Southeast Asia '08, Page 5 <Previous Page | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |

Friday, Jan. 25 – 2-day high adventure to a Minority Village near Luang Prabang

Woke up at 5:15 and couldn’t get back to sleep. It’s going to be a long, hard day, but the good news is my stomach has settled down. I marvel at this old bod that just keeps coming back. We had breakfast at the hotel and then Vue Li (our guide from Green Discovery Laos) picked us up in the van and we were off to the office to stow our luggage and get fitted for our bicycles. Fitted for our bikes -- now that’s a laugh! The bikes were pretty beat up and only one extra large helmet was available. We passed on the helmets.

A note about our guide

Vue Li, age 22, is a sweet, quiet guy and very serious about his job. He’s new at Green Discovery – been there only a couple of months. He worked at another adventure company training elephants and going on elephant treks. He just got married three months ago and lives in town. He grew up in a rural village and knows a lot about village life. He said his grandfather fled the country during the U.S. bombing raids and now lives in the San Francisco area. (Laos was the most heavily bombed of all the countries in Southeast Asia. We really messed up the shrubbery.) Vue said his grandfather comes to visit every couple of years and is very old. Turns out grandpa is Bill’s age -- 63!

I was a little nervous getting my bearings on a bike in the busy morning traffic. I stopped a few time to adjust my seat and do a little complaining here and there. The bike kept popping out of gear, so Bill traded with me. He claimed it was operator error, but we were both happier.

We rode south out of Laung Prabang for about 15 miles along the Nam Khan River. I enjoyed the gentle rolling hills. We stopped for a few photos of green rice paddies (these rice paddies are irrigated, because it is dry season). About an hour out of Luang Prabang, Vue stopped at his sister’s village along the road to deliver something. I saw a little boy walking his pet rooster. He was happy to pose for me.

Posing with a pet rooster in town

Views from the bike ride

Farmer’s hut in the lush, irrigated rice fields

Walking in the rice paddy

Back on our bikes, we turned off on a dirt road for a little way, and then stopped at a little village for lunch. There were no restaurants or stores, only lots and lots of little rascals running around having fun. They loved getting their pictures taken and then seeing the results immediately on the camera’s LCD display. It’s a terrific way to engage the children and get to know them.

The big industry (in fact, about the only industry) is broom making. The villagers gather the tall grass, lay it out along the road, let it dry into straw and then wrap it around a broom handle (just a plain stick).

We were their lunchtime entertainment that day. We sat in the village house and watched a young girl make steamed rice (in a basket on the fire) while Vue laid out a feast for the driver and us. The food was good – a big fish, some spicy beef patties, stir fried rice, sticky rice and tangerines for dessert. I feel gluttonous and greedy eating with so much in front of many staring little eyes. The kids were polite. We did have to swat away a couple of the mangy dogs.

The village welcoming committee

Little rascals

The village scene

Notice the grass laid out to dry (for brooms)

Vue makes our lunch

Cutie Pies

The driver loaded our bikes in the van and headed back to town. We loaded our packs on our backs and headed straight up a mountain through a tropical jungle. I was full from lunch; it was hot and humid; my pack was heavy (loaded with my basic necessities and water); and the mountain was relentless. We had a grueling five miles to go. I finally got into the rhythm. It helped when Bill took a couple of my water bottles to lighten my load. I don’t remember much about the trek – only a red path going straight up with some scattered rocks and the blazing sun. I was sweating and wondered if I could make it. (I’m a strong hiker, but hadn’t done any weight training for this hike and certainly wasn’t use to the heat.) When there was an occasional breeze, I said a little thanks to the smiling Buddhas etched in my brain and carried on.

Vue resting by the road

Trek up the mountain joined by some curious girls

Just before we arrived at the village, Ban Huaypheng, Vue said we should use the toilet – the open-air toilet behind some bushes or a tree. There are no facilities – I mean NO FACILITIES in the village. We did our business and then strolled into the Khmu village. What we saw was raw National Geographic stuff. Straw huts, pigs, chickens, dogs, and at first, a few curious kids in the most beautiful, dream-like setting, surrounded by mountains and valleys. In no time a mob of little darlings had grown and we had lots and lots of happy children all wanting their picture taken. (One little boy was deformed, but managed to stay up with the others – what a tough little guy he must be.)

Village of Ban Huaypheng

Our little village

Barnyard animals roam freely

Big ole pig

Village kids greet Bill

Everyone wants to be in the picture

Back in 2000, we had trekked to a remote village in northern Thailand outside Chang Mai. We thought we were real adventurers back then staying in grandma’s house and sharing the one water spigot for the entire village. That place in Thailand was a 4-star hotel compared to this.

Life in the village

Our room in the Chief’s house

It was about 3 pm and we followed Vue in amazement to our “room” at the village chief’s house. The people and kids were just as amazed and intrigued by us foreigners. The village doesn’t get many visitors. (Green Discovery hasn’t offered this trek for very long – and there are very few takers.)

We climbed the high precarious ladder to the chief’s front door. We organized our backpacks. Bill's jacket was wet from a leaking water bottle stored in his pack. He hung it out to dry. We gathered our toiletries and followed Vue to the river for our “shower”. He left us there to clean up while he went back to start dinner preparations.

My three-dollar sarong came in handy in the public bath. Using her sarong for privacy, one village woman was soaping up and scrubbing herself. (She seemed to be a little obsessive-compulsive – a real handicap for these parts.) I used her as my role model and tried to use my sarong as a shower curtain. This pitiful foreigner was not a graceful sight – slipping down into the water, grabbing onto available branches as I stumbled into the cold water. After a few yelps, I managed to adjust to the temperature and wash away at least one layer of dust.

More crowds began to gather and watched me fiddle with all my stuff – soap, towel, face cream, deodorant, sunscreen, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, change of clothes, socks and shoes. The gals at the river were most perplexed when I put on a little lipstick and smacked my lips together. It was great feeling clean again and getting all my stuff back into its proper plastic bag. I thought about how all this stuff (the barest of necessities for me) burdened us down. We spent a whole lot of time just managing our things.

I found some Tick-Tacks in my stuff and offered one to each of the audience members. It was fun watching their faces when they got their first taste of wintergreen mint. Most seemed to like it, but one little girl fanned her mouth – poor thing, tricked by the foreigner.

Bill and I deposited our stuff back (from our bath) at the chief’s place and then took a stroll through the village. The little babies cried when they saw us and the mangy dogs barked at us – but the children loved us and we adored them. They seemed to be happy (with no stuff to fight over), running free, playing and laughing with their pals. They were completely unsupervised – no arranged “play dates” around here.

Bill strolls through the village

Bamboo houses on stilts

Suckling pigs and grass laid out to dry

Feeding the pigs

Hanging out on the porch

A baby hides her face

Bill and I walked up a hill to check out the school. Classes weren’t in session and none of the kids followed us up the hill. The three classroom building was Spartan, at best. Tables and benches wobbled over the holes in the dirt floor. The only teaching aid we could see was one worn-out, faded chalkboard. A few of the children’s drawings (which appeared to look like the school) were thumbtacked to the boards separating the rooms. We wondered how anyone could teach and how anyone could learn here. Where were the books, the supplies, even the chalk? Our visit made us sad. (But, at least, this village has a school. Our little village in Cambodia has no building – We’ve got to make that happen.)

The schoolhouse on top of a hill

View of the village from the schoolyard

Dismal classroom


The mob of kids joined us again when we came down the hill from the school. Bill videotaped them and I took photos – much to their glee.

Kids playing

Kids posing

Beautiful children


Me and my puppy

I took a picture of a beautiful little girl – most of the children are gorgeous, but this one was very special. Her parents came out of nowhere and wanted to see the picture. You could tell their daughter filled them with pride.

Somebody’s home

Somebody’s beautiful little daughter

After looking at the picture, the girl’s father pointed to his mouth and throat and tried to tell me something. I took him to Vue to translate. He was asking if I had any medicine to help his throat. He was a guy in his early thirties whose lungs were damaged by pesticides and burning rice fields. He suffers with headaches and irritated throat and lungs. All I had in my stuff was Advil, so I gave him two, hoping it would somehow help the impossible. He had a terrible cough and was spitting on the chief’s floor – our sleeping quarters. I tried to put the thought out of my mind. The man left with some Western medicine along with some hope.

We talked to Vue. He told us that the villagers couldn’t perform their traditional Baci dance for us because their outfits weren’t clean. He asked us if we’d like to have the Shaman come to read our chicken bones. He also said some of the villagers wanted to perform a ceremony for us that involved tying our hands. Us two old control freaks were leery, but agreed. We wanted the works for this adventure. Vue said the ceremony required two chickens and we were budgeted for only one. Bill agreed to pay the extra five bucks – another bird would lose his life tonight.

The chief appeared at the door carrying a live chicken. Vue said, “Sorry, I have to go – dinner is here.” We laughed as Vue followed the chief, cradling the bird in his arms, to the kitchen.

There was still some sunlight outside so I figured it was a good time to take care of business. I climbed a little hill and tucked behind some thick bushes. However, a troupe of dogs and a couple of pigs followed me up the hill. The dogs barked and growled at me showing their teeth. The pigs were even more annoying. They sniffed around me squatting down and invaded my personal space big time. They must have been part of the sanitation crew. I shoed them away and left nothing for their enjoyment. (Don’t think I’ll ever eat pork again.) I could only manage a few tinkles and then walked back to the chief’s hut a little horror stricken by my potty experience.

The sun was going down. The room had no windows and it was getting dark fast. We looked out the front door and watched the animals milling underneath the house and the children playing, filled with energy. The only toy we saw was a long bamboo pole with a wooden wheel attached to one end. One kid pushing and another kid hanging onto the pole, they were having the ride of a lifetime. They bounced up and down hills, over potholes, crushing anything that got in the way. A few puppies and chickens were casualties. The wild action went on into the dark with an accident just waiting to happen. However, we only heard screams of joy. (I had no Western medicine to fix broken bones.)

Dangerous bamboo stick toys

Father with his bundle of joy going home

From our perch at the Chief’s front door, we had a good view of the village. We saw the brown landscape dotted with scatted fires burning everywhere with groups of little illuminated faces huddled together for warmth. At one of the fire pits, a gang of little toddlers (with no adult to be seen) was putting sticks into the fire. Then they would chase each other with the burning sticks and throw embers at each other. From our western standards, the scene was way out of control. We watched in horror and wondered how many fires are started each year.

We went into the kitchen to watch Vue cook our dinner over an open fire. It was cozy hanging out in the kitchen and watching quiet figures come and go. The chief’s three beautiful teenage daughters (I assume) were sitting together stoking the fire while a young mother was nursing her baby in the glowing shadows. Others joined the contented group. We were enjoying the lovely peacefulness until the chief brought a second scared chicken into the room. I knew slaughter time was near. I remember my grandmother chopping a head off of a chicken and the bloody mess it made. I gathered my stuff and left the room. (Turns out the chicken’s executioner didn’t use a chopping block, but merely twisted the neck. I could have watched that.)

We went back into the main room, our room, lit with a couple of smoky kerosene lamps, and listened to the sounds of the village. A little later a couple of officials with a ledger book were seated with us. People just seem to appear and disappear – no knocking, no “come in”, no "thanks I had a good time", no goodbyes – They just pop in for the moment. These guys were the police officials and needed us to sign the village book and collect a village fee from Vue. They were also keeping stats on the foreigners who visited their village and where they were from. It took a long time to record a few lines – but nobody was in a hurry. I checked the big book and we were the only ones listed. (Wonder if their tourist department will now target aging Americans in their future marketing campaigns.)

Before we knew it the room was filled again. About 10 or 15 guys and about 5 or 10 gals came for the big tying celebration and dinner. There were a lot of smiles and laughter and more spitting on the floor. I don’t get it – can’t wear your shoes into the house, but spitting on the floor is not a problem – doesn’t bother anyone. I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of a night of partying with the Khmus. My brain took in all the strange and interesting activities that followed.

The chief started by standing at a wooden alter and chanting into a flickering candle. I think he was thanking his ancestors for the big jug of rice whiskey they had to share. He joined a friend drinking the whiskey from a couple of bamboo reeds (homemade straws). After a few slurps, they traded reeds. They took turns drinking the whiskey from the big clay jug, but always drinking in pairs. They invited Bill to join them, but he declined – his need to avoid infectious diseases was greater than his need to be a gracious guest. I was glad they didn’t push it on the foreign lady – there are some benefits of being female.

After the crowd loosened up, they were ready for the tying ceremony. Bill and I thought they were going to tie our hands together in bondage. Vue laughed and said, no they’re going to tie strings on each wrist and send us their blessings. The Shaman in training (the real village Shaman had a prior engagement) began chanting. We held out our arms and each partier tied a string to our wrists. We were all smiling and happy -- it was a beautiful way to communicate. (We were relieved they weren’t tying us up.)

Next came the dinner. We quickly opened a pack of Handy Wipes from our pile of stuff. Didn’t much matter because Vue said everyone eats with their hands. A woman brought a platter of food and placed it in the center on a small wooden stool. There were the cooked chickens we’d met earlier, now with their necks draped over the edge of the bowl – for presentation purposes, I suppose. There was a basket of sticky rice – the main staple, and a dish of fried veggies. Before we dived in, we all grabbed the edge of the platter and chanted some more. Then the Shaman-in-training took the chicken claws, pulled off the tough skin and read our future through the shape and color of the toes. Things looked good – clear colored joints (not dark and foreboding) and toes pointing straight up, not crossed. It was good news to know that we’re going to have a safe journey home. Vue, interpreting all this information, was a believer. He grew up with the animalistic religion and animal sacrifice. I only read about it in books and didn’t get, until now, what was meant by reading animal bones.

Once our wrists were tied with lots of string and we were blessed, the feast could begin. The veggies and rice were good, but the chicken was stringy and rubbery. They served the pieces that we foreigners tend to discard quickly – head, neck, back, gizzards, and claws. I made a token attempt at some unrecognizable chicken part and stayed with the rice and veggies. (It’s my karma being a most picky eater.)

Wrists tied

Vue (next day on trail) with wrists tied

The official activities were over and the folks just watched us, smiling and drinking their whiskey into the night. You could see the buzz on Vue’s face. It had been a hard day for him taking care of us old foreigners. Some of the villagers got the hiccups. One had a tummy ache and asked Vue to ask us if we had anything to calm the stomach. I had only one Pepto Bismo in my Western bag of stuff, but gladly handed it over. I also found a bag of cookies served on Lao Air that I had stashed away and passed them around the group. I had more Advil for my lung and throat patient. I tried to nurture them all with my English and handful of Western meds. I liked the group – nice people, but about 9:30, we were getting tired and wanted to pack it in.

A woman came out of nowhere and spread out our mats covered with old blankets. (We were glad we brought along our silk sleep sacks.) Vue warned us not to put our mats together because “something” might happen in the night and bring bad spirits to the house. It was clear that if we dared have sex, we’d have to pay a fee to get rid of those spirits. Not to worry -- there was little chance anything would happen that night. (Very perplexing – uptight about sex, but let me tell you with all those kiddos, somebody is getting a lot of action.)

We scrambled over to our mats and stretched out. That didn’t break the party up. They were still talking, drinking, laughing, hiccupping, and spitting on the floor. I knew I had to make a potty break before going to sleep. I climbed down the rickety ladder and stumbled up the hill in the pitch dark night. It wasn't bad until those damn dogs came with their incessant barking. I screamed in frustration, “STOP – GO AWAY.” Finally, a couple of villagers yelled out commands to the dogs and they backed away giving me a little space.

Bill and I doped ourselves with sleeping meds and said goodnight to each other and to Vue, who was sleeping right next to us. (“Goodnight Bill, Goodnight Nancy, Goodnight John Boy.”) Not much later, the rest of the partiers disappeared quietly into the night. Bill said he heard one make a pit stop on the ground level right underneath our sleeping quarters. It was certainly a night we won’t forget.

Saturday, Jan. 26 – Return from Ethnic Village Adventure to Luang Prabang

Woke up with the roosters crowing and the pigs milling beneath our bedroom, see through, bamboo, floor. I felt the strings tied around my wrists and thought to myself, “Oh no, it wasn’t a dream.” I managed to doze on and off, interrupted by the morning sounds. We slept in until 6:45 – very late for us. We looked out the front door and watched the villagers huddled around morning fires. The kids hadn’t burned the place down last night. We fiddled with our stuff and then stumbled off to the hills to brush our teeth and find a place to squat in peace.

Morning in the village (from our front door)

Bill goes off to brush his teeth

There was a little action in the village that morning. A “businessman” arrived on his motorbike with a scale to buy some broom straw from the women. He was weighing bundles of their neatly tied grass – seemed to be a lot of healthy give and take. They completed the transaction; he tied the goods to his motorbike and headed for the hills. Bad news – this place is so remote that jobs are few and far between. Good news – lack of roads and other communication technology (not a cell phone to be had) keeps the villagers from being exploited. (Exploiters need cheap labor and good connections.)

Weighing the straw, doing the paperwork

Kids huddled by the ashes from the morning’s fire

The kids gathered around as always. I danced, jumped and made faces. They laughed at all my silly moves – such an easy audience to entertain. I will always remember those beautiful bronze faces, snapping dark eyes and big smiles showing their pearly white teeth. I had a little bag of toys -- a few plastic farm animals that I wanted to leave. There wasn’t enough for each child, so I placed them on a table and left them there, figuring the kids would sort it all out and play with them together.

Vue called us for breakfast and we climbed up the ladder, waving bye to our friends. Vue outdid himself. He had carried two big loaves of French bread in his pack – which remained fresh and uncrushed. He served hot tea and huge omelets. As we were diving in, my throat and lung patient and his beautiful daughter, along with a few other kids, magically appeared to watch us eat. (He had come for Advil, his morning meds.) My hunger diminished with those little eyes staring at me. It was more joyful to share my bounty than to stuff myself like a pig. Little by little, I passed out treats – first a small bag of sugar, then half of my French bread, then the rest of my omelet, then the little packets of jelly. I watched a little one-year-old girl devour the strawberry jam. With delight, she kept licking the small plastic container long after all the jam was gone. We commented on how sweet our morning breakfast guests were, always sharing their goodies with each other, especially the little ones.

After breakfast, we packed up and climbed down the chief’s ladder for the last time. The table of toy animals had not been touched, but the children were watching it eagerly. I smiled and thought what a peaceful world – maybe all our stuff makes us greedy and selfish. Here’s a place where they must look out for each other for survival. That thought quickly vanished as we heard loud screaming and pushing. We turned around just in time to see the bigger kids grabbing the animals and pushing the crying toddlers down. Visions of “The God’s Must Be Crazy” all over again. I felt responsible for introducing selfishness to the protective little village.

Village kids gather around

Watching the toy farm animals

We were grateful for our unique experience – visiting a place so isolated and completely untouched by outsiders. I hiked into the mountains thinking about the people I met from another world, another planet. I could see that with a few more foreigners, a few more gifts, a few more handouts, this place would be forever changed. The universal community and social structure they have created would soon be replaced by greedy materialists, out for themselves and begging for handouts. (The village would install an outhouse demanding a fee for its use.)

NOTE: I remembered our trip to Machu Picchu and the hordes of begging children that lined the road. Our proper British traveling friend replied to their pleas for money, “Don’t do that; you demean your people.” These villagers we met yesterday were curious about us and watched our every move, but they were not interested in pleading for any of our strange stuff or begging for our strange food.

I was feeling strong that day (in spite of my pack and the two extra water bottles that Bill didn’t want in his pack). The trail was tough – rated “difficult,” but well worth the effort. Shear limestone cliffs surrounded us as we trudged up the red caked dirt trail. We were happy for the cloud cover and cool morning. There was always a surprise on the trail, farmers pulling their cows uphill, herding a pig or smiling little girls gathering grass for brooms.

Vue and Bill heading down the trail

The red dirt trail

We arrived at the next village with two different minorities, Khmu and Hmong, living in separate areas. The Khmu build their houses on stilts and Hmong build their houses on the ground.

Vue and Bill stroll into town

Hmong part of town

Grass for brooms laid out to dry

Bundling the grass

Three generations

Kids come running

The Pied Piper

A sea of faces

Village Blacksmith

Happy kids, frightened babies

Everyone wants to be in the picture

A rare sight – a village loner

A big ceremony was just starting. The Shaman invited us to join in the celebration. Vue told us the reason for the celebration was to thank the dead ancestors of a man who had been seriously ill. He had come to the Shaman who in turn, called on his ancestors to make him better. The ancestors complied, the man got better and now it’s time to thank the ancestors.

I was on sensory overload as I took in all the new sights and pageantry. The ceremony was held in a small dirt-floor house with no windows (none of these places have windows). The Shaman was terrific – a 4-star Shaman. He was young, strong, and oozing with charisma. Man, could he chant – never missed a beat. The previously-sick man sat on a wooden bench while the Shaman drummed and danced around him. The Shaman burned paper at the alter as an offering to the man’s dead ancestors.

A couple of guys delivered a terrified squealing pig. The Shaman continued his chanting, which seemed to calm the pig down. The Shaman circled the man and the pig with a long rope. A couple of times he stopped and took a big gulp of water and then sprayed the back of the man’s head with the contents from his mouth. His lips were like a spray bottle, as he lightly misted the gentleman. With the fire, he lit some more paper and threw the burning pieces down by the pig’s snout, which got the poor pig going all over again.

I had to leave the room for the next part – but Vue took a picture of the pig being sacrificed. I came back in time to see the thick red blood drained from the pig’s throat into bowls. The pig delivery boys came back to drag the pig’s body away. (Apparently the pig’s spirit has joined the ancestors somewhere.) They prepared and cooked the pig for a big celebration later, but the Shaman had a few more tricks to do. He chanted himself into a frenzy and then jumped on the wooden bench – with a lot of spring to it (it was designed that way) so the Shaman could bounce up into the heaven, I suspect. A Shaman helper stood behind the jumping Shaman to keep him from falling. We watched in amazement for about an hour – and that Shaman was good – so athletic and never tired. What an aerobic workout he had. Bill met the sick man’s father outside where they were cooking the pig. He said the sick man’s grandfather was also there to join in the celebration. Vue said the Shaman performs these ceremonies only a couple of times a year – and we got to see it all firsthand. (I’m sorry I missed them slaughtering the pig – next time.)

The Shaman gets ready to call on the ancestors

Shaman in training

Burning paper to send to the ancestors

Sacrificing the pig (Vue took this one)

Draining the pig’s blood

Shaman relaxing before part 2 of the ceremony

Shaman drumming and chanting

Shaman jumping on a bench

The altar

Baby checking things out

Preparing the pig for the village feast

We trekked on, filled with even more memories forever etched into our brains. This is a place only in one’s dreams – a Southeast Asian version of Brigadoon. We had a very steep climb over a mountain pass and then down into a valley where we visited what Vue called “an animal village” – our equivalent to a farm. Vue called the cows and they came to lick the salt from his arms. I didn’t want to try it. We passed through the little village and spotted the occasional happy kid with mothers holding their babies in the background.

Trails winding through the mountains

Just over the pass, a view of the “animal village”

Village farmhouse

Pumpkin crop

Village cattle

Vue is a salt lick

Village farm kids

Playing in the dirt

We had another steep climb up out of the village. I thought it was a tough trail – until I saw farmers pulling their huge, reluctant cows up the relentless hillside. We stopped at the top for the lunch Vue prepared for us this morning at the Chief’s house – sticky rice, veggies, leftover chicken and tangerines for dessert. We had a great view of the farming village perched on some rocks, enjoying our lunch.

Pulling Bessie up the mountain trail

Almost to the top, village in the background

Vue with view of farm village below

Nancy and Vue eating lunch

Vue leads the way

Finally, some downhill

Girls we met along the way

Mother and her kids heading uphill

Fence poles made of poinsettias now sprouting

Little ones push a wagon uphill to meet their moms

Collecting flowers (used to clean your teeth)

Vue leads with a poinsettia

Passed along the road

More jungle, more beauty, more interesting bird calls, more untouched nature at its finest. A few more miles down the road we came to a Hmong village, Ban Long Lao. They were celebrating the harvest (or something like that). We just missed the pig slaughter, but watched a villager dump the pig’s entrails into a boiling pot. The villagers would all be eating and celebrating in just a few hours.

The Shaman invited us to the second half of chanting. My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark room with a small altar and a wooden bench for jumping. I also didn’t notice the small burning fire and walked right through it. Who leaves a fire burning in the middle of a room? Didn’t feel a thing, just scattered a few ashes and probably disturbed the show. The Shaman had just started his jumping-on-the-springy-bench routine. I’d give him only two-stars. He was older than our first Shaman. He might have been good in his day, but his chanting was weak and he had lost the bounce in his jump. We were spoiled by the lively morning service and the high energy Shaman – definitely a Type-A go-getter.

Mmmm, pig liver

Shaman starts his jumping routine

I changed my camera's memory card while some curious men gathered around and watched me closely. Their latest technology was forming metal knifes in the hot ash fires. I still marvel at what that little piece of plastic is capable of – so I understand their amazement and disbelief.

We still had a few miles trekking before we got to a village by the road – the road where civilization and our van awaited. About 3:00 we strolled into the village. I recognized strange things like electrical wiring, satellite dishes, people wearing glasses, a couple of bicycles and a little girl playing with a doll. What a difference a road makes. This was big city life compared to the country cousins we visited last night. It was a gentle re-entry back to life as we know it.

Bill strolls into the village

Village life

Wearing spectacles

Children playing

The van was waiting and I was glad to get that blasted pack off my back. We had done it and lived to tell about it. This was one of the grandest of our adventures.

The drive back was still over an hour on hilly, dirt roads winding through jungles and rice paddies and miles and miles of pineapple fields. We stopped to view the fields – The harvesting was over, only the plants left. The armed guards were no longer needed at the gates to protect the crops.

Pineapple fields

It was about 4:30 when we came back to Luang Prabang. We stopped at the Green Discovery Laos office to gather our stowed luggage. Now we had a subset of all the stuff we dragged from our larger collections of things left back at home. (Do we really need all this stuff to survive? I learned how encumbered one easily becomes keeping up with things.)

We said good-bye to Vue and then were delivered to our hotel -- the hotel I looked askance at a couple of days ago with the “not-so-hot” showers and plumbing that poured water onto the bathroom floor. The place was a palace – too good for us fifthly, dirty travelers. We showered, gathered our dirty clothes and headed back on the main road. We dropped our clothes at the Internet / laundry service. (Somebody has their work cut out for them tomorrow.) We were frustrated by the Internet and couldn’t open our email. We knew it was time for a well deserved Beerlao break so we popped into the sidewalk bar down the street.

We tipped our glasses and gave ourselves a little toast. We were proud we could still make it into rough, unknown lands and return. We did wonder how many more years of this craziness we could pull off -- today was good.

We decided to return to the Tamarind Restaurant (Joy’s place). We couldn’t get those incredible flavors out of our minds from a couple of days ago. We arrived at about 6:00pm just as Joy was closing up. We learned that he had a baby boy and that he and Caroline had just come back to town two weeks ago. We were glad to meet him, raved about his food and congratulated him on his new baby. (He’s closed tomorrow so we’ll never be able to savor his creations again.)

We were back out on the street looking for The Three Elephants, recommended by Joy (and our guidebooks). The setting was lovely and the meal was nice – just nice, not outstanding. We did enjoy the place and were happy the large tour group came in right as we were settling up the bill.

We walked in the dark streets in search of a CD store and a high speed Internet. We went back to the room – Bill planned the travel logistics for tomorrow while I reviewed all my pictures from our trek into the village. All 400 photos are precious to me. The ones of the children hold a connection to the wonderful little kids I met along the way.

Sunday, Jan. 27 – Luang Prabang / Morning at the caves

We had a full day planned. We woke up at 5:15, got ready and hit the streets by 6 to see the monks parading through town collecting alms from the people. Vue said to be there at 6:00. However, the long lines of monks didn’t arrive until about 6:40 so we had lots of time to be harassed by young girls and women selling us offerings to give to the monks. We spent a couple of bucks on tangerines and tealeaves, our alms for the monks. In spite of their pleas, Bill said that was enough for the monks. Then the vendor gals ordered us around. They put down a straw mat and demanded we sit down. (We wanted to dash around taking photos and videos.) Later, higher paying customs showed up and the gals ordered us to get up off the mat so they could move it to another location. In the mean time, dozens of tour buses and tuk-tuks arrived carrying camera laden tourists ready with their alms for the monks and early morning adventure.

Finally the lines of monks arrived. The monks lined up at their own temple and then somewhere, the lines merged and snaked down along main street. Hundreds of people sat along the sidewalk and prepared for a giant “trick or treat” that has happened every morning for centuries. The monks moved quickly as the people dropped goodies into their little tin containers strapped over their shoulders. Those of us with a camera addiction were going nuts snapping photos. The monks got a lot of stuff – fruit, sticky rice, tea, and even money. Their containers were overflowing – but not to worry. Young kids, probably getting a cut from the loot gather, carried crates and baskets to gather the overflow from the monks. Never saw anything like it. It must have been an amazing experience until us Westerners arrived and turned it into the number one tourist attraction in town – but just think of the loot those monks carry away every morning. No wonder they look so happy.

Tourist kneeling, ready with their monk handouts

Monks quietly passing by

Simple monk fashions

Lines and lines of monks

Note: The following photos were taken on the next morning (1/28):

Morning monks

Gathering alms

Buckets ready

Serious business

Tourists kneel

Serious business

The littlest monk at the back of the line

The last monk was gone before we knew it so we walked back to the hotel for breakfast. We expected Vue to show up with his friend to take us to the Pak Ou caves. But no Vue, so we went to plan B and dashed into town to catch a slow boat at $7 bucks a head (versus Green Discovery’s $50 bucks each for guided tour and a private boat. No thank you.)

We boarded the little boat (only about a dozen passengers) and sat behind a very nice German couple we had talked to just yesterday in town. (They’re traveling on their own for a month.) The boat ride to the caves was a couple of hours going and an hour and one-half coming back – with three stops along the way.

Slow boat to Pak Ou Caves

Friendly passengers

We watched the peaceful, country scenes as we motored upstream against the powerful Mekong River current. Farmers were caring for their healthy gardens, a dozen or so young guys were doing laundry by the riverside (probably not as good as Bill though), cattle and a water buffalo were grazing on plants down by the beach and a huge snake swam by – no swimming for me in the Mekong!

We stopped at a village to watch a whiskey demonstration. Maybe the little village was quaint and cool once, but now it’s a tourist trap. The one-man welcoming committee showed the group the crude whiskey distillery apparatus and then whisked us away to a shelf of his whiskey; some of the bottles came with snakes. If you could get by him, there was a host of other stands (semi-nice weavings and tacky souvenirs) waiting around the corner along with toilet facilities (of course they charge a fee per use). We had 30 minutes to “enjoy the village experience” before the boat left. (Having spent a night in a real village, this just wasn’t doing it for us.)

Village whiskey distillery

Whiskey for sale

Handmade fabrics for sale

Board the boat

Back on the boat, we motored up to a shear cliff with Pak Ou Caves tucked inside. Lots of other boats were coming and going, delivering or gathering their passengers. We climbed out of the boat and up the steps to the caves.

Boats docked by cave

Steps to the cave

Lower Cave

A Little Cave History

In the middle of the 8 th century, the Lao people migrated from China to this river valley. They came to the caves to worship Phi (or the spirits of nature). The caves were associated with a river spirit.

Centuries later, Buddhism spread into the area from the west and the caves became a hangout for monks and hermits. By the 16th century, the royal Lao families accepted Buddhism and the caves became the in-place to be. Every year, until 1975 (when the king was no more), the King and the people of Luang Prabang made pilgrimages to the caves as part of the New Year religious celebration. A small spring in the cave provides the holy water for the annual New Year ceremony. Many of the carvings in the cave date between the 18th and 20th centuries.

There are two separate caves -- Lower Cave and Upper Cave. We visited the Lower Cave first.

The Lower Cave is eerie, smoky with incense, and guarded by a couple of lion figures at the entrance. The deep crevices and ledges of the cave are covered with some 4,000 dusty Buddha statues. The Buddhas, in all sizes and types, were left there by worshippers. Most of the Buddhas are using the hand signal to call for rain. It was difficult to see the caves because the place was crawling with people all trying to get the perfect picture. (We were part of the crawling madness.)

Lower cave Buddha

Lower cave layered with Buddhas

Guarded by a lion

Buddhas everywhere

Left by the worshippers

We didn’t have the time or a flashlight to do the Upper Cave properly. We dashed up another 300 steps passing vendors selling all sorts of things, along with birds to release in the caves. (Most of the vendors were 7 years old.) A happy fat Buddha sat outside the entrance to the Upper Cave. Inside you could barely make out a huge cavern, but without a flashlight, you couldn’t tell what kind of statues lined the walls. We were out of time and dashed back down to the boat only to sit in the hot sun and wait for the stragglers in our group to mosey on back to the boat. (This group thing is the pits.)

Buddha entrance to upper cave

Boats waiting below

After an hour on the boat, and only 15 minutes from town, we were almost home free. But no . . . we had to stop again at yet another “quaint” village to learn about papermaking. The paper made in the village was thick, sculptured stuff, but I was more interested in finding a toilet (fee or no fee). However we couldn’t find one spot to pee, even one for hire. We strolled around killing time at the temple chatting with the Monks while our fellow passengers loaded up on souvenirs.

Views from our boat

Paper left out to dry

Always fabric to buy

Always monks to talk to

We were glad to be back in town. We had lunch at Nazim, an Indian place. The chicken korma was good and we were happy to be free. We picked up laundry and walked back to the hotel. Bill stopped in at the Internet (heard from Amy and learned Obama blew Hilary away in South Carolina). I went back to the room to veg out and watch a stupid movie on HBO and feel guilty about wasting a perfectly good afternoon.

At 4:30 we strolled around a new part of town weaving in and out of temples and greeting the friendly monks. (They seem the happiest.) We checked off the last item on our must-do list in Luang Prabang. Wat Xieng Thong, built in 1560 by King Say Setthathirat, is the premier Wat in town. It’s set on the tip of Luang Prabang’s pennisula that juts out into the Mekong and has survived numerous invading armies, maintaining a number of its original structures. The outside of the main temple wasn’t that interesting, but the “red chapel” was alive in the late afternoon’s light. Inside was a rare statue of a reclining Buddha, who has been lying back there every since the temple’s construction. He actually took a little trip to the World’s Fair in Paris in 1931.

I was enthralled by the building’s external glass mosaics, added in the 1950’s. They were the same style as the one’s we saw in the throne room in the Royal Palace. They depicted popular folk tales and Buddhist history. The “tree of life” mosaic covered one side of the main temple. We saw the funeral chariot of King Sisavang Vong with its seven-headed Naga carved on the front. The whole place up on the hill was fascinating.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

Golden building ablaze with light

King Sisavang Vong’s urn on funeral chariot

Carved doors

Buddhas draped in moonbeam cloth

Buddhas facing the sunset

Tree of life on Red Chapel

Glass mosaics decorate the buildings

Glass mosaics decorate the buildings

I was on the lookout for a bathroom while cold beer was Bill’s main target. We were both diverted by chanting melody in four-part harmony coming out of a Wat. We peeked in and saw 25 monks seated beneath one massive, oversized Buddha. The room was glowing in orange and golden hues and the chanting transfixed us. I can’t describe the acoustics – like being in the center of a beehive with a repetitive, haunting tune that releases the mind and carries you away somewhere. It made us forget about our physical needs – like a bathroom for me, and a cold beer for Bill.

Monks chanting before a giant Buddha

More chanting

Lulled by the chanting, we were a much more mellow couple. We checked out some of the more hopping local bars, but ended up at Mr. Charter’s, a funky open air bar overlooking the Mekong River. We shared one large cold Beerlao for 80 cents. Mr. Charter, aged 58, is truly a promoter and go-getter – six kids, thriving business – a taxi service, two boats, the restaurant we were sitting in and a big house (although pretty run down) on prime property overlooking the river. If he could come up with some investment capital, he’d add a guesthouse to his list of services. He showed us his write-up in Rough Guide. I’d love to know his story. We booked his son to take us to the airport tomorrow.

We walked to TumTum Chen near the Wat – another beautiful restaurant with gourmet food at bargain prices. Watching out for my tummy, I ordered a mild dish of fried noodles and veggies and Bill had stuffed chicken with dill sauce cooked in a banana leaf. With a beer, the tab came to $16 – but they couldn’t change our hundred-dollar bill. Lucky for us, they accepted credit cards.

Monday, Jan. 28 – Luang Prabang to Hanoi

Bill jolted me out of a deep sleep at 5 in the morning. He wanted to catch the monk parade again. I joined him and we went to search for monks. Found them and got lots of pictures. (Photos are posted on yesterday’s entry - Jan. 27)

Had breakfast at 7:00. We went back to the room. I sent Bill on a shopping expedition to find a bag for Amy while I pounded out my journal. He returned at 10:30 with a great bag and a book for Zi from the Big Brother Mouse bookstore.

I showered, packed, and hit the streets for lunch and a few miscellaneous gifts. We went back to Mr. Mouse’s to buy 5 more books – the ones translated into English. Such clever, charming stories. We also revisited Lisa’s classy shop. Lisa is the classy model from Budapest we met when we first arrived in Laung Prabang. She charmed us all over again and we bought an expensive silk weaving from her for the kids. More photos, more laughs – just wish I could get to know Lisa.

We had to grab lunch before we left for the airport. Found burgers and a coke at a spot just around the corner from our hotel. Mr. Charter’s son arrived in his tuk-tuk right on time to take us to the airport. The charge was $4 – all the Lao money we had was $3.95. I felt bad – but he accepted it with no problem.

We were over two hours early to the airport. Dashed in to discover our plane was delayed by almost two hours. Where are those chanting monks when you need them? We checked in, went through customs and lucky me, found an electrical outlet to catch up in my journal.

A huge, pounding rainstorm hit while we were at the airport. We watched the heavy rains from the lobby. What’s up with that -- It’s not supposed to rain in dry season. We were glad not to be trekking in the remote hillside villages; but sad to be leaving Laos.

The 50-minute flight was uneventful – just like you want flights to be. We arrived in Hanoi, got through the rigorous customs and then had to wait 30 minutes or more for our luggage. We found our driver with our welcome sign and a big smile – He was an energetic guy, bounding over shrubs to get to the car. We had a long, hectic ride to the hotel. It was dark and traffic was worse because of preparations for the Tet celebration. We watched headlights come at us from every angle.

We arrived at the hotel about 7:00pm. Hotel Elegence 2 has got it together. The minute we walked in, they had a delicious mango drink and our key waiting. The handsome young staff is trained to sense your every need, even before you know what you need. “I’ll get a map for you; I’ll take care of that; would you like some dinner recommendations?” I felt like we were surrounded by “Stepford employees” – these guys can’t be real.

The room is small and has one small window to go along with it. (Bill booked the standard room for $35 a night – for $15 more a night, we would be in a deluxe room – oh well, we’ll make do.) The always-positive Customer Service Manager, Michael, said, “This is a very quiet, peaceful room. You’ll sleep like a log.” He chuckled and said, “I learn American slag from my customers – piece of cake.” He left us in room #302, equipped with everything including a computer with high speed Internet. We found a letter next to the computer from Michael addressed to us and wishing us a pleasant stay. Now that’s customer service!!!

We settled into our quiet, peaceful room and then we went right across the street to have dinner at the Tamarind Restaurant (not Joy’s place – the place we left behind in Laos). It was a warm, cozy, tasty vegetarian place. I had a noodle dish packed with veggies and tofu. Bill had Pho – a noodle soup he’s grown to love – and of course, we had a beer. Three of the dozen or so tables were occupied with different people I recognized from our late afternoon flight. What are the chances of that? Had we entered the twilight zone?

We went back to the room about 8:30 and got right to work on our journal. I finished picking the photos for Cambodia while Bill edited Laos. It’s great having two computers in our office away from home. We worked until 11:30. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Tuesday, Jan 29 – Day tripping in Hanoi

Bill woke up about 5 – way too early – but once the stirring starts, I’m up and at ‘em. We showered, worked on the journal and had breakfast at the hotel. Breakfast was good – hot eggs with baguettes served by the nice warm staff.

I put on every clean layer I had in my suitcase plus my rain poncho to keep out the morning nip. It’s very cold and dreary here – not at all like the beautiful springtime back in April of 2002. We caught a taxi to the Museum of Ethnology (Nguyen Van Huyen St. in Western Hanoi). It was out of the way, but well worth the extra distance.

The museum was beautifully done with displays from all the main ethnic groups in Vietnam. We bought five little carved wooden dolls (a buck a piece) from the “little doll” clerks. They were all bundled up and complaining about the damp and chilly morning. We bought our tickets right before a large French-speaking tour group trooped in. It took a little time to adjust our strategy of seeing the place in relative quiet.

We learned about the Viet (or Kinh), the largest of the ethnic groups (about 87% of the population). Another group, the Muong, who are much like their Thai neighbors, and known for their folk literature and ritual songs sung during funerals. After awhile, the groups began to merge and a few images are left etched in my brain.

  • Mr. Pham Dang Vy’s bicycle, loaded down with 800 wooden and bamboo fish traps.
  • Ruler for measuring pigs
  • A coin changer for 20,000 Dongs
  • Shaman’s mask
  • Dove trap
  • Traditional dresses that any top fashion model would be thrilled to wear down the walkway. (In fact, if I was a fashion designer, I’d be tempted to steal the styles and fabrics. I did see someone who looked like they were doing recognizance for Liz Claiborne. She was sketching the details on a notepad. I can only assume what she’s up to.)

Museum of Ethnology

Mr. Pham Dang Vy’s bicycle

Coin changer

Ruler for measuring pigs

Golden building a’blaze with light

King Sisavang Vong’s urn on funeral chariot

Carved doors

We stopped at several video presentations showing how the people worked the fields, processed the hemp, dyed the twine, wove the fabric, and celebrated. I watched the TV screen and re-lived our experiences from our remote village trek in Laos. I watched the images of the Shaman doing his jumping routine while a couple of young men dragged in a poor pig to meet his demise. There’s no comparison between watching the scenes on the video and being there in person with senses working overtime. The video didn’t capture the horrified squeals from the pig, the heat from the fire, and the dust rising from the floor stirred up by the jumping Shaman’s bare feet. A lot of my view of village life is secondhand, made possible through folks like National Geographic. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t carry the wallop as being there in person.

We were treated to a special traveling exhibition, entitled “We have eaten the forest.” The displays and write-ups helped us understand village life for the ethnic minorities on a much deeper level. The nearly 500 items were collected by George Condominas, a young researcher back in 1948 when he did his first field study.

George Condominas, of French descent, was born in the Hanoi area in 1921. He studied literature and ethnology in France and spent a year with the Mnong Gar people in Sar Luk, a remote village in the highlands of Vietnam. He was 27 at the time and must have been a Renascence Man. Pages from his notes (with illustrations in the margins) and his wonderful photographs were displayed along with the items he collected. (His work was published in 1957.) His sensitive quotations touched me:

“At first glance, their customs may appear picturesque or exotic, as if in an almost immutable way they reproduce a tradition rooted in the night of time – as we believe – but the Men of the Forest are no less men. What is more, they are men of the 20th century and are involved in a socioeconomic system that embraces the planet.”

He got to know the village people well and understood their relationships to each other. He did not want his presence to influence their everyday life. He recorded his notes after they went to sleep – so he could have some time with his thoughts. He communicated (and learned their language) through drawings and pantomiming.

The way he described the village of Sur Luk reminded me of what we first saw on our trek to the Laotian village:

“The path runs along the river and on the far bank (up to here covered by forest) a Mnong Gar village appears. Its long houses are aligned parallel to the water, and seem crushed by their immense roofs, from which veils of smoke rise.”

He reports on village life.

“Back from fishing, which was fruitful, each attends to his own affairs. The women weave . . . They weave beautiful ritual loincloths for their husbands. Krong-Hoong castrates two pigs belonging to Taan-Jieng-the-Stooped.”

He described the all-important ceremonies (and the accompanying buffalo sacrifice): Some of the ceremonies were:

  • Funeral rite and dressing of the body
  • Asking the spirits to approve the location of a new building
  • Asking blessings on the new building
  • Praying for rain and other celebrations associated with crops

The most important rituals to them were associated with the rice (called Paddy) planting cycles - burning the forest, preparing the soil, planting the seeds, harvesting, etc.

“Paddy is the foodstuff par excellence and its harvest cannot begin without a special rite (Knotting the Paddy) that inaugurates a season rich in taboos. One must eat neither cucumber nor pumpkin, neither fish nor egg, all slippery beings and bad examples for the rice; neither stag nor rat nor dove, all great devourers of the precious grain; nor should one, by extension, eat any meat. One must not whistle or sing in the fields, nor argue, nor cry; for this displeases the Soul of the Rice.”

The comments about the dogs made me chuckle, given my firsthand experience with village dogs. He said the dogs served a hygienic function -- keeping the village sanitized. They are called to lick the feces off the babies. Dogs, without religious souls, were also “sacrificed at the moment of the conclusion of a contract of sale of some valuable good.” (Helped to keep the population of village dogs down.)

I enjoyed viewing each object from George Condominas’ collection – baskets, knives, carved buffalo horns, Shaman masks, jewelry, ceremonial dresses and headpieces. Each object was labeled with a description and the price he negotiated. I could just see him trading cigarettes, his riding pants, his suit jacket, his tobacco pouch, piastres (currency, I suppose). From the looks of the items, that village must have had many talented artisans and craftsmen.

NOTE: Our little village in Laos had nothing – no carvings, no baskets, no weavings. Believe me, I looked. There was just one oversized birthday candle burning on a bamboo alter.

The special exhibit ended with a large photo of Condominas’ return to the village in 2006, 58 years later. He was pictured with Sraany who was just 18 when he first met her. All I can say is, “WOW – Thank you George for sharing your village.”

Sraany at age 18 - George met her in 1948

George returns to village in 2006; Sraany is 76

We meandered out back to explore examples of houses, communal centers and tombs from various minority groups.

  • The traditional house from Thanh Hoa province was over a hundred years old with wooden carved beams and doors. It was the home of a wealthy family.
  • The longhouse (modeled on one in Ky village, Buon Ma Thout City) is over 40 meters long. The extended families of daughters and granddaughters of this matriarchal society would have lived here.
  • The spectacular communal house of Bahnar is 19 meters high and is the symbol of male power. It was scary climbing up the notched wooden steps.
  • The tomb of the Giarai people from Gia Lai province was my personal favorite. Sexually explicit carved figures encircled the tomb – they were a hoot.

Museum’s backyard

Bahnar communal house

Steps to the communal house

Longhouse for matriarchal society

Longhouse decorated with carvings of boobs

Tomb of the Giarai people

X-rated carvings

Giarai Swingers

Fertility anyone?

Who are you looking at?

We had done the museum and made a stop at the lovely gift shop. We bought Steve and Daria (our absent traveling buddies) a weaving.

We had planned to go to Ho Chi Minh’s museum (visited there in 2002), but were museumed out by all that wonderful stuff. We caught a taxi to the Little Hanoi restaurant for lunch. Bill loved that place 6 years ago and wanted to buy another tee-shirt. (His old Little Hanoi t-shirt is now worn out.) Unfortunately, there are several Little Hanoi’s and we got the wrong one – but we settled in and had a little lunch – stir-fried rice with veggies for me.

We went back to our hotel to rest. Our heater was broken and we were cold – but one call to Customer Services Manager Michael and he was all over it. He delivered a space heater to the room and that seemed to do the trick (plus it helped dry our undies).

About 2:30 or 3, we ventured out in the old town to do the last of our souvenir shopping. We bought some knock-off Nike sandals for $10 each (to replace the ones we bought here 6 years ago). I got a few things – but was not in the shopping mode. The electricity was out in several of the stores so we couldn’t see their wares. The street vendors were relentless. We had to duck into one of the shops to avoid a guy hell-bent on polishing my dusty hiking shoes. (Excuse me, that dust came from a remote village in northern Laos – leave me alone!) Bill got a CD to use for the soundtrack in his video. We got some fabric and a weaving – that was it. I wanted to get out of the cold, the drizzle, the traffic, the aggressive street vendors, so we went back to our little room.

Statue that is oh so communistic

Bill becomes a vendor (for a fee, of course)

Busy streets of old town

Transporting Mandarin orange trees for New Year’s

Elegance Hotel – Home Sweet Home

We set up a makeshift office in our room, I used the computer in the room; Bill used our laptop. He got the Cambodian report out while I caught up with my friends on the Internet.

At 7:30, we ventured down the street to an Indian restaurant, the Tandoor. We climbed the steps to the second floor and found a table. The place didn’t look like much, but the kebobs, from an authentic tandoor oven, and the chicken masala were excellent. We were happy again.

Wednesday, Jan 30 – Hanoi to Singapore

We enjoyed another breakfast by the friendly staff at the Hotel Elegance. We went back to the room to catch up on the journal.

Our taxi arrived at 10:30. We had an hour’s drive to the airport. We passed so many people carrying Mandarin orange trees on their motorbikes. Mandarin orange trees, like our Christmas trees, are a requirement for the celebration of New Year’s. So strange to see them weaving in and out of traffic.

It was cold and dreary – I had all the clean layers that I could find – but it still wasn’t enough. I looked like a bag lady. At the chilly airport, I took out the silk robe I bought for Amy and added yet another layer. I removed 3 layers as we boarded the plane at 12:30 – we were headed to Singapore and the equator and would be warm soon.

I intended to catch up in my journal on the flight, but was seduced by the wine and beer and nice lunch (for airplane fare). I ended up watching the movie, “Michael Clayton” with George Clooney. Excellent! After the movie, I opened my file only to see “corrupted file.” The gods must be against me. Where’s a pig to sacrifice?

We landed in Singapore about 6:30, went through the airport hassles, took an hour-long bus ride to our hotel. As luck would have it, we were the last to be delivered to our hotel. We liked our hotel, Peninsula Excelsior, located smack dab in the center of town. We liked the adorable little hotel trainee at check-in and really liked our room on the 10th floor overlooking the city and St. Michael’s Church.

At 8:00 pm, we were back out on the streets in search of dinner. We walked to the riverfront to pick one of the restaurants that line the riverside. The hostess at the first stop offered us half priced beer ($4, instead of $8) and 20% off on the over-priced dinner. What she didn’t tell us was the towlettes were a buck each, the rice didn’t come with the dinner and was $10 for one little dish, and the peanuts (which we didn’t touch) were additional. We’d been scammed. We only had $50 Singapore dollars, so had to put the rest on a credit card. The dinner was good (sweet and sour shrimp for me; sweet and sour pork for Bill) – but certainly not worth the “discounted” prices. On the way out, the hostesses asked if we enjoyed our meal. I told her we were scammed and listed all the hidden charges. She replied, “That’s the way it is in Singapore. Next time. . .” Bill interrupted, “There’ll be no next time” and off we trotted.

We took a little walk along the river and remembered our time in Singapore, just 3½ weeks ago. This is one of the most civilized cities (excepted for the scam artists) we’ve ever traveled to (oops, never end a sentence with a preposition).

Thursday, Jan 31 – Singapore to Home, Sweet Home

The bus to the airport picked us up at 6:30 and delivered us to Terminal 3, the new $1.75 billion terminal at the airport. We had plenty of time to explore and take some photos.

Out of this world terminal

Classy artwork

Palm trees line the escalator

Funky statues

Carts all in a row

We boarded the Singapore Airline’s plane at 9:30 am. Lucky us, we have an empty seat between us – more room to stretch out. I worked on my journal until the computer’s battery got weak … and I got weak, so I went into autopilot – eating, drinking, watching movie after movie, all the time anxious to get home.

After 5 or 6 hours, we stopped in Tokyo. I did a few subtle yoga stretches in the corner of the lobby. In no time, I had inspired a group of about 25 postmenopausal women just returning from a tour to India. They were serious yoga students and went into headstands, downward dogs, cobras, etc. They chatted about how India had given them new direction in life. They hugged each other a lot. I sat quietly by.

Bill was nervous about getting the butterfly collection I purchased in Luang Prabang through customs. He filled out the U.S. customs form asking, “Are you bringing insects into the country?” I said dead insects didn’t count and went off to a duty free shop to get a large, official looking bag to disguise my wares. It worked!

The flight from Tokyo to L.A. was only 8 ½ hours long – We arrived an hour early and were thrilled to get a jump on traffic and back home. Our joys were dashed when the gate was unavailable, customs was slow, our bags were the last off the conveyer belt and we just missed the Alamo Car Rental shuttle. We were in our little P.T. Cruiser by noon and headed home. Luckily the traffic wasn’t bad and we arrived home at 2:30. The house was cold. So many things to do. But most important is seeing Zi, my darling granddaughter again.

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