Sunday, April 22, 2007 of smiles, land of scams

Two farangs set out to investigate the various scams that Bangkok has on offer:

Richard's account
Steve's account

Some of the scams might have been going on for far longer than what some of those who left comments on the above blog entries think? The cat can recall scammers trying to drag its parents into 'gem factory visits by tuktuk' more than 15 years ago...not realising that the whole big fat bunch of Thais surrounding them at the Grand Palace were friends & relatives, who of course told the scammers to get lost =P

Up till now the cat still gets the odd MSN message or email from someone whining about how (s)he was 'Palace/Wat Phra Kaew/etc closed today' scammed in Bangkok. Not surprising, considering the number of Singaporeans who can be:
  1. so 听话 (ting1 hua4 lit. obey instructions - 'obediently gullible')
  2. attracted to the idea of making an easy & tidy profit (from gems)
  3. make themselves easy to pick out as prey, flashing their cards, cameras, & other valuables & counting their cash openly like they are back in the relative safety of Singapore streets (which makes the cat cringe) & talking loudly about how much they paid for some purchase
Some have even written letters to the Straits Times Forum page - which actually published them...!

There are scams just about wherever there are tourists, & not just in Thailand (& not just in Bangkok & Phuket). Please take care & exercise common sense. When kena scammed, comprain oso no use, zai1 boh2? ;)

Wat on earth is that?

On its flights between Bangkok & Chiangrai, the cat will notice this big fat flat expanse of concrete standing out from the surrounding narrow rectangular strips of rice fields in Pathum Thani province, not very far north of Bangkok. In fact, the cat treats it as a landmark that indicates that the plane is nearing Don Muang Airport, & associates it with the 'popping out' of the aircraft wheels in preparation for landing.

How it looks like on Wikimapia

Cat's photo of the middle section from its December 2004 CEI-BKK flight:

click here for larger version

At first sight, the above section somehow reminded the cat of the 'kaba' in Mecca, where hundreds of thousands of devout Muslims circle a cube-like building during the annual Haj pilgrimage...because of the similar 'layout' - a central focal point, & a huge surrounding space that can fit many many worshippers.

But the cat thought it might be yet another of those huge parks built to commemorate some birthday of either HM the King or HM the Queen of Thailand, because the central structure kinda resembled a fountain from the plane window. & then it saw the big fat grey shelter-like structure immediately south of the 'fountain' section, & thought it was some aircraft hangar type of facility, since the plane was so close to Don Muang.

YK's photo of the entire complex from our December 2005 BKK-CEI flight:

click here for larger version

More than 2 years later the cat has discovered that it is the controversial Wat Phra Dhammakaya that it has read about quite a number of times in the Thai news, most recently making the headlines for coming out in support of Thaksin just before the 2006 coup...

What the cat thought was a 'fountain' turned out to be this, the huge space the meditation amphitheatre with 'more than 10,000 toilets' & space for a million devotees, & the 'aircraft hangar' turned out to be a double-storey assembly hall with capacity for up to 300,000 (humans, not planes)...mind boggling in a way that somehow unnerves the cat, & sounding somewhat like an antithesis of Wat Suan Mokkh in the past & the Santi Asoke movement?

The cat wonders where on earth is Buddhism in Thailand heading towards, if anywhere...?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

201206 dinner 'conversation'

Back at Vongprachit, uncooperative water heater = cold water shower in an unheated place with the mercury plunging gleefully towards single digits Celsius. But the cat has done this a couple of times before, so not too bad. Outside, locals huddled around small bonfires in front of their homes, burning whatever pieces of scrap wood & branches they could find to keep warm. The orange glow of the little fires provided most of the street lighting, & gave the place a 七月* feel.

* qi1 yue4, the 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar, when the gates of Hell are opened for ghosts to wander around in the mortal world, & the living burn paper offerings for the dead in bonfires; in Singapore such fires will usually be found along the road & at road junctions.

At Sinphet restaurant, another of those living room-like type of establishments complete with lady owner reclining on a flowery sofa watching TV, the cat watched as a girl gesticulated animatedly at the bewildered staff, pointing at items on a copy of the menu that she had in hand. & then she plonked herself down at the cat's table with a smile, & started speaking - with her face & hands.

She is in her early 20s, from Phongsaly province, prefers aahaan farang ('foreigner food') like มันฝรั่งทอด (maan farang thawt - french fries) over Lao food, has a middle-aged French boyfriend (her second boyfriend) who works as a chef in Thailand, was travelling alone on her way back home after meeting up with him in Vientiane, has never ventured anywhere in Lao south of Vientiane due to some restriction linked to her Lao ID card, is friends with the owner of a nearby guesthouse, & is mute.

While planning for this trip the cat had wondered how it would communicate with Lao who couldn't speak nor write English or Chinese, & had packed its trusty English-Thai/Thai-English dictionary just in case. & now it was having a 'conversation' with someone who couldn't even speak. Dictionary buried deep within the cat's backpack back in the guesthouse - without it the cat couldn't write any Thai nor point to any word. She could only write a few English words, & her vocabulary consisted of 'BOYFRIEND', 'JAPAN', 'BAD', 'COOK' & very little else.

We rapidly worked out a pictionary+charade system whereby:
  1. she points at something, gestures with hands, mimes, or draws picture in cat's notebook
  2. cat makes a guess, & says out a 'keyword' in Thai/Lao, draws another picture, or finds something to point at
  3. she indicates if cat is on right track or meowing up the wrong tree
  4. cat guesses another 'keyword' (wrong tree), or guesses the question she has in mind (right track) using words like ทำไม (tham mai - why), ยังไง (yang ngai - how), เมื่อไหร่ (muea rai - when), ใคร (khrai - who), เท่าไหร่ (thao rai - how much), เหมือนกัน (meuan gan - same), ชอบ (chawp - like), จาก (jaak - from), etc, or by adding on to her picture
  5. repeat until both question & answer fall into place
Part of the 'conversation':

  1. guessing where the cat is from
  2. guessing the cat's age
  3. asking the cat to send her a copy of the photo below to her friend at nearby guesthouse, who will keep it for her till her next trip to Udomxai from Phongsaly (address in Lao at bottom left, above)
  4. she even has a gmail address(!!) but can check it only a few times a year when she comes to Udomxai (when tourists ask about internet access in Phongsaly province, the reply is to try their luck across the border in China =P)

The cat was so totally floored by her independence & gumption.

Removing bits of white fluff after the Cha Rueh Sin laundry disaster - a piece of tissue must have been left in some pocket somewhere in the same laundry load:


Electrical tape was probably one of the most useful things the cat packed on this trip. Prevented plugs from falling out of loose antiquated sockets. Sealed up leaky water pipes & faucets. Held loose wires in place so that electrical stuff could work (one water heater worked only if one particular wire was held up at a certain angle). Covered up peekaboo & drafty cracks & holes in wooden bedroom doors (most guesthouses plug them with bits of cotton wool). & in this case, stick on & peel off (& repeat a few hundred times) to remove lint. Good value for less than USD0.20.

end of day 4 (201206):
noodle soup/pho/feu/khaaw soi eaten to date = 03 bowls

Monday, April 16, 2007

201206 more Phou That


Waited & waited, but this novice monk kept walking back & forth:


15 y/o novice Two Sisters later admitted that he'd deliberately walked into the cat's frame in an attempt to get its attention. He wasn't sure if the cat could speak English & help him practice speaking the language, but no harm trying his luck.

Novice Two Sisters has exactly just that - two older sisters whom he misses, both married to PRC men & living somewhere across the border in Yunnan. China's one-child policy + traditional Chinese preference for sons + female infanticide have led to a gender imbalance which has driven PRC men to look to Lao (& perhaps Myanmar's Shan state too?) as a source of brides (as well as second/minor wives & sex industry workers).

Interesting thing learnt from Mr Sichuan & Mr Yunnan on the Huay Xai-Luang Namtha bus - the one-child policy's exception for women from ethnic minorities & rural areas (allowing them to have more than one child) means that hospitals can actually refuse to carry out abortions for Yunnan women, even if requested by the mother. Not sure if this stems from fear of lawsuits? Can anyone verify this? Anyway this is how Mr Sichuan has managed to have 2 kids without having to pay any fines - his wife is from Yunnan. & the cat wonders how this policy affects Lao wives of PRC men...anyone knows?

Before long, the cat found itself surrounded by more & more novices, a monk & 2 of their layman friends, each taking his turn to introduce himself & launch the standard barrage of questions - name, country, age, places the cat has been to in Lao, where it is heading to next, languages it can speak, how long will it be staying in Udomxai - & then it was free-for-all discussion on their hometowns, places the cat should visit, subjects the cat has studied, why is the cat travelling alone, the English classes that many of them attend, a request for the cat to stay for a month (!!) or at least a week to teach them, weather & seasons in Singapore, a request for money (from 21 y/o monk), went on even after some had to leave for their 5.30PM English class (there are 3 sessions per night, with beginners attending the earliest timeslot & advanced learners like 21 y/o monk attending the latest class).

Novice Phongsaly 1 (# 2 would appear much later in Luang Prabang) has not been home ever since he left Phongsaly for Udomxai in order to further his education, which has been 3 (or was it 5?) years. The journey from Udomxai to Phongsaly - which the cat would be making the next day - was simply too long, difficult & expensive for him. 21 y/o monk was the only one of the lot who was surprised & uncomfortable with the idea of a tabby cat travelling solo. Mr Grey is from Luang Prabang, but his dad was posted to Udomxai for work, & his entire family uprooted & moved here. & Mr 29 Red wanted take the cat with him on his bike to some 'restaurant' some 4km out of town for dinner.

Minus the whole lot who rushed off for the 5.30PM class:


The cat was 'released' only at dusk, when it became far too cold for us to remain standing in the open at the chedi, & 21 y/o monk walked the cat to the top of the stairs leading downhill. Unknown to us, a cold wave was starting to sweep across North Lao from China, with temperatures dropping to 4-8'C in Phongsaly & 1'C in Houa Panh province. & so the cat didn't make it up to the other hill, Phou Sai...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

201206 Phou That views, Udomxai

A little down the road from Vongprachit guesthouse are steps leading up to the summits of 2 hills (one on either side of the road) with views of Udomxai town & the surrounds. The cat made it up to the more popular one, Phou That, & got stuck there till dusk & didn't make it up to the other, Phou Sai.

Phou That - the hill topped by a chedi & a monastery:


Look somewhat like pretty Chinese New Year cookies stuck on:

PC200189 PC200189a

View towards bus station:


Think the mini 'that' (stupa) beneath the tree houses the ashes of some deceased person? You will find several on the grounds of any temple, some even with tiny photos of the deceased.

Udomxai town centre:

click here for full version

Town centre close up, with a big fat new multistorey structure rising up right smack in the middle:




Did a quick exploration of the dry goods section of the market on the way back from the BCEL bank right next to it. As expected, it was full of Chinese & Thai imports. Even in a relatively super ulu (remote) place like Hat Sa in Phongsaly province, the cat would find instant noodles from China with the face of the lead actress (Lee Yeong Ae) from the hit Korean TV series Dae Jung Geum (大长今 aka. Jewel in the Palace) plastered on the packaging ;)

Every Lao town cannot do without its Kaysone monument:


For tourists, the local Kaysone monument serves as a useful landmark & reference for orientation & giving directions =P The black billboard beneath carries a human trafficking awareness message. Laobumpkin has a clear photo & has written about it here.

201206 Udomxai

Nam Ko, which bisects Udomxai town (capital of the eponymous province):


Both the provincial tourism office & market are near the bridge where route 13 crosses it (where this photo was taken). Here was also where the bus driver dropped off Mr & Mrs Korean & the cat, figuring that what his foreign non-PRC passengers needed was information from the tourism office =) The office has plenty of English displays on attractions, waterfalls, villages & treks in the area, free photostated copies of a detailed map of Udomxai town produced with the help of the German agency DED Laos, showing the location of most guesthouses, & English-speaking staff.

A sign that the cat kept seeing all over North Lao:


The name of the company 中老森源 (zhong1 lao3 sen1 yuan2) translates as 'China Lao Forest Resources'. Historically many parts of North Lao were a part of China, & many on both sides of the border have relations on the other side. But now larger forces are coming into play, & the feeling the cat gets is that China views North Lao as just another province, one that it can strip bare of resources (hydroelectricity, timber, rubber, vegetables, even women) it needs to fuel its rapid growth. Wonder where does this leave the Lao...?

Vongprachit guesthouse:


One half of the curtains (above) seems to be upside down ;)


Shown to room 202, a fan double with private hot water (didn't work) bathroom for 40,000 kip (~SGD6.20). Writing down the cat's particulars in the guest register gave the owner a little surprise, he'd assumed it was Lao. A quick glance at the register showed that the last guest stayed here in late November! & it really showed - had to give the bathroom & toilet bowl a much-needed wash, & in order to get any water to do that, the cat had to get the owner to turn on the water mains in a corner of the courtyard.

But the room was huge & clean, & electricity was stable enough for camera batteries to be charged, although like most places in Lao, sockets are loose & plugs need electrical tape so that they don't fall out. Plus unlike some places in town, this wasn't one of those establishments where rooms are rented out by the hour to PRCs & their 'ladies of the night'.

Later on the cat would discover that the owner had given it the room right next to the one he & his family occupied, for the cat's safety. & whenever they heard the cat's door at night, he or his wife would get up to peek out & check if their only guest needed something, or someone to open the main gate to let it out - so sweet =)

201206 Luang Namtha to Udomxai

By now the cat had gotten the hang of taking buses in Lao. Arrive at bus station up to an hour before scheduled departure time, especially for routes with only a single departure per day. Next, physically chope (reserve) a seat by placing something of substantial size (locked daypack, bag of oranges, baby or toddler, etc) on it. Pass large items (backpack, box, gunny sack, tyre, bicycle inner tube, chair, washing machine, mattress, PVC pipe, etc) to driver to load onto roof. Only after that do you proceed to the bus station ticket counter. A ticket only assures one of a space on the bus, but does not guarantee a seat. But your belongings inside & on top of the bus means that the driver will not leave without you ;)

Over the next few bus rides, the cat would observe two differences between Lao & PRCs. Lao uphold & respect the 'chope-ing' system, & smoke only when they get off the bus - if they smoke at all. The latter try their best to ignore the system, & smoke inside the bus even with windows closed - & many are chain smokers >_<

Many of the latter also seem pretty intimidated by Lao officialdom, fearing for their entry permits perhaps? But they are probably the less well off PRCs, who work as skilled labourers & travel by bus. Their more affluent counterparts who own businesses & plantations drive cars with PRC license plates, & maybe have less to fear, given the power & influence of money & 关系 guanxi (friends in high places of the non-celestial sort)? The only cars the cat ever saw in North Lao, which was at the frequency of zero on most days, all had license plates with the character '云' (yun2, for Yunnan province).

What both Lao & PRCs have in common is a neverending supply of spittle & the way they treat the entire Lao PDR as a big fat giant dustbin. Even kids & teenagers would have to clear their throat every so often & launch a gob of spit out of the bus window or onto the ground (both Lao & PRCs) or even onto the floor of the bus (PRCs only). This was pretty distressing for some Western & Japanese tourists. The cat has seen a lot of this in Singapore (even at its workplace) & on SBS buses, so heck as long as nothing lands on the cat's feet or fur. But good luck to Lao PDR if SARS ever hits...

Apart from sputum, vomit, & plastic bags (some tied up & containing vomit), the other main thing flying out of Lao bus windows is orange peel (& seeds). If a Lao bus full of passengers stopped anywhere for a long enough period of time, two parallel orange-coloured lines would probably form flanking the sides of the bus. It is impossible to throw anything through the front & rear windscreens, hence lines instead of a complete ring encircling the vehicle. If organic stuff didn't decay, the streets of Lao would be literally paved with gold - in Cantonese 柑 (tangerine) is the homonym of 金 (gold) =P

The cat thought that the Huay Xai-Luang Namtha bus was packed...but this bus broke the record. Normal Lao buses have sacks & plastic chairs filling the aisle, with passengers filling them one bum per chair/sack. On this ride it was 2 bums per chair, with some standing pressed against the door for the 4.5 hour journey. One guy at the back alighted at his destination by climbing out of a side window.

Pressed in between a mother & her toddler & a young Tai Dam lady, the cat still managed to catch glimpses of the Hmong villages we zoomed through. The Hmong New Year had started, & in 4 of them, young people were dressed in their finest traditional clothes & playing the Hmong version of Chinese 拋绣球 (pao1 xiu4 qiu2 lit. throw embroidered ball) courtship ritual. Guys & girls stand in parallel lines facing each other & keep throwing a little ball to one another. In some cases the cat spotted bright green tennis balls being used =P A guy can indicate his interest in a particular girl by throwing the ball to her whenever he gets it, & if he's lucky she will choose to throw it back to him...if not, she will keep throwing it to someone else instead & hope that he gets the hint ;) The Chinese version is far less interactive, with the lady tossing one ball to her choice of mate (or whoever manages to snatch it) in a crowd of men.

201206 Muang Sing - Luang Namtha

Today's route - back to Luang Namtha by songthaew, & then bus on to Udomxai:

Plan was to catch the first songthaew out of Muang Sing, which leaves at 0800AM. However at 0745AM the cat was still hunting high & low for someone to return its guesthouse room key to. By the time it got to the 'bus' station, the songthaew was packed to the gills - even by Lao standards.

& then Miss Bus Station lady found out that the cat was aiming to reach Udomxai by today, & decided that the next songthaew might leave too late for the cat to catch (or squeeze onto) the earlier(st) bus to Udomxai that would reach before nightfall. She called out to Mr Songthaew driver, who peeked down from the roof where he was tying down cargo, took a look at the cat, & told it to throw its backpack up to him. They had decided that there was still space that the cat could fit into =)

The place where songthaews plying the Luang Namtha-Muang Sing route make their toilet stop:


View of Nam Ha NBCA from toilet stop place:


A few of the passengers who were crammed into the back:


The rest had yet to climb back on after getting off to stretch their legs, spit, smoke & pee. There were at least 16 of them in the back plus sacks of stuff, plus 3 men in the 2 front passenger seats beside the driver, & the cat. 4 more would get on nearer to Luang Namtha, hanging off the rear.

Cat's seat - the space behind the driver & front passengers' heads:


Cat's knees are in the foreground. On all other songthaew rides that the cat took, this space was used for bags, babies or toddlers. The cat couldn't straighten its neck without banging its head on the ceiling, & so it couldn't raise its head high enough to look out of the window & see any of the passing scenery. But it had ample space to stretch its short legs, unlike anyone else in the songthaew apart from the driver =P & it figured out from the honking, bang, & yelling that the songthaew had mowed down a dog in one of the villages it zoomed through, with passengers shouting at the driver to drive off before any villager realised what had happened & came out to demand compensation! The guys in front kept saying, 'Peep peep baw4 pai1' (didn't go away despite the 'peep peep' sounding of the songthaew's horn), trying to make the driver feel less at fault.

The songthaew - interesting disparity in size of front & rear wheels:


The 3 guys sharing the front passenger seats laughed each time the cat had to move back into its space. It had to climb in bum first, with chest on thighs & chin on knees. Wushu stretching really pays off in unexpected ways.

Nearing Luang Namtha, the songthaew stopped in the middle of nowhere for the driver to collect payment from passengers who had yet to pay up. Apparently this is the standard practice to prevent anyone from running off without paying when we arrive at the final destination.

201206 Muang Sing market


In front of the red roof section (right half of above photo) is the live poultry section - a line of wriggling, clucking & quacking baskets in front of their sellers, awaiting inspection by prospective buyers. Under the red roof is the noodle soup section with identical stalls dishing out their version of khao soi.

click here for larger version

click here for larger version

The cat was one of the very few females not wearing a sinh (Lao skirt), & a bunch of songthaew drivers debated among themselves whether the cat was Lao or Chinese...until it raised its camera to snap the above few shots before leaving.



Wanted to view this from the guesthouse rooftop, but Mr Sendai & Mr Belgian 1 had shut the door so tightly, the cat couldn't open it!

Muang Sing 'bus' station:


Bus in inverted commas, for the cat never did see a single bus there...

191206 hairgel chilli & drumming under the stars

Proximity of Muang Sing to China:


CHN CMCC = China Mobile, ETLMNW = Enterprise of Telecommunications Lao...

Hairgel chilli flakes + hot & tasty iron for dinner at Viengxay restaurant:


At Muang Sing guesthouse, which seems to draw plenty of Japanese & Koreans:


Click here or on image below for larger version:


When travelling to developing nations, make good use of the empty luggage space set aside for carting home souvenirs (& the airline baggage weight allowance that you've already paid for in your ticket price) can be filled up with old clothes, books, soft toys, etc for donation to local charities, orphanages, schools, etc =)

At precisely 9PM loud drumming & clashing of cymbals brought the cat to the guesthouse rooftop again to investigate. There, it joined Mr Sendai, Mr Belgian 1 (Mr Belgian 2 would appear many days later in Nong Khiaw), & Mrs Guesthouse Owner in watching the novice monks of Wat Sing Jai turn their temple drumming into a jam session of sorts, whacking the drum with glee & giving it their all.

Today was wan dahb (วันดับ lit. day 'switch off' - cute eh? Imagine flicking a switch to turn off the moonlight!), a new moon day in the lunar calendar, which is one of the 4 wan phra (วันพระ Buddhist holy day aka. uposatha day) per lunar month, hence the drumming session. Traditionally, Thai & Lao lay people would visit the temple on these days, & very traditionally even observe 8 precepts instead of the usual 5. (In Singapore, devout Mahayana Buddhists observe 2 of the wan phra - new moon & full moon - by turning vegetarian for the day, leading to longer than usual queues at stalls selling vegetarian food =P)

Mr Sendai & Mr Belgian 1 had both quit electrical engineering jobs in their home countries to travel & see the world. They'd first met while backpacking in Xinjiang, went their separate ways, bumped into each other again in Lhasa, parted again, & crossed paths again in Luang Namtha...& here they were now, sharing a candlelight dinner of noodles cooked (also by candlelight) in a mess tin over a gas burner on the rooftop of a guesthouse in Muang Sing under a black sky sparkling with brilliant stars, with many many bottles of Beer Lao...

Mr Sendai asked if the cat could speak 汉语 han4 yu3, & to write down for him its name in Chinese characters - he had been picking up Chinese on his own during his travels...writing was OK because of similarity with kanji, but speaking was not so OK as tones were a stumbling block =P

Mrs Guesthouse Owner watched, smiling, as her 3 guests chatted around a candle flame in the cold wind about travel, names of stars & constellations, Japanese & Belgian work culture, starting a farm in Bolivia or Brazil, most common Japanese & Belgian first names, deforestation, memorising thousands of Chinese & Japanese characters, etc, all in a language so alien to her...

& then she turned to the cat & told it - in what the cat thinks is Lao - that it was late & she was going to turn in, so please could we help her close the door leading to the rooftop when we were done? & she got the cat to repeat the 'key words' after her a few times, to confirm that the message had gotten through - which the cat did, but in broken Thai...sometime later past 10PM she & the entire neighbourhood must have been shocked awake by the confirmation - a big fat reverberating CLANNNGGGGG - when the guys pulled the heavy metal door shut with all their might =P

end of day 3 (191206):
noodle soup/pho/feu/khaaw soi eaten to date = 02 bowls

Monday, April 09, 2007

project metta heart 3 - books for Lao

for those in Singapore...

A series of YEP teams from Singapore Buddhist Lodge, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, ITE College East, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and NUS Rotaract Club have been building & setting up a library for a secondary school in Nong Duang, Vientiane.

One team is now collecting books to stock the library. Details on NLB branches that are serving as collection points are here.

Project Metta Heart III - NTU book drive

Friday, April 06, 2007

191206 poppy, postcards & party - party

Muang Sing skyline:


Muang Sing guesthouse:


Next door:


Mix of old & new:


Windowless wooden structures like this are usually used for grain storage. At the top of each wooden 'stilt' support is a ring of metal sheet. Sometimes metal bomb casings are used instead of wooden stilts. The cat puzzled over it - a ring of metal wouldn't stop termites...until it was pointed out to the cat that rat (& cat) claws cannot grip onto smooth metal =P

Essential mushroom:


Like the edible types, this mushroom can be found in local markets. The difference is that this type is found only in the dry goods section, & usually sold with its stalk detached, & to use it you have to attach the stalk to the cap & wire it up.

more Muang Sing:


Location in a valley:


Can just imagine how lush the scenery would be during the wet season, when the skies are clear & fields are flooded & full of emerald green rice seedlings...

Merry laughter, shrieking, drumming & singing brought the cat up to the guesthouse rooftop to look around for the source - a party next door:


191206 - poppy, postcards & party - postcards

The cat's ears picked up noise & laughter coming from the other end of the main street. As it wandered towards the source, Mr Saitama & Mr Kyoto staggered towards it with red noses, supporting each other supporting each other (nope this is not a typo). Half of Muang Sing seemed to be at some event (celebration? wedding? no idea) going on somewhere down the road, & they had been invited to eat & drinkdrinkdrinkdrinkdrink one big fat drop too many of the local tipple. Not even 4PM in the afternoon & they were on their way back to the guesthouse to KO, without getting mowed down by the big fat trucks thundering down the main street on their way to the Chinese border.

Further down the street the cat stumbled upon the government tourism authority office for trekking guides, & naturally had to have a peek & a brief chat with a guide (think A.W.E.! 2004). There were maps & big fat posters touching on ecotourism & conservation, introducing the ethnic groups in the area, & some pointers on cultural sensitivity & dos & don'ts when going on treks to visit hilltribe villages. The cat didn't go on any treks nor visit any of the surrounding villages, but laobumpkin has more on trekking in Lao, & there is more info on the impact of ecotourism on Muang Sing here & here.

The posters were professionally designed & printed on high quality canvas-like material. At the bottom of each poster there were the usual few selections from the assortment of official logos & acronyms that tourists to Lao soon learn to recognise, like GTZ, JICA, SNV, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, ADB (the guys funding Nam Theun 2), & this. The land of a million elephants is now the land of a million NGOs.

10 postcards & sets of stamps = 10 days' wages:


Most convenient souvenirs for family & friends back home & in the, relatively easy to find, don't need much agonising over choices & colours, don't weigh down your backpack, & won't leave the recipient wondering what the heck to do with a useless trinket & spend the rest of its life as a dust-collector. Many people love receiving snail mail with colourful stamps from some remote location in the world too. Inspired by The Lau Baby =)

The stationery shop that sold these postcards had the usual exercise books, notebooks, pens & rulers displayed in the usual glass cabinet, & a photocopier machine - a surprise to the cat, who had read many (outdated) accounts describing Muang Sing as place with only a few hours of unstable electricity supply per day. The cat would later realise how essential photocopiers are to improving education standards in Lao - producing cheap pirated versions of textbooks for students who can ill-afford the real thing. The cost of one postcard plus stamps for postage to USA roughly equals the average daily wage.

What Akha subgroup is this?


There are wonderful postcards with tasteful pictures showing the beauty of land & the people & colourful festivals for 1500-2000 kip. & there are far from tasteful ones with pictures ranging from intrusive to plain insulting, showing little respect for the subjects in the photos, also for 1500-2000 kip. Which design would you choose? One particular design shows a barechested hilltribe lady with a melon in each hand. Postcard photographers seem to love zooming in on hilltribe mothers breastfeeding too...why don't they photograph their own wives breastfeeding & sell thousands of copies of the pictures at USD0.20 a piece too? ;)