Connect the dots

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Last Time

This Wednesday, October 17 would have been my father's 73rd birthday. These images are from his visit to South Africa last May 2011 during my birthday. He died on August 15, two weeks before we were scheduled to return home.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Spirit in the House

Although most Thai are Buddhists, spirit worship takes its place beside the dominant religion. In front of homes and businesses are spirit houses, made to appease the spirits by providing it both shelter and votive offerings. Often the larger the home or business, the larger the spirit house. Here are some in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok, home to big boutique hotels and Bangkok's expat community.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hits from the Bomb

2 million metric tons of explosives =
10 tons/square kilometer = 
1/2 ton explosives/inhabitant = 
the most bombed country per capita on earth = 

According to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), 2 million tons or 4,409,200 pounds of explosives, particularly cluster bombs, were dropped on Laos by US forces between 1964 and 1973 during the Secret War. However, 30% of these explosives did not detonate on impact leaving 80 million unexploded ordinances (UXOs) scattered throughout the country. When disturbed, these UXOs, locally known as "bombies" have the potential to maim or even kill a person. Each day in Laos, this is exactly what is happening. Not only do they injure and kill, but they prevent the Lao from using their land for their livelihood, stifling development and the potential for the country to grow out of poverty. In addition, since the scrap metal from the bombs can be used, many try to collect it to make money that they normally would be making from farming the land. Not only do adults realize the potential money to be made from the metal, so do the many children who die harvesting instead many of the tennis ball-like bombies. 

A cluster bomb or bombie from the documentary Bombies.

MAG has some phenomenal films about the aftermath of the Secret War and details some of the work that they do to remove the UXOs.

A bomb remover from the documentary Bombies.
 Visit a Hmong village and instead of seeing wood or bamboo to stilt the houses or build a fence, many of the leftover bombs are used. Once used to kill, the people now use the bombshells as planters to for herbs and vegetables to eat.

Not only do the craters left by the bomb make the landscape surreal, but the sites where many of the UXOs exist are scattered with enormous stone jars also known as the Plain of Jars. Some theorize that the jars are a burial site with evidence of human bone, pottery fragments, iron and bronze objects, glass and stone beads, ceramic weights and charcoal around the sites. In Site 1 alone are 334 jars, each 2.5m by 2.5m. Although much of Site 1 has been cleared, to this day the Laos government and NGOs continue to search for and remove ordinances.

Plain of Jars

Learn more about MAG's work and the Secret War by clicking here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dish

Sometimes, there's no running water, but there's always satellite TV! Who needs a flushing toilet when you can watch Thailand's Got Talent? Here's evidence that even in the hills of Laos, the tube rules. 


Just can't get enough

Northern Exposure

Nam Ou River at Nong Khiaw

Get back to nature and head north from Luang Prabang. Laos again gets rustic and shows off stunning limestone karsts towering over the chocolatey, rainy season, fast flowing and debris carrying rivers. Then there are the various ethnic minorities - over 160 - plowing fields and continuing their timeless traditions.

Laos is blessed with mountains, forests and rivers covering most of the land. Unfortunately due to its potential for hydroelectricity, illegal logging and slash and burn agriculture, this pristine landscape is in danger of losing its biggest asset. I just hope that it never happens!
In all of Southeast Asia, Laos has had the most beautiful vistas and nature that neighboring countries seem to have lost. Maybe it's also just the nature of the Lao, who are the most laid back people of the region. Our Khmu guide while visiting the villages of Luang Nam Tha expressed that he preferred the water buffalo to the machine powered tiller. Why? The buffalo gets tired and needs to take a rest, giving the farmer a break from working the rice fields. Someone shared a saying expressing the differing work ethics of southeast Asians: "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow." There seems to be some truth to that saying, and maybe it also saved Laos from being hyper-developed.

Our first stop north was in the quiet but starkingly, gorgeous town of Nong Khiaw. Again, those striking karsts, the Nam Ou gushing, and villages tucked beside the river.

Work the fields in Nong Khiaw and this is your daily view

Mobile merit

An elderly woman's tats

In traditional Lao sinh
We then proceeded north to the bizarre, dusty, Chinese border-like town of Oudomxay. We felt a bit scammed by the local tourist office stand in tour guide who charged us nearly $100 for a mediocre day tour of a local Khmu village, a few local temples, and a swanky hotel's hot springs. Even more surreal than the town itself was sadly witnessing a stunned Muang La village where a terminally ill woman had taken her life in the home right above where we were eating lunch. 

Then there's the eco destination of the north: Luang Nam Tha. Every traveler headed north ultimately makes a stop here. Trekking through villages and the national park, staying in cheap lodgings and eating at the delicious night market. Easy day trips to Muang Sing if you haven't had your fill of ethnic minorities. They won't feel as authentic as northern Vietnam's ethnic communities, but you'll get a general idea how each of the four major minorities live.

We were even fortunate enough to have met a Belgian couple with 2 young children who were willing to join us in visiting some of the villages in the area.

The Markets
Not as colorful as their African cousins, but so much more to eat! Well, to be honest, some things were more edible than others.

Hooves or tails, no part wasted.

Or maybe a head?

Frogs by the dozen

Our market lunch

The People

You won't be able to see all of the 160 ethnic minorities that inhabit Laos, but you'll get a feel for the most common ones: Khmu, Akha, Lenten and Yao/Mien. Unlike many of the minorities in northern Vietnam, they've shed many of their traditional ways. For practical and financial reasons, they've replaced thatched roofs with aluminum and beautiful traditional handmade garments with western threads.



Distributing Big Brother Mouse books after a read aloud

One who wanted more than one book!


Weaving cotton to be dyed with indigo

Yao or Mien