Saturday, December 11, 2010

Been There and Done That; Only This Time It Was Different


A Young Hmong Girl Eats Her Snack At the Festival In Laos

We arrived back home in Isaan, Northeast Thailand, last night from our four day trip to Laos.

Here in Isaan there is a phrase that is utilized often, perhaps too often for some foreigners who are of a more structured and precise ilk.  The phrase is "Same, Same, but Different".

At the risk of offending those foreigners I will describe our just concluded journey/adventure as "Same, Same but Different".  We specifically went up to Luang Prabang to witness "Pee Mai Hmong" (Hmong New Years).  It had ended up being a pretty much spur of the moment decision.  I had wanted to attend the festivities last year, but I had a great deal of difficulty determining exactly when the celebration would start.  Actually to paraphrase a recent former US President; "It all depends on what the meaning of the word, start, is"

Hmong Girls In Traditional Festival Clothing

The Hmong New Years celebration occurs in December but it is a 10 day festival with the first two days being allocated for rituals conducted in the homes.  The public celebration, which we had previously witnessed and wanted to see again, starts on the third day and runs for 8 days.  So for Duang and me, the "start" day was for the start of the public celebration.  I called the driver that we had used on our previous trip, Johnee's father, to no avail.  His cellphone was no longer in service.  I suspect that since he was married to a Danish woman, he and Johnee had immigrated to Denmark.  I had the phone number of the headman from the Khmu village outside of Luang Prabang but he was not all that helpful last year - the exact "start" date is determined by the moon and decision of the local people as to exact "start" date.  I researched the Internet and came up with a date of 16 December.  Having made what I considered to be a good go at it by myself, I reached out to a friend of mine with extensive knowledge as well as contacts in Laos.

My friend reaffirmed the difficulty in determining the "start" date.  He had a contact in Luang Prabang did not know the exact date.  I resigned myself to missing out on the celebration for yet another year.  Fortunately, my friend's friend  came through about a week ago with the "start" date of December 6 and a completion date of 9 December or 10 December.  I still did not know the meaning of the indicated start date of 6 December so I figured instead on working backwards from the end date of 10 December and worked to our arrival date of 7 December and departure of 10 December.

Previously we had stayed overnight in Vientiane and caught the 7:30 AM VIP bus to Luang Prabang up Highway 13 to Luang Prabang some 12 or perhaps 13 hours away.  This was a been there and done that experience - an experience that I nor Duang wanted to do again.  I researched flying to Luang Prabang on Lao Airlines.  There is or was or perhaps there is a direct flight from Udonthani to Luang Prabang.  However I was unable to book a flight on the Internet.  I kept getting a message to effect that a flight was not available for one of the dates that I had selected.  Great help; I have encountered the same problem at other airline websites - you are left to try to figure whether or not the problem lies with your departure day or return date or is only a particular flight time that is the issue?

After further research at other sights, I came to the conclusion that the direct flight from Udonthani to Luang Prabang had been suspended.  Later I was lead to believe that the flight has been reinstated now that it is the "high season".  No matter the case I dropped back to Plan "B" which was to go to Vientiane and fly out of there to Luang Prabang.  There are a couple of daily flights from VTE to LPQ.

We were not able to book on the morning flight on Tuesday 7 December so we settled for a 1:20 P.M. departure from VTE with a 2:00 P.M. arrival in LPQ.  This still saved us the overnight expense and time in Vientiane and got us into Luang Prabang 6 to 7 hours earlier than the bus.  With a 2:00 P.M. arrival there was still some time on Tuesday for some touring.  For the return flight, I selected a 5:50 P.M. departure which gave us most of the daylight of Friday for sightseeing.  With no difficulty our flights were reserved and paid for - $320.80 USD.


Hmong Girls Strolling - Seeing and Being Seen
 We had flown earlier this year from Vientiane and Luang Namtha on Lao Airlines.  This month's as well as our flights at the start of the year were great.  The flights were what you used to enjoy and hope for today - no nonsense.  Our ticket included baggage.  There was no additional fee for checked baggage.  We split up the camera gear into two carry on backpacks; I carried one and Duang carried the other.  There was no problem with our carry on size or weight.  Our clothing and other gear was in a single checked baggage weighing 12 KG.  The checked bag was an approved size for carry on by international carriers.  I indicated that there was one bag for two people and it was accepted without question and more importantly no additional fee.  On our return to Vientiane, the bag weighed 14.4 KG and again there was no problem.

Lao Airlines flies ATR72 and MA60 turboprop planes.  We once again flew on the Chinese made MA60.  A Chinese designed and manufactured 60 passenger plane powered by Pratt and Whitney of Canada engines - a common situation in the global economy of today;  an American company supplying aircraft engines through it's Canadian subsidiary for a Chinese company.  This is like a Toyota, a Japanese company, assembling cars in the United states out of parts made in Mexico, Canada, and Japan.  Is it a Japanese car or an American car?  Perhaps the answer is not on the manufacturing details but rather on the financial side.  The answer may be defined as to where the profits are sent.

I had used the Internet, http://www.agoda.com/, to research and book a room in Luang Prabang.  For our travels here in Southeast Asia, I always rely on Agoda and have never had a problem with them.  I am pleased with the discounts that Agoda can offer for all types of accommodations.  We did not like the hotel that we stayed at two years ago so I selected a different hotel, the Chang Hotel, to stay at this year.  The price was roughly double the rate where we stayed before but was well worth the money - but that will be the subject of another blog.

We had our airline and hotel reservations, our plan was once again to trust our intuition and select a driver for local transportation upon arrival at our destination.  Yes, there are people who will rip you off.  Yes, we have been ripped off a few, very few, times.  However most of the people that you encounter in these rural out of the way destinations are typically just an ordinary guy trying to make a living.  Duang and I do not go on organized tours.  Our traveling style is not compatible with an organized group in that we do not like being told how long we have to visit what particular location that they have selected.  We prefer to select our own locations and sights to visit supplemented with knowledge from local people who drive us about.  We are able to get a more personal experience from our travels by closely interacting with local people.  Very quickly the local drivers realize what we are interested in and take us to more unique places that meet and often exceed our expectations.  We run the risk perhaps of being ripped off but if we don't like a particular driver we do not hire for the next day.  I believe that the costs that we have paid for being ripped off are far less than the profit and overhead charged by an organized tour.  The benefit to us is to travel on our own schedule and a flexibility to enjoy serendipitous events or locations.



A Little Hmong Girl At the New Years Festival




This Little Guy Actually Managed to get Some Food Into His Mouth
 So yes this was basically a trip to a place we had been before for things that we had done before.  Same Same but different.

We stayed at a better hotel in a better location.

We ate at the restaurants that we ate at before but I could not drink the free draft Beer Lao that came with our second pizza at the Hive Restaurant; a large bottle and the first free draft Beer Lao was more than enough for me this year.

We went to the same locations for the public Hmong celebrations but this year I had a new and better camera.

We went to the Presidential Palace just as we did on the previous visit but whereas on our first visit the Sala Pha Bang was filled with scaffolding and workers, it is no longer under renovation.  It was a thrill to see the completed renovation but that will also be the subject of a different blog.

On this visit we visited two different outlying villages and saw Lao Kao (whiskey) production, embroidery, silk weaving, knife making, and brick production.  This was different.

Since our visit this year coincided with the Lunag Prabang International Film Festival, one night we attended the screening of a foreign film from Malaysia.  This was different.

We went the Night Market every night.  That was the same.  We spent far less at the market than during our previous visit and that was a big "different".

We ate French pastry at some new cafes.  That was different.

I went to an elementary school for the start of the morning.  I wandered about the school grounds photographing the young students and then photographing the classrooms.  I was ignored by the adults and never saw a security guard or policeman.  I was however like the Pied Piper with the children.  I enjoyed speaking or trying to speak with the children.  They were pleased to see digital photographs of themselves and their friends.  I did introduce myself to a couple of teachers and got to speak with them - a little bit.  This was different - wonderfully different.  But once again that will be subject of a future blog entry.

So this year's trip just as in life was a continuation as well as refinement of the past.  We built upon what was good from the last trip and took steps to eliminate or improve what was not 100% from our last trip.  To keep it all interesting and improve the overall experience we tried some different activities and locations on this trip.

Same, Same but different.

Perhaps even better!

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