Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Laos Day #6

Saturday 30 January started off very cool. The temperature during the night had gotten down to 14C (57F). It made for a very refreshing start to the morning. Duang chose to remain in the relative warmth of our bed underneath the comforter and a special Chinese blanket. The Chinese blanket was the same type that we had seen used in some of the minority people villages. The blanket was made out of a felt type synthetic material and about 5/8" thick - making it very heavy. The blanket was also decorated with very garish colors - predominately reds. All told, I was even glad that we had that blanket the previous night.
I left our cottage at 7:00 A.M. and walked to the Vat (Wat in Thai) in Ban Khone which is close to the hotel. There was a fog bordering on being a light mist. People were congregating in small groups outside of their homes getting warm from small wood fires built on the bare ground. Once again my morning's walking experience gave evidence to the open and friendly disposition of the Lao people. People walking, riding bicycles, riding on motorbikes, and squatting around their home fire gave me smiles and "sabai-dii" (Lao "Hello"). Walking provides so much more dimension to travel. The slow pace of walking exposes you to the sounds, smells, as well as the intricate details of the area through which you pass. You also are exposed to more intimate contact with the local people. Travel by truck, car, motorbike, or bus will cover more ground and cover the ground more quickly but it doesn't seem like you have been there unless you put your boots or, as is so often the case here in Southeast Asia, put your flip flops on the ground.

I arrived at the Vat, Buddhist temple, after most of the Monks had apparently left on their daily alms walk. Several young Monks ranging in age from 15 to 20 years old milling around in the fog. The chickens and roosters that live on the Vat grounds were busy greeting the morning and leaving their roosts in the many trees and shrubs that grow throughout the compound. At 7:00 A.M. the Lao public radio started broadcasting on the large speaker mounted in one of the large trees of the Vat. There was some ethnic music and what seemed to be a reading of the daily news. Shortly later two separate groups of younger Monks returned with food offerings from their early morning alms walk. I assume that the older Monks had finished their walk prior to my arrival at the Vat. However, I did see one of the older Monks look into a very young Monk's bowl to see what he had brought back - sort of like checking out a younger brother's trick or treat bag on Halloween night.

The Monks were shy so it was not easy to get meaningful photographs. Some of the older Monks were doing morning chores - sweeping out their houses, and carrying water to the outhouse. Most of the Monks were occupied keeping an eye on me, trying to figure out what I was up to,and ensuring that I could not photograph their face. Two Monks, about 8 years old, were busy playing a game with a woven rattan ball - perhaps Takawh without a net. I often find it ironic that these "holy men" quite often can be seen behaving just like so many of the other young boys of their same age. In Laos, and to a lesser extent, Thailand, the Vats and Wats offer an opportunity to poor boys to obtain a higher education for free. One of our new Lao friends, had attended the same Vat from when he was 9 years old until he was 18. At the side of the Vat grounds was a fairly large two story building - the Vat's school.

I wandered around the Vat grounds and eventually made my way to the village outside of the back gate to the Vat. Upon my return on to the Vat grounds, I heard some voices. I peered over a bamboo fence and saw several Monks huddled around a small fire. They were trying to get warm and in deep conversation - perhaps theology? I said "Sabai dii" and asked their permission to photograph them. They indicated that there was no problem. I took several and I am optimistic that this aspect of a Monk's life is not often seen.

I returned to the hotel, showered with plenty of hot water from the solar water heating system, and enjoyed breakfast with my wife. The hotel manager was not there so we made arrangements with the receptionist to hire Mr Kpmpak and his van for the next day so that we could attend the Lanten New Year celebration in Ban Pakha. Just as in Isaan, news travels quickly and far in Luang Namtha, Duang and I returned to our cottage - Duang resting in the bedroom and I writing at the desk in the front room. I heard a voice letting us know that someone was coming - a sing song type lilt used by peddlers when they are making their rounds through Baan Chorada where our home is located. It was Kuhn Khone, and his 11 month old daughter, Soolani. She was all bundled up against the morning chill and clutching a large balloon from the local festival. She was just too precocious in her little pink hat with ears at the sides to ignore so I hauled out the cameras and started taking photographs. She was a very easy and willing model. We all had a good time. Khun Khone had heard that we were traveling to Ban Pahka the next day and inquired if he could accompany us. Without hesitation we gladly agreed. He had been so helpful and kind to us that we were happy to help him out.

After his visit, Duang and I headed out on our first walk of the day. We first stopped at the rice milling "plant" to the right of the Boat Landing Guest House towards the Acrow style bridge spanning the Nam Tha River. The miller has been busy with all sorts of rice deliveries to the mill. These are not huge shipments but are deliveries from local people - deliveries by motorbike, push carts, the ubiquitous Chinese farm trucks 5 HP and 10 HP variety and some of the more modern small farm trucks - approximately 1 to 2 ton rated capacity. Often the farmer's family will accompany him on the trip to the mill. I was able to take several photos of "The Farmer's Daughters" as they waited in their 10 HP Chinese farm truck. The people wait their turn. When it is their time, they dump their rice out of their bags into a square hole in the floor. A vertical conveyor elevates the rice to the top of the milling machine where gravity is utilized to feed the grain through the process. The hulled rice exits the bottom of the milling machine on to a short horizontal conveyor that feeds another enclosed vertical conveyor that fed a chute which dumped the finished product into an awaiting grain bag - the same bags that were used to bring the grain to the mill. just as in Isaan where the rice thresher is paid with a certain percentage of the finished product, the miller kept his share. In the back and side of his milling room (plant?), there were high stacks of filled 100 Kg bags of milled rice. The milling plant was extremely interesting - it was filled with many large cobwebs that had captured the dust generated by the milling process and nearby dirt road for unknown days, weeks, or perhaps months or longer. Exposed drive belts offered a constant source of potential accidents. Standard safety equipment and practises often required in similar American facilities were no where to be seen. This was a down to the basics, one person facility - minimally fit for purpose. A facility where a local person was providing his neighbors with a necessary and valuable service. About 4 kilometers away alongside the main road into town, I saw another similar milling plant. No doubt there would have been more of these small independent plants if I had looked more carefully and more widely.

From the milling plant, we walked back to the paved main road and a very short ways towards the new part of Luang Namtha to Ban Khone where the Vat I had visited earlier in the morning. The Monks were now accustomed to me so photographing them was much easier. Unfortunately the Vat was locked and the Monks we spoke to did not have the key. We grabbed a passing taxi truck and rode into town. After having lunch at a local restaurant, I withdrew 700,000 KIP from my bank account back in California. The world has changed so dramatically in such a relatively short time.

In 1973, I obtained an American Express card for the sole purpose of making foreign currency purchases by credit card during my first overseas trip - a trip to Europe. At the time the only alternative was to carry Traveler's Checks. Today I am able to be in a small town in northwest Laos, use my American ATM card to get funds from my account in California, and check the current balance of the US account - a small town that was leveled during the Second Indochina War, 1973 to 1975 - amazing!

So ended our morning of our sixth day in Laos. The day was one-half over with a full afternoon remaining but that will be subject of a different blog.

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