You may remember Lee Compton and Yana Viniko, friends from Whidbey Island and Seattle, with whom I spent time in Myanmar last January. They decided to explore Laos this year and return to some of the places Lee had previously visited. Their letters are long and enthusiastic and I’d like to quote some of their observations for you.
Here we are in Vientiane, – great weather and a lot of French tourists, a few Anglos and Allemagnes, though oddly we haven’t seen any Americans. Seems that there’s more traffic, especially motor bikes, though the many more shiny small cars compete with the old lorries and tuk-tuks that seem to reflect a growing affluence. Vientiane, the capitol, is charming, with its former French Indochina overlay. We had an excellent meal last night at a French expat’s bistro with all the trimmings. Cost for both of us was under $20.
We cruised the silk markets yesterday, but, sadly, the average quality of goods has declined as noticeably as the shrink-wrapped electronics have increased, thanks to neighbor China’s relentless expansion in growing new demand for consumer goods. They’ve (China-Lao consortium) even torn down part of the old original ‘morning market’ to build a soulless new mall-style building in the name of ‘progress’. If imitation IS the sincerest from of flattery, rest assured that the American dream lives on as one of our most successful exports (sigh). Everything is getting too ‘modern’ for Lee. His disappointment is almost a daily affair.
I did have a delicious 1-1/2 hour Lao herbal massage ($8) where this 100 lb gal can turn your limbs to Jello and then, when you’re immobilized, press hot and steamy herbal bundles into your flesh to completely rout any tension that might remain….ahhh. I slept like one of those happy and adored Lao babies you see draped like fashion scarves over their mom’s shoulders.
We’re now in slightly smoky, but not too sleepy, Luang Prabang, the second largest city in Laos and a heritage site for old wats (temples) and Buddha images. We’re exploring the Mekong River and enjoying a few days of laze in the haze, a welcome reward after enduring the ten-hour bus trip on the “VIP” bus from Vientiane. [Folks, I know what those bus rides are like. Don’t you believe VIP.] After we came up for air from that adventure we’ve been on a slow ramble about the town with many pleasant interactions among young orange-robed monks, ever-smiling, undemanding merchants, and assorted mellow tourists. Lee says that the place has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years, having been seriously discovered, as evidenced by the plethora of new buildings, fresh paved roads, and kilometers of charming herringbone brick sidewalks, including an expanded night market that doesn’t quit.
Today we took a long walk across the Nam Kan River via a rickety bridge of bamboo and up the other side where the riverbank sported bright green terrraced rows of the most gorgeous looking vegetables, like spectators on bleachers, watching the rushing water action below…drenched skinny kids throwing wads of river weeds at each other (and any tourist brave enough to join them in play) and those young orange-robed monks floating downstream on old truck tire inner tubes.
Looks as if we will be going back to Myanmar/Burma after all. Getting our visas approved in Vientiane seemed to be a “sign” that we should go. It was so much easier to do here in Laos than in Thailand. We’re somewhat apprehensive, but also eager to find out how things are after the terrible crackdown last Fall. Overall, I have a positive feeling that things will go well.”
It has been ten years since I visited Indochina, and at that time things were still pretty rough. You were strongly advised not to travel from Vientiane to Luang Prabang by bus for fear of land mines and bandits. So I flew. But I shall never forget the beauty of the Mekong, the caves I paddled to, or the sunsets over the river. It was a tranquil, friendly country that had suffered a great deal. I suggest you go there soon, while it still has its old charm.
I look forward to Yana’s report from Myanmar. I don’t know if there is any internet connection, yet, but I long to know if she made contact with any of the wonderful people we met last year.
One last bit of news about Myanmar. Reports are few and far between, but I found this tiny squib in the NY Times on Jan. 18.
“The military government’s Press Scrutiny Board ordered the Burmese-language edition of the weekly Myanmar Times not to publish this week for having run an article that was not approved, said Ross Dunkley, the editor-in-chief. The article, from Agence France-Presse, was about the junta’s plans to raise license fees for satellite televisions to almost $800, three times the average yearly income. The current fee is $5.00. The move would prevent most Burmese from seeing news that is not rigidly controlled.”
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In a much lighter vein, I know you’re going to laugh, but I just took down my Christmas tree–and my Santa Claus collection, and the fir boughs that encircle the little wooden orchestra members on my mantel piece, and the carved Norwegian nativity scene. Am I sentimental? You bet! I like this winter season so much that I was very close to heading for Ladakh (on Caroline Martin’s recommendation) this February for a winter trek on the ice of the frozen Zangskar River to several out-of-the-way monasteries in the mountains. Well, actually, everything in Ladakh is out-of-the-way, but this would have been especially isolated. Instead, I’ve elected to go in late April through mid-June, and to make my plans when I get to Leh, the capitol. James Wilson, with whom I traveled in Myanmar, will join me for three weeks of trekking. I’ll be writing more about this in the next month.
By the way, if you want to get an idea of where I’ll be, there are maps on www.shantitours.com This was a difficult decision, time-wise, because I really would have liked to accompany Tamara Blesh, whom I met in India, when she returns this summer. Visit her website at: www.travelinglibrarian.org to see the work she did last summer setting up libraries for the children of Ladakh. She is currently raising money to purchase books in Delhi to distribute to villages off the beaten path, promoting literacy among young people. In order to get to these villages you have to trek in with pack animals and I would love to have gone with her and observed her work. But the summer is for New Hampshire and, this year, the Assiniboine Mountains of British Columbia.
Ladakh is a small Buddhist country nestled in northern India between Tibet and Pakistan. It was Lee Compton who first opened my eyes to the region over twenty years ago. Here is a description of the country from the website: http://www.health-inc.org
|It could be said that Ladakh is a region that never should have supported a human population. Life here has always been difficult: it lies between the main Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, with the Tibetan Plateau bounding it on the east. It is a land of complex geography in the rain shadow of the Himalaya, making it one of the few inhabited high-altitude deserts in the world. Most of the population lives between 3,200 and 3,800m but a few villages and the nomads of eastern Ladakh inhabit lands up to 4,500m. It is bitterly cold during the long, 5-month winters, yet being a desert, it can also see 38°C in summer months.|
I’m presently reading a fascinating book, Three Cups of Tea, which starts in the Karakoram range near K2 and deals with Pakistan, a country on Ladakh’s western border, and Greg Mortenson’s project to build schools for poor children in remote areas. It gives a realistic picture of the people of this region and their needs.
Theater note: I enjoyed the revival of Harold Pinter’s Homecoming, starring Eve Best. Great ensemble acting. Complicated Play. Catalyst for heated “after play” discussion. Also enjoyed a revival of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, directed by Kathleen Turner.
HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: I have finally gotten my archives posted by months, as you may have noticed. If you want an old posting, just click on the month. And be sure to click on the title of each posting in order to read the entire entry. You probably already know that. I didn’t, and figured that there are still a few computer neophytes out there like me.
Next time…more local news and a new facebook album. Check in the previous entry for the links.