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Archive for February, 2011

Plain Of Jars

February 21, 2011 1 comment

Near Phonsavan, Xieng Khoung province, Laos PDR

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Nostalgia Ain’t What it Once Was…

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

VIENTIANE, LAOS – When I first visited this city in December of 2004, it was such a lovely quiet change of pace to Thailand that I fell in love with it almost instantly.

How things have changed.

The Lao capital had a slow pace and a distinct vibe that distinguished it from neighbouring countries. Now, there are more ritzy cafés and restaurants per block than you’re likely to see in Sydney.

Normally, I’d appreciate this. I love a good coffee and a quiet place to sit and read, or write. But if I wanted to go to a place full of relatively expensive cafés, I’d go to Newtown. I like being able to visit such places on my travels, but not when that’s all that’s on offer.

Rather than the sedate riverside French colonial town it was way back, when riverside ‘bars’ were just plastic tables under a dodgy tarpaulin along the dusty bank of the Mekong, it’s turned into a gentrified Yuppieville. And when this type of thing has happened in parts of Sydney, it’s resulted in a sharp increase in prices. Vientiane is no exception, sadly. It’s twice as expensive as Phnom Penh and three times pricier than other parts of Laos. It feels like it’s lost it’s soul. Some ‘tuktuk’/songthaew/saamlor drivers double as pimps and drug dealers, and there are ‘working girls’ stalking the streets after dark. Two developments that this town could’ve done without.

As I said in an email to a friend last night, “Why do Westerners swarm to an area and transform it into a replica of every other area they swarm to?”

A Timeless Beauty

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

SAVANNAKHET, LAOS – Sometimes it’s good to go back. There are occasions when revisiting a place after an absence of years brings back good feelings of nostalgia.

It’s this nostalgia that I’ve been basking in for a few days now.

In the early 20th century, Savannakhet was an important French trading post in southern Laos. As a result, there are plenty of examples of French colonial architecture scattered throughout the old quarter of the town.

This is the part of Savannakhet that I’ve spent most of my time in. I’ve found myself very inspired by being in this place, and have discovered a few little cafés that provide not only excellent coffee, but a quiet area in which I can write.

I’ve written more in the last few days than I have in the last few months, which is a good thing.

There isn’t much of a nightlife here, only one or two drinking spots that are more like restaurants than bars. It’s more the atmosphere of Savannakhet that is the main appeal of the town. Sadly, the Lao government does not seem all that interested in preserving the old colonial buildings, and many of them are in terminal decay.

Another change that has come to Savannakhet is the opening of the Friendship Bridge which spans the Mekong River, giving much more convenient access to Thailand. The highway which runs across Laos between Thailand and Vietnam has seen an increase in traffic and trade, but the old quarter is relatively untouched, having changed little since my last visit in December 2004.

Progress is good, but not when it comes at the cost of destroying history. For me, the old French buildings in Savannakhet are part of the town’s charm (just as it is in Battambang). It would be very sad to see these things slowly crumble into dust.

I love Savannakhet, and when I leave here, it will be with strong reluctance. I just hope that it’s not another six years before I can come back to this beautiful town.

The Land That Forgets Time

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

PAKSE, LAOS – The official name of this country is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR. Everything in Laos happens at an extremely relaxed pace, and it’s been suggested by more than one person that PDR actually stands for Please Don’t Rush. Any time you’re given will usually translate as “eventually”. Forget trying to plan a definite ETA because the departure time will be anything from ten minutes before the stated time to three hours after it. If you’re lucky.

I’ve been in Southeast Asia long enough to know that the best laid plans don’t always (or usually) go the way you’d want. However, even I was getting very frustrated while waiting for a little over an hour just to leave Don Det yesterday, and then having to contend with what looked like a very disorganised assignment of buses once back on the mainland. It seems that despite all my time in this region so far, there’s still a lot I need to learn about expectations and patience.

The annoyance was compounded by my own foolish overindulgence the previous evening after realising that a Khmer family owned one of the restaurants on the northern tip of Don Det. This led to us all conversing and then drinking into hours way too wee. It was a fun evening, but one that I paid for in spades by getting crammed into an already stacked to the ceiling minibus for the trip north. It was a short trip, to be sure, but a far from comfortable one.

I’m still waiting for a decent Internet connection that will be speedy enough to let me upload photos. So far, even going to websites has been an exercise in patience. Fortunately, I can update Facebook and Twitter and this blog by email, which is how I’m posting this now.

Where I’m staying now is just to the west of the Bolaven Plateau, the major coffee-growing region in Laos. Given that I’m a bit of a fan of the bean, I think I’ll have to take a look up there before continuing on.

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