Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Word-pictures from Laos

 In the absence of photographs (my camera was stolen just three days before I came home), here are some word pictures from Laos.

      You are in the northern corner of Thailand, standing about twenty feet above the Mekong. The sun has just risen and the water swims in pinks and purple. Already ferries cross the river: longboats, so low in the water it seems they must sink. Listen – you can just hear the growl of their engines. On the opposite bank is your first glimpse of Laos, little more than shadows in the early mist. Beside you, a frangipani – turn away from the water for a second: that scent is too good to pass by. A small bird sings. A child cycles by on the path between you and the river; you can just see the tracks of her tyres in the dust.

      Raise your head from your hammock; the beams will creak but it is work the effort. Below you, beyond the rooster that wakes you every morning, beyond the banana palms and small sandbank, is another river. Its water is a rich green, and although you know the colour is a reflection of the forest rising so steeply from the opposite bank you can’t help thinking of monsters that might rise from such depths of green. You know that there are caves, deep in that forest, that sheltered people during the war. They understand monsters here. Suddenly – the shock of a single gunshot. Listen again. There are too few birds singing here. They are protein. And free.

      A waterfall splashes behind you, the swish of the water soothing the heat of late afternoon. Deep in the rainforest you have found a bear sanctuary – a home for bears rescued from baiting or other indignities and given huge enclosures where they can be safe and raise new families. Two, almost fully-grown, playfight. Their mother shakes her head at them, then turns away. The fight is over – it seems pointless without her attention. The smaller of the two ambles across to the pool. He rubs his back against the post and then lumbers into the water, sploshing before lying on his back with his arms and legs spread like a starfish. His head flops back and you swear he is smiling. There is no room in the pool for his brother when he lies like this.

      You have made it to Vientiane. And again you stand by the mighty Mekong – so far away across a sandbank, in the dry season, that it looks little more than a trickle from here. Behind you the night market is setting up. From food stalls comes the smells of popcorn, rice, fried fish, meat (could be anything) on skewers. There’s a clatter of poles as awnings are erected, protecting t-shirts, jewellery, silks, pictures of monks and elephants, tiny Buddhas, mobile phones. The young of Vientiane are here to strut among the stalls. But look back across the river. The lights of Thailand twinkle in the distance.

If you are grieving for photographs, someone is sending me a USB stick from Australia, with over 100 pictures, so a few of those will make it to the website in due course.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Me and the elephant, I'll never forget ...

After almost a week of rural Laos, Luang Prebang is a surprise. It is an old French colonial town – so remote that it took longer to reach here up the Mekong from Saigon than the journey from Paris to Vietnam. The climate is kind; the rivers are gentle; and there are plenty of temples for the pious.

There are few French expats here how – though there is a small, thriving community of Australians and New Zealanders running restaurants and hotels. The backpackers pass through, spending their days in a kayak or caving, and their evenings in the bars. And there are tour groups with suitcases who wander into the night market and barter for woven pashminas.

And me – well, I rode an elephant. Well, I would, wouldn’t I? I did my homework – I could have spent a day learning how to be a mahout, but was warned that some of those elephants work all day, every day. Elephants doing the shorter rides can rest from the afternoon heat. (I should add that I’ve met people who enjoyed the mahout training and felt the elephants were well cared-for.)

My guide arrived to take me – on a motorbike. Which was, um, interesting, and a little bumpy in places. I hadn’t expected a boat along the river to the elephant sanctuary, but – that was fine, too. The elephants wander through the jungle close to a waterfall. I lingered, taking in the music of the waterfall, and the astonishing milky-blue colour of the water. The air was sweet; butterflies hovered; the occasional bird twittered.

And so to the elephant. I clambered (there is no elegant way to get on an elephant) into the wooden seat on its back, and off we lumbered into the jungle. We’d not gone far when the mahout asked, ‘Would you like to sit on the neck?’ Well, wouldn’t you?

Elephant hide is rough, the consistency of wrinkled feet of octogenarians. And covered with tiny black hairs which are not-quite bristles. Where a horse’s head perks upwards, an elephant’s dips down – and so the line of sight is automatically down towards the ground beyond. I sat firmly upright. (There is nothing to hold on to but a loose bit of rope around her neck.) She flapped her ears, and for a wonderful moment I thought that was to hold me on – no, she was ascertaining that this was a complete novice on her neck and turned for home. The mahout shouted a bit and she trundled on her way.

Elephant shoulders are bony things. With each stride her shoulder blades swung from side to side, and her huge muscles rippled. Not being over-padded in the bottom department I felt every stride. When she veered to the side I thought I’d fall into jungle mud. When we went down the riverbank into the water I thought I’d topple over her head.

And when it came to getting off – that involved throwing myself onto the platform. (Though I did better than the lass behind me, who needed two men to lever her off!).

It was time to go home – I felt every throb of the diesel engine in the canoe, and don’t even think about the potholes on the motorbike.

But when can I do it again …

Friday, 11 January 2013

Why did nobody tell me Laos is so beautiful?

There are many secrets here in Laos. And the most obvious – nobody told me it is beautiful. Eighty per cent of the country is mountainous – not snow capped like the Himalayas, but rugged and mysterious and covered in a patchwork of jungle greens. There must be a metropolis of wild life in there, from monkeys to elephants to snakes to – tigers? There may, I was told, be a few tigers left; but much of this country is unexplored and may well be home to unknown creatures that would look right on the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

I crossed the Mekong, from Thailand, in a wooden longboat and spent my first night in Laos in a Homestay. We ate rice and vegetables – morning glory, pumpkin and river weed – on the floor with the family (and I learned that the Lao for pumpkin is mukfuk, which, after a couple of bottles of beerloa, I found unfortunately funny). We slept on the floor, under mosquito nets – I suspect these are a luxury for tourist use only. For the paucity of their lives was obvious when we visited a local market, with few vegetables other than something that looked a bit like a turnip, and for protein – mice, rats, and squirrels.

From the Homestay, I came to Nong Khiaw, a little village by river. My room – a hut, high above the water, with balcony and hammock. There is a stretch of sand by the water, and occasional tourists make it down to paddle, a few to wash or to swim. The water – a deep green – wears the colour of the jungle. It stumbles over rocks, but does not hurry. Longboats, with angry diesel engines, ply up and down, taking local people home to their villages, or upstream to fish. Birds (too few, they are eaten here) twitter and whoop. The air is sweetly clean.

The only boating trip for tourists did not run – there are too few of us here. I could, of course, go trekking. Maybe I could hire a bike and go the caves. Or I could climb a waterfall.

Or I could sit on my hammock, listen to the water, watch as the jungle on the opposite banks tints with orange at daybreak and falls into deepest green as the sun sets. Rise out of my hammock to eat, and maybe have a massage.

What would you do?

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year in Bangkok

You're expecting fireworks? So was I. I even asked in the travel agent's where was the best place to see them. Go to the bridge, she said - and marked the relevant bridge on my map.

So we - Anthea (from New Zealand, also travelling alone) and I headed for the bridge, diverted only briefly towards a park where thousands were watching what we were told was a Buddhist ceremony and, at that point, sounding like a modern Opera. We left them to their devotions. It was New Year - we wanted fireworks.

But now the tide of the crowd worked against us. We stopped to ask - go back to the park, the young man said. The only way to see fireworks from the bridge is to climb the gantry. Which, even after a couple of New Year beers, seemed like a bad idea. Besides, the park is a huge open space - we'd see fireworks from there.

By the time we returned the opera was over, replaced by chanting - the hypnotic Buddhist chanting that can only be achieved by magical breathing. Thousands of the faithful were sitting on the grass, hands held before them in devotion, as the ebb and flow of singing wafted round them. We edged between them and found a place to sit. The stage - even the big screens - were too far away to see much. But nobody minded - we all sat, in delicious contemplation - while the chanting went on, and on, and on. The grumble of traffic, the smell of diesel and street food - it all fell away.

And in the sky - Chinese lanterns rose into the night sky from all corners of the city. They have a Buddhist significance that is lost on me - but they dotted the darkness with a thousand pinpricks of light at they sailed off towards the stars.

A giant clock on the screen ticked round towards midnight. And still the monks chanted, and the devoted sat in silence with their prayers. The seconds passed, 58, 59, 00 - and it was 2013 and there may have been a brief collective sigh. The chanting continued and still we sat, in glorious tranquility, the flashes of fireworks in the distance making no impact on the silent crowd nor chanting monks.

Slowly people began to shuffle, to stand, and to drift away. We headed back into the streets of the city, met with thumping music from cafes, people lighting fireworks in the street, drunken revellers kissing whoever happened to be near. I am sure they enjoyed their evening. But my silent New Year - I don't suppose I'll ever know another like it.

Sawasdee pii mai ka. Happy New Year.