Archive for April 24th, 2010

April 24, 2010

South Korea volunteers aim to help world’s poor: Laos

Seoul has launched a Peace Corps-like effort, sending volunteers abroad. South Korea pulled itself out of poverty, and feels it has something to offer — besides, a stint can plump up a resume.
John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
Cached from:  http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/asia/la-fg-korea-volunteer-20100424,0,6563987.story

April 24, 2010

Reporting from SeoulOn a solo trip to Laos in 2008, Lim Keon-yeob’s well-mapped career plans took an unlikely detour. All around, he saw social outreach programs run by Americans and Japanese.

Where, he asked, were the South Koreans?

Back home, friends pressed the 24-year-old on his goal to become a soldier or teacher. But Lim suddenly had other ideas.

He volunteered for World Friends Korea, a newly formed South Korean version of the U.S. Peace Corps. Rather than hitting the club scene and eating home-cooked meals, Lim currently works as an athletics coach in a Cambodian village without electricity, at night listening to Korean pop music on his short-wave radio.

“I have a dream to build a school on a small island floating in the Mekong River in Laos. Kids now go to school by taking a dangerous ferryboat and walking on a dangerous unpaved road,” he said. “To achieve the goal, I am studying hard and making plans.”

South Korea’s international volunteer program is one way this bustling Asian nation is marking its emergence as one of the world’s most industrialized nations.

Founded in 2009, the World Friends Korea program consolidated several smaller volunteer efforts under one umbrella. The organization now has 3,000 volunteers working in 40 countries, a number second only to the 8,000 enrolled in America’s Peace Corps, officials here say.

Not all volunteers are young — many are retired, members of a generation that lived through the 1950s conflict with North Korea and the subsequent hard times. By 2015, the program is due to expand its ranks to 20,000.

“South Korea’s development as a nation is due in part to the generous contribution of the international community,” said Lee Chan-buom, coordinator of the program’s launch. “We can empathize with the nations we assist because 50 years ago, there was widespread famine in Korea. For many volunteers, that starvation is a childhood memory.”

But in a nation obsessed with success and ranking, some question the altruism of programs such as World Friends Korea.

In a spin on the line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address, some chide South Korean volunteers for having the attitude: Don’t ask what you can do for the world, but what the world can do for your resume.

Many volunteers do see the program as a way to sell themselves in a downsizing job market, analysts say.

“Overseas volunteer activities are considered a special [resume builder] you cannot earn domestically,” said Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “They are valued highly, so that is why people prefer those activities.”

One World Friends Korea veteran said the experience provided an opportunity to help himself as much as it did others. Volunteers usually enlist for two years, but students can do shorter stints during university breaks.

“If you are part of a volunteer project led by a company or big enterprise like Hyundai, your first goal could be a PR job for that company,” said Seo Ki-tae, 27, who volunteered to work one month each in Indonesia and Paraguay during school vacations. “For some, the pure motive of voluntary service comes as a secondary issue.”

Seo sees no conflict. “Of course, these activities help me with career-seeking,” he said. “It was not my primary goal, but for self-management, it’s not a bad thing. While you are doing voluntary service, you can build your own career.”

Still, he had a warning for volunteers who see the program as an easy way to earn bonus points on their resumes: “It’s not romantic or exotic. You should imagine a life where you only have dirty rainwater to drink.”

For his part, Lim acknowledges having fretted over his choice. “I was worried even on the plane because overseas volunteering is very dangerous,” he said. “But my concerns all slipped away when I saw the smiles of local officials.”

Lim became so committed that he recently signed up for a second year in Cambodia. When the time comes, he knows the hardship will pay personal dividends.

“I now want to work in the field of international development, so how do you get that kind of experience?” he said. “It’s like mountain climbing. There’s a shortcut, and even a cable car, so to speak. But either way, we reach the goal.”

Last fall, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak articulated the goal of the program he helped shape, saying Koreans sought to “share our ambition that served as one of the major driving forces behind the nation’s transformation into one of the top-tier economic powerhouses from one of the world’s poorest nations.”

As the program’s volunteers fan out across the globe, World Friends Korea officials hope President Lee will one day have inspired the same level of altruism Kennedy did half a century ago.

Said coordinator Lee: “That’s something for the world to decide.”

john.glionna@latimes.com


April 24, 2010

Dear Lao Patriots and Lao Nationalists – Human Rights Watch Laos, Inc. Public Statement.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: bounkhong arounsavat
Date: Sat, Apr 24, 2010 at 3:10 AM
Subject: Human Rights Watch Laos, Inc. Public Statement.
To: Public 

Dear Lao Patriots and Lao Nationalists,

I would like to report you all:

Human Rights Watch Laos, Inc. Public Statement:

Meeting with Director Laos Section of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australian Government on Thursday 22 April 2010 at Canberra.

Ms Jeannie Henderson, Director briefs the relationship and the cooperation of Lao PDR and Australia. She confirms that Australian Delegate will attend the UN Human Rights Caucus Meeting in May 2010. Australian Government seriously concerned about the 47 refugees – Hmong returnees and took part to follow and visit Hmong returnees last year.

Mr  Tim Bolotnikoff, Executive Officer Human Rights and Indigenous Issues Section briefs the Human Rights situation in Laos. He accepted the request Human Rights Watch Laos to take part of Human Rights Australia about Laos issues in the future.

Human Rights Issues:

Agreement of Human Rights Australia related many issues in Laos.

-          2 political prisoners in 1998.

-          6 Political prisoners in 1999.

-          16 Political prisoners of Vangtao year 2000.

-          3 Political prisoners of Chockbengboun Group. Year 2002

-          9 Political prisoners in November 2009.

Political Issues:

Directly to Mr Stephen Phillip, MP. Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australian Government.

-          The double  increment of Lao population  is main people migrated from Vietnam and Vietnam forces. Whereas the Lao-Vietnamese Friendship Treaty on July 18th. 1977, the treaty signed between Laos and Vietnam is not equal and it forced Laos to be under control of Vietnam politically, military and socially. And the new agreement again in 2005, Vietnam sent more troops over  7 battalion to force Laos to comply with their control plans.

-          Request the Australian Government to call for the Free and Fair Election to save Laos from the swallowing of Vietnam. And encourage and enable Laotians abroad to return to Laos to avoid the disappearance of Lao country from the world map.

-          Request the Australian Government dealing with Lao authority to set up the round table meeting between Lao PDR and ILCR in Australia to cease the conflict to restore the peace and intend to develop the country.

-          Request the Laos Authority to draw up and implement and to hold of multi-party elections under the international monitoring with a view to obtain National Reconciliation.

-          Request the Australian Government seeking the support from International Communities and the United Nations to talk to Vietnam allowing the Laos authorities to join the National Reconciliation between Lao PDR and ILCR.

-          Submit a proposal of peace plan of International Lao Council for Reconciliation, Inc. with a book of  Vietnam took over Laos document .

Directly to Senator Micheal Forshaw , Chairman Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade .

Human Rights Watch Laos and ILRC submitted a letter with 3 books of Documents to Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence Trade of Australian Government on 13 November 2009.

Note: International Lao Council for Reconciliation is an organization Lao abroad comprised with ILRC, inc and every Lao Political Organization Abroad which accept to be reconciled Lao nation in this way only.

Canberra, 24 April 2010.

President of Human Rights Watch Laos, Inc.

MR Bounkhong Arounsavat

English to French translation

Human Rights Watch laos, Inc. Declaration public

Chers patriotes lao et les nationalistes du Laos,
Je tiens à vous le rapport:
Human Rights Watch Laos, Inc Déclaration publique:
Réunion avec le directeur de la section Laos ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Commerce du gouvernement australien, le jeudi 22 avril 2010 à Canberra.
Mme Jeannie Henderson, le directeur de l’mémoires relations et la coopération de la République démocratique populaire lao et en Australie. Elle confirme que l’Australie délégué participera à l’ONU des droits de l’homme Réunion du caucus en mai 2010. Gouvernement australien gravement préoccupé par les 47 réfugiés – réfugiés hmong et a participé à suivre et visite de réfugiés hmong revenus l’an dernier.
M. Tim Bolotnikoff, la direction droits de l’homme et des mémoires les questions autochtones Section de la situation des droits humains au Laos. Il a accepté la demande de Human Rights Watch Laos à prendre part de droits de l’homme en Australie sur les questions du Laos à l’avenir.
Questions de droits humains:
Accord des droits de l’homme en Australie de nombreuses questions liées au Laos.
– 2 prisonniers politiques en 1998.
– 6 des prisonniers politiques en 1999.
– 16 prisonniers politiques de l’année Vangtao 2000.
– 3 prisonniers politiques du groupe Chockbengboun. Année 2002
– 9 des prisonniers politiques en Novembre 2009.
Enjeux politiques:
Directement à M. Phillip Stephen, député. Ministre des affaires étrangères et du Commerce du gouvernement australien.
– L’augmentation du double de la population lao sont les personnes principales migré en provenance du Vietnam et les forces du Vietnam. Considérant que le traité d’amitié Laos-Vietnam le 18 Juillet. 1977, le traité signé entre le Laos et le Vietnam n’est pas égal et forcé au Laos d’être sous le contrôle du Vietnam politique, militaire et social. Et le nouvel accord de nouveau en 2005, le Vietnam a envoyé plus de troupes de plus de 7 bataillon de force au Laos pour se conformer à leurs plans de contrôle.
– Demander au gouvernement australien pour appeler à l’élection libre et honnête pour sauver Laos à partir de la déglutition du Vietnam. Et d’encourager et de permettre aux Laotiens l’étranger à revenir au Laos afin d’éviter la disparition du pays lao de la carte du monde.
– Demander au gouvernement de l’Australie portant sur la compétence du Laos à mettre en place la table ronde entre la RDP lao et en Australie ILCR de cesser le conflit à rétablir la paix et l’intention de développer le pays.
– Demander à l’autorité du Laos à élaborer et à mettre en œuvre et de tenir des élections multipartites dans le cadre du contrôle international, en vue d’obtenir la réconciliation nationale.
– Demander au gouvernement australien cherche le soutien des communautés internationale et l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour parler au Vietnam permettant aux autorités du Laos pour rejoindre la réconciliation nationale entre la RDP lao et ILCR.
– Soumettre une proposition de plan de paix international de Lao Conseil pour la réconciliation, Inc, un livre du Vietnam a pris document Laos.
Directement à Forshaw Michael sénateur, président de la commission mixte des affaires étrangères, défense et du commerce.
Human Rights Watch le Laos et le CRVA envoyé une lettre avec 3 livres de documents au Comité mixte des affaires étrangères, de défense commerciale du gouvernement australien, le 13 Novembre 2009.
Note: International Lao Conseil pour la réconciliation est une organisation à l’étranger sont comprises dans CRVA, inc et toute organisation politique Lao Lao à l’étranger qui acceptent de se réconcilier la nation lao de cette façon seulement.
Canberra, le 24 avril 2010.
Président de Human Rights Watch Laos, Inc

MR Bounkhong Arounsavat

April 24, 2010

My Time In Laos

By Bob Schiff

On the Mekong. (Bob Schiff)

Cached from:  http://www.hamptons.com/Hamptons-Style/Escapes/10617/My-Time-In-Laos.html

Editor’s Note: Bob Schiff has been traveling throughout Southeast Asia, and periodically sends along an update on his travels.

Laos – And the journey continues:

Coffee Bushes.

A Little Background On Laos
With a little over six million people comprised of 132 ethnic groups in a land mass about the size of the UK covering remote densely forested mountain regions, towering karsts, the Mekong River Valley and emerald green fields of rice Laos is a stunningly beautiful country. The people are the most friendly and least money-motivated of all the Asian countries (although I suppose that will change with the tourist influence) – laid back only begins to describe the nature of the Laos people. It’s a mystical and magical place – so far the most unique and exotic I have experienced in Asia. From the people of the Mekong River Valley to the relatively sophisticated French colonial influenced cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang to the numerous ethnic people of the mountains it is a diverse and sparsely populated country.

Recent history has dealt a bad hand to the Laos people. After World War II the French once again asserted their rule over the country (as they did throughout Indochina). Beginning in the 1950s many of the people sought to rid themselves of colonial rule and establish their own country. Many of the Pathet Laos separatist movement leaders were well educated in Hanoi and Europe and believed that the communist system of government was more appropriate given the nature of the people and the stage of maturity of the country and its’ various institutions. The cold war situation of the time and the western paranoia over the spread of communism resulted in America taking over after the French and mounting the CIA’s Secret War. The result was devastating – Laos is the most bombed country in the world. More bombs were dropped on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined during World War II – one bomb every nine minutes for nine years. Many of those bombs had multiple warheads and about 30 percent didn’t detonate upon impact leaving the countryside riddled with unexploded ordnance (UXO). Even now one person is killed every day in Laos from UXOs. Still, the Laos people warmly welcome Americans to their country.

Cool tree.

The government that was formed after the Secret War in 1974 under communism, and exists today as The Laos People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), which is really a single party government with a growing capitalist twist. The country is rich in natural resources and the resulting wealth seems to be better shared than in neighboring Cambodia (which is democratic – go figure). While the vast majority of the people are poor existing on less than $2 per day there is a growing upper and middle class, particularly in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. As poor as most of the people are they seem happy and content. I didn’t see any hunger and they have a proud sense of home and community – even in the mountain villages the grounds are neat and clean. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the strong sense of family and community – everyone looks out for everyone else and somehow they all get by. The unavoidable downside to the poverty though is lack of adequate medical care.

Don Det.

Prelude To My Laos Journey
After two and a half in the Philippines (too long but it was comfortable and I guess I got a bit lazy), and a brief stop in Bangkok, I flew to Phnom Phen and toured Cambodia for about three weeks. The Philippines was easy – many of the people spoke English and there was a reasonable western influence and tourist infrastructure in most places (although I did get off the beaten path a bit) and the food, while nothing special, was generally agreeable. Phenom Phen and Siem Reap/Angkor Wat and the beaches of Sihanoukville in Cambodia were also largely geared to the western tourist. Interesting but not all that challenging. By this time I was comfortable and feeling like an accomplished independent traveler and ready for some adventure. I left the relative comforts of Phnom Phen and set off for northeastern Cambodia to take up the backpacker trail. My initial intent was to head to Stung Treng – a small town just south of the Laos border and then go over land to the border crossing into Laos. On the way I decided to head first to a small town in the northeast called Ban Lung. It was in a beautiful and remote area of the country and an up-and-coming eco-tourist area – the last ATM machine was about a two day bus ride back toward Phnom Phen and there were a few guest houses but little in the way of tourist infrastructure or western influence. Toured the area by motorbike on very poor dusty roads, rode an elephant, visited some remote villages by longtail boat, swam in volcanic crater lake – very cool and a bit adventurous. After a few days I was ready to head to Laos.

Leaving Don Khon.

The evening before I left Ban Lung I met two French girls, Marine and Chris, who were staying at the same guest house – Tree Top – they were also headed for Laos. They had been traveling for several months so they were hardened travelers by this time, having already done Myanmar. The minivan ride from Ban Lung to Stung Treng was three hours of misery in a jam packed van on an unpaved road with anemic air conditioning. From Stung Treng to the Laos boarder was in a minivan that was even worse – no A/C on and so jam packed that a girl shared the seat with the driver. On that ride we met a Chinese/Korean girl from San Francisco, Elaine, who was on a six month round-the-world tour (trying to do too much in too short a time). I guess the shared misery bound the four of us and since we were headed to the same place we kind of joined forces.

Tad Yuang Falls.

Crossing The Border And Southern Laos
We took one minivan to the border for the crossing formalities and then a more resonable minivan to the town of Ban Naksang along the Mekong River. This was the jumping off point for the 4,000 islands – a very laid back stop on the backpacker trail. We took a longtail boat through the islands passing the somewhat hedonistic Don Det (kids in their 20s partying) to the island of Don Khon. Don Khon is a very peaceful and laid back island nestled in the Mekong River. The boat landing was nothing more than a dirt beach far from the village and guest houses. The four of us got off the boat in the middle of nowhere in the hot sun and had to walk (no cars, tuk tuks, etc.) for about two km to the village. Drenched in sweat and with no A/C alternatives we found a guest house, showered and headed for our first Beerlao (great tasting beer) and island sunset. This was a particularly interesting place as the guest house was right in the middle of the village – a great way to experience how the people really lived. The area was new to tourism – just ordering food was a communications challenge and they had little sense of service or the needs of western tourists. I guess that’s what it’s like getting off the beaten path.

We met a Dutch couple, Debra and Chris, and the next day all of us rented bicycles for a ride to the waterfalls. It was extremely hot and humid and we all spent the day lounging in the Mekong River – gently flowing, warm brown (but for the most part clean) water. The next day Elaine left and the rest of us hired a longtail boat to drop us up river and went tubing for about three hours. Very pretty and relaxing way to spend a hot day. Having had our river experience it was time to move on.

Waterfalls.

Next stop was a four-hour minivan ride (again overcrowded with barely working A/C) to the provincial capital of Pakse – a welcome bit of relative civilization with hot water shower, A/C, TV and internet access. Marine and Chris opted for a cheaper alternative without the simple luxuries. The next day we rented motorbikes and rode about 40 km to the Bolavan Plateau – home of several waterfalls and arabica coffee plantations. The coffee was great. Went to three waterfalls, swam at one and had lunch at a restaurant in a village – traditional local fare, no English and nobody got sick. Pakse was a modest city and judging by the local businesses and some of the cars and trucks you could tell that a few people were doing quite well economically. Hung out in Pakse the next day then said goodbye to Marine and Chris and took a VIP sleeper bus for the 10 hour overnight trip to Vientiane. I bought both beds (wasn’t about to share with a stranger) and had a civilized trip arriving in Vientiane at 6 a.m. the following morning.

Bob at the Tad Fane Guesthouse grounds.

Vientiane
Vientiane is unlike any other Asian capital city. With only about 300,000 people its a laid back place with a sense of sophistication that comes from it being the center of government and commerce together with the old French colonial influence combine with its proximity to the more developed Thailand (which is just across the Mekong). There are many expats living and working there and French restaurants and pastry shops compliment the local Laos places. There is a great feel to the city and none of the crowds and frenzy typical of other Asian cities. Found a nice hotel – clean with hot water, A/C and TV for about $20 USD/day that included breakfast and hung out for several days. Friendly people, both locals and expats and good restaurants, cafes and bars. Had to go to the American Embassy to have more pages added to my passport.
My plan was to go to Luang Prabang next. I read in the Lonely Planet of a place that rented motorcycles in Vientiane with the option of dropping them off in Luang Prabang. A two-day trip. Sounded like an exciting alternative to another 10 hour bus ride. Besides, isn’t it every biker’s dream to ride through the countryside of some foreign land? Well, Laos is about as foreign as one could get. Several people tried to discourage me as the road, while paved, cut a very difficult path through the mountains. Undeterred I went to investigate. Well there is a place called Jules, owned by a French guy who rents motorcycles for $30/day and can lend me a jacket, helmet, gloves and bungee cords to strap my backpack onto the bike. The owner, Thierry, is very knowledgeable about the area and proposes that instead of just riding to Luang Prabang I take the opportunity to ride through the picturesque countryside and explore some of the little visited remote mountain towns and villages. He lays out a trip that should take about six days on paved roads with the exception of one towards the end of my trip that is unpaved and would require me to do a homestay – that would entail me rolling into a village where nobody speaks English and somehow communicating my need for food and lodging in a villagers home. Interesting.

Tube ride from Don Det to Don Khon.

I arrange to rent a Honda 250 XR dirtbike for six days for a loop through the mountains with a drop off in Luang Prabang. The first day is about a five hour run to Vang Vieng. As I am leaving my hotel (one of dozens in town) who do I bump into in the lobby? The two French girls, Marine and Chris. nd where are they headed? Vang Vieng by bus. What a coincidence. We pick a restaurant to meet at that night and off I go.

My Mountain Motorcycle Adventure
As I ride from the urban to rural the reality of what I am am doing starts to settle in. I’m by myself with a map and can only say hello and thank you in Laos. Until I figure out that there are road markers just following the route is tough but the local people are helpful (provided I can pronounce the name of the next village from my map). I ride through beautiful countryside and quaint villages. The road surface is OK and the ride is pretty reasonable. Even though nobody speaks English my first gas stop goes fine. People smile. Children wave as I ride by. This is going to be a fun six days.

As I start to gain elevation the drive becomes a bit more demanding. I abhor rest stops but my shoulders and butt say otherwise. As I approach Vang Vieng dramatic limestone karsts emerge from the landscape. ang Vieng is a small town set along the Nam Song River surrounded by cave riddled karsts. Unfortunately, it has become a popular stop on the tourist trail with many 20-somethings tubing and hanging out at the various riverside establishments drinking Beerlao and happy shakes – a bit of a shame but I did stay at a nice place away from the kids. It’s a mystical setting especially with the morning mist enveloping the karsts. To stay an extra day is a no brainer.

Fishing at the falls.

The next morning Chris is feeling under the weather so Marine and I take my bike on a 6 km ride on unpaved roads through a few villages to Tham Phu Kham cave and the Blue Lagoon. We climb around the cave for a while and get a bit off the path and had to scramble some to get out. All in a day’s adventure.

The next day I’m up and on my way to Phonsavan – home of the Plains of Jars. It’s up Rt. 13 and then a left onto Rt. 7 at Phu Khoun (where I stop for lunch – noodle soup with chicken) through some very remote and rugged mountainous terrain. Thierry indicated the trip should take about five hours. It took me about seven. I’m asking myself if I haven’t bit off more than I can chew. The roads are extremely challenging – more twists and turns than a Ludlum novel and more ups and downs than a Bangkok whore – in short it’s a wild and demanding ride. Oh, and if I need medical attention – that’s assuming if I were to go down – it’s on the high side, not the cliff side of the road – it’s in Thailand – probably 25 to 30 hours away. If I were to go off over the cliff my preference would be to land on a UXO rather than bleed out. The entire area I am in was the target of much of the U.S. bombing so when I’m riding in these parts I don’t walk off the road as I don’t want to become parts. You get a real healthy respect for blind corners of which there were many. Far too many. I’ve whipped around them and come face to horns and face to butt with oxen, head to head with trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, children, chickens, pigs, goats, dogs and carts. I’ve encountered potholes, sand, fallen rocks and cow dung, but the worst is the decreasing radius turns – that’s where they get sharper part way through resulting in a big…I try not to overthink it for when I do I slow down to a crawl.

Wat Si Saket.

I pass dozens of hill villages. They are literally built right along the road. There is very little traffic so much of the village activity happens right on the road. It’s a bit unnerving as there are chickens, dogs, pigs, cows, goats and children all scurrying around as I drive by. People are even seated in groups on the road just shooting the breeze. Children wave as I pass by and the girls smile. The guys seem envious of the motorcycle. I make many stops in the villages for gas, biscuits, directions and just to rest. No English but the people are all warm and welcoming. They seem content and spend much of their time just talking and laughing with friends and family. The children like when I take their picture and show it to them on the screen. It’s mostly women and children as the men are out working the fields. The villages appear to differ depending on their elevation with those higher up seeming a bit more primitive and poorer with fewer motorbikes and less likely to have schools or shops. For this portion of the trip there are power lines (Laos has a lot of hydroelectric power) along the route so the villages have electricity and there are usually a few satellite television antennas.
I arrive in Phonsavan exhausted, sore, hungry and in need of a shower. I take a room in a so-so place as I don’t have the energy to look around. I decide to stay an extra day (checked into a nicer hotel) as I want to go see the Plains of Jars and don’t feel the need to rush. After visiting the Plains of Jars I ride around the town a little and stop at the Mines Advisory Group – they oversee the UXO clearance efforts. Sobering. As I am leaving the next day for no reason my lower back goes into a spasm (well maybe it’s the subconscious thought that I may have bitten off more than I can chew on this adventure). I take a walk and try to stretch but it still feels pretty bad. I decide to leave anyway thinking if it’s too bad I’ll turn around and come back. After a lunch stop in Muang Khan and a left onto Rt. 6 in Phou Laos nine hours and several rest stops later I arrive in Vieng Xai. Needless to say I am in pain.

Royal Palace.

My back is so stiff the next morning that I can barely get out of bed. I decide to take a walk to stretch my back and then I spend most of the day in bed reading and resting. Vieng Xai is surrounded by karsts containing about 400 caves. Several of the caves were used by the Pathet Laos to hide during the bombings as they formed their new government. They are truly amazing. That night I met several local guys including the owner of the guest house I was staying in over several Beerlaos and shots of Lao Lao (the local homemade rice whiskey). Communication was extremely difficult but somehow I was invited to what I thought was a place to drink and dance. What it turned out to be was a celebration with traditional Laos dancers commemorating a new temple that was just opened in the village. Many village families in attendance. No Beerlao or Lao Lao and no westerners.

Buddahs.

The next day I took a tour of several of the caves with a guide and an audio tape that was one of the highlights of the trip. It was very well done by an Australian group and told the history of the caves and the Secret War from the Laos perspective. Hard to feel like a proud American after that tour. After the morning cave tour I did a one hour ride in some light rain (wet mountain roads tricky) to Sam Neua. Good move to stop for as I checked into the hotel the sky opened up like it was the beginning of monsoon season. With no rain gear and three hours (in dry conditions) to the next town that could have been a real bummer. Plus my back still hurt. Met a Dutch guy at a restaurant and the waiter took he and I to a Karaoke place in town. Local teens crooning to Laos and Thai music. One Beerlao was all we could take.

The next day the weather is iffy but I decide to leave anyway for the five hour ride to Vieng Thong. Roads were wet at first but then it dried out. I was feeling more confident on the bike and had a really exhilarating ride. The first three hours were actually backtracking and I stopped again in Muang Khan for lunch (didn’t get sick the first time so why risk things elsewhere). I then headed on Rt. 1 towards Vieng Thong. This is a lesser road heading into an even more remote section of the country. Rode through a national protected area and there was a sign along the road that said, ‘We’re Proud to Have Tigers Here.’ So I’m wondering, can a tiger outrun a motorcycle? I had a great ride and when I arrived I met a French guy who had also rented a bike from Thierry and was doing the trip in reverse. We both checked into a guest house and headed for a local hot spring (to hot to swim in). There was only a generator for electricity in the town and it was difficult to understand when power was available so missed evening shower but luckily got one in the morning. That night we had dinner at a local joint and both departed in opposite directions the next day.

Nam Phu.

A note on the food: Laos food in general is very good, mostly natural ingredients and not overly spicy (unless you ask for it). Rice, primarily sticky rice is by far the main staple with noodles second. In addition to vegetables and greens (which you can’t eat in other than western oriented places as not properly washed) and fruits (eat only if peeled) they have chicken, pork, beef and fish. I mostly stick to chicken and pork. The problem is that they hack the chicken into pieces and eat virtually every part (grizzle, cartilage, fat). Same with the pork but they also include the innards. Tough going. It’s much better in more urban places especially where they are accustomed to farang (western foreigners). It’s rice and something, noodles and something, soup and something with the something being veggies and either chicken, pork, beef or fish and always accompanied by rice. I do a mix of western (not available on this portion of the trip) and Laos food but I’m not putting on any weight here. I am careful of where and what I eat and haven’t had any problems.

More Si Saket.

At this point I had a decision to make. Initially Thierry had suggested an unpaved road that was supposed to be beautiful but a bit tricky in places. I am not an offroad rider and it would have entailed me figuring out a homestay plus my back, while a bit better, still hurt. The French guy I met, Micheal, came that way and cautioned that the road was in fact very challenging in places. Rather than risk ruining what had been a fantastic trip I opted to avoid the unpaved road and head to Nong Khiew. Set along the Nam Ou River surrounded by towering karsts this was another picturesque place. After another great four-hour ride I arrived and settled into a bungalow facing the river. I spent the afternoon exploring around the village and had a great dinner and shared some Lao Lao with the restaurant owner. With an easy three hour ride to Luang Prabang the next day I opted to stop at the Pak Ou cave on the way. Most people visit this cave from Luang Prabang by longtail boat. Since I was coming from the opposite direction it was a bit of a challenge getting there – no signs and difficult getting directions from the locals. I ended up heading down a dirt road for about 10 km but finally found the place to get a boat across the river to the cave. Hundreds of Buddhas inside. Then – after 10 days, not the original six – it was time to wrap up the trip, return the bike and experience Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang
I arrived mid-afternoon and checked into a very nice guest house. Hey, after 10 days on a motorcycle I deserved to spoil myself some. So I’m having a late lunch in a cafe on the main street and who walks by. Yep, Marine and Chris. Now that’s really freaky. Once again, Chris isn’t feeling well so the next day Marine and I do a walk of the town and Chris joins us later. They leave the next morning to head up north near the Chinese border. I stay and immerse myself in the peaceful charm that is Luang Prabang.

There are not enough superlatives to describe Luang Prabang – enchanting, laid back, tranquil, mystical, charming, lovely, timeless, picturesque – it easy to see why it was designated a World Heritage site. Set along the Mekong River the old section of the city is a peninsula formed where the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers meet. There are numerous wats, temples and monasteries scattered about the town. Aging French colonial villas have been converted into hotels, guest houses, restaurants and cafes. I spend four days sightseeing, sitting in cafes, wandering around the wats, perusing the night market stalls and indulging in the fine restaurants. Oh, and a few Laos massages (no happy ending) ease my road fatigue. It’s a very tranquil place that exudes charm. It is clearly the most unique and appealing city in all of Asia rivaling some of the best of Europe but with an Asian flair of the exotic. It’s something to see the 6 a.m. procession of hundreds of saffron robed monks receiving food offerings from the local people. Clearly geared toward the tourist trade Luang Prabang is Laos’ premiere tourist destination. Even so it still is a special place that for me is the perfect ending for one of the more memorable adventures of my life.

What’s Next
As my Laos visa runs out shortly I take the 10 hour VIP bus back to Vientiane for a few days to try to arrange my Thai visa and then go overland across the Friendship bridge to Udon Thani, Thailand. From there I’ll fly to Bangkok and apply for a visa to Myanmar, get some U.S. currency (need to bring clean dollars for all expenses for entire trip to Myanmar) and then fly to Yangon for the next adventure.

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