Saturday, February 7, 2015

Of Mice And Men

The plan, as you can follow on the map, was to fly into Sam Neua, cycle up to the Nam Ma River and follow it to Mouang Et, then follow the Et River down to paths leading back to Sam Neau.

It didn't exactly work out that way after Nouang Et since the road down the Nam Et River lead to a big fat nowhere and the mountain roads were rough, really rough.

There are eight blog entries to this trip:

Cast A Giant Shadow

By The Waters Of Sam Neua

Lao Pastoral

Sop Bao

Mouang Et

Enough Is Enough

Indian Food, and

Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Thanks for reading.

Cast A Giant Shadow

There are many things to love about living here, in Laos. Your entire being can sing rhapsodic over the country roads and the ancient temples, the fine smiles on the faces of incredibly honest people. I have often delighted in the full view of fruits in a market or a mountain range at my feet. One of the lesser sung delights of life here are the airlines.

If you can survive them, flying around is wonderful.

Getting information is a joy in itself. First of all, you never know which airlines flies to which destination and what the name of that destination is. Looking for flights to the Sam Neua airfield was easier once I had figured out that the tiny airport was called HuaPhan, after the province. The same holds true if you wish to fly to Phonsavan, which everybody calls Xiangkhoang.

Then, there was the discovery of an airlines no one had ever told me about, Lao Sky. I went on line to book my flight, but on-line payment was impossible. Just click on the 'Pay Now' icon to watch your Visa card information dissappear into cyber for an indefinite period of time. Luckily there is a cancel button. No travel agencies in town deal with them. On their web-site is a number to call, which I did; and here the true miracle began.

A woman speaking very good English answered, she took my information and within seconds we were making arrangements on WhatsApp. Payment was simple with my BCEL debit card, although they got my name wrong on the ticket and made the ticket out to one Miteklhel Syijimnn, clearly a Serbo-Croatian refugee of undetermined status.

The true miracle of living here is the people. I had no idea just how small the plane was and arriving with Charlene at the airport I was met with the fatal, 'bo dai' (cannot) so familiar to ex-pats. But smile, just smile at the Lao, and watch those doors open up. When I showed them that the back wheel could be taken off they found a large clear plastic sheet in which to wrap her and the deed was done.

Another miracle of the Lao is how they deal with regulations. Baggage allowance was 15 kg, with a tiny carry-on. Charlene is 12 kg without the racks, but my saddle bags weighed a tragic ton, so when they asked me to weigh them I just smiled and said, 'no problem, carry on'. OK, no problem. Big smiles all around. Carry on. Try bending those rules anywhere else!

The airplane was small. Tiny. Was it an airplane or a flying scooter? No overhead compartment. No overhead anything. No toilet even, so if you're flying on Lao Sky, I suggest you piss before you board.

Let's talk about both flights, there and back. I had left the clear plastic sheet at the airport in Sam Neua for my return flight and it was waiting for me. It wasn't even sure I could get a flight back because it had been foggy the day before and in case of fog the plane cannot arrive from Vientiane. Seems someone had neglected to put lights on the sides of the runway. So, no flights in fog, no flights at night ... if there is a real problem in Sam Neua you may be up shits creek with narry a paddle.

The morning of my flight back I received a message on WhatsApp confirming they would fly that day. The flight back was rough. Turbulance in a big bird is bad enough with your Bloody Mary firmly in your hand and a stewardess smiling reassuringly but up there in a flying contraption made of rice paper you can really measure that plunging into that green expanse of mountain would not be a friendly experience.

We entered a cloud bank over the centre of the country and the pilots started playing frantically with their GPS and weather systems until they finally gave up. The co-pilot said something to the pilot and pointed to his left. 'Fuck it, turn that way', was probably the gist of it. He turned left and I lived to tell the tale.

A bit of philosophy. A friend asked if I had prayed and I answered that I saw no point in troubling God with my petty problems. She asked, 'I thought that was what God was for?' I really gave this a lot of thought, up there. After all, the hand of God could just as easily have tipped the wing of that aircraft and sent us all plunging to our earthly deaths. I told my friend that trees are for giving shade, meaning that the function of trees is to exist – their shade giving is a fortunate by-product of that existence, nothing else. These thoughts were really on my mind as the little craft bounced and tossed upon the clouds up there. For a while I thought I was really going to die, but even then I refused to pray. What is the point of insulting the millions of true believers who went to their deaths as martyrs with a useless prayer on their lips? I much prefer the image of the Chassidic court in Poland that went, on masse, dancing into the gas chambers since their belief system had convinced them that resistance was futile. What is the point of inulting a deity who, if It had the time, should be busy curing bone cancer in children or stopping the civil war in Syria? My thoughts turn to a recent thing going around Facebook: a little boy in Syria whose dying tortured words were, "I'm going to tell God everything". His accusation and threat were more than poignant – he was going to tattle on all those fanatics and tell God what the real scoop was. His anger and indignation left a lasting impression on me. What is my prayer, then, in the shadow of his young despair?

Instead, I decided to enjoy the ride and – if possible – enjoy my death. What the hell, I thought, do I have to gain by not enjoying my death? It's the only death I'm going to have: I might as well go for it. 

By The Waters Of Sam Neua

I sat down and wept.

It was very easy taking the back wheel off Charlene, but the truth is, I had never done it before. I imagined putting it back on and slipping the cogs onto the chain while pulling the derailleur back would be as easy as it was when I was a kid. Remember those Simplex derailleurs?

It was not so easy. In fact, it was impossible. The Shimano XTR is a wonderous thing, light as air and as smooth as silk but a total bitch if you don't have three hands.  Sweating, covered in dirt and surrounded by giggling airport staff I gave up and called Sara Melki.

Sara Melki is a crazy French girl who bears an uncanny ressemblance to my daughter, Cléa, and they are the same age. Sara is a cycling freak, worse than most, and she built her own mountain bike out of bamboo – with the help of Willy at Top Cycle on 47 Don Palan Street in Vientiane. Fine, anybody can build a bicycle out of bamboo if they are insane enough, but Sara then rode it, solo, from Vientiane to Marseille.

So you can see that Sara was just the kind of fanatic I needed then and there. Luckily for me she lives in Sam Neua, of all places, working on a project having to do with ... bamboo, of course! Sara didn't answer, so I put poor Charlene back together as best I could and walked her to the hotel.

It took Sara about 1.7 seconds to put the wheel back on, giving me that look that says, 'old imbecile', and of course she was right. What kind of mad person goes traipsing around the middle of nowhere on a bike he can't even maintain?

Sara's blog:

The nicest thing about Sam Neua is the road out of it. On the road to Vieng Xay I came upon a party of H'Mong school kids.

After a phô I left the main road to make my way toward the Nam Ma River. I was once again in the homeland of my heart: blue skies and comfortable temperatures with Charlene humming perfectly along dirt roads. The air was pure, so pure that when a motorbike did pass I could smell its exhaust for long minutes. Pauvres de nous who breathe in city air day after day.

Lao Pastoral

    The bare facts of the place, a smoke-filled hamlet made of bamboo and wood. Women cut roots outside their homes. This close to the Vietnamese border and already nobody smiles and people pretend you aren't there.

    A short walk through the village and every shade of wood. The village air is filled with cooking smoke and the smell of rice whisky. Wafts of it radiate around the seemingly old structures.

    I find refuge in the nai ban's house. He has a sound system he is very proud of, ripped speakers and all. The villagers must know I am already taken care of and that there is no danger in smiling at me now and so old women with lacquer blackened teeth line up to have me take their photos.

    Children fight over a toddler as if it were a rag doll, one foot pulled here, an arm pulled there amongst general hilarity; the toddler is as passive as a palm tree.

    Climbing the hill out of the village on foot pushing Charlene I am accompanied by two children who walk at an arm's length. They are well behaved, not trying to provoke with 'hello's and 'whatsyourname?'s. They talk gently among themselves, their light banter going back and forth in tones as fleeing as skipping stones.

    They are rebuilding the road. Huge earth-moving machines have made it up here and are tearing walls out of the hillsides, creating sheer cliff faces in the place of slopes. The smell of the freshly bared earth reminds me of the scent of newly turned earth in my old garden in Burgundy; you can almost scent the earth worms wiggling in their galleries burrowing calm moisture.

    The intercises caused by the machine leave a cross-section of the planet visible; you can clearly see that the top-soil is a tiny, a really tiny layer of brown upon which we live. We owe our livelihoods and good fortunes to a few centimetres of humus stuck between the air and the hard ungiving rock.      

Sop Bao

Joy in every pore.

    The road had not one inch of pavement on it. I passed over paths of white stone, finely ground to near dust, ke

eping my tires above the rain gullies. The landscapes were above majestic. Green feminine hills rolling in ancient luxury overlooking terraced rice paddies ... The dry season means that the plots are in rotation, some are in repose while others are being replanted and others yet are being torn from their bearings by hand-held ploughs. Those being replanted are presided over by bending peasants holding a flock of rice stems in one hand and plunging their other hand into the dark brown earth.

    Near them, on an ancient mud butress stands a bushel of stalks awaiting plantation, מֶשֶׁךְ הַזָּרַע . The plots being laboured are having their guts wrenched up by the fanatic blades of the machine as it hauls, first this way then that, line upon line of dark brown sopping earth.

    The separation between the plots seems haphazard, with off-angles and lines broken by indentation. But knowing the intricacies of man and our fervent attachement to dirt I cannot believe these delimitations to be the fruit of chance. No, these borders were inherited, fought over, exchanged, squabbled and squandered –  with each trade and transaction noted in a register somewhere, and this for hundreds of years.

    The plots under flood stand flat and steady. They reflect like giant mirrors the hills lurching above them and as dusk approaches they attract leagues of cranes who come to feed. The long-winged white birds land and take off in graceful cacaphony, hampered by nothing. No wind comes to unsettle them and no children come running through the paddies. Their flights, like the hills above, are mirrored in the still flat waters and so from a distance look like a graceful puppet minuet. They land large feathered and furrow their wide white wings alongside their bodies in time to peck at something in the waters. Then, just as unpredictably deploy and beat them just once to break with the ground. They circle above and below, twin images; one real and the other only seen until they come closer and join as lovers anew on another flat expanse.

    This coupling could continue forever and possibly beyond, long into the dusk. I could stay there mezmerized by the longing of it, but am compelled to move on since sunset carries with it its own imperatives and I must be safely parked and showered before darkness and the cold set in.

    I mount Charlene and set her tires once again facing the North, to a town I know will have a guest house and maybe even a warm shower.

    As I cycle the visa angles vary as though I were walking in moon light. Children run along a paddy's mud embankement in the exhiliration of youth, the abandonment to joy. Some others sit in groups gazing out onto the mountain void beyond the rushing river. Their silence is shattering and communicates itself to me even at this great distance. They are meditating, the little ones, and breathing slowly, sitting on their earth.

    For above them the first moon sliver appears, we are in the first quarter of the new lunar month and it hangs there high in the transparent blue sky, a blue of azure boldness, a blue of faded eyes, a blue of closing.

    I make my way slowly, regretfully, to the town. The birds' flight reminded me of earthly complicities and human needs. We bond and seperate, love and hate, forever renewing or rupturing our allegiances and energies, always stepping out into a void. 

Mouang Et

    The bare facts of the place are that in this country anything larger than a village is a miserable hole peopled with dusty cement blocks. In the evenings the boys get filthy drunk with prostitutes and sing tone-deaf karaoke at break-neck volumes while the rest of the town goes to bed early.

    The road from Sap Bao to here is paved and beautifully so, which came as a surprise since the road from Sam Neua was only paved for half of its length. Of course, Sap Bao and Mouang Et both serve border crossings into Vietnam so this would explain that.

    The road, or rather the land around it is a pleasure to behold, a pleasure to be a part of, to move through – especially at an average speed of 13.3 km/h.

    On all sides the round hills rise up, the valley a broad gradual gradiant that has taken centuries to settle. You can almost imagine the millenium going by as water falls and cascades broke down the steadfast earth one grain at a time. Then it was a land of stubborn contrasts and abrupt vistas, water falling from great heights with rock-embedded pools of emerald green.

    The beings living then thought that this was their land, that these rocks and those steep granite cliffs were their eternal birthright, as unchanging as the soft powdering of stars above their hungry heads. But you see, it was not to be so. Those beings became people (or were eaten by people...) and the dramatic accidental land became a calm and placid place where the river runs smooth and even all down its mirrored course.

    And so, to us the silence of the everlasting hills; and so, to us this slowly changing beauty with its wild banana trees and perked rice stems, its little purlple and yellow flowers popping up winter-time in the palm of the land. And so to me; traveller, lucky tourist who glides through this space and time to see the bent backs of the people in the mud flat paddies. Lucky am I, I am also thinking, that I am not one of them and thus condemned to use my body and force of labour to earn and feed myself and my loved ones. Lucky am I for the patient work of my father and those who, before my family arrived, made Canada a place where such miracles could happen. I expect, more than half expect, these burdened peasants to look up at me from their toil in derision or resentment as I glide through or stop to freeze their pastoral hardships with my smart-phone camera, but nothing of the sort happens! They look up, wave and smile, their teeth glowing in the light like mirrors. They seem genuinely happy that someone in this world is not eating the same shit as they. Yes, they actually seem happy for me!


Enough is Enough

Leaving Mouang Et I was looking forward to much of the same, but I was not looking foward to a steep 10 km climb up a mountain. Not only am I no hero, I am no smart non-hero, and for this trip I had packed too heavily.

At the end of the 10km climb, and after being invited to a Lao party which left most people vomitting their rice wine I flagged down a truck.

I am not proud to say this, I know your admiration for me is unrivalled, but when the driver said he was going all the way to Sam Neua I said OK. And thus I sat and watched some of the most spectacular landscape pass outside the window. Shame. Shame. I hang my head in Shame.

Having said that, I was indeed badly packed – not expecting those altitudes – and the road was being rebuilt which means it was worse even than the road that almost killed me in the Golden Triangle:

I also knew that this was my chance to see Vieng Xay and its sugar loaf mountains. And so yes, I chickened out.

Indian Food


There's no point in asking people instructions. I found a Lao ex-pat who asked for me and was told that the only guesthouses in Viang Xay were on that one strip, which later turned out to be bullshit, of course.

So I checked into a place that had a main building and two bungalows which served the professional needs of two young ladies. The room smelt of bad sex and had a box of condoms (Made in Malaysia, of all places) instead of soap. The owner grunted to invite me to have some rice wine and then grunted more severely when I refused.

The restaurant down the road only served Phô, but they told me about an Indian restaurant in town, near the market and not far – of course – from plenty of nice places to stay.

After six tragic months in India I had always found it impossible to eat Indian food. The smell of it reminded me of leprosy. But I was strangely in the mood for some Chicken Butter Masala, so off I went. Ah, India: you never fail to amaze me! Iindia: I'll Never Do It Again! The fat boss sat in his chair watching Hindi sitcoms at top volume, as is to be expected. When I went to tell him I would like to order he called out to his lackey, a delightful waif of an Indian man who ran the kitchen, "Sanjay, client wallah wants to order!" and out ran Sanjay, thoroughly harassed and covered in smatterings of wheat flour and masala, to take my order smiling in all humility.

The food was delicious. The place was filled with tourists trying to speak English. Client wallah didn't think of lepers the whole time. 

Sugar Loaf Mountains

To have these things surge out of the earth, seemingly from nowhere, is always a great and wonderous feeling. They are the true Tao, the meeting place where unexpecting heaven is pierced in ecstasy by the unpredictable earth.

The trees and vines growing uncontrollably on them in the delight of human absence gives these outcroppings an aspect of timlessness.

These mountains, as I roll between them, are quintessential Asia; they shelter the caves that sheltered the wise man who knew where the hermit was hiding. They are deep in the heart of me, deep in the silent.

There are only 25 km between Sam Neua and Vieng Xay. At Kilometer Twenty is the road I had taken a week before to head to the Nam Ma River, and at this crossroads I stopped for a phô. It was bitterly cold, which in Laos means I could see my breath. A huge old bus had broken down there, one of its tires deflated. Its metal work had been painted and scratched and sanded so many times you could barely make out the English word that had once been stencilled on its side: Welcome. 

Now it was piled high with bags and produce, filled to the gills with patient passengers, many of whom where sitting on their haunches outside enjoying a cigarette while the crew bounced up and down in unison on a long iron shaft trying to free the wheel bolts. Their movement was fluid; a florescent up-down that at any moment could send one of the crew into outer space. The little elastic ride eventually ended, however, with a bolt giving way. You could almost hear the breathtaking crack of the rust deep within the valley.

They eventually got the tire fixed and the behemoth rolled on its way in an ecstatic exhaling of black diesel dust. A billowing bosom cloud engulfing the road and the little fresh goods market set up by the side of it. I turned right and went the final five clicks into town, down a rumbling collection of hamlets surrounded by these fabulous monuments.

It felt as though I were riding in moonlight, so slowly did life rotate around me; all the land seemed to conspire to hypnotize me and thus in a trance did Charlene and I climb hill and descend valley.

Vieng Xay is to the Lao Communist Party as the Western Wall is to the Jews. The muscle strong sinew caves of the sugar loaf mountains held in their humid midsts the entire Pathet Lao leadership back in the day while the CIA was carrying on its Secret War trying to bomb the Viet Cong into submission. How America could have betrayed her ideals in conducting a secret war remains one of the great and frightening political questions of the 20th Century, but we know that the Lao people – a population at that time barely out of  hunting and gathering, a people with a crime rate of next to zero, a nation that had asked for nothing – had paid the price for this perfidy.

There are tours of the Pathet Lao caves, but I really was not interested. I just wanted to roll around the city and find a place where I could sit and breathe with the soil. By pure chance I found a cave meeting hall, and by going around the sugar loaf I found myself at the upper curve of a valley ringed by mountains and filled with lush light-seeking vegetation.

There I stayed the entire day.