Friday, February 7, 2014

If You Meet Buddha on the Road

Let's put this in a context we can all understand and see if it works:

Imagine you are in a foreign country, or imagine you are a foreigner in your own country and you are cycling.

You come into a small town. A small town in France or Ontario or the United States ... and you cycle up to a house and say, in broken English or French, "Hello! Me am tired and hungry. Me need sleep, eat, drink, wash..."

How do you think you would be treated?

Imagine you are sitting on your front porch and a dirty foreigner comes along and presents himself to you. Your immediate reaction would probably be suspicion or fear or not wanting to be bothered.

For the Lao, the most immediate reaction is: "Come in and make yourself at home!"

Time and again I asked myself what made these people so unique, so warm, welcoming and pacific. I am still trying to figure it out.

Here are pictures of people I just passed on the road.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

From Phonsavan to Luang Prabang Through the Back Country

The beginning of the trip was only a step into hell. The 9:30 bus to Phonsavan only left at 11:00, of course. When I asked the ticket guy about it he said that the 9:30 on Monday becomes an 11:00 ... Of course, he couldn't have told me that on Sunday when I asked him for the bus schedule. But that's just a little bit of passive-aggressive falang baiting you get used to. The license plate number was a wink from the Cosmic Joker.

What I can not get used to is having music imposed upon me. The bus is 10 hours, 10 hours of the same 8 Thai pop tunes blasted through damaged speakers over and over again. My pleas for mercy, pretexts of a headache only brought smiles that said, "We have you where we want you". So at sunset, no longer able to take the crazy driving or the horrible noise, I told the driver to stop at the junction of the 7 and the 13at Ngam Khoun and found a guesthouse.

The cold was painful. I may be a Canadian, proud heir to countless generations of Eastern European Jews who froze their peyess off on the cruel steppes of the Ukraine and the unforgiving hardships of Poland, I still cannot fathom the cold. And here, half way to the Plain of Jars, it was cold. Cold, as in I Can See My Breath. This, for Laos, is cold.

A strange group of falang had congregated at the same junction. French, American, Swiss ... we had a fine evening of it over steaming bowls of pho before retiring to our soulless cold-water cement rooms.

The plan of this bicycle trip was to cycle from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang by the back roads, vertically in a North-Westerly direction. I had wanted to be as removed as possible from civilisation, but I soon discovered that even in the back country there is a major road and minor roads. Nothing is marked and none of the names on the map correspond to any of the names in reality. My next investment will certainly be a hand-held GPS with a screen map.

There are 10 entries related to this trip:

The Plain of Jars
Lao Gods
Little Houses on The Prairie
The Silence of the Everlasting Hills
Get Thee to the River
River Boat
Jews and Khmus
Thanks for the Views
I Drink to Forget, and
Yea, Though I Walk Through the Valley

Many thanks to Jacqueline for lending me her fabulous saddle bags.

Many thanks to Ariane for lending me her most unusual portable espresso machine.

Many thanks for Fabrice Quet for the hours he spent with me pouring over the GPS maps.

Many thanks to John Berlow for the seven billion Kindle format books he gave me. 


Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.

So, the entire city of Phonsavan, that ugly mistress to fate, is one big cement nightmare garble. All of it rebuilt after our American friends bombed the shit out of the Lao North East for the greater glory of the guys who build the bombs.

It is rough rooting for the home team when you see the wasteful destruction of such a beautiful country and the cruel martyrdom of such a sweet people.

But scattered outside of Phonsavan, like pebbles thrown to the wind, are the three Plain of Jars sites. Site number one is really on a plain and site number three is in a forest on a hilltop and site number two was too far to get to on a bike since I wanted to be back in the city before nightfall.

Truth is, in all my years of travel I have never seen anything quite as weird as the Plain of Jars. Three sites, as far from each other as you could possible want, have these outcroppings of huge granite jars – just sitting there, with bomb craters and paths cleared by the MAG so you don't get your feet blown off while you're walking around.

This might sound crazy, but there is something happening there and what it is ain't clear at all. At first you run by all the possibilities through your logical mind: funeral urns, rice wine jars, tables set for very large and thirsty extra-terrestrials ... Whatever the explanation, nothing can overshadow the feeling that somehow the earth had spawned this; that somehow some sort of force within the very bowels of the planet and squirmed and twisted and out came these jars.

It almost you want to reconsider feng shui until you realise that feng shui is to the forces of the earth what the monotheistic religions are to God: one grain of truth upon which were built too many mountains of bullshit.

The truth? The truth is sitting there in that pine forest, walking silently from jar to jar, with only the crunching of vegetation underfoot. The truth is in touching the things, feeling the grain of the carved rock. The truth is in the round sound of the cowbells from the cattle in the meadow. The truth is in beauty and freedom.


Lao Gods


At a fork in the road. At a place that is forgotten. At a place that is remembered. At a place of absolute silence. Of overriding echoes. Of wind. Sun.

During the trip I had the privilege of reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, thanks to John Berlow who filled my Kindle with thousands of treasures. A story of the fate of gods who were brought to America from the Old Worlds, gods for whom there were no longer believers. These gods were thirsty for sacrifices, hungry for adoration. Many of them lived on the margins pumping gas, working in slaughterhouses ...

But here in Laos, the gods are chez eux.


Little Houses on the Prairie


Cutting out of Phonsavan, westward on the National 7, I was on the lookout for the cutoff north toward the Nam Kham River. The road rose gently until I was on a plain, settled with small homesteads.

The farms were spaced far from each other and I can only imagine the feeling isolation and loneliness the families must have who live in them. Nestled in a hollow between two gentle crests, a fine line of smoke broke through the late afternoon cold blue light.

The earth was brown. The dry season: gone were the myriad shades of Indochinese green.

Generally on bike trips I try to be within shelter by 5 PM, knowing that darkness descends upon the earth by 6, summer and winter. But now it was so damned cold that I chose 4 PM to be my deadline so I could at least have a little bit of sun heat during my shower.

Shower. Nice word for it. My nicest experience was bathing in a river with the entire village during my last trip, but usually washing in a village means heading for the communal pump wearing my sarong and pouring freezing cold mountain water with a bucket on my protesting body and head. There is nothing for it but to grin and take it, since you know you can never sleep comfortably caked in road grime. And yes, you do have to wash your hair, so that means not just a simple toilette du chat, but three whole rinses with gusto and breath stopped short.

Then there is a magic moment as the goose flesh gets some sun and the weariness of the day's ride is replaced by the sweet fatigue and knowing you are safe and sound in someone's home.

How that works is very simple, although always accompanied by some degree of trepidation as well. This case was no exception. I was wary of the steppe. I didn't like it. It reminded me too much of my Grandmother's description the the Ukraine, but having no choice I cut off the main road and entered the village of Ban Man. There were a few wealthy homes, I was told they were those of the nay ban, the Village Chief – the man you have to speak to. It will come as no surprise to any seasoned traveller that the houses of the rich were resolutely closed to me; shaking heads, averted gazes, ຫົວໃຈ​ສີດໍາ.

It will also come as no surprise that the people who welcomed me with open arms were the poorer people in the village, the simple wooded house, the cold water wash, the cooking hearth on the floor.

Or, to quote R. Shalom Shabazi:

אִם נִנְעֲלוּ דַּלְתֵי נְדִיבִים דַּלְתֵּי מָרוֹם לֹא נִנְעֲלוּ

Dinner was, although not kosher, delicious. Food bits hanging over the hearth had been smoked for days. The ubiquitous sticky rice was steaming hot and there we all sat, father, mother, daughter, grandchildren ... all of us bundled up as much as we could be against the cold. Because it was cold. Damned cold. I tried to put a brave Canadian face on it, but cold is cold and a drafty house is, well, full of drafts.

After getting into bed, the pater familias piled about six thick blankets on me and I said a silent prayer to the Lord of all Bowel Movements to spare me a tundra driven trip to the outhouse located at the far end of the garden. I was, like so many believers before me, to be disappointed in my deity's lack of tenderness, for solicit Him as fervently as I did, at 3 AM I was driven from my warm nest into the cruel depths of the mountain winter.

The Lord, as we all know, works in mysterious ways, because it was thanks to this that I was able to see that rarity of modern life: a fully clear moonless night with stars sparkling uninhibited by city lights, their pinpoints of loneliness calling out to Earth from beyond the truly frozen galaxies.