Reliance on technology, part two
I'm hereby officially giving up on all things high-tech. Bfore leaving Korea, my laptop died, so I got another one. Then, again before we left Korea, my camera went on the blink, which I then got fixed in Shanghai. In Saigon my second laptop died more properly, so I left it behind. In Bangkok, I foolishly plugged the power supply of my mp3 player into my speakers (it had a USB power-supply output!) and it burnt out and died. So now I've got my laptop hard disk in an external case, and my iKillah's hard disk (which works perfectly, it's the machine which is busted) in another external case. In Ban Lung, one arm on my glasses snapped, so using a lighter and superglue, I plastic-welded them back together. In Bangkok, one of the frames broke - somehow, I have no idea - so I used almost an entire tube of superglue to affix it back together. Yesterday morning, in Vientiane, i foolishly sat on my fucking glasses, thus snapping the whole arm in half and breaking the busted arm off entirely - all of which I managed to fix using the same techniques as before - judicious (or injudicious) use of superglue and plastic welding using a lighter and pliers. I suppose I should get some more, but damnit, I like these glasses. The good news is that now the only things I have which can break down are my camera and my two hard disk enclosures.
Another day, another country. Leaving Hualamphong station in Bangkok at 20:45, on a second-class sleeper, you can be in Vientiane, sitting on the bank of the mekong river drinking a cold glass of beerlao and eating grilled meat and french bread by lunchtime the next day, for about $20 in travel costs.
Laos is what Thailand must have eben like about twenty years ago, Vietnam ten years ago, and Cambodia five years ago - largely undeveloped and rural, low-key, relaxed and friendly. Part of this has to be to do with the Lao, who aren't as frantic as the Vietnamese, as damaged as the Cambodians, or as touristised as the Thai. Vientiane is their capital city, and it feels a bit like any other major asian capital must feel when 90% of the people have gone away to the countryside on holiday. It's flat and simply laid out, the streets are quite wide and mostly clean, there are trees and grass everywhere. The western edge of the city is the Mekong river, and its banks are lined with tables and umbrellas and people grilled food and soup and fruit. You more or less get left to your own devices - if you want something, wave a guy over. The inner cithyy itself is so quiet that you have to look quite hard to find anything to do - there area a few monuments and so on, but so few skanky foreigner bars, touts and hasslers that it's a very pleasant place indeed to walk about.
Which is what we did for two days; we arrived there on June 3 and wandered more or less aimlessly before settling down on said waterfront. We found the Black Stupa, mostly overgrown with grass and weeds, which supposely houses a seven-headed black dragon, Vientiane's protective deity. The Lao adopted buddhism much later than most others in this area - several hundred years ago, apparently, rather than a thousand years ago for the Vietnamese and Khmer and Thai; as a consequence the country's native animism remains very close to the surface. In the immigration queue (thus-far the busiest we've seen, an hour waiting in lines) we'd run into two New Zealanders and a USian, all young lasses straight out of university, and we ran into them again sitting by the mekong for talks and beers. There are indeed a remarkable number of New Zealanders out and about at any given time.
The following day we set out more purposefully, and visited the Vertical Runway, better known as the Lao Arc d'Triomphe - the first name is because it was built in 1962 using cement donated by the US army for a new airfield. I like this attitude - the foreign imperialists give you cement to build an airfield so they can use your country as a base to prosecute their impending war in Vietnam, and you decide "nah, fuck it ... let's build an Arc d'Triomphe instead". The world needs more countries like this. We also visited the only temple in Vientiane which wasn't destroyed by the Thai in their last invasion during the late 19th century - Wat Sisaket, with 6,400 buddha images and many more partial, frolittle-finger to much larger than life-sized. This is the fist functioning temple we'd visited since Quanzhou in China, when we stumbled upon one by accident, and it was markedly different in both design and atmosphere from the Angkor ruins throughout Cambodia. The last of the Things To Do on our makeshift sightseeing walk was the Lao National Museum, an extremely interesting place indeed. It's a museum of two halves - the bottom floor, dealing with ancient history - fossils, stone and bronze and ceramics, really old stuff - has all been curated here with money and expertise from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and as a consequence it's of a very high quality, the pieces are well restored and cared for, and all the english is perfect, informative and simpl. Upstairs deals with Laos' more recent history, and primarily with the ongoing wars with the Thai, the French occupation, the Silent War (ssh - we're not bombing Laos, really we aren't) prosecuted by the USA in parallel to Vietnam and Cambodia, and the resultant communist revolutionary war, insurgency and counter-insurgency. The captions are vintage commie propaganda: a rack of rifles is labeled: "Arms used by the American Imperialists to murder Lao people". The museum also includes everything ver owned by Comrade Kayson Phomvihane, the founder of the Pathet Lao who, er, liberated the Lao people from their despotic monarchy and its capitalist running dogs. It's got his desk and chairs, the pen he used to write letters with, a bamboo bowl and spoons he used to eat his soup, a briefcase, sidearm, a pair of sandals he wore in the jungle, his hat, everything. It's even got the chest expander (two handles with a strong spring which you stretch apart to build up your chest muscles) he used to make himself strong enough to prosecute the revolution. One interesting part of this museum is the sheer amount of revolutionary source material they have - there appear to be plenty of documents and photos and bits and pieces which have survived intact; it's an unusually clear look at the people and artifacts of a communist insurgency. Bizarrely reminiscent of the mugshots at Tuol Sleng, there is also a wall with portraits of Laos' Revolutionary Heroes - everyone from old toothless women (wearing military medals), hardened jungle fighters (wearing medals), young teend (wearing medals), generals and police (wearing medals) and young, frightened-looking women (wearing medals, but who look like they'd rather be cooking dinner for their husbands than fighting a war). Like Tuol Sleng, there aren't any smiles or any looks of triumph- mostly it's exhaustion, fear, confusion, pain, sadness. But these were the winners.
The next day we got a local bus to Vang Vieng, a quiet river town and haven for lazy backpackers who've had enough of the big city life, or even of the relative bustle of Thailand and Cambodia. The local bus is $2 - the tourist bus is $5 and runs about the same time - for 2.5 times the price you get aircon which doesn't really work and you get dropped off at a guest house you don't really want to go to. Vang Vieng is a town which exists for tourism - it's set on two channels of a river (separated by a reasonable-sized island) and to the west are jagged karst peaks, the same in principle as at Ha Long bay. The river is currently in flood, which makes the usual pastimes in this area - floating down the river on an innertube while people pull you into their floating bars with bamboo poles so you can have a beer or smoke a joint or have an opium shake, and doing more or less the same thing but on a kayak - a little bit tricky. The river's very fast and apparently they get stoned backpackers drowning every now and again, mostly through their own stupidity. There are also caves and mountains to climb and such like - we'll probably go and do some of this tomorrow or this evening, but probably won't stay here long. I wanted to watch NZ vs Brazil at football - arguably the best and the worst team in the world - but nowhere was showing it. Turns out NZ only lost 4-0, which either means Brazil were going easy on them, or aren't going to win the world cup. We shall see.
Tomorrow or perhaps the next morning, we're likely off up north to - or towards - Luang Prabang, Laos' second city.