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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The youngest members enjoy the festivities, too. Lots of babies here today, who mostly slept throughout the fun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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, 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.
Clouds tinted by the sunset, August 16, 2015
Sunrise, August 18, 2015
Pink cloud highlighted by the setting sun on August, 16, 2015.
Early morning light floods the view just outside my front window. August 18, 2015
Storm clouds headed our way. They fizzled out before they got here. August 16, 2015
Storm clouds, August 16, 2015
Storm cloud, August 16, 2015. The Cloud King.
Storm clouds, August 16, 2015.
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.
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.
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.
Looking toward the Don Chan Palace Hotel, the tall building on the left, from the riverfront promenade.
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.”
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.
Some nice clouds over Thailand above a near- flood level Mekong River.
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.
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.
Under threatening skies, our farmer neighbor continues to plow. Later, there was a heavy rainfall while the others were planting the 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.
Later, the ladies had more help from the entire extended family. With this many people, the work gets finished much more quickly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Nai’s sister, Nui, sells a little food at the Old Place, usually grilled slabs of squid, Lao meatballs and hot dogs. Now, hot dogs in Laos are not like hot dogs in the U.S. They’re smaller and not that tasty. If you go to a Laos restaurant and order breakfast, you’ll see bacon, ham and sausage on the menu. The bacon’s OK, but the “ham” is that processed crap that’s not really ham, and the “sausage” is merely a hot dog. I can’t stand the hot dogs here (or in the ‘States, for that matter), but Nui has been selling a variation of the standard ‘dog. It’s more like a sausage, and a few herbs and spices are mixed in.
So, for the 4th, we invited a few friends over for Beer Lao, squid, papaya salad and hot dogs. I’d had to work that morning, and afterwards I browsed a few of the local western markets, looking for hot dog buns, relish and, maybe, chili.
The markets had the buns, but I’d eaten these particular ones before, and they’re more like a sweet pastry, so I substituted hamburger buns. I couldn’t find any relish or chili, though I’d seen them before, so I settled for plain old mustard and ketchup.
Back at the New Place, then, for the 4th. The only fireworks that would have been set off in Vientiane were probably at the American ambassador’s residence, wherever that’s located. (There’s usually an evening of entertainment, food and fireworks at American ambassadors’ residences around the world on the 4th.) We had a good time, me eating the “All-American hot dog,” wrapped by half a hamburger bun, and everyone else eating Laos food. (I wonder if grilled squid would go over well in baseball parks in Missoula or Great Falls? Whaddya think, readers?)
The weather was very much in keeping with July 4th, very hot and clear, but a nice breeze and our shaded front porch made for a relaxing day. It was fun for all, but I do miss celebrating the holiday in the ‘States. I’ll go back, sometime, and do it again.
A plate of Laos hot dogs, ready to go on a bun. I think I ate most of these, but a few of the kids present polished off a few also.
Laos hot dog on a hamburger bun, which I folded over to create some semblance of an American hot dog experience. Too bad I didn’t have any relish, chili or onions. The dog was actually a bit large for the bun, so on seconds, thirds (and fourths?), I cut the hot dog in half lengthwise so it fit better. They were pretty tasty, though they would have tasted even better if I’d been at a ballpark.
Here are a few of our friends who came over. A total of about seven adults and three children showed up, about the right size. I told Nai beforehand that I didn’t want to have a big Independence Day party.
On Thursday, June 25th, following an early morning workshop and lunch at one of the local Italian restaurants, I ‘biked back to The Farm, looking forward to our short mid-term break, despite an oddity of earlier in the day. As I was leaving for Vientiane that morning, a painter’s truck pulled up. I asked Nai what was going on, and he said he wanted to paint part of the house. This was news to me, and I told him I wasn’t going to pay for it. He said that it was free, but he couldn’t tell me why. Very strange, I thought.
When I got back to the house that afternoon, I was shocked to see that everything had been removed from the house and that a gang of painters was painting the outside a shade of lime-green and repainting the inside beige. A few carpenters were constructing something upstairs. What the hell was going on? I was quite angry, because I could see that I wouldn’t be able to sleep here tonight. The family members saw how angry I was and a few came up to me and said “Sorry.” Sorry for what? Nai was nowhere around.
One of them handed me a note written in English. It more or less stated that this was no longer Nai’s house, that it was now owned by the painter. It seems that Nai had borrowed around $6,500 from the guy when Nai’s mother was ill and dying about three years ago. He had been doing everything he could to keep her alive. Very admirable, but for reasons I won’t get into here, he hadn’t even been trying to pay back the money.
What ticked me off the most was that he didn’t tell me what was going on. If he had come to me, we could have possibly worked something out with the painter or whatever he is. I do know that he’s one of the son’s of the aging lady that Nai bought the house from, and I heard that, at the time, he was dead-set on her not selling it. Since then he’s been lusting at getting the house back, so he probably wouldn’t have come to any kind of agreement anyway. My disappointment in Nai, however, was profound.
Well, I stormed back into Vientiane, vowing to break off my friendship with Nai. I stayed at a cheap guesthouse and fumed. The next day, Nai finally worked up the courage to call me and apologize. I think he was very ashamed and embarrassed. I had calmed down somewhat and we arranged to meet at The Farm the next day. I felt sorry for him more than anything, though I was still angry.
He told me of a couple of vacated houses that belonged to some of his cousins. They were being rented out for, get this, about $37 a month. I supposed they were in terrible condition. We looked at the first one and it was little more than a concrete bunker in shabby condition and located in a rundown area of the village.
Before we even looked at the second house, I was preparing myself to rent a place in Vientiane, which would be rather nice for me. You can get a decent place for a couple hundred bucks a month and there would be no commuting back and forth.
We went to the second place, and, while not perfect, it’s the place I would have said earlier, on first arriving last year, “This is it!”
It’s much smaller than Nai’s old house, but it’s in much better condition. It’s only about a 10-minute walk from the other place, and it’s in a beautiful location. The old house is surrounded by other houses and buildings, which made me feel claustrophobic at times. In addition, any cooling breeze was drastically reduced by the buildings. The new place has one house next door and fields on all other sides. We’re surrounded on three sides by banana groves (now only stalks, waiting for the rain to help with their regrowth), with several cornfields and vegetable patches further out. So, I have much better views here, there always seems to be a nice breeze during the day, and it’s much, much quieter. The floors are tiled, unlike the bare concrete of the old place. It also has a nice front porch that’s shaded by a large tree in the afternoon. It’s really quite lovely.
One drawback is that it has an Asian style squat toilet, something I’ll have to get used to using, hopefully without any unseemly accidents, if you know what I mean.
All in all, I really like the place, and I’m quite happy to have found it, despite the circumstances leading up to the change. Although I’m still disappointed with Nai, our friendship endures.
This is a view of the front porch, looking toward the south. There’s a nice-sized living area, a bedroom, a small back storage room, a toilet and an outdoor cooking area. The small storage room could be converted to a cooking area.
Here’s another view of the new house, looking toward the south-west. The front porch is in the shade cast by a large tree just outside the view. All the rooms have several shutters to allow the usually good breeze to circulate throughout the house, though it’s still hot at night.
This is a view from the front porch looking west toward a temple on the dirt road that runs through the village. This place is about three times as far from the road as Nai’s old house, which helps to make it a much quieter location.