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Clear Skies, Finally

Usually at this time of year in Laos, the night sky is quite clear, making for some good star gazing. Lately, though, it’s been unusually cloudy, a ruinous situation for astronomy enthusiasts. Finally, the heavens cleared last Sunday night. I pulled out my trusty 10 x 50 Olympus binoculars and braved the outdoors, covering up to avoid the hordes of mosquitos which have been visiting lately.

The viewing was quite good, though there’s always some light pollution from Nong Khai, across the Mekong in Thailand. That wrecks the viewing of, about, the lower 15 degrees of the sky to the north and east. But, I was searching about 60-70 degrees up, looking for a small star cluster designated Stock 23, a.k.a. Pazmino’s Cluster, that I read about in Sky and Telescope magazine. To my delight, I found it right away. In the binocs, it appeared as a small gathering of four stars that I could only resolve with averted vision. (How I long for a medium-sized telescope. I could buy one in Bangkok, but it would be impractical to use up here because I’d have very few clear nights in which to use it.)

Stock 23 star cluster

This is a screen capture from my planetarium program, Stellarium, showing Stock 23 (Pasmino’s Cluster). It’s the 4 stars right above the crosshairs. This is enlarged a bit from how it’s seen in 10 x 50 binoculars.

I took in a few other views before turning in. The Sword Belt in Orion was, as always, spectacular and the Double Cluster in Perseus showed up nicely. I browsed around the Milky Way, just enjoying all the stars rather than doing a search for particular objects. It was a very rewarding session, especially since I haven’t star-gazed in awhile.

I was reminded of some good times from 60 years ago! My cousins, the Balma family, and I would sit outside their house in Owosso, Michigan at dusk, waiting for the first star to appear. Whoever spotted it would get to make a wish that would (of course!) come true. I don’t remember what we wished for, but I can imagine that some of them became reality.

Every time I spend a few hours or minutes looking into space, I realize how infinite it is and how infinitesimal we are. This is not a depressing thought at all.

Double Cluster in Perseus

Another screen capture from Stellarium showing the famous Double Cluster in Perseus. It’s about the same view I get in 10 x 50 binocs, except the sky is not this clear in Laos!

The Sword of Orion

The Sword of Orion, a great naked-eye object that almost everyone is familiar with. It looks even better in binoculars and it’s spectacular with a telescope. This is another Stellarium screen capture of almost what my binoculars show (except for the sky clarity.)

Supermoon

Here are a few shots of the setting supermoon this fine Tuesday morning, as photographed from the front porch and the living room window of my house near Vientiane, Laos.

The moon was 99.7% full and moving away from earth, according to my planetarium software, Stellarium. It’s a great open-source (free) piece of software that you can find here.

The photo with the temple was taken from the porch and the other was taken about 20 feet to the left, from a window inside the house.

This is the start of my favorite time of year in Laos, the beginning of the cool season. Crisp nights, pleasant days and mostly cloudless nights, which means I can get in some good star watching with my binocs.

Supermoon on Nov. 15th.

Supermoon on Tuesday, Nov. 15, about 6:15 a.m.

Supermoon on Nov. 15

Supermoon on Tuesday, Nov. 15, about 6:15 a.m.

The End of Rainy Season

It’s my favorite time of the year in Laos. Rainy season is over, more or less (see below), the skies are mostly clear and sunny, and the temperature is becoming milder by the day. I hope to get in some star gazing soon; it’s been months since we’ve had good viewing conditions.

Now, after having said that, we’re right in the middle of a torrential rain shower, probably one of the last we’ll have in a while, I hope, though a few light showers here and there would be nice as the dry season intensifies. Rain is in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow. I just hope that I can make it home from work before any more heavy storms pop up this evening.

I’m going to try to get up some photos from the past several months, photos that feature the rain and some that highlight other events, so stay tuned all two or three of my readers. LOL

The Most Dangerous Thing I Do

I usually ride my motorbike to and from work, 25 kilometers each way, six days a week, and five of those rides are at night, Monday through Friday. This is the most dangerous thing that I do, and it is, without a doubt, the most consistently risky thing that I’ve ever done. It’s been said that this is one South East Asia experience that you can live without. I’ll vouch for that, since I’ve had a fair number of close calls. I’ve been at times incredibly aware and careful and, to tell the truth, very, very lucky. Some other riders, though, have not been so lucky.

This is from a recent article on Yahoo! News, dated Aug. 28, 2016:

“Look at me, stay with us,” the paramedics shout as a barely conscious motorcyclist is bundled into a volunteer ambulance in the Laotian capital Vientiane, where rampant drink driving brings nightly carnage to the roads.

It is a grim scene familiar the world over.

But in Laos, an impoverished and authoritarian communist country with almost no state-funded medical services, these kind of vital lifesavers are volunteers and entirely funded by donations. . .

And they have never been more in demand.

Poorly maintained roads, dilapidated vehicles, an increase in motorcycle use and the widespread prevalence of drink driving makes Vientiane one of Asia’s most precarious capitals for road deaths.

I’ve seen two terrible accidents in the last couple of weeks on my ride back to the village, both of which occurred at night (rather than my Saturday afternoon return ride from Vientiane).

The first involved two motorbikes and a pick up truck. It looked like the two bikes had smashed into the back of the truck, putting quite a large dent in the tailgate. I came upon the accident, which happened in the lanes leading into town, and saw the pickup had pulled into the lanes leading out of town and had parked half on the road and half on the sidewalk. The two motorbikes were down on the other side of the road, looking pretty torn up. A couple of motorbike helmets lay in the road. As I drove slowly past, I noticed a large crowd of people surrounding the area, but ambulances and police hadn’t yet arrived, so this had just taken place. Then, I noticed a young lady, perhaps in her early-twenties, sprawled in the middle of the pavement. Her head was turned away from me, with her right cheek on the road, lying on her right arm with her left one behind her back. She looked pretty, from what I could tell, but, unfortunately, she looked quite dead. Usually at least a few people will be trying to help these accident victims, checking to see if they’re OK, comforting them while waiting for the ambulance, applying some makeshift first aid, or, sometimes, checking for a pulse. No one was near this victim, but many were looking at her from a respectful distance. I’ve ridden past a number of accident scenes in the last couple of years, but this is the first one that brought tears to my eyes. The victim looked so very much alone, lying in the middle of the pavement under a harsh street light. I can only imagine what her parents must have felt. With any luck, perhaps she was just knocked unconscious.

The other accident happened about a week later only a few kilometers down the road. Again, two motorbikes were involved, and it looked like they had smashed into each other. As I came upon the scene, I saw one guy, wearing a helmet, limping heavily to the side of the road with the aid of a bystander. Another man lay face down on the pavement, no helmet on, and a man was checking for his pulse on the side of his neck. The bystander stood up and walked away. I don’t know if the victim was dead or just unconscious, but I think the former. I went slowly and carefully on my way, though I don’t take time to dilly-dally and gawk, like many other people do. Again, this had just happened, probably no more than a minute before I passed through the area, which is right across the road from a karaoke bar that is usually very crowded. Of course, many motorbikes and cars are parked there, and, of course, many people get quite drunk there. I’m always extremely careful when I drive through the area because of the number of cars and motorbikes entering and leaving, and because of the number of drunks I’ve seen staggering down the middle of the road.

So, the conclusion is that I will continue to drive my bike with the utmost care and attention. It’s usually fun and a bit exhilarating, but it’s certainly no time to take risks. Wish me well.

School’s Out Forever

No, it’s not; it just seemed that way. After a 5-week break, we’re back at it. I didn’t do a lot during that five weeks due to all the rain we got. The Mekong is quite high, but it’s not at a dangerous level. We’re nearing the end of the rainy season, so the level should start dropping. I did get into Nongkhai, across the river in Thailand, and I stayed in Vientiane for a few days last week during the ASEAN summit that was hosted by Laos from September 6-8. I was hoping to see some of the high level dipolomats that attended, including President Obama. I didn’t see him, but I did see his motorcade-very large, with about 15 vehicles and an extensive police escort in front and back. I waved, but I doubt that he saw me.

So, classes have started and, again, I’m working full-time, six days a week. It’s not so bad except for the ride in and back, a total of 50 kilometers (30 miles) every day. The pay is quite nice, however, and I need to save up some money for the holiday break in December, when I plan on going to Phuket in Thailand. I’ve already bought the airline tickets because they were on sale a few weeks ago, but I haven’t booked a hotel yet. I’ll do that in a few more weeks, perhaps in October, unless I find some discounts now for booking early.

Let’s see, what else has been going on? Mostly, I just sat around reading and putting on weight over the break, and I find myself getting winded going up the stairs at the school, so I’ve decided to join one of the fitness centers in Vientiane, Sengdara Fitness. It’s on my way in to school, so I’ll stop there in the mornings and do some treadmill running and weight training. I’d jog out here in the country except for the dogs that chase me, the large sand and gravel trucks that take up most of the road, the constant flow of motorbikes and the general crappiness of the road that runs through the village. It’s quite a hassle, so using a treadmill is the next best choice. I’m starting this Saturday, after classes, so I can take my time and get a feel for the place.

I also bought a new refrigerator to replace our small, worn-out old one. It’s a good-sized Samsung, but I hope there are no exploding batteries in it!

Despite the rain, we’ve had some very nice sunsets. Here are some photos of recent ones.

sunset

I like the silhouette of the palm trees and part of the temple on the road running through the village against the backdrop of the rays from the setting sun.

sunet

Another closer view of the palm trees and the temple.

sunset

Here’s one from Nongkhai that I took with my pocket camera. I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant near the river. It was getting too dark to hold the camera steady, so I set it on a flat spot on a metal railing and set the self timer to 10 seconds.

sunset

This one was taken the next evening from the same location.

Rainstorm and sunset

From the same spot a few nights later, I took this shot of an approaching rainstorm coming in from Laos. It hit Nongkhai about 15 minutes later and it rained quite heavily for about 10 minutes, then stopped.

The Internet connection out in the country has been complete crap the past couple of months, so being away from the school for five weeks has led to zero posts. Now that we’re back in action, I can use the school’s internet (most of the time, not much better than the one out in the country) to get more posts up. More later.

Rainy Season?

A couple of weeks ago, after a week of clear skies and hot days, I began to wonder how short the current rainy season might be. The Mekong, rising steadily before, began to recede, little by little. But, of course, rainy season wasn’t ending early. It proceeded to rain quite heavily for a few days, turning the dirt road of the village into a quagmire. However, it’s now been another week of clear skies and plenty of sunshine. Thankfully, the road has dried out, but that means I have to ride through a cloud of dust when I go to work. We’ve had a few nice sunsets, shown below. Nothing spectacularly beautiful, but there are usually some awesome sunsets at this time of year, when a break in the rain allows for it.

Speaking of breaks, we’ve got a long one coming up at the school. Right now we’re doing final grading, filling out reports, planning for next term, etc. This term ends on August 4th and we don’t start again until September 12th. We were originally supposed to start on the 8th, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said we wouldn’t be good to go until the 12th. Why? President Obama is visiting Laos sometime during the week beginning on September 5th, so security will be insanely heavy and many roads will be closed, I presume. I’m going to try to get into the city to see him, but most likely I’ll be unable to get anywhere near where he might be giving speeches or whatever. I might rent a cheap guesthouse room in the city that week to increase my chances. I’ll let you know what happens.

Sunset

Sunset

drainage channel

This is a small (usually) drainage channel from the rice paddies to the Mekong. During the rainy season, though, it becomes quite a torrent. As the river rises it will fill this entire ravine.

Baannakee Restaurant, Nongkhai

We’re having a short mid-term break of nine days before starting again on July 4th. (Obviously, not a holiday here) Nai and I are staying a few days across the river in Nongkhai. I’ve got to do some shopping at Tesco-Lotus, a French chain that’s similar to Wal-Mart, more or less. My old computer bag is literally falling apart, and I’m in the market for a new compact camera, probably a Canon Ixus (Elph, in the ‘States.) I’m also looking for an e-book reader, but I’m not sure what I can find in Nongkhai.

On our last visit there, we found out about a great little bar and restaurant called Baannakee, which means “The House of the Dragon,” according to the owner, a Thai man named Toom. He’s very friendly as well as being an excellent cook. The food, mostly German fare, is great. A local German expat makes a variety of sausages at his home and sells them to the restaurant. Though I’m not particularly fond of sausage, what I’ve eaten at Baannakee is not bad at all. Some of my favorite food that’s served there are the fish and chips, and the mashed potatoes, which come with a variety of dishes.

The fish ‘n chips come with very hefty proportions as well as with a generous-sized side of salad. You could almost share an order with another person, and the price is right-about six dollars at the current exchange rate. The mashed potatoes are some of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted; I have to see about getting his recipe. (UPDATE: The secret ingredient is a bit of nutmeg, believe it or not.)

The other food is superb as well, with pasta dishes, a variety of sausages, sauerkraut, pork knuckle and tenderloin, and a large selection of Thai food.

Another nice thing about Baannakee is the atmosphere. The place seats about 20 people, though it’s never been that busy, and the crowd is made up of mostly older expats, Germans and Northern Europeans, so it has a fairly laid back atmosphere. Toom has a huge, eclectic selection of cd’s, but the music is always played unobtrusively in the background; it never interferes with conversation. Also, there’s no pool table, which, it seems to me, always creates a noisier environment.

If you’re ever in the area, give Baannakee a try. It’s right near the start of the market along the Mekong, just down from Daeng Vietnamese restaurant. I’m sure you’ll like it.

Baannakee Restaurant

Here’s the entrance to Baannakee. Just to the left and up the street is the beginning of the covered market along the Mekong. In the opposite direction of the market is Daeng Restaurant.

Baannakee Restaurant

Here’s the restaurant at night. Toom will usually stay open until at least 11 pm, but if it’s busy, he’ll stay open until the wee hours. The kitchen closes at 10.

Daeng Restaurant

Here’s the Vietnamese Restaurant. Baannakkee is behind us, to the left.

Toom

This is Toom, the friendly proprietor, who’s restaurant has been in Nongkhai for 13 years. It used to be called DJ Thasadej, and Toom had a German partner. He’s returned to Germany and Toom changed the name to Baannakee.

Nai

Nai, looking dapper, vouches for the quality of the Thai food. I’ll vouch for the Western offerings. Neither of us has had a bad serving yet.

Fish and chips

This is a single serving of fish ‘n chips, but it could feed a couple of guests. Most of the portions at the restaurant are very well-sized and priced lower than what Toom probably could charge.

Pork tenderloin

This is pork tenderloin smothered in a curry-cheese cream gravy. The mashed potatoes are to die for.

Baannakee bar

The small bar at the restaurant seats five patrons and serves up a variety of liquor and beer, though the selection isn’t that extensive.

Interior of Baannakee

Part of the interior. This part seats eight people or twelve, if it’s really crowded.

The following are various photos of the odds and ends and paintings scattered throughout the restaurant. Not much to say about them, but they do contribute to the eclectic and cozy atmosphere of the place.

Baannakee Restaurant

A display to the left of the bar. Toom lives up the stairs.

Baannakee Restaurant

Another display near the kitchen area.

Baannakee Restaurant

The area just in front of the bar.

Baannakee Restaurant

Another area near the stairs.

Painting at Baannakee Restaurant

One of the paintings, which were created by a local artist.

Painting at Baannakee Restaurant

And another painting.

An Exciting Life-Not

Boring

What does it say about my “exotic” life in another country when the most exciting thing to happen in the last several months is that the local authorities finally decided to bring in a scraper and level off the rutted, pot-holed dirt road that runs through the village? A luxurious motorbike ride was in the offing, a ride that wouldn’t bounce me up and down and shake me up, causing my internal organs to become displaced. A ride that I wouldn’t have to make at 10 kilometers an hour in order to prevent my motorbike from shaking apart. I was looking forward to it. I was excited!

scraper

That was last Sunday. For all of one day, Monday, going to and from Vientiane, I enjoyed the level road. That all changed on Tuesday, when we had some heavy rains. When the road was horribly wash-boarded and pot-holed, the dirt was at least hard, compacted. The scraper tore up all that hard dirt and left a loose mess that the rain turned into a 6 kilometer long mud pit, from the village all the way to the main road. What a nightmare ride! I really had to watch where I was riding. In the worst area, not too far from the main road, vehicles had to stay all the way to the left, trying to avoid oncoming bikes and trucks, because the right hand side was, and still is, completely impassable due to the deep mud there. Not even the big sand- and gravel-hauling trucks will attempt passage on that side.

At this time, Thursday, the condition of the road is similar to what it was before it was scraped. It won’t be long until it’s back in the same condition. The forecast isn’t calling for much rain in the near future, so the mud should dry up soon. I’ll still have to make a few more night rides before it dries, which can be a nightmare on that back road. Even at 10 kilometers an hour. Who said my life wasn’t exciting?

Rainy Season Arrives

Finally, any remnants of a drought have been shattered, at least near Vientiane. Just a few weeks ago, there were rocket festivals going on in various parts of the country, where rockets were fired off to summon rain from whatever spirits might be responsible for the weather. These homemade devices aren’t weak, either, with some of them able to take down low-flying aircraft. Local officials have to inform government authorities when the festivals are taking place so that they can warn the airlines and other aircraft to steer clear of the areas.

This image taken from intellasia.net

This image taken from intellasia.net

After several days of often heavy and lengthy rainfalls, some folks (our neighbors, for example) are setting off bottle rockets and a few more powerful “bombs” to get the rain to let up. You just gotta be careful what you ask for.

We had some of these heavy rains over the weekend, and they finally quit just as I was preparing to ride in to work this morning. I was a bit leery about riding on the back road, mostly dirt, thinking it would be a mud pit out to the main highway. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but I did have to wend my way slowly and carefully in some places. I was too busy threading my way through the mud to notice how much the Mekong might have risen, but I’ll take a gander tomorrow.

Chili and (Ant) Eggs

Not your typical breakfast, but I guess it’s the season for ant larva out here. Nai’s brother, Guay, came over and “shook down” some of the smaller trees and bushes for the “eggs,” of which he got thousands. He sells them for 50,000 kips a batch. That’s about $6, which is pretty expensive, in my opinion. They get eaten as a snack, boiled first. Throw in some hot chilis and you’ve got yourself a… well, the Lao people like them, but no thanks.

Ant larvae for eating

Here they are, thousands of the little critters, long dead. They’ve been boiled, but you can see some of their progenitors in the mix. They get eaten too. I’m adventurous in many things, but I’m not much of a food explorer. I’ll pass on these.

Ant larvae with chili peppers

Well, you sure can’t eat ’em just plain. Let’s throw in a few chopped up chili peppers for the heat and the color. Dig in.

Eating ant larvae

Nai digs in. Looks like he’s thrown in a few chopped green onions, too. Happy eating, Nai, but I’m certainly not going to drink from the same glass. The same rule as when you’re eating crickets!