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Out of Laos and Across Cambodia

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The last day in the field was a successful one for both me and the team.  The village we worked in – Somsouk – was about 2kms down a side road from our usual route towards the plateau.  It was a larger village nestled among rice fields with the rugged plateau rising up a short distance away.  Houses were of the same style, still basic, but larger and somewhat better built than in the previous villages.  Around the periphery were a fair number of rice storage structures, looking like small windowless houses high on stilts.
Somsouk

Driving towards Somsouk and the Bolevan Plateau

Somsouk

Somsouk village and rice fields

Somsouk

Rice storage structures

We were the hit attraction for the children, who spent much of the day peering at us in the raised open-walled community building.  Our only competition was two people from another village selling a collection of clothes – mostly t-shirts – spread out on a large tarp nearby.  A cyclone in the region was causing some impressive gusts of wind and creating some great light and the occasional spatter of rain.

Somsouk

Registration for the clinic

Somsouk

A girl looks on and smiles as her sibling gets a finger-prick blood test

A girl at the clinic waits and watches

Boys playing with a home-made toy at the clinic

It was a successful day for both me and team.  I was happy with the shots that I got, both of the team’s work and the village context, and the team tested 230 villagers, none of whom were positive for malaria.  It was a positive way for me to finish up my work with the team.

PSI field workers interview a household about malaria prevention and awareness

A PSI field worker interviews a woman

We returned to the guesthouse at 3:30, I showered and packed, then the truck returned to drive me into Pakse.  San, Seng, Tak and Dao all wanted to come along to see me off, which was touching.  The drive took about 2 1/2 hours; San drove most of the way while the others sat in the back playing cards on a cardboard box.  Sang had the luck and was rewarded by a substantial pile of Kip.  At the high point of our drive, near Paxsong, we hit thick fog and had to slow to a crawl for about 20 stressful minutes where we could barely see the road.  Once through, San joined the others in the back to play cards while Tak took over at the wheel.  Soon the pile of money found its way in front of San, which didn’t entirely surprise me.

In the early evening we pulled into Pakse, which after Attapeu seemed expansive and bustling.  I picked up a ticket to the bus and the guys found me a quiet, comfortable guest house a short distance away.  I learned then that they were heading back to Attapeu that evening; I had assumed that they were staying the night.  That made me feel even more appreciative of their gesture of joining me on the journey.

We went for a bowl of noodles near the guest house, then a beer by the (closed) airport at a friend’s place.  The guys have friends in every town that they work, and quite possibly girlfriends from what I can tell.  We returned to the guest house and said our goodbyes, and I watched them drive away.

I woke just after six, showered and walked the short distance to the bus station.  I put my bag on the bus, which was disappointingly not as luxurious as the images on the posters at the ticket office suggested.  They have some quite plush large buses in the region that put Greyhounds to shame, but this one was very ordinary.  I would soon come to appreciate its quality, however.

I had a simple breakfast of grilled pork and sticky rice at the bus station, then boarded the bus with about a dozen other folks.  About 10kms out of town, things went sideways when we hit a motorcyclist (or more accurately, when a motorcyclist hit us).  I had long expected disaster on the roads of Laos due to the quite blatant disregard for safety and the mix of different modes and speeds of transportation.  As we were passing a motorcyclist, he took a hard left turn without looking over his shoulder or consulting his non-existent mirrors.  He bounced off the side of our fast-moving bus and tumbled down the road.  Fortunately he was relatively OK – conscious and sitting up; if he had turned one second earlier, he would have ended up under the bus’ wheels, which doesn’t bear thinking about.

We all had to get off the bus with our bags as the bus and crew had to stay and deal with the aftermath.  A smaller bus from another company was flagged down and we were put on it.  It drove us to the border with a few stops along the way – at Wat Phou and the Thousand Islands.  We abandoned the bus at the border cross, an assortment of a few small buildings with a stretch of open road between two traffic gates.  The crossing was seen as an economic development opportunity for various personnel.  I was asked for an extra $1 by Lao emigration, quarantine and Cambodian control.  It’s simply par for the course here.

Another small bus was waiting for us on the far side and drove in a pokey way to Stung Treng, about 75kms from the border.  After standing in that muggy town for about 15 minutes, our original bus pulled up and we piled on again.  We continued our journey across much of the country, which seemed continuously flat, with fairly lush vegetation and the typical red dirt.  The dirt soon turned mucky was we came into rain.  It seems that we’d just missed quite a deluge.

The ride was tedious.  I listened to music while the crew played a series of movies on the entertainment system: a dubbed Hollywood comedy about three inept men trying to kidnap a baby, one about Khmer bumpkins, some Mr. Bean, and possibly the worst Indian film I’ve seen: a Punjabi production about student councils, misunderstandings, fighting and strife.  It was endless, but thoroughly enjoyed by three young Sikh men who had given it to the crew to put on.  A funny moment was when one of the young bus crew tied his krama – traditional Cambodian scarf – around his head in a perfect turban and sat watching the film.

The last 100kms from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh were also endless.  The bus was hot and stuffy, the windows were fogged up, the entertainment system blared, and I was sticky, hungry and tired.  I learned later that I was lucky, however.  We were arriving during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh, a time when an extra two million people pour into town to watch dragon boat racing on the Tonle Sap river.  On all other days they had been forcing people off of buses and onto taxis or motos 50kms from town.  This had happened to Vinh.  For some reason we made it through, and was delighted to get off the bus, hop a moto, and arrive at the Paragon Hotel on the waterfront, which was solidly jammed with people enjoying the last night of festivities.

I had just got into my room when I heard my name being called from the hallway.  I opened my door to find Vinh and Sue, and I gave them stinky hugs.  After a quick shower, I went with them for a German meal over on St. 130.  Shortly we were joined by a friend of their who is a prosecutor in the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal.  Amazing!  At another watering hole, Rick Valenzuela stopped by with Irwin Loy, a journalist I know from Vancouver who interviewed me when he was writing for 24 Hours.  He’s here now, working with Rick at the Phnom Penh Post.

I revived with food and beer and stayed up fairly late, but then retired to my cool, dark, quiet room.

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Written by sockeyed

November 3, 2009 at 20:08

Posted in Travel

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Attapeu

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The journey was long – 23 hours from the Hualamphong train station to the Attapeu bus station – but it went as smoothly as imaginable.  I didn’t sleep so well on the train for some reason, perhaps because it seemed exceptionally bouncy, and also because the conductor and his friends were jabbering away a few feet from my berth.  The stunning thing is that the train arrived on time in Ubon Ratchatani, which is almost unheard of.  A tuk tuk drove me through the unremarkable town to the bus station where I bought a ticket for the 9:30 bus to Pakse.  I had time for a bowl of chicken on broth-y rice and a coffee.  I also realized that my Thai mobile was almost out of credit so I couldn’t send a text message anywhere.

The bus ride took about three hours.  Crossing the border was an exercise in way-finding through fences and around buildings, eventually arriving at a black-glass window with a hole far too low to actually see or hear anything through.  I passed in my passport and a bushel of papers came back at me, which I dutifully filled out and returned with the $43 fee.  Canadians still pay the most of any country for a Lao visa.  We must have really offended them at some point.

At another similar window around the side, a disembodied voice asked for an additional 50 Baht, probably for the Lao Border Guards Retirement Fund or something.  I paid and walked away with my passport and Lao visa in hand.

Instantly things change on the Lao side of the border: the landscape is hillier and more treed, and things look less prosperous.  Most houses are feeble wood things that look like they could blow over or combust at the smallest provocation.

After an hour and on the far side of the stunning Mekong, we pulled into non-descript Pakse.  I hopped on a Lao style of tuk tuk – a covered sidecar – and went for a ride through the town, stopping to get a SIM card (using French with an old guy) – then south 8km to the other bus station.  I had a couple of hours there until the 3:15 “VIP” bus left, so I drank some drinks and ate some buns.

The 4 hour ride to Attapeu was lovely.  We drove around the Bolevan Plateau, which juts up several hundred meters from the plain around it, in places with sheer cliffs and bastions of rock.  We made our way clockwise around it in the gorgeous evening light.  One thing that I noticed is that Lao people walk with their backs to traffic, which resulted in many of the having the beejesus scared out of them when our bus came barrelling up behind them honking.

The bus pulled into the dirt bus station at 7:30 and shortly thereafter a big blue Toyota Land Cruiser covered in Number 1 condom logos pulled up, and I was greeted by Tick, the young energetic team leader here, and Sen, the driver.  Both speak good English.  We drove the short distance to the guesthouse.

I had a nice room, but unfortunately it was on the ground floor right by the front desk and door, so I had a fairly lousy sleep because of noise.

I got out of bed at seven, and at half-past, Tick took me for a bowl of noodles down the street.  At eight, the entire PSI team showed up (8 folks in two vehicles), and we drove about 30kms down a rough dirt road westwards to the village called Pouy.  Flooding earlier this year damaged the whole area and the road is badly scarred in places.  An amazingly sketchy suspension bridge with a one-ton limit has been built in one place, and everyone piled out to watch the Land Cruiser creep across it.

Bridge Crossing

A PSI Land Cruiser crawls across a suspension bridge

The standard practice for the team is to set up malaria testing and also conduct field interviews about malaria-prevention practices.  A series of tables are arranged and villagers are invited to drop by, sign in and get a finger-prick blood test on the spot.  Results are available within 15 minutes.  This was the second day at the village, so it wasn’t particularly busy although by the early afternoon a crowd of about 30 or so had gathered after being tested in anticipation of draw prizes.

Malaria Blood Test

A girl winces as she gets a finger-prick blood test for malaria

Pouy

The girl on the right has tested positive for malaria and is given a Coartem treatment pack by the PSI team

Villagers wait to hear the results of their malaria tests

The village, like all that we passed, is situated on a large floodplain of the major river in the area (that flooded during the storms).  To the north is an impressive forested plateau, possibly the Bolevan, rising abruptly up from the plain with sheer cliffs and waterfalls.  While dry right now, this is obviously an area that turns to soup and glue in the wet season.  The red soil likely turns to porridge, and then to concrete as it dries.  Rice farming dominates although lots of livestock – water buffalo, cows, goats, geese, chickens and ducks – roam.  The houses are simple: one or two rooms high on stilts, with a ladder or stairs leading up.  The walls are wooden boards for the most part, with lots of gaps for air and mosquitoes.  I was able to go into a couple of houses for the field interviews and they were as basic inside as out.  For beds there were simple thin mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets suspended from the ceiling.  It seemed as if most families slept in one room.

Lao Village House

A typical rural Lao house in Pouy village

Mosquito nets hang from the ceiling in a rural house

Because it was quiet today, the program wrapped up just after 1pm and we piled back into the vehicles and drove into town.  I was feeling pretty zonked, so I changed into a quieter upstairs room and had a 1.5 hour nap.

At five, Tick and another team member took me for a walk into the market.  The vegetables and herbs looked fresh and delicious, the fly-covered fish and meat, the squirrels, the crickets, and the dried buffalo skin, less so.  We walked onto the bridge and peered at the quite-lovely meandering river below, then went to a riverside restaurant, the Champa 100 Years, for a tasty meal of grilled duck, fried rice with egg, spicy salad and zesty watercress or morning glory.  And of course, Beer Lao.

Attapeu Market

Looking down on a street leading to the Attapeu market

Squirrels and Mushrooms

Squirrels and mushrooms for sale in the Attapeu market

Beer Lao was the story of the evening.  I went out on the town with a number of the older guys from the team, and each stop involved plentiful large bottle of Beer Lao, fortunately served over ice, which dilutes the beer somewhat.  First stop was an open-air karaoke bar on the river.  Instead of canned music, a fellow sits at a keyboard playing the tunes will all sorts of other instruments programmed in.  Sen sang a couple of Lao tunes very well and won the appreciation of people there.

Beer Lao

Beer Lao Heaven

Next stop was a ‘disco’ full of Lao young-uns.  It was a mid-sized room with a lot of tables, dripping air conditioners, lasers and such, and a decent and loud sound system.  The youth were having a pretty fun time moving to Thai pop hits.

Final stop was another karaoke place called Happy Days or something like that, also on the river.  In addition to a keyboardist was a guitarist; apparently they are brothers, and they were talented.  There was less actual karaoke as the band did most of the work, but there was some dancing, which, much to my dismay, involved me as I was dragged up by the guys.  Dancing in front of a crowd of Laos was not high on my list of priorities in coming here, but at least the bottles of Beer Lao loosened my inhibitions and mortal terror.  It was a late night for Laos – we didn’t make it home until midnight, leaving when the bar shut down.

Written by sockeyed

October 30, 2009 at 18:39

Posted in Photography, Travel

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