lamps, cooking pots and a whole range of domestic items. There is a top class ABC produced DVD showing the work of an Aussie guy who is training up local people to deal with the UXB problem in their own districts. Full of interest, pathos and humour this is a really engaging film. Another film tells the story of a young boy's journey to Vientiane to have his below knee stump refashioned and a prosthesis fitted. This involved his first sight of an airplane, 'the big city' of Vientiane and lots of other things. Another place well worth visiting.
We have spent most of our time here so far in Vientiane, the nation's capital city. Our hotel is situated on Th Lan Xang at one end of which is the Presidential Palace and the other is the extraordinary monument Patuxai. This is clearly a nod to the French. It is an immitation orientale of L'arc de Triomphe in Paris and, like its French counterpart sits on a large roundabout. At that point the comparisons start to run out. This one was built from American concrete reputedly designated for the building of an airport. Apart from stylistic differences Patuxi differs in 'build quality' with large chunks of concrete falling from some of its higher surfaces from time to time. On an official sign some distance from the monument is a statement that reflects the Laos characteristic of honesty: "From a closer distance it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete."
The city itself sits on the eastern bank of the Mekong River. Across the river is Thailand, occasionally troublesome neighbour. The river is low. Towards the end of the dry season and possibly the partial result of several large hydro electric schemes built by the Chinese further up river. One of the attractions here, eating al fresco on the river bank was quickly rejected by us as the river bank is a building site at present and the early evening breeze whips up a little sandy seasoning for your food. Together with the squadrons of flies chomping away at the fish and chicken we shied away from this treat. Instead we have found several really good eating spots.
Makphet Restaurant is down a little side street and has some really tasty Lao cuisine. Like so many of the excellent food places we found in Vietnam and Cambodia the restaurant provides training in cooking and the hospitality industry for street children. The most unexpectedly good eating experience was accidently brought about by our Tuk Tuk driver Mr Lin. We were looking for a place, recommended by the Lonely Planet, which has since closed down. Mr Lin said "You want good Lao food?" to which we replied yes. "I know good place with Lao food where many farang (foreigners) go. I take you". A short distance on and Mr Lin dropped us off at the Ban Moon Restaurant and Beer Garden. We were met by the diminutive Lao lady owner and her husband; Barry from Perth.
"Come in Mate, make yourselves at home, we've just made a stack of pies this afternoon...would you like steak and kidney, steak and bacon or steak and mushroom?". No Lao food available here. Barry's business card carries the line 'Home of King Bonza's Pies', their own make, and after readjusting our taste buds enjoyed an excellent steak pie each with what has to be the coldest, teeth numbing beer I have drunk since hitting the hot places (Barry 'finishes' the beer in his freezer before thrusting them in a neoprene insulator to keep the chill in). The coldness of the beer was in direct contrast to the molten volcanic lava temperature of Barry's home made gravy. We had a good yarn with Barry, he heads back to Perth twice yearly for a couple of days to register for his pension then out to Laos again. He gets the Aussie rules and cricket on the Australian Network and his pension goes further over here.
Despite, or because of, this error we kept Mr Lin on. Nice young guy with great English. Unlike a lot of the other Tuk Tuk drivers he doesn't have a hammock slung in the back of his vehicle, he's out looking for work (he can also use the gear boxon his converted 1970s Suzuki 125 unlike a lot of the drivers ). We asked him to take us out and about, firstly to a silk and cotton weaving cooperative and then on to the pre eminent Stupa in Laos.
The cooperative was really interesting although we weren't encouraged to see the work in progress, rather we were invited into the sale room where we saw some beautiful work but out of our price range. From there on to the Stupa, a symbol of Buddhism and also of Laos sovereignty. The whole structure is painted a golod colour and begins as a cloistered square enclosing a brick and concrete monument which uses architectural devices to represent the Buddhist faith. Very striking it is too with columns and prayer arches. The central column rises 45 metres and gleams brightly in the strong sunlight. On either side of the Stupa are Temples or Wats, both with beautiful carvings and paintings. In the background monks young and old going about their business, washing their robes, worshipping, chatting to visitors.
We met a novice monk yesterday as we visited the Si Saket temple. A nice young chap called Pomh Penh who explained the significance of the burial Stupas around his temple. Vientiane has many many temples and lots of monks. Their saffron coloured robes stand out vividly in the dusty dry streets of Vietiane.
Our penultimate evening meal in Vientiane was at the excellent Tamnak Lao Restaurant just a stones throw from the hotel. The menu is Lao cuisine. A duo played traditional Lao music and a male and female couple performed dances to some of the pieces. Costing no more than a regular meal in town this was a real find. There was a large group of local people in the restaurant and in no time at all one of them had located the microphone. I was dreading this becoming just another karaoke night but the singing was beautiful, the food great and if you are visiting Vientiane a real high spot in the town. The restaurant has several very large fish tanks as well. Not sure if they are a multi media extension to the menu or there for decoration. I ordered chicken just in case.
Thoughts on Vientiane? Probably the least congested capital city in the world. Possibly also the least frantic. As our first exposure to Laos it provided an interesting counter point to Vietnam and Cambodia. Unlike Vietnam who everybody knows about, Cambodia who many people know about; Laos is a place that not many people know of and yet their experiences at the hands of the French and USA followed by their own internal fighting have left their mark. Perhaps when we get to our next stop, Luang Prabang, that impression might change.
Our coach trip through the mountains promises to be both scenic and long, 8 hours long. Beyond that hopefully uneventful.
p.s. re my previous blog reference to the strange Dr Fish Foot Massage experience, here is Jackie's foot undergoing 'treatment'. These were the lucky fish. The others got me. This has to be one of the all time strange experiences in world travel. You don't get this even in Business Class on Emirates!
Lots of love and best wishes to family and friends.