Slow Life LAOS – 4000 Islands, Don Phet, Vientiane 23rd November 2010

 

Oh, how the sun shines bright on Charlie Chaplin……………..

THE ATOMIC ORANGE, on a Mekong daze

The sun is setting over 4000 islands. Like an atomic orange, on the verge of meltdown. In the opposite corner we have the silver plate of Mr Moon, it’s a inter-planetary stand-off. There will be no real winners here.  A ‘long tail’ boat put-puts by on the gentle current, its cargo, cages of dogs for the pot further down.  Where did he begin?  From the mighty Chinese Himalayas it flows down to the vast Mekong Delta in Vietnam.  White cranes fly by low, in arrow formations. 

I leave Laos for Cambodia in the morning, I can see the black outline of hills and dense jungle over this Mekong. The land of the Khymer civilisation and the wicked, agrarian ‘Rouge’. I’m heading to the empty north-east region known as the dragon’s tail first.  Tomorrow I brave the border, a shock of concrete bureaucracy and corruption that always gives me the heebie-jeebies. I also have no money. My only leverage with these uniformed lizards is a winning smile and some random Laos and Cambodian words.

In this hut, my Laos coffee sits steaming under my ripped hammock, the colour and texture of a coal smoothie and almost as palatable. First brew of the morning (its now dawn and the atomic orange has returned) brings tears to the eyes and thumping jolt to the internal organs. I hear a cacophony of chickens, pigs, buffalo, babies, baby buffalo and lizards.  The snakes are subdued, reserved.   Toktoktoktoktoktoktoktoketoketoke TOKE, TOKE, TOKE. My resident Toke gecko, Rover, makes me aware that it is early morning. Sounding like an old motorcycle being cranked on a frosty morning, I have come to respect its perseverance and sense of rhythm.  The beige frog and green locust in my toilet keep the mosquito population down, all together we are quite the happy family. 

TOKE TOKE TOKTOKTOKTOKTOKTOKTOK TOKE!

I’m on one of the alleged 4000 islands poking out of the Mekong. The river is 14 km wide here and most of the islands are small and uninhabited. Many simply used for farming crops. Yesterday we hired bikes and boats, flowing in a fug and a daze around the islands, some with bridges some without. The locals live a simple, rural life. The gringos sit in the Darren’s bakery munching on cinnamon rolls and smoking fat doobies. As we cycle through the clusters of stilted houses, women look up from the rice fields, toiling away with small sickles and pointed bamboo hats. They smile brightly and wave. The men are gathered around the houses, generally playing cards (”women of the world take over, if you don’t the world will come to an end and it wont take long” Jim O’Rourke) and boozing on miscellaneous moonshine. They occasionally stagger over to the arcane thrashing machinery, grab clumps of rice husks that are drying in the baking sun and give it a whirl. The kids are generally playing with mud and diving into the river off trees.  Laughing.  The harvest is in full effect, on Laos time.

We stop when we hear a great crashing of water. Its majestic. The entire Mekong spills over a huge stretch of volcanic rock strata, creating a myriad of falls and rapids. The Kong Phaneng falls.  I have seen nothing like this, the awesome force of moving water, since I gazed upon the Victoria Falls with younger eyes. The spray hits our faces, welcome under this ferocious sun and I buy a chilled fresh coconut, eating its flesh afterwards.  Somewhere around here there are the nearly extinct Irrawady dolphin. 

Laos is a peaceful place. The people are genuine, innocent and very pleasant. Bo Phan Yan – No problems, seemingly the national moto.   During the time of the Vietnam war, the U.S. dropped more bombs here than in the entire WWII.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Laos)  Making Laos one of the most bombed countries in history, the land is still dotted with cluster mines, maiming and killing hundred eat year.( http://www.unicef.org/graca/mines.htm) It’s a communist, one party state, but the ethos seems more of ‘communalism’.  People share everything and live together, the word for ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ are the same.  Laos being one of the poorest nations, most people live in small villages, so the community is essential to life.  Wonderful to see, the opposite energy of what you feel back ‘home’. 

Vientiane (the city of Sandalwood) is a lazy capital, slow in pace and in development.  Its one of the hardest ‘regimes’ to do business in as a foriegner.  Traffic meanders through the wide, tree-lined streets.  The small Thai town on the otherside of the Mekong seems to have a greater infrastructure than the Laos capital.  But this is a big part of the charm.  A riverside promenade is being finished and statues of historical Laos heroes are a being erected.  Most bearing swords.  The general atmosphere, in architecture and bread shape, is French. Certain city blocks could be a faded 50’s French seaside resort, bar the occasional wat and stupa. The wats stand tall above all other structures, home to the local Theravada monks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theravada), with tall layered roofs and normally golden adornments. Dragons seem a regular character here, with emerald and blue effigies of buddha.

I spend many sunsets on a wonky, stilted bar over another stretch of the Mekong, drinking BeerLaos with ice through a straw.  Accompanied by a doberman and good friends.  Watching the fisherman tend to their nets and gather normally paltry reward. I wonder what it would be like to swin to the otherside. 

During my time here, Vientiane celebrated its 450th birthday. Centred around Ban Luang stupa, the national symbol of Laos (which houses the remains of a 7 headed naga demon which fought against the Siam empire). Groups of monks mingled with the throngs of geometrically fringed teenagers. Its seems a festival of blossoming capitalism, stalls and billboards promote brands and is being lapped up nicely.  Multi-nationals seizing the opportunity with both greasy palms.

Monks take pictures of use, the paradigm is reversed, paying particular attention to my friends 10 year old dreadlock.  Traditional tales are re-inacted with great pomp and ceremony on stages that would not look out-of-place at the Reading Festival.  Laos pop bands bang out something resembling a tune. 

The street food was a real treat.  The locals sucking with gusto on the embryos of ducks and chickens from half boiled eggs.  I went veggie, apart from the chewy chicken hearts.  We all ate from a small clay pot, on a small clay brazier, placed in the centre of our table with boiling soup inside.  We dipped things in and generally ate them raw-ish, hunger taking charge.  My personal street munch favourite the hot, crispy coconut madelines and hot crisps on sticks.

To visit Laos is to take things down a few notches, take a break from the rest of the worlds madness.  Stepping back into a time when things were less complex, less problematic.  A time when we just lived for family and each other and everything else faded into insignificance.  The people have quiet hope for the future, for the large part forgetting the recent terrible past and hoping for a better tomorrow.  Lets hope the rich swines and politicians don’t ruin it with their callous greed.  But for today, it’s all about ‘Bo Phan Yan’.  

BROTHER BEN R.I.P, say hello to the angels………..X

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