Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Waking Early 9 - Patterns

Possibly the most interesting morning I spent in Laos was in a weaving and dyeing workshop just outside Vientiane.  If I ever go back, I will sign up for a two-day course.

The women can stay here, in safety, bringing their own skills and learning new ones.

A lovely, messy time adding the indigo dye.


Below are the scarves we made. It took us nearly two hours to dye them, with excellent help from our teacher.
I also spent nearly an hour on the loom. It's a lot harder than it looks!

Some examples from their shop. Oh I wish I had bought more, but time was running out.
The labels below read: jack fruit, stick lac resin, indigo

I find the colours and patterns superb, and when you see the work that goes into a few metres of hand dyed, hand-woven fabric, it really makes you appreciate their art.

Of course, it's not hard to find colours, patterns and interesting textures all over - in the trees:
on the river platforms:

in the wooden roofs  (which I drew while waiting for lunch in Savannakhet)

and in the tiles and on the pillars in the temples, of course. I could devote more time to patterns, so maybe in tomorrow's blog....


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Waking Early 8 - Highlights and Lowlights

I've already mentioned that there were several 'wow' moments as we travelled round Laos, and looking through my photos, these still give me a little jump.

It may be something to do with having spent summers in Norfolk, England as a child. The sky there is so, well, all-embracing, for lack of a better word. It just goes on and on and on and lifts you out of yourself.  Now the climate in Laos may be a little hotter (!) and more humid than the UK, colours even more vivid, but I could feel the same sense of awe, day and night: from our hotel balcony in Thakhek, at around 5pm with the Mekong stretching away on the left.

a little later that same evening:

in the morning: the Chao Anouvong statue in Vientiane 

or another evening shot as everyone strolls along the Mekong in the capital and the sun is split in two by the railings 

I've learned one trivial fact - that sunsets (or sunrises) seem to get more 'likes' on Facebook than any other type of photo, even though they're pretty darn easy to photograph. They don't move, they don't need editing, they just are, provided that you are in the right place at the right time!

So, basically, the skies win, hands down. And if ever I want to regain that 'wow' feeling, I only have to look at this view from the boat, sit back and sigh.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Waking Early 7 - Lao coffee

If there's one memory that lingers longer than all the others of our holiday in Laos, it's the taste of the coffee. There's simply nothing like it. And it's not just the sublime taste. It seems to have qualities other coffees don't have, as if there are other ingredients dissolved in it - a happy pill, a calming pill, a you'll-never-taste-this-outside-Laos experience.

I brought some beans back with me. It was the 'Korean blend', their mildest roast, and I bought the Sinouk cup and saucer you can see above to make sure I could enjoy the full experience. I make it slowly and lovingly through a pre-dampened organic filter paper (!) but it still doesn't quite taste as divine. Probably the water, I tell myself. Here it is, growing amongst poinsettia plants on the beautiful Sinouk estate.

So where did we find such a delightful brew? That's easy, it's all over Laos.  Starting in our hotel in Luang Prabang, and continuing on the Bolaven Plateau Sinouk Coffee Resort, in the casino in Savannakhet, and in the caf├ęs in Vientiane. I don't know how easy it is to buy outside of Laos. I still have a lot of beans left - a little goes a long way!

Hmmm, all this talk of coffee -  I must go and brew myself a cup!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Waking Early 6 - Elephants and other creatures

You can't go far in Laos without seeing elephants in one form or another. 
I've been a fan of elephants since I sewed one from felt in Miss Muffet's class, aged seven. 

So I wasn't disappointed to have to stay in a rather depressing casino near the Thai border - with no wifi, plug for the bath, or off button for the light in the wardrobe - because it was simply bursting with elephants. 

When we weren't out admiring temples, markets, or the bridge over the Mekong with our enthusiastic guide, we sat in the cafe overlooking the gambling floor - entertaining the cafe staff  by our total lack of interest in money as we buried ourselves in novels and sketch books. This was the huge plaster sculpture in the centre of the gambling floor, with Savan Vegas flags hanging all around.

Of course we saw live elephants, and other creatures, 
like these birds decorating the yellow house I was drawing:
 the pig chilling in a tribal village:

the cat complementing the tiles on the temple floor:
or the silk moths shedding their load in a weaving workshop:
But the elephants will stay with me for ever. And thank-you Miss Muffet for your patience in teaching me to appreciate them! 

Friday, 4 March 2016

Waking early 5 - Waterfalls

As I said in yesterday's post, we were never far from the Mekong during our Christmas trip. Here in the south near Don Khon island, there were tourists, but once on the river, they were hardly noticeable. And even at the waterfalls - Khon Phapheng Falls, part of a 13km stretch of powerful rapids and supposedly one of the most visited sites in Laos, they were thin on the ground.

Wow! is something I say from time to time, but during our stay here I must have said it several times a day, and you can see why.

The water isn't just beautiful, it's aggressive, and unstoppable. I stood for a long while wondering how many millions of years it had flowed and would continue to flow, thunder, swirl, dance, splash, drown, impress and astound. Wow, indeed.

In the late 19th century the French built a short railway across Don Khon to transport supplies around the impassable falls, but since the main road from Laos' top to toe -  Route 13 -  was built after WWII, it became redundant and now all you can see is a rusting locomotive. 
We saw other waterfalls on our way to the Bolaven plateau. This photo makes them look meek, but the forests were beautiful, and and the depth of the falls, crashing into a deep abyss, quite breathtaking. Another time - is there's another time - we will venture on the walk to get up close to the falls. 

The image of the river and its falls won't ever leave me - or the views from the boat - the water buffalo, the exquisite temples...

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Waking Early 4 - the Mekong River

Before you even land in Laos you're aware of the huge river that runs from top to toe, forming the border with China, Thailand and Cambodia - the Mekong. Here it is from the plane:

Throughout our stay, we saw the river every day, and most nights we were dining by its banks.  Of course, once it's dark you can't see a lot, but sometimes you see lights on the boats, or from the streets  in Thailand on the other side. Overall, it's very calming...

Here it is where it meets a tributary at Luang Prabang: 

And this is taken from inside the Buddha Cave further upstream:

This was our boatman later that afternoon:

This was for a morning sketch: 

And this is an evening view from one of the few bridges: 
The Mekong isn't very deep, so mainly traditional vessels are used. 

In the south, where four thousand 'islands' dot the river, you can see river dolphins. I took some photos, but all you can see are the ripples after they've disappeared! 

It's incredibly peaceful sitting on a boat. The engine may be noisy, and the narrow seat rather hard, but the scenes are stunning. 

There are some amazing waterfalls - I had no idea Laos had several waterfalls! - but I will write about them tomorrow.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Waking Early 3 - Characters

One of the best things about holidays is meeting new characters.

Of course, there are the wonderful people you talk to as you're wandering round - whether it be with a smile, a gesture, or a long conversation in a language you don't understand. The woman selling live mud crabs in the market:

The patient weaver and our helpful teacher in a craft centre near Vientiane (more of which in a later blog):

Or the kids playing in the village:

Then there were the tribal people in the village on the Bolaven plateau, where we didn't want to take photos, as many were drunk, and their situation - and our tourist eyes - made us uncomfortable.

One of the most fascinating characters was the curator of the dinosaur museum in Savannakhet. His passion for his fossils ("Please handle my fossils," he urged me, opening drawer after drawer) was palpable. He was a self taught palaeontologist and worked with a tiny team, and French support, to conserve his collection.
  There were the guests at our hotels - not that we stayed long in any one hotel. Our first night on an island in the south of Laos brought a handful of German tourists, of whom Herr Flick (recognisable to British tv viewers of 'Allo 'Allo) was the most memorable, with his precise haircut and speech, explaining to his patient wife over and over again everything she could already hear or read for herself on signs and menus.  The same hotel brought us a Michael McIntyre look-alike who spoke like Jamie Oliver, grinning and joking with us beguilingly as he served us breakfast by the Mekong. I assumed he had travelled abroad, but he assured me he'd learned his English and his jokes from English-speaking tourists, innit, mate! And not to forget the grumpy French owner - overweight and in his seventies, but with a charming Lao wife.

Another hotel, this time in the Savannakhet Casino (yes, we stayed right inside a casino), was headed up by Mr Smiley, a Thai who refused very, very politely to give us a password for wifi because, we realised, he didn't want his clients gambling online when they should have been hunched over his tables and slot machines.

Our first driver was  wide boy who looked about fifteen, but rode over potholes too fast and got lost - and was sacked on day two! Our second was silent, but professional. He too nearly got lost - map reading obviously not a prerequisite in this country of few roads - but was never late for picking us up, and always handed us wet towels and cool water whenever we came back to the minivan.

And finally our guides. The first, in Luang Prabang, loved talking about footie, and showing us (below) the drums in the temples. We spent an entertaining morning negotiating with a bank, and then a hotelier friend of his as we tried to pay for our holiday (the bank said it was too much money in one transaction, but the hotelier eventually obliged, and all went smoothly).

And our second guide was marvellous, with his two catch-phrases:
"Now for some information," as he launched into a page or two of statistics about Laos' economy and geography; and, usually at around one pm, "How about your lunch?"
"How about it?" I would say as my stomach grumbled and the nearest eatery might be half an hour's drive away. He only let us down once when he got carried away showing us the customs post at Laos' newest bridge over the Mekong of which he was obviously extremely proud, and we ate in a noodle shop surrounded by smelly goods vehicles. Actually, we could have avoided the bridge altogether, but we were so fond of him by then, and it was his last day with us, that we let him have his way. A slim guy in his thirties, with good English and an encyclopaedic knowledge of facts on Laos, he had opened up to us over the eight days, telling us he was too critical to have a career in government, and saying rather ruefully that he'd been offered a term at a Singapore university, but couldn't afford to go. We both wished him well when, later that afternoon, and after circling three times round the one-way system, we finally found our hotel in the capital, Vientiane. For a few days afterwards I missed his "more information" and "how about lunch?".

And finally, no one can spend time in a buddhist country without being impressed by the monks collecting their rice from all the local people at dawn:
Or the people (including another hotelier we met) who wake every day at 4am to cook the rice to give the monks. This is my third day of waking early to blog. But not nearly early enough to cook rice at 4am! Respect.