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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!

Pi Mai Lao Holiday

Just a few photos from the recent Laos New Year (Pi Mai Lao), a holiday called Songkran in Thailand, where there are huge waterfights to mark the three-day event. Here in the village, the water throwing was much more subdued than elsewhere. Most people ask first if they can pour cold water down your back in a ritual cleansing, so to speak. It can get a bit out of hand, with water being slung about to include any bystanders, but it’s nothing like in Bangkok or even Vientiane, where there were some large-scale water fights on the main streets.

It’s also a religious celebration, where Buddhists go to their local temple and cleanse the Buddha statues, and it’s a time for house cleaning. Most people will do a thorough cleaning of their homes, sweeping, mopping, dusting and even a bit of painting to spruce the place up.

There were a few parties at Nai’s family compound, just a five-minute walk from where we live. Lots of food, beer and loud music (too loud). And fun.

P.S. I’m just now getting this posted due to a couple of factors. First, I couldn’t get any posting done at the farm because of the extremely crappy internet connection. Finally, the new school term started, so I can make use of the school internet, which is mostly…hmmm, just OK, I suppose, but it works. However, I’m teaching on a full-time basis this term, six days a week, so I’ve been quite busy at the start. I’m finally up to par on everything, so I’m able to get this up today. Enjoy. More later.

Seo, Nai's niece

Nai’s niece, Seo (pronounced, approximately, Saw) tends to some grilled duck. She and her husband, Khoon, live not too far from Vientiane.

Grilled duck

The duck’s grilling and it’s just the start of all the food that’ll be eaten today.

Squid, ready to grill.

Squid, cut up and almost ready to grill over an open fire. I don’t much care for it, so I’ll wait for the grilled fish.

Squid in chili sauce

Now it’s ready to grill, after marinating in a spicy chili sauce for a few minutes. Too hot for my taste buds.

Grilling the squid.

Nai takes charge of grilling the squid. He’ll end up eating the most, since he loves it.

Cut up squid.

It’s finally been grilled and cut into pieces. Ready to eat!

Awl eats squid.

Nai’s sister, Awl, enjoys some of the squid. She’d better get her share before Nai starts digging in.

Shredding papaya for salad.

One of Nai’s numerous cousins shreds raw papaya in preparation for making another staple, papaya salad.

Preparing the papaya salad.

Nai prepares the extremely spicy hot fixings that the papaya goes into. The mixture includes very hot chili peppers (the more, the better), tomatoes, lime juice and a fermented fish paste, which looks just awful. This concoction, when mixed with the papaya , is extremely hot, much too fiery for me. I nibble a little, but I soon rush to find some cold water. Whew!

Mixing the papaya salad.

Here, Nai uses a mortar and pestle to mix all the ingredients together. Next stop, mouth.

Eating papaya salad.

And, finally, everyone (except me) enjoys the papaya salad. I don’t know how they can eat something this hot and be so nonchalant about it. I guess it comes from a lifetime of eating it. Bon apetite.

Grilled fish

Now this is more like it. I love this fresh fish from the Mekong, grilled over a charcoal flame and stuffed with a few herbs. Simply delicious. These cost about 25,000 kips each, around $3.

Guay and blood soup

Nai’s brother, Guay, enjoys a couple of beers with some duck blood soup, kind of a staple (both beer and soup) on Pi Mai Lao.

Khoon and powdered face

Khoon, Seo’s husband, has been out running around the village, meeting friends, drinking beer, and getting his face coated with baby powder, another Pi Mai Lao tradition.

Kids in a wading pool.

It’s been very hot lately, so what better way for the kids to cool off than to hop in a small wading pool. The boy in front on the left is Leo, Nai’s two-year old nephew. Whenever he sees me taking photos, he makes this little square with his hands, which represents the camera, I suppose. He’s quite a ham. To his left is Guay’s daughter, Muoy. I’m not sure who the boy is in the back, just that it’s another one of the cousins.

Washing mother's feet

This is Pang showing obeisance to her mother, Awl, by washing her feet at the end of the day. When she finished the washing, she bowed down and placed her mother’s feet on the top of her head to show further respect. She did the same for her father’s feet.

Awl and Gaith

Gaith, Pang’s father, and Awl enjoying the end of the day. I think the look on Gaith’s face was caused by little Leo, his grandson, pouring some ice water down his pants.

Mother and father enjoy a happy moment.

Gaith and Awl enjoy a happy moment. I love Awl’s smile.

Family pose.

Gaith, Pang and Awl pose for a photo. The end of a long day for everyone. Bedtime.

Very Hot in Vientiane

Cripes, it’s been hot here lately, at least over the last month or so. The maximum temperature is breaking records almost every day, though official record keeping goes back to only 1999. Daily highs have been ranging from 100 to 106 degrees (38-42 C.), while the average high this time of year is around 91 or 92. Here’s a Weather Underground blog entry about the extraordinary heat wave in this area of the world.

We did get some heavy rain, winds and lightning this past Friday evening and the forecast is calling for a bit of rain over the weekend and into next week, so temperatures should drop a bit. However, due to the lack of advanced weather monitoring devices in the area, I take any forecast with a grain of salt. So often there has been a 100% chance of rain and . . . then, no rain at all. Or, the forecast calls for 0% or 5% and we get a deluge. Hopefully, we’ll get some more rain to relieve the heat and the ongoing drought that’s been deepening over the past few months.

Evil Spirit Loose in Village

Forgive the paucity of posts lately, but my internet connection out here at the farm has been horrendous the past few weeks. I can barely check out my email, let alone upload any photos to the blog or, indeed, even get access to the blog. Right now, the connection isn’t totally crappy, so I’ll do this short post. The new school term begins next week, so I’ll have better access at the school than I get out here.

Ghosts in the Village

Well, something has the villagers upset. The monks at one of the temples said that people should be very cautious about “spirits.” It seems that 15 villagers have died in their sleep over the past week. Nai tells me that we must be careful of “Dracula.” Because his English is limited, that’s his word for anything that might be monstrous or ghostly. I’m skeptical. Where did the monks get this information? I’ve seen nothing in the Vientiane newspaper that mentions the deaths, which surely would have caused a stir with that many people dying mysteriously in their sleep in such a small area. ┬áIf true, it should have raised an alarm outside the village. The monks urged people to visit their particular temple to seek guidance, protection and advice to stay safe. I assume people donated money to the temple. Sounds to me like a racket. At any rate, the neighbors and Nai encircled the house with twine that had been blessed by the monks. Whew! We’re safe until the next money-raising scheme.

Postscript: I rode my motorbike to a neighboring village to buy a few things at one of the chain store mini-marts and I noticed that the protective twine was strung along both sides of the road, running uninterrupted from house to house up to the end of the village, the “spirit line network” emanating from the temple in question. Our house is connected to the main line, as are other homes that are located beyond the road. It must have taken a lot of time and twine to connect everyone. I might not take this seriously, but the villagers do.

Coming up (when I have a better connection): Laos New Year (with photos), a visit to Nong Khai (with photos), the extremely hot weather we’ve been experiencing, and another Laos delicacy–ant larva (with photos). Stay tuned.

Laos New Year

Next week, folks here in Laos (and in Thailand) will celebrate the traditional New Year. I’ve posted about the event a few times before, most notably here, with lots of photos. The holiday is known as Pi Mai Lao here, and Songkran in Thailand. Thailand’s celebration, especially in Bangkok, is renowned for its huge water fights, but it’s a bit more sedate out in our rural area in Laos.

This year, the authorities have designated Tuesday, the 12th, as part of the holiday, and the official celebration takes place the 13th through the 15th. That’s Wednesday through Friday, so there’s the weekend, too. All told, the holiday lasts 6 days. But, when you include this coming weekend, some people who are lucky enough to get Monday off could have a 9-day holiday. Impressive!

The parties have started already, though. The neighbors had a big blowout yesterday while I was working. I noticed three cases of empty Beer Lao bottles stacked on their patio this morning, so I asked Nai if they’d had a party. Yes, they had. Why now? The new year isn’t until next week. They started early. And so many other people, too. I’ll have to take extra care in riding the motorbike home tonight, Friday, since a lot of people will be out, many of them drunk. The traffic has been horrendous the past few days, and today at lunch time, when I came to the school, it was as bad as I’ve ever seen it. Wish me luck in getting safely home tonight.

Tomorrow is the last day for classes this term, and we have a nice break until we start up again on May 5th. I’ll be out with my camera next week, taking photos and videos of Pi Mai Lao. More next week, then.

More Gunk in the Air

Here are a few more sunsets that we had over the past few days, and the sunrises are equally picturesque. The second photo shows some clouds in the evening sky, and, in fact, we finally had a bit of rain the day before the shot was taken. It was a very small amount, barely enough to dampen the ground out here, but Vientiane received quite a bit more, enough to create some large puddles. Any amount is welcome, of course.

Sunset

A nice sunset from last Sunday evening. Clouds! Rain! But not much.

Red sunset

Another crimson sunset behind the temple across the road from the farm.

The beautiful beginnings and ends of day aren’t without drawbacks, though. The sun is very red due to the haze in the atmosphere, which is mainly being caused by farmers burning the stubble off their fields in preparation for rainy season planting. I smelled smoke the other evening and stepped out onto the porch and noticed a heavy smoke cloud drifting in the fields near the house, caused by someone burning a nearby field, either across the river in Thailand or here not far from the house. Not pleasant at all. Hopefully, the burning will cease and the haze will clear soon.

Smoke drifts over farm fields.

Smoke drifts over nearby fields not far from the house. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, but I couldn’t see where the smoke was coming from. Not a pleasant smell, and it just adds to the hazy skies. Lots of rain soon, please.