Sunday, November 15, 2009

Last 3 days in Luang Prabang + Bangkok

The day after our homestay in the Hmong village, we decided to have a chill day and went to Wat Xieng Thong because a store that sells ethnic masks was supposed to be right next to it. After much searching, it was double confirmed that the store had closed down. Bummer. We did go inside the Wat though, and it was lovely. It even had some cool images of Buddhist Hell, something you don't normally see represented in temples.

After the Wat we had a lazy time shopping, window shopping, and having lunch by the Mekong. Around 4:30 we headed out for a sunset cruise (1 hour) of the Mekong. Lovely! We were the only 3 passengers on a boat built for 20 and it was really great to get to see monks swimming/bathing, fishermen fishing, and even a gas station on a boat. The sunsets in Laos have been very quick and not very colorful, but this one was at least not overcast and of course very charming. After dinner we ran into Mike from Oregon (who we met a few days before) and he recommended we take a cooking class from the Tamnak Lao Three Elephants Cooking School. This was really good luck because we had been discussing whether or not to go on a boat ride to the Buddha Cave (cave with lots o' small Buddhas in it), and none of us were terribly psyched to go. So the next morning Isaac, Kat, and I went and did the all day cooking class.

Actually, the first thing we did was get up at dawn to see the monks receive alms. This is a really well-known activity that lots of tourists visit and photograph. There are signs all over Luang Prabang asking people to be respectful, photograph from a distance, and not disturb the monks. Let me tell you, it was a circus. We all agreed that it was probably the most disgusting example of "bad tourists" that we have ever seen, anywhere. People in the monks faces, wearing skimpy clothes, having friends take their pictures standing right next to the monks, etc. I took the picture below, which is even before things got really crazy. I wanted to photograph the bad tourists more but I was so embarrassed to be holding a camera at that point I just wanted to put it away and watch the alms giving in silence. I guess not every experience traveling is a good one. According to this link, the monks don't want to continue the charade... it's sad it has become what it is now.

So, back to the cooking class. We learned how to make lots of great Lao food (and ate it!), went to the market to look at vegetables, and had what were undoubtedly the coolest group of people in our cooking class. We had a recovering investment banker from South Africa, A UN human trafficking specialist from Australia via Spain, 2 US Army wives living in Okinawa but teaching in Vientiane for a few months, and an American couple living in Yokohama working for/in the US Navy. Everyone loved the class and afterward Kat, Isaac and I went with Joey and Julia (the American couple) to have Lao Lao and walk through the night market again. It was a really fantastic time with a great group of people.

Our last day in Luang Prabang Isaac and I took off on our own to explore some different areas of the town. We ran into Wayne, the South African, and he suggested that we go to Utopia, a bar/restaurant overlooking the river. We did and it was a really nice way to waste an afternoon, if I do say so myself. Also, Isaac and I went into what I thought was a clothing store and Isaac bought another large awkwardly shaped instrument. I'm serious. Only Isaac could find the one thing in the store that we couldn't bring on the airplane, again. At least they could ship it for us! And it really is a lovely Hmong flute-organ thing. It sounds cool too.
After that we went to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, which had some fascinating exhibits. And...drum-roll... I was able to buy an authentic fair trade mask made in Laos. Score!

We met back up with Kat and hung out a little bit for our last night.
The next day we flew to Bangkok, where we planned on buying some cheap clothes. The first few malls we went to were impressive in their Tokyo-esque new and shininess, but disappointing in that they were more expensive than the US. We went to the Puma store, where Isaac is very familiar with the prices, and confirmed this. More expensive! Lame. But we eventually stumbled on MBK mall, a haven for cheap deals and fake Prada bags. I didn't really want any fake bags but we did find a few items of cheap clothes, had some surprisingly good cheap meals, and hung out in the arcade for way too long. We are dorks. One funny thing was I saw a (fake) Esprit watch that I wanted, and was attempting to talk the woman down from her price of the equivalent of about $23. The watchband, which was embossed with the words "Genuine Leather", was clearly not genuine leather. When I pointed this out, she started saying the thing that all shop keepers seem to say when you question the purity of a silver item: "It's 80%". About half way through saying it she realized how ludicrous that statement was and started laughing. Which made me laugh. We laughed together for a minute, she lowered the price a bit more, and of course I had to buy it then. I mean, come on. The watchband was 80% leather, right?

So that's it - the end of the journey in South-East Asia. For now. It was a very nice trip, and felt great to be back there. :)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

coming along nicely

Due to work, jet lag, jet lag, rolling around in clean sheets, showering with hot water, drinking straight from the tap and an untimely cold on Isaac's part, we have yet to finish our Laos blog entries. Actually, I have had the last entry written for days, but I can't post it until we get the photos re sized and sparkly. and I just don't have the energy at this very moment. Because you can just imagine how many episodes of Project Runway we had to watch after 3 weeks away. You understand.
Also I am concerned that the last blog entry, like all my other blog entries, is too long. Although thank you Kat for the tip about paragraphs. If you are a loyal reader and have been admiring the segmented quality of my last few blogs, thank Kat. But once again laziness will probably take over and you guys will just get the entire post all at once, like unstoppable verbal diarrhea. You're welcome for that mental image.
Because I know everyone enjoys images with blog posts, I have included this completely unrelated and gratuitous image. It is a rare self portrait that I took while almost kicking Lisa's face. Yes those slippers are real sheep skin. No you may not have a copy of this picture.
Again, you're welcome:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Our homestay in a Hmong village

When we got to the Hmong village where we would be spending the night, Kia explained that we would be spending the night in the village chief's house. The village chief also ended up being the village Shaman, school master, and former medicine man too. Score! All the children were staring at us for prolonged periods, open mouthed, as if we couldn't see them back. This was to be a theme during our stay, but more on that later.

Kia explained that since it was a Saturday, there was no school so most kids were either working or in their homes, and most of the adult villagers were harvesting crops (as they do every day during the harvest seasons) and wouldn't be back until dinner time. It was about 2 pm and Kat, Isaac and I hadn't expected to be at the village quite so early as we had thought the other village stops would take longer. Since this was a custom trip G.D. set up just for us, I guess all bets were off. It was very quiet and Kia didn't really put his heart into trying to facilitate conversation - the three of us sat with Kia and the chief in his house in the near dark (there were no windows and the village didn't have electricity for lights) for a while and it was a little bit awkward. Eventually we all got to asking each other questions - the chief wanted to know our jobs, if Isaac and I have kids, and of course had to ask Kat "what are you?". As saying "American" was, of course not accepted, she has learned to quickly add "Korean" which then lead to more questions about why she moved to America (she told him she was 5, so it wasn't really her choice), and if her parents left because of the war (how old do they think Kat is???).

Then we got to ask him some questions - he has 11 kids, aged 35 to 2, his wife was working in the fields and would be spending the night near the fields rather than trek back to the village (unfortunately that meant we never got to meet her), he became chief by being elected. Elections are every 4 years and the stipend is very small so he still needs to make money from farming.

After some more interesting conversation, Kia went to take a mid day nap and Kat, Isaac and I went to go take photos of the village and walk around. The Chief's 2 youngest daughters were following us around from a distance(age 4 and 7, I would estimate), and were truly adorable. The picture at the top of the post is the older daughter and grandson, the man with no shirt is the chief, and the younger daughter is the picture below the chief. I would also like to add that even the 4 year old was working. She had a large baby, maybe 1 or 1.5 years old and literally half her size, strapped to her back and was doing an admirable job of attempting to rock and shush him since he was screaming his head off for about 3 hours straight. I later learned that the baby's dad is her older brother and the baby's mom was working in the fields all day, which is why the baby was so upset. When the mother did get home around 5pm, she also had a small infant strapped to her back. She had been doing the same work as the men in the fields all day, just with a baby strapped to her back. These women are no joke. Working their butts off from age 4, apparently! We passed out some books, which were well received, and Kat gave out pencils to all the local kids we saw. The kids didn't beg but were very happy to get the pencils. At one point we didn't know if we had enough to give to a new group of kids so we put the pencils away. One little girl who had seen other kids get pencils from afar kept looking at the other kids' pencils with a really sad longing in her face, but didn't say a word. No begging here either. Kat and I did a quick head count and decided we did have enough to give her and the other kids pencils and they were so happy!

When dinner time arrived Kia cooked us a simple meal of choko (local veggie) and chicken soup, sticky rice, and one other dish made of local greens. It was delicious, although my belly was still wonky from the bumpy ride. I forced myself to eat something so they wouldn't loose face, and took a cipro in case my upset stomach was the start of getting sick. Kia apologized for the simple food and accommodations and we explained that we were very happy with them - we wanted the authentic experience! We defiantly got one. Bathing was in public from a spigot in the middle of town (They bathe together but with sarongs on to cover up). Seeing as how everyone was still stopping what they were doing to stare at us, we all decided to just wash our hands and faces and brush our teeth. The toilet was a squat toilet outhouse behind the main house, and they had Isaac, Kat, and me all sleep on the same raised platform together. This was fine with us although very different from the Lowland Lao house, where Isaac and I were asked to sleep separately even though they probably thought we were married. The roof was tin, walls were wood plank, and floor was packed dirt. While we had dinner chickens, dogs, and cats all came and went and were either allowed to stay or forcefully kicked out seemingly at the whim of the house's inhabitants.

Picture above: Cooking dinner

Before bed we all sat by candlelight/flashlight and talked some more. It was really great to get to know the chief and ask him questions about the Hmong, about his life, and his family. He gave us all a drink of Lao Lao from a bottle that had been packed with Lao Lao and large 1 to 1.25 inch bees (a tonic that "makes you strong!" we were promised). I only had a tiny sip because of my belly. The chief invited us to sit with his family and eat a bit more, which we all did even though we weren't hungry, because he was being so polite and generous. Soon after we went to bed and my arms stomach and thighs broke out in small hives which made sleep really hard. Luckily I had brought the cortisone cream from our first aid kit (we only had our little day packs, the big packs were in the Green Discovery office in Luang Prabang). So now the mystery is, am I allergic to Cipro (never have been before), the bee juice or something else? My dad is deathly allergic to honey bee stings, and I can't remember if I have ever been stung by one. I guess I need to see an allergist when we get back to the states. I feel fortunate it was just hives and not something more severe, since the nearest emergency-ready hospital was in Bangkok!

The roosters started crowing at 4am and everyone in the house started getting up, and the 3 of us tried to sleep a bit longer since it was still pitch black. One funny thing was the kids, and not just the 4 year old, kept stopping by our bed and pointing the flashlight at us and continuing to stare. It was so funny - I knew from earlier that they didn't seem to have a sense we can see them staring at us, but with a flashlight 6 inches from your face in the middle of the night, come on! Opening my eyes and moving didn't seem to get the message across that they were blinding me, so I finally would very sweetly say "good morning" and that would send the kid and their flashlight running. It's amazing that they didn't seem to know I could see them back until I talked to them!

The next morning we had bread, leftover sticky rice, and more leftover choko from the soup for breakfast. Then we went for a walk with Kia and the Chief to see their herb garden, where they grow their herbal medicines. The Chief explained that sometimes foreigners come to stay with them for a week or two to study their knowledge of medicinal plants. They even had a German stay with them for a year and a half in 1996. Still, judging by the kids' reactions I think maybe it's been a little while since falang have spent the night. We gave the Chief the rest of the books from Big Brother Mouse, to give out to kids or to the school. He looked at several of them with the youngest daughter and she seemed really curious about them. I think we may have a future reader on our hands! Before we left the Chief showed us some dried animal's feet (looked kind of like a large rodent, sort of), and said they were something Shamans give Hmong people for protection. He wanted to know if we could take them home with us. We asked Kia what animal they were from, but he said he didn't know of the English name since we don't have them in the west. Then we asked if they were rare, and Kia didn't understand the word "rare" or "endangered". So we had him ask the chief - "Are there many of these animals in the forest? Or not so many?" He asked the chief and the answer was "Oh no, not many at all". Ah. So we had to regrettably tell him thank you, we are very honored at his generous gift, but no, customs would not let us keep them if there are not many left. I can only imagine the hot water we might have landed in if we had tried to bring some exotic semi extinct animal's paws home. Yikes.

Picture above: The central room of the house. The bed with the mosquito net is where the three of us slept.

The stay was really great for all of us, and I think especially moving for Kat. She really wanted to stay longer and wants to go back with Kiru (her husband) in the future. I loved it too, and I'm not sure how much of it was my belly problems, but I felt one night was probably good for me. It was a tiny bit like camping and I was so hot and sweaty by the next day I couldn't wait to shower. Isaac and I both agreed we liked the first homestay a bit better (partially because Udon was such a great guide), and Kat liked the Hmong homestay best, because the Chief and his family had been so wonderful. We all agreed that we felt very happy and lucky for the opportunity to get to spend the night in the village.

Next up: Back to Luang Prabang!

On our way to a homestay in a Hmong village

After our homestay on the Balaven Plateau with the Lowland Lao village, we were eager to do another homestay near Luang Prabang. Our goal was to stay with a village of minority tribe people or Hmong people. Sorry for the long post, but there is much to tell.

We went to the Green Discovery office because we had such a good experience with them in Pakse, and they showed us several options for 2-3 day treks with overnights in a village. The treks would be minimum 5 hours trekking, intermediate level, crossing streams, partially in open fields (blazing sun) or jungle (bugglies and harder trekking). Seeing how I broke a sweat walking through the night market at 9pm, none of these details sounded like fun to me. Kat and Isaac had been more excited about trekking than me but the massive wave of heat at every corner was dampening their spirits, which was good for me as that put us all on the same page in terms of only trekking out of necessity. G.D. also had a one day trip that involved seeing a few Hmong and Kamu villages by car and returning same day. I asked if they could customise a trip for us, essentially tacking on a homestay to the end of the car/village visit. They said ok. I love Green Discovery!

They hooked us up with a Hmong Guide named Kia, who was pretty good but not nearly as into being a guide as Udon. I asked Green Discovery if they thought buying pencils for the village kids was a good idea, since the kids at our other village stops had really wanted some pencils. It's not good to encourage begging for anything but Udon had explained to us that not having money for pencils meant the kids couldn't practice writing, and in some cases couldn't go to school. Green Discovery thought it was a good idea so Kat, Isaac, and I all agreed to give some out and if the kids were begging too much then we would just give some to an adult in the village to pass out instead. We also stopped by Big Brother Mouse, a non profit in Luang Prabang that writes and publishes childrens' books in Lao and Lao/English to get kids into reading. Fully stocked with books and pencils, we were on our way.

Our first stop was at village that was half Hmong and half Lao. What a difference between the houses! The Lao ones were partially concrete, raised, and seemed more expensive and sturdy. The Hmong ones are wooden with dirt floors, and smaller. Kia explained some interesting facts about the Hmong, their spirit worship (they are animist, not Buddhist), and how they have 2 doorways to every house but the second doorway is only for family so we must never go through the wrong door or else it will anger the spirit of the house. You can also never sleep with your head facing that door.

The village Shaman invited us into his house, showed us his house alter, and even though he appeared to be of very modest means, he gave us all a root similar to a sweet potato and invited us to have a snack. It was very nice of him and the root was also very good, mild and mostly water. We said thank you and checked out the next village.

The next 2 villages were primarily Khmu (I say primarily because it seems that a lot of the Hmong and minority villages that have been forced by the government to relocated from the highlands now live next to one and other in combined villages). I was noticing that none of the Khmu or Hmong were dressed in their traditional clothing, which was to be expected but still disappointing. That's modernization for you. We gave out some books and pencils to some very shy kids (no begging here) who would take them and pretend to ignore the books until they thought we weren't watching. Then they would all gather around a book and start looking at the pictures (and hopefully read it too!).

We also saw an old Khmu lady doing needlepoint, and Kia said it was for the night market in Luang Prabang. He pointed out that the pattern, which I had seen sold in many different stalls in the night market, was a Hmong pattern. Kia said all the Khmu make Hmong textiles because that's what sells. I asked him why the westerners don't like Khmu handicrafts, and he said "you tell me, you're the westerner!" Fair enough. But I couldn't get him to describe what Khmu traditional handicrafts look like, so I guess it will remain a mystery for now.

We had a picnic lunch at a beautiful place overlooking the valley on our way up the mountain. Unfortunately I was getting car sick from the bumpy, windy road, so I wasn't able to eat much. The village we were headed to was up a mountain, only 60km away from Luang Prabang but about 2.5 hours away because of the roads.

Next up: our stay in the Hmong village!