We finally depart Laos today. Cheryl has in the meantime fallen for Luang Prabang. That’s all for now, just stopped by a net cafe to burn a half hour.
We finally depart Laos today. Cheryl has in the meantime fallen for Luang Prabang. That’s all for now, just stopped by a net cafe to burn a half hour.
Although the situation concerning the availability of net access has changed dramatically in the last five years, it is still somewhat fiddly to get photos online. Internet cafes, even in Laos, are broadband connected, and time is charged out at 100 kip a minute (about A$1.10/hour). Nonetheless, uploading pictures is difficult. This is not necessarily because there is a lack of facilities for getting your files off the camera, but because it takes time to firstly sort through the hundred or so photos taken each day for the small handful that are worth posting, then to post-process the photos, and then to upload them and link them. Post-processing is time-consuming – you can’t just upload a bunch of 6 megapixel images weighing 2 to 3 megabytes each. You need to resize them, then compress them suitably with jpeg compression (I use around 7 on the Photoshop scale). Then there’s cropping and retouching work that can be done. Uploading them takes a while as well – broadband here can be unreliable. So, rest assured, I have photos, but you will have to wait a while to see them.
Currency in Laos
Laos is one of those countries, like Italy (pre-Euro) and Indonesia, whose currency comes with an extra two or three zeroes tacked on the end for good measure. (Okay, that’s being flippant for countries whose economies have gone through major turmoil in past decades.) The range of Lao banknotes is remarkably small, coming in 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 and 20000 kip denominations. There does’t seem to be any coinage. While the currency conversion from A$ to Kip is somewhat fiddly, conversion from US$ to Kip is a kindly 1 to 10,000. So, their largest banknote is worth US$2.
On our first day, going to the bank, I handed the teller two US notes totalling $30 and received a fistful of cash in return. With so many banknotes and so many zeroes floating around me, I felt momentarily “rich”. That was until I saw the Lao woman next to me struggling to cram bricks, almost as big as cinderblocks, of 20000 kip notes into a duffel bag that would put a Hollywood gangster’s money briefcase to shame. In order to avoid such silliness, and the death of forests whenever the local Lao decide to withdraw cash to purchase land, the economy has adapted such that virtually all vendors accept payment in Thai Baht or US Dollars, with change given in Kip, all calculated with the swiftness of routine. This system of three currencies is officially illegal, but of course the practicality of things demand it.
Luang Prabang was the location of the Lao Royal Palace for much of the 20th century. However, Laos hasn’t been a monarchy since 1975, when the Communists took over, and the palace was accordingly converted into a museum. For US$2, you get to see the place where royalty used to dine, sleep (the King and Queen had separate bedrooms) and receive foreign dignitaries. Most interesting though, was the gifts room, where various displays laid out gifts bestowed to past Lao Kings from visiting foreigners.
The majority of Asian nations had presented ornaments of incredible craftsmanship and intricacy. France gave a lot of crockery – Limoges porcelain and the like. The United States gave nothing of artistic value, instead delivering a gift that no other nation could replicate – a small piece of fabric portraying the Lao flag, brought to the moon by Apollo XI, and a small vial of moon rocks. There was also a model of the lunar lander and the keys to several US cities. Why Knoxville gave King Sisavangvatthana the keys to the city is a mystery to me. Australia’s gift was a small wooden boomerang, and two rather shoddy-looking gilded boxeds, encrusted with a handful of opals – delivered by none other than the Right Honourable Harold Holt. The Lonely Planet reports that the gifts are organised in the room by country – with gifts from capitalist countries on one side, and gifts from socialist/communist countries on the other – but some reorganisation must have taken place subsequently because there is no sign of such ideological division in the giftroom anymore.
Along the way, there are 16 paintings depicting the life of Prince Vessantara, purported to be one of the final reincarnations of Buddha. In an annual festival, the story of his life is related in the temples over the course of the day in celebration of it. It could be a case of cultural relativism, but I am still struggling to grasp at some thread of logic behind it all. The story goes like this. It starts off well, with the Prince donating his white elephant of “perennial prosperity” to the people of Kalinga, who happened to be starving at the time. This didn’t go down well with his contituents, who promptly banished him, his wife and two children from the kingdom. His family went into the jungle to become hermits, until one day, an “evil Brahmin” appeared, looking for slaves. The Brahmin, picked up the scent of the Prince’s family and set off after them. The Prince’s wife then had a dream of Something Bad happening to her children and warned the Prince, begging him to protect them. The Prince gave her some reassurances, but when she was off gathering food in the jungle, the Brahmin turned up and the Prince promptly sold the two children into slavery. As you do.
The wife attempted to rescue the children, but was blocked by three mythical creatures who transformed themselves into tigers to block her path. Then the Prince tried to sell his wife into slavery as well.
What happens next is a little unclear. The wife was not sold, but instead the couple were granted eight wishes by some deity. The paintings do not disclose what happened with those wishes. But anyway, the slave driving Brahmin ends up getting lost in the jungle and turns up in the wrong town. The “wrong town” happens to be one where the king is the children’s grandfather. The king buys the children back and is joyed to hear the whereabouts of his son. Soon after, the Prince is given a grand welcome back parade by the king. The king then abdicates, again for reasons unknown, and the Prince is crowned king.
End of story. Feel free to fill in the gaps with additional research, for I’m sure there must be some in a story which involves selling your family off to slavery. But for now, it’s all a mystery to me.
It is raining. Not the kind of rain that plummets down from ominous grey clouds and attempts to punch holes in your umbrella, but a soft, steady, non-threatening sprinkle. A kind oddly fitting for Luang Prabang, the sleepy town of about 16,000 in the north-west of Laos, a town on the World Heritage List.
At 8.00am, the Joma Bakery Cafe is already pumping out fresh pastries and bread; the rich aroma of butter and coffee drifting through the air. Motorbikes occasionally putter by, ridden skilfully by locals with one hand on the handlebars and the other on an umbrella, shielding themselves from the rain. Sometimes a second passenger would be riding pinion, or balanced behind gracefully like a side-saddled equestrian competitor, long skirts making it impractical, not to mention immodest, to straddle the seat. Monks stroll down the street after the morning’s alms collection. They carry umbrellas – tattered black ones – which seem to clash with their bright, almost fluorescent orange robes. Wet tourists clutching damp, well-thumbed copies of the ubiquitous Lonely Planet scurry by, some retreating into the refuge of the bakery.
Despite its unpainted grey concrete walls, the bakery has a certain charm to it, one of the many by-products left over from the days of French colonialism. Of course, only tourists can afford to eat here. Luang Prabang is a town “revitalised” by tourism. However, unlike so many other tourist hotspots in neighbouring countries, the local Lao, for the most part, seem largely unaffected by it all. There are no throngs of scrappy children begging for money, or tuk-tuk drivers doggedly soliciting for fares, or store vendors calling out “Hello! Hello!” for passers-by to buy their wares. When we first arrived in the city centre, somewhat disorientated and struggling to don our backpacks, two men approached us. We braced for an offer of a guesthouse to go to, or a tuk-tuk to get on. Instead, they merely asked us where we needed to go and pointed us in the right direction.
The people here are used to white faced Westerners tramping around the roads, taking it all with a stoic indifference. Their smiles are genuine, with no traces of slyness or a sinister gleam in their eyes which hints at some ulterior motive.
Besides the beautiful restored French villas, now converted to expensive hotels maintained on tourist dollars, the decaying remnants of colonialism manifest themselves in crooked paving and shoddy brickwork. But beyond the uneven roads and pathways, intricate temples adorn the landscape, their entrances guarded by gilded nagas – mythical seven-headed serpents. A wat on top of Phou Si, the hill around which the town is built, stands as a golden cap upon a cloak of greenery – the lush jungle which escorts the swiftly flowing Mekong River down towards the South-West.
The previous day, we had arrived by Lao Airlines on a surprisingly well-maintained twin-propeller plane and were driving into the town centre, chatting to a kindly Thai lady in the back of the songtel. It was her fifth or sixth time in Laos and she was going trekking. We had told her that we would be leaving for Vientiane in three days and her expression suddenly darkened. “Oh, but foreigners cannot get entry into Vientiane. The ASEAN meeting is on.”
We’d heard about this meeting only a few days ago when picking up our air tickets from the Lao Airlines office in Chiang Mai. “Sorry, no entry to Vientiane on the 27th,” Mr Sittidet told us hesitantly.
This remark had caused us to sit up very straight. “Ministerial meeting. Big news.” Big news to everyone but us, it seemed. “Foreigners not allowed.”
“But you issued us with tickets, and we have a pre-issued visa.” Mr Sittidet made a few phone calls and when he issued us our tickets, we thought the problem had been avoided. But apparently not.
The first morning in Luang Prabang we headed straight for the Lao Airlines office to reschedule our flight. There was no way around the 38th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, so coincidentally timed to coincide with our one day transit through Vientiane, so we were thus forced to hold up in Luang Prabang for several days. But no matter. If there was any town to get stuck in for a few extra days, this was a good one.
The rain has now eased. Soon it will be hot again, the streets being brightly lit by a strong, glaring sun. But for now, we will head out and enjoy the cool, damp air while it lasts.
– LA Times article
Down a side alley in Chiang Mai, there are two competing used book stores. Gecko Books is owned by an American with a sharp accent and aloof demeanour glaring intently at a closed circuit TV monitor. Behind Gecko is Backstreet Books, run by a Irish ex-pat who had been living in Chiang Mai for the last ten years. Both stores have an amazing collection of English books – most genres, from the classics to the modern – all at A$10 or less. I had just purchased Arthur C Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise from Backstreet Books when it started raining heavily outside. So heavily, in fact, that the lights went out. I peered out into the alleyway and all I saw was darkness. The whole of Chiang Mai, it seemed, had been hit by a blackout.
Not willing to endure the prospect of walking back in the rain and in the dark, trying to avoid the street traffic, I walked back into the store and sat on a step. In front of me, the Thai lady behind the counter was frantically searching for a stash of candles with a cigarette lighter. Everywhere else in the store was pitch black. The Irishman came cautiously bounding down the stairs, and soon there were four candles stuck on the front counter. The candles were already half burnt down when they were lit, casting piles of books in a flickering, murky orange glow.
“Does this happen often?”
“Unfortunately, yes. You’re Australian, aren’t you?”
Most Asians had been picking us for Japanese. Must be the hair.
“Yes we are.”
“Which part? … I’ve been to Melbourne a few times.”
“So how long have you been in Thailand?” Cheryl asked.
“Ten years.” He paused. “It’s nice here… like when you get booked by the cops, they don’t take it personally like in Dublin, or Melbourne. Like, you do something wrong and they’re all ‘who the fuck do you think you are?’ But here, it’s different. I was coming back from Cambodia, doing 140 when the police pulled me over. He was smiling, and after he fined me, he asked me if he’d like a cup of tea.”
“Yeah, people don’t lose their tempers here. Cutting in on someone on the road, ’tis perfectly legal y’know. Actually, a few months ago a friend did this…” he popped up his middle finger and waved his hand in the air, “and got shot in the head for his troubles. He lost his cool, and so the Thai guy did as well. Thai guy was carrying a gun. It was just there.”
He pointed vaguely over the shoulder, like it had happened in the next street, which it may well have. He chatted for a little while about how hard working the Irish and Chinese were. Then he talked about his trade, buying books by the hundreds overseas and shipping them back to Chiang Mai. He didn’t have the latest Harry Potter though, didn’t want to step on any toes. “There’s a few new book stores around town, let them sell it. People gotta make a living you know? Otherwise…” he held a finger to his head and flicked his thumb as though cocking a trigger.
The lights next door in Gecko flickered back on. “Oh, the lights are back for everyone except our store.” The Irishman walked to the fuse box and fiddled around. One by one the lights came back on and we bid him farewell.
I have uploaded a handful of photos in the album.
In other news, my grandmother, of all people, actually likes my dyed hair.
When the time came to leave Kuala Lumpur and the genial company of Dave, who I must again say is an excellent host, I had several options. Taking a plane down to Singapore was relatively expensive and wouldn’t save that much time given KL International Airport is situated some distance from the city centre. Getting a bus was more desirable, giving me time to type up this post. Dave’s father suggested I try a new coach service which he kept insisting was “super luxurious”.
Transtar runs a bus route between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur which they’ve called a “First Class Express” service which the company’s brochures optimistically insist is better than taking a plane. The Transtar bus is actually a second hand coach, purchased from the United States and repainted in a gaudy browny-gold colour. The inside has been completely stripped and refurbished. As a result, the full-sized coach only carries 16 passengers, each with their own oversized Osim leather lounge chair with a built in massaging system, and electronic footrest and recliner. I was told that Osim chairs can cost as much as a car, with their flagship model going for tens of thousands of ringgit. The company brochure goes on to list the various features of the bus service. Each seat also has its own LCD screen with on-demand audio, video and computer games. The brochure displays a picture of a smiling Malay lady holding a tray of food, captioned with, “A stewardess on board a coach? Unheard of but true.” Finally, to cap things off, the coach proudly comes with the latest safety innovations, most notably, seatbelts.
I must admit, the coach was very comfortable. Unfortunately, the extravagant Osim massaging chairs turned out to be rather poor at massaging. The five massage modes alternated between various forms of spasming and intermittent vibration against my calves and lower back. This turned out to be more annoying than soothing. The stewardess also turned out to be an effeminate soft-talking Indian man who seemed to have an aversion towards eye contact.
The journey, although only 5 hours, including the time it takes to get processed at immigration, included not one, but two toilet stops. (I was told on arrival in Singapore that 5 hours was quite quick and the bus must have been speeding.) There is a toilet on board, but this was to be used only in the most direst of emergencies. Apparently if the diarrhoea struck while we were en route, I was to tell the steward, who would then tell the bus driver, who would then stop at the first available opportunity by the roadside. Until then, passengers were encouraged to “hold on” as best as possible.
No one used the seatbelts.
Even the overnight bus services in Australia don’t come this extravagant, so I was trying it out of curiousity more than a desire for comfort. You can catch a regular coach down to Singapore for less than half the price I was paying, but even then, the trip only cost RM86. Of course, when I say “only”, I say that being someone who earns their money in Australia.
Salaries in Malaysia are quoted in terms of a monthly amount and are low. A graduate at PricewaterhouseCoopers gets about RM2100. A graduate lawyer undergoing chambering (or a pupillage there is no real equivalent for this in Australia as far as I know) earns about RM3000. Converted into Australian dollars, these amounts are barely much more than dole payments in Australia (indeed, the Malaysian minimum wage is a mere RM700 per month). Naturally, the cost of living especially food is proportionately lower, but not everything is so. Purchasing power is generally on a dollar for dollar basis. A Malaysian spending RM1000 would feel roughly the same amount of hip-pocket pain as an Australian spending A$1000. However, the purchasing power of the Ringgit, once you start to move beyond food and other basic necessities, rapidly diminishes.
Corruption is still visibly prevalent. Bribes are paid routinely to avoid traffic infringements saying “Boss, help?” with a bit of money passed behind an Identity Card and fines are literally waved away by the policeman. It is more or less the norm to bribe driving instructors around RM200 in order to ensure a pass in driving tests (short of someone crashing the car). And that’s just at the street level.
Road rules are more like guidelines, and it’s a common sight to see motorbikes and cars running red lights if there isn’t any traffic around.
I don’t have many pictures of KL. The downside of bringing a digital SLR camera is that you don’t exactly want to lug it around when you’re out for drinks at night. We went to Sunway Lagoon one day, which is a combined amusement and water park. Lots of middle-easterners visit there, and it is an odd sight to see middle-eastern women in full veils (head coverings and all) running around trying to manage their kids in the water park. We also went up to Genting (again) where we got fleeced at the restaurant we had dinner at as well as on the Pontoon tables. The drive up there was interesting – with heavy fog, drizzle, steep inclines and with Justin taking racing lines through the curves in complete disregard of the lane markings. Caught up with Ananda at La Bordega, a nice joint in Bangsar with a wall full of board games which patrons can bring to their tables and play. Eight of us played a few rounds of Taboo. Despite my atrocious run at games in KL, losing badly at snooker, pool and Warcraft, this was a rare occasion of Justin, Patricia, Viv and myself triumphing over Alex, Victor, Dave and Ananda. Note to self: there is a better way of describing the word “blink” than saying “a method of cleaning your ocular sensors”.
On most nights, it was just enjoying a good chat at one of the multitude of mamak stalls around the town – something Sydney is sorely lacking when it comes to doing things at night and really the most memorable of experiences in KL.
Justin Tho owns me. In snooker.
I was 11 points up with the pink and black left on the table. I fouled on the pink, setting Justin up for a pot. He made the shot and was 1 point ahead. After knocking the black around the table for a few tense shots, the bastard potted it and hence I was forced to proclaim the above message. Then I partnered up with him against Dave and Ee Laine and lost three games of pool straight. Not a good run!!
Cheryl and I had just stepped off the express train from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Backpacks in tow, we negotiated our way through the various offers of carriage from taxi drivers and stepped into the muggy heat of Malaysia.
“You ah beng! Check out the hair lah!” came Justin’s voice, sailing across the carpark.
Justin’s greeting was a remark concerning my recent change of hair do. Only a week beforehand I had cut my hair shorter than usual in preparation for spending four months overseas, resulting in it being spiked up. It was the idea of another friend, Kevin, to get it dyed. Figuring that it would probably be the only chance I would have to do it before I started work the next year in the conservative legal industry, I went along with the idea and my hair turned, after a tedious two and a half hour process, a pale shade of copper. For the most part, I was interested by the reactions I would get from this apparently out-of-character decision. In this regard, I was not disappointed.
Dad was mortified. “You’re going to be a lawyer soon, for goodness sake!” he exclaimed in exasperation when he first saw it. It generally didn’t sit well with the older generation, and I was variously described as looking “ugly”, like a “punk” and like a “street kid” (which, a friend’s mother pointed out was a good thing because it means I would be hassled less when overseas). My parents were most worried that it signalled the emergence of some sort of repressed rebellious phase, neglecting to realise that I had nothing really to rebel against.
Reactions from my friends were a bit more positive. However, when I held a farewell gathering a couple days before departure, two of them didn’t even recognise me. Jarrod, after I had opened the door for him, offered his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jarrod.” Dorian, a friend of over 12 years shook my hand, abruptly brushed past me and then shouted into the room, “So where’s Stuart?” before being told with a great deal of amusement that I was standing directly behind him.
If I had anything to worry about, it was that immigration officials around the world were going to detain me on suspicion of stealing the passport of someone who actually looked respectable in their passport photo. I was assured that this would not be a pleasant experience, especially in a non-English speaking country.
Nonetheless, I found it somewhat ironic that despite the perceptions and more often than not misperceptions of the danger of going to some of the countries I was going to (landmines and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, terrorist activity and political instability in the United Arab Emirates because it was in the Middle-East, mafia and gypsies in Eastern Europe), the recent tragic London terrorist Tube bombings had turned a bastion of the Western World into place more dangerous than these “non-mainstream” countries.
We got in the car. David turned to us in the backseat. “Why are you two wearing seatbelts? Don’t you trust my driving?” he asked. It remains a mystery to me why seat belts in the back are optional in Malaysia. Surely the laws of physics don’t operate differently there.
But anyway, there there we were, 6616 kilometres from home, with Justin jeering at my ah beng haircut and Dave weaving his car across the slippery Kuala Lumpur roads, on day one.
A lot of people have been checking out Google Earth recently so I created a list of cities I’m going to in a Google Earth’s .kmz file format. You can download it here, open it in Google Earth and then click the play button in the “Places” pane to start the “tour”. Google is so cool. I better go to sleep now.
Update: web browsers seems to want to incorrectly download the .kmz file as a .zip. So what I did was zip up the kmz file into this file which you can download and unzip to get the real .kmz file. Strange.