Day 262, Mon, Jan, 22, 2001 - After waiting a gut-busting hour to use the shared facilities, we checked out and moved to another hotel – with our very own toilet (it’s the small things that really excite you after being on the road for a while). We changed money and bought the flight back to Vientiane since we’re too old to take that bus journey again. Luang Prabang was the former capital of the kingdom and home to the monarchy until the Pathet Lao took over in 1975. It is a pretty, small town with numerous wats, pleasant houses and what appears to be the most monks per capita than anywhere we’ve been. It now receives many tourists, having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site – UNESCO even called it the “best preserved historical town in Southeast Asia”. Even with the overrun of tourists, the locals are not jaded and still offer genuine smiles, waves and hellos. We walked to several wats, then along the river to where the Mekong and Nam Khan meet, along the cafes, fishing baskets, kids playing in the dirt, sunflower fields, small rice pancakes drying in the sun, monks with umbrellas, and the most amazing golden wat we've seen. We could not agree more with the folks at UNESCO.
At Wat Xieng Thong, we talked to a nice young monk who explained that the senior monk of the monastery died at 80 two days ago and the funeral was in the wat today. Inside, we saw the casket, photos and offerings of food and flowers brought for him. There were several mourners looking very sad, but the men were engaged in lively conversations. The wat itself was different than any other we had seen – with wall scenes in purple, red and pink cut glass with mirrors, and a huge gilded funeral chariot.
We continued through weaving markets and a stop at the Scandinavian bakery. As we walked around town, we kept meeting the same people from Laos and Vietnam – a regular UN of Mexico, Holland, Columbia, England, Australia, Austria, and Israel. We always share advice and information and sometimes share taxis, drinks or snacks. It’s great meeting in these circumstances because you know everyone shares some interests (namely travel, experience and cultures). Most people are in their 20’s on long journeys, but some are professionals on their annual holidays - Europeans getting enough days per year (25+) to drive Americans (10) crazy. The overwhelming majority is very cool, but there are always a few stereotypically brash arrogant “ugly Americans” (although other countries send representatives to fill this cliché as well). At the end of the day, most of us foreigners wound up on top of Phu Xi, the hill rising from the middle of the town and overlooking the river. It was pretty funny as everyone jostled to a corner of the balcony for photos when the most opportune moment of sunset came. We went back down the hill for dinner at a place with an old guy in a Nike hat, jeans and an apron over a New York Giants T-shirt. I told him they were in the Super Bowl this Sunday and he said, “Really – will they win?” I said I had no idea since I haven’t seen a game all year. Being away from home, I do miss sports, especially basketball (although I would probably be having heart attacks since my favorite teams regularly suck on national television). I do check the internet news once in a while, but whenever I call home Dad updates me on how bad they looked on TV.
Day 263, Tues, Jan 23, 2000 – This morning we had
terrible coffee at a local place, then excellent snacks at the Scandinavian
bakery down the road. They are
doing killer business with all the tourists.
We’ve found they definitely have a corner on the chocolate goodies
market since chocolate really isn’t native to this part of the world.
After breakfast we visited the former palace of the royal family, now a
museum. In an ironic foreshadowing
of the family's fate, they chose to purchase the doomed Ford Edsel - which is
kept in a pavilion behind the palace, along with other vehicles and
mementos. Inside, there's an impressive
reception hall, with shiny cut glass mosaics similar to Wat Xieng Thong which we saw
yesterday. They depicted auspicious
events in the history of the royal family, with many battles and headless
corpses floating around the room. Compared
to that, the royal bedrooms were very Spartan – just plain beds and dressers
– more like a Quaker minister’s residence than a King’s.
The museum contained an impressive array of gifts sent from other
countries, including a moon rock and flag sent by the USA.
The plaque reads as follows:
"This fragment of rock is from the Taurus Littrow
Valley of the moon.
"This flag of your nation was carried to the moon.
"This flag of your nation was carried to the moon.
In 1973 America had just finished bombing the shit out of
Laos, dropping more bombs per capita than anywhere else in history.
After the museum we visited some other wats and had the best banana and pineapple smoothies in the world.
We met some people (again) and arranged
to share a boat down the Mekong to the Ki Sang waterfall.
The ride was fun, in a very small wooden longboat with baby wooden chairs.
It tilted precariously as everyone got in and when we sat down the
waterline went above our seats. We
talked to Clay and Jessica who work in the US Embassy in China.
They are here on holiday since it is freezing back home.
They updated us on the Chinese news – the Falung Gong crackdowns,
Tiannamen Square, trade, Taiwan, and intellectual property rights.
Like most other countries, they are pretty worried that we elected a
president that appears to have learned little about the world, although his Dad
was stationed in China for years and worked in the White House
for 8 years.
The waterfall was a 1-hour boat, five-minute walk, 15-minute pickup
truck, and a 10-minute walk from the pier behind the palace.
It was worth the effort, the waterfall was about 100 meters high and 50
meters wide and broken into dozens of individual showers.
Unfortunately, they were not suitable for diving as in Hawaii, but we
swam in the cold turquoise water and scrambled over the mineral edges of the
waterfall, which fall over four levels. We
noticed a path leading up to the back of the waterfall, but it was getting late
and our driver was calling us in and his daughter was anxious to get back home.
the way back we got a new view of the sunset over the Mekong with pink clouds.
Day 264, Wed, January 24, 2001 – After breakfast, we had time for a short walk around town for shopping and photos, concentrating on the incredible and beautiful faces of the people and kids. We can’t stop running into monks – they are everywhere, smiling in saffron robes – some with umbrellas to keep the scorching sun from their shaved heads.
No taxis were available, so we had to take a motorcycle sidecar to the airport. Our driver had the now-familiar long fingernails we had seen all over Asia – the traditional indication that he did not do manual work – now growing them so long is just a habit, affectation, tradition, or for scratching purposes. The ride was a riot, as this poor little 350cc-or-so bike had never been loaded with so much weight before. We were sure we would miss our flight as we were constantly passed on the road by bicycles. Every time we approached a little hill I thought I’d have to get off and push.
We amazingly made it and the flight was a short prop plane deal, offering us the same views the “Air America” pilots had over their bombing targets. In Vientiane we checked into the Lang Xang hotel for a change of pace, then went to the National Museum, which reminded us of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, with its descriptions of “neo-colonialist imperialist American aggressors and their puppets”. We tried to ask some questions to learn some more, but we couldn’t find any guides that spoke English. We walked through a wat and talked to monks. One said “yes, my parents and my village received many bombs during that time, but that is in the past. But I am a monk – I cannot think of that. Some people still hate French and American, but most in the older generation”. It was heartening to hear.
On the way home, we passed a crowded schoolyard and I played basketball with some kids – some were pretty good. It was nice to find that although I may have lost a couple steps in speed and my vertical leap was cut in half from 2 inches to 1 inch, I can still hit the open man and stroke an open jumper when the opportunity presents itself. We went back to a bookstore we visited before and interviewed the clerk there:
Back at the hotel, CNN had a special on about the Kumbh
Mela festival in India – it’s a sacred Hindu pilgrimage that only happens
every 12 years – which is a good thing since some 70 million people will take
part in the 43-day rush to bath in the holy Ganges River, primarily in Alhamabad.
They’ve already lost 17,000 people – and found them with 4,500
loudspeakers. We’re kind of glad
we missed it.
Day 265, Thur, Jan. 25, 2001 – We woke to say a sad goodbye to another fascinating country – probably the most mellow and relaxed of any we have visited. We had a buffet breakfast for a change and a free van to the airport, where we interviewed some hilarious young folks working there:
"To be happy. to be ambitious about it"
"The future - I want to have a house"
In the duty-free shop we bought some “Laos Best” liquor just because it had such a great label – a huge thumbs up.
At the end of a short flight to Bangkok, all the passengers let out a gasp as a bag arrived on the luggage conveyor belt all torn up. We thought, “uh oh, this is it – our first major luggage incident of the trip”. Another bag came out messed up too, but the rest were OK. Customs was hardly stopping anyone, which was weird considering we had just come from Laos, the third-largest grower of opium in the world and the crowd on our plane looked pretty scruffy. We still have nightmares about Southeast Asian prisons after seeing Joaquin Phoenix hung in Return To Paradise. We got an easy taxi ride over the new highway to our reunion with the Sheraton, which also reunited us with Wheely Beast, starting the onerous task of unpacking, weeding through all our crap, preparing a shipment home, and repacking for the next trip. Had a quick lunch at our favorite local noodle bar, at the river city shopping center next door, then Helen came by with a darling little girl she’d “borrowed” from some friends touring from home (it’s OK, she’s a nanny back in the real world). The girl was a bit shy, but a good test for some toys we got as gifts for our nieces and nephews.
The big news as we return to Thailand is that Thaksin won
by a landslide (vote-rigging or not). Now
he actually has to start making good on his outrageous campaign promises –
like guaranteeing 1 million baht (or US$23,000) in cash for each of 80,000
villages to do with as they see fit. The
news back home is not much better – according to the 1/25/01 Bangkok Post, a
driver in L.A. was shot dead because he didn’t proceed through a broken red
light. We also picked up the
Christmas issue of Time Magazine: “The amount African governments spend on
repaying debt and interest: $12 billion, twice as much as education. The
proportion of industrial countries GDP that is donated as aid to developing
Later we went back to infamous Pat Pong, shopped, had some
home cooking (i.e. McDonalds), and had some beers at some of the more memorable
places we’d been. Since this was
Helen’s first trip to Bangkok, we couldn’t leave without seeing the
requisite “shows”. We only got the
standard cover charge scam twice. It
was interesting to say the least - a trip into the bowels of these clubs is
definitely not for the prudish or faint of heart. Afterwards, we headed up
the road and found a local bar that had live music.
We stayed for a few songs because we enjoyed the singing; they even
played Hotel California, which made us a bit homesick.
It seems to be the theme song of Asia for us.
If you would like to follow our adventures in Thailand, please click here: Photojournal January 26 - February 3, 2001
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