Travel mates

(good fricken lord has it really been 20 days since I updated this thing? I have a ton more to share. Better get on it.)

ANYWAY. One of the best parts about my two trips with the excellent folks at Within The Frame is that without exception I have enjoyed meeting and traveling with everyone who has been on the trips. (Which, statistically, makes me the jerk, but I digress). And of course since my general habit is to photograph the things around me that I'm interested in, why, I end up photographing them too.

City textures

Wherever I go, I find myself taking photos that aren't really art, and are only loosely documentary; they're more like records of the texture of the place. So in that spirit, here are a few groups of photos from the cities we visited.

I'll start with the electrical and communications grid. 

How about some delicious Lao cuisine?

One thing I loved was how they would clearly build until they ran out of money, and then use the structure however they could until they got more money together. Sometimes they'd finish the first floor; sometimes they'd just live in the partially constructed building; and sometimes, you know, at least you can hang laundry there.

Vientiane, which was a much younger city, seemed to have no pattern to development. At least in the parts of the city I saw, there didn't seem to be rich and poor neighborhoods; everything was mixed together. For example, these two photos were taken a couple hundred feet apart along a drainage canal:

And finally some assorted photos without categories.

Luang Prabang neighborhood party

Saturday afternoon in Luang Prabang, a few of us were sitting around chatting with some novices at a temple, and kept hearing loud music and raucous laughter from just down the road. Eventually we excused ourselves and wandered over to investigate. 

It turned out there was a neighborhood party going on. As near as we could tell, it was partly to celebrate the anniversary of the neighborhood, and partly for Valentine's day. 

We wandered in, and said hello to a few people, and watched some dancing, and eventually people started coming by. Some just said hello. Other poured us glasses of Beer Lao. Eventually a couple of guys dragged a table over and they brought us some delicious snacks to share. We had conversations with a few people - one guy has a sister who lives in Seattle, and has been here to visit. "I like your market!" he said. "I like yours better!"

This was an especially festive version of an experience I had again and again in Laos. A lot of tourists seemed to just get in people's faces, shoot a photo, and run off to the next thing, so a lot of Lao people naturally didn't seem to want to make eye contact. But almost universally, after I gave them a friendly "Sabaidee!" or hung around for a while and took an interest in what they were doing, people were friendly and very sweet. Old women would smile, parents would tell their kids to say sabaidee to the falang, vendors in the market would show me something interesting that they were selling. The payback for trying to make a connection was manifold.

The dance they were doing was fascinating. I didn't take much video in Laos, but I needed to be able to share the sound and motion of this:

One more thing: One of the sweeping statements I will make about Laos is that Lao people love bocce. Who knew? At least once a day in the cities, we'd pass a game going on.

Lao spirit houses

I am fascinated by things that are unknown in one culture but an assumption in another culture; so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Often these are things like "where do the bathroom electric switches go", but in Southeast Asia there's a more dramatic example: the spirit house. I'll quote Wikipedia here, because I am lazy:

A spirit house ... is a shrine to the protective spirit of a place that is found in the Southeast Asian countries of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Most houses and businesses have a spirit house placed in an auspicious spot, most often in a corner of the property. The location may be chosen after consultation with a Brahmin priest. The spirit house is normally in the form of a miniature house or temple, and is mounted on a pillar or on a dais.

The house is intended to provide a shelter for spirits that could cause problems for the people if not appeased. The shrines often include images of people and animals. Votive offerings are left at the house to propitiate the spirits. More elaborate installations include an altar for this purpose.

This represents less than half of the pictures I took of spirit houses, and less than a fifth of the ones I saw. But even this small selection shows some of the remarkable diversity in style and location that I saw.

Floating down the mighty Mekong

We spent almost two whole days riding down the Mekong river, stopping overnight at Kamu Lodge. I have to echo what a previous participant in this trip reportedly said: "I didn't know before that boating down the Mekong should be on my bucket list."

Some of the most beautiful scenery I've gotten to see; and the experience of the long riverboats was also not to be missed. There was a beautiful mist on both banks the morning we left; I don't think I've done it justice, but these will have to do.


Where there are Buddhists, of course, there are statues of the Buddha. but what surprised me in Laos was the huge variety of styles. 


Where we travelled, especially in Luang Prabang, there were many temples, and many monks, and despite the circus of the tak bat ceremony, Buddhism is still a vital and important part of Lao life. Many young men spend at least some time as a novice in a temple, partly as a way of getting an education (despite being nominally a Communist country, there isn't any free education or healthcare in Laos).

The monks were, of course, incredibly photogenic and striking in their orange robes.

That last guy there, with his robe up to his face, is a young novice we spent a lot of time chatting with one afternoon. The closest any of us could get to pronouncing his name was "honk", which of course made him "Honk the Monk". But he had given himself an English name, John Jackson, which we also called him, to his great pleasure.

Honk, or John Jackson, is twelve, and has lived as a novice for two years. His plan is to stay for another five or so, and then to become a doctor. He spoke English quite well, and is also studying Spanish and Chinese. In his free time he likes to watch Lao, Chinese, and American movies on his mobile phone. And his favorite food is pizza, of course.

Morning Market, Luang Prabang

The Morning Market may have been my single favorite place in Laos. Of the four mornings we were in Luang Prabang, I went to the market three times, including the morning before I flew home. The combination of beautiful produce, delicious prepared food, and the energy of people living their normal lives was all wonderful. 

The produce just about drove me crazy - piles and piles of beautiful fruits and vegetables, many of which I didn't recognize, made me wish for a house with a kitchen.  Not to mention the variety of pre-made sauces, barbecued meats, and delicious snacks.

The vendors and shoppers were equally wonderful, from the snappily dressed chicken ladies, to the minimalist knife sharpener (his entire kit was a stone and a bucket of water), to the butcher who sat on a stool on her counter, they were all great subjects. 

The last few pictures there are of a woman making what we described as Lao Ebelskivers, made from glutinous rice and coconut milk. Delicious, gooey, and deeply satisfying. Here's a post about the Thai version of the same thing - khanom krok - which looks like a slightly more complicated recipe but basically the same spirit.  The inestimable She Simmers has a picture of what looks like another kind of khanom krok in the Or Tor Kor Market, as well.


Finally, and most beloved to me, the noodle soup ladies, who fed me all three mornings, for the princely sum of 15,000 kip for just the soup, or 20,000 kip when I also made some selections from the offal bowl. (That's roughly $1.90 or $2.50 for a delicious breakfast.)

In transit

Just finished my first leg home, from Luang Prabang to Bangkok, and got dragged at high speed through the airport by a very nice Thai airways employee. When I asked why I was getting help with my transfer, she smirked and said "Because it is a very big airport".

Then I checked in for the next two flights, and the (if possible) even nicer gate agent gave me "long legs seating" for both flights. 

I feel like my next move should be a lottery ticket.


Last night blues

As I write this it's the last night of the trip, for me at least. Some people are going on to Cambodia, others are going home like me. And it's a bittersweet feeling: Overjoyed, of course, to get to see my wife and daughter again; and happy to have made several new friends and to have had some terrific experiences.

Sad, though, to leave the mental space that a trip like this creates, and sad to leave a beautiful country that I hope to visit again.

I'll add some more posts here as I process the photos - I haven't shown pictures of the monks in Luang Prabang, nor the Morning Market, or the party we stumbled into today. But I'll be posting those from home. Tomorrow I get on an airplane and fly for 27 hours, and see my beautiful wife and daughter at the other end. I can't wait.

Alms for the circus

One of the most famous tourist sights in Luang Prabang is the procession of monks receiving alms every morning - Tak Bat. There's one main street many of the monks walk down, and if you do an image search you see a lot of photos that look like this - quiet, spiritual, serene.

However, if you pay attention as you walk around the different temples, you'll see this sign several times.

Now, in my experience, if they go to the trouble and expense of putting in a sign to remind tourists to behave themselves... that means there's a whole lot of tourists not behaving.

I went, early in the morning, partly to experience the Tak Bat, and partly to photograph the circus. I wasn't disappointed.

Inspired by the Buddha statues everywhere, the perspective I tried to keep was that these people are doing a great job giving the monks the opportunity to practice loving kindness to all beings.

So... uh... go them?

The complex legacy of imperialism

In brief... Imperialism: bad. These (@!*#& croissants: Daaaaaaamn.

The smirker

Those of you who have read through my Christmas in Lalibela book have heard my existential issues with pictures of dirty-faced kids peering soulfully into the lens. However, I make exceptions occasionally.

In this case, I noticed that the kids were playing jun-ken-po (or rock paper scissors). I joined in... and the kid in the middle here proceeded to beat me handily six times out of seven. So that's the story of the smirk.

Visiting villages

Long bus rides through the country. Beautiful people. Cooking. Washing. Life. 

(Also: Spot the monk with the Hello Kitty robe)

In the neighborhood

One of my favorite things to do is wander through the neighborhoods wherever I find myself. These are from the neighborhood around our hotel in Vientiane.