Author Archives: andthentheywent

The Hmong & The Khmu, Laos (Trek Day 2)

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Thanks to the enthusiasm of its 37 cockerels, the remote Hmong village of Ban Phatum, tucked into a wooded pass in the mountains of northern Laos, wakes early.

In the indigo pre-dawn light, children potter sleepily around the village chewing sticky rice cakes, piglets scamper into the undergrowth, and the hens peck around the cooking fires looking for scraps.

D & L stand on a plateau above the village, toothbrushes in hand, swigging water from a bottle, and spitting minty freshness into the undergrowth. If anything, the views are even more astounding at dawn. Yesterday’s blanket of low cloud has returned, snugly wrapping the foot of the mountains from the early morning chill, leaving a hundred black peaks jutting through to greet the sun, whereupon they glow gently, turning hues of pink and gold.

Their guide Lia whips up rice, salty boiled greens, and omelettes and joins L & D for breakfast.

L:   It’s so beautiful here. The lifestyle is still so traditional. It’s pure.

Lia: Yes, it’s poor.

L: No – pure. Their culture is uncontaminated.

Lia: I understand. But also, it’s poor. The government have tried to make them move. But they don’t want to go.

D: Why? I mean why should they move?

Lia: The government want all the ethnic people, the hill-tribe people, to move down from the mountains. To be closer to schools and hospitals and markets to sell their produce, to have electricity, water and toilets, to find jobs. Any village smaller than 50 houses is asked to move. To make life better for them.P1050624

D: But Ban Phatum said no?

Lia: They said no. They like it here.

L: I can see why. But they’re not hiding.

Lia looks startled.

Lia: Hiding?

L: From the government.

Lia: (sounding polite but confused) No. They are not hiding. Now, we must get ready to leave. We will go at 7.30am.

D steers L back into the grass-walled, palm-thatched house where they had slept.

D: Have you gone mad? What are you talking about? ”Are they hiding?” Why would you even ask that?

L: Because of the war. I read about it.

D: What war?

L: The Vietnam War.

D: But that was forty years ago!

L: I know. But during the war, the Americans were helped by local people in Laos. Those locals were Hmong. They were the ones living in the area. They knew the terrain.

D: Oh.

L: And when the war ended, the communists took over not only in Vietnam but in Laos too. The Hmong had fought against the communists. They were on the wrong side.

D: Ah.

L: So they weren’t the new government’s favourite people. A lot of Hmong fled to the US or over the border into Thailand.   Lots more were sent to re-education camps.

D: But surely that’s all water under the bridge by now.

L: Mostly, yes. Several generations on, most Hmong now live peacefully in Laos. Like here in this village. But several thousand of them are still in hiding in the mountains, in areas like this, afraid of reprisals.P1050696

D: Hasn’t the government forgotten about them after all this time?

L: It seems not. Apparently they’re still being captured and killed for being bandits and rebels.

D: And are they? Being bandits and rebels I mean.

L: Maybe a few Hmong do still have guns left over from the war, but I’ve seen reports that most of them are unarmed. That they’ve got no reason to fight. That they’re just frightened families unlucky enough to have had fathers or grandfathers who helped the Americans. And that they’re starving – eating roots and bugs – because they have to keep on the move, to stay hidden, so they can’t grow any crops.

D: In that case, why doesn’t anyone do anything?

L: The UN are aware of it but say they haven’t got enough proof to step in. And Thailand is sending thousands of Hmong back to Laos, saying there’s not enough proof to give them asylum.

D: The ones who’ve come back from Thailand – are they OK now?

L: I don’t know. But a lot of them seem to live in huge restricted camps. Which doesn’t sound ideal.

It is nearly 7.30am. D & L emerge from the house with their rucksack, ready to go. Lia looks surprised. He’s obviously not expecting them to be on time. L takes a last look at the village, sad to leave, and sad to compare this seemingly tranquil lifestyle with those of other Hmong, hidden elsewhere in these mountains.

They set out in silence, waving goodbye as they go. D tries to lighten the atmosphere.

D: How long has Ban Phatum been here?P1050543

Lia: Since the 1950s. This village is linked to a bigger one down near the road. The village chief lives there.

D: So there’s no chief up here?

Lia: No, but there is a group of elders. I will tell you what happens. Remember that most village people don’t speak Lao, they speak only Hmong. So they choose a chief who is educated and can speak Lao and so can talk with local government. But every village also has the elders, and the chief must listen to them.

D: So the elders look after the village?

Lia: And the shamans.

L: Shamans?

Lia: Yes. The village has two or three shamans who take care of the spirits and any illnesses. The shamans are not chosen – it follows from father to son. If someone in the village is sick, they don’t go to the doctor, they go to the shaman. Only if it is very serious they will go to hospital.

The path contours around the hillsides, climbing gently, heading towards a higher pass. The grass is damp.

Lia: Watch out for leeches.

D: Really? Excellent! I definitely want to be bitten by leeches. Like a proper adventurer.

L: Really? I definitely don’t.

P1050683They pause for a drink. The slopes in all directions have long ago been cleared of trees, and now the forest is reclaiming them. Lia waves an arm expansively.

Lia: This area here? All opium garden.

D: Interesting. Until when?

Lia: Maybe 10 – 15 years. All the mountain people used to grow opium poppies. Especially Hmong people. It was very difficult for them when it stopped. They had to learn to grow other things. But they don’t make money like before.

L: Why did it stop?

D: I remember this. It was international pressure. A few countries were given huge aid incentives to put a stop to it – Laos must have been one of them. But one or two of those places now grow opium legally for medicine – selling it to the big pharma companies. Does Laos do this?

Lia: No. We grow no more opium.

They continue on up the narrow trail. At the pass they pause. The way down is drier, on the sunny side of the mountain.

Lia: Check for leeches. I have one – here.

L: Yuck! None. Hurrah.

D: None. Dammit. I so wanted a leech.

It is a long, long descent through the forest, and increasingly steep. They walk slowly, using their trekking poles to lessen the impact on tired knees and feet, and avoid slipping on the greasy mud underfoot. They are overtaken by two women and a girl, stepping sure-footedly down the mountain in rubber sandals, the baskets on their backs loaded high with marrows.P1050700

Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!

A little way on, they stop for a rest. The women are also resting – their marrow baskets on the ground beside them. D walks over to lift one of the baskets. It is as immovable as a rock. He checks if the straps are somehow hooked, and tries again, his face turning red. Lia grins.

Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!

D: At least!

L takes off her shoes to massage her feet. D feels envious and does the same. There is blood on his sock.

D: A leech! I have a leech!

L: Look – you have three!

D: Hurrah!   Let’s get them.

The socks come off. There is nothing to show, except for the blood.P1050703 (2)

D: Oh. Never mind.

L: Are you happy now?

D: Oh yes.   Fantastic. Look, they won’t stop bleeding!

He pauses, the elation in his face fading and turning to concern.

L: Are you alright?

D: D’you think they’ll get infected?

L: I doubt it.

D: Good.

He continues to frown at his feet.

D: D’you think I might bleed to death?

L: No. I really don’t.

The last hour into the valley is tough. They pick their way slowly down the steep, slippery wooded path, step by step. The women with their 30 kg baskets are long gone, chatting happily as they move three times faster in their flapping sandals.

P1050697 (2)Lia: All the falang (foreigners) fall over on this path.

D: Thanks for that.

Lia: Then they cry. Women, men, they all fall over and cry.

D: We’ll do our best then.

Lia: But today is easy. Not so slippery.

L: Is it. Is it really.

They creep their way down to the valley floor, without falling over. Or crying. Despite being falang. Lia looks a little disappointed. Before they leave the forest, he thrashes about in the undergrowth, emerging with two large palm fronds. As they emerge into bright midday sunshine, he hands them one each to carry over their heads, giving them shade.

L: This is fantastic. It’s perfect. I love my jungle parasol!

D is certain that he looks like a twat, but carries it politely, nevertheless.

The approach to Ban Phayong village is through a lush, flat, well-watered landscape, with the mountains forming forested walls to each side.

P1050720They arrive at an immaculately shorn green meadow on which sits a collection of traditional woven-leaf houses with palm thatched roofs. There is electricity to each house. They pass several blocks of public toilets with water points nearby and larger, brightly painted buildings of blockwork with tin roofs. Livestock are tidily contained in pens. Berries are spread out to dry on a grass mat in the sun. It feels a little like an authentically themed holiday park.

They smile and wave at people as they pass, but are mostly ignored.

D: (whispering) It’s the parasol. How can they take me seriously with a massive leaf on my head?

L: (whispering) Don’t diss the leaf. It’s my favourite thing.

They reach the chief’s house, where they are given coffee and herbal tea, and sit under his porch in the shade. A group of French walkers arrives and settles nearby, outside a sleeping hut for guests.

Lia explains the village set up.

Lia: Ban Phayong has 68 families. Hmong people and Khmu people share the village. This is the Hmong side.

L: So where are the Khmu?

Lia: They live separately. On the other side. They have different cultures, different languages. Khmu are Lao Theung – upland Lao, not mountain Lao like Hmong people.

D: So why do they live together?

Lia: It is easier, to have a bigger village. They have electricity, and a school – right in the middle, between the two sides. The lessons are all in Lao. I told you – the government wants the smaller villages to move closer to towns and roads, to make life better for the people.

P1050724D: But why put people of different ethnic origins together like this?

Lia: So that they become more Lao – they learn the national Lao language and culture. It is better for everyone.

D: Cultural assimilation. Aren’t they losing their own traditional ways of life though?

Lia: They still live separately. Traditional life is strong. You will see.

Food emerges from the house of the Hmong chief. They tuck into chicken soup, pumpkin, omelette and rice. The French group are also here for lunch. Children in traditional dress parade past slowly, in case anyone might want to photograph them.

Lia: This chief – he is Hmong. He has done many things for the village, for more than 10 years. Everything you see is because of him. The electricity, the toilets, the tourists, the guest house. Many tourists come here, every day, bringing money to the village.

After lunch they walk through the village and admire the chief’s hard work, and his networking, noticing that several of the public facility buildings bear plaques showing sponsorship from overseas. They pass the school, a smart new building standing alone on a hillock in no-man’s land.

They cross an invisible line and continue through the Khmu part of the village. The contrast is striking. Some houses are built of wood, others of bare blockwork with tin roofs. They are raised off the ground, and are smaller than those of their Hmong neighbours. There is no grass, more dust and litter. People sit in their doorways in the shade. They smile and wave and two small boys shout “Hello!” and “Happy New Year!” to them in Lao. Here the authenticity comes with a smile and a stark absence of holiday park trimmings.

D: So much for cultural assimilation.   The two halves could be ten miles apart, not ten metres. None of the Hmong chief’s work has crossed the line to the Khmu side at all!

L: You’re right. There’s just two completely separate communities sharing a name and a school.

Lia is silent on the matter but has a story to tell about the Khmu people as they amble through the verdant valley landscape towards the river and the end of their trek.

Angkor-Wat-in-CambodiaLia: After this, you are going to Angkor Wat, right? In Cambodia?

D: Right.

Lia: The greatest temples in the world!

D: Right.

Lia: Built by Lao people!

D: Really? Umm…I’m not sure I’d read that.

Lia: (emphatically) It’s not in the history books. But yes! Lao people. Khmu people.

D: Right.

Plain of Jars picLia: And the Plain of Jars – have you read about that?

D: Yes, hundreds of stone jars in the fields in Eastern Laos, thousands of years old, and none of the historians or archaeologists know who left them there or what they were for.

Lia: Ahh. But I know.

D: Really?

Lia: (proudly) Yes. Khmu people.

D: Right. I’m not sure I’d read that either.

Lia: It’s not in the history books. But I will tell you.

***

And so, as they walk, Lia reveals the age-old secrets behind the origins of the Plain of Jars and the founding of Angkor Wat.

Once upon a time, in the first or second centuries, the ancient Khmu people lived happily in Eastern Laos.   They made a lot of lao lao rice whisky, which may be why they were so happy. The lao lao was very important to their culture and they drank it whenever they could. Festivals, ceremonies and battles were all celebrated with the drinking of great quantities of lao lao. All this whisky needed to be brewed and stored. It is obvious that the hundreds of mysterious stone vessels spread across what has now become the Plain of Jars, are whisky jars. So that solves that one.

Now, the first king of the Khmu people was a strong and powerful king called Khun Jung. The fame of his strength spread far and wide and lots of his people wished that they could be as strong as him. The people thought that if they could only eat a little bit of the king, they would gain his strength. Khun Jung was no fool, and he told his people that if they killed and ate him they would become weak, not strong. He told them that they too could become strong, by following him and learning from him. This worked for a while, but eventually the people killed him, popped a skewer into his bottom and out of his mouth, barbecued him, and had themselves a feast. However, eating Khun Jung did not make the Khmu people strong after all. Instead it made them argue and fight amongst themselves for three hundred years, until in the 5th century, some of them split off, headed 500 miles south to Champasak in southern Laos, and founded the magnificent temple of Wat Phu.  Here they settled, but continued to argue and fight amongst themselves for a further six hundred years, until in the 11th century, some of them split off again, and headed 300 miles south west. Here they settled and founded the even more magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. Which is over the border in Cambodia. Where the people are Khmer. And the language to this day is Khmer. Khmer – Khmu. D’you see? The original Cambodians and builders of Angkor were Khmu people. Lao people.

And so concludes the revelation that the greatest temple complex in the world, Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, was in fact built by the Lao. According to Lia. But it’s not in the history books.

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The Hmong Village – Laos (Trek Day 1)

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Lia: And every house has a spirit. This is important. When we arrive at the village, you must not go inside any home unless you are invited. You could bring bad spirits from the forest into the house and make people ill.

L: Err….right. No. Absolutely.

D & L meet their guide, Lia, early that morning, and set off on their two day hike into the forested mountains of northern Laos. They are to spend the night in a remote Hmong village. Lia briefs them as they walk.

Lia: Hmong people are not Buddhist.   Only half the Lao people are Buddhist. The Hmong people believe in spirits. And ancestor worship.

They pass a large watermelon plantation and pick their way across dry rice paddies, not yet planted for the coming season. They cross a stream and the path starts climbing through woodland and patches of rubber plantation. Lia continues his briefing.

Lia: In the village, they do not speak Lao. Only Hmong.

D: Oh. Will that be tricky? Do you speak Hmong?

Lia: Yes. My father – he was Hmong. When I was fifteen he sent me to the mountains to learn the Hmong language and culture – his culture.

L: Are the two languages similar?

Lia. Not at all. Completely different. I’ll teach you. To say “hello” – in Lao is sabaidee, but in Hmong is niaojong. To say…

P1050537They hear voices above them in the forest. They are climbing steeply through the trees on a narrow path and the cloud has rolled in leaving everything blurred and dripping. Lia stops talking and listens. A dog barks.

Lia: Hunters.

They catch up with a group of five men and a pack of dogs. The men each have a gun. L, D and Lia join them and for a while they all walk together, tripping over the dogs who weave up and down the procession and get under everyone’s feet. The men chat in sing-song lilting tones, musical swoops and swings of voice impossible to emulate in English.

Lia: Hmong people. The men hunt for food, and also build village houses. The women look after the children and animals, and gather firewood for cooking. You will see.

D: (whispering) Have you noticed their guns?

L: (whispering) So? They’re hunters.

D: (whispering) But have you actually looked at them?

L: (who wouldn’t know a Colt from a Kalashnikov) ????

D later explains that he has spotted an ancient World War II military rifle, several homemade muskets fashioned from a length of tube and a trigger mechanism, and an AK47 complete with bayonet.   He then further explains that no, these are all quite different to anything one might see shooting pheasants in the Cotswolds.

L: What are they hunting?

Lia: (looking a bit shifty) Anything.

L: But what? Big, small, animals, birds, what sort of thing?

Lia: Anything they can eat.

They reach a clearing and pause for a drink, and the hunters, the dogs and the sing-song voices all melt away into the mist. From now the path is along a bare ridge, still climbing steeply. Lia strips a handful of leaves from a shrub and pops one in his mouth. He offers them around. They taste lemony.

Lia: Sourleaf. Good, huh?

They nod, chewing.

L: So there are three main ethnic groups in Laos, right?

Lia: Yes.

L looks pleased with herself.

Lia: And no.

L: Oh.

Lia: The government says 49. Others say 134.

D: You weren’t far out.

L: Shut up.

Lia: But yes, there are three main groups. You can see them on the money – the 1000 kip notes.

D fumbles in his pockets and finds a note. They study the three women pictured in traditional dress.

1000 kip noteD: So who are they?

Lia: They live in different areas. In the valleys, the hills or the mountains.

He points to the woman on the left.

Lia: This is Lao Loum – lowland Lao. They live in the river valleys and grow wet rice. More than half the population are Lao Loum. They speak the national language – Lao – and follow the national religion – Buddhism.

He points to the right.

Lia: Lao Thoeng – upland Lao. They are maybe one quarter of the population and they live on the hill slopes. They are very poor – when they have no money they barter.

Lastly he points to the middle of the three women.

Lia: And this is Lao Soung – mountain Lao. Hmong people are the largest group of Lao Soung. They grow corn and dry rice, and keep animals to sell. When we arrive at the village you will see.

P1050541The ridge flattens and they emerge onto an orange dirt road. They are now above the cloud, in bright sunshine under a vivid blue sky.

Lia: The village. Ban Phatum.

They look around, but see nothing but forest and the track leading away towards a wooded pass. They follow the track and suddenly come upon fencing and a collection of small buildings. The village is in an idyllic setting, nestled into the pass, fringed by areas of cleared meadow beyond which the wooded mountain rises protectively above. The temperature a perfect mid-20s, the air is clear and the colours seem richer than before – the glowing orange of the earth, the vibrant green of the woods and the cerulean blue of the sky.

In the road a cluster of boys are playing a type of boules with spinning tops. Lia greets them and stops to join in. A carved-wood cylinder, sharpened to a point at one end, is set spinning on its point as a target. Lia takes another, winds a line of string around it and then launches it towards the target. His technique is spot on, his top hits point down and spins across the ground, but he is miles out. The boys laugh in delight.

Lia nods, satisfied. Honour is served. D&L look impressed. They walk on through the village. A group of women are squatting in the shade of a tree, chatting softly and chopping vegetables. Next to them several dogs lie panting and piglets and hens hunt for treasure in the dust.

D: (whispering) What’s “hello” again?

L: (whispering) Something to do with a game. Mah-jong. And a cat. Miao-jong. With an N. Niao-jong I think.

D smiles as he passes. One or two smile hesitantly back.

D: Niao-jong!

The women giggle.

It is Lia’s turn to look impressed.

P1050543The village spreads up both sides of the pass. Single room dwellings of wood and bamboo and palm thatch contain fourteen families and a menagerie of livestock. About half of the houses have corrugated tin roofs but all other building materials have come straight from the forest. They head to the far upper edge of the village, and stop.

Lia: Here is the house. You rest and I will make lunch.

He pauses.

Lia: And the toilet? Over there.

He waves vaguely at the undergrowth beyond the edge of the village. L looks for a latrine or outhouse building but sees nothing.

L: Where exactly?

Lia: Anywhere. In the forest. But don’t go too far.

L: Oh. Of course. Right. Because of the bombs?

Lia looks puzzled, then smiles.

Lia: No, the land here has been cleared. It is safe. There are no bombs.

They wonder what else is out there, but Lia doesn’t elaborate.

P1050551They enter their new home. Under a covered porch two small children sit on tiny stools around a fire in the middle of the earth floor. Nevin is five, but tiny, and his sister Ladah is two. L & D greet their mother, who is their host. She nods shyly at them.

L smiles at the children and waves.

L: Niao-jong!

Nevin stares solemnly at L, stands up, walks over to his sister and wallops her hard over the head. Ladah opens her mouth and howls. Their mother scoops Ladah into her lap, and scolds Nevin. Nevin howls too. L flees indoors to where D is unpacking.

D: Was that you? What did you do to them?

L: Nothing! I promise!

P1050542Their house has a spotlessly swept earth floor, split-bamboo walls and a palm thatch roof. It is cool and airy. A raised bamboo platform covers two sides. This is where they will sleep. L lies back. Despite the absence of a mattress it is surprisingly comfortable.  Through the paper-thin wall a cockerel crows loudly. It is roosting under the eaves of their hut.  Dangling from the ceiling they notice, to their surprise, a lightbulb.

Lia calls them for lunch. On a surface of banana leaves he has laid out cold pork & cauliflower, sticky rice, and a smoky aubergine dip. They are told to eat with their hands – picking up mouthfuls of pork and cauliflower, pinching sticky rice into balls and dipping it into the sauce. It is delicious. Once they have eaten their fill, the family tuck in to the rest.

L: There’s a lightbulb. So the village has electricity?

Lia: A little. Down in the valley is a waterfall which makes electricity. Enough for some of the people to have a light in the evening. You will see.

After lunch they are dispatched for a walk. Shal is an unsmiling teenager with a machete. He speaks only Hmong. They smile at him. He regards them blankly, then turns and walks off. They follow.   Three smaller boys, aged about ten, tag along for the ride, each wielding a balloon on a stick. One by one, along the way, as they swipe at the undergrowth, they pop their balloons. They grin, shrug and carry on. One of them grazes continually, munching fistfuls of sourleaf from the shrubs that he passes.

P1050558The views are glorious – wooded peaks, patchworks of upland meadows and a sea of cloud blanketing them from the rest of the world below. In the fold of a valley lies another little village, spreading down the slope like a landslip. The boys spot figures on the opposite hillside, as tiny as beetles, maybe 500 metres away as the crow flies. They call across and a long conversation ensues, phrases floating to and fro, bouncing from one hill to another, as natural as a phone call, with no need for technology.

On the way back the boys spot a small fallen tree, one end about a foot off the ground. They stand on it, and it moves. Shal joins the younger three, straddling the trunk, and the four of them bounce, helpless with laughter. D & L look on, laughing with them, enjoying their delight.

L: We’re a long way away from crisps and computer games.

***

Back at the village, Lia is killing a cockerel.

D: Oh dear, I hope that’s not the one that lives in our roof.

They leave him to it, and wander around the village. Everywhere there are children and dogs and chickens and pigs and piglets and goats and cows roaming free. Bamboo fences separate the village from the edge of the forest. Despite all the livestock, there are no flies, and almost no waste.

P1050596D: Well, for a start, with no shops there’s no packaging. Or carrier bags. That helps.

They watch Lia hurl a bowl of scraps out of a doorway. Instantly it is hoovered up by piglets and hens.

L: And there goes your food waste. But there’s no animal mess either. Or human for that matter. All these people. All this livestock. And yet it’s remarkably clean.

D eyes up the piglets, snuffling their way eagerly around the village and into the undergrowth beyond.

D: Pigs are omnivorous. Probably best not to think about it.

Children are gathering bundles of grass to make into brooms. Toddlers roam in and out of houses, singly or in groups, some clothed and others naked, clutching sticky rice cakes which they nibble on.

D & L smile and wave.

D: Mah-jong! I mean niao-jong!

The kids grin and wave back.

P1050599A woman is weaving palm leaves to make sections of roof. She laughs and blushes with pleasure as they admire her work. Another woman and her daughters return from the fields with baskets bulging with marrows.

L: Wow – beautiful!

D: And heavy.

The girls nod shyly as they pass.

At the edge of the village, they find the community’s only water source. A skilfully crafted bamboo aqueduct channels water from a mountain spring to the edge of the village in a constant flow, allowing people to wash, do laundry and gather water for their homes. They wander back through a whirl of children and puppies chasing a blue balloon.

P1050630 (2)On the hillside behind their hut, beyond the edge of the village, is a large flat clearing. From here, they have an awesome 180 degree panorama of peaks spread out at their feet and of the sun sinking behind the mountains, washing their own hilltop in gold. It is blissfully peaceful and utterly stunning. They stand there gawping and wearing out their camera. There is a chuckle.

Small child: Falang. Oh!

Another chuckle.

Smaller child: Falang. Oh!

Two little boys, aged maybe three or four, are standing on the other side of the clearing, laughing at them. Falang means “foreigner” in Lao, and obviously also in Hmong.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

She waves. They edge nearer, grinning and laughing. The smaller child is naked and holding a red balloon. Both are barefoot, oblivious to the sharp stony ground.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

They dart nearer. L reaches out, but they dart back. She folds her arms and they dart forward.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

P1050648 (4)They run circles around her, chanting and laughing. L laughs with them, whirling within their circle but keeping her distance, frightened of frightening them.

D: Whatever are you doing?

L: I don’t know. I’m terrified!

D: What of? They’re children.

L: Exactly!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

At dusk they return to their home, add extra layers of clothing, and join Lia around the fire under the porch. The whole village smells aromatically of woodsmoke. There is the soft chatter of conversations around cooking fires, the wail of an overtired child, and the sound of a hundred hens.

L: There are lots of cockerels, aren’t there? About thirty seven, I’d guess.

D: One less than earlier.

He nods at the fire, over which a plucked chicken is spread out flat and cooking. Lia rolls his eyes.

Lia: It’s the only reason I don’t like staying here. I can’t sleep. You will see. Three, four o’clock in the morning – they start! Then all the village wakes up, talking and making a noise. It’s terrible!

They watch the cockerels stalking around, bossing their hens. Nearby a young man is stroking and teasing and hand-feeding a white cockerel with a long tail.

D: What’s going on there? That one looks quite different.

Lia: A fighting rooster. He’s very special.

There is a loud crow from the eaves of their house.

L: Thank goodness. He’s still alive.

Lia: And that one, he’s special too. A hunting rooster.

A gaggle of little girls sidle up to L and stand beside her. They have solemn pretty faces and are dressed in traditional Lao wrap-around skirts, topped and tailed by western style tops and leggings. One has her little brother strapped to her back, legs dangling.P1050617

D: That’s sweet. They want to be your friend.

L: I know. What shall I do?

D: How should I know? Be nice.

L smiles at them. They stare seriously back at her. She gets out her camera and photographs a hen, pecking at their feet. She shows them the photo. They smile. She points the camera at them – takes a photo. Shows them. They giggle and point at the image, call their friends over and bossily arrange themselves into a line to be photographed again.

L: There are plenty of children here.

Lia: (sighing) Hmong people don’t understand birth control. The women have six or eight children. The man can have several wives. And they do not have to marry to be together. In the valleys some Lao Loum think badly about the Hmong because of this. The lowland Lao are very strict – no sex before marriage. Anyway. All these things make a lot of kids that need food and clothes.

L: Do they go to school?

Lia: Some. Now the track is here, it is easier. Until two years ago, the only way to the valley was the way we walked today. But now they can arrive at the main road in one hour, on a motorbike.

They have noticed that a few of the young men in the village have mopeds.

L: Do they go every day?

Lia: No – it’s too far. They stay at school for the week, from Sunday to Friday. But they have to bring their own food and uniform and books and pens and paper. It’s not easy.

L: We want to help. We brought some money. To help pay for the kids to go to school. Is that the right thing to do?

Lia: Money is good. Or clothes – they always need clothes and shoes. Not toys though – nothing plastic. The people here don’t understand about rubbish. Last week a visitor gave them balloons – you can see – the kids are very happy, but now there are are pieces of rubber all over the village.

P1050621 (2)They sit around the fire in the dark. Puppies and hens tiptoe close to the embers. Lia brings out supper. There is barbecued chicken, boiled marrow, chicken and marrow soup, and rice.

D: Do people eat meat every day here?

Lia: No. Only when the hunters bring animals. Mostly they eat rice. And vegetables.

L: But all this livestock? There are so many hens and pigs. And cows and goats.

Lia: Hmong people don’t eat these animals – they sell them. Except for the spirit sacrifices.

L:   The…..?

Lia: At a ceremony, they will kill an animal. The spirits take the blood, and after that, the people can eat the body.

By 8pm it is silent, and very dark. There is no moon, but a million stars glow brightly in the utter absence of light pollution. The village is in blackness, interiors lit only by cooking fires and half a dozen dim light bulbs, and outside the occasional bobbing of a torch at the edge of the forest – heading to the loo before bed.

D: It’s so peaceful. No parties?

Lia: (laughing) Hmong people are quiet people. They don’t listen to music, only their own traditional music, and they don’t drink alcohol. Not even lao-lao rice whisky.

On their bamboo platform, they find a mosquito tent has been set up, two quilts and two pillows. They snuggle down, and sleep soundly, aware only of their hipbones as they turn over.

***

D: Holy crap! What’s the time?

L: 3.47am.

The cockerels have started. All 37 of them. Including the one in their eaves.

P1050644 (2)

Beauty and the Bombs – Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

P1050307 (2)

D: What’s wrong?

D leans the bicycles up against a fence and joins L at the start of the footpath.

P1050374L: I’ve been reading the signs.

D: I know – it looks fab. “Great panorama”. “360 degree viewpoint”. Can’t wait!

L: No. The other signs. “Dangerous.” “Unexploded bombs still in this area”. “One of the most bombed areas in Laos.”

D: Oh. Those signs.

L: Yes.

D: Right.

L: Yes.

D: Well come on then! It also says “Don’t get off the path.” So we won’t. We’ll be fine! He sets cheerfully off between the bamboo-fenced vegetable plots, and is soon out of sight behind a clump of banana trees.

***

P1050371They arrive in Nong Khiaw the previous day, after a four hour minibus ride on quiet, mostly good roads sprinkled with a few potholes of the size that you drive into, and then out of again. The little village straddles the Nam Ou River and the scenery is so magnificent that they just want to choke and fall over.

L: It’s too much. I can’t cope. I can’t fit it all into my eyes!

They walk along the riverbank to find their hotel. They have decided to splash out on the best place in town, at a whopping USD$50/night, and have nervously paid in advance. At the Nong Khiaw Riverside they are given glasses of iced lemongrass & ginger tea, and a room key. L opens the door to their room.P1050289

L: Holy moly!

D: What? Is it awful?

L: it’s another basket. D’you think you can you bear it?

Their bungalow stands on stilts on the riverbank. The walls and ceiling are of woven leaf matting, and the floor is of wood. The room is stylishly decorated, has a four poster bed and smells sweetly of straw. A huge set of French doors fills one wall and leads to a wooden balcony looking over the river. Opposite, a mountain juts out of the water and straight up to touch the sky 1100 metres above.   It is awesomely beautiful.

P1050294D: I think I can bear it.

They spend the rest of the day on the balcony. D studies the guidebook while L gawps and takes photos of the view.

D: What shall we do?

L: (not listening) Astonishing. Smile please.

D: We could kayak.

L: (not listening) So gorgeous. Actually, don’t smile.

D: Or go for a bike ride.

L: (not listening) Just fantastic.   Maybe you look better from the back.

D: Or a walk.

L: (not listening) Extraordinary. Or not in the photo at all.

***

P1050313The narrow path climbs steeply through the forest, ducking under madly spiralling vines. They manage not to step on any bombs. At the top, they are in thick cloud, swirling around them. There is nothing whatsoever to see.

L: Oh no.

D: Just wait.

L: All this way up….

D: Just wait.

They wait, resting in the bamboo shelter perched on top of the mountain.

D: About the bombs.

L: Yes.

D: You’ve been Googling.

L: I have.

D: So who were Laos at war with when the bombs were dropped?

L: Nobody really. It was during the Vietnam War, in which officially Laos was neutral.

P1050320D: Officially?

L: Well, some of them were helping out a bit.

D: Who were they helping?

L: The CIA. Is the cloud clearing yet?

D: What? No. Did you say CIA?

L: Yup. Hold on a minute. What d’you know about the Vietnam War?

D: Blimey. In a nutshell? Here goes. Vietnam. Long thin country, running north to south. Line across the middle. North of the line is North Vietnam, which is communist. South of the line is South Vietnam which is not communist and is supported by the US. North Vietnam want to take South Vietnam and turn it communist. The US want very badly to stop them so that communism doesn’t spread.

L: Right. So the communist North Vietnamese had a network of vital supply routes through the jungle known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To move their equipment and soldiers down south to fight the Americans and South Vietnamese.

D: I’ve heard of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

L: Well, a lot of the Trail was actually over the border, in Laos, and not in Vietnam at all. The US was keen to shut it down, and they asked Laos for help. So local people living in the mountains near the border were trained up by the CIA to help the Americans disrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, rescue any US airmen shot down, and protect an important radar base.

P1050422D: OK. But who dropped all the bombs on Laos?

L: The Americans. Any gaps in the cloud?

D: Not yet. What d’you mean, the Americans? You’ve just said Laos was helping them!

L: I know, but the US were freaking out about the potential spread of communism. They did everything they could to stop it, including bombing the hell out of both the Ho Chi Minh Trail and anywhere else in Laos they thought might have a communist in it. It was supposed to be a secret, because of Laos being a neutral country. It’s known as the Secret War.

D: When was this?

L: 1964-73. The US dropped over 2 million tonnes of bombs. Equivalent to a planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history.

D: God Almighty! Or Buddha.

L: Quite.

D: It must have been the world’s worst kept secret. There are gaps though.

L: In my facts?

D: Undoubtedly. But also in the cloud.

P1050339The sun is melting the white layers into wisps to reveal the vivid blue sky behind.   The signs were right – they have 360 degree views of the most bombed, and surely one of the most beautiful, countries in the world. There is space all around them, into which they feel they could fly. On every horizon lush green mountain ridges jut and soar, cut through by fertile valleys, rice paddies, and the lazy curves of the coffee-coloured Nam Ou River, laid out below their feet.

L tries to speak, but nothing comes out.

L: I’ve got no superlatives left. I used them all up yesterday.

D doesn’t need words. Just looking is making his soul sing.

***

On the way back down they are equally careful not to step off the path.P1050372

L: Apparently 30% of the bombs didn’t explode. That’s 80 million bombs. Even now people get killed by them every year. And it stops them being able to farm their land safely. Something like 25% of villages in Laos are still unsafe.

D: Are they being cleared up?

L: Yes, but it’s the most unimaginably enormous task. The US have spent over $100 million in Laos over the last 20 years on unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance, and there are a bunch of agencies and local teams out here doing nothing else, but it barely scratches the surface. Hold on, I’ve got a quote somewhere.

She stops, and taps her phone.

L: Here. So, Obama has just pledged another $90 million for UXO clearance over the next 3 years.  But even that’s not nearly enough. A Mines Advisory Group director reacted to the news by saying: “Before the President’s announcement I feared that the UXO operation in Laos would take hundreds of years. Now I am optimistic this can be reduced to decades.”

D: Decades.

L: Decades.

***

They cycle on out into the countryside.

L: You find it. I’ll tell you about it.

D stops on a corner and wheels his bike onto the gravel verge.

P1050417D: We’re here. Tham Pha Thok.

L: Where? I can’t see it.

D: I think that’s sort of the point.

He leads the way across a stream and through a meadow, heading straight for a rocky mountain rising sheer out of the flat valley.

D: There.

L: No. Can’t see a thing.

D: You’re not looking at it properly.

They are approached by three small boys, who take charge. In impressive English they introduce themselves as Lee, Bia and Guan and announce that they are 10 years old. Lee has a head torch. He leads the way up a steep flight of stairs and into a large cave, 30 metres above the ground. It consists of a wide gallery stretching back several hundred metres, with smaller caverns opening off it, several of them striped with natural light chinking in from fissures in the cliff-side.

P1050393L: This was lived in by villagers, and also by a lot of the provincial government, during all those years of bombing. You can almost imagine it, can’t you? It’s a good safe spot – completely invisible from the outside, and close to a stream.

The boys head deeper in and illuminate various pitch-black room-sized dug-outs to the sides. One area is labelled “Governor”, and another “Provisional Government Chairman”.

D: Tricky place to have an office.

Lee, Bia and Guan scamper back down the steps, but their tour isn’t over. They are beckoned around the foot of the cliff on a tiny overgrown path. They reach the entrance to another, much smaller cave, and clamber between boulders, squeezing through a crack in the rocks.   They look around the small space.P1050410

L: Blimey. This was where the region’s main bank was based. For six years!

Before they leave, D takes on the role of banker, and reaches into his wallet to pay the diminutive guides. He pulls out a note and starts to hand it over. The boys’ eyes light up.

D: Hang on, that’s got too many noughts on it!

It disappears swiftly back into his wallet, and is replaced by three more, each with one less zero. One for each boy. They stare at him solemnly for quite some time, waiting for the larger note to reappear. It doesn’t. They shrug their shoulders and dart away down the footpath into the woods.

***

The village school is putting on a Cultural Evening. They cycle there at dusk, and are earnestly led around the back of the school building to a stage area by several boys in traditional dress. Half a dozen performances are introduced by two tiny people, one girl and one boy. They take turns. One reads a long introduction in Lao from the laminated sheet they are clutching. The other then frowns and studies the sheet carefully before announcing in English “And now a song. Please enjoy.” It seems that whatever the Lao description of the different performances might be, the English translation is the same. Each time, the foreign audience wait eagerly to be told what is coming. “And now a song. Please enjoy.”P1050501

The performances are in fact dances, not songs.   The children are wearing traditional clothing representing different ethnic groups.   Sometimes a group of girls will dance, and sometimes they dance in boy-girl pairs, which makes them all giggle and blush. Their bare feet pat softly on the floor and they hold themselves gracefully upright. Most of the dancing is done by their hands, twisting at the wrist, palm up, palm down. It is beautifully elegant, dignified and poised.

***

The Nam Ou River and surrounding scenery is even more spectacular from a kayak. The water is smooth and slow-flowing. Their guide is called Big. As they paddle gently down the river, side by side, he tells them he used to be a monk.P1050487

L: Gosh – how long for?

Big: 6 years. From 12 to 18. They put me through secondary school. It’s a good education. But it’s not a life for me.

L: No?

Big: No. One day I met a friend in the street. He was wearing a fine suit. So I stopped being a monk.

L: Because of the suit?

Big: Of course! So that I too could enjoy clothes and music and food and girls.  At college.

He tells us that his family come from a hill village four hours from here.

Big: It is very remote. My village only got electricity last year.

He points towards the sandy shore. Vegetables grow in neat rows on the banks and several small boats are moored up. Glimpsed through the trees there are houses with woven-leaf walls and palm-thatch roofs. Big explains aspects of village life.

P1050443Big: See? This village too, has got electricity now. Just last year. Like my village.

Big: The firewood there stacked up. Used for cooking.

Big: Rice mats. All the rice is laid out to dry in the sun. Before the husks come off.

Big: They keep bees, for honey. In those hollowed out tree trunks on the side of that house. See?

Big: The water point. All the village get their water from this place. For washing, for laundry, for cooking, for drinking.

L: And for toilets?

Big laughs.

Big: No. For that they have the forest.

They drift on downstream into the setting sun. Water buffalo bask on the banks and wallow in the shallows. A family drive their cattle and pigs to down to the shore to drink in the cool of the late afternoon. Three teenage girls run down a beach and into the water, whooping and splashing, ducking like dolphins, fully clothed. The sun drops lower. The river glitters silver. The mountains line up in layers, from greys to blues to black.

P1050450

 

Listening to the Rice Grow, Luang Prabang, Laos

P1040995

L: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice, and the Lao listen to it grow.” According to a Frenchman. According to the guide book.

D: Beautiful. How does that answer my question?

L: You asked what Laos is like. That’s your answer. It’s really laid back. Avoiding stress is a national past-time.

D looks out of the plane window at the unending ridges of forested mountains below, ribboned with occasional silvery rivers and orange dirt tracks.

D: it’s all so empty. Where are all the houses and towns and things?

L: There aren’t very many. It’s about the same size as the UK but only has 10% of the people.

D ponders this.

D: Wait a minute. What have the French got to do with it?

L: They were in charge for a bit. They went home in the 1950s, leaving behind some nice buildings and the recipe for a decent baguette.

***

Their arrival at Luang Prabang airport is, predictably, stress free. They drift calmly through the visa queue and out to an efficient booth organising taxis at reasonable prices. D spots a cashpoint in the small terminal building. He returns, looking very pleased with himself.

D: (whispering) I’m a millionaire!

P1040930Twenty minutes later, they are stepping out of their flip-flops at the foot of the stairs leading to the Mekong Charm Guesthouse.   They are welcomed warmly with watermelon juice, then led barefoot across squeaky varnished wood flooring to their first-floor room – a gleaming dark-wood box with windows on two sides and a balcony.

L: It’s charming! And we can see the Mekong!

D: Don’t sound so surprised. Surely the clue’s in the name.

L: Of course, but you never know how much artistic licence has been sprinkled on a name.

P1040911They are here for 4 nights and love everything about it. The bed is huge and comfortable, the room so eccentrically dark they find clothes from the wardrobe with a torch, and the shower, with luxury shower head, tremendous pressure and masses of hot water, is designed to wash the entire bathroom floor before draining in the opposite corner, under the sink.

They sit on their balcony in the golden light of the afternoon sun with cans of Beer Lao. The temperature is perfect, somewhere in the mid 20s. Just across the road, beyond the palm trees, the Mekong River slips by silently, fast-moving and coffee-coloured.

L: (tapping her phone) It’s one of the great rivers of the world. 12th largest, it says here. Feeds millions of people, not just in Laos but from China to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

D: Must be quite useful for transportation too, especially here where the roads are famously bad. Let’s do a boat trip.

They watch a long narrow passenger boat careening sideways down the river, battling the current as it struggles to turn around.

L: (doubtfully) Let’s.

***

P1040988Luang Prabang is seriously low key. There are no high rise buildings – from above, the French colonial architecture seems to just melt back into the surrounding jungle. There are lots of tourists, of the quiet, earnest sort.

L: I keep thinking I recognise people. They all look as though they could be friends of our parents.

D: I know just what you mean.

Much of the town is stretched along a tongue of land between two rivers – the Mekong on one side and the smaller Nam Khan on the other. After dark, the riverside streets are peaceful and empty of vehicles. This is when Sisavangvong Road comes gently to life. P1040992Running down the centre of the tongue, it has restaurants and shops and every evening a huge outdoor market selling brightly coloured textiles, crafts and good quality souvenirs. Further on there is street food – aromatic grilled meats seasoned with lemongrass, freshly pressed fruit juices and smoothies, and melt-in-the-mouth coconut pancakes served in little boats of banana-leaves. People stroll, chat, shop and eat. There is no traffic and no loud music.

***

D: Oh God. More wats?

L: Oh Buddha.

D: What?

L: Oh Buddha. Not God.

D: Whatever.

L: One wat.

D: One what?

L: One wat. We’ll just visit one wat. You’ll love it.

They set off, watching a group of orange-robed monks pass by. They are a common sight in the streets of Luang Prabang.

D: Don’t touch one.

L: Don’t be weird! I wasn’t going to touch one!

D: I’m just saying. Don’t. it’s not allowed.

L: People aren’t allowed to touch monks?

D: Women. Women aren’t allowed to touch monks.

L: Right. I’ll bear that in mind. Thanks for that. Really.

D: They collect alms at dawn. People give them rice and vegetables. Not money. It’s how they survive. I saw them on my run this morning. Look though – some of them are just kids.

L: Most Lao boys become a Buddhist monk for a time, I think. Often it’s the only affordable way for them to get a decent education. Of course, even in the monasteries the government makes sure everything’s taught to proper Marxist principles.  P1050075

D: What?

L: It’s communist. Laos, I mean.

D: It doesn’t feel very communist, does it?

L: I don’t know what communist should feel like. But it’s been that way since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Same time as Cambodia and Vietnam. I’ve just been reading about it. I’m a political encyclopaedia. Ask me anything. But you’d better be quick – I’ll have forgotten it all again by tomorrow.

D: Is communism working here?

L: I gather they’ve eased up a lot since the beginning. To start with, to get everything under control, they quickly restricted freedom of speech and group gatherings and nationalised the economy. People who weren’t on board were sent to “re-education camps” where conditions were really hard. Lots of people who didn’t want to live under communist rule fled the country – about 10% of the population in total. Including pretty much all of the educated classes.

D: If there was no-one left with an education, wasn’t that a bit of a setback for the country’s development?

L: Yes. And the sums didn’t add up. So 4 years later, people were allowed to start farming their own land again, instead of just working for government cooperatives. And private enterprise was permitted.

P1050101D: Did things pick up?

L: Not enough. But in the mid 80s they took a leaf out of China’s book, opening up the economy to the rest of the world, but still keeping a tight hold on political power.

D: So still a one party dictatorship?

L: Yes, but now with inward foreign investment. China has come in and built roads, dams, and plantations to grow food and timber to take home. But Laos is still really poor. Something like three quarters of the population are subsistence farmers surviving on about $2 a day. The country’s still heavily dependent on foreign aid.

***

Wat Xieng Thong has beautiful tiered roofs sweeping close to the ground, and gigantic green-jewelled glass lotus buds each side of the entrance steps. They walk straight past.

L: We’ll start with the garage.

They stop in front of a smaller temple clad entirely in gold. Elaborate decorations and scenes are worked into the façade. They shade their eyes, dazzled by the glare of the sun bouncing off the glittering surface.

L: Behold. The garage.

Inside it is just as ornate. The red walls are covered in technicolour mirror-shard mosaics, and a platoon of slender Buddhas stand to attention at the back of the room. L is entranced.

P1040951D: Never mind all that. What on earth is this?

The rest of the temple is filled with a golden chariot. Seven golden nagas rear up, waving bright red tongues. Behind them on the carriage are several towering golden urns.

L: They’re funeral urns. For Lao royalty.

D: Are there any?

L: Any what?

D: Any royalty.

L: Not any more. Royalty and communism aren’t much of a natural match.

D: No. I see that.

L: When the Marxist government took over in ’75, they arrested the royal family.

D: Oh.

L: But then they were worried that the royals would escape from house arrest and lead a resistance.

D: Right.

L: So the king, queen and crown prince were sent off to re-education camps where they worked in the fields. Until they eventually died. Probably of malnutrition or malaria. Nobody much knows.

D: That seems like an ignominious end to an era.

L: I don’t know what that means. But probably.

D: How long had there been an established Lao royal family – until then?

L:   650 years.

P1040968They wander through the grounds. Several of the smaller temples, and the rear wall of the main temple, are decorated with more mosaic scenes of vivid coloured glass.   There are armies and elephants, temples and trees, owls and peacocks. The designs are both simple and complex and all of them beautiful.

The following day they find more of these stunning coloured glass mosaics in the public rooms of the Royal Palace, in stark contrast to the adjoining austere private quarters of the last royal family, also on display, and in use until their arrest.

***

They do the done thing. Phu Si is a stand-alone hummock a hundred metres high, right in the middle of town. It’s a must at sunset. They start in good time, climbing the 329 steps to the top. Plenty of others have the same idea. Women are selling tiny birds in tiny cages – one bird to a cage.

L: Poor things. To eat?

D: To set free at the top.

On the summit is a small temple and a concrete platform from which to admire the views. And approximately 500 people. It is so crammed that they literally cannot move. A forest of selfie-sticks sprouts above the crowd. Of all those here for the sunset, 90% cannot see a thing.

D: Bloody hell! Retreat! Retreat!

He squeezes a sweaty path through to the steps on the other side of the platform, and they make their escape back down. During the descent they pass several hundred more people going up.

P1050166There is still time. A rickety bamboo footbridge bridge crosses the river from the tip of the town’s tongue to the overgrown bank beyond. This is the mouth of the Nam Khan, where it joins the mighty Mekong. On the far side there is no-one, apart from a woman sitting on a bamboo platform. Beside her, miraculously, is a cool-box.

D: Sabaidee. Two Beer Lao please.

They take the cans to the smooth rocks jutting out into the mouth of the river. Downstream the evening sun is glinting off the river. On the spit of sand opposite, kids skim stones and a couple are posing for wedding photos. Half a dozen long narrow passenger boats are dawdling out on the Mekong, full of camera-poised passengers, waiting for sunset.  The water turns golden, the land turns black. It couldn’t be any more lovely.

***

At breakfast, D gets up and crosses the room to get more coffee.

They are told that the fresh pineapple juice is off the menu. There has been a power cut.

D starts looking uncomfortable. Eventually he speaks.

D: (whispering) I think it was me.

L: What was you?

D: (whispering) Shush! Me that broke the electricity.

L: How was it you?

D: (whispering) I lifted the lid on the coffee machine.

***

P1050019They find a boatman to take them across the Mekong and upstream a little way. The sloping river banks are neatly planted with lush green vegetable gardens.

D: All these plots are seasonal. In a few months’ time they’ll be underwater.

L: Does the river level really change that much?

D: Apparently it can rise 10 metres or more during the rainy season. And when it falls again, it leaves behind this amazingly rich silt. Great for growing stuff.

The boatman picks a cautious route to the far shore, avoiding the constantly shifting mudbanks. They disembark and climb to the top of a flight of rough steps.

D: You said one!

L: I said one what?

D: Precisely.

L: One what?

D: Yes, one wat. Which we saw yesterday. This is another one.

L: This one’s only tiny. It hardly counts. It’s got pictures in.

P1050031In a clearing is a garden, pretty with bougainvillea, in which stands a small plain temple and a couple of cottages. Orange robes hang drying from windowsills. Under a tree, two young monks are playing with a puppy. Inside the temple they find the uneven walls painted with dramatic scenes: a great gale, a fierce battle, and a desperate shipwreck complete with sharks.

As they are leaving, two small children approach, carrying torches. They lead the way along a track in the woods, up a steep flight of stone steps, and into a cave.   Here they helpfully wave their torches at a Buddha shrine, a stalactite, and what might or might not be a bat. D duly thanks them and pays them for their guiding service. They take the money and look at him, disappointed. L adds a boiled sweet each to their takings and they grin happily and scamper off.

Further along the woodland trail they come across another long flight of steps. At the top two crumbling stupas pierce the skyline, and beyond is another rural temple, a garden, a cottage, and wonderful views of the Mekong below. Monks are busy building something – an extension perhaps, guided by a skeletally thin old man. A middle-aged man sits in front of the temple speaking to a tourist seeking words of wisdom.

Tourist: So, tell me, how long have you been a monk?

Monk: Ten days. I’m just taking a few weeks away from my business.

P1050072The trail becomes wider and turns concrete as they enter the village of Ban Xieng Maen. Bamboo, wood and palm leaf dwellings line the track, single rooms with corrugated iron roofs and satellite dishes. Chickens scratch in the dust, dogs roam busily and cheerful children wave in greeting.

L: (waving) Sabaidee!

Children: Sabaidee! Hello falang!

The village has a smart well-funded temple, several small shops and, at the far end, where the road again widens but returns to beaten earth, a food market. Fruit and vegetables are displayed under ramshackle shelters, and dishes are being freshly cooked on barbecues and in large cauldrons.

P1050078The road descends to the river where a ferry is arriving. Two tuk-tuk drivers are waiting for customers, dozing in hammocks slung in the back. The rusty twin-hulled barge reaches the shore. It has ramps protruding each side like wings.  An SUV and cluster of mopeds rattle over the ramp and off, and another cluster rattle on. Garden chairs and benches are set around the edges and at each prow is a small shrine, with a food offering wrapped in banana leaves and marigolds.

D: Stop staring! He’s half your age!

L can’t take her eyes off the skipper.

L: It’s not him. It’s his hat. He’s got the most beautiful hat.

D: I’m not looking. We can’t both stare. You stop looking so that I can. We’ll take it in turns.

D takes a look at the young man in a burgundy woollen hat with knitted brim and large sequinned flower.

D: OK, you’re right. It is a splendid hat.

***

Ock Pop Tok produces some of Laos’s most beautiful silk-woven textiles. Their Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang is also a perfect spot for lunch by the river. Within the grounds they run weaving courses and explain the process from start to finish.

P1050107L: Did you know the silkworm makes a cocoon from one continuous line of silk thread, so it can turn itself into a moth?

D: I did not.

L: Or that the silk gets boiled to make it soft?

D: Nope.

L: Or that the most amazingly vivid colours can be made with natural dyes using stuff like leaves, bark, roots, rocks and rusty nails?

D: Not even.

L: Or that indigo dye is sort of alive – with bacteria I think – and you need to put chillis on the lid to keep the spirits from coming and spoiling it?

D: I need my lunch now.

***

Dinner at Tamarind Restaurant, Luang Prabang:

  • Dried bamboo nibbles
  • Lao-lao rice whisky flavoured with tamarind, honey and lime
  • Pumpkin and mushroom soup with mint and lemongrass
  • Lao herby sausages
  • Dried crispy buffalo skin
  • Dried crispy river weed with sesame seeds
  • Sticky rice to roll into little balls in your fingers and dip into sauces of tomato, chilli and smoked aubergineP1050180
  • Stir fried green pumpkin
  • Chicken wrapped in lemongrass with peanut sauce
  • Fish wrapped in banana leaf, stewed with herbs and chilli
  • Sweet purple sticky rice with tamarind sauce and fresh coconut shavings
  • “Cat poo” cookies – sweet, deep fried and caramelised
  • Lao coffee, black with layer of sweet condensed milk at the bottom of the glass
  • Location by Riverbank
  • Sound-track by Frogs
  • Lighting by Moon

Enough said.

P1050151

Two Mountains – Northern Thailand

P1040628

D&L have a craving. They need to get high.

At 2565 metres, Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest mountain, and has a road leading right to the top. Its wooded flanks form a National Park with some impressive waterfalls and good swimming spots along the way. P1040634Near the summit are a pair of modern temples set amongst immaculately tended gardens and dedicated to the King and Queen. It is popular with locals, and on a sunny Saturday there are lots of visitors, flocking here from Chiang Mai to enjoy the views and the cool air. At the top it is a mere 17 degrees, and Thais are bundled up in thick jackets, scarves and hats.

They follow a concrete path a short distance from the car park to a large wooden sign proclaiming that they have arrived at the Highest Spot in Thailand.P1040637

L: Quick, take a photo.

D: This is all wrong. I’m not happy.

L: What’s the matter?

D:  We’re not properly at the top.   The slope carries on rising behind the sign. And the path goes up two steps just over there!

He stomps off, unconvinced, and stops 50 metres further on, at a wooden walkway from which the ground drops slightly in all directions. He nods seriously, satisfied.

D: THIS is the Highest Spot in Thailand. Take a photo.

***

P1040706They drive north, to Chiang Dao, searching for a “proper” mountain. One without a car park on top. Chiang Dao’s mountain, Doi Luang, is rocky and steep with great scenery and varied vegetation. At 2175 metres it is Thailand’s third highest summit, and apparently the country’s best mountain hike. Most people do it in two days, camping for a night just below the summit. But there is only a small weather window – one day of sunshine – before the rains promise to return.

L: Can we really do it all in one day?

D: 1100 metres up, and the same down again. 15 kilometres. Piece of cake. As long as we start early.

L: But I’ve hardly done more than climb the stairs in a year. What if I don’t make it?

D: You’ll make it.

L: You can’t just leave me behind on the mountain. There are tigers. And cobras.

D: Really, you’ll make it.

They arrive in the village late afternoon, and head to the park office to get their permits. They find the office open, and walk in.

Woman: We’re closed.

D: But can we just….

Woman: We’re closed. Come back tomorrow. 8 o’clock.

L: (muttering) So much for starting early. I’ll never make it. We’ll be benighted. With the tigers.

D: Don’t worry, I know where the walk starts. We’ll take a quick look this evening and see if we can get in on our own. If so, we can start really early tomorrow.

They drive to the edge of the village. From here a small road winds up to a pass at 1100 metres. The walk starts from the pass, while the road continues down into the next valley and beyond, towards the Myanmar border.   They are stopped by a park guard at a road barrier. Local through traffic is waved on, tourists heading up the mountain are not.

Guard: Where are you going?

D: (who can’t tell lies) Just…..on…..

The guard takes a close look at them. They are clearly going up and not passing through.

Guard: It’s closed.

D: But the road….?

Guard: Go back to the park office. Tomorrow 8 o’clock.

L: (muttering)   Benighted. With the cobras.

***

P1040711They return to their room, appropriately known as The Nest. Their little bamboo cabin is tucked into the undergrowth at the far corner of a lush garden. It is charming and smells of damp straw.

D: We’re sleeping in a basket.

As darkness falls, the crickets start up, and the soaring outline of the mountain stands silhouetted against an indigo sky. It is very peaceful and utterly beautiful. They head to the Nest’s excellent restaurant for dinner and order Thai red curry.

Waitress: Mild, farang (foreigner), or hot?

The couple behind them have just confidently ordered a farang-strength dish but they err on the side of caution and opt for mild. It arrives. They tuck in. It is delicious. But sweat beads on their foreheads. Chilli sears their mouths and throats. Their noses start to run.

D: My eyes! Even my eyes are burning.

***

The following morning at the park office they spot another couple of about their age. They have a day pack. The woman is wearing sandals.

D: Ha ha! She can’t be walking up the mountain in those!

L: Don’t be silly. She’ll change in a minute.

While L fills in a form, D practices his social skills.

D: Ha ha! Great walking shoes!

The woman smiles at him frostily and continues her conversation in Dutch.

They explain to the park official that they want to do the walk in one day.

D: And we don’t need the transport up to the pass. We have our own car.

Official: You must have the transport.

D: And we don’t need a guide.

Official: You must have a guide.

Everyone stands there, looking a bit cross. The Dutch couple look at their watches. They already have their paperwork, having booked and paid the day before.

Official: You can go with them. They have a guide.

It is clear that no-one is delighted by this arrangement. The Dutch pair are not expecting to join other people. However what they all have in common is that they want to get started. D quickly gives them half of the guide and transport fees and everyone cheers up.

L: I expect they’re worried about being stranded up there after dark too. With the tigers and the cobras.

D: I’m sure they are.

Chai arrives and introduces himself as their guide. He bundles the four of them into the open back of an SUV and they head off up to the pass. The woman is still wearing sandals, the thin straps decorated with little sparkly studs. She sees L staring.

Woman: (defensively) They’re walking sandals.

At the pass, L & D carefully adjust their telescopic walking poles. Chai offers a bamboo stick to the other two, and sets off at a quick march. Louie and Sandals charge after him. To her dismay, despite her sensible footwear, L can hardly keep up.   Fortunately they soon reach a long, steep, muddy climb, and Sandals adjusts her speed.P1040721

Sandals: I’m sorry I’m so slow.

She picks her way sure-footedly up the incline in her crisp cream chinos, golden drop earrings swinging.

L: (red faced and puffing) Thank goodness – I can’t walk any faster!

A kilometre or so later, the steep mud gives way to a lush valley undulating gently upwards, with thickly forested slopes and rocky cliffs rising to each side.   They pass through swathes of elephant grass towering over their heads, an abandoned banana grove, a forest of giant bamboo, patches of jungle, clearings and around great moss-covered limestone boulders. They feel as though they have been shrunk to the size of insects as they make their way through the ever-changing super-sized scenery.

They are the first hikers heading up that day, ahead of any others, but are soon overtaken by porters skipping up the mountain in flip-flops, bent double under enormous weights of drinking water and food for those planning to camp. They encounter 30-40 hikers coming down, in dribs and drabs, all of them young Thais, and none accompanied by guides.

Chai is also wearing flip-flops.

Chai: Easier than shoes.

L: Yes, but you’re a mountain man!

Chai: Yes – a mountain man!   But only sometimes.

P1040731As his wiry frame treads nimbly up the uneven path he tells them that he only guides hikes when he can be spared from his father’s farm. The two of them work the land entirely by hand, except for ploughing, producing 5 crops a year – 2 of rice and 3 of carrots and cauliflower. They sell their produce not only locally but also in Chiang Mai and sometimes even in Bangkok.

L: So, really, you’re a farmer.

Chai: (scowling) No, no, I don’t like farming.

L: Oh.

Chai spreads his arms wide and grins hugely.

Chai: I’m a fisherman! Freedom!

He explains that his real love is line-fishing and the sea. During the hot season, he heads down to Krabi where he has a traditional longtail boat, and goes to sea alone for several days at a time. He says he once caught a 72kg fish which he sold for 60,000 bhat. L works it out. GBP £1,500 goes a long way in this part of the world.

Below the summit they arrive at a sloping open area of tall coarse grass, where tents have been pitched for the season on the flattest patches across the hillside. They stop for lunch and Chai unrolls a bamboo mat for them all to sit on. They gratefully take off their shoes and dig out their packaged snacks while Chai unwraps slices of black pudding, and tasty-looking pieces of cooked chicken, pork and beef, which he scoops up in lettuce leaves and eats with his fingers. L frets silently because Sandals is sitting with her bare feet, which are now understandably pretty grubby, pointing at Chai and his lunch. L has read that this is disrespectful in Thai culture and checks that her own, and D’s, feet are suitably positioned not to cause offence. She fidgets and tries to share her concerns with D, telepathically, with the aid of facial expressions and blinking.

L: ……!

D:……?

L:……..!!!

D:…….? Have you got hiccups? Here. Drink some water.

L:……..!

Chai seems to take no notice and munches happily.

After lunch, there is a final half hour to the top – a steep rocky scramble. Louie gets summit fever and charges ahead. Eventually they join him.P1040763

Louie: Great, isn’t it?

The top is enveloped in cloud.

D: Great!

Sandals: Super!

L: (muttering) Why are we all pretending? We’ve struggled all the way up here and can’t see a thing!

D: (muttering) Just smile. Don’t spoil it. Be nice.

Sandals: And we are so lucky to have the place to ourselves!

L: (muttering) Hardly surprising – there’s nothing….oww!

D has inadvertently stepped on her foot. And apparently not noticed. He remains standing on it. Quite firmly.

They stay up there for half an hour or so, Chai dozing, three of them relaxing and chatting, and L darting from one side of the summit to the other, trying in vain to capture brief tantalising glimpses of long reaching views and valleys far below, as the cloud around them swirls and shifts.P1040764

On their descent, they pass clumps of cheerful Thai youth coming up to camp overnight. Then they come across a Thai boy aged about 20, sitting on a rock, all alone, with one bare bandaged foot and a pale face tense with pain. Chai stops to speak to him. They learn that he has re-twisted an existing injury and that his friends have all carried on up to the camp.

He begins to weep silently. He has however had a fortunate encounter. Louie is a physiotherapist and crouches down to examine the foot. D is carrying a first aid kit – undoubtedly the only one on the mountain – and dispenses an elastic bandage and anti-inflammatory painkillers. Louie gently and expertly bandages the foot. They all inspect his handiwork, and watch as the toes turn blue.

L: Err…. is that normal?

Louie speaks firmly to the boy.

Louie: It’s only for walking. When you get up to the camp, take all the bandages off and elevate your foot. And rest.

They reluctantly leave him to hobble painfully upwards, while they head on down. L is furious.

L: Well, it’s clear that only farangs are made to pay for a guide for this walk. I don’t care about that. I’m glad we’ve got a guide. But seeing as that poor boy doesn’t have one, I can’t believe his friends left him there, all on his own!

D: You’ve gone all shouty. And squeaky.

L: Sorry.

Chai shrugs his shoulders dismissively.

Chai: Bangkok. They come from Bangkok. That’s what they’re like.

He tells them he was once in Bangkok, and hungry, with only 25 bhat (GBP £0.70) in his pocket. All the street meals cost 30 bhat. He asked time and again at the food stalls if he could buy a meal for 25 bhat – a smaller portion, or without the meat perhaps, but was turned away.

Chai: No! They all said no. In Chiang Mai, if you are hungry or others are hungry, you share food and make new friends!P1040774

The last kilometre back down the steep slippery mud slope is hard work and very slow. Sandals skids and sits down. D does the same. Louie gets base fever and strides ahead. They find him lounging in the back of the SUV, dreaming of beer. On the drive home, all congratulations go to Sandals and her sandals, for a remarkable achievement. She looks quietly pleased and admits she’s probably walked quite far enough for one day.

***

The following morning the rain sets in before breakfast. The mountain disappears into cloud and curtains of water pour off the roof of their little basket cabin. They snuggle down in bed, grateful not to be in a tent up the hill.

Deep inside the mountain, and accessed from the village, they visit Chiang Dao Cave. Inside it is warm and dry.   A series of Buddha shrines mark their progress as they wander through the tunnels. Branching off the lit route are numerous dark passages. There are signs warning people not to explore on their own in case they never make it back out. D is tempted. L is not.

Sitting next to a golden Buddha they come across a tiny woman clutching a gas lantern. With hand signals she offers to guide them, and gestures into an ominous-looking black tunnel. D is keen. L is not. P1040804She lights the lamp and dives into the dark. They follow the glow of the lantern into a series of huge caverns and past weird-shaped rock formations, punctuated with her little cries of “slippery!” and “watch your head!”. Every cavern seemingly has multiple tunnels leading to and from it. It’s a real maze. They come to a halt and she waves her lantern at a small hole in the wall, less than a metre square. She smiles. L smiles back and shares the joke, agreeing.

L: Ha ha! No – I don’t think we want to go through there!

D: Actually, I think we’re going through there.

L: Oh.

The tiny guide is half D’s size, tucks herself neatly into the hole and disappears out of sight. With the lantern. D & L stand in the cavern which is now getting rather dark.

L: Crap! Well, follow her then! Or we’ll never find our way out. We’ll just stumble around in the dark till we die.

D: But I’m not even sure I’ll fit. Here – take the day pack.

He passes the rucksack to L and squeezes into the hole. L follows, hot on his heels. They wriggle through several tight spaces, folding themselves double and sideways, until they are reunited with the lantern and its owner in a larger open cavern, grinning from ear to ear from their mini-adventure. The journey continues through several more caverns and down a steep set of steps before rejoining an electric-lit tunnel, where they are free to wander once more on their own. They discover further shrines and admire stalactites lit in pink and blue.

L: That’s better. I think I like my caves nicely lit in multi-colours.

D: How can you say that! Dark is best.

They pass more black apertures and more signs warning of the dire dangers of exploring the unlit tunnels independently. L points at a dark hole in the wall, the size of dustbin-lid.

L: Be my guest. I’ll just wait here. No really. Please. Off you go. I don’t mind. Follow your heart. Dark is best.

D: Thanks. Maybe tomorrow. Shut up.

P1040743

Exploring Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

p1040526-chiang-mai

The guidebook describes Chiang Mai as “a country retreat”, “blissfully calm and laid-back”, “a place to relax after the chaos of Bangkok”, and a “sleepy country town”. D & L are therefore startled to   find the historic centre bustling with tourists and tourist restaurants and tourist services and cars and taxis and motorbikes. It is busier, noisier and scruffier than the languid idyll they had imagined.

As they settle in for a few days, so does a wet weather front. They buy umbrellas and hear that they are better off where they are in the north, while southern Thailand is beset by floods. They explore using a map of the town, its idiosyncratic lack of detail and scale keeping them guessing, paddling down quiet alleys they might otherwise have ignored.

***

In the evening it is raining so they don’t go far. On the first corner they find an empty table at Henry’s Restaurant. It’s not mentioned on any recommended restaurant lists they’ve seen. It has half a dozen tables and is artfully decorated with Buddhas and driftwood and sequined cushions. The table bases have ancient sewing machine pedals. They are approached by a woman in a floor length leopard-print dress. She is possibly 4 months pregnant. She looks crossly at them. From their table they squint at the menu board which is out on the street.p1040902-henry

L: Umm… hello. Pad Thai please.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Kao Soi. I recommend.

L: OK, thanks. And two small beers.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Only large.

She gestures at the next table, where two women are drinking out of enormous plastic beakers.

L: Right. One large beer, then, and two glasses.

Woman: No.

L: Oh.

Woman: Only large glasses.

They are soon each drinking an enormous plastic beaker of beer. The Kao Soi arrives in an earthenware pot – fragrant Thai chicken curry soup, gently spicy, and crunchy with fried noodles and beansprouts. It is delicious.

D: I object.

L: (slurping) To what?

D: To my cutlery. I don’t want a spoon and a fork.  I want proper chopsticks. I want to eat like a local.

L: You want to eat like a local? Take the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left. They don’t use chopsticks in Thailand.

D: Oh. How come we had them in Bangkok?

L: We were in Chinatown.

D: Oh. Are you sure?

L: Look around you.

D: Oh. In that case, I withdraw my objection.

L: Good.

D: Good.

Later they walk home.

L: D’you think Henry’s her husband?

D: What are you talking about?

L: Henry’s Restaurant. Where we’ve just been. The lady in the leopard-print dress – d’you think Henry’s her husband?

D: I’m pretty sure that WAS Henry.

L: What are YOU talking about? She was pregnant!

D: She might have had a bit of a beer belly.

L: No.

D: Yes.

L: Really?

D: Yes.

L: Anyway, she was splendidly grumpy and her Kao Soi was heavenly. Can we go back?

***

L: Oh, dear, d’you know Chiang Mai has over 300 temples?

D: Holy crap! And how many hills?

L: Err…one.

D: I vote for the hill.

L: But it’s got two temples on it.

D: Can’t be helped. It’s high time we went for a walk.

It’s drizzling, but that’s not going to stop them heading for Doi Suthep, the highest bit of ground around, even if it is swallowed in cloud.   They hop into the back of a songtaew, the red shared taxi trucks that ply the streets of Chiang Mai. On the western edge of town, beyond the University, is the start of a pilgrimage path, but they’ve failed to explain properly where they want to go, and the taxi driver heads the wrong way. D slides along the bench seat and knocks on the glass partition but communication is impossible. He jumps out at each red traffic light to discuss the route through the driver’s window. Eventually he gets into the cab beside the driver and map-reads. They reach the edge of town, where the forest takes over, and hop out.

The path winds up through the trees, dripping with rain, past overgrown viewpoints and trickling cascades. Every so often, strips of orange cloth, resembling monks’ robes, are tied around trees to line the way.   Thick in the cloud and deep in the forest, they arrive at Wat Pha Lat. A cluster of temples loom out of the mist, linked by stairways lined with enormous serpents and other fantastical guardians. Orange-robed stone monks meditate beside a stream which pools and then trickles its way down the limestone face of the hillside. Buddhist chanting can be heard from within a candlelit wat. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and almost deserted.p1040585

L: The snakes on the stairs are called nagas. They’re based on cobras and sometimes they have seven heads.

D: What are they doing?

L: Protecting the Buddha and the temples.

D: It’s a great place for a picnic, isn’t it?

It’s now properly raining. L looks sceptical.

L: Maybe not today.

D: No. Come on then.

p1040596They pick up the path again, which is now smaller and much steeper, slick with mud. They climb slowly upwards through the forest, panting. The ground glitters with flakes of quartz washed clean by the rain, and they find a steep flight of mud-carved stairs. The world is silent save for their breathing and the patter of water on leaves.

An hour or so later, they meet the road, and have no option but to follow it. It is busy with traffic, wheels hissing on the wet surface. Two corners on and the road widens, suddenly teeming with cars and minibuses struggling to park, roadside stalls selling food and souvenirs, hundreds of sightseers in bright plastic capes, and lines of taxis waiting to take them back to town. It’s an unromantic climax to the walk. A long flight of naga-lined stairs leads the sodden crowds up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. At the top, as a reward for the climb, are broad shady terraces from which to admire the views, but today there is nothing to be seen.  p1040598

D: This is one of the country’s most sacred temples. A bit of the Buddha’s shoulder bone is buried here.

L: Who’s the white elephant?

D: He’s very important. A monk brought the fragment of Buddha’s shoulder all the way from Sukhothai in the 14th century, but somewhere on the journey the bone broke into two bits. One half was put onto the elephant who wandered around the forests until it died.

L: Right here?

D: Yes. So this is where they built the temple and buried the shoulder bone.

Back at the foot of the steps they are lured towards a queue of shared songtaew taxis.

Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?

D: Yes.

They get into the back and join 6 other people. There’s not too much space, but it’s fine. They wait.

Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?

Two more people get in. They all budge up. Two more get in. Everybody squeezes along. Three more are encouraged to join them. Everyone does their best, but one has no option but to stand outside on the rear step and hang on. Which he does as the taxi hurtles its way back down the mountain’s seven miles of roller-coaster curves and dips. The road is still wet but at least it’s stopped raining.

***

They can’t put it off any longer. Today is temples day.

D: This one’s my favourite, even though it’s the smallest.

L: That’s not fair – I wasn’t even allowed in!

In a tiny chapel in the extensive grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, is the city pillar supposedly raised during the founding of Chiang Mai in 1296.

L: So? What took you so long?

D: I couldn’t actually find the pillar.

L: Oh. So what did you find?

D: In the middle there was a sort of wedding cake affair with a standing Buddha on top.

L: OK…..

D: And very cool stuff going on, on the walls.p1040547

L: What cool stuff?

D: I have no idea, but it looked very exciting.

D’s photos show a burst of floor-to-ceiling technicolour. There are cutlass-wielding demons tearing through a forest, people paying homage to a prince, hunting scenes, processions and crowds praying to the Buddha, all with the Wat faithfully reproduced in the background.

D: I could have stayed in there for longer. But I suddenly remembered you were standing out here. In the rain.

L: Thanks for that.

On they go. Just next door.

L: Well, this one’s my favourite.

p1040530They have reached Wat Phan Tao, which is built entirely of teak. Inside, the dark wood ceiling is supported by huge wooden pillars, and on the altar a huge golden Buddha glows in the gloom. Lines of copper alms bowls fill one aisle, making music as the devout drop their pennies.   Outside, an artificial island is decorated with prayer ribbons and lanterns, and an orange Buddha sits in meditation guarded by several of the town’s stray dogs who have taken up residence. It is a fiercely protected piece of canine real estate, and interlopers are seen off with growls and yelps.

It is time for lunch.

They find a café. Their sandwiches arrive with a side salad curiously topped with a glacé cherry, but no cutlery. L speaks to the waiter:

L: Please can I have a fork?

The waiter looks puzzled and faintly shocked.

L: I need a fork. Please can you give me a fork?

The waiter looks scandalised. D comes to the rescue.

D: Or a spoon?

Comprehension floods over the waiter’s face. He beams and returns with a spoon. And a fork.

L: What was all that about? You’d think I’d said something desperately rude.

D: I can’t think what, for fork’s sake…

It is time. For more temples. They are on a mission.

It’s dusk by the time they finally splash their way south to Wat Sri Suphan, in the city’s silversmith’s quarter.

L: (grumbling) This is absolutely the last one. And it’d better be worth it. I’m soaking.

They walk through the gates.

L: Blimey. That’s amazing!

They stand in the rain and stare. For once, there’s not a glimmer of gold to be seen. Instead, the entire temple is crafted of silver.

L: Is it actual silver, d’you reckon?

D: Mostly nickel and aluminium, I think. Or maybe zinc?

L: Still. It’s astonishing.

It is intricate and elaborate and beautiful and twiddly and prickly. There are statues and bass-reliefs and decorative panels, from ground level to the topmost spires of the roof, all in gleaming silver.

L: Not again! Says here, according to Lanna Belief, I’m not allowed in. Apparently ladies entering inside this area may deteriorate the place or otherwise the lady herself!

D: That’s probably best avoided.

L: In you go. I’ll just stand here. In the rain. Like last time.p1040885

D disappears happily into the welcoming glow of the interior. L walks around the outside. The whole temple is set on a sea of turquoise ceramic tiles, lapping at the foundations like wavelets.   On the outer walls there are panels showing ships and temples, forests and seas and animals and people. The whole of the rear of the building is one enormous silver mural. Along the sides are small panels of great sites of the world. L spots the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, and even Stonehenge. From the roof, great silver dragons stretch their wings as though about to take flight.

D re-emerges.   The interior too is clad floor to ceiling in silver. Except for the Buddha at the altar, which is gold. Flanking the inside of the doorway, the walls show terrifying skulls, and a demon swallowing a crowd of people. Dozens of little backlit niches display delicate filigree work.

Outdoors the silver continues, still catching the last glimmers of light as darkness descends. A great silver Buddha sits draped in silver robes, in front of the temple. Nearby is a large banner in tribute to the late King Bhumibol, set in a decorative silver frame. And surreally, to one side the Hindu elephant god Ganesha shelters under an elaborate silver umbrella accompanied by two gigantic mice – one silver, one gold.

D: This is definitely my favourite.

L: Mine too. Even without going in. But it’s time for crisps. And beer. And a bath. We are so done.

***

Before they leave Chiang-Mai, they return for dinner at Henry’s. She scowls in welcome as they sit down and obediently order Kao Soi and two enormous plastic beakers of beer. A couple with a child arrive and hover at the entrance.   They ask to see the menu and Henry explains crossly to them that the menu is the blackboard right in front of them, in the street. They try to sit at an outside table, but Henry won’t allow it and makes them sit indoors. They sit, disgruntled. They ask to see the menu. Henry has had enough and scolds them loudly.p1040905

Henry: Look, you two! I’ve told you already! The menu is on the board outside!

She has gone too far. The family get up and leave.

Henry: (muttering) Crazy. They’re crazy!

Half way through the meal, Henry decides, unprompted, that an announcement needs to be made. She goes from table to table, telling each of her diners separately.

Henry: You want toilet? No toilet! Go over the road! In the temple.

Everyone is fine. No-one needs to go.

She comes to clear their table and peers into the earthenware pot of Kao Soi. She looks at L accusingly.

Henry: You didn’t like it?

L: I loved it!

Henry: You didn’t finish it!

L: I did – look!

L pokes around nervously in the pot to show that there is no morsel of chicken or beansprout or noodle remaining. Only a centimetre of broth.

Henry looks at them in disdain, picks up the pot and stalks off.

L: I love Henry! And her Kao Soi. How can you not? She is so terrifying and excellent. Don’t you love Henry?

D: Yes, I love Henry too.

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Cycling around Sukhothai, Thailand

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It is time to leave Bangkok. They take a taxi to the metro, and a metro to the bus station. The bus station is nowhere to be found. They ask, and are offered a taxi.

D: That’s ridiculous. It must be around here somewhere. We’ll keep looking.

They take a taxi to the bus station.

Mo Chit bus station has different counters selling tickets to different destinations. There are 59 counters on the ground floor, and 58 on the first floor. Thankfully none on the second floor, but a further 112 on the third floor.

L:   Blimey – any idea which counter we need?

D: Err….I’ll ask. We’ll probably need a taxi to reach it.

They flag down a passing official and are pointed to a counter, which miraculously is right where they are standing. Less surprisingly, considering the number of counters, there are no queues.

The journey to Sukhothai takes 7 hours. The landscape is flat and carpeted with rice paddies resembling vibrant green meadows or waterlogged lawns or bare muddy swamps. Along the roadside, suburban houses intermingle with tin-roofed wooden shacks. Some are homes, others garages, workshops, barns, shops, restaurants, bars, roadside stalls, bus shelters, shaded rest areas, or outhouses. Most are in use, a few are abandoned and half dismantled, the materials used to build another shack next door.

They cadge a lift to their hotel in a tuk-tuk piled high with a tour group’s luggage. They’ve picked the place for its proximity to the temples, and the pool.   They climb out of the tuk-tuk, and are greeted enthusiastically with a smile, a cold drink and a banana cupcake. They are still in the car park, holding their bags.

L: Lovely, thank you. Delicious. Umm, D, can you just hold my cupcake while I take my rucksack off?

D: (mumbling through cake crumbs) Sure, if you hold my drink.

L: Thanks. But can you hold my drink too? And your drink? And your cupcake? And my cupcake? And the day pack? But don’t put the laptop bag down in that puddle.

They check in, admire the polished wood floors of their large room, agree that the smell of drains from the bathroom really isn’t that strong and that they don’t need wifi anyway, and head off to the bar for a drink. The wooden deck of the restaurant sits over a lily pond, and as dusk falls they listen happily to the frogs and slap mosquitos from their bare arms and ankles.

***

The next morning is sunny, the temperature pushing 30 degrees. They are on a mission. The ruined temples of central Thailand’s Sukhothai are all that remains of the capital of a vast 13th century kingdom. Although the ancient city walls are under 2km square, there are nearly 200 ruins dotted around a much wider area. They stop at the Historical Park entrance to hire bicycles for the day.p1040512-2

D: Right, it’s 30 bhat per bike.

L: Hold on a minute. Don’t do anything hasty. We may need to bargain. Let me work it out. Oh. That’s 75 pence. Go ahead.

They start with the museum, where they find a vast table with a 3D plan of the site and surrounding countryside, and buttons to press to show the location of each temple in little red lights. They press all the buttons.

L: Who was Ram-kam-haeng? This museum’s named after him.

D: He was the king who really put this place on the map. He didn’t found it, but he massively expanded the kingdom. And encouraged Theravada Buddhism here. And invented Thai writing.

L: The squiggles?

D: The squiggles. And after he died, the empire was never quite the same again.

In one corner of the museum, through an open doorway, they spot an unremarkable flight of carpeted stairs. Despite appearances, it does not lead to the museum’s administration office. Above the doorway, a large sign proclaims “The Mystic Tunnel-like Stairway Corridor”.p1040460

L: How exciting! Follow me.

At the top of the stairs is a blank wall.

L: Oh. That’s it. Is it a joke? I don’t understand. It’s not very mystic, or tunnel-like. It’s not even a corridor! Just a stairway. And it doesn’t go anywhere!

D: What’s on the walls?

L: Just copies of some drawings or engravings.

D: (reading a sign) They’re pictures of the life of Buddha – the oldest existing examples of Thai drawing – and they were discovered in a mystic tunnel-like stairway corridor at one of the temples here.

L: Let’s go and find the real one.

D: Let’s.

The Historical Park is immaculate and peaceful. There are plenty of visitors, but no great crowds. Great avenues of trees and clumps of forest provide ample shade and many of the temples are surrounded by moats with water-lilies. Shrines and incense sticks and votive candles decorate steps and ledges. After all the glitter and gold and architectural twiddles of Bangkok’s temples, this is a world apart, of warm bare brick and stone and grass and water and smooth unadorned grey statues. It’s a great big drink for the soul.

Right at the centre of the site is Wat Mahathat.

D: This is the biggest and most important temple. It’s got over 200 chedis and….p1040461

L: What’s a chedi?

D: It’s a stupa.

L: Yes, but what IS one?

D: It’s a bell shaped tower – you’ve seen them at the temples in Bangkok.

L: Yes, but what ACTUALLY is it?

D: Oh, I see what you mean.   Of course. Umm…I don’t ACTUALLY know.

L: Oh.

D: I will in a minute. (He taps his phone). Got it. It’s where you put relics of important people.

L: Thank you. Carry on.

D: Thank you. I shall.

L: Thank you. Please do.

D: Shut up now.p1040470

The chedis lie scattered across the landscape like huge bells. Amongst the temple columns they admire the beauty of two great seated Buddhas, serene with eyes closed, the elongated fingers of their elegant right hands pointing down to the earth, while their left hands are relaxed, palm up, in their laps. Nearby are two towering standing Buddhas, 9 metres tall, with graceful oversized hands reaching to their knees.

They cycle slowly along the quiet lanes criss-crossing the park, stopping to marvel at the immense single chedi of Wat Sa Si rising from the centre of its reservoir moat, the beautiful, but much restored elephants at the base of Wat Sorasak, and the prickly domes of the originally Hindu Wat Si Sawai.

They head out past the crumbling city walls and dry moat before finding what they are looking for.p1040494

L: He’s staring.

D: I think he’s just got mossy eyelids.

At the end of the causeway crossing a moat is the square stone building of Wat Si Chum. In the centre of the facing wall is a narrow vertical slit running almost the full height of its 15 metre façade. Through the slit, a gigantic face is visible. They approach, and pass through the entrance into an open-roofed courtyard which is entirely filled with a colossal seated Buddha. He fills the space like Alice in Wonderland after knocking back the growing potion, and looks sleepily down at them through half closed eyes.

L: He really is the biggest, most beautiful Buddha. Just look at him.p1040497

D: (tapping his phone) He’s 15 metres high.

L: (not listening) He’s so beautiful.

D: And 11 metres wide.

L: (not listening) He’s just so lovely.

Two visitors kneel at his feet, hands in prayer, before rising, lighting incense sticks and leaving him a bunch of marigolds.

L: He’s got gorgeous golden nail varnish.

The Buddha’s left hand is cupped gently in his lap, thumb nail gleaming. The long slender fingers of his right hand flow down from his knee like a waterfall towards the earth, and have been gilded in gold leaf by visiting worshippers.   It is silent within the walls and the air is heady with incense.p1040498

D: I’ve found the Mystic Tunnel-Like Stairway Corridor!

L: (not listening) D’you think the circle of sky above his head looks a bit like heaven?

D: But the gate’s locked.

L: (not listening) His pose shows his moment of enlightenment.

D: It’s where they found all the drawings of the life of Buddha.

L: (not listening) Don’t you think he looks enlightened, with his head in the sky like that, so that you can hardly look at him? It’s like staring at the sun.

D: The corridor’s supposed to run through the inside of the walls. Apparently the kings used to hide in here and speak to the people through a hole. Everyone listening thought it was the Buddha talking.

L: (not listening) I think I’m feeling a bit enlightened. I wish I had some marigolds.

D: I’m trying to photograph him for you, but I can only get little bits of him in. We’ll have to put him together later, like a jigsaw.

L: (not listening) Take a photo.

They head on out into the countryside. L’s state of enlightenment does not seem conducive to riding a bicycle. D stops and waits in exasperation.

L: What! It’s hot!

D: But you’re going so slowly!

They reach the foot of a hill, and a stone-paved footpath leading up it. L looks unconvinced.p1040505

L: It’s miles!

D: It’s a very small hill indeed.

Minutes later they are at the top. There is a tall and crumbling standing Buddha with his right hand raised in a posture of fearlessness, and a view back across miles of flat forested plains, but surprisingly not a single one of Sukhothai’s other 192 ruins are visible.

D: This is Wat Saphan Hin. King Ramkamhaeng used to ride up here on his white elephant to worship the Buddha. It’s twelve and a half metres high.

L: Gosh! The elephant?

D: The Buddha. It was called Ruchakhari.

L: The Buddha?

D: The elephant.

On their way back, D stops and points at the verge.p1040507

D: That’s disappointing. Fly-tipping.

L: But they’re all shrines. This must be where shrines go to die.

Little broken temples lie higgledy-piggledy in the long grass, guarded by a tiger with no head. It seems an undignified end for objects once worshipped.

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