Monday, May 26, 2014

From Opium to Oolong: A Day Trip to Doi Mae Salong

The geometry of this region was just stunning.

The view from the Phra Boromathat chedi devoted to the Queen Mother.
As part of the weekly schedule at the Friendly Farm near Chiang Rai, we would work a brief morning shift on Saturdays and then had the opportunity to accompany them to the city for the late afternoon and evening, at the end of which we would meet up and ride back home. We had Sundays off.

One week, having read of the nearby historic town of Mae Salong—where some Kuomintang from China hid out following the 1949 revolution, and where one of the king’s Royal Projects has transitioned the mountain slopes’ agricultural production from opium poppy to tea and other legal cash crops, and where there’s a wat—we decided to check it out.

Having spent Saturday night in Chiang Rai so that we could rent a motorcycle and zoom up the mountain Sunday morning, we commenced our zoom: Step driving, Pil clinging with both hands to the seat-bar behind him. It was a long, buttbone-battering trip. Our poor little motorcycle huffed and puffed its way up a steep grade, and more than once I, at least, thought we were going to have to push it. We coasted on truly the ghost of fumes into a little village high on the mountain and successfully filled up the tank. “Mae Salong?” we asked, pointing at the ground where we were standing. They shook their heads and pointed farther up the mountain. Puttputtputtputtputtputt-puttputtputt...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Horses and Puppies and Roosters, Chiang Rai!

Who would have thought that I would go to Thailand to train horses? I had a conniption when I first found this farm listed on WWOOF: five horses?! I had to go. I made us go. So we went.

Appaloosa Stables, subdivision Friendly Farm LLC, is run by Hans and Aye, who have lived in Chiang Rai for nearly twenty years. They started out running a guesthouse, but Aye's Thai restaurant was so much more popular that they stopped letting people sleep there and just called it Aye's. Then Hans opened an Italian place, but expats kept storming the counter with requests for this many olives or that many slices of cheese that there's now a deli shop around back. That's three restaurants, and counting. One of the lovely perks of this arrangement was that we ate delicious leftover restaurant food (hang leh three times a week, mmm) and every Saturday headed out into town for a meal on the house and a stroll through the weekly Walking Street, which is the Thai equivalent of the mall. Everyone hangs out at the mall on a Saturday night.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spa Days in Vieng Thong

We took a bus west from Sam Neua, on our journey out of Laos. The first stopover was Vieng Thong, where we took our first shower in five days. Yes, it had been too cold to shower.

Vieng Thong has this hot spring, and it was a miracle after the frigid north. All we really did was flop around in the warm water and soft-boil our eggs in the hot springs, which emitted sulfurous burps every once in an odd while. Might have been because everyone and their three adorable sons cooked their eggs in the spring. Those three boys, no older then ten, came jumping over the rocks with a plastic bag of eggs on a stick, which they stuck into the water entire and waited for impatiently, asking every once in a while with a poke whether it was done yet (no). I asked them whether they came every day to cook, and they said yes; their mother followed not far behind with an enormous basket of greens and long green eggplants. It must be such a blessing to have a free source of cooking heat.

The view from the bridge.

Look at how much algae grows here! And how green!
The road to the hot spring is dotted with open-air shacks on one side, selling papaya salads and roasted tidbits, and both times we passed it we were invited to have a beer with a group of young Laos. (Frankly everyone was much nicer in Vieng Thong than in frigid Sam Neua, with the exception of our favorite Jeep-driving furniture dealer, and I think it has to do with the year-round presence of warm water. It made me so much happier to be warmer, and I was just there for two days). The second time, this young man invited us to play petang, the local spin on pétanque, with his sister. We'd played the night before, at a beer place that definitely didn't sell food but had four petang courts. We suspected it was a drinking game. I would like to remind you that this is a game where you throw lead balls underhand.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Sound Must Have Been Deafening: Nine Years in the Vieng Xai Caves

Our next stop in chilly northern Laos was the small lakeside town of Vieng Xai, a historically decisive place for the future of Laos during the Vietnam War. Definitely one of my very favorite places from our time in the country. It’s something about the tall mist-shrouded cliffs jutting up around the town, the silence, the gray sky, the two small lakes, and the earnest people we met.

First of all, we caught a morning ride on a totally sardine-packed bus going from Sam Neua to another destination, and just got off partway at Vieng Xai. Both of us stood in the aisle. In the space between our jolly driver and the front door alone, at least ten people stood, crouched, and perched, and there was probably at least one chicken, somewhere. As we peeled out of the station, said jolly driver clicked on some sweet Lao jams, thumping his hand against the wheel and singing along. It was great. When it was our stop, the entire bus group collectively yelled for the driver to stop and let us out. We walked with our packs the kilometer or so from where the bus dropped us into town.

What we looked like, in the bus. Note the Step-sized bag of chilies.

That afternoon we toured a network of caves in the surrounding cliffs. For nine years (1964-1973), while the US carpet bombed the country, hundreds (eventually) of Lao civilians not only lived inside these caves alongside the leaders of the Pathet Lao—the Lao Party or Lao Nation—but in fact fought off the planes with antiaircraft guns and founded the current communist government. Nine years.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Phonsavanh: A Study in Dust

We came to the town of Phonsavan as a staging point for our visit to the nearby Plain of Jars. Going there, you wouldn't expect such archaeological wonder to be tucked around the corner. The city itself isn't really a city, either; hardly any buildings are within twenty feet of one another and all the streets are twice as wide as normal to allow for massive freight trucks to drive through from China and Vietnam. The hotels are all Soviet block style with Chinese names and abundant neon, nearly identical down to the cavernous reception areas, awkwardly arranged with masses of heavy, carved, varnished wood furniture; like they expected a whole crowd of businessmen to storm in and have a meeting within sight of the door. At our hotel, we had an entire floor, and a very long hallway, all to ourselves, in an inexplicable corner room with no windows. Just past the lobby, an alarmingly large pile of UXO was inside a closet-sized chain-link cage that didn’t even have a solid roof.

Bomb as planter.

Even communists have gods.
There aren't enough people to fit the outsized streets and buildings of the city, that's what makes it feels so desolate. Not even the restaurants felt inhabited. We were looking for nok aen dawng, fermented swallows, and sought out one hotel restaurant where we'd read that it could be found. The dining room turned out to be tightly packed with the same heavy, shiny teak furniture as every other hotel in Phonsavanh, but it was devoid of people, besides the receptionist. The walls were the kind you find in corporate offices: tinted glass and cheap metal rims. We had missed breakfast; the cook had gone home. Nevertheless, we had a cup of (bitter) coffee and spent some time writing. Hardly any daylight made it from the lobby through to the dining room. The décor was like a strange approximation of an Americana lodge (or diner?), with license plates, animal heads, and the ubiquitous forty-year-old literal bombshells all hung neatly on the walls. We were the only customers for the hour and half we were there.

We were there in the high season, ostensibly when the most people are visiting Laos, but it felt like there was hardly anyone there (Lao, farang, or otherwise). Incongruous fields of rice and cattle divided the northern and southern halves of the town. Next to where we rented our motorbike was a run-down snooker hall with the same tinted glass office walls, packed with boisterous young Lao men drinking beer. When you add the red dust blown up from the unsealed roads, it felt, on the whole, like a Chinese-Western frontier town, the massive faux-marble floors of the all but vacant hotels towering fifteen floors above anything else. It was surreal.

Neon, weird building spacing, and massive Chinese hotel: classic Phonsavanh.

A little Soviet kitsch never hurt anyone, except for the economy.

The eerie hotel hallway.

Fermented swallows at the market.

Unfortunate slogan campaign by Pepsi in a country ravaged by UXO.

Very large house.

Recycling in action.

Donuts at the market, the only place that was ever busy.

How come communist propaganda always looks the same?

We didn't stay here, alas.

Bomb as nursery maid.