New Year, New Blog!

This blog has been a bit silent over the last few months, but it’s not dead!  I have been working on migrating it over to a new website, with more photo content and videos (coming soon!), and the process is finally finished and ready to share!  I will no longer be posting on this blog, but you can see new posts, as well as ALL of the old content on my new website: www.seethinkexplore.com

Here’s a screenshot preview:

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Visit, follow, and check it out on Facebook as well!

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Pakse: a Glimpse of Southern Laos

Last month I got my first peek of the south of Laos, visiting Pakse city and Paksong District, on the Bolavan Plateau.  The air on the plateau was crisp and cool, even as Vientiane boils this time of year at 90+ degrees each day (and far more with humidity).  It was just a quick two day excursion for a work project, but a nice glimpse into the friendly south.  Here, I saw another bend of the Mekong as it curves down toward Cambodia.  The streets seem wider, the traffic lighter, and the seafood more bountiful.  The highlights of two days working here were tasting locally grown coffee, visiting Pakse’s most famous wat, and magnificent waterfalls, and taking in the smells and sights of the fresh fish market.  

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Boun Bang Fai, an Explosive Festival

After nearly three years in Laos, I’ve been to most of the major local festivals.  I’ve given alms at That Luang, tried paddling (but mostly cheering) a Dragonboat, respectfully tied baci strings for babies, at offices, and at weddings, thrown water like a champion at Lao New Year, and so on.  But the one festival I’ve been missing out on is boun bang fai, or the annual Rocket Festivals.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

These celebrations are harder to track down, because they don’t just happen on one day, but could occur any time between April-June, in the transitional period between the dry and the rainy seasons, and happen on different days in different villages.  Generally they occur more in the countryside, rather than in the city-proper (which is for the best for safety reasons), and are said to have a link to ancient fertility ceremonies, which makes sense with the scheduling to signify the coming of the rains, and the beginning of the rice-planting season.  In keeping with this theme, rocket festivals can often be a rather raunchy affair, with a fair amount of cross-dressing, drunkenness (okay, well, this is true of all Lao holidays), and phallic rockets or drawings.
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After two years of talking about rocket festivals, I knew I had to finally  see what it was all about, so when a friend invited me and some of our other friends out to his family’s village in Ban Naxone, about a one hour drive from the city, I was ready to go.  After a body-numbing motorbike drive out to the village with my friend Ilse, we knew we had arrived when traffic in an otherwise quiet area drew to a standstill, and loud cowbell music began to resonate in the background.  We began just with a quiet lunch at our friend’s house, with the usual fare of papaya salad, small river clams, and beef with chili sauce, before venturing out to check out the scene.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

The Ban Naxone rocket festival seemed to be bigger and more official (and therefore less raunchy) than many other rocket festivals.  The currently dry rice fields were the site of a massive carnival, with stalls selling grilled meats, homemade slushees, Gangnam Style balloons, and tiny take-home rockets.  Families had picnics, and everyone flinched a bit when a rocket went off.  The rockets themselves are not exactly anything that would pass a safety inspection in the US.  These are PVC bottle rockets (homemade in the village) of varying sizes, from small (do-it-yourself) to big, to VERY big (saved for the grand finale, which we unfortunately missed).  The larger-sized ones are set off from a launching platform, and are lit by either brave or stupid men inevitably wearing flip flops, and hurtle in the air with an alarming sound that makes you want to hit the deck to save yourself.  The crowd shades their eyes as they smoke high into the air, and then begin their descent…to land wherever they might land.  It’s an entertaining festival, but one to be approached with caution.

A few heart-stopping rocket launches was enough for us, as we had to head back to Vientiane before it got too dark, but it was certainly a worthwhile spectacle.  Let the rainy season begin!

The launching platform.

The launching platform.

there she goes

What goes up, must come down.

What goes up, must come down.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

 

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Dubai

city scape
I’ve been helping out at the Lao Rugby Federation for a few years by now, but last month, I got to be a part of one of their most exciting accomplishments yet.  They have been winning their tournaments with Cambodia for several years now, and as such, were promoted to a higher division of their competition, Division IV of the Asian 5 Nations.  That means that for the first time their competition moved out of Southeast Asia…into the desert.  This year the Lao men traveled to Dubai to take on Uzbekistan and Pakistan in competition, and I went along.

In preparation for the trip, the men underwent 6 strenuous weeks of training 8 times per week, and I underwent the slightly less strenuous task of recording their journey:

…and then, compiling a video of all of the other people cheering on the team from all corners of the world:

Finally, during the first week of May, we were off to Dubai!  For more on the rugby, check out updates on the website and facebook.  In the end, the team did not win, but made an excellent debut in a new and challenging division of competition.  It was also my debut in the Middle East, although Dubai is one of those cities, somewhat like Singapore in my opinion, that feels like it could be anywhere.  It reminded me of Singapore in other ways as well–good shopping, good food, clean, modern, air-conditioned, extremely diverse with many immigrants, efficient, but not a whole lot of unique character.
dubai
Granted, I didn’t get out that much in Dubai, so there is still a lot more to discover.  And it is undeniably an impressive city.  It is quite astounding to look out at the glittering skyscrapers and realize that it is all just built on sand.  Anywhere that is slightly unkempt–an unpaved lot, or untended alleyway, is filled with sand, and driving on the highway out of town (as we did to go out to all of the matches), the urban jungle quickly recedes into the sand dunes.  The wealth it would require to keep the city going in the middle of the desert must be immense.  We took the highway through the desert, eventually ending at a tree-lined boulevard and the most beautiful grassy sports complex with free flowing water abound.  Clearly a lot of effort goes into the city’s many luxuries.
the creek
And there are plenty of luxuries indeed–the bus stops are air-conditioned, the artificial Palm Islands lay off the coast, and the Burj al-Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building at 829m (2722 ft), looms impressively above the city.  We went to one of the natural public beaches for an afternoon (photography strictly not allowed) and the view of the Persian Gulf in one direction and the skyline in the other was rather surreal.  This followed by an evening with incredible hummus and hookah along the Dubai Creek made me realize that although somewhat artificial, it is a city worth revisiting.
hummus

mall
On our last day in Dubai, we went to the Dubai Mall, an impressive town-sized complex of every store imaginable, with their logos imaginatively redone in Arabic (I LOVE logos in Arabic), plus a shark tank, waterfall, and who knows what else.  I missed the indoor skiing and desert safaris this time…but next time, it’s a given.

dubai

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Pi Mai Redux

Last month, the country shut down to celebrate the Lao holiday to end all holidays, Pi Mai Lao, or Lao New Year.  Time must be flying here, since I feel like I just celebrated the new year…but wait…I did!

Since last Lao New Year, I have actually celebrated 4 new years, so no wonder time seems to be passing so quickly!  Last April, my friends visited and we celebrated the Buddhist year 2555 with the classic Lao water festival celebrations, which I detailed culturally, and festivity-wise in previous posts.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

A girl's traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

A girl’s traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

Just when the year was starting to feel long, it was time for Hmong New Year in December, when I visited Phonsavane and Nonghet District in Xieng Khouang Province just in time for the colorful cultural parties.  With this week of feasting on plain rice and drinking lao lao out of gasoline containers barely behind me, it was suddenly time for the international New Year.

I rang in 2013 with my friends Elle (who was actually present for the 2555 celebration as well) and Ilse in Bangkok, with Mexican food, VWs-turned-bars, and a rooftop countdown that came a few minutes too late.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

A VW turned partymobile.

A VW turned partymobile.

Just when I thought I was done with new years for awhile, it was time for Chinese New Year/Tet and the Year of the Snake, and thanks to Vientiane’s large Vietnamese and Chinese population, storefronts hung lanterns and displayed red clothing, while drummers pounded out rhythms on the way to dragon shows with their teams.  I celebrated at a Lao-Vietnamese friend’s house with traditional table settings, incense and fireworks, and the less-traditional Pitbull soundtrack and Beerlao-induced dancing.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

And then…time for another Lao New Year!  Soon enough, a year had passed (or is it several years?) and last month we rang in the Buddhist Year 2556.  As it’s my third Lao New Year, and third Pi Mai blog post, I won’t bore with the details and description (look for that here and here).  Instead let these photos and your imagination take you to a sweltering saturated 3 days in which neons, florals, and Beerlao-yellow blend before your eyes, wigs, sunglasses, and caveman costumes get swapped from person to person, and there are no moments of silence.  By now, the city has long since cleaned up the water balloons and party debris, and I am waiting around for the next new year I can celebrate.  Any ideas?

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Safety first?

Safety first?

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

It's impossible to stay dry.

It’s impossible to stay dry.

 

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Tailoring in Hoi An: A Stich in No Time!

Hoi An may boast World Heritage historical houses, temples, and nearby beaches, but one of its main draws is getting custom fitted clothes in any style imaginable.
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Misha and I definitely came with tailoring largely in mind.  There are tailors in Lao, and I have done some tailoring here, but most only really do traditional Lao outfits for ladies, and men’s work clothing.  Tailors who make styles other than tightly-fitting silk tops are harder to come by, slow (a month or more), and most importantly, there is no variety of quality fabric (aside from those for the traditional dress).  I knew Hoi An, with fabric in multitudes of textures and colors, was going to be overwhelming.

And it certainly was… In Hoi An there is an impression that everyone in the town is somehow involved in the tailoring industry.  If you meet someone who isn’t a tailor themselves, you can bet their brother/wife/cousin/sister-in-law/best friend/niece is.  Every third shop is a tailor shop, with someone calling out to you sweetly from the doorway.  The range is extreme, with some fancy high-end stores with uniformed staff, their own labels, and waiting courtyard areas.  Meanwhile, others are just one-room affairs, with a few family members running the show.  With this overwhelming amount of choice, it was essential for us to strategize and plan ahead–what we wanted, and how much we were willing to spend.  There were so many details to consider: fabric type, texture, weight, color, zipper style and placement, seams, neckline, buttons, lining, sleeves, length, and so on.  Who knew that getting custom made clothes could actually be so stressful!? (But hey, I’m not complaining).  In Hoi An, it feels like sky is the limit–winter coats, sundresses, ball gowns, suits, shorts, even shoes (from Converse, to strappy sandals, to knee-high boots)–it all can be made in a day or two.

Approaching the cloth market.

Approaching the cloth market.

Inside the cloth market.

Inside the cloth market.

A stall inside the cloth market.

A stall inside the cloth market.

In the end, after a day of scouting, sketching, price comparing, and feeling fabric, we decided to go for a combination, getting a few key items (a nice dress and jacket in my case) at an expensive designer store, and more standard items (copies of shirts and shorts already in my wardrobe) at a stall in the cloth market.  And of course–shoes (just boots and wedges, in an act of incredible restraint).

The interior of one of the fancier tailor shops.

The interior of one of the fancier tailor shops.

Truly, the most astounding part of the whole undertaking is the speed.  On our last day, we ordered a last-minute pair of shoes at 10am…which were ready, stitched-soles and all, by 8pm.  Perhaps it’s a good thing this isn’t more common as it would be sorely tempting…don’t know what to wear tonight?  Make something new!

Picking out colors at the shoe tailor.

Picking out colors at the shoe tailor.

The boot aisle at the shoe tailor.

The boot aisle at the shoe tailor.

Indeed, tailoring and eating took up most of our time, but occasionally we did manage to have moments for more tranquil and cultural activities, like walking along the harbor in the old town, and visiting the famous Japanese covered bridge.  One day, we even left downtown for the beach, walking a sweltering few miles to An Bang, the slightly less touristy beach.  We “rented” umbrellas and chairs for free, in return for patronizing an astoundingly mediocre beachside restaurant, and admired the strage circular rowboats docked on shore.

The circular boats on An Bang beach.

The circular boats on An Bang beach.

Between fittings and feasting on cao lau, the four days in Hoi An flew by, and soon we found ourselves back en route to Vientiane, with full suitcases and full stomachs to show for our week in Vietnam.

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Hungry in Hoi An

Touching down in Danang and driving the one hour to Hoi An, on Vietnam’s Central Coast, seemed quiet after the hectic streets of HCMC.
japanese covered bridge
Our main destination for the trip was Hội An, formerly knowns as Faifo (most everywhere in this part of the world has more than one name, it seems), a historic UNESCO World Heritage town of around 120,000.  Hoi An was historically a trading town, strategically located on the river, near the sea, and the architecture and fortunes of the city were strongly influenced by past merchants and settlers, especially from China and Japan.  Undamaged during the war, the town is an extremely popular tourist spot today, known for its beaches, architecture, food, and tailors.
boats in Hoi An
hoi an
Just like Luang Prabang in Laos, Hoi An is one of those places that remarkably retains its charm despite the influx of tourists.  Every third person on the street is a tourist, rather than a local, and it seems like nearly everything is geared to attract their dong (the local currency, the name of which is predictably the butt of many jokes and bawdy t-shirts).  The calls of “Miss you want bicycle? Come into my shop? Just looking? You eat here?” and so on, do get annoying, but the appeal of Hoi An manages still to transcend the touristy fanfare.  The downtown area has narrow streets, open only to motorbikes, push bikes and pedestrians, and the buildings are all a beautiful mustard yellow, with vines and blossoms cascading over their walls.  Rice farmer hats and paper lanterns abound, and narrow alleys reveal crumbling and dignified porches.
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lanterns
Before this trip, my Asian food allegiance was solidly in the camp of Lao and Thai food, but in Hoi An, Vietnamese food stole my heart.  Back in the US, most of my experiences with Vietnamese food seemed nearly identical to Chinese food in the States.  Whether this is because I didn’t know what to order before, or because all exported Asian food ends up looking the same after awhile, I’m not sure.  But now, my impressions are of a light, flavorful, often quite healthy, cuisine.

Some highlights:

Vietnamese drip coffee: The rocket fuel of Asian coffees, which I always order “white.”  The secret is that it’s really just like drinking highly-caffeinated sweetened condensed milk.  It’s necessary to take a little break from caffeine after drinking this everyday for a week.
drip coffee
Cao Lau: A Hoi An specialty, served in many different styles around the town, but always with: pork, thick noodles, greens (often mint, lettuce, and sprouts), and a mystery sauce that is light and salty.
Cao Lau
Salads: Creative mixtures of meat or tofu with peanuts, bamboo and other fresh veggies.  I don’t actually know what they’re called in Vietnamese but all sorts of delicious varieties crossed our plates.

Beef salad and Vietnamese iced tea.

Beef salad and Vietnamese iced tea.

Pho: Ah pho, an old friend.  Although I can eat this all over Laos, it’s just not quite the same as in its homeland of Vietnam.  A cheap, salty bowl of rice noodles and meat, known to be tastier the more brackish looking the broth is (it means that the bones have been boiling for longer).  Add fresh lime, chili sauce/flakes, mint, sugar to taste.  I’m sure there are posh Manhattan fusion restaurants that sell it for $14, but I’ll never be willing to spend more than $1.
pho
Spring rolls: Another ubiquitous Asian food that just seems better in Vietnam, perhaps for the sheer variety. Tofu, BBQ beef, shrimp, fish, egg, pork, you name it.  Freshly wrapped in rice paper with sweet peanut sauce for dipping.

Spring rolls eaten on the street.

Spring rolls eaten on the street.

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