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Bits and Pieces

Festival Time in Laos

Along with the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival (see previous post), there have been a few other celebrations recently.

Just after the boat race, from Nov.23rd through the 25th, was the That Luang Festival, which honors Laos’ national symbol. Below is a night photo of That Luang (not my photo).

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

That Luang at night. Not my photo, but one I pulled off the internet from an Italian site, www.orientamenti.it

Next was the huge Laos National Day on Dec. 2nd, kind of like the U.S.’s Fourth of July. This year marked the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. (Why is it that whenever you see an official country name that includes “People” or “Democratic Republic” it almost always seems to be a dictatorship or a Communist country? It’s neither democratic nor does it belong to the people. If the U.S. were named the “People’s Democratic Republic of the United States of America,” don’t you think it would be a completely authoritarian government? /end of opinion)

There was an enormous parade at the That Luang esplanade that involved 15,000 people from 45 different government and private sectors. The Vientiane Times reported that “National Day is a landmark date to reflect on the history of Laos and the ethnic Lao people fighting bravely against foreign colonialists and imperialists to protect their territory and bring independence and freedom to the Lao people.” (emphasis mine-who do you think they might be referring to?)

Along with all the parades and celebrations of National Day, Vientiane city or the Laos government decorated some of the main avenues with beautiful lights in the trees and along government ministry buildings. The lighting is a pale bluish-white color and it resembles Christmas tree lights. Riding my motorbike along the main avenue, Lane Xang (lahn zahng), is like riding in a winter wonderland. Well, except for the fact that there is no snow to enhance the scene, though it’s still beautiful. I hope they keep the lights up until after the New Year holiday.

Laos, a mainly Buddhist country, doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, but New Year’s Eve and Day are celebrated, with January 1st being a national holiday.

A Beautiful Automobile

I was cruising down the main road along the Mekong last week when I spotted a gorgeous blue and white automobile. I couldn’t take a photo of it (ain’t gonna try that while riding a motorbike), but as I got closer I saw that it was a Rolls Royce. Later, I looked on the internet and found that it was probably a Rolls Wraith. Here’s a photo from the ‘net that looks exactly like the automobile that I saw. (I dare not call it a “car.” That seems like the wrong description of this beauty. “Automobile” sounds classier, and I suppose I could also call it a “motor vehicle.”) As I rode alongside it (it was parked), I told myself “Don’t scratch it. Don’t hit it. Don’t even breath on it.”

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Totally awesome-looking automobile.

Down to Bangkok

The school term finishes in a few days, so Nai and I are travelling down to Bangkok for several days on the 22nd of this month. We’re going to take the overnight train from Nong Khai and are staying in a mid-priced hotel in the Silom section of the city, withing easy walking distance of the Sky Train and Underground system. Hope to have some fun, but have to be careful with the money. I don’t get paid again until January 29th. (An exception to spending too much is in the next section of this post, below.)

The Cosmos Beckons

With the beautiful weather we’ve been having lately, the clear night skies have reawakened my interest in astronomy, one of my main hobbies when I lived in the ‘States. However, I don’t have a good pair of binoculars to satisfy my star gazing hunger. So, while I’m in Bangkok, I’m going to see if I can’t find a pair of binocs or perhaps even a small telescope. I know of a couple respectable places in Bangkok to go shopping. I want a pair of Nikon 7x50s or a pair of Celestron 15x70s or 20x80s. They’re all relatively cheap, so any of the three would be nice. A good 4 or 5 inch ‘scope would do nicely also, but I’ll probably have to stick with the binocs, unless I can find a good price on a telescope.

Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

Once again, the brilliant, white-clad crew from Luang Prabang won the traditional boat race category at the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival. Defending their championship from last year, they swept through the other competitors, winning races by large margins. At times they appeared to reduce their effort to save energy for the next race because their lead was so big. They’re an awesome crew, and the other teams will have to improve vastly to give them a challenge next year.

Thousands of people attended the festival, lining the banks of the Mekong or strolling on the car-free main road, which was closed to all motorized traffic. Because of the massive throng of people, it would have been impossible to drive a car or even operate a motorbike on this vendor-filled stretch of the normally traffic-heavy road. Nai and I walked the two kilometers from this area to the boat racing venue upstream. We found a small, covered food and beer booth where we watched the races out of the sun (but still in the heat) for a few hours, and then we walked another half a kilometer to the Kong View Restaurant and Bar, kind of an upscale place with upscale prices, but we could sit in the shade of trees with fans providing a welcome cooling breeze.

At day’s end we walked back to the main road in the cooler air of twilight and hung out at the Bor Pen Nyang rooftop bar and restaurant and watched the parade of people traveling up and down the main road.

Here then are a few photos of the festival–goods for sale, people and even a couple shots of the race.

Sandals for sale

There were lots of items for sale by the vendors at the usual night market, including these well-manicured feet. The sandals came for free. Most of the vendors along the main road were hawking products like TVs, mobile phones, and household appliances.

Children's Shoes

Need something else to put on your newly-bought feet? Try this whimsical collection of tiny sandals. Whoops, you might have to downsize those feet.

Stuffed Toy Animals

For the child in all of us. Would you like the baby chick, Garfield or the platypus? I had to ask another teacher what she thought the green animal was, so blame her if it’s not a platypus. Any other guesses?

Usa Laundry Soap

USA! USA! USA! Well, not really. It’s actually Lao lettering on bags of laundry soap. Quite a resemblance. You can try to make your own caption, something like “America: We ______” (then add a reference to cleaning up or something similar.)

Fabric for sale

These look like they would be used in making traditional Lao dresses. I don’t think they are genuine handicraft items–there were just too many of them and they were too cheap.

Phone case vendors

Selling is hard work. These two guys, one alert and one not, were trying to peddle mobile phone cases.

Big red balloon

I didn’t know exactly what these folks were doing. I figured the red object was some kind of balloon, and I was curious where it was going to be located. See the next photo to find out.

Overview of the festival

There’s the red balloon overlooking the crowd on the main street of the festival. The boat race itself was held a couple of kilometers upstream, to the right. It was a hot, dusty walk to the racing venue, and the umbrella vendors were doing a brisk business.

Women's boat racing

It wasn’t only men racing. Here a couple of women’s boats compete for the top spot in their category. I think there were eight ladies’ boats competing this year.

Meeting of boats

A few of the boats, after finishing their races, head back upstream to continue in the competition. The runaway winners of the traditional men’s category, the shimmering white-clad Luang Prabang crew, are quite noticeable in the boat at the top of the photo.

Boat race spectators

A crowd of spectator and sponsor boats watched the race from a distance. If you look closely, you’ll notice several people standing on the river bottom in the shallow water.

Boat race team

This is a fairly new team from the village where I live. The village used to be part of Sithanthai village, but was split off from it. Thus, the talent of Sithanthai was diluted. Most of these guys, though, are new to boat racing and they finished near the bottom of the competition. Their enthusiasm was not outdone by anyone, however. Here they enjoy a few post-race beers.

Boat race team

The other half of the Khokxay team. Two of their members are Nai’s brother-in-law, Aik, and Aik’s 14-year old son (not pictured here), neither of which had raced before.

Paragliders

After the race, Nai and I walked backed to the main festival area and climbed the stairs to the Bor Pen Yang rooftop bar to take in the view. Several motorized paragliders graced the area with some beautiful flying. See the next photo, also.

Paragliders

The same three as the above shot, coming in outta the sun.

Solo paraglider

The last glider aloft tries to beat the sun in setting down. I think there were five gliders in all, and you can usually see them above the Mekong on Saturday evenings during good weather.

My friend Nai

Nai contemplates the view from Bor Pen Nyang. (Or, perhaps he’s just tired.)

Taking down the festival

The next day, the welders were out dismantling the stalls of the larger vendors, like Huawei, Samsung and, yes, Apple. So, another Boat Racing Festival comes to a sparkling end.

Boat Races and Tragedies

Coming up next week, from the 26th to the 28th, is the annual Vientiane Boat Racing festival, with the boat race itself taking place on the 28th. Nai and I are going to Vientiane for the three days to take in the action and the controlled (somewhat) chaos of the festival. Last year, I had to work on the day of the race, but I managed to spend a few hours taking some photos.

This year, our mid-term break of nine days occurs next week. How nice! We’re going in on the 27th, and I plan to spend most of the day making some photos of the goings on, and, of course, catch some of the boat racing action the next day, so stay tuned for a future post.

The Saturday before last, on the 10th, we took in another boat race, the Laos-Thai Cultural Festival and Boat Race, near the Friendship Bridge, which straddles the Laos-Thailand border over the Mekong River. It was held next to the National Ethnic Cultural Park, and it had a good view of the river when I scouted the location the weekend before.

However, on the day of the race, I didn’t see a single boat! It was so crowded that I could barely see the river. We got a table next to a small food stall and we were only about 30 feet from the river, but there were so many people watching the race that it was impossible to see anything from where we were. I was suprised that some of the spectators didn’t get shoved down the embankment and into the river; the area was packed. Our location proved to be beneficial later when it started raining buckets. We were able to duck under the small restaurant’s awning, and we found a table with our friends Suwon and Noh.

It continued to rain off and on for much of the rest of the afternoon. I found out later that a Thai team had eventually won the race, though, tragically, another Thai boat team member collapsed and died in his boat during the race.

This particular race has a catastrophic history. Back in 2004, 15 Laotian women and one man drowned in the river when their boat overturned in the rough waters of that day. This was the first year the race had been held since then, and, even though many safety precautions were being taken, the collective breath was held that nothing tragic would happen. Unfortunately, the Thai man’s death has blighted this race again.

We didn’t find out about his death until a few days later, so our mood wasn’t dampened by the misfortune. Eventually, the rain let up and we sat ouside near the concert stage and watched the performers for a few more hours before finally calling it a day. Here are a few photos I took of the event.

Food–Some of the stuff that people were stuffing themselves with.
Lao crawfish

These small crab-like delicacies resemble southern crawfish, if I remember that long ago correctly. They’re freshwater creatures taken from the Mekong and boiled. For me, they’re too small and not worth the effort of digging out the meager amount of meat in them, but they were selling like hot cakes.

Grilled fish

Fish on the barbie! Man, these things are delicious, fresh from the Mekong and stuffed with herbs. I can, and sometimes do, eat a couple of them at one sitting.

Insect larvae

Many Lao people eat these insect larvae, as well as crickets and grasshoppers, like popcorn. Lest I be accused of stereotyping, I’ll say that not everyone cares for them, including me. I’ll have the grilled fish, please.

Suwon and friend

Our friend Suwon tries to interest a young girl in eating one of the larvae. The youngster looks somewhat less than enthusiastic about the idea. If my memory serves me correctly, she turned down the “delicacy.”

Entertainment–I think half the people come to these festivals to enjoy the free concert that is always held in conjunction with the racing.
Singer and dancers

The stage was set up about 50 meters from the riverbank, and there were a number of singers and dancers who entertained the crowd, when it wasn’t raining. During a couple of different downpours, everything was covered with tarp.

Nai singing

A couple of times during the entertainment, my friend Nai got up on stage and belted out a few popular songs. Normally a fairly shy guy, he lights up when the opportunity to perform in front of a crowd presents itself. He’s fairly well-known locally and performs at weddings, birthdays, anniversary parties and other events. He isn’t paid for volunteering to sing at events like this, but the crowd loves him and they come to the bottom of the stage and hand him several thousands of kips (and cups of beer) while he’s singing.

Nui dancing

Nui, Nai’s sister, on the right, and a few of her friends do a little dancing at our table during one of the performances.

People–here are some shots of kids at the event.
Four young girls

Four young friends enjoy each other’s company. These festivals are very family oriented, and there are lots of kids running around. They’re normally well-behaved and are hardly ever a nuisance, but what I like is that they’re almost always eager to have their pictures taken, though some are shyer than others.

Smiling boy

This youngster sat across from me at our table and he spent a lot of time eating. This is one of the rare occasions he didn’t have his hand at his mouth, chomping on chicken or fruit or crawfish. Very friendly, though, as you can probably tell by his radiant smile.

Shy boy

Not all the kids were interested in having their photo taken. This boy wouldn’t hold still for his picture, but he wasn’t totally against me taking it. He laughed and ran every time he saw me holding up the camera. I finally caught him hiding behind his mother.

Young girl

Not everyone seemed to be all that happy at the festival. I sat near this youngster for about an hour, and I never saw her crack a smile, even though the rest of her family — mom, dad and a brother, it appeared — were laughing and enjoying themselves.

Baby

The youngest members enjoy the festivities, too. Lots of babies here today, who mostly slept throughout the fun.

First Boat Race

The first boat race of the season in this area was held last Saturday. It was in the village where I live, the first time I’ve been to a race here. It was hot and crowded, and the view of the race was not very impressive. I didn’t get a lot of photos of the race itself, but I got a few interesting, I think, pictures of other things. Nai and I sat in an open-air tent and watched the races from there. The start line was far to our right and the finish was a ways past us, so it was sometimes difficult to see who the winners were. Still, it was enjoyable, despite the heat, the crowd and the music blaring from a loudspeaker not more than six feet from our table. Here are a few sights from the race.

Sithanthai village boat racing team

The Sithanthai village boat racing team relaxed between races under an awning just next to us. This is usually a very strong team, and they finished 2nd to the winning Hom village team in this race.

Boat paddler relaxing in water.

One of the Sithanthai paddlers cooling off in the water after the race. I watched him for awhile until I finally decided to take a photo. He stayed in the water for about 15 minutes.

Bowsprit of dragon boat

This is the bowsprit of the Sithanthai racing boat. On every boat there is a small spirit shrine dedicated to Buddha, which you can barely see at the far left center of the picture, behind the protruding bowsprit. I asked Nai about the colors, if they had any meaning. He said that they were merely decoration, to make the boat more beautiful.

Boat racing

Yes, there really was a race. This is one of the few pictures I was able to capture of the actual racing. It looked like this team won their race, but I’m not sure what village they were from.

Fried grasshoppers

Anybody for some freshly fried grasshoppers? They go great with BeerLao, I’m told, Any takers? No? Me neither. I’ll pass, this time.

Our long break is over and the final term of the year begins today. The break was relaxing, but boring at times. We don’t get any paid vacation here, so I’m grateful to be making some money again. Back, happily, to the grind.

Sunrises and Sunsets

Since the heavy rainfall earlier in the month that led to flooding, landslides and a few deaths in other parts of Laos, we’ve had nothing but beautiful weather, with a few minor exceptions. Deep blue skies speckled with fluffy clouds have been the order of the day. A few rain showers have interrupted the nice weather, but it’s like the rainy season has ended, though that’s not what the forecasters called for back in June, in the middle of a drought. Then, the meteorologists were predicting that we would have an abundance of rain through September and into October. That still may happen, but right now we’re enjoying the nice weather.

There have been many nice sunrises and sunsets during this dry spell, so here are a few photos. I’ve even managed to include some from around 5:15 or so in the morning. Yes, I’ve actually managed to get up early enough to watch the sun come up. I leave my camera on the tripod overnight so it’s ready to fire off some photos first thing in the early dawn light. There are also some views of a storm cloud that appeared to be bringing some heavy weather, but it fizzled out before it reached us.

P.S. Had to post this very quickly this morning while my internet connection was still relatively fast. I can almost always get a connection, but most of the time it’s very slow.

Sunset

Sunset, August 16, 2015, behind the temple on the road that runs through the village. Unfortunately, those power wires that interfere with the photo are very difficult, for me, to take out with Photoshop. I probably could have eliminated them with some time-consuming editing, but, oh well…..

Sunset

Sunset, August 16, 2015. The small area between some trees is pretty good for taking photos of the sunset, except for the small branch in the upper right which protrudes into the shot. It’s high enough on the tree that I can’t pull it off.

Sunset clouds

Clouds tinted by the sunset, August 16, 2015

Sunrise

Sunrise, August 18, 2015

Pink cloud

Pink cloud highlighted by the setting sun on August, 16, 2015.

Early morning village

Early morning light floods the view just outside my front window. August 18, 2015

Storm clouds

Storm clouds headed our way. They fizzled out before they got here. August 16, 2015

Storm clouds

Storm clouds, August 16, 2015

Storm cloud

Storm cloud, August 16, 2015. The Cloud King.

Storm clouds

Storm clouds, August 16, 2015.

Mekong Rising

I spent a few days in Vientiane last week just to goof off and walk around a bit. The big story was how much the Mekong had risen since my last day of work on the previous Saturday. That weekend very heavy rains had affected most of the country, launching devastating landslides and flooding tributaries. This was a small portion of what hit Myanmar and India, and it caused “only” a few deaths. However, all that water had to go somewhere, so the Mekong rose dramatically.

I read in the Vientiane Times on Friday that the river would crest in Vientiane on Saturday, the 8th, just below flood level. Some low-lying, non-embanked areas of Hadxaifong district might see some flooding, the article stated. So, guess where I live? Yup, Hadxaifong. With a lot of trepidation, Nai and I returned to the house on Saturday, but, thankfully, there was no flooding. The island marker that I use to see the height of the river was still above water. Last year, it had been submerged for a week or so, and there had been no flooding in our area.

For the past five or six days, we’ve been enjoying beautiful weather. The rain has stopped and the skies have been clear to partly cloudy, with lots of sun and high temperatures. That should keep the river down, unless there’s a lot of rain upstream, which isn’t in the forecast for now. Everything has dried out, and it’s like we’re in the dry season again. I’m sure there will be plenty more rain to come, though.

Here are a few photos of the Mekong and Vientiane.

Mekong River rising.

This is a photo taken on Wednesday, August 5th. To the right is what remains of a sand sculpture that was made for the Laos New Year back in April. It’s the largest one among five still standing. There are four smaller ones to the left, out of range of this shot. It’s a sculpture of an elephant. During the dry season, the main channel is about 15 meters beyond the sculpture and many people walk out there.

Storm cloud over Thailand

This was taken the day after the previous photo. In the lower right corner, above the street lamp, you can see that the elephant sculpture has disappeared (washed away, I believe) and the river has risen higher on the tuft of scrub brush. The next day, the scrub brush would be under water. The impressive storm cloud moving over Thailand stayed on that side of the river.

Mekong River rising.

Looking toward the Don Chan Palace Hotel, the tall building on the left, from the riverfront promenade.

Mekong diagonal

I walked down to the bottom step of the promenade and started to take a photo of the river. I stepped in some slippery stuff and managed to capture this scene just as I was falling into the shallow part of the river. I managed to hold the camera aloft, so I saved the most important thing. I crawled up to the steps and continued on as if nothing had happened. “Oh, I meant to do that.”

Mekong River rising

Looking north along the promenade. Soon, above the steps, crowds of people will gather to walk, ride bicycles, do aerobics, jog, and just hang out. Hopefully, the river will stay where it’s at.

Clouds over Thailand

Some nice clouds over Thailand above a near- flood level Mekong River.

Plowing and Planting

The rains have finally arrived, and Mother Nature has been making up for them being late in coming. We’ve had more than a few downpours lately, including a 24-hour steady, soaking rain. The Mekong has risen swiftly, but is in no danger of flooding in our area, yet, but warnings have been issued for low-lying areas in other provinces. Of course, the rice farmers are happy that they can plant their crops now with the drought of June and early July broken.

Here at the New Place, the neighbors put in their rice this past Saturday, plowing the fields and doing the back-breaking labor of planting the new rice stalks in the ground. Here are a few photos I took of the process.

Plowing a rice field

Our neighbor is using a motorized, hand-pushed plow, common in Laos, to prepare the rice field. They inundated the field before plowing, and then went over it at least a dozen times with the plow. The field takes on the consistency of a thick soup before the planting begins. Quite muddy, hard labor, obviously.

Plowing a rice field

Under threatening skies, our farmer neighbor continues to plow. Later, there was a heavy rainfall while the others were planting the rice.

Planting rice

After the plowing, these women plant the first of the fields, a back-breaking task, it appears. This is real stoop labor. They were able to get this field in before the rain began.

Planting rice

Later, the ladies had more help from the entire extended family. With this many people, the work gets finished much more quickly.

Clouds and Rainbows

We’ve had some terrifying-looking clouds lately that promised to deliver more heavy rain and strong winds. Some of them brought the rain, but not much wind, and some of them fizzled out completely, merely passing overhead on their way into Thailand or elsewhere. One bright side to the storms is that there are often rainbows associated with their passing. We had a beautiful ‘bow the other day about an hour or so before sunset.

Rainbow

A beautiful rainbow visited the skies after a heavy downpour earlier. The only way I could have gotten a view of the whole thing was to walk to the left, which was a muddy quagmire.

Rainbow and clouds

This is the same rainbow, captured with a wider view. It disappeared just a few minutes later as the sun went behind a bank of clouds.

Here are a few of the storm clouds that have threatened us the past few days. Though many people might think that the rainy season is nothing but dull, grey overcast skies for days or weeks on end, it’s really not like that. We get hours, if not days, of bright sunshine, and some of the storm clouds are amazing. Beautiful sunrises, sunsets and rainbows punctuate the season. Sooner or later everyone will be looking forward to the end of the rains, but we still have a few months to go before that happens. For now, the rain is welcome.

Dark storm cloud

This looked as if it could spawn a tornado or two. I don’t know if Laos is subject to twisters, but this one didn’t lead to one. It passed to the east of us of us, heading toward Thailand.

Storm cloud

This one was coming right at us and I thought we were in for heavy rain and strong winds. Luckily, it completely fizzled out as it reached us, becoming nothing but wispy clouds.

Sunset

This was a fleeting moment in an otherwise dull sunset. The cloud looks like it could do some damage, but it wasn’t coming our way. The strange-looking objects at the bottom are supports for the roof of a house that was being built, but it looks like the construction has been abandoned for now.

Yes, the Monsoon Rains Are Here

In answer to my previous post, yes, the rains have arrived. We had another inch and a half or so on Saturday night/Sunday morning. The banana grove fields around the house, previously merely muddy, now look like a quagmire. I noticed one farmer a couple of fields over plowing with his tractor; it must have been quite a mess to finish up.

There’s more rain in the forecast for the rest of the week, through Saturday and, likely, beyond. I finally broke down and bought a rain poncho to try to stay dry on those motorbike rides through drenching downpours. I don’t remember exactly how many times I got soaked last year, but I’d estimate at least six or seven. Not much fun. I haven’t had to use the poncho yet, but I’m sure it’ll see its share of rain before the dry season returns. Bring it on!

No, wait, don’t bring it on. I hate riding in the rain. It’s quite dangerous, especially since I have to take my glasses off to see (go figure). Night riding is especially horrible. I can’t think of anything more terrifying, to me anyway, than riding at night through a heavy downpour. There are places where I can pull off the road and get under some shelter, but there are other areas where there is nothing to do but to keep going. This year, if I have to ride through any of these severe rainfalls, I think I’ll just find a cheap guesthouse and stay the night. Better safe than sorry. More later.

Monsoon Rains–Are They Finally Here?

Finally, the monsoon rains seem to have arrived. The first one blew in last night around 10 o’clock. Accompanied by heavy lightning, the storm came with a stiff wind that blew the drenching rain horizontally into the house and through the window shutters and under the front door. Water flowed into the living room, so we had to put down old rags and dirty clothes to block the flow and drip of water. Eventually, the wind diminished, the rain became more vertical and the front room returned to normal. I was relieved that there were no leaks from the ceiling. The downpour brought us about an inch-and-a-half of rain.

As I watched the storm blow in, my first thought was of what happened in my room at the Yankee baseball academy in the Dominican Republic during a hurricane, when wind-driven rain swept under the door. I was afraid it could happen in the New Place, so I was watching for it. Hopefully, this won’t occur while we’re away from the house. If the possibility arises, we’ll have to be aware of it and remove all essential items from the floor.

Despite the leak, the rain was very welcome, and I’m sure the dry-land rice growers are ecstatic. The Laos weather forecasters are saying that the rains will be quite heavy for the rest of the month and into August and beyond. Hopefully, the Mekong will stay friendly and keep within its banks, not wandering into our front room (and the rest of the house).