Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Eating in Vientiane

Vientiane is a gourmet paradise with first rate examples of every type of national cuisine available. Over the last month I have enjoyed a huge variety of foods. Excellent Korean restaurants, serving a dozen or more side dishes with their main courses, all were wonderful and tasty.Great Chinese food serving more varieties of dumplings than I knew existed. They would have made piggy green with envy the thought of all those different dumplings on his journey to India.

Lao cafes abound, there seems to be one in every third doorway, open air street restaurants, and market eatery filling the air with tempting aromas. There are Japanese, Italian [ one Italian visitor complained to me he could not get back home soon enough to have a pasta]. so you can't please everyone. First rate French establishment in Colonial Villas, I had dinner in one last night,  the food was excellent but the wine questionable. No doubt it must be hard to find a cellar at ten degrees anywhere it Vientiane. I have enjoyed some first class Indian and Pakistan curries, one called the Taj Mahal [what else] serves a delicious eggplant dish. The eggplants here are quite small, almost the size of a lime, unlike the large purple ones we are used to in Australia.

Even a Turkish cafe serving Dona kababs, naturally called Istanbul, and even an Australian restaurant for those who can't handle the rice intake. One day I lunched at the Makphet, a project to help and train former street kids. They learn English, how to cook, serve table, and manage a cafe, What a great idea, it is a pity some of our government bodies don't take this approach for our drop outs in Australia. This establishment reminded me of an American women doing a similar thing in Luang Prabang. She took young girls from villages with dirt floors, trained them in cooking and service, sent them to school. They learned English and many other things, so as to be able to gain employment when they turn sixteen. Most of these girl were unable to read or write, let alone add up when they started.

What are my favourite dishes, well the chicken and cashew nuts dishes I tried were very tasty, and the wide variety of eggplant flavours would be hard to beat. Finally the country has some excellent French bakeries. One I frequented, The Scandinavian Bakery [they also make French Pastries], claim to bake enough baguettes [ pardon my French] each year that if they were laid end on end they would reach Bangkok! At least you wouldn't go hungry along the way.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cluster Bombs in Plain of Jars, Laos

Bomb Detector

Sitting here in a cafe in Phonsavan, Lao, surrounded by recovered bomb shells, make it pretty hard not to recall the horrors of the Vietnam War. While drinking my coffee, I gaze at the collection standing like guardian around the door, making a unique screen between terrace and street. This rather nondescript town with it dusty streets and broken footpaths could represent any number of provincial towns in many parts of the world. The difference of course is that Phonsavan is the new capital of Xieng Khuang, established in 1975 after the old one was obliterated by saturation bombing by the American Air Force during their Lao adventure. As a seventy five year old who lived through similar experiences , I spent my early childhood with a saucepan on my head during air raids, I can fully appreciate the trauma of the locals. At the time I had an exhibition of my paintings on the Vietnam War closed on the grounds of causing a demoralising public attitude.

Cafe Enterence

The reality for these people is that America saw fit to drop some 78 million bombs on this country, more than all the bombs dropped by all participants during World War two. If that was not enough, many were cluster bombs that break open before impact scattering mini bombs over a wide area so as to kill as many as possible. Many of these explosive devices are still out there, killing and maiming some 300 odd people annually. Many of these UXO [unexploded ordnance] have been found and disabled. Since the beginning of this year according to Lao's Foreign Minister, some 26,600 bomies as they are called have been destroyed, and the government should be congratulated. But I can't help thinking that if this number of bombs were found each year in Europe or America there would be an uproar. Yet because this is a poor peaceful  country these facts hardly rate a mention in Western media.

It is little wonder that the people of this province are poor. They are naturally reluctant to plough fields to increase their food supply, to forage in the forest gathering food because of this concern for safety. Children are the main victims, finding a nice round ball to play with is too tempting.  In Phonsavan there are two organisations devoted to these problems. One the UXO mine clearance museum who need funds, and a few doors down a group who try to rehabilitate the maimed, blinded and limbless. Teaching new skills and raising funds to send victims to Vientiane for further treatment, both these organisation are worthy of support.There is a move  by the U.N. to prohibit the use and trade of cluster munitions. I feel sure all civilised people will not only support these endeavors, but actively lobby their governments to take action.
Back Street, Phonsavan.

Remains of a Buddhaist Temple in the old capitat.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Asian World of Tuk-Tuk.


Tuk-Tuk that quintessential form of transportation in most of Asia vary greatly in comfort, size ,and price. In Indo-China some drivers go to extraordinary lengths to validify  their price demands, often producing fare tables to prove their point. I have found the wandering ones are the best value, those you hail down on the open road. Vehicles out side tourist spots and hotel are a no no. Recently when landing at Luang Prabang after sailing down the Mekong, I needed to load and unload a couple of times in order to avoid some outlandish price demanded by the owner. These drivers have a great advantage for unlike the traveler, know their town and the distances involved giving them a great entrepreneurial  advantage, in this case I only needed to go around the corner to my guest house. Here in Vientiane the same seems to apply.

Tuk-Tuks come in a variety of sizes depending on the motorcycle's horsepower. This influences not only the seating capacity, but to some extent the comfort of your ride, particularly over rutted roads.The larger ones may have a "type" padded seat, but these comfort factors don't influence the price, this is always determined by what the driver feels he can extract There are times the rather erratic driving habits require a firm grip on the railings. To fall out would not be a good look as your Tuk-Tuk weaves its way through traffic and pedistarians. Last year while in Phuket prices varied from 200br to 800br for the same journey' so you can see there is considerable flexibility.  Not that I feel you need to exploit various situations, after all they need to earn a living. But this is a two way transaction and a fair price needs to be arrived at by a two-way effort.

The decor of these unique vehicles represents their greatest attraction.Many are overall painted in different designs from flowers to abstracts. The important things is the colours must be bright, so as to be noticed. Some drivers I have noticed rig up a hammock in the back to have a sleep while waiting for custom. Others will sit under a nearby tree, no doubt discussing the world economic crises, and the lack of customers. No matter, travelling by Tuk-Tuk can be fun and is a great local experience not to be missed. I have produced a few drawing of these unique vehicles, but will not be able to post them onto the blog until I return home.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Mekong and Luang Prabang

Mekong Hills

There is no better way to approach Luang Prabang than by boat, sailing down the Mekong on the slow boat from Huay Kai.    You are lulled into a sense of complete relaxation as you wind your way along the Mekong through a magic landscape of green hills and valleys.   They seem to open up before your eyes like the leaves of a picture book.    It is best in the wet season , to sail with the swift flowing currents that swirl around rocky outcrops that rise through the dark brown water from the river bed.    You pass through whirlpools, eddies and contrary currents for the Mekong has no markers and therefore you must sail in daylight.
Sitting in the bow of the ferry you drift into a state of peace with yourself and the world in general, surrounded by hills of various greens.   Hills covered in tropical forest , others with plantings of rice, corn, and hops, the life blood of the hidden villages along the river.   Time seems to stand still, so its best to relax and run with the flow.

                                                Typical French Colonial Building, Luang Prahang

Luang Prabang the old town runs the length of the peninsular and has the capacity to carry you back to a distant past, a time of few cars and time to think.  Of course this is not for everyone, but as a place to relax it would be hard to beat.    Few buildings are more than two stories, built in the French Colonial style of shuttered windows and balconies,streets lined with trees, cafes and bistros.   You could walk down the middle of most streets with relative safety.   You could count the minutes between cars along streets without the need for traffic lights.   This is a lost pre-industrial world..   There is no hurry and everything seems to be done in due course.
I spent a few hours drawing the buildings in these picturesque streets, and walking down such a street it is possible to suddenly find a road that has been blocked at each end with a plastic chairs.   Table and chairs on enough settings for 100 people have been set up on the road under canvas, musicians and singers have been hired after all this is the wet season.    What is the occasion you might ask, well it could be an anniversary of the celebration of a child's birth or simply people having a mass B/B/Q/   With time people start to dance and enjoy themselves without all the undue regulations so common in the west.  It's a bit like stumbling upon Alice's tea party.
It's difficult to convey the sense of freedom, peace and well being without experiencing it.  If you haven't been to Laos, put it on the top of your list before it is discovered by mass tourism.

Vat Xieng Thong, Luang Prahang.

Hmong Village on the banks of the Mekong.

Mekong banks

Port of call a Buddha resting cave.