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Vientiane After Two Years

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I arrived in Vientiane at around 11am this morning on the standard Lao Airlines ATR-72. The flight from Bangkok took not much more than an hour, and I kind of enjoy flying in propeller planes – the buzz of the turbo-props, and the sense that they won’t completely plummet straight to the ground in the event of total engine failure. The flight was uneventful unless you consider getting a tuna bun an event, and I finished the very enjoyable To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.

Lao Airlines ATR-72


There isn’t a lot on the agenda for today other than getting settled (although I will be having dinner with Rob Gray, a friend of almost 30 years and the Country Director for Population Services International Laos, who I will be shooting for over then next few days). This is my third year working with PSI; last year I documented their malaria program in the far southeast part of Laos and their injecting drug user program in Bangkok, and the year before that I worked with them here in Vientiane as well as in Cambodia and Bangkok.

They have booked me into a very comfortable new hotel – the Sabaidee Lao Hotel – in the centre of town, complete with a large bed, air con and a modern bathroom. After dropping my stuff off I picked up a SIM card for my mobile, then went for a long walk around town, revisiting a lot of familiar places from my time here two years ago (and a quick visit the year before). My sense is that it has changed a bit for the worse, but that could be my imagination or slight romanticizing of what it was like before. To me it seems there is more traffic, there are more tourists (including farang with local girls), and more tourist/backpacker-oriented stores. I suppose that these things happen, especially with Southeast Asia being such a popular destination and many places probably feeling overrun. I’ll have to ask Rob for his impression.

My wandering took me down to the riverfront which has definitely changed. An entirely new waterfront area (including flood prevention) is under construction and all of the shanty-like riverfront bars are gone, which is unfortunate. The strip is also recovering from the weekend riverboat festival which left a lot of garbage and semi-deconstructed stalls in its wake.

The New Mekong Riverfront in Vientiane


The New Mekong Riverfront in Vientiane


I changed some money (7,000 Kip to the dollar) and had a great cheese and veggie baguette sandwich with cafe lao and a mango pineapple smoothie at the Manivanh Shop on Samsenthai Road (19,000 Kip). Near the end of my walk I enjoyed my first Beer Lao, but I noticed with disdain that there are now other beers available. The Beer Lao monopoly was a fine thing given that it is an excellent beer.

Baguette Sandwich and Cafe Lao at Manivanh Shop

The Original Beer Lao

Getting here was largely uneventful. I arrived in Hong Kong on the night of the 23rd and was met at the airport by Kin-yi, Rehman and Jeremy Lai. We rode the bus to Kin-yi’s place in Tsuen Wan (her apartment always signals to me that a trip is beginning or ending) where we enjoyed very tasty curries that Rehman cooked up. We all slumbered at Kin-yi’s place, with Rehman issuing great snores from the living room floor.

After a fair sleep I woke early and Rehman walked me back to the bus in time to catch the 6:20 departure. Flying to Bangkok was fine, but the best part was riding the new train in from the airport. While not thrilling in and of itself, it was great not to sit in gridlock for an hour trying to get to the hotel.

I booked a room at Jim’s Lodge on Ruam Rudee off of Sukhumvit. It’s in a very convenient location not far from the BTS (skytrain), and the rooms are spacious, clean and bright; something the rooms in my previous go-to place, The Atlanta, were not. The price, at 1,200 Baht ($36) a night including breakfast works for me.

I didn’t get up to a lot in Bangkok in the half-day that I had. I did enjoy possibly the best Thai massage I’ve had just down the road from the hotel at Khun Tiew’s, a place recommended by my friend Nathan (there was a photo of him on the wall along with many other happy customers). I had a 2 hour massage full of eucalyptus, hot stones, intense pressure and some vigorous twisting.

Khun Tiew in front of her place

Bangkok's Most Wanted

Afterwards I was peckish so I went to a nearby cafe she recommended and had some very rich tom yum gai which was flavourful but not quite as spicy as I wanted. I was hoping to get out and find some of the primo local places Jeremy Tan suggested I visit, but I was a bit zonked and unadventurous. I hope to make it out during my next visit.

I was in bed by 8pm. Not impressive for a night in Bangkok, I know, but I wanted sleep. Sadly I didn’t get much. I tossed and turned until 5am when I got up, packed and checked out. I was at the airport well before my flight, but that was a good thing as it was pretty mobbed.

Written by sockeyed

October 25, 2010 at 03:01


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The final stage of our India journey was a fun and full way to finish up.  Ahmedabad brought back to me the intensity of Indian cities.  As wild and bustling as towns such as Veraval and Junagadh are, Ahmedabad is that much more so.  The streets are larger and fuller, crowds are bigger and the air is even dirtier (although less pungent than Veraval).

Ahmedabad is a very enjoyable place to spend a few days.  It has a long history as a city, dating back to its founding by Ahmed Shah in 1411.  The old city is full of twisting narrow streets jammed with amazing historical buildings and suitable characters.  Many Muslims live in the old city as well, and there are some spectacular mosques.

After arriving at the Hotel Serena, we were soon visited by Jabir, one of Derek’s old friends, who speaks very good English and a raft of other languages.  We talked for a while in our room, and then walked over to the wedding feast for one of his relatives.  It was a sizeable affair; they expected to feed 1,800 people.  It was my first Muslim wedding (technically the wedding was the day before), and there are obvious contrasts (besides the multi-day character).  Women and men were in separate areas of the hall, most notably, and ate separately.  The food was delicious.  We sat on the ground on a cloth and a huge platter was brought to us containing big pieces of ‘Chinese’ style sweet-spicy chicken, samosa-like pastry triangles, cumin meatballs, pineapple sweet, and slightly sweet chickpea flour balls in light syrup and yogurt.  The second course was an absolutely delicious rice biryani dish with rich gravy to pour on top.  While eating and after there was socializing with all of Derek’s old friends: Jabir, Maboob, Gaffar, Hafiz and more, all of whom are or were salwar kameez (a standard form of women’s clothing – loose pants and a matching thigh-length top) sellers in the old city.  We were very warmly received, as were Derek’s photos of Asha.

We could have slept in the next morning, which would have been appreciated, but instead we woke early to take a walking tour of the old city.  Meeting at the Swaminarayan Mandir temple at 8am, our guides took us on a meandering walk through many ‘pols’, or micro neighbourhoods and courtyards and narrow streets, and often connected through tiny pass-throughs.  We took in some lovely old architecture, and learned that the city is very proactive in protecting its heritage stock by providing free services of architects and engineers to help in the restoration of listed buildings.  Those that have been improved have a plaque on the front.  The challenge is that older buildings are often owned by many members of the same family, and they can seldom agree on what to do with their properties.  The tour finished at the massive 15th century Jumma Mashid, “Friday Mosque”, built by Ahmed Shah.  I have memories of going there to watch evening prayers at dusk back in 1998.

We were not far from the hotel, so we walked back for a rest.  Derek napped a bit and I puttered, then we had a great South Indian lunch at the Lucky Restaurant just down the street.  When I asked Derek about the rectangular green objects on the floor surrounded by low fences, he said that they were old Muslim graves.  Interesting décor!  They were well maintained and respected, with flowers laid on some of them.

In the later afternoon, we went to visit the salwar sellers.  The streets their shops are on were absolutely mobbed; we were barely able to walk through the thick humanity.  The shops themselves – Maboob’s in particular – were jammed full of women buying salwars.  We visited both Maboob and Gaffar’s shops, and sat chatting and drinking cold drinks or milky coffee.  Around 6pm we squeezed our way out again and went to visit two more folks, this time across the river in newer neighbourhoods: one house was the family of a friend of Derek’s in Winnipeg, and the next was Derek’s research assistant’s – Nerendra’s – place.  I actually met him in Sri Lanka in 2005.  As a perpetual workaholic, he wasn’t there when we arrived, but we sat and talked with his wife and lovely squeaky three year-old daughter, Jeena.  Nerendra eventually showed up at 9 or so, and we have a most tasty Gujarati meal.  Nerendra now does AIDS-prevention work, so we had an interesting discussion about what he is up to and some of the projects I’ve been involved with in Southeast Asia.

It was a fairly late night and a very early morning.  We woke at 5 and arrived at the airport in good time for our 7:20 flight on Jet Airways.  I munched a veggie sandwich and some sweets.  An hour after takeoff and we were landing in Mumbai.  Derek was staying on board as the plane was continuing on to Chennai, his next destination for a conference, so we said good-bye and I deplaned.  Getting to the international departures required a 20-minute bus ride that deposited us outside of security at the terminal, so I had to pass through it again, plus emigration and multiple screenings and boarding-pass checkings.  There was surprisingly little time to kill when I finally arrived at the gate for my 11:30 flight.

Bangkok seems orderly and modern after India, which is surprising.  We zipped in from the airport on the expressway, but the taxi got stuck in traffic tar as soon as we exited.  Yet all the cars stayed in their lanes (there were lanes!), and there was absolutely no honking or chaos.  Just resignation.  We sat and inched and sat and inched.  We got within a few hundred meters of the Atlanta Hotel only to have to drive the wrong way and then sit again due to one-way streets.  I really could have got out and walked, and maybe should have, but instead stayed in the taxi.

My sleep was deliciously peaceful and long – from 11pm until 8:30am.  I ate my usual muesli with fresh fruit and yogurt, and coffee in the hotel restaurant, then spent some time on the computer uploading blog postings from India and responding to a few emails.  Kristi also called and we had a nice chat.

Jeremy Tan happens to be in Bangkok for a month, working with the Thai branch of his company, so we had lunch by his office over in Silom and caught up.  Great to see him.

I organized, packed and showered, then headed to the PSI offices, also in Silom, where I had some internet time to check on details for the Laos part of my trip.  I met with a few staff to look over some of the pictures I took on my earlier visit to Bangkok.  Alex Duke and I had a simple pork-on-rice dinner in a local eatery, then I headed to the Hua Lamphong train station.  I’m writing this from the top berth in a 2nd class sleeper car in a train bouncing its way east to Ubon Ratchatani.  From there I’ll head over the border into Laos and meet up with the PSI Malaria outreach teams.

Hualamphong Station (photo from 2008)

Written by sockeyed

October 27, 2009 at 18:29

Posted in Travel

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Something’s Hmong with this Picture

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My train was an hour late getting into Chiang Mai, so that limited my already limited time there. Greg Rekken, the CUSO cooperant from Vancouver who I met before he headed out to Thailand, greeted me at the train station with his motorcycle. Groggy from a not-great sleep and my cold, and by the fact that my monkly companions woke at 5:30 and started chatting, our first stop was for a coffee.

Time didn’t allow for a trip out to the model farm which I documented last year, plus I found out that some of the folks I’d met last year had moved on, so instead Greg and I met up with Jeremy Mak – an American working with Burmese NGOs whom I met last November – at a restaurant in a large cob building near the university.

It was fun to drive through Chiang Mai again, seeing many familiar sights. We all caught up with each other’s activities over a lunch that was tasty but long in the delivery. Too long, unfortunately, to allow me to get my traditional mango sticky rice in the old town near the Tae Phe gate. Greg got me the airport in good time for my flight and I ventured on.

The ATR-72 Chinese-made copy of a Russian plane stayed aloft by the grace of Buddha and we touched down in Luang Prabang at around 4pm and I rode a mini van to the Wheelers’ house, down a lane across from the Rama Hotel in a nice part of town about a 10 minute’s walk from the old core. Ron was there to greet me as were their two cats, Patches and Casper, adopted as kittens abandoned on their front door. Alisa arrived soon, but was tied up with work at the Children’s Cultural Centre that evening. We shared some beer, Alisa returned to work, and Ron and I walked out to dinner at the Blue Lagoon, where I ate otlam stew and sticky rice. The food was tasty, but prepared for western tastes, so it wasn’t as spicy as what the kids made last year at the CCC.

After dinner we dropped by the CCC where a weekend of teacher training was taking place. In the evening that revolved around skits, singing and dancing, which was good entertainment. Ron and I were enticed onto stage for some festive group dancing (all moving in a circle, one hand facing up, one hand down).

I spent most of yesterday with Ron walking and biking around the town. I am struck by how beautiful Luang Prabang is, surrounded by mountains and lying between the Mekong and the Namquan rivers. There is a classic colonial feel to the architecture, and it is all really quite calm and quiet despite the larger number of tourists (perhaps because in part they are the older, calmer variety). Orange-robed monks are still ubiquitous.

Ron and I started with lao coffee (with condensed milk) and a baguette warmed over a fire at my favourite coffee shop down on the Mekong where Jeremy and I spent a lot of our mornings last year.

After that, a stop at the Viva Travel to book onwards tickets. A setback there because all of the outbound flights to Vientiane are full for the week, so I’m aiming for a standby flight today. There was a little bit of activity at the CCC when we walked past, but the kids showed no sign of recognition despite the fact that I spent a week there last year. This is not entirely suprising given the number of farang who pass through Luang Prabang.

We returned home to pick up the bikes, then went for noodles (phe) at a favourite shop in the west part of the old town, followed by a ride over the old bailey bridge and down a dusty bumpy road to the village where the weavers are. I found one of the women that I photographed at Naga Textiles last year and gave her a number of photos of her and her sister, and she was very pleased. We rode home via a Beer Lao pit stop, then had naps. I was doing ok until a Lao Airlines prop plane flew low overhead and woke me up, then I couldn’t snooze again, so I went for a wander in town with my camera, and strolled along the Mekong waterfront as the sun set over the river.

Alisa was home when I returned to their place, and we all decided to go to Nisha, the Indian restaurant. Alisa ordered a wonderful assortment of very tasty dishes which we came close to almost finishing. The owner of the restaurant is from South Indian (Madras?) and is married to a Lao women, and together they have at least three gorgeous children including one daughter about 45 days old.

On our way home we talked through the night market which is almost overwhelming in terms of how nice the goods for sale are, even if they become variations on a theme after a while. I bought two Hmong embroidered baby hats (one old, one new), plus two pairs of little shoes for Asha. For me I picked up a Lao PDR t-shirt. I love mine from last year and I wanted a second for when it wears out.

I slept well last night for the first night in a while, and my cold seems to be a bit better today. Ron was off to work before I got up, but Alisa took a day off, so we went for coffee/baguette down by the river again, then back via a quick stop at the market where I bought an embroidered Hmong duvet cover and pillow cases for 230,000 kip, about $30. Beautiful stuff.

A final pack, a tuk-tuk, and now I’m at the airport. There are two flights today and I’m on the standby list for both (#5 on the first, #3 on the second). I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to get to Vientiane today. Luang Prabang is a nice place to be stuck, but I would rather get on the road at this point.

Written by sockeyed

November 17, 2008 at 20:00

Special Express to Chiang Mai

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It’s 8:15pm and I’m on the Special Express train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I’m in 2nd class A/C sleeper, and my companions are three young Buddhist monks. Originally I was seated one section forward, but by some mishap a single young woman ended up among the monks and that was deemed unacceptable by the conductor in his banana republic military colonel uniform, so I was asked to swap places and am now among the holy folk who seem happy to sit cross legged on their chairs, and travel with matching brown gym bags (with the name of their temple screened on the side?) and saffron and green soft shoulder bags. The train trip takes about 14 hours, so I should roll into Chiang Mai around 9:30am. This is the same train that I rode to Chiang Mai last year.

A western couple seated close by just ordered a frosty bottle of beer and it looks very tempting, but suppose that it’s not kosher to drink booze in my current company.

Alex didn’t end up joining us last night as he was tied up in endless meetings. Thor and I had an excellent meal at a nearby restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, an usual name that reflects the fact that it’s a social enterprise run by PDA, the biggest NGO in Thailand, who promotes reproductive health and HIV prevention. It was quite an elegant place, in a large, tastefully-lit outdoor courtyard. A woman in a traditional outfit played soothing zither melodies. The food was really top-notch. I started with a fresh lychee juice, and we shared rich musamun curry and deep-fried prawns covered in dried or fried garlic. Even the steamed rice was flavourful. For dessert, I had my first mango sticky rice – mango slices, glutinous rice and coconut milk drizzled on top – of the trip.

My shoulders were aching after schlepping around my camera gear all day, so I went in search of a thai massage place. Thor had to leave very early the next morning for Singapore, so we said our goodbyes and promised to track each other’s blogs. Finding a massage place that wasn’t simply a rub-n-tug in the Nana Soi 4 area is not easy, so I headed across Sukhumvit road in search of more savoury establishments. I discovered an Arabic quarter and felt myself transported to a completely different city populated by portly Arab men, women in full chador, and curious Thais looking at rotating shwarma. I found a massage place full of men, women and children getting foot rubs, shaves and facials, so I figured that it would probably be OK. I requested an hour on my back, shoulders and head. I changed into a set of Thai massage pajamas, and the masseuse went to work. A few of the full-force elbow digs into my sorest spots caused a few watery eyes and cries for mercy, but overall I think that it did the trick.

I made it home through the mayhem of Nana and slept quite soundly (although I am still wrestling with a cold).

Today was pretty inert. I took care of getting a plane ticket to Luang Prabang at the hotel travel agent, picked up some supplies, did email, and such. I met Thomas Achilles, the regional director of CUSO (now merged with VSO), for lunch at a local restaurant as VSO’s offices are just on the next soi from the Atlanta. He helped coordinate most of my photography projects during last year’s trip, so it was good to catch up and talk about where we were each at. I was also important to talk about Nic Parenteau, the CUSO cooperant that I photographed last year and was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident during the winter. It was meaningful to hear that Thomas had used a number of my photographs in a book about Nic that was given to his family.

Thomas also procured my train ticket for me, and here I am rolling northward. I think that we are finally getting close to the outskirts of Bangkok. Not long ago we rolled past the old Don Muang airport.

Written by sockeyed

November 15, 2008 at 04:30

Posted in Photography, Travel

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Bali-Bye and on to Bangkok

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The most exciting thing that has happened since I last wrote is that I have become an uncle. Just less than 24 hours ago, my sister-in-law Emily gave birth to Asha Marguerite Johnson Denton, a lovely little girl born at home. Derek called me first thing this morning with the news and I could feel his glowing fatherdom from halfway around the world. I can’t wait to meet Asha.

I am now in Bangkok, staying in the unique and somewhat charming Atlanta Hotel with its classic art deco lobby, plain rooms, reasonable rates and an astounding number of firm rules posted on almost every blank surface, mostly telling the reader that bad behaviour of any sort will not be tolerated and any transgressor will be immediately surrendered to the Authorities and locked in gaol for the duration. Nonetheless, it is a fun place to stay and it has a great restaurant overseen by an impressive octogenarian cashier/matriarch who has been at her post since the dawn of time. I happened to meet one of my co-workers from the City – Thor Kuhlmann – at the reception desk last night. We knew that we’d both be in SE Asia, but had no idea we would actually overlap at the same place at the same time. I spent the morning with Thor today, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Our last few days in Indonesia were very quiet, and tainted a bit by mild sickness. My ear got worse and Kristi developed flu-like symptoms. At first she was convinced that it was dengue fever or malaria or both, but relaxed a bit when the fever proved not high enough. It wasn’t fun, regardless, so we decided to make an earlier-than-planned exit from the island. We were lucky to get two spots on the Blue Water Express boat to Benoa Harbour on Bali on the morning of the 10th, plus a reservation at the Swastika Bungalows that evening. The boat ride was uneventful, quite scenic and a bit bumpy. It was also about twice as long as the earlier trip from Padang Bai. Returning to Bali and then to the bungalows felt calm, quiet and familiar. It was nice to be back in the lushness and flowers, and to see the daily offerings appearing everywhere again. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and had a nice lunch of local nosh (nasi campur) at Wayan’s Warung, right by our bungalows. Kristi mostly napped and read in bed, and I went for another tasty massage across the road.

For our last day in Bali, we relaxed again in the morning then hired our driver from earlier, Ketut, to take us around to the various craft villages between Sanur and Ubud. We visited places selling stone and wood carvings, textiles and silver. We didn’t buy a ton of stuff, just some batik napkins, several small wood carvings, and Kristi bought a few nice pieces of silver jewellery. Unfortunately Ketut backed his van into a tree and shattered the rear window at our first stop, and had to drive back to Sanur to get another vehicle. Poor fellow.

We watched the sunset at Tanah Lot, which was easily the most touristy place we saw during our time on Bali. It is a temple in a lovely setting on a stone outcrop in the ocean surrounded by crashing waves. Walking through endless stalls selling touristy crap wasn’t pleasant, and the crowd was thick, but we found a nice spot on the next headland over from the temple where we could look back on the temple and at surfers down below as the sun made its progress toward the horizon. The sunset was spectacular and certainly worth watching.

Ketut made quick work of the drive to the airport and we were there in plenty of time to have a bite to eat before checking in, boarding and flying off. The flight was fine and we touched down in Singapore on schedule at 00:45 and took a taxi in to Laurie’s place, once again marvelling at how orderly Singapore is.

I had to wake early to get organized and out the door to make my 11:00am flight. Kristi is staying in Singapore for a few days, then Hong Kong for a night before heading to Vancouver (and work). We were sad to say goodbye, but I’m very happy that we were lucky enough to share a great trip together.

My Air Asia flight got me to Bangkok just after noon, and the taxi ride in was surprisingly fast compared to past years. A new train to the airport that is under construction will improve things even more. I checked in to the Atlanta, then walked to the local 7/11 for water and a SIM card for my phone. Back at the hotel I made contact with local folks who I want to see, and I relaxed.

In the early evening I was invited out to see the Loy Kratong celebrations down on the Chao Phraya river by Alex Duke from PSI, the NGO I will be volunteering for here, in Laos and in Phnom Penh. Alex is a very friendly young guy from Australia and England. He and his girlfriend met me on the riverside under the Taksin bridge, which was a feat in itself given the dense crowd. The festival is a time to give thanks for the year’s water, and is celebrated at rivers and lakes (and ponds and public fountains). It involves launching colourful floating offerings with a prayer of thanks. After enjoying the crowd and the sights for a bit, we paid 20 Baht (66 cents) for a 20 minute boat ride up the river with a gaggle of other folks clutching their offerings. The river was raging, and was lined with colourful light displays and populated with many festive boats. We chugged upstream to near Wat Arun, apparently an auspicious vicinity to launch the offerings. As we returned southwards, we were waved to the side of the river by an officious police boat and made to sit there. About ten minutes later we were treated to a front-row view of a mid-river fireworks display sponsored by three hotels, with one barge in front of each stretching off in front of us. I’m not usually a huge fan of fireworks, but these were pretty impressive because of their proximity and context.

Once docked again we wandered around a bit longer, then rode the skytrain homeward, them to their apartment and me to the Atlanta.

I met Thor for breakfast in the hotel this morning at 9:00, then we went for a walk, first to the Erawin Shrine (Hindu, but very popular with Thais), where we watched eight dancers sing and dance with not much gusto. They are paid to dance by people praying at the shrine, and they do it all day most likely, so I can understand their lack of vim. We turned south down Ratchamdamri Road to Lumphini Park, a large, well-groomed and attractive park with trees, orchids and moderately-intimidating lizards swimming in the lake.

As lunch was approaching, we went to the food court at the large MBK mall near the National Stadium. The food court was heavenly, with stall after stall offering every imaginable Thai delight, plus some international goodies. For 100 Baht (three or so dollars), I had a spicy papaya salad (made fresh and professionally in a giant mortar and pestal), a sticky rice, black bean and coconut milk desert, and an iced coffee. I even had four Baht change.

In the afternoon I headed north to the Mo Chit Skytrain station, then took a cab to O-zone, a drop-in centre and needle exchange for IDUs (intravenous drug users) run by PSI. The staff, volunteers and clients were a wonderful group of people, and I spent the several hours photo-documenting their work: an outreach worker meeting, condom education and recreation (playing music, watching DVDs, eating and relaxing in a safe environment). I felt welcomed and appreciated by everyone there. I’ll be sending them a CD of my images once I’m back in Canada.

One of the staff drove me on his motorbike to the Ari transit station and I rode back to the hotel. This entry has been the focus of my attention since then, but soon I’ll hopefully join Alex and Thor for a beer and dinner.

Written by sockeyed

November 14, 2008 at 02:00

Chiang Mai and Mango Sticky Rice

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I’m feeling somewhat satiated after finally getting my mango sticky rice. I arrived in Chiang Mai almost 24 hours ago, but it took until breakfast this morning to get some. I’m spending my time in Chiang Mai photographing a project by an NGO called NEED which promotes sustainable local development and human rights issues. The initiative is called the “Food Security and Human Rights Awareness Project.” The subject of my documentation is actually a young Quebecois volunteer who is funded to do work here by CUSO. The project he is leading is the creation of a small farm which will be used to train Burmese in practices of sustainable organic agriculture and educate them about human rights issues. Nicholas, the volunteer or ‘cooperant’, is very passionate and driven about the work, putting in long hours seven days a week in most cases. He is working out of the NEED office here in Chiang Mai. The office is an open-air house that is actually home to about six Arakanese Burmese, from the state of Arakan in the far west, right next to Bangladesh. All are in Thailand illegally and will face 10 days in jail and deportation if caught by the authorities. All arrived here independently of each other.

The farm itself is 20km from town. We got there on motor scooters on some of the more chaotic but actually reasonably safe roads. To call it a farm is a bit of a stretch; it’s only about 3 acres or so, and has one bamboo house that they built together, but it makes sense that it’s small as it should replicate conditions back in Burma. The land is mostly planted in rice from seed that they scavenged and collected. There is some mixing of crops, too: beans, okra, pumpkin, banana, mango and herbs all grow in raised beds among the rice. It is harvest time, so I watched Nicholas and two of the Burmese harvesting the rice with sickles. One, Kyaw Aye, was a real pro and could gather up great bushels in short order. It was hard work, though, no doubt. Nicholas was right in the middle of the action, and he spends every day out on the farm. He seems to really thrive on the work, though. He certainly doesn’t take the easy way here, working alongside the Burmese farmers. His intention is to stay for 5 years. We all spent a great late afternoon in the fields, and I think that I got some decent shots in the warm, low-angle light. Back in town we socialized over some beers in a local Thai watering hole. Six big bottles of beer and snacks came to about $11. My treat.

We’ll be going out to the farm again over the next few days. Tomorrow will be a big work day – I’ll hire a car (they have a very limited budget) and we’ll take all the Burmese folk out to the farm. They plan to raise beds, and harvest and thresh rice. Should be an amazing experience. Jeremy arrives on saturday. I hope to take him to the farm, but we’re not likely to spend a ton of time here before heading east to Luang Prabang in Laos.

Getting to Chiang Mai was a bit of a whirlwind experience. Flying on Cathay Pacific, I landed in Hong Kong on sunday night and made my way by public bus to Kin-yi’s apartment in Tsuen Wan. She’s on some mysterious trip to the UK, from what I know. A good night’s sleep and I was up and running errands around Hong Kong – getting memory cards, portable hard drives, and dropping things off at Joseph Yao’s shop in TST. It was a bit surreal, obviously.

That night I flew to Bangkok and arrived at midnight. I put myself up in the KT Guesthouse at CUSO’s suggestion. It was kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but it was convenient to their office. After a lousy sleep, I stumbled to the subway and rode a couple of stops, then walked to the CUSO office, which was even more in the middle of nowhere. There I met with the regional director, Thomas Achillles and we planned out my trip and contacts in various places. He treated me to a great lunch in a nearby eatery.

I collected my things from the hotel and zipped downtown on the subway then skytrain to the Sala Daeng station, where I met Simon Larbarlestier, an English photographer living in Bangkok whom I’d met through a couple of online forums. Being a small photographers world, we also know quite a few folks in common. We had a good long chat, joined partway through by another local friend (a painter), over ploughman platters and lager in an Irish pub. I’ll see Simon again in Siem Reap in a while.

A short subway ride and I’m at the train station. CUSO provided me with a ticket on the night train to Chiang Mai, which was a great experience. I love trains, especially sleeper trains. It’s a narrow-gauge railway, so there weren’t separate compartments, just semi-ingenious fold-down bunks and convertible seats. The train pulled out at 7:35pm. I read The Great War for Civilization, then crawled into my curtained-off little bed area. I slept very well, bouncing down the rails. We pulled in to Chiang Mai at 9:45am and I took a tuk-tuk to the Roong Ruang hotel by the Ta Phae gate, where I stayed two years ago. Good location and decent enough. Nicholas met me there, and we set out on our day.

Written by sockeyed

November 15, 2007 at 17:29