Calendar

November 2017
S M T W T F S
« Oct    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930  

Categories

free counters
Free counters!

Boat Races and Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grilled fish

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

Insect larvae

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

Suwon and friend

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

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

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

Nai singing

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

Nui dancing

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

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

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

Smiling boy

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

Shy boy

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

Young girl

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

Baby

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

First Boat Race

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

Sithanthai village boat racing team

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

Boat paddler relaxing in water.

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

Bowsprit of dragon boat

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

Boat racing

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

Fried grasshoppers

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

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

Plowing and Planting

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

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

Plowing a rice field

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

Plowing a rice field

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

Planting rice

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

Planting rice

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

Hot Times in Vientiane

The sizzling hot season is here again. From around November through the middle of March we had some very mild and enjoyable weather, with low temperatures, crystal skies and no rain. Now, the temperatures are in the upper 90s to mid 100s fahrenheit (40C), the skies are hazy with all the burn-offs of the stubble in the rice fields and the rainy season is not all that far ahead of us. The current hazy and dusty skies lead to some incredible sunrises, and I’ll try to get some photos of the crimson sun when the opportunities arise. The sun comes up around six o’clock and its color is sometimes unbelievable. It’s already hot at that time on most mornings, but the afternoon heat is much worse and leads to lethargy on everyone’s part here at The Farm. It’s as if the place is deserted, with the kids usually in school and the adults (including me on my days off) laying somewhere in front of a fan. Quite peaceful, but just too hot to enjoy. Thankfully, the college is air conditioned.

Coming up next week is the Lao New Year, Pi Mai Lao. Thailand celebrates this also and there it’s known as Songkran. I’ve written about this before, so see Sabaidee Pi Mai Lao and Bangkok. Because it’s so hot this time of year, the modern day practice of dousing people with water is quite refreshing, but over-done at times. In older days, it was a more understated, but quite important, part of the rituals of the New Year than it is now. Still, it’s a bit of fun for a few days, and I hope to get more movies and photos of the rituals and merriment than I did last year.

My opportunites should be greater because the first trimester of the school year ends next week, and then we’re off for a month. (Which, unfortunately, is unpaid.) I might spend a couple of days in Vientiane away from The Farm around Pi Mai and then, perhaps, take the train down to Bangkok, a city that I love, and goof around for a few days. Songkran in the City of Angels is absolutely chaotic, so I think I’ll go after the celebration and avoid all the insanity. Whatever happens, I’ll keep you informed. More later.

Not So Laid-Back Vientiane

Many guide books describe Vientiane as being “laid-back.” They are either out-dated or misinformed, because the capital is far from relaxing. Compared to Bangkok or Beijing, I suppose it is, but it’s nothing like it was a short ten years ago, the first time I was here.

As an example that Vientiane is changing for the worse in some ways, a few weeks ago the Vientiane Times had a second page headline that read “Businessman, driver survive hail of gunfire.” The businessman wasn’t wounded, but his driver was hit three times in the right arm. The businessman, a Mr. Tong, is a “successful entrepreneur who has been involved in charitable works,” according to the newspaper. It goes on to report

“According to his account, Mr. Tong told friends that it was the truth that there was somebody who would like to kill him but he still did not understand the reason why they wanted to do so. He noted on his status that his was a flourishing business but in a competitive sector where it was not always simple to be successful. There had been so many rumours, but on Friday he learnt firsthand the extent of the danger lurking in society. Mr. Tong added at the end of the message that he wanted a peaceful resolution and forgiveness to the person or people behind the attack.”

Yikes, perhaps one more thing to worry about while I’m riding my motorbike to the village at night after work: stray bullets.

Another concern is missing manhole covers, as was reported a week ago. Thieves have been stealing them to sell for the metal. I think they’ve been taking them from sidewalks, not main thoroughfares, because the report stated that a car had been damaged while trying to park on a sidewalk. I’d hate to come up at night on a gaping hole in the street on my motorbike. I’m pretty sure I’d be a goner.

So, Vientiane, while somewhat relaxed, is not the sleepy capital it once was. Progress or not, it’s definitely changed.

Vientiane Boat Racing Festival

The rainy season has finished and the Mekong is receding, so we’re into, what else, the dry season. Those are the only two real seasons in Vientiane, though there might be a decent autumn farther north in the country, but nothing like New England, for example. It will start to get quite cool at night next month, a faux winter compared to more northern climes, but if you’re used to low temperatures in the high 70s, then the low 60s and mid 50s seem quite chilly.

Though there are more boat races leading to the national championships in Oudomxay (far north of here) in November, the big Vientiane Boat Racing Festival was held on Thursday, October 9th. Almost all of the city shut down for the day: the banks were closed; the Laos government offices were closed; the public schools were closed and even the U.S. Embassy was closed. I say almost all, because at least one institution was open for business as usual-Vientiane College. Yeah, we had to work that day. I was deeply disappointed by the college’s decision to not take the day off. It wouldn’t have been all that difficult, in my opinion, to tack on an extra day at the end of the term to make up for the lost time, but that wasn’t done. I still enjoy working there, but my formerly high opinion of it has gone down a few notches.

Despite that, I did spend a few hours at the festival area along the Mekong before I had to show up for my classes. It was hot, noisy, crowded and dirty, but I enjoyed it. I didn’t actually get to see any races, but the spectacle wasn’t confined to the boats. Fa Ngum road, the one-way street along the Mekong, is usually congested with vehicles, but on this day, and the preceding three, it was closed to normal vehicular traffic, leaving pedestrians the freedom to stroll on the pavement.

Well, not quite. It was extremely crowded, so a stroll was more like a crawl. On both sides of the road, vendors of all sorts of products were allowed to set up under awnings to display their goods. Many sold mundane items like shoes, shirts, hats, brassieres (!), and housewares, while others noisily hawked cosmetics, cell phones, computers and various items of high-end fashion. The cacophony of the hucksters and ear drum-busting music coming over the high wattage speakers was almost unbearable in places. It took around thirty minutes to make the half-a-kilometer-long walk.

Brassieres for sale

Brassieres for sale along the main road of the festival. Other items for sale included purses, handbags, book backpacks, wallets, watches, clothing and umbrellas.

Food vendors on the main street

Vendors sell grilled chicken, beef and fish, corn on the cob, noodles and other food along the main street of the festival.

Balloon popping booths at the festival.

There were quite a number of carny-style balloon popping booths set up. They all had yellow balloons, which may or may not signify something.

There were a couple of good places to view the races. One was the VIP viewing area, closed off to all but high-ranking military personnel and government officials. The other good spot was at the roof top Bor Pen Nyang bar, four floors up, overlooking the river. However, 50,000 kip (about $6.25) was being charged to go there. I think there were a couple of drinks and snacks included in the price. I suppose I could have paid and sat up there in the shade for a few hours, but I wanted to walk around the festival area. I did manage to persuade the two guys collecting the payment to let me go up for a few minutes to take a few photos.

VIP pavilion at the race

The VIP pavilion at the boat racing venue. Mostly military personnel and government officials, I suppose, were seated in the shade here. It was one of the more comfortable areas to watch the race.

Overview of festival

This is a general over view of the festival from the Bor Pen Nyang bar.

The main street of the festival.

Looking east down the main street from the Bor Pen Nyang rooftop bar. I had to lean over the protective railing to get this photo and the one below.

The main street of the festival

From the Bor Pen Nyang rooftop bar, looking west down the main street of the festival.

At another area of the Mekong, a bit removed from the race area, a few stages with seating in front had been set up. On one stage, a band composed of westerners was playing rock music to a full house sitting in the shade of umbrellas, and on another a Lao band was performing Lao pop music.

People sitting under umbrellas to watch a band

Quite a few people sat under umbrellas and ate food or drank beer while watching the Western rock band perform at the festival.

People watching a Lao band perform at the festival.

Other people were enjoying a Lao pop band under the shade of an awning. Of course, you could buy food and beverages while enjoying the concert.

Past the stages, a carnival midway of sorts featured various rides, including four bumper car setups, two small ferris wheels, a small kiddie roller coaster and other attractions.

Carnival rides at the festival.

This is part of the carnival rides area at the festival. There were a couple of ferris wheels, several bumper car tents, a merry-go-round, a small roller coaster and a few carny-style game areas.

Children ride small roller coaster

Not many kids are riding the small roller coaster, probably because there’s no shade. I imagine it was much busier in the evening.

I don’t know when the festival will be held next year since it is scheduled according to the lunar calendar and is held near the end of the Buddhist Lent period. The race itself is held on the day after the end of Lent. This year the final day of Buddhist Lent, Boun Awk Phansa, was on Wednesday. During this final day of Lent, most people visit the temples, bringing food for the monks, and make “fire” boats with banana trunks and leaves, flowers and candles to float at night on the Mekong. I have some photos of these small boats which I’ll put up on my next post in a few days.

Dragon Boat Racing Begins

Our timing was quite bad last Saturday in going to see the first dragon boat races of the season, which ends, I believe, sometime in late October or early November. We arrived at the National Cultural Park, which is a few kilometers from the Friendship Bridge, around 3:30 in the afternoon. We were just in time to catch the finish of the final race. Not that we were able to see much, since the banks of the Mekong were packed with spectators. This is the only photo I was able to take of the competitors. The near boat is from Nai’s village, and though they usually finish at the top, this day they took second place.

Dragon Boat Racing

And the winner is . . . the boat at the top, just barely.

Crowd of people along the Mekong River.

It was difficult to get any kind of view of the race due to the large number of people lining the Mekong riverbank. That’s Thailand on the far bank.

The races usually take place on Saturday, but since that’s a working day for me, we can’t get to the events early enough to secure good viewing spots. However, during the major, important national championship race later in the season, the college is cancelling classes on that particular Saturday; not many of the students would attend. That race takes place in Vientiane, so there will be quite a large turnout, with a myriad of activities, parties and what-not. I can hardly wait.

There’s always a carnival- or festival-like feeling at these events. Plenty of food, beer, live bands and other diversions can be found at the site. In fact, just as we left the area around 7 o’clock, we stumbled upon a bumper car ride, and, of course, we had to give it a try. I haven’t smashed around in bumper cars since I was a teenager. Tons of fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos; kind of hard to do while your bashing and getting bashed. Here are some other photos from the day.

The House of Horror

This must be a “fun” house type of attraction, the “House of Horrors.” It’s one of the first sights at one entrance to the Cultural Park.

The crowd at the boat race

Part of the throng at the Cultural Park for the first boat race of the season.

People eating and drinking and listening to a live band.

Other folks were taking in the live band and eating and drinking with their friends and family.

Dragon Boat Racer

One of the racers was happy to pose for this photo. I believe his team finished in 3rd or 4th place.

Grilled squid

Lots of food at the event. Grilled squid, anyone?

Roasted grasshoppers

If squid isn’t your thing, how about some roasted grasshoppers?

Laos food for sale

This type of food is more to my liking than the squid or the grasshoppers.

Grilled chicken

The grilled chicken was outstanding. I ate of couple of “sticks” of it.

The Cultural Park is a bit run down, with a very small zoo that includes monkeys and ostriches, some dinosaur statues and a display of traditional Lao houses. I was previously there in 2007. Now, a large swimming pool with an encompassing restaurant (it literally surrounds the pool) has opened right next door. I think most people are more attracted to the swimming area than to the park, but the park is still worth a visit, in my opinion. I think there’s a small entrance fee of a dollar or two.

I was disappointed that I captured only that one photo of the race itself, but there will be plenty more races later. I’ll try to attend as many as I can; they’re quite fun, and if you’re in Laos between the months of August and November, try to take one in.

Wat Whimsy

I made these photos awhile back while Nai was honoring Buddha at the wat next door to us, Wat Khokxay (coke-sigh). It seems that the monks have a sense of humor. (I think it was the monks–who else would have committed such a sacrilege?) I thought of these photos as I walked past the wat today because someone had wrapped another of the larger figures in a blue garb, either a dress or a toga. I didn’t have my camera with me, but perhaps I’ll try to capture the image before the monks decide to “disrobe” the statue. Now that I know the monks are a bit playful, I’ll have to visit the grounds from time to time to see what creative fashion statements are being made.

Statues wearing sunglasses

Buddhist statues at Wat Khokxay wearing sunglasses.

Statue wearing sunglasses

Buddhist statue at Wat Khokxay wearing sunglasses.

Update: In the previous post I wrote that there are 6 new puppies at The Farm, but they must have cloned themselves because yesterday I counted NINE of them. The more the merrier, I suppose.

In an Ideal Communist Country . . .

I read the English version of the Vientiane Times about once or twice a week. On one of the inside pages is a section devoted to what is being written in other Laos newspapers, translated into English. One of the papers is the Pathet Lao Daily, which I assume is an organ of the Communist Party here.

About 10 days ago, the Times quoted the Pathet Lao Daily ranting about the music that was played at gatherings during the recent New Year celebrations. I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the article, but the Daily wrote, more or less, that a large percentage of the music being played at parties was Thai, when the rule is that people must play at least 70% Lao music.

I think I might have laughed out loud when I read this. The article went on to explain that people weren’t being patriotic enough in their choice of music. I don’t think patriotism should be the issue. Perhaps Lao music sucks compared to Thai music. (It does.) The ruling class might be quivering in their boots that choice of music might spell doom for the regime. Kind of hearkens back to when Elvis Presley was reviled for his hip-shakin’ style. Do you oldsters remember? I do. More later.

Some Pi Mai Lao Videos

Here are a few video clips from the Pi Mai Lao / Noh’s Birthday Party last Monday, April 14th. If they show up as a colored test-screen, just click on the play button. If they’re not playing, please leave me a comment. Thanks and enjoy.

The first one is a general view of the kind of merriment that was taking place.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

More fun with water.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

Suwon and Noh (in the tub).

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

A few passers by get in on the action.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.

And some more party goers staying out of the water for now.

Pi Mai Lao Party from Ron Anderson on Vimeo.