Bye For Now (As Grandma Used To Say)

Admin note: on the weekend, the site is scheduled to be transferred to a new server. Site host says the operation’ll be seamless, but…you know how that goes. So if there’re any access difficulties over the next days, not to worry: I’m paid up ’til 2015.

[Written Thursday, March The 1st, Night]

Toe felt much better this morning that I had guessed it would – although, still not good enough to support very much walking. Gives me hope for tomorrow, however. I did manage to get up to the market to get some eats.

Next to it is the bus station, and I thought I should like to purchase my ticket for Nong Khai on Saturday right then and there. Was told to purchase the ticket on the day. Ha! Where have I heard that one before?

Turning around to leave, was hailed by the Belgian from last week’s Plain Of Jars tour. He too is off to Nong Khai for a few days; then flies out of Bangkok on the 15th headed back to Belgium. Later, I again bumped into Martin, the German. It’s quite an incestuous little group, this circuit of Laos travellers.

Sitting in the park to eat my lunch, was joined by four very fine young gentleman hoping to practice their English on me.

laos

The two in white didn’t speak very much – indeed, the chap on the far right didn’t speak in English at all. The one giving the peace sign is some manner of geography wizzard. When I’d name off the towns in Laos to which I’d visited, the others would turn to him, and he’d call out the town’s associated province. Provinces, I’ve intuited, rather than towns or cities, are the locus of Laotian geographic identity.

They’re all third-year students in water resources. They rattled off their names; but it was difficult for me to get them learnt the first time around, let alone to remember them all.

They were just the nicest young lads! Grilled me with all the usual questions; but also asked me my thoughts about the Global Environment, as well as for advice in re learning English. Told them that I’d be back in Thailand in two days’ time, en route to Cambodia; and they invited me to return to Vientiane for the Lao New Year, which begins April 14th.

In fact, their invitation did kind of set the gears turning. I’d still like to see Southern Laos, of course (though there aren’t any mountains there). I could perhaps on the way back up pop back in to Luang Prabang (sorry, guys, probably not Vientiane) for the New Year – I loves those Asian festivals! – and then all the way back north for, if I can stomach the expense, the Gibbon Experience (about which I keep hearing extraordinary raves).

We shall see.

Visited a temple right near the hostel, which, it doubles as a school just happening to be in recess when I arrived. Got an enormous kick out of watching the kids run around and play. It’s the same in all cultures, I think: not much, if anything, can top kids at play.

When the bell rang, all the kids took it in turns to come over to this little faucet near which I happened to be sitting to wash up their feet and hands before returning inside. None of ‘em had noticed me ‘til then; but when they now did notice me, a few of them said Hello, and pointed at my bare feet, and whatnot.

schoolkids

Back to the park (also quite near the hostel) during the evening, noticed that what I’d thought was a little area of Naga statuary is in fact a Naga fountain! Holy crap!

nagafountain1

And, yes, water shoots out of their mouths as well.

nagafountain2

But, I never saw it running, dammit it all to Hell!

It’s now March, and officially Too Fucking Hot during the day. I guess I’m going to need, from here on out, to be rising at 6:00 in the AM, rather than my customary 8:00 or 9:00 in the AM, so that I may partake of many sights but then seek shelter during the midday. Otherwise, I’m gonna end up affixed to the sidewalk like a goddam iron-on patch.

But in the evening, it rapidly cools to Wonderfully Comfortable (and, also, Oddly Lacking Of Mosquitoes). The people come out in droves to watch the sun set over the river, and to exercise and aerobicise, and to generally hang out.

The River Walk area also hosts a kind of satellite Night Market (the main Night Market is located about ten blocks north of there), one of whose stalls is personed by what I suppose to be the  inimitable…

wafflequeen

The two Aussie dormmates are cool guys. They went, with yet another Aussie, from the next dorm over, to have pizza; and returned having had pizza and noodle soup – and complaining at the symptoms of having “over-indulged like pigs”.

I asked Brock, the one who’s stuck here for three weeks, whether he planned to stay at this same location for the entire time. He says that, depending on his money supply, he may end up taking his tent out to the beach and sleeping there.

Led to a quite interesting tale of having lived in a tent for eight months while working in an Iron-ore-mining boomtown in northwestern Australia. It’s (if I’m doing my celsius-to-fahrenheit conversion correctly) 112° during the daytime, and 104° during the night-time.

He was making a lot of money; but apparently it’s such a boomtown that the rents are the second-highest in the World. So, he lived in a family’s back yard in his tent, paying $200 per month for the honour.

The jobs there are, he says, kind of general labour – and anybody who’s not “an absolute fool” will be able to just show up and land one. And, in fact, that half the people there are absolute fools, and yet they’re still making $50 per hour.

[Written Friday, March The 2nd, Night]

Toe, though better, still not quite well enough for sustained walking. But, it being my last day in Vientiane, I done it anyway.

I think my verdict remains what it had been: Vientiane is not “shit”; but nor is it the real Laos. In fact, as I say, I don’t think it wants to be the “real Laos” – I think it wants to be a Thai city. In its aspiration it has lost the je ne sais quoi that makes Laos Laos. But yet, it has not gained the je ne sais quoi which makes Thailand Thailand. As a consequence (or so goes my off-the-cuff analysis) it is a city un-moored. Or, to quote The Minus 5, it’s a town that’s lost its Groove Supply.

Nevertheless, I set out to see some sights. This stupa, neglected though right there in the middle of the city, didn’t come with any signage to note its undoubtedly interesting history.

stupa1

stupa2

The Victory Gate…

victory

…as the sign notes, is somehow more interesting from afar.

victoryinfo

(Note well: no passing grass on the grounds.)

grass

At the Market to fetch some lunch, the ladies were just loading me down with produce. I had some quite good bananas and some super-delicious lettuce and cucumbers yesterday, so thought to return to those same two vendors and repeat the previous day’s trick.

I assume, having seen me now two days running (after all, just how many barefoot farang visit that Market in any given lifetime?), the both of them kept filling my bag up, even after the money had already changed hands. The lettuce/cucumber lady even had a friend stop by with a watermelon she’d just purchased and began cutting up, and they insisted upon my having a wedge of it. ‘twas quite good, too!

As is true everywhere else in Laos, Vientiane’s got some knockout beautiful trees.

trees

As far as the temples are concerned, there aren’t very many of them. And about half that there are charge admission. Of those that don’t, in most of ‘em it’s the old story of the grounds being open, but the buildings being closed.

So I only got to see two Big Buddhas. And do you know? Neither of them were in gold!

buddha1

buddha2

The temple architecture here is pretty neat, I must say.

templearch1

templearch2

You can see, in this photograph of a Drum Haus, the two metal stairways allowing one to walk up to the third floor. You know what: one could do a helluva lot worse than to be able to walk up to the third floor of a temple’s Drum Haus.

drum

One of the temples has this weird imp thing. Don’t really know what that’s all about.

imp

Lunching in the park, couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed…fucking Sleepy Grass! We had it in spades during Hawaii The Big Island. It’s actually really cool, because…here, I made some footage to show how it’s really cool (and also how it got its name).

But apart from being very cool, it is in addition very, very fucking evil. Nasty little flesh-ripping thorns on there, like you would not believe. Which is fine if you know it’s there: just put on some gloves. But Sleepy Grass, it’s so good at hiding in amongst the harmless weeds you’re pulling; so after a bit, you toss the gloves aside, you let your guard down, you’re whistling a gay little tune, and…BLAMMO!, you grab right onto a Sleepy Grass! Ouch, that smarts like fuck.

And they lay their roots so deep into the ground, it’s almost like defusing the nuclear kill-bomb to get each one out of the ground, root and all, without either breaking it off or slicing your hand up: it can be done; but…delicately does it!

Anyhow, returning to the dorm to refill my water bottle and check on my basketball wagers, I learnt that the German girl who’d stayed here the previous two nights had left, to be replaced by a stone-cold crazy Russian name of “Leo”.

I think he may be OCD. When I arrived, he was busy taking measurements all up and down the front door; and testing out the handle’s mechanisms, and so forth. I wondered, maybe is he planning a heist?

When he wouldn’t stop fucking with the Air Conditioning, I wondered, maybe is he off ‘is rocker?

When I saw that he’d brought with him a tea set – I’m talking infuser, fine china, the works — I wondered, is he The Buddha?

Fuckin’ great guy, though. Tonight, when I returned to the dorm, he set to work grilling me with endless numbers of questions concerning travel in Laos: which cities to visit, which buses to take, which boats to take, which sights to see, which guest houses to say. I had opinions regarding most of his subjects!

When I was telling about Nong Khiaw (you didn’t think I’d fail to tell him about Nong Khiaw, surely?), he asked if it had a vegetable market? Zing! I let slip that, being a raw foodist, the reason I’d had to leave after only two nights was the absence of a Fresh Market.

He  filed it away, and later on, returned to the diet question. Upon confirming that I sup only of raw fruits and vegetables, he, smiling widely, burst into applause. He’s not a raw foodist, but is a vegetarian.

He proceeded to give me detailed trips in re travel in Cambodia; including at one point grabbing a receipt that Brock (the tent-sleeping Aussie) had left laying atop my night-stand, turning it over, and drawing up a map of Sihanoukville; explaining the best place to stay, walking distance to the beach, where the loud and quiet beaches were, where the Fresh Market is, the whole lot.

map

That’s the Guest House he recommends, there in the lower right. He couldn’t recall is it called “999” or “666”? I hoped the latter!, but he found the business card, and it turned out to be the former. Might give it a look anyways.

He invited me to visit him in Russia. Says he’s seriously considering a trip this summer, hitchhiking from Moscow to Vladivostok, and then visiting these five lakes in the middle of Russia which, for all who choose to bathe in each one of them, give forth the knowledge of “consciousness and human evolution” (so they’ve got that going for them).

He may also want to come visit me in Seattle because, get this: his sister lives in, and his parents are currently visiting, the Tri-Cities! Wow! He’d spoken to them on the phone earlier to-day, as it’s his sister’s birthday tomorrow.

Then he strongly suggested that as I’m traveling rather lightly (no tea service, for example!) I go to Bangkok and buy a bicycle from this shop which sells them at a very good rate. I’m to then complete my travels by bicycle. Well…I’m not sayin’ I won’t.

Went to this art gallery with an astoundingly good exhibition of mostly black-and-white pics (yay!) depicting Lao culture and natural beauty. The kind of thing where you come out of it, and you just want to throw down your camera in disgust at the pretention in trying to make a photograph worth remembering. This is how the true photographers do it; and you ain’t never gonna be one, son.

Well, lucky for me, I didn’t act upon the impulse, because shortly thereafter, I came upon another temple-school recess, and proceeded to snap many handsful of photographs that…dammit all, they’re not what I seen in the exhibition; but, kinda like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, they’ve got a charm of their own.

This young lad held two or three different poses for the camera.

posing

Many of the kids were engaged in this ballgame – kind of a variation on soak-‘em.

ballgame1

But the “ball” is this weird little web thing. (Note also the girl in the background stuffing her face. Too cool!)

ballgame2

Many of those not engaged in the ballgame had gone in for hurdling the rope-held-high.

hurdling

This little girl playing hopscotch, so innocent so cute?

hopscotch

About two minutes before playing hopscotch, so innocent so cute, she’d walked up to me, pointed at my bare feet, pointed at her shod feet, and impatiently awaited my excuse. I’d hit her with a big grin and thumbs-up, “It’s good, eh?”

At which, she’d affected the most disdainful scoff ever a ten-year-old kid has done, turned around, walked five or six feet away, turned back around, and gaped at me like as if I was Alien Man From Mars What The Fuck Is That Thing Holy Shit Alien Man From Mars Fuck. And she’d held that gaze for a good two or three minutes before finally repairing to the hopscotch table.

Kids.

Some of them had recess chores, though. A group of girls was during the entire recess picking up trash throughout the grounds. And after, a group of boys were tasked with filling up buckets and watering plants. Funny, though, it being after. Look at these lucky bastards: you really think they look like they’d rather be inside reciting their alphabet (which with, from the sounds of it, their comrades were thence occupied)?

watering

When it had cooled down some, I returned to the park and walked down the other side of the floodwall, onto the dry riverbed, and across to the river. This might be the best place in the whole city! It’s not unlike Vang Vieng, where with just five or ten minutes’ walking, one can wholly escape the hustle-bustle noise of the city into…like a desert wasteland, really. Eerily, freakily quiet. And with all the others making the trek, it felt like a pilgrimage of some sort. Very trippy.

Here’s the view back at the floodwall, from about fifty yards up the bank from water’s edge. Could you believe that in a few months’ time that’s gonna all be water?

floodwall

Huhn, well, actually, in the picture, it looks like about thirty feet. But it’s not. It’s a good twenty-minute walk. Yesterday I had asked the four fine young gentleman of lunch-time-conversation fame how high up the floodwall does the water get to? They misinterpreted my question to mean, how often does the river overtop the floodwall, and answered that instead: 1983 and 2008.

After returning to the floodwall, was walking along, up toward the big huge statue of the Prince, and in the distance I did notice it! My eyes did see it! The Naga Fountain was in effect!! I scurried, my brothers and sisters (even in my gimpy state); how I did scurry to arrive! What a great and joyous day.

nagafountain

Oh, Vientiane Naga Fountain, be my betroth’d! Will you?

After communion, I went in for a spot of juggling. At one point, some ladies walking by began to chant, “Loup…loup…loup…loup…” to the rhythm of the throws. Natch, I eventually began corpsing, at which they began cackling, and finished off the chant with a boisterous “Whoo!” But through it all, I was able to keep the balls aloft.

Then I et some bananas. Must say, Vientiane has by far and away the best-tasting bananas I’ve yet discovered in Laos or Thailand.

Also must say, Vientiane’s got a quite healthy aerobics scene. Much more so that Chiang Mai, for example. It seems to me its per capita participation rate must exceed that of Lumphini Park’s. The instructors are every bit as competent as are Lumphini’s. The music is almost as good. They even supply hula hoops and exercise mats for those who desire to move their bodies to the music without playing aerobics.

And yet, it feels soulless, somehow. Like a pale imitation of a real deal. Like a town that’s lost its Groove Supply. Even so, it seems like it’d be an okay place in which to live.

Not me, however. Tomorrow, they kick my ass outta here. But I will return, for I must: Laos is the best.

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