HOT INFO On The Road

Ben van den Anker
SE Asia: REPORT #12

24th November, Y2K, Pakse, Laos

Loy krathong

Seven hundred years ago the daughter of a Brahmin priest, Nang Noppamoht, lit the candle on her little, lotus shaped, boat made of banana leaves and put in into the water. Slowly the boat, full with flowers, drifted away on the high river. It was meant as a ritualizing attempt to stop the rains, letting the bad luck sail away out your life. Now, this is being celebrated as the Loy Krathong festival. Dew takes me to Wat Arun, next to the Chao Phrae river. The temple compounds are crowded with people, all carrying their boats, some homemade, most of them bought at the streets. It's dark, the threatening clouds don't fulfill their promise, on stages classical dance performances draw the attention of many people that are sitting on the grass. Slowly more and more people walk to the river and set their boat into the water, they put some coins and joss sticks in it and, with a little prayer, it sails away. A few balloons are flying to the stars, the next day I read in the Bangkok Post that a falling and burning balloon set a house on fire. The crowds show that this tradition is alive in Thailand, it's a part of Thailand's rich cultural heritage that makes this country so special. On our way back we pass some rivers, a lot of candles in their little boats follow the water on its journey.

In the train to Laos I meet the South Korean Mihye Seok. (www.geocities.com/sunnymina), she's at the end of her four months trip and plans to rush in four days through Laos. In Seoul the newspapers don't write about North Korea she tells me, it surprises me, I thought it would be the other way round. I have to think of a printing on a T-shirt, "Visit North Korea before North Korea visits you!" Nowadays both countries start to communicate more and more.

Vientiane can't impress me, it's crowded as a Dutch village on a Sunday morning, the baguette sellers on the street seem to show the only difference with Thailand. I leave the next day for Paksan. It's not in my guidebook and now I know why. In an attempt to find the "real" Laos I found this "original" town, there was just nothing. A Vietnamese restaurant, one street and the option to turn left and right twice on the main street. But after doing that I discovered that there was nothing too. It's a sleepy town, it has a certain charm, but I just wish for something more original, something more different from what I've seen before. A cock that doesn't understand it at all keeps me awake all night with it's noise, I feel like barbeque and feel the strong urge to go for it right away.

Men are playing "Takraw" in Laos too, it's a popular ball game that can be seen all over Asia. It's like our volleyball, the ball has to get over the net and hit the ground on the other side, only, you can use every body part except your hands. The people are really masters of this game here, kicking the ball over the net and falling with their hands on the ground to soften the fall. I wonder why they don't perform better at football.

Savakkanet shows French architecture, naturally in various state of disrepair. A Vietnamese and Chinese school draws my attention; the Vietnamese population seems to be really large. Lots of Laotian and Vietnamese flags color the town, on the worst bike I ever rented before I drive to the outskirts. I try to buy a flag from a noodle-selling woman but surprisingly she doesn't want to part from it. In the evening a shop owner tells me where to get one. The town looks like it's Queens birthday, that many flags!

A Vietnamese man practices his English on me, he tells me about the time the first Americans came back to look for MIA"s. The Americans were afraid to leave the plane as they saw the crowds that wanted to welcome them. They were not willing to leave the plane before the people had left, later they learned that the Laotian people don't feel any animosity against the Americans at all. His daughter married a Thai and now resides in Bangkok, he still speaks Vietnamese but can speak Lao too. It keeps surprising me, the people are so open. They start talking to strange people about their life, this doesn't happen in Europe. But we've got stress, in sleepy towns they don't know the word. One souvenir seller in Myanmar complained to me about the package tours, "They don't have time to talk with me! They come and go so fast, they look at their watches!" Time basically doesn't mean the same here as it does back home, and I love it. It's worth taking time to talk to people, I feel it enriches my life. Time must be a valuable thing thenc.

The dinosaur museum in Savan is more than interesting, it looks like I'm the only visitor this day and one man shows me around. He shows me the workshop were replica's are made, he let me see remains securely locked away. I can touch the bones, it surprises me, back home touching is strictly prohibited in museum. The French started the whole thing, it doesn't surprise me. They left a lot of traces in Laos, "Bureau de Poste" and many more French signs on houses and streets.

When I discover some bombs, tanks and canons my heart starts to beat faster. The child in me awakens; I climb into a tank, look at its motor, 48 cylinders, and keep on discovering new things. I spot a plane, at least, what's left of it. Some children see me and walk curiously to me; they give me a chewing gum and we are friends. I find a registration part on a canon and want to take it with me as a souvenir. I offer the kids some kips if they can get it of, in no time they start to work on it, and they succeed. The Americans have thrown almost uncountable amounts of bombs on the trees in the hope that someone would be standing underneath. It left a lot of traces and disturbed the lives of countless people. Unexploded Ordnance still causes an estimated 130 casualties a year.

As I cross the river to Thailand I'm one of the three tourists, all of the other 20 people carry Vietnamese passports in their hands. They put a 20 baht note in it and enter Thailand without any problem, the official doesn't even seem to look at the passport, his eyes show interest for the money inside only. Entering Thailand feels like coming home to me, the streets are crowded, after walking 50 meters in Thailand I smell the food already.. Pictures are great but they can't capture the smells, and this is a part of a country too


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