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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Lenou is a Lao law student and avid learner who has turned his home into a library and English school for the local Hmong children.  He is 30-45 minutes away from the main part of town so he has more trouble finding volunteers than the better staffed and centrally located Big Brother Mouse. However the kids in his village are too far away to visit Big Brother Mouse so he’s trying to bring education to them.

He invited me to play some games with his class.  The first day we played a rhyming game and I had the kids come up with words that rhymed with “tree”.  They thought of a good 10 or 20 words.  The second day I had another class that had less experience with English.  We attempted to play Pictionary but the kids didn’t know words like “rice”, “man”, “house” or “tree”.  Later I found out there were very early on in their English education.  What’s interesting is later in the class the kids were reading passages with words like “multilingual”, “intelligent” and “delicious”.  Not how I’d go teaching English, but this is not my class and a workbook does help plan lessons.

I’ve always joked that I wanted to write awful children’s teaching materials.  Who would know what you were writing anyways?  Looks like someone beat me to it.  The FabuLao workbook written for Laos by an American had such gems as “I never study and I am very lazy”, “beer is very good with papaya salad”, “he had a small head, so I don’t know how he could be so smart”, and “I want to find a boyfriend so I can visit other countries”.  Great things to be teaching children.

I hope the map I made Lenou to find his house will be more helpful than any teaching I could do.  I personally got lost for about an hour trying to find his house and asked everyone in a three block radius.  At this point in my travels, I’ve made maps for two of my friends.  I think that’s more maps than completed games on the trip.  I’ll change my freelance title to “mapmaker”.

Lenou’s a wonderful and kind person and a fun guy to have a Beer Lao with.  I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know him and the boys from his province that stay with him to study.  He could always use more funding and if you happen to be in Luang Prabang, you should try visiting his class in the evenings.  Here’s the link to his site for more info: Lenou’s Library.  The students are very sweet and really want to learn.  He’s running out of seats because so many new students show up every day.

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A dry season bamboo bridge from the world heritage protected part of town across the Nam Khan river (a Mekong tributary) to the rest of town.

Luang Prabang is a beautiful city.  It’s protected as an UNESCO world heritage site. The city is dotted in adorable French colonial architecture and French style and riverfront cafes.  There are seventy temples (known as wats) all over.  The local store owners and many others have collaborated to set up fair trade preservation of many of the local handicrafts and products.  It is a wonderful example of how tourism can help the preservation of what was a culture slowly losing its heritage to modern poverty.  Yet it has a dark side as well.  Because no new buildings can be built, luxury hotels and restaurants have had to get creative to open up here.  A local joke goes like this, “Amantaka converted a prison and Alila renovated a hospital.  What’s next, a cemetary?”  Much like regentrification in many urban centers, there are people moving in to make the place nicer than the crumbling buildings that stood here.  Just like regentrification, many locals are getting displaced and this will become a city of hotels, guesthouses and tourists.

French colonial style houses in the sunset.

Laos is supposed to be the most laid back of the Southeast Asian countries.  It is also fairly cheap, and still is in most of the countryside.  However here, in what is quickly becoming a tourist mecca, prices are rising at high rates.  I get asked multiple times a day if I want a tuk tuk or boat ride to popular tourist destinations.  In uncharacteristic moves, some of them keep bothering you after you say no.  That’s not supposed to be very common at all here.

The temple next to the royal palace turned national museum. Temples in the region like to gild everything.

One of the prime sights in Luang Prabang is the early morning/dawn procession of monks collecting alms.  Monks are only allowed to have a few posessions (a robe, a toothpick, their alms bowl, and a razor I believe) and walk around in the morning to collect food.  Locals give the monks the best food they can to gain merits.  There are many rules for this, you should not disturb the procession, you should be lower than the monks, and generally be respectful.  Alas, many tourists ignore the many signs around town with instructions and stand in monks faces using cameras with flash in the darkness.  Even worse, tourists are advised to only participate if this is a meaningful Buddhist activity to them.  However many people ignore this and buy food from opportunistic vendors nearby who sell them rotten or stale rice and bananas.  The monks have talked of stopping the practice being they’ve gotten sick from tourists participating.  The government would not allow it and said they would send out laypeople in saffron robes if necessary.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Although it was interesting to watch, I’m glad I hoofed it over to the south end of the morning market to watch locals give their alms.  Watching tourists give bad food and stand flashing cameras in the monks faces just made me sad.  You can see the difference as the monks slowly walk by the locals and almost run by the tourists trying to give them food.  Really, I think I enjoyed wandering around later watching monks walking to school, holding hands, and smiling as much as I enjoyed their morning ritual.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see the morning ritual, it felt like a zoo.  I was watching more tourist bad behavior than monks.

Tourism has not destroyed everything.  The morning market is still mostly full of locals doing their shopping or getting their breakfast.  Tourism has also allowed many outdoor outfits to spring up to protect elephants.  This is the land of a million elephants and they often lead harsh lives as logging beasts.  Now they also have an option to retire to be or always be ridden by giddy tourists.  The kids here study English in the hopes of joining the lucrative industry.  About one in ten people in Laos is involved in the tourism industry.  The only other production appears to be logging.  I have not been able to see a sunrise or sunset and the sky is constantly foggy from the burning involved with logging and farming.

The French did not just leave architecture. There is a strong gallic influence in the food as visible in the many fancy restaurants and cafes. There is excellent coffee and baguettes all over town.

I am conflicted to say you should come.  This is a beautiful place that must be experienced and cannot be captured in a picture.  Yet I haven’t seen this many SLR cameras since I left San Francisco.  I will say if you want to come, to come soon.  I can’t imagine this development of tourism will be sustainable and the number of guesthouses has just about doubled ever year.  As this old New York Times article concludes:

“The paradox is that Unesco gives out the Heritage Site label partly to reduce poverty, but reducing poverty is reducing heritage,” Mr. Rampon said. “If you want to preserve heritage, you must keep poverty.”

So has tourism made this city more dead or alive?  I’m not sure, but I know that you cannot invite tourism and not expect some sort of impact on your local culture.

I’ve been trying to volunteer my time ever since I started my trip four months ago.  I looked at HelpX and Workaway.  I even signed up for a so far useless Workaway premium account.  I e-mailed people in countries I thought I might go to and didn’t really get any useful responses.  The only e-mails I received were people in harvest seasons in countries I wasn’t going to be anywhere near who wanted free farm hands.  A lot of the volunteer opportunities seemed to involve going somewhere for a longer period of time like three or six months.  Applying to volunteer gigs has been harder than when I apply for paid jobs, probably because I have a lot less experience.

I gave up on volunteering in South America and just relaxed.  Now in the new year I started looking again.  I tried to volunteer in the Yunnan province of China.  The people I contacted from the Lonely Planet guide ended up not needing any volunteers, but they were a lot of fun to hang out with.  If volunteering always turns into minority group antique hunts, I’m ok with that.  See my post on Xishuangbanna for more details.

Finally I got into Laos and was excited to find out there are commitment free volunteer opportunities.  The larger organization is called Big Brother Mouse.  Slightly ironic in a Communist country where the media is heavily controlled.  They run book donation drives to bring books to rural areas, host English practice two times a day six days a week, and publish children’s books in both Laotian and English.  There’s no need to sign up for English practice and you just show up at the specified times to meet eager kids.

I got to read a children’s story to some adorable little girls.  I was amused that the book was a western book and  referenced things the kids were confused by.  Why would a guy throw away a perfectly good cup just because it had a small crack in it?  And why do tea kettles look like that in this book?  When the little girls were done, I met some teenage boys.  Their English skills were rather impressive given they had all been learning less than a year.  They are taught English with the goal of becoming involved in the lucrative tourism industry.  It’s really one of the only industries here.  The most vocal kid managed to read me a complex page long essay on the history of Luang Prabang temple history.  Many of the other kids worked through the conversation scripts they had been taught.  I sat as straight faced as I could through multiple seventeen year old boys asking me if I had scaled Phu Si (pronounced “Pussy”) mountain.  I am impressed by how hard these kids are trying to learn and how badly they want to learn English.

Definitely worth a few of your hours if you are in town.  I wish there were more volunteer opportunities like this.  They were so excited to have a young American there that a few asked when I could come back so they could practice with me again.  I’ll be going back, but I’m also going to check out the other volunteer opportunity in town and report back on that.

 

 

 

 

One of the most common questions I get when catching up to people about my travels is “What are you eating?”  As evident on this blog, I do spend a lot of time thinking about food.  For the last few weeks, ever since I got into southern China, the most common answer is rice noodles.  There is a bit of sticky rice now that I’m in Laos and plenty of steamed rice and buns in China, but the dish that comes up again and again is rice noodles.

In America, the closest we see to this style of rice noodles is Vietnamese pho.  The basic idea is the same; you get a pile of rice noodles in a meat based soup broth that you then adorn with other things.  In Kunming, their variation was the across the bridge noodles where you throw everything in to be cooked in the boiling hot soup covered in a layer of oil.  In Dali, there were huge blocks of rice flour that they used a grater to pull long thing noodles off of.  In Xishuangbanna, things got more pho like but the soup was sometimes flavored more strongly like a Chinese beef noodle soup.  The common toppings were ground meat, bok choy or other green, pickled mustard plant, various brown sauces (hot bean paste/soy/unidentified things), and chile pastes.

Rice noodles at the Luang Namtha morning market. There was a pile of ground meat on top but I forgot to take a picture before I mixed it all in.

Once I got into Laos, rice noodles got even more pho like with a light broth, bean sprouts and lots of fresh herbs and greens to put into my soup.  The differences this time were the pleasant additions of fish sauce and pickled chiles.  I am pleased to find out they use the same brand of fish sauce I do back home: Squid brand.  I suspect it might be the cheapest most readily available brand.  Good enough for everyone here is good enough for me in America.  I’ll have to do another rice noodle comparison when I get into Vietnam.

After my failed attempts at taking a cooking class in Dali, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Luang Namtha has them here in Laos.  I was less pleasantly surprised to find out they’re as expensive here as they are in the much bigger city of Luang Prabang.  So after hoofing it to every possible cooking class to see prices, I decided to settle on the cheapest option.  Ethnic Travel Cooking Class it is!  The local favorite ethnic minority restaurant, Papaya, had classes that had more minority dishes than traditional Laotian food, but they were also about twelve dollars more.  That’s enough for a guesthouse and food for the day here!  Also after eating at papaya, I’m not sure if homey ethnic minority food is my favorite thing, or perhaps Papaya restaurant just isn’t my favorite thing.

A Lao-style mortar and pestle. My hand is there on the left side to show the size. I covet this thing.

While originally I wanted a full eight hour class I’m pretty glad I ended up in a four hour “full day” class as it was already pretty tiring.  I wandered into the travel office in the morning and was amused to see class would be taking place on the one burner they had in the back corner of the office.  We soon set off on scooter to the wonderful morning market to pick up ingredients.

The market lady fries her lunch once she's done with the plate full of bananas and mangos.

Once we returned it was a mix of mostly prep work and a little too much of watching my teacher and his co-owner’s wife cook.  I did not put a single thing on heat and I found the highlight of my cooking was using the gigantic mortar and pestle.  I think I prefer my cooking classes a little more hands on.

The crazy bamboo basket used to steam the fish in banana leaf on top of a pot. The same basket was later used to cook rice. I wish you could see the basket's discoloration from constant heating.

I was also not entirely thrilled about the owner/teacher wandering off to chat and smoke with friends, trying to get random passerby to buy tours, and general tendency to leave for periods of time.  Still, I learned a few things like prepping raw bamboo can make you itch so you shouldn’t touch anything.  The cooking involved a fair bit of MSG and Knorr soup base powders.  I don’t really mind MSG and I appreciate that I was seeing how one would cook at home.

Luckily for me the common Laos dishes are full of things I love.

At the end of the session we had quite a few dishes of food.  The table had a spread of buffalo larb (or lahp among other spellings), papaya salad, sauteed morning glory, banana leaf steamed fish, bamboo and tomato soup, and sticky rice.  I’m not sure if I could reproduce many of these things at home due to things like lack of cheap, fresh bamboo and I still have no idea how they made that sticky rice in a giant basket over a pot.  However now I can make a chile sauce in a giant mortar and pestle.  Midway through the meal they busted out a bunch of Beer Lao, which is about as tasty as beer gets in this area of the world.  We then wiled away the afternoon drinking and chatting about life and travel.  Overall a pleasant if slightly not what I expected experience.

 

 

I’ve spent more time in China than I intended.  In fact i plan to spend even more time, as I hope to loop around in March to attend the wedding of one of the Banna View women.  In the meantime, I’m getting around to my original plan of heading south to Laos.  I’m not sure why international bus information is so out of date, so I’m going to post my experiences.  I had two options, a three hour ride from Jinghong to Mengla and then a thirteen hour ride to Luang Prabang or an eight hour ride from Jinghong to Luang Namtha and then another eight to ten hour ride to Luang Prabang.  I’ve had enough of China and cities so I’ve opted to go to Luang Namtha.  It seems to be an outdoorsy place that I might spend more time at than I thought.  We passed through Mengla for lunch, it was a particularly polluted and dirty Chinese city and I’m glad I did not stay there.  Like my sleeper bus, the travel times were overstated, perhaps due to how empty the bus was making for fast immigration lines.  I’ll gladly take that extra hour.

Random fun fact, it’s way cheaper to pay for a visa on arrival in Laos in US dollars than either RMB or kip.  It’s about a ten dollar difference in fact.  I guess they really like their dollar at the border.  I also fortunately didn’t have to pay a bribe or that’s already built into the price sheet of $37.