The palace built during the Vietnam War

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My Vietnam Air flight is out of the Luan Prabang airport. The airport is tiny. Not as tiny as the dirt strip in Kenya where we had to buzz the strip to remove the herd of zebra, but small. One strip. You walk out to the plane. Coming here, the engines were so hot the propellers blew heat into our faces. All I could think of is watch where you walk, watch where you walk.

I’m now on the flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s a beautiful, clear blue day. You wouldn’t know it by the torrential rain just south. I’m not sure whether it will come this way, but by the looks of the maps on TV, maybe not.

I took a shower this morning, but I think I smell worse. The provided soap isn’t a smell I find pleasant. Something I didn’t discern while in the shower but now am forced to live with all day. I tried spraying some Opium to cover it, but now it smells like bad Opium.

While there was no hint of this when booking, the hotel I stayed at in Luang Probang is French, sort of. There are hints of French throughout the city, but they are fading. After all, this was a very French territory was quite some time before the Vietnam War. Villa Maly is now owned by a Lau man who is married to a French woman. Nice and clean, (don’t use the soap) and very hospitable. I thought it was a little pricey for the location and what you get now that I understand the area. The Internet was intermittent and annoying. I ate 1 meal there and the papaya salad with chillies, oh forgot to warn you about the chillies on the menu, I couldn’t stomach. I had ordered it thinking it would be a truce. Instead it was war.

The museum, which was the king’s home built during the Vietnam War, was nice by Lau standards. By American, it was a home in Valley. At the entry was a room made for the monk to sit, while the king and his family sat on the ground before him. I imagined that was an interesting jeux of position for the king, who had a 25’ high painting of himself in his bedroom.

The furnishings were mostly circa 1950s and 1960s. Nothing really to write home about. But I couldn’t help but see the blood of our soldier boys and the king’s people on the walls. A mural was also in the front room replete with shiny, mirror mosaic pieces to shape the characters and storyline. The mural was created by the French to memorialize the history of this poor, oppressed people. It included the Lau fight with the French as depicted by French man getting their heads cut off with machetes. It depicted war after war after war.

I should mention that shoes come off before entering temples, and they were also required off for entering this museum/house.

I saw the king’s bedroom. The queen’s bedroom. The children’s bedroom. The home purportedly was staffed by over 1,000 people.

There was also a room displaying gifts from various other countries. The year was 1969-1970. I am so confused by the context knowing what was going on at the time… you know, those horrific scenes we saw on TV every night of our boys being killed and injured. So while this was going on, President Nixon bestowed 2 Lau flags that had travelled to the moon on the Apollo mission. Contextually, it was hard to reconcile. That and the gifts from Vietnam, Cambodia and France who by that time had already withdrew after asking the U.S. to help fight the battle.

In the king’s garage were his fleet of cars, all Fords, including an Edsel (big laugh). When I tried to explain the history of the Edsel to those around me, I think it was in vain. There was 1 resulting question: “If it was a dud, why did you give it to the king?”

Geez. Well, we didn’t know it was a dud until we drove it, right? Sort of.

I then had lunch at a local restaurant where I had more hot, spicy, unfamiliar food. My stomach is a wreck and that’s OK. I just realized that I haven’t had a piece of bread in over a week. It’s not that I eat much bread, but just the thought of something smooth and unseasoned is nice. Or spaghetti. Just the noodles with a little butter. Nice and easy.

From lunch I went to see the black bears and the water falls. They were beautiful and the Japanese tourists all took occasion to swim. The water did look completely crystal clear compared with the Mekong which is the bath tub, clothes washing tub, elephant washing tub, drinking water, high current white water in areas, muddy. The water fall water, still, was way too cold for me.

I ended the day by walking into a bamboo house, very local, very interesting, and getting a naked for a Lau massage. It was a good day.

I do still think about Fone and her betrothed. The whole European man (overweight, unsuccessful, unmotivated, socially inept, most certainly not the pick of the liter when it comes to men, they just are) who seek out demur, accommodating, reserved Asian women is rather disturbing to me.

I realize that the women are getting a ticket out of poverty and no future. I realize there’s something in it for them. I was told at least 3 stories of the men dating these women for years and then dumping them for a younger version. And the women console their friends by reminding them how ugly the men were anyway, and how beautiful they still are. “Happy buddha” is what they kindly call the fat guys. I’ve seen these guys walking down the street with their beautiful Asian women. It just doesn’t look right. The men are usually ephemeral and speak to the women in childish voices. Gross. But I suppose if that’s you’re only chance out of poverty, sister do what you must and God bless you.

Boarding this plane was a lesson in humanity. They moved a Bangkok flight in front of us so we were all a bit confused. Nevertheless, and with Bangkok cleared away, we crossed the tar mack (my ears are still ringing because of an incoming flight as we crossed) and boarded our plane.

In the airport I noticed an American family, mother, father, two older teenagers, a boy and a girl. The mother was in a wheel chair and I wondered what level of ability she had and how she would get up the small and narrow stairway to the plane.

As they waited at the bottom of the stair watching us all board the plane, I feared the worse… that she was completely unable to stand. My fears were warranted. Her husband and children, husband with feet, kids each with an arm, carried her with great stress up the stairs, barely and not with grace whatsoever.

I had to really work at not crying it was such a moving scene. I didn’t know what I could have done to help, other than not look and let them do what they needed to do. The woman probably weighed 180 pounds and everyone was red-faced when it was over. No lift chair. No stretcher. No wooden seat  Like a sack of potatoes for everyone and God to see. When it was over, the family just sat there staring straight ahead. I wanted to say something, anything, but had no words.

They are sitting behind me on the plane and they sound like a delightful family. The teenagers are kind to their parents and the parents speak sweetly to their kids. The father is very quiet.

From the conversation the daughter is studying theatre. How ironic and what a difference.

We sat on the tar mack for about 30 minutes waiting for 2 people who were late. Once they boarded, the pilot, in english, described how we would take off (in the opposite direction of Cambodia) gain altitude in order to clear the mountains, and turn around and be on our way.

We will fly over the capital of Laos, Vinenette (sp?) and then through Thailand airspace, and finally through Cambodian airspace to our destination, Siem Reap. Looking out the window, we are flying over solid cloud cover. The pilot has said he will give a Siem Reap weather report once we get closer to our decent.

I just ate a cake of some sort, maybe walnut and jello with nondescript fruit. It didn’t smell familiar. Nevertheless, I am feeling a bit better with the exception of a badly sprained ankle that only hurts when I move it.

The boats in Bangkok

I took 2 boat rides in Bangkok. To get to the boat you had to walk down a long bamboo pier that sunk with your weight. While there was a lot of give to the pier, I know that bamboo is an extremely hard wood so I was not phased. Boarding the boat was another matter. The long tail boats have a metal top so when you get to the water, you have to squat down and squeeze between the bamboo dock and the metal covering of the boat. There’s probably 18” of height that is undulating with the water with a span of 12 to 18 inches of space to squeeze into the boat.

Now while I can squat to a height no greater than my shin bone, my shin bone is still greater than the allotted space to board the board. The long and the short of it is that I had to worm my way on board. Indeed. 

The cave and Pussy Mountain

I’m sure I didn’t spell it correctly, but that is how it is pronounced. I took a two-hour boat ride to a cave on a hill. Once there, I hiked up a mountain, maybe 500 or 600 feet. It wasn’t too bad, but the footing wasn’t always perfect. I stepped on a particular rock that gave way. While I caught myself, I twisted my ankle in the process. I made a point of not looking at the drop offs on my way up, and merely focusing on the path ahead.

Once at the top, I entered a cave full of hidden Buddhas. Large, small, ancient, new. It’s where the locals hid their icons and artifacts to protect them from invading forces, but mostly bombing (remember, Laos is the most bombed country in the world). I took several pictures inside. I stood looking at the centuries-old relics that at this point in time simply looked like pieces of decayed wood, certainly no distinguishable Buddha face or otherwise, no remaining hint of gold leaf, just worm-eaten block of nothing. I thought of the people, orange-robed and otherwise, who knelt before this object in prayer. I thought of how statues are of this earth and will die with this earth. I thought of the similarities of Buddhism and Catholicism in the rituals. The promises each religion gives the believer. Catholics are not without their “stuff” for certain. We love our statues and our icons and our images. I call them placeholders. They remind us who we are praying to, because it’s definitely not the statue, but what it represents.

All these little Buddhists may say the same thing. But Buddha was a man who turned into a deity through his thoughts and deeds. And in fact, being a Buddha means you’ve accomplished something good with your life. But here’s where I trip up.

In order to accomplish good deeds, you must have some define a good deed. That, my friends, is left to the beholder. So let’s take a contemporary example: the king of Thailand who’s face is on everything from billboards to toilet paper. He’s the longest reigning king in the world’s history. He’s also a murderer. He killed his brother, and the current king at the time, in an “accident.” He was 18 years old and then assumed the kingship. A good Buddhist, those that I quizzed about the event only said that perhaps he has made amends with his life by helping the farmers with irrigation systems, which is true. Or maybe he was beefing up his economy to add to his own wealth. The country is communist.

What I do know is there seems little justice and much corruption. The standard for good and evil seems precarious and Buddha is little help with his passive, everyone can be a god-gig.

And then there’s Madonna. Raised a good Catholic girl and a couple visits to Buddhist countries and she’s a Kabbala convert. I suppose that makes sense. It’s like a religion salad bar. You get to take only what you want to form your own personal religion. If that’s the case, why have a religion at all? I mean, if it’s a club with no rules or standards, what do you gain from affiliation? Free cupcakes on Saturday? I just don’t understand the draw. And frankly, having seen how Buddhism removes all fight, yearning and aspiration from a soul, no thank you.

I believe it’s had a great deal of play in the politics of Southeast Asia, and the fact that pretty much everyone has taken their turn at conquering its people.

Now pussy mountain

Well, what can I say. Somehow climbing this mountain felt like a dare. I really didn’t think I had a choice. Another 500 feet or so and I stood at the top… well, me and another Buddha. As I mentioned before, it’s important in Buddhism as to what day of the week you were born (I’m Sunday’s child and full of grace). The Buddha for Sunday stands with his hands clenched because everything is done. He has nothing more to do.

I was hoping I was the recalling Buddha but it was not to be so. All the way up there were various Buddhas representing each day of the week.

At the top, the landscape opened up in a spectacular vista of the Mekong and a mixture of bamboo homes and old French colonials. The surrounding mountains seem to hold Luang Prabang in its hands. Quite beautiful. The trek down was much easier.

Oh, and the toilets. I mean holes in the ground where you sqwat (a theme of this trip) to relieve yourself. Ya know, it wasn’t too bad when I started the trip. Now with sore legs and a bad ankle, it’s painful even to think about it. Nevertheless, when in Laos (and Thailand) do as the Lau and Thai. I wonder what’s in store for me in Cambodia.

I will say the Vietnam Air prop was interesting to say the least. My chair and tray table were both broken ad the bathroom one of the dirtiest I’ve ever seen on a plane, including the likes of Africa. I can only hope they don’t keep their engines in similar disrepair.

OK – the nose is down and we are descending into Siem Reap now. More later.

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