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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.

Mekong Rising and Red Sunrise

As I posted previously, the Chinese are releasing water from a dam upstream from us to help out during the current drought. Riding into Vientiane today, I noticed that the Mekong had, indeed, risen about 3 to 4 inches. Just a wild guess, but the water level has gone up since last week. I hope that helps out the farmers downstream, especially the Vietnamese.

I’ve put up a photo of a red sunset before, so here’s a somewhat similar red sunrise. Morning and evening, with all the haze in the atmosphere, we’ve had about a month of these colorful risings and settings. About the only time the sun casts dark shadows is when it reaches its zenith, around noon or so. The weather forecast is calling for a small chance of rain this Friday. Hopefully, we’ll get at least a few showers.

Red sunrise

A red sun rises over Thailand and the Mekong River (unseen in this shot) from my front porch.

Mekong Water War?

According to an article on an Australian news site, Thailand is diverting some of the Mekong’s water to refresh it’s own rivers and streams. This is not making downstream neighbors, especially Vietnam, happy at all. The Thai government says that what it’s taking from the Mekong is not having a “significant impact.”

It’s an interesting article that also goes into the regional drought and the record low level of the Mekong River. I rode my motorbike by the Mekong this morning on my way to work, but I forgot to check if the level had risen due to the release of water by the Chinese dam upstream, as I mentioned in my previous post. I’ll try to remember to check it out on my way home today. More later.

Boom or Bust-Dammed If You Do, Dammed If You Don’t

There was an article in the Vientiane Times today stating that an upstream dam in China will increase its water discharge to help alleviate the drought in countries lower down the Mekong River, specifically Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We’ve got a fairly severe drought going on here in Laos, and the Mekong is at a very low level. However, Vietnam, according to the article, is suffering through its worst drought in 100 years. You can read the article here.

There is a bit of history with this dam. Back in September of 2014, during a very rainy season in Southwest China, countries downstream from China were placed on high alert due to an increase in discharge rates from the dam that could flood large areas of those countries. I remember the warning, but, though the river rose near the house, we never got any flooding. You can read that warning here.

So, through drought or excessive rain, that one dam and others upstream from us, the first ones built along the once free-flowing Mekong, have the potential to play an important part in the daily lives of millions of people living downstream from it. Could China use that as a political weapon? Possibly, but I don’t think it has done so yet.

A Few Things for Your Perusal

Laos Hosts ASEAN Summit

Laos is hosting the summit meeting of the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, which is quite an honor for the small country. The government has been tidying up the capital for the last several months, painting the lane markers on the roads so that they’re visible, putting up Christmas-like lights on the trees on the main roads and on government buildings, installing new traffic lights and making other less noticeable improvements. The importance of the meeting will be emphasized by the arrival of President Obama in the capital in September. I imagine security will be over-the-top, but I think our school will be on break at that time. I might try to come into Vientiane while Obama’s there, just to record the scene.

Already, though, there has been an increased security presence, with armed military and police patrolling the sidewalks along the main roads, something that was rarely seen in the recent past. I’ve noticed the increase especially along the road that runs next to the Mekong River, one I travel most days when I come to work. There have been groups of three armed (Uzis, AK-47s ??) military personnel meandering along the sidewalks, which are not normally packed with people. I don’t know what they expect to happen, but I assume they’re prepared for anything. They mostly look bored. When Obama arrives, I suppose most of the military and police will be present, or at least it will seem that way. Anyway, congratulations to Laos for being chosen to host this event.

A Better Red Sunset

Here’s a better photo typical of the red sunsets and sunrises we’ve been getting due to the extreme haze lately, mainly caused by farmers burning the stubble off their fields. One of the Thailand news agencies reported that the haze has been caused by fires in Myanmar, Northern Thailand and Laos.

red sunset

I purposefully underexposed this photo to bring out the red in the sun. The color of the sun here pretty much echoes what I see at sunset and sunrise.

Crop Diversity

I’m surprised at the number of different crops that are planted in the fields near my house. In the panorama photo below, you can see corn, marigolds (made into garlands and used in the Buddhist temples) and other crops (see the photo caption). Right now, we’re in the dry season and it hasn’t rained since I don’t know when. Everything is very dry and the temperature is forecast to be above 100 F (39 C) for at least the next week, with no rain in sight. The house I’m renting is far enough away from the very dusty road that runs through the village that we don’t get too much of the dust. Along the road, however, almost everything is coated with a layer of brown dust. Whenever we do get any significant rainfall, there should be dancing in the streets. But, until then, how many of these crops are going to make it? Most of the farmers here, near the Mekong, have wells that can be used to water the crops, but elsewhere, the dry season rice growers are having big problems with this drought. Hopefully, the rain will come sooner, rather than later.

Crops in Laos village

Some of the crops near the house. Starting at the left, from front to rear, are marigolds, an unknown crop (that’s really helpful, eh?) and corn. Then moving to the right, there is a crop of basil (I think) and another unknown crop. Then, there are a couple of fields, the front ready for planting and the back one with a plant just starting to come up. To the right is another corn crop, and in front of it is a hazy, green something. Again, not very helpful, but I’m not much of a plant and flower guy. Don’t forget the banana grove, also, in front.

banana grove

The banana grove that surrounds the house on three sides is growing and seems to be doing well. Hope it doesn’t block the sky later. And, you might notice the other farmland beyond the banana grove. Many more crops back there, too.

Hazy Days and Nights

I bought a pair of Olympus 10×50 binoculars on my trip to Bangkok back in December, primarily to use for star gazing. I got in a few nighttime sessions and was able to pick out some star clusters and galaxies that you don’t ordinarily see with the naked eye. However, I needed to get a tripod adapter to hook the binocs up to my camera tripod. I purchased one on my recent stay in the United States, so I was ready for steadier viewing.

Unfortunately, the skies have been extremely hazy lately, mainly due to farmers around Southeast Asia burning their fields in preparation for another growing season. I can’t see the sun until way after sunrise as it tries to plow through the haze on the horizon. At night, only the brightest stars shine through the murk, which means that viewing those fainter cosmic sights is next to impossible. The only good thing about the haze is that it makes for some beautiful red sunsets. Guess I’ll have to wait until rainy season to get in some more good nighttime sky-watching.

red sunset

We’ve had lots of red sunsets because of the haze in the atmosphere. This photo was taken from a window in my house. The view isn’t great, but I’d have to walk or ride the motorbike quite far to get a better shot.

No Love

Yeah, I’ve been showing my blog no love at all lately. How long has it been since I last posted here? Much, much too long. I’ll try to rectify that soon.

I’ve had a bad cold for the last few weeks, and it’s been hard to shake. I think it’s finally going away, though the intense coughing, at times, is still driving me batty. Hope that goes away soon, too.

It’s been quite cold lately, cold for here, that is. Nighttime temperatures have been getting down to the mid- to low-50s (10-12 C), which is freezing, if you’re not used to it. All too soon, however, the heat will be with us again. In fact, it’s supposed to get into the mid-90s this coming weekend, with lows of around 60 or so.

Right now, I’m filling in at work for another teacher who had to go back to the ‘States unexpectedly, so I’ve been working every day this week. I have one more night of classes to cover next week, then I’m back to my three-days-a-week schedule. The extra money will be nice, but the grind of driving back and forth 25 kilometers every day isn’t a lot of fun.

That’s it for now, but I’ll be doing more posting, giving the blog some attention for a change. Stay tuned.

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.