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Return to Vang Vieng?

I really love the fantastic scenery of Vang Vieng, Laos. The last time I was there was in June of 2009, and, as I posted then, I was quite loathe to return, due to the extreme frat/high school drunk-party atmosphere of the town. The backpacker crowd had taken over, completely lacking any respect for the local culture, running around half naked, noisy, and totally out of control. The laid-back vibe of Vang Vieng had disappeared, perhaps never to return.

Salvation has come, though, in a report posted on a Travefish blog. It seems that last August, the Lao authorities stepped in and closed the bars lining the area of the Nam Song River where most of the party crowd began their day by kayaking or tubing. They also shut down the all-night party spots, and most of the bars now close around midnight. The blog reports that

Vang Vieng is returning to its roots as a place where people came to chill out, have a couple of beers and take in the natural beauty of the surrounding area. If you were tossing up over whether to come or not because of Vang Vieng’s reputation, don’t deliberate any longer. Vang Vieng is now back on the map as a top spot for those seeking to experience the natural beauty of Laos and interact with the local people. But for those seeking a serious party — the party is over.

From my point of view, all I can say is Hallelujah!

My Lao traveling companion and good friend, Nai, has been having some family troubles lately. We had been planning to go to Phuket, Thailand, but with the troubles, he may, perhaps, want to travel somewhere that’s closer to his family. If that’s the case, perhaps we’ll head north to Vang Vieng rather than to Phuket. I don’t know yet if our plans will change, but I’d be quite happy to return to Vang Vieng.

Yeosu Expo 2012-Joint Group Pavilions

Well, finally, I’m getting back to posting. I’m really sorry about the length of time between posts; I was under the weather for a few days, the new teaching session started recently, and . . . ummmm, well, I’m afraid I get a bit lazy sometimes. Hopefully, I’ll be adding entries to the blog much more frequently.

Expo attendance has really been picking up recently, and the two main reasons are that school is out, so families are taking vacations, and daily ticket prices have been reduced, which I mentioned in the previous post.

For the first time since I’ve been back from Thailand and Laos, I ventured out to the site this past Saturday. Typically for Yeosu in the summer, it was raining cats and dogs. That didn’t stop people from attending, so the place was packed. And where do people go when it’s raining? Inside, of course. It seemed like everyone was under cover at the International Pavilion. There were very long lines at most of the national pavilions.

However, four pavilions didn’t have long lines, and they never do. These four very interesting areas are the joint group pavilions. Many smaller countries just can’t afford to foot the bill for the floor space that countries like France and Russia, for example, are paying. So, many of them share a pavilion, setting up in spaces that are, more or less, the size of small street stalls or vendors. There might be as many as 20 countries sharing a pavilion, and most of these small areas are very well done, with beautiful designs, cultural assets, gift shops, and friendly native-country folks who are very eager, usually, to talk to English-speaking visitors.

The four joint group pavilions are the Pacific Joint Group, the Indian Ocean, and two joint group pavilions devoted to the Atlantic Ocean, East and West. You can spend a lot of time in each of these pavilions (recommended) or zoom right through them in several minutes. The Atlantic Pavilion (East and West) have performance areas, as does the Pacific Ocean (outside the pavilion), so you can catch some artists in short concerts. These pavilions are a great place to hang out and make some new friends if the major pavillions are too busy. Since there are so many countries packed into such a small area, I’ll sprinkle photos and comments about them throughout my future Expo posts.

Like I mentioned in another post, my friend Nai from Laos came to visit for about a week, and, despite the trauma of getting through Incheon airport immigration, he really enjoyed the Expo and was quite, uhhhh, impressed with German beer, a beverage he’d never enjoyed before.

His first day here, I took him to the Laos booth, which is located in the Pacific Ocean Joint Group Pavilion. Go figure; Laos doesn’t border an ocean. Neither does Mongolia, which is also in the same pavilion. Still, it’s nice to see that they made the effort to be here, unlike oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which reneged on their obligation to be a presence at the Expo (read post that debacle here).

After he talked with his fellow countryman for about 20 minutes, we walked a few paces over to the Mongolian Pavilion. Here, he’s posing with a couple of Mongolian reindeer. Oh, by the way, the reindeer have been stuffed. I could say the same about Nai, what with the German beer and German food, which he also loved. But, no, I won’t say that.

My friend Nai posing with Mongolian reindeer

Nai and reindeer friends

The Mongolian Gift Shop

Mongolia Gift Shop at Expo 2012

Mongolia Gift Shop

At the risk of extreme embarrassment and ridicule, here’s a shot of me in the Laos Pavilion. No, I hadn’t been drinking and going around wearing a lampshade on my head–that’s traditional Laos head wear.

MontanaRon at the Laos Pavilion

One too many, MontanaRon?

After you finish laughing, you can check out these other photos of some of the countries at the Pacific Ocean Joint Group Pavilion.

First, Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea Pavilion

Papua New Guinea Pavilion

Tuvalu

Tuvalu Pavilion

Tuvalu Pavilion

Vanuatu. Hmmm, where have I seen that design before?

Vanuatu Pavilion

Vanuatu Pavilion

Some beautiful cultural assets from Vanuatu.

Vanuatu Pavilion Wood Carvings

Vanuatu Pavilion Wood Carvings

Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands Pavilion

Solomon Islands Pavilion

Solomon Islands Pavilion Cultural Assets

Solomon Islands Pavilion Cultural Assets

Last, but certainly not least, Palau.

Palau Pavilion

Palau Pavilion

I’ll have more of these as we go to the end of the Expo. Cripes! That’s less than a month away! It seems like it just began. Oh, well, stay tuned for more later.

Expo 2012 Map

Hi, readers. One of you (thanks, Austin) suggested that I take a photo of the Expo map and post it here. I don’t know why I didn’t think of doing that, but here it is.

Sorry about the delay with the map, though, but I’ve been experiencing a perfect trifecta of events here in Yeosu. First, we’ve been having end-of-the-semester exams–grading, paperwork, etc.; that’s been keeping me pretty busy. Second, I’ve been preparing for my upcoming vacation to Thailand and Laos, cleaning the house and packing. Finally, and this kind of relates to the first item, I’ve been fighting a fierce cold, really bad. I picked it up from a student who coughed right in my face last week during final interview (speaking) exams. I knew it at the time that I was gonna get something; I could just feel that some kind of sickness was on its way. Sure enough, for the last week I’ve been coughing my lungs out and been experiencing fevers and chills and just generally been run down. I leave tomorrow night, Thursday, on the 11 p.m. bus to Incheon Airport, and then fly out of Incheon for Bangkok around 11 a.m. Friday. Geez, it’s gonna be a long day, and I sure as hell hope I’m feeling a bit better soon. It’s quite depressing, of course, to start a vacation feeling like this.

Anyway, here’s the map. The front side shows the Expo site and the back side gives some more useful information. The photo file sizes are quite large (around 900 Kb) in order to keep the resolution high enough to read the fine print. Click on the photo a couple of times to get the full view. They’re not my best effort, but I hope they help.

This will probably be my final post before I leave tomorrow, and I’ll be gone for a couple of weeks. Don’t expect anything before then, please. Once I return to Yeosu with my good friend Nai, we’ll be touring the Expo and probably be spending a few days up in Seoul. I’ll try to get a post or two up while we’re here, but no promises. Once I return for good from vacation, around July 8th, I’ll get going full time again. Please be patient for more later and have a great early summer.

Expo Map Front

Front of the Expo Map

Expo Map Back

Back of the Expo Map

Yeosu Expo 2012-A Few Short Pavilion Reviews

Sorry, readers, that I haven’t posted anything in the past few days. I’ve been very busy with final exams and paperwork at the university, and with doing some badly neglected cleaning of my apartment. My friend Nai, from Laos, is coming to visit in late June-early July, so I’ve got to try to get my small abode spruced up.

I went to the Expo last weekend, of course, and tomorrow, June 6th, is a holiday, South Korea’s Memorial Day, so I’ll go there again. I’ve taken tons of photos, but I just haven’t had time to process them. If you’re looking for some quick reviews, here are a few.

Germany Pavilion–I haven’t been through the pavilion, but there is a separate restaurant right next to the main pavilion, and, in my opinion, it’s one of the best restaurants at the Expo, with delicious German sausages and great German beer. It’s a little pricey, but well worth a visit. Say hello to Sven, one of the waiters. The pavilion itself has long lines during many hours of the day and night, and the restaurant can get crowded, too.

Romania–This is a beautiful two-floor pavilion, with small lines, and a nice, but small, snack bar. There’s a limited selection of Romanian food, but my friends tell me that it’s delicious. There’s seating just outside the restaurant, so it’s a great area to enjoy a meal and do some people watching.

Cambodia–a very interesting pavilion with lots of cultural assets and one of the best gift shops. Full of fabrics, silk, and other goodies. Not too many long lines, but it can get a bit crowded inside. Outside, there are a couple of Cambodian cultural performances at various times during the day. Thumbs up to this one.

Spain–very beautiful inside the dark interior with lit, multicolored, candle-like glass tubes. Culturally, the pavilion features early Spanish exploration of the seas. The highlight is the tapas bar, which you can enter without going through the pavilion. It’s a short walk through, and I’ve noticed long lines at only a few times during the day, though the bar tends to get crowded. It serves food from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and again from 6-9 p.m., but I’m pretty sure you can order drinks during the off time (4-6).

Lithuania–Think amber-LOTS of amber. That’s what this pavilion is all about, along with gems. The pavilion’s color is, what else, amber, and you can view lots of ancient amber with insects and vegetation locked inside. There is also a small snack bar that sells Lithuanian cheese, mead(!), and beer, alongside a pretty decent souvenir shop. Say hello to Justas at the bar. I haven’t seen any long lines here, but even a bit of a wait would be worth it.

Cultural Performances–There are always cultural performances going on somewhere around the site. Most recently, I’ve taken in an hour-long Angola set, featuring traditional drummers and dancers, along with more modern entertainment. Last weekend, I watched a traditional Turkish dance (think of whirling dervishes, though I’m sure they wouldn’t characterize themselves as that) with a great 9-piece band performing on traditional instruments. This was one of the best performances I’ve seen, with the long, flowing white robes on the dancers billowing out like sails as they spun in circles. Other great performances included a Cote d’Ivoire drum-and-dance grooup in the Atlantic Joint Group Pavilion, an Argentinian fusion band in a fantastic show at the Big O, and a Cambodian percussion group outside their pavilion. If the pavilions have anything special going on, they’ll have it posted on signboards outside the pavilion. There are really many things to take in. So, if some of the lines are too long, just take a look around elsewhere–I’m sure you’ll find something interesting.

Sorry about the lack of photos in this post, but I’ll try to get some of them up before I take off on vacation next week to go pick up Nai in Laos. Stay tuned, then, for more later.

Happy Holidays

To all my readers, friends, colleagues and family–may you have a very enjoyable holiday season and a prosperous and happy New Year.

I’m in Nongkhai, Thailand at the moment and I’ll be heading over the border into Laos tomorrow, Christmas Day. Even though Thailand and Laos are Buddhist countries, many of their people celebrate Christmas as a holiday, not a religious event. Nai and I went to Tesco-Lotus (a department store/mall) today and the place was packed with shoppers. Of course, it’s Saturday, but it still seemed like a lot more people were out today than on a normal weekend. Perhaps the Spirit of Christmas is not recognized here, but the Spirit of Consumerism is alive and well.

Like I said, I’m going into Laos tomorrow and I’ll spend several days with Nai and his family, celebrating the holidays. Folks there will be eating and drinking and entertaining friends. We’ll be chowing down on those large Mekong fish that are so delicious and I’m sure the Beer Lao will be flowing all over the country.

The weather has been great, with daytime temperatures in the high seventies (25 C.) and cool nights, around 55 or so (13 C.), I would guess, and plenty of sunshine. I’m not looking forward to going back to chilly, windy Yeosu in a few weeks.

I’ve got some photos to post, but I want to edit them first and, unfortunately, I don’t have any photo editing software on this particular computer. I’ll try to get some of them up before returning to Yeosu, but if I don’t, I’ll get them up as soon as I do return.

Again, Happy Holidays to all.

Vacation Time

It’s the end of the fall semester, so, as usual, I’ve been busy with final assessments, grading, paperwork, meetings and other duties. But soon, however, I’ll be vacationing in Laos (mainly) to visit with my friend Nai and his family. Korea’s weather is starting to turn wintry cold, so spending some time in a more tropical clime is very appealing, of course.

I’m not going for a long time–just a bit more than a few weeks. My Air China flight to Bangkok leaves next Monday around noon, and I’ll be back in Yeosu on January 5th. I got a pretty good price on the flight about a month and a half ago, but that price came with some long layover times in Beijing, five or so hours going and more than seven hours coming back. Going to Bangkok will be the worst leg of the trip. I’ll be leaving Yeosu on the 11 p.m. bus to Incheon Airport, which arrives around 4:30 in the morning. Since my flight doesn’t take off until around noon, I’ll have a long wait. Incheon, however, is one of the top rated airports in the world, so I don’t mind hanging around there for that amount of time. Then, I go to Beijing and have a wait of about 5 hours until I go to Bangkok. I don’t arrive in the “City of Angels” until around midnight. From there, I’ll take a taxi to my hotel, probably not getting to sleep until 2 a.m. A long day, indeed.

After goofing around in Bangkok for an all-too-short while, I’ll take the overnight train to Nongkhai on the evening of the 21st, arriving there the next day around 8:30 in the morning. I’ll spend a few days in Nongkhai with Nai, then we’ll cross the Friendship Bridge into Laos, and . . . hmmm, not really sure. We might head up to Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang, or we might decide to stay at his family residence for Christmas and New Year. Christmas in a Buddhist, Communist country–an interesting place to spend the holidays, to say the least.

Finally, after whatever adventures and strange situations that occur in Laos, I’ll take the train back to Bangkok and take a flight back to Incheon on the 4th of January, including another long layover in Beijing. Such is the cost of cheap airline tickets.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep you posted about the trip, so stay tuned for more later.

Two Sides of the Mekong

I stayed a few short days in both Nong Khai, Thailand, and Vientiane, Laos. I mainly hung out along the Mekong River, and both cities have built up their respective riverbanks.

Nong Khai hasn’t changed all that much in the year since I’d last been there. It’s a pleasant walk along the river, where you can duck into one of the small shelters, out of the hot sun, and take a nap if you’d like.

There are also any number of small, open-air restaurants. Go in, sit by a fan and grab a snack or a meal. Here, Nai and I prepare to chow down. I’m the fella without glasses. Oh, sorry about that. You’ll just have to guess which one of the handsome guys is yours truly.

I forget what Nai ordered, but I got shrimp pad thai (first photo below) and spring rolls. Yummmmm.

You can also eat dinner ON the river by taking the dinner cruise boat, located at the end of the river walkway. It’s not too expensive and it’s worth it, in my opinion. Nong Khai is very colorful from the middle of the Mekong. One of my favorite sights is the Big Buddha that sits on top of one of the temples, contemplating the river and gazing into Laos.

This particular evening, the sun was close to setting and the golden light it cast really bought out the colors along the river bank.

Let’s take a look into Laos, shall we?

Not too much to see except temples and lots of vegetation. But, then again, it’s not Vientiane. You have to go about 20 kilometers upstream, as the river flows, to get to the capital city. In the past, the river was lined with small restaurants, merely chairs and grills set up to serve diners, but it was a nice spot to watch the sun go down over Thailand. Here’s a shot of one of our favorite spots from days gone by (actually, from December, 2009).

Here’s another one from the same time from the fourth floor location of the Bor Pen Nyang bar. However, this one shows some of the dramatic changes that would be made to the riverside. The image below it gives a broader look at the construction that was still ongoing in June of 2010.

The result of all that work is a very pleasant riverside park, one that Laotians can be very proud of. Gone from that area are all the old dining areas (they’ve moved farther down the river), but there’s a very nice walkway, play areas for the kids and lots of greenery. Here’s another view from almost exactly the same location from the Bor Pen Nyang. The park stretches nearly to the large, white Don Chan Palace hotel in the background, and I believe work is still being done on the section near there.

The two shots below were taken around 6 p.m. on a Saturday, so the place was fairly crowded with families, couples, singles and even a few monks, all out enjoying a stroll or riding their bicycles in the cooling evening breeze.

So, yeah, it’s a nice park and a welcome addition to Vientiane. I kinda miss the small eateries, but they can still be found if you look for them. Sitting on the river, sipping an ice-cold Beer Lao or another beverage of your choice and watching the sun go down over the Mekong is also still possible and a memorable experience.

That’s it for now. I’ll get some more photos up later of Bangkok and Phuket, so stay tuned.

Another Year in Yeosu, June Vacation

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention in my previous post that I’ll be signing on for another year here. Lots of reasons for doing that–familiarity with the job, pleasant people to work with, friendliness of the students and the people of the area, the beauty of the countryside, and, the biggest reason, the upcoming 2012 Expo next year, about which I’ve posted quite a few times. (Use the search box to find the relevant posts.) So, I’m pretty stoked about being here for at least another year.

The new contract begins at the end of August, so there’s still a bit of time to go before then. In the meantime, I’m heading down to Thailand and Laos in June. I purchased my ticket from Thai Air last week–I’d been logging onto their web site for about a month, waiting for their ticket prices to drop, which they do around this time of the year. Sure enough, prices went down about $100 for a round-trip ticket in June. Sweet!

I have a ton of frequent flier miles built up on the Star Alliance frequent flier program and they expire soon, so I probably could have used those for a free flight, if I’d been lucky enough to grab a freebie at that time. I’ve read that it’s very difficult to get a seat by using miles for free flights, and a more realistic scenario would have been to get an upgrade. However, I thought that wasn’t really the best way to go. I’ve decided to use the miles for a hotel room in Patong, Phuket, Thailand for a week for my friend Nai and myself. We’ve stayed at the Thara Patong Resort before, and we really enjoyed it, so I’m going to use the miles for that. It’s an upscale hotel, right across the street from the beach in Patong, with friendly staff, a very large swimming pool, and a pretty good inclusive breakfast in one of the restaurants. (I’m the early bird breakfast zombie–Nai usually sleeps in, lazy guy. :smile:

Here’s a quick snap of the pool from our hotel room, back in 2007.

So, as of now, my tentative plans are to fly into Bangkok on June 11th, take the overnight train to Nongkhai, Thailand on the 12th, arriving the next day, then goofing around in Nongkhai and Vientiane (Laos) with Nai until the 19th. We’ll then take the train back to Bangkok and fly out of the City of Angels on the 22nd for Phuket, returning on the 29th. Back to Korea on July 1st. Too short. But, it’ll do.

So, long term–another year in Yeosu. Mid term–the trip to Thailand in June. Short term–get in beach shape. I’ve taken off 5 kilograms (about 11 pounds) since the beginning of the semester in March, and I’ve got a long ways to go. I’ve been working out at the gym on the weight machines, so I’m trying to develop the physique, along with losing the weight. This recent illness has slowed my progress, but I’ve got a couple of months to go yet, so I’m hopeful that I’ll look like this guy. More later.

Not kidding about the physique. Jack LaLanne at 95 years old. Fantastic.

A Death in the Family

After a year-long struggle, my friend Nai’s mother succumbed to an illness last Friday night. I posted last May that the doctor had given her just a few months to live, but she held on this long, although she was often in great pain.

I still don’t know what took her life, but I suspect cancer or emphysema. I visited them last June, and it was very apparent how much she had wasted away. I’m heartbroken for Nai and his family. He told me that today he would “make fire” for her, meaning a traditional Buddhist cremation. He was practically inconsolable when I talked to him Saturday afternoon, but yesterday he was so busy cooking food for all the friends and family that were paying their respects that I think his mind was temporarily taken off his sadness. I imagine today will be quite sorrowful.

Below is a photo of her that I took back in August of 2006. She’s on the right, of course, with her youngest son Pui, Nai’s brother, on the left and one of her daughter’s girls in the middle. Rest in peace, Mer.

Dancing House

I just finished phoning my friend Nai in Laos and he breathlessly reported that Vientiane experienced an earthquake last night. I had trouble understanding him at first, but he told me, with his sometimes-bad pronunciation and his humorous, but creative, fracturing of English, that:

Last night we have same-same NieuwZhelind (it took a few repetitions for me to understand he was talking about the recent earthquake in New Zealand) and my house dancing (shaking) too much.

So, I searched the Internet, and, sure enough, there was a 4.6 magnitude ‘quake in the region last night. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but he said, in so many words, that some buildings had been damaged in the capital.

Strange and unusual, I thought, but a more powerful, 6.1 temblor struck in May of 2007 that rattled windows as far south as Bangkok, and again, fortunately, no deaths were reported. I’ve never thought of Laos as an earthquake-prone area, but I guess it happens every so often.