Wednesday, July 30, 2008

ABC Wendesday: the B's

My landlady in Vientiane gave me these fresh bananas which she had cut from the tree in my front yard. The sap is still on the stalk.

Banana leaves from that tree. Banana leaves have many uses - they can be used as coverings for tables, disposable dishes and most often, wrapping for Khao Tom, a snack made of sticky rice mixed with beans or coconut or meat and steamed.

Balancing act - woman balancing Khao Tom on her motorcycle on the way to the market.

Boundary stones on top of wall surrounding Wat Prabath in Vientiane.

Buffalo walking along road.

Bus from remote district to the main town, Salavan province.

Other participants in ABC Wednesdays can be found here and also on Mrs. Nesbitt's Place

Monday, July 28, 2008

New Family

Just thought I'd share what my calico cat just shared with me:

They were born early Saturday morning, so when I took this picture, they were less than one day old.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts on food

Plenty of folks worry about global warming, the food crisis, wars in general, etc and end with the thought, "What can I, as an individual do about this?" Here's something to ponder: Article from the Asian times. Of course, how does lack of wasting food translate to making food more available in developing countries? If people in the US are not buying so much junk food, would less demand for flour, meat and oil make this food more available for international aid relief to developing countries? I wonder if market forces would jump in - if people are not wasting so much food, meaning that there's less demand, would that drive food prices lower so farmers are selling at a loss and eventually stop producing?

I've also read that if people stopped producing meat, there would be less carbon from production of cow pies, and less deforestation to open up corn fields for animal feed. That change alone, would help reduce global warming.

Well, I've been trying to buy only local foods - cheese is difficult to cut out of my diet. I rarely eat meat. I do buy a lot of vegetables from the local market - and never get around to cooking them so there's food wasted right there. Unfortunately, even dried beans come from elsewhere so there's the energy involved in transporting them (though probably not as much as transporting slabs of meat from New Zealand, which crops up in Vientiane). Some local foods - well, as people might notice from some of my previous food entries, they're not always things that I can bear to eat.

On the other hand, with the cost of food rising and the declining value of the dollar... I may have to see what recipes I can come up with.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Food: rice crops this year

As we were returning from the village visit the other day, we passed fields and fields looking like this. The fields were wet when the farmers transplanted the rice, and then the rain stopped. Even just a few days, given the state of the soil and the depth of the water, and the ground dries out and starts to crack. Right now, the rice looks all right but another day or two...

It usually rains constantly at this time of the year - a constant heavy rain which sometimes diminishes to a drizzle but then starts down heavy again. The clouds keep the air cool and moist and the water doesn't evaporate. This year, thunderstorms provide relief from overly sunny skies and hot weather.

It's strange because it's been raining very heavily in the north. The Mekong river is very high right now, and areas of the north have been affected by the flooding, with whole fields of corn or rice washed away.

The life of the average rice farmer depends on the rain. If the skies are so unpredictable, what else can they count on in life?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Skywatch Friday 25 July 2008

My week started off in Bangkok. After my final dental appointment, I walked around Lumpini Park. It's known as the lungs of Bangkok - a large park in the busiest of the downtown area but the atmosphere in the park is fresh and very relaxed. In the morning, groups of people exercise together - from aerobics for the younger crowd to Tai Chi for the seniors and dancing with large silk fans for the more refined.

lumpini park, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

In the afternoons, the park is given over to joggers and bicyclers. An occasional couple will rent a swan-neck paddle boat for an hour.

light reflections, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Later on in the day, I fly to Ubon Ratchathani, in the southern portion of NE Thailand. The full moon in July marks the start of Buddhist Lent. The central park in Ubon and the areas around the government buildings were crowded with people enjoying the evening - and a loud fair. Earlier in the week, there was a parade of elaborately carved votive candles, representing the candles that people give to the temples to light the temples during the rainy season retreat.

votive candle, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

This is a monument to votive candles in the center of the city park.

sunset in Ubon, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

The above picture is the temple housing the city pillar.

The following morning, I walked down by the Mun River.

Mun river, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

And saw this spirit house. I imagine that people make offerings here for the spirits of the river.

sunrise and spirit house, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

This post is my contribution to Sky Watch Friday. Click on the link and see the skies around the world.

Monks on the move

Even though this is the Buddhist Lent Season, and the monks should stay in the temples, there are funerals and other evenings that require the presence of monks.

I saw this group filling up the back of this songthaew and took the picture from my car. Then I realized what the man's tee-shirt on the motorcycle said and I had to laugh. Hardly a statement of abstinence during this season!

I took this from my car as I was driving back to work. I took the overnight bus from Pakse to Vientiane and was feeling very bleary-eyed. When I saw the picture, I just had to sit up and laugh, which woke me up.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Wednesday, we also stopped at a local market.

My staff wanted to get some fish but the vendors were all sold out. Here's what they did have.

This woman was selling mushrooms, and in the foreground, fresh water mussels. I'm not sure if these are the same kinds of mussels that somehow got into US waterways. Here, they're not such a problem because natural predators - humans - keep the population down. In the north, these mussels can get as big as a kilogram in weight. They're pretty good.

I was trying to figure out if I should buy something when one of the women above showed me this:

I deferred. Some people like deep fried crickets. I'm not overly fond of them, myself.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ABC Wendesday: Angel Trumpets and Other Things

I just noticed that there's a new round of ABC Wednesdays so I thought I'd play along too. I went through some of my old photos, looking for anything labeled with A - so here are a collection of pictures involved with A somehow.

Angel Trumpets - these plants with their thick sweet smell grow all over the dusty poor soil of Xieng Khouang. But people like the white flowers, so they plant them for decoration. I'm not real partial to them, since I know how poisonous they are so I got my landlord to tear out most of them. The dramatic lighting of a storm moving in at sunset does make the flowers look pretty wild.

Ants' eggs for sale. During the war years, people ate what they could find - in particular insects and the parts of animals that Americans and Europeans wouldn't eat. Even now, though there is a greater variety of food available, people still eat these alternative forest products. The eggs of red fire ants are very delicious - in the picture, they are the white things, looking like rice, spread out on the banana leaves on the table. This is also my food entry for NaBloPoMo.

Artist at work. This man has developed a new angle on making roti, which are flat breads cooked on a hot grill and coated with plastic-like condensed milk. He has a variety of patterns that he can draw with colored dough, then he flattens the usual roti dough over the pattern. He had a line of children around him during the whole time of the boat-racing festival in my village. Both good skills and good marketing.

Angry red planet. The sun was setting, the flame trees were flaming and the red laterite dust seemed to glow. It reminded me of this film that I had seen as a kid - "The Angry Red Planet," about an expedition to Mars (I stayed overnight at a friend's house and his mom dropped us off at the theater; the first movie I had seen without an adult present). When the astronauts went outside their space ship, everything in the film was red. I also remember that they showed the surface of Mars as being covered with water, with a spectacular crystal city on the horizon. When they tried to go over there, this big fish monster chased them back - but one of the characters got bitten and they blasted off before the fish monster could get them. They all knew he was going to change into a fish monster.

Anyway, the following day, it rained when my mother came to pick me up and I freaked out - my six year old brain knew that a fish monster was lurking behind each corner. And my friend got in trouble for both choosing this film - and also sneaking to buy a bar of Bonomo's Turkish Taffy. His mother had told him not to buy sticky candy because of his newly applied braces on his teeth.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

in Pakse

Stayed overnight at the Pakse Hotel, and this was the view out the window in the morning. Even thought I have lived in Laos for nearly twelve years, I still get a catch in my breath at its beauty.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


View from the plane - Bangkok from the air.

And view about 40 minutes later as we start to descend to Ubon Ratchathani.

I have some pictures on my SWF post but here are a few food related pix. There was a loud and funny fair just off the town center in Ubon. All sorts of food, rides, and people trying to sell all sorts of things.

Here are some snacks - basically colored Marshmellow Fluff and pancakes:

And barbeque:

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Skywatch Friday 18 July

I don't think I've posted these pictures for SWF before. I took these at the end of May, as we were escorting some guests to view sites where our project has been working. The site which has improved the most is also in a remote location - although 50 kms. from the province capital, the road is difficult even during the dry season. At best it takes 4 - 6 hours to travel that distance, provided that another truck hasn't block the way or the two big rivers you have to cross can be forded.

Skywatch Friday 18 July, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

After these trips, I like to go down to the river to relax.

waterskaters, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Watch the tiny water skaters dancing around the clouds.

taoi sunset 1, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

And watch the big water skaters walking home after a day of working in the rice fields or forest, and taking a bath in the cold fresh water.

This is my contribution to Sky Watch Friday, which now has its own blog at this new location. For the last few weeks, it has gained in popularity, which meant that it needed its own space to grown. Go over there to see the best in the skies around the world.

Friday, July 18, 2008

buffalo offering

buffalo offering, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

I'm not quite sure what this is all about. As I was walking through the temple compound, on the way to the subway, I saw this pen set up in the parking lot of the temple, with three water buffalo. There were a lot of people around, each person making an offering of buying a garland, praying intensely and then draping the garlands over the necks of the water buffalo. One many sprayed water over the backs of the buffalo, though I thought I could see in their eyes the thought: "I'd rather be wallowing in mud."

Children were also milling around the pen, reaching out and lightly touching the animals' thick skins with the prickly sparse hairs, like the stiffest paint brushes. I thought of petting zoos in the malls of the US. If the water buffalo turned its head, the children would step back, their eyes wide. It then occurred to me that since these kids live in Bangkok, they don't have much experience with these animals. Not like their rural cousins, who treat the animals as large versions of a dog.

I imagine that people are praying for good harvest, plentiful food, as well as spirit of the buffalo which walks through obstacles and conquers problems with its strength. Its' also interesting because for a while, water buffaloes were losing popularity as farm animals. I remember when I was studying Thai, some 20 years ago, one of the books we read was a children's book about two water buffalo, Daeng and Dham (Red and Blackie) who lived together peacefully until they got into a fight one day. The farmer then decided to sell them (not specified but everyone knew they were going to a meat factory) and buy an 'Iron Buffalo', the famous two wheeled tractor because metal objects didn't fight.

As both Lao and Thai farmers became wealthier and saved up money, they started buying these tractors. Most folks would keep their buffalo - kind of like insurance because they could rent it out for plowing for those folks who didn't have the money, or if there were some need for money, they could also sell them. I'd often feel sad at trucks filled with animals would pass by.

Now, with the cost of gasoline and diesel climbing, farmers are returning to using water buffaloes. And the reverence these people were showing them is what they deserve.

buffalo offering2, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Descending to Bangkok

My cold struck in full force on Wednesday, so I left work early and crashed. Today is a holiday - the start of the three month rainy season retreat, known as the Buddhist Lent. I had wanted to wake up early in the morning and go to That Bhat,make offerings to the monks, but I just couldn't move and even thought about postponing the trip. Then I drank some water and my tooth twinged so I decided I would have to go.

The trip Vientiane to Bangkok by air can be simple and expensive, or complicated and less expensive. In the past, a roundtrip ticket Vte to Bangkok was not that expensive, maybe 200 USD (and sometimes cheaper if there was a special) and since I live near the airport, it's not that difficult to get over there, check in and have some coffee and relax. Now the plane fare has doubled.

So the complicated and less expensive route by air - which only happened because there are so many people traveling by train on this four day weekend that there were no seats available and I didn't want to go by overnight bus - is to get over to Nong Khai. One method involves getting on the new Lao - Thai cross border buses which fill up on weekends and holidays, especially going to Udorn, so you have to get there several hours beforehand. Or what I did was to take a tuk-tuk to the bridge; took about 45 minutes because it sounded like it was about to give out when it didn't sound like it was going to blow up/

Then, there's getting through the immigration lines. Lao can cross over to Nong Khai if they have border passes, which they should check and make sure are current. Usually, I get stuck in a line where someone's border pass has expired. When I see the person's head stuck through the open window of the immigration box, I move myself to the next line over. Only had to do that once.

After this, there's making the actual crossing. The Thai buses, which I have a picture of from two weeks ago, are regular buses. The Lao buses are 25 passenger tour buses, in poor repair. Once 50 people have gotten on, the bus leaves. It's no problem really, since the trip across the river is just five minutes. Once there, there are the lines and getting the visa on arrival on the Thai side. In the past, that goes quickly - but now that they are using barcode scanners on passports, it takes longer. The Lao with border passes are supposed to have a photocopy of their border pass and have their entry cards filled out in English. Guess what doesn't happen very often.

There are buses that go from the Thai Airways office to Udorn so I usually try to get there early enough to get a seat. I took a taxi from the bridge and the man gave me a low price - then he tried to convince me to let him drive me to Udorn. "We have enough time, I can show you sightseeing," he insisted. I got off at the Thai office, got my ticket and ate the curry shop next to it.

The curry shop has been spiffed up - they have a flat screen TV on the wall with the Thai news on. And since the last time I made this trip (maybe two years), they have remodeled the restaurant with light green tile floors, a series of fountains in the front, and a new serving table with all the curries in sparkling stainless-steel pans. One woman spoke to me in English when I ordered so I talked with her for a while. She admitted that she had studied English in Australia - she had gotten her Master's Degree there. She was embarrassed when she further admitted that now the only work she can find is with her relative's restaurant. Will have to fly again so I can get more of the story in the future.

Udorn Thani airport had not changed between the times I used to work doing refugee screening in 1989 -90 and when I returned to work in Laos. This airport was the jumping off site for Air America flights to Vientiane and Long Cheng, the center of the secret war. I remember several old buildings from those days around the airport. However, since this airport was never made into a UNESCO world heritage site, they remodeled it a few years ago, and put in an international departures and arrival area. I think there are flights to Vietnam now.

My story is nearly over. I sat in the airport, go on the plane and arrived in Bangkok, at the old Don Meuang Airport. This was very strange - Don Meuang had been closed when the flashy new Suvarnabhumi Airport was opened. However, what with cracks in one of the runways (the new airport is built on a swamp, after all) and problems with handling the number of flights, several carriers re-started domestic flights in and out of Don Meuang. It was strange seeing hardly any planes around the terminal buildings and the buildings themselves felt empty, like there were ghosts waiting in the corners.

The picture above is of vegetable and rice fields in the area north of Don Meuang, as the plane was landing.

New scenes are these new housing developments which are extending the edge of the city:

bkk sunset, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

Finally, at the end of the long day's trip (left my house at 9 am, left the office at 10 and arrived at 5 pm), I was able to lie down and watch the sunset, and start to nod off. Until I began sneezing and had to run across the street to the Seven-Eleven to get a box of tissues and drinking water.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Think I'm getting a cold...

I was going to try to post more pictures and catch up on posts this evening - but my throat is scratchy and I'm falling over asleep. These overnight bus trips and work are taking their toll.

Night all. I'll catch up when I wake up... and have some time.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Watching the skies over Pakse

I took all these pictures on Friday. The top picture is along the Xedon River in Pakse. I took it on my morning walk around town.

After an eventful day of meetings, I joined my staff and Lao government staff who work at the hospital for snacks at a raft restaurant on the Mekong River. One of my staff had gotten sick during the week and needed an emergency appendectomy at this hospital, so I toasted the doctor who had done the surgery at 2 am on Thursday. The staff person took the plane back to Vientiane on Friday, so he could be with his family for his recovery. He also brought his appendix, in formaldehyde, back with him; it was an nasty looking appendix - but fortunately, had not ruptured.

We spent part of the evening wondering where the plane in the middle picture was going. I think it's the regular Vientiane to Phnom Penh flight, which takes off around 5:30 pm. And the other part of the evening watching the fisherman heading out for an evening's work on the Mekong.

This is a slightly late contribution to Skywatch Friday, which is hosted by Wiggers World

Friday, July 04, 2008

onthe bus

onthe bus, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

This was my activity on the Fourth of July - after finishing some work in the office, I headed out to Bangkok on the overnight train. However, before boarding, you have to go through the immigration formalities at the border - first on the Lao side, with waiting in lines at the checkpoints then wait for the bus. The view across the river is very relaxing as the bus chugs to the Thai side, where you wait on more lines.

nongkhai from bridge, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

The lines today were not that bad so I got to the train station in time to have dinner and buy some food to go at this restaurant. For dinner, I had stir-fried chicken and cashews with rice, and for my late night snacks and breakfast: pat thai, stir fried thing rice noodles eaten with chiles, spring onions and peanuts, and an egg sandwich on a baguette.

shop for dinner, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

A Few Pictures from around the country

sky in rice fields, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

I had to make a trip to Bangkok last weekend, taking the overnight train in both directions. The trip down was nice because I met a new friend, and she and I talked about everything throughout the evening. She frequently goes to Laos so I hope to meet up with her sometime in Vientiane. On the way back, I woke up at 5 am, just as the sun was rising and caught many pictures of rice fields.

nongkhai, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

marigolds, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

A few weeks ago, I brought a friend to visit some of the UXO patients whom we have helped and made a side trip to the Xieng Khuan Buddha Park. It's a very strange place, with a large collection of concrete sculptures illustrating various Buddhist and Hindu tales. The second picture looks across the Mekong River to Nong Khai. The creator of the Buddha park, left Laos in 1975 when the government changed, and continued his meditation practice and teachings in a similiar park just outside NongKhai city. The picture just above is of marigolds growing in the hands of a Buddha image in meditation.

This picture is taken at sunset from the top of the Pakse Hotel in southern Laos. I was there two weeks ago, again for work.

This is my contribution to Skywatch Friday which is hosted over at Wiggers World

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Yes, it's been a million years...

since I last posted. I've been too busy to put together any entries on any of my blogs - just doing twitter to remind myself and everyone else that I'm still alive. Over this past weekend, I had some time while I was in Bangkok - then come to find out that blogspot is still blocked there! There had been controversy over blog posts and pictures about a year ago, but I thought that was all over.

Well, goes to show how long it's been since I was last in Bangkok. Up till July last year, I was going every two/ three months for doctors' and dental visits. When I went on home leave, I spent the night going and coming in the airport. That was no fun.

Which leads me to my next thought. This month on NaBloPoMo, the topic is food. So this next is about airport food.

The old Don Meuang airport, closer to central Bangkok was a pretty boring place in comparison with the new Suvarnabhumi Airport, which just opened two years ago. When I worked in Thailand in the refugee camps, I often would arrange to meet up with my refugee staff members for a last round of good-byes. One day, I met Duc who was on his way to the Philippines for cultural orientation and English language training before going to the US. I took him to the one restaurant where we could get a final bowl of noodle soup.

He was so nervous, he kept knocking things over and saying things wrong in Thai (Duc is Vietnames). The total for the bowl of soup was 100 Baht, the equivalent of 4 USD at that time. Considering that we had only been allowed to pay our refugee staff in kind for the equivalent of 10 Baht for day, he was both overly thankful and apologetic about eating. I laughed and told him that it was the time together before we parted was worth more than simple money. "Besides you don't pay to eat airport food everyday."

My overnights in the new airport were very long. Even though there were fancy shops (I've never seen such a shopping mall pass for an airport) and restaurants, all I wanted was a place to sleep and a safe plane trip.