Monday, October 31, 2011

Voyage to Thakek - The Land

The trip down there from Vientiane is about six hours on the Route Nationale 13. There are potholes and expanses of gravel and other drivers, but the road is good and my eternal thanks go to David Bowie for having recorded Heroes.

When you finally get to somewhere the landscape is breathtaking. Hills, valleys, rice paddies and rivers.

We went for a trek to the blue lagoon just north of Thakek and had the immense pleasure of getting lost. The weather is turning clement and the monsoon has been reduced to the occasional drizzle.

The paths have been rained out and planks of wood have been raised above the muddy earth. The land is scarcely populated and every now and again a head will be seen bobbing above a hedge or labouring in a rice paddy.

Rocks outcrop in Asian glory: am I looking at something real or am I looking at an ancient Japanese print? Broad valleys are surrounded by bold solitary craggily hills with scarce trees like a bad crew-cut.

All around us is Asia, Asia for as far as the eye can see and the heart can feel. Southeast Asia a back-drop of villages and rivers, beaches and mountains. Cities, temples, pilgrimage sites. Roads, paths and the never-ending thrill of discovery.

Voyage to Thakek - The People

We took advantage of a holiday in the French school to take a few days off with the kids and travel south on Route Nationale 13.

We were a convoy of two cars, since our friend and neighbour, Valérie, has two kids the same age as Zéphyr and Maya-Swann.

Of all the advantages of living in Laos, the greatest must be our contact with the people.  This is the most handsome privilege of being here. They are without a doubt the easiest, most laid-back nation on earth. They have taken bo ping yang and sculpted a life out of it.

There is the broadness of their smiles, the playful twinkling in their eyes and their ever-readiness to take Baby Sayo in their arms so we can eat or otherwise rest.

But more, much more than this, is a certain philosophy that permeates down to the core of their very existence. I would like to take for example a family we met at the blue lagoon.

It took us many more hours to hike there than it should have because out there in the rice fields between the dramatic hills and the meandering paths nothing is signposted.  This is also part of the charm of the country. Despite the long walk and dark looming rain clouds, the way was beautiful and our children were collectively very well behaved and courageous.

So we got to the blue lagoon, a small body of perfect turquoise water nestled in the hills and the children went swimming. A family came to fish. The man had one bum leg. One foot was in a brown shoe and the other tiny one was in a white sandal. Walking was clearly a challenge for him and so was earning a living because he, his wife and handsome sons were wearing rags.

And yet there was none of the miserable self-pitying I have come to expect from people in the West. There was no moping, no poor-me, no “I’m so depressed”. Maybe it is the Buddhist philosophy that desire leads to frustration and therefor unhappiness or maybe some people are simply genetically or historically or culturally disposed to happiness.

They may not be winning Nobel Prizes in physics or amassing huge fortunes or riding in chrome elevators to their sterile condominiums. They may not be listening to Muzak or counting their calories or worrying about nothing. Their simplicity and joy of being, their mood-less-ness and resilience give me reason to pause and wonder: who are we and what is the point?   

Thursday, October 13, 2011

This could be heaven or this could be hell.

On the front cover of today’s Vientiane Times is the news: End Of Buddhist Lent, A Time For Celebrations!

So it’s official. People can get drunk again. Riding through the city has become a labyrinth of party to party instead of street to street and path to path. Everywhere you go people are dancing, singing into microphones, setting off firecrackers and drinking. And drinking.

And drinking.

And driving.

It is also the season of the boat races on the Mekong. The entire country closes down for two days for the boat races. I’m sure it’s really exciting and the boats are surely very colourful, but please don’t expect and photos from me: I don’t exactly suffer from enochlophobia but I am increasingly finding crowds and official celebrations to be unpleasant.

It is nice, though, to awaken to blue skies and watch as the rains become rarer. In one month the city will be scorched again, red and thirsty, and I will miss those tropical storms but in one month it will be snowing in Canada, and I do love a consolation prize.

Marie-Do and I took advantage of a lull to go biking along the Mekong today; from Kilometer Eight up to Kilometer Four to pick the kids up from the École Hoffet. On the way we stopped in a few temples and enjoyed meeting an American Lao who has come back to the Motherland to do his stint in the monastery.

We also fell upon this wonderful fresco of Lao heaven and hell. You’ll notice that the folk in heaven are not just counting American dollars, they’re counting Ben Franklins! The folk in hell come complete with three dimensions and chains, handcuffs and a comic book demon who looks like he’s saying, “Holy Anathema, Batman, look who’s not fornicating anymore!”

Spring is indeed in the air.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Yom Kippur in Chiang Mai

I needed a break and thanks to the Hebrew calendar I got one. I am sick and tired of going to Bangkok for the fast, although I have a warm spot in my heart for Chabad Bangkok and R. Nehemia. But I just couldn’t take the traffic and the pollution again this year, so I decided to fly to Chaing Mai instead.

The Udan Thani airport does not have the charm of small provincial airports I have come to love, that miniature copy status that makes small airports so cool. But you do have a wonderful sense of adventure when instead of being shuttled to your aircraft in a bus, you walk out onto the runway. The airplane has propellers and looks more like a big insect than a supersonic half-way-across-the-globe-streamlined affair. Still, as you climb the stairs you hope that the same care was given to this little bumblebee as was to the great transcontinental eagles.

The flight to Chaing Mai takes about an hour and a half. On-flight refreshments are nuts and water – perfect for the land of elephants!

Placing my trust in the Guide du Routard I had reserved a room in thankless Wiriya House. 600 bhat for a room with a one speed air-conditioner and you have to pay for non-functioning internet to boot! In the morning, the sleepy guys downstairs had no idea about coffee or breakfast and could only say, in reference to their boss, “Madame No!”

I walked down to the Israeli quarter to check out the Chabad house and see if a closer alternative existed and there I met the kind of travel agent you dream of. Israel Yehoshua is a problem solver: if you’re late he can turn back the clock and if you’re early he can make the extra time worthwhile. His staff is wonderful and friendly. His agency is called Israel 669, 189/14 Changklan Road Phone number is 053-820902, cell number 087-1841642 and if you’re calling from Israel or have an Israeli phone in Thailand call 039-707333.

He booked me into a splendid hotel just around the corner from there for only 700 Bhat, internet included.

Yom Kippur was Yom Kippur. You fast and feel a little hungry for a while but that soon wears off as the importance of the day hits you. Moments of reflection and spiritual accounting give way to the ecstasy of the moment. The Rabbi was not feeling too well the day I met him but he was heroic on Yom Kippur. Also, as always, it is a pleasure to mix with Israelis again, speak the language and revisit through memory the places of my youth. I met a young singer-composer from my old neighbourhood of Nachlaot נחלאות in Jerusalem and together we spent hours mind-walking up and down the white stone streets and through the courtyards of that wonderful quarter. The village wells, stone walls and vaulted windows came alive for me, the old women bringing you chicken soup when you get sick, the marvellous kube restaurant on Agrippas Street, the way the water would evaporate off the Street of Steps רחוב המדרגות after a late spring rain sending a ghostly sheet of white steam into the blue vibrant sky. Further on the cries and pulls of Machaneh Yehuda Market שוק מחנה יהודה . We were locked into the sweetness of it, the fraternity of it.

Chiang Mai also has a large French community and the day after the fast I had a delicious magret de canard at La Terrasse, 59/5 Loi Kroh Rd. Washed down with a carafe of red from the South of France and Jean’s pommes de terre sautées, it was worth fasting for.

Another wonderful thing for a weekend in Chiang Mai are the bookshops. Backstreet Books has two locations and is simply brimming over with English and French books. I was able to find books I have been looking for for years: the poetry of Rumi and Yeat’s collection of Irish Mythology. I even found the classic Portnoy’s Complaint to help Marie-Do understand the origin of certain disorders.

In Vientiane there are few vestiges of the Glorious Past, but Chiang Mai still has some old walls and Great Gates. Nice again to touch that history and see old bricks. Otherwise here in Asia it is all too easy to forget that there is a past.

Even if you do live in Southeast Asia and are used to it, it’s nice to stop and visit a temple and let the calm of it invade you.

Chiang Mai, we know, is the gateway to Thailand’s northern tribal lands. Next time…