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September 2018
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High Water in Vientiane

I went into Vientiane a few days ago to see how far the Mekong was from topping the embankment (levee?) that was constructed after the big 2008 flood. It has quite a way to go before it gets that high, but it is flowing through some sluice gates and other channels to flood the park that’s on the city side of the road that runs along the top of the levee. I watched a video of the effort to pump water out of the area, and you can watch it on Facebook here.

Though it’s not going over the embankment, the river has flooded the new addition to the night market in that area. Here are the new vendor stalls that sit, usually, right above the river. Someone who did the planning must have thought that the river would never get this high again. Tell that to all the sellers who had to move their goods to higher ground.

flood

Night market vendor stalls under water

flood

More night market stalls under water.

We had no rain yesterday and there’s none in the forecast for today or tomorrow, but the water level is forecast to keep rising for the next few days, according to the Mekong River Commission daily bulletin. (If you click on their link, check out the Nongkhai report–it’s only a few miles downstream from the old place where I used to live and is much more relevant than the Vientiane report.)

The river has crept nearer to the old place, but it’s still safely below the houses. However, if the water does get higher over the next few days, that situation could change. Thankfully, many of the houses are built on stilts or on foundations that are several feet above the ground. More later.

Flooding on the Farm

So, I did make it out to the old place where I used to live, out on The Farm, to see what the extent of the flooding is. It’s not nearly as bad as in 2008; the water has quite a way to go before it reaches the houses, and, unless we get a region wide typhoon, I expect the river level to begin falling. (Update: I just talked to Nai and he told me that China is releasing a lot of water from their upstream dams due to heavy rain farther north. I’d forgotten about that factor, so the threat of further, heavier flooding looms.)

We had a lot of rain a few days ago, but none yesterday or today. Today is joyful–it’s been nicely sunny all day for the first time in a long time. We’ve had a few bouts of sunshine, but only for a couple of hours at a time. Maybe things will start to finally dry out. Here are a few photos of the flooding.

normal crop land

This was taken in January, 2015, during the dry season, and it shows what the crop land usually looks like in a view from Nai’s sister’s house.

flooded field

This is what the field looked like a few days ago. Not as bad as in 2008, but the crops of chili peppers and marigolds (used in the Buddhist temples by worshipers) were wiped out.

drainage channel

Just up the road is this drainage channel from the rice fields. This was taken during the rainy season in July, 2016. There is normally much less water flowing through here during the dry season.

drainage channel

Here’s the channel a few days ago, engorged by the river.

This is our front yard during the heavy rain we had this past Thursday. All the sun we’ve had today is starting to dry it out, making for easier navigation for motorbikes.

muddy front yard

The front yard was a soggy mess after heavy rain on Thursday, Aug. 30. It’s starting to dry out. I’m glad I didn’t have to ride through the muck–the school is still on break. Back to work on Sep. 13th.

Early Morning Showers

Another day, another morning rain shower. Much of the rain during the monsoon season falls at night and continues into the early morning. So, my attempt at staying in some semblance of shape by jogging has suffered. I usually do a couple of miles around 7 or 7:30 a.m.; any later and it’s just too hot, and the traffic on the road picks up as people start heading to work in Vientiane.

There’s still a lot of rain ahead of us, but I think we’re over the hump, past the mid-point of the monsoon season. Hopefully. The Mekong has slipped over its banks in some areas near Vientiane, including at Nai’s sister’s house, where I used to live. The river has flooded the family’s crop lands, but, luckily, it hasn’t reached the houses yet. It’s not nearly as bad as in 2008 (see my previous blog entry), though I haven’t been to the old place to check it out. Right now, blue sky seems to be breaking out, so if it stays nice, I’ll try to get out there to take a few photos. In fact, our usual rain shower was pretty short, so it looks like I might be able to take a jog this morning after all. Better get going.

P.S. The schools’s on break until Sept. 13th, so I’ve got all this time on my hands. Just got back from a short stay in Bangkok. Not much to say about the trip, but maybe I’ll write up a short post about it later.

Waterlogged Laos

“ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.” Living here in waterlogged Laos, I’m reminded of this line from Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. Virtually every day since the cave rescue near Chiang Rai, Thailand, it’s been raining–not heavily, mind you, but steadily. There have been a few heavy downpours, but mostly it’s been a steady drizzle or moderate rainfall.

The recent disaster near Attapeu, Laos, has been followed by reports of numerous rivers in the country nearing or above flood stage. Unfortunately, the Vientiane Times stories are behind a paywall, but here’s another view from The Nation, a Thailand newspaper.

The mighty Mekong is near flood stage in some low-lying villages near Vientiane, including Sithanthai village, where I used to live. Nai told me the river is getting near his sister’s house in the village, and I asked him to take some photos today when he goes there. If he gets any good ones, I’ll try to post them. I’m a bit worried about one of his other sisters, who has a house very near the river. I assume she and her family have evacuated. I don’t think the situation is as bad as it was back in 2008, yet. Here are a few photos from back then that I took.

Nai surveying flood

Nai surveying the flood waters at his house in Laos.

Children playing in flood waters

Children having fun in the flood of 2008 at Nai’s house.

And this one is from Nongkhai, Thailand, just across the border.

The Weather Underground forecast for Vientiane is calling for 1/4″ to 1/2″ of rain daily through next week. The forecasts are highly unreliable, though, so we could get more rain than that, or, hopefully, less. There was a steady drizzle overnight, but right now the rain has stopped. We live a few miles from the Mekong, so it’s highly unlikely that the river would reach us here.

Like I wrote, I’ll post some photos here if Nai gets any, and if the situation is still bad this weekend, I’ll try to ride out to the village to see what’s going on and to get some photos of my own. Stay tuned.

Lazy Days and Pi Mai Laos

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. OK, it’s only April, but it sure feels like lazy summertime days. This is the hottest time of year in Laos, with temperatures regularly near the hundred degree mark (38 C.) Tomorrow it’s supposed to be 104 degrees. The monsoon season is in June, July and August, so the temperature doesn’t normally get as hot as in April and May, since the wet weather has a bit of a cooling effect.

Our school is on break until May 10th, so I’ve been hanging out at the house during the day. In the afternoon, it certainly feels like the song, Summertime, suggests. I’m about 500 feet from the main road that runs into Vientiane, so the traffic noise is somewhat muted. In the afternoon, everything is very quiet: the neighbors’ kids are in school, the grown-ups, most of them, are at work and the only thing you can hear is the buzzing of flies. Obviously, I keep a fan blowing. (No air-con) I mostly lie down and read a book and take a nap. Very peaceful and pleasant (despite the heat). Until today, that is. Today, April 13th marks the start of the traditional Laos New Year, Pi Mai Lao (Pee-my). There will be plenty of noisy parties going on, with extremely loud music playing into the early hours. Goodbye relaxation time for several days.

The holiday is also celebrated in Thailand, where it’s called Songkran, and in Cambodia, Myanmar and some other parts of Southeast Asia. Traditionally, the holiday runs from April 13-15, but the Lao government, not content with a three-day weekend, has dictated that, because the 14th and 15th is Saturday and Sunday, Pi Mai will also include Monday and Tuesday. So, it’s a five-day weekend.

Probably the biggest feature of the event is the inclusion of water. By this, I mean the traditional activity of cleaning house and also of pouring a bit of water over the various Buddha statues in the local temple as part of a purification rite. But, the main focus in many parts of Laos, and in Thailand, is throwing water on other people, drenching foreigners and natives alike in large-scale water fights, especially in the cities. I’m going out to my former village today, where the celebration is a bit gentler. I’ve posted about Pi Mai before, here, here and here.

I’ll take plenty of photos and get them posted as soon as I can. Gotta wrap my camera and cell phone up in plastic grocery bags before I head out on the main road, where I’ll try to avoid water-throwing kids. I can probably avoid getting too wet there, but when I get to the dirt road going to the village, I’ll have to slow down and it’s very possible I’ll get soaked before I get to where I’m going. So, I’m going to wear some light, drip-dry clothing and hope the heat and the sun will dry me quickly. Just part of the deal, I guess, but it’s all in fun. I’ll get my licks in at Nai’s family’s party. More later.

Wonder what I’ll look like during this year’s celebration. This is from last year.

Pi Mai Lao 2017

Well, that finishes this year’s Pi Mai Lao celebration. One more photo to show. Here are a few friends posing for the camera. Nai’s on the left and a friend, name unknown, is on the right, but who’s the old fart in the middle? Got his face and clothes powdered, I see. He looks fairly full from eating all that fish and rice. Guess he had a good time. See ya next year, sport.

Winter in Laos

Ahh, it’s the best time of the year in Laos, and in most of South East Asia, I suppose. The winter months give us almost perfect weather–highs mostly in the mid- to low-eighties and lows in the fifties to high-forties. Those low temperatures can seem quite chilly if you’re used to much higher temperatures. If you spend winter in more northerly climes, like Montana, they might feel balmy by comparison.

Overcast, rainy weather is usually not a problem (it hasn’t rained since October) and the haze-free skies are a delight. That will end in February when the farmers start burning the stubble from their fields, here and in many areas of S.E. Asia.

If you ever get the urge to visit Laos, now is the time to come if you want to enjoy the country under optimal weather conditions. Here are a couple of photos from recent mornings, my favorite time of day.

morning light in Laos

If we have a decently-colored sunrise, the trees and the neighbors’ houses take on a beautiful color. This view is looking out my living room window towards the west.

morning fog near Vientiane, Laos

This shot is looking out the kitchen window towards the north. We don’t get a lot of heavy fog since we’re not near the river, but it’s not unusual to get some. It burns off quite quickly.

Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

Today is the annual Boat Racing Festival in Vientiane. Too bad I won’t be attending. While virtually every other institution, (schools, government offices, banks, embassies, as well as restaurants and other businesses) is shut down, our school, Vientiane College, has decided, as usual, to remain open.

I really enjoy going to boat races in Laos, but I’m not going today because I have to work later. Although my lesson plans for this evening’s classes have been made, I’m not going down to the race area to enjoy a few hours of the races. It’s sunny and warm today, so I’d just end up getting sweaty and smelly, and, then, I’d have to motorbike back to the house, take a shower and get back to school. Not worth it. I really like spending the whole day at a race, not having to worry about being somewhere else later.

The school always gives some flimsy excuse for not being shut down. There was a post on the notice board advising teachers to tell students that the school is not being culturally insensitive or unaware, but the reason for remaining open is that authorities don’t give the school enough advance notice as to when the race will be held. That’s pure hogwash! We received the 2018 school calendar a few weeks ago and it shows that the boat race next year is on October 25th, which, fortuitously, coincides with the beginning of the mid-term break next October. That’s more than a year away. Not enough advance notice? Bull crap. If any of my students who show up tonight ask why we’re open, I’ll just tell them to ask the school administration. I’m sure as hell not going to give them the school’s excuse of “not enough advance notice.”

Now, having said that, the school is still, usually, a great place to work. It just gets under my skin (and is depressing) that we’re one of the very few institutions that are open today, and that the school, since I’ve been here, has never closed for this particular holiday. Ah, well, next year, I guess.

Rainy Season Arrives in Force

The days and weeks of rain are definitely here. We had a couple inches of rain last Sunday, and there are about four inches in the forecast for today and tomorrow. It’s been raining steadily since last night, and everything is quite wet, of course.

It’s cozy and dry inside the new house, but outside it’s a different story. The house is built up from the ground by a couple of feet, so parking our motorbikes in the large kitchen area out of the rain (and away from potential thieves) is a bit of a chore. The owner first built a wooden ramp that we used to get the bikes inside, but it was too narrow. The first time I tried to ride up it, I fell off and my bike fell on top of me. Fortunately, no damage was done to either the bike or me. Nai tried to ride up it, but he had a heck of a time getting in the door.

So, we asked the owner to come up with an alternative, if he could. He piled up a truckload of dirt that is much easier to get up and get into the house. (See the picture I took in a prior post. Look to the left side of the house, in the back.) Unfortunately, when it rains the dirt turns into a quagmire of gumbo. When I came back from work last night, I parked the bike outside and went in the house through the front door. First, though, I took off my wet shoes (I forgot to take my sandals with me) that got soaked from riding to the house through the sometimes-heavy rain. Luckily, I had my poncho with me, so I didn’t get too wet, except for the shoes. I went to the back area and put on my sandals, unlocked the back door, went back out the front door, grabbed the bike and pushed it through the gumbo, giving it some gas in second gear to help it along, and up the dirt into the house.

Unfortunately, my sandals got caked with at least two inches of mud on the bottom, so I felt like I was walking in high heels. The motorbike tires were in equal straits. I cleaned the sandals this morning, but the tires will only get clean as I ride to work today.

Nai’s going to ask the owner to try to come up with another solution. The wooden ramp would work fine if only he’d make it wider. The owner, Kay, is a great guy, so I’m sure he’ll come up with something. Until then, we’ll just have to hope for some sun later in the week.

Muddy path

This doesn’t look too bad, but it’s very soft. It’s not like quicksand–it’s more like “quickmud.”

Muddy tire

This will be rough riding until the mud sloughs off on the paved road. Until then, though, going out and down the back ramp is going to increase the mud build-up. Hope I don’t get stuck!

My First UFO

It’s been very hot this week with high temperatures around 100F (38C) and the humidity has been high. Some mornings I wake up and I’m already sweating. Until last night there had been no sign of thunderstorms and rain, which would cool things off a bit, for a while. But, we had a very violent storm come through from the north yesterday evening around 7 o’clock. There was little rain, but lots of high wind and lightning. I thought the roof of the house was going to get torn off, and, though there were no nearby strikes, the lightning was flickering all around us, enough so that I probably could have read a book by the light.

I sat on the front porch, which faces south and was somewhat sheltered, enjoying the relative coolness that the storm brought. As I watched the clouds zipping along, I noticed a pale, silver wedge, shaped like a boomerang and somewhat blurred, going in the opposite direction, toward the north, against the strong wind. It couldn’t have been at a great altitude because it reflected the lighting from the street lamps. It raced past almost directly overhead and became obscured by the house. I thought about running to the back of the house to see if I could catch a glimpse of it, but I remembered the back door was locked and it would have taken some time to get my keys and unlock the door, by which time the object would have been long gone.

What was it? It came out of the south from the general direction of Thailand. Is the Thai or Lao military testing a flying wing? Just kidding, as neither of them has the resources, the technology or the know-how to even begin to think about doing something like that. I don’t have a clue about what the object was, so I’m going to chalk it up as my very first glimpse of a UFO.

Calling it a UFO doesn’t mean it was some kind of extra-terrestrial space craft; it just means that it was something flying that I couldn’t identify. A flock of birds, maybe? A rogue cloud? Some kind of weird lightning? I give it a shoulder shrug. UFO.

Drawing

This is something I drew in Photoshop earlier. It kind of resembles the object that I saw. Same brightness,
blurry look.

New House, New Location

The school has been closed since April 8th, but we go back to work this week, with a teachers’ workshop on Thursday and regular classes on Friday and Saturday. I’ll be quite happy to be starting up again. The break has seemed interminable with several “disasters” punctuating the time off.

First, my computer crashed and I had to get Windows reinstalled. Unfortunately, I lost some data and applications that I hadn’t backed up, but, thankfully, most of the important data (photos, documents, etc.) were saved. Then I had trouble with my debit card at the ATM and had to straighten that out. A few nights ago, Nai had an altercation with a couple of guys who tried to rob him and he got knocked around pretty badly, but seems to be OK. He told me he gave as good as he got. The cops arrested the thugs. A few other nuisance situations also occurred to make this a less than enjoyable break.

On a more positive note, though, I’ve moved into a, literally, new house in a new location. I’m the first one to live here and the owner is still upgrading the surrounding “yard.” (Not so much a yard as a weed patch; he hauled in a bunch of dirt to cover a lot of it, and I hope he plans to add some real grass.)

Here’s why I made the move. The old place, which I used to think was paradisaical, had gradually been degraded over the last year. The owner took out the entirety of the banana grove that had surrounded the house, erected fences that encompass the land, and started raising goats. Goats, goats and more goats. There were 13 of them on the tract that the house is on, and they had free run of the place, meaning that they crapped and urinated everywhere when I couldn’t chase them off–on the front porch and the concrete walkway surrounding the house and anywhere else they could find. The smell was atrocious and the noise they made destroyed the tranquility of the place. Not to mention that the neighbors had some parties at which they used huge concert-appropriate speakers and amps and cranked up the music until it was pulsing through your body; you couldn’t escape the noise and it was impossible to sleep or to even carry on a conversation. It was like a torture chamber. A few times I just gave up and rented a guesthouse room in Vientiane for the night. Then the owner said he wanted me out by May 1st because he wanted to move back into the house. Absolutely. No. Problem.

So, Nai found this new place and it’s much nicer than what the other place had become. It’s 30 minutes closer to town and I don’t have to ride my motorbike over that completely sh**ty dirt road leading to the village. For that reason alone, I am grateful to have made the move. The house is located about 100 yards off the main road that runs between Vientiane and the border crossing between Laos and Thailand. It’s a bit noisy at times, being located near a couple of karaoke restaurants, but it’s not that bad. It’s a heavily traveled road, so the traffic noise can be disturbing. However, the karaokes are good neighbors and close when they’re legally supposed to close (11:30 pm), which not all similar places do, and the traffic settles down at night.

I was disappointed, though, when I found that the device I was using in the countryside to connect to the internet rarely works at all here. I thought I would have better reception, being closer to town, but most days I can’t connect at all. Lo and behold, there’s an internet cafe which has extremely good, fast internet right in front of the house on the main road. Not only that, since I’m near the main road, one of the local internet providers is going to run a fiber optic line to the house in a couple of weeks, so I’ll have my own connection, always on. Hooray! It costs about $37 a month and I hope it’s worth it.

Of course, since the house was unfurnished, I’ve been spending money hand over fist buying furniture and what-not for it. (Another good reason to be getting back to work, earning money again.) We hired a pick-up truck to haul our other stuff (refrigerator, stove, bed, personal items) here. There are still a few more items I have to purchase, so more money will be leaving the coffers before all is said and done. Oh, yes, the old place cost $50 a month; this one is $200. But, I guess that’s the price to pay for leaving “paradise.”

The beneficial things about living here are that it’s much closer to Vientiane, it’s on a paved road and I’ll have a nice internet connection. Being closer to the city, I’ll probably be much more inclined to go to the movie theater or to take in some cultural events on the weekends.

Not beneficial–the cost and the noise (at times). Mostly, however, the noise won’t be a problem since I’ll be at work during the day and into the early part of the night. So far, it’s not been a big problem.

We’ll see how this new place works out. I signed a six-month lease, so I’ll have lots of time to either get to like it or to hate it. More later.

House

This is a view of the front of the house. In the back there’s a very large field (see previous post), and behind me and to the right of the house there are some other houses-not too close, but not much to see. To the left of this photo are some fish ponds. See the next photo.

Pond

Here’s one view of the fish pond. There’s another larger one beyond it. Yes, it is stocked with fish, which the vendor in front of us grills and sells. I might end up stuffing my self too often.

Pond

Here’s another view of the pond.