Tag Archives: laos

A Little Scene At Play

Lovely days in Southern Thailand with friends Daniel and Pong. Not much time for writing or blogging, though I have a lot of pictures to sort through. The set below is from Laos, and it rather struck me as having the dynamic of a comic strip. A scene is set, a new character enters, something happens, snarky punchline. Add your own captions!



Today is a travel day. Going to Bangkok. Gosh, all this running around is tiring. I sure could go for a…

Or something like that.

Lao Lao

I mentioned earlier that we stopped at a “whiskey village” on our way to Pak Ou cave. The stuff they make there is called “lao lao.” It is basically a 100 proof sticky rice-based moonshine, and the drink of choice in rural Laos. Having tried a sample once at the Night Market in Luang Prabang and had a few cocktails with it at the Lao Lao Garden bar, I can tell you that this stuff is not messing around. We got to see it being made, more or less, though no one around spoke enough English to actually explain the process. Somehow it involves big rusty barrels dripping hot alcohol into clay urns.

They sell this stuff to tourists for just a dollar or two per bottle, and usually the bottles, as show above, have preserved snakes or scorpions in them. But this isn’t some tourist novelty. This is actually what people in the poorest villages of Laos drink. Why? Because it’s cheap. The average Lao farmer still makes about US$1 per day. Not nearly enough to afford even discount domestic beer like Beerlao. But they can afford to buy or make enough lao lao to get drunk with regularity. Of course, drunk straight the stuff is deadly dangerous is anything but the smallest quantities, not to mention it tastes horrible. But even in the biggest cities of Laos there isn’t much for residents to do for fun besides sit around and drink beer (an attitude infectious among the expats I met there). Imagine how boring life gets in a hill village miles from anything?

Donating School Supplies

So here’s the story. I went with a big group of slow boat tourists to Kouang Si waterfall, a beautiful state park-like area where you can jump and swim in clear mountain pools. And I’m at the bear sanctuary watching the bear antics, when I start chatting with a couple of Americans, Ben and Christine, who happen to be from St. Louis. Not only that, but Christine and I actually went to high school together, with her graduating only the year before me! And then she went to Webster U., where a ton of my friends go. Somehow we never knew each other, though.

So the three of us hit it off, and they invite me to come with them the next day to donate some school supplies to a rural school that Ben goes to every year. It turned out to be a great experience that go me off the tourist-beaten path. The school is pretty far out there and doesn’t have much. We bought pens, colored pencils, notebooks and textbooks from the market for about 300,000 kip — less than US$40.

Afterward we were given a ba-see community blessing — a ritual in which people tie little white strings around our wrists to wish us good look and long life. I had experienced this ritual a couple times on my first trip to Thailand three years ago, but still I found the press of bodies and the tug of so many hands rather overwhelming. The ceremony was followed by a delicious meal of sticky rice, veggies and beef salad.

While we were there, we went to a local wedding. We missed the actual marriage part, and just showed up for the drinking and dancing. Like all weddings I have been to in Asia, this one was a curious mix of the innocent and the profane. And the awkward. For one, the point of Lao dancing seems to be to move as slowly as possible, avoid all eye contact with your partner and look completely bored. I’m not even joking about this. And when the music stops, they bow and run off the dance floor as quick as they can. Then there are all the little alcohol-fueled dramas playing out around us: the pervy drunk desperate for a kiss from the one white girl at the party (an Asian wedding staple!), a middle-aged woman laughingly forcing more and more beer down the throat of her already dangerously intoxicated husband. Lao and Thai weddings take place in the morning, and afterward they basically drink all day, with a comfy room set up for people to take turns passing out in.

Anyways, it was a great day, and here are some pictures of the school kids we delivered the supplies to.

The Buddhas of Pak Ou Cave

Pak Ou cave is hollowed out of a towering limestone cliff-face along the Mekong river. We negotiated a ride up the river from Luang Prabang on a cramped, noisy wooden boat, curving shakily around jutting rocks and clumps of river reeds. Along the way stopped along the way at a “whiskey village” and got to see the locals making the potent sticky rice-based moonshine called “lao lao” — and of course buy samples and other curios. Honestly I was a little nonplussed about the whole thing, but when we got to the cave my pouting subsided. The wall of stone rises above you monstrously, but within the cave seems so gentle. Pak Ou has been used for religious purposes since long before Theravada Buddhism came to Laos. Tribal hill people would come here to practice their unique flavor of animist spirit worship. Later Buddhist pilgrims began visiting the site, bringing with them small Buddha statues to leave in the cave. I didn’t count myself, but supposedly there are now over 3000 Buddhas total in the upper and lower cave. The lower cave is the nicer of the two, in my opinion. There isn’t much to do there other than light incense and prostrate in front of the largest Buddha, but the afternoon light hitting all these little figurines laid out on every open surface makes a compelling picture. The upper cave is dark and literally dank: the whole place smells like human armpit sweat. You can venture in a little ways if you have a flashlight, but there really isn’t much to see or explore. Still, a nifty spot. I’m given to understand that sometimes the slow boat coming down the Mekong from the Thai border will stop at the cave to let the tourists visit. If you are taking the slow boat, definitely see if you can’t swing that.

Flipping out over these views from the Mekong

Get it?

Man, Laos sure is green