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Posts Tagged ‘Laos’

Sakon Nakhon (4)Isaan Province, north east Thailand. OK – it’s never going to be high on any tourists’ list of “must dos” but there is something very appealing about getting away from the crowds of “farangs” and Asian tour buses, and striking out into “The Real Thailand”. And especially when there is the promise of exciting textiles!
The journey starts in Bangkok with the sleeper train from Hualamphung station. These trains have improved since I was last on one and its a smooth ride in a comfy bed. Until we’re pitched out into a cold and dark pre-dawn Udon Thani.  I need to dig out my jacket, find a tuktuk, drink coffee, get warm, and hire a car in that order. It takes a while to organise.
The day ends in the city park in Udon, to join the joggers, cyclists, and guys playing keepy uppy with a rattan ball. There’s also a free aerobics session to pumping Thai techno music and it’s impossible not to join in. Could we have free aerobics every evening in our parks????

Next day we head out to the unremarkable little town of Sakon Nakhon. It’s redneck country out here: cowboy hats, tractors and buffalo, pork products aplenty, and dry, searing heat, but the people of Sakon turn out to be some of the friendliest I’ve ever encountered. My rudimentary Thai is greeted with smiles and everyone is as helpful as can be. I’m here because Sakon Nakhon is a centre of  indigo dyeing and cotton weaving, and I want to find out more! We start at the Phu Phan Royal Study Centre a few miles out of town, one of 6 projects set up by the former King of Thailand to find sustainable ways to improve life in the local area. Here they research and teach water conservation techniques, livestock and rice culture but more interesting to us are the seri-culture (silk) and indigo projects.

We start by calling in at “Information” – usually a total misnomer, but we are greeted by a capital girl called Nam who speaks good english and shows us around. She bounces up and down with enthusiasm, uses the translation app on her phone for tricky words (mulberry, turmeric, loom, tamarind) and all our questions about silk and indigo production are answered. She even rings up the local National Park to book us some accommodation. Which is how we end up alone in a small thatched hut next to a lily pond in the middle of a desiccated teak forest. A trip to the nearest village to buy food for our dinner and breakfast yields only beer, crisps and a doughnut. There’s plenty of pumpkins from the local forest on sale but I’m not sure we could handle them with just a water heater. In the evening Jim and I are treated to a display of fireflies over the pond right outside our hut which makes us very happy.

Working on information from the cheery Nam, we are off next day to a village to attempt to buy some indigo paste.
We’ve only got a name but luckily we have google maps (wow, how did we ever manage without that?) and soon we cut away from the mayhem of the main road widening project* and onto village tracks running alongside a water canal. This means there are green rice fields, fruit trees and a welcome respite from the permanent crispy leaved, parched scrub which makes up most of the area.

(* Major transportation projects are happening in Thailand… high speed railways are being built and numerous Thai-Laos”Friendship Bridges” now span the Mekhong river all along the border. To link these, massive road widening projects are turning what were always fairly traffic free roads running through villages into motorways! And to do this, hundreds of huge and beautiful roadside shade trees have been uprooted, swathes of shacks and dwellings demolished and sleeping dogs have to find somewhere else to sleep. It is truly heart breaking. We humans really are very stupid indeed.)

The village of Ban Non Reua is a complete revelation. There are fields and fields of indigo bushes and dye production is in full swing, and yes, we can buy natural indigo paste by the kilo. Its shining midnight-blue gloopiness is weighed out and tightly encased in several layers of plastic bags, but even then manages to permeate the hire car with the distinctive (some may say yucky) smell of indigo for the next 10 days.

Almost every house in the village has its indigo buckets and pots, its drying yarns and its loom under the house, and we soon realise that serious textile production is going on here. The warps are around 76 metres long which means 38 two metre scarves without having to take them off the loom. The designs are made by weaving randomly dyed ikat* weft threads into the warp which gives a contemporary look. The weave has a pattern achieved by the various combinations of the 4 foot pedals and 4 heddles set on the loom. The weaver can alter this pattern as she works across the design if she wants to, and the weaving is extremely fast! (* the ikat process is called “matmee” in Thai)

Before long, a young woman called Chulay comes by up on her scooter – obviously it doesn’t take long before word is out that farangs are in town! She soon realises we’re genuinely interested and invites us back to her sister’s house for a wonderful Isaan lunch with the family (It’s incredibly spicy, with lots of those pork products, and sticky rice straight from the basket, no plates, knives or forks)
Chulay organises and sells indigo scarves woven right here in the village,lot to buyers from Laos. I’ve always wondered what part of Laos these weavings came from, and now I find out they’re not from Laos at all! Obviously we fill our boots (the car boot anyway) with lots of great indigo scarves.

After a dream of a village, we go back to town in time for the weekend Indigo Night Market, a recent tourism initiative, which unlike many of these PR schemes, actually seems to be working. Traffic is diverted and the street in front of Sakon’s amazing Phra That Choeng Chum temple is filled with stalls selling indigo clothes, fabrics, scarves as well as lots of Thai snacks to sustain the visitors (who are nearly all Thai). Traditional, experienced weavers are bringing their own work from the villages to sell direct and young textile students are getting involved as well. The number of contemporary studios selling a whole range of great indigo dyed products is fast growing. As night falls the temple lights are lit, the “country and eastern” band starts up on the little stage and we sit on tiny stools surrounded by our bags of purchases, eating mango sticky rice . Aaahhh!

Add to all this, the fact that Sakon Nakhon sits on a beautiful lake which is full of birdlife, and there is a regular aerobics session in the park right beside that lake, and you can probably tell I’m already dying to get back there!

 

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10-4000-islands-7

Finally we’ve reached the “4,000 islands” in the far south of Laos, where the Mekong River widens out as far as the eye can see, and is dotted with hundreds if not thousands of islands. The pace of life is now so slow it seems to grind to a halt. The default position here is horizontal – hammocks hang around every house and restaurant, every guesthouse room has at least one – woven from bamboo or tatty string or cloth and even special swinging baskets for the babies (of which there are many).

Almost every restaurant  here has a large platform with mattresses and pillows and low tables. There’s one at our guesthouse. Crawling out of bed and making it the few dozen yards to the table means that as long as you can attract the attention of someone to bring food and drink, you are tempted not to move again for the rest of the day.

There’s a group of French folk staying at our guesthouse who’ve hardly moved in the three days we’ve been here. There are 5 of them but they’ve only taken one room where they can keep all their stuff and take a shower now and again – otherwise they sleep on the seat-beds or in a hammock, roll up their sleeping bags in the morning and order brekkies. We’ve christened them “les pommes de terre couchantes”.

The Lao people here in the south lead a pleasant and almost self sufficient life which seems pretty good. Every family has a boat so they can fish or take the tourists out to a water-fall or to see the very precious Irrawaddy dolphins, or to the mainland for a bus or an ATM. Chickens, ducks and pigs are free, the dogs are friendly and so are the kids.With no cars around, they dash about on bikes, splash in the river or poke at trees with long sticks. The tourists bring in more than enough income it would seem and entertainment is provided by sharing meals and the telly on dawn til dusk (Thai boxing and soaps mostly). Work is done in the early morning before the searing hot sun gets going and in the early evening in that short and magic time between sundown and dark.

We speculate about what they think of us and the strange lives we lead. What do they tell their kids about the foreigners who seem to have nothing to do and endless amounts of money to spend?

In southern Laos, it’s the old colonisers, the French who are most in evidence. Their great-grandfathers came here and took the teak, tin, coffee, opium and rubber out. When the Lao decided to “Take back Control of their Own Country” (something we seem to be hearing a lot about lately) they were carpet bombed and  land mined for their trouble. But even after all that, the French are still here and they’re still sitting around ordering beer, baguettes and espressos!  By the way, I don’t mean to single out the French, any colonial power would do, it’s just that in Laos it was the French and here in southern Laos they must make up about 80% of the “farangs

We started this trip, a month ago in the north of the country, where things have changed a lot since I was here 12 years ago. Yes, there are ATMs now and roads where there never were any roads and lots more people speak English, but the big change is that the north is being colonised again – this time by China.

In northern Laos it’s all about the power of China – in some cases literally – “Power China” is building dams and massive hydro-electric schemes and bringing in their own crews, machinery and finance to do so. With the permission of the Laos Government, Chinese companies are tearing down the forests and planting huge plantations of rubber, teak and banana. To get to all of this, they are building bridges and roads. This has the knock on effect of bringing tourists in from China too! It happened that we were in northern Laos over Chinese New Year and about three quarters of the cars on the road had Chinese number plates. There are even Chinese campervanners now, behaving exactly the same as their northern European counterparts travelling down to the Med, camping up in the best parking spots next to the coast/Mekong riverbank. Big three generation families and groups of friends racketing around laughing and shouting, getting drunk and enjoying hotpot barbecue banquets, all having a great time and generally behaving like rowdy old Brits on holiday on the Costa Brava.

Five things I love about Laos

  1. The rivers – the Mekong is the Big Momma of them all but there are rivers everywhere. They are great to travel on, fish in, swim in, wash in, wallow in (if you’re a buffalo) and have a beer while staring out at. The only downside is now that more roads have been built, riverboat services are quickly becoming extinct.
  2. Weaving (of course!) Lao women continue to wear hand woven sarongs and there are many villages where there’s a loom under every house, so that means lots of potential for textile based travel decisions. Brocades, very complicated patterned weaves, supplementary weft techniques, and ikat are all alive and well. One of my favourite days was spent dyeing and weaving silk at “Ock Pop Tok” in Luang Prabang. One of my new discoveries in Laos is Katu weaving. Naturally  dyed weavings with patterns of tiny beads made by Katu women.
  3. Herbal steam bath followed by a massage – one of the things which bring you into direct contact (literally) with Lao people. Sharing a very dark, very hot and very steamy wooden cupboard with a dozen or so sarong clad Lao women is kinda fun.
  4. Village life. Cycling or walking around a village especially at dusk is just fantastic. Football games are played, kids bathed, food cooked, cloth woven, chickens fed, cows and goats rounded up, nets mended, and gardens watered.
  5. BeerLaos – there’s only one kind of beer sold in Laos. but it’s pretty good and it’s only a quid for a big bottle, so no problem there. Oh, and noodle soup – the absolute lunchtime staple, which comes in a basin big enough to stick your head in and is usually accompanied by a plateful of greenery.

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Looking down on the Maekhong on the border.

Looking down on the Maekhong on the border.

We’ve just done a big loop of a road trip around the North, much of it along Thailand’s borders.

Mai Sai – we started by driving four hours north of Chiang Mai to Mae Sai – much visited by the expat “border run” brigade as for $10 you can renew your visa – just cross the “Friendship Bridge” to Burma and then immediately turn back into Thailand. We come here for another reason; the market here sells jade and its good and cheap. You can also buy  lots of other things; Burmese tobacco and cheroots, fruit wines of questionable alcoholic content, sequinned marionettes and “kalaga” hangings, loose tea and tea paraphernalia, pen knives, electronics and all the other weird stuff men buy, and the usual market gear.

BIG Buddha looking out to Burma

A VERY BIG Buddha – that’s me at the bottom!

The border between Thailand and Burma here is nothing more than a few feet of water which most people could wade across, but border traffic is non-stop over the bridge during opening hours. In the past, we’ve had to cancel trips to Mae Sai because of “border skirmishes” or Drug -War -Lord action but this seems to have quietened down lately and commerce is allowed full reign.

Just a few yards from the madness of the market place is a quiet riverside neighbourhood where we stay, popping out after dark for a kebab barbequed over a clay pot. A huge white seated Buddha looms on the hillside into Burma. The Thai borders with both Burma and Laos feature “Holier Than Thou” wars : ever more enormous effigies of the Buddha stare at each other from the hillsides.

IMG_9948

If you file under the twin elephants while a man chants you can get some merit

The Golden Triangle – Heading east, we stop for breakfast at the village of Sop Ruak or “Golden Triangle” as it seems to have taken to calling itself. From the river bank you can gaze at both Burma and Laos at the point where the Mae Khong River arrives in Thailand. To commemorate this fact, you may take a boat ride to land (and do some shopping, of course) in all three countries.

You can also have your photo taken at all kinds of photo opportunity attractions; an enormous golden Buddha, a couple of gigantic plaster elephants, a sign saying “The Golden Triangle” or indeed at the Hall of Opium. Nearby are some benches “Donated by United States Drug Enforcement Administration Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau Sensitive Investigative Unit Bangkok” Catchy title.  As Jim grumpily commented, They’ve constructed an entire tourist economy on the old opium trade but just try buying some now!

Chiang Saen – On to Chiang Saen, a quiet town on the Maekhong where you can get a passenger ferry all the way to Jinghong in southern China. A few small Chinese cargo boats are in but Chiang Saen seems to be gearing itself up in a big way for a flood of foreign tourists. There are brand new, as yet unopened passenger terminals and immigration

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up

Cargo boats from Jinghong in south-western China loading up in Chiang Saen

offices on the quayside. So what’s going on? I have seen quite a few “Thai Border Police. Ready to ASEAN 2015” signs on our travels near the Burmese borders lately and wondered what they meant – now it’s time I found out.

ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) was formed in 1967 and aimed to be a sort of Asian version of the European Union. It’s an economic bloc of 10 member states which is planning to get closer. In 2015 the aim is to allow goods and services to pass freely between each of the countries, for professional and skilled workers (please note) to be able to work anywhere in the union and for tourists from each country to visit without a visa.

The Thais seem to be busy putting in the infrastructure to aid this new development. A second “Friendship Bridge” has been built a few miles from Mae Sai for large lorries to and from Burma, and Chiang Saen is clearly expecting more tourism from Laos and China. And as we soon find out, the former country road which meanders along the river and over the mountains from Mae Sai to Chiang Khong is being widened to a totally inappropriate dual carriageway. Just like in China, the road is being built piecemeal so that a few hundred yards of smooth tarmacked road is followed by a few hundreds yards of potholed old road, followed by a few hundred yards of dust-choked nightmare, all the way along

 ASEAN - its everywhere

ASEAN – its everywhere

for mile after mile.

Chiang Khong – Hot, dusty and frazzled, we get to Chiang Khong – a little town strung out along the banks of the Mae Khong and a place where foreigners can cross the river and emigrate into Laos. It has the feel of a border town. Here too, there is a new border post and a new “Friendship Bridge” to take freight between Thailand and Laos (and ultimately China) A “Chiang Khong New City” of brand new, as yet unlived in offices and apartments is being built and somehow it feels as if China is calling the shots.

So what does it all mean? Already there are cars with Chinese number plates in Chiang Mai, Asian tourism is vastly increasing anyway and that will only continue what with the numerous budget airlines like Air Asia (slogan: Now Everyone Can Fly!) and new international highways being built. One thing I am sure of is that life will not be made any easier for the stateless refugees and hill-tribe people of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma.

These border regions have a long history of being settled by people arriving from other places – usually forced to move by war, oppression and poverty. It’s a place of safety. There are the Mon, Akha, Shan and Karen from Burma, the Yao, the H’mong, the Wah and even little outcrops of Kuomintang coming from China, and the Tai Lu, Lahu and Lisu  on the Laos borders. As you reach each village, you can look around for the small clues which show which people live there; the clothes on a washing line, the style of the roofs, a loom under the house, red lanterns hanging at a front

Those skirts mean its got to be a H'mong village

Those skirts mean its got to be a H’mong village

door. It’s a fascinating region full of people without a country of their own, who are in many ways treated as second class, without the same rights as the “real” nationals. The “hill tribes”seem to be viewed here in the same way many Brits view Romanian or Bulgarian immigrants.

It seems to me that ASEAN’s Governments are keen to make money by dissolving boundaries on their own terms, but if everyone had the same freedom to disregard borders and make their home wherever they wish, they wouldn’t be so happy.

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