Chennai Journal
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I don't know how much it costs to reupholster furniture in the U.S. these days, or how long it takes. I've heard that it's expensive and can take months. We had a couple of pieces of furniture that were very comfortable--Dad's favorite wingback chair, and a rocker we had in the bedroom--that were looking a bit tired but otherwise in good shape. So bought some fabric for about $10 a meter --$60 for the wingback chair and $20 for the rocker--and had a couple of guys who run a shop nearby come and re-do them. They came, sewing machine and all, and did both of the chairs plus some work on a couple of drapes that I want to be able to use at home that needed to be sewed together and have a space put in for a rod. They were here for two days and charged 3000 RS (about $75 US). Both pieces look better than new.

Sunday, November 25, 2007
Bridge on the River Kwai
I am dating myself, but the first movie I remember seeing was the 1950s re-release of Bambi. I was four years old and we almost had to leave midway through because my cousin Doug (then called Dougie) who was three, got scared by the forest fire and started crying. The second movie I remember, however--and it is an equally vivid memory-- was The Bridge On the River Kwai. I was about 6, and the movie had just been released in Detroit. My dad, who worked in the family dry goods' store, went to Detroit a few times a year for apparel shows, and he desperately wanted to see the movie. It's funny how our memories work---I remember clearly that my parents were worried that I'd be bored, so they got me a coloring book beforehand---and also that we got to the theatre 20 minutes before the end, so we saw the blowing up of the bridge, and then watched the movie from the beginning (they let you do that in those days).

Once I got older and put the movie in the context of World War II history, I always assumed that the bridge was in Burma--until I read The Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, I hadn't clued into the fact that it was so close to Bangkok. So, having all these vivid memories from childhood, I really wanted to visit the area. After leaving Laos, I returned to Bangkok and got a public bus to Kanchanaburi, about a 3 hour ride.

Kanchanaburi is a major tourist area in Thailand, and so there are lots of travel companies and guest houses to stay. I took a one day trip to Erawan National Park, which has a series of waterfalls, and the trip also included a stop at an elephant camp (you can see me on an elephant on Flickr, with Orit, a co-tourist from Israel) and travel on the Death Railway (this can definitely be missed, but seems to be a part of every tour). Perhaps most impressive was the Thailand/Burma Railway museum, which depicts the sad history of the building of the railway to connect the two countries.

The concept for the railway dated many years before its building. In addition to being a difficult task through harsh climatic conditions, for strategic reasons the British hesitated to connect the two countries for reasons of imperial control. Ensuring supply lines in SE Asia for the eventual conquest of India assumed critical importance to the Japanese, who brought tens of thousands of British, Australian and Dutch prisoners of war to the area after the fall of Singapore (some North Americans too, though the numbers were small in comparison). The POWs were were packed into railway cars--you can stand in one in the museum to get a feel of the conditions--not unlike the transport of Jews to the concentration camps---and transported nearly 2000 kilometers north. Of course, even more Southeast Asians--Thais, Malays, and others--were also conscripted, many through false pretenses, and forced to work on the railway as well. A total workforce of more than 250,000 men was used to build the over 400 kilometer railway in a record 16 months, and due to disease, and harsh conditions---very little food was provided to the men but they were forced to work sometimes 16-20 hours per day--- the death rates were staggering. Approximately one quarter of the western, and more than a third, of the Asian workforce, perished. The blowing up of the bridge, however, is entirely fictional, as is much else about the movie. In the documentary shown in the museum, a Japanese officer also scoffs at the depiction of British "expertise" needed to realize the engineering and technical aspects of the railway---this, he says, was entirely Japanese. Perhaps, in focusing on Japanese cruelty to the workforce, their engineering prowess was underestimated---that awareness surfaced only decades later.

While in Kanchanaburi, I also took a cooking class from Apple and Noi's guesthouse, which also has an excellent restaurant. We visited a local market and then went to an open air teaching kitchen on the river, where we made everyone's favorite Thai dish, Phad Thai, as well as Penang curry and a stir fry. Nice way to end the trip. Notice the yellow shirt on the market lady below---yellow is the color of the King of Thailand, who will be celebrating his 80th birthday soon, and it's considered patriotic to wear it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007
More on Laos

One of the important Buddhist customs is almsgiving. Every morning between 6 and 6:30, the monks in Luang Prabang from various monasteries parade through the street to the main wat, or temple, Wat Xieng Thong, which sits at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

Along the route, people offer rice, fruit, and other food to the monks. I suppose many do this as a daily ritual, along with the monks. It is customary for young men to serve their time in the monastery--and for some it's exactly that--as in off hours you can see them on the streets talking on cell phones, gathered around a computer terminal in an internet cafe, or laughing and joking among themselves. Below you can see one of the young monks deeply engrossed in a cell phone conversation, with his friend waiting patiently.

Of course, the intrusion of the modern world isn't limited to motorcycles, internet cafes, and cell phones. It's the tourists, too. It was not the high season yet, but still, at least 30 other tourists were out along the part of the route I was on --near my guest house, the Sayo--snapping away. A tourist brochure given to you at the airport has ten tips to help you honor the Lao culture, one of these being a plea not to use a flash and keep a respectful distance during the alms giving. I certainly tried to do this, and used my telephoto lens as well.

There are many wats or temples in Luang Prabang, and there is a peaceful sense being around them. I tried to upload a video, but it's 72 MB and that seems a bit more than Blogger can swallow. So here are a few more pictures (and there are more on Flickr):

Monday, November 05, 2007
Laos was great. On Sunday I took a longboat ride on the Mekong River to a nearby cave with Buddhist statues. The cave was so-so- somewhat of a tourist trap with a sidetrip to a "whisky village" where Lao whisky is made--but it was fascinating watching life along the mighty Mekong. The river soil is very rich, and you see all kinds of vegetables being grown along the riverbank. I took a lot of pictures of the river people going about their daily business, fishermen going out for the day's catch, men, women and children tending vegetable gardens. The long boat itself is a variation on the rice barges you see in India, a place where people not only work but live (no life vests, though). You can see some of these photos on top, in Flickr.

My impressions, and the things I noticed, often seemed in contrast to India. Luang Prabang is a quiet city, not very crowded, and very clean. In fact, anywhere I went in Laos seemed clean, and it finally dawned on me: no garbage in the streets, no men urinating in public. Cows and goats were fat and sleek, and the dogs in the streets were well fed, many with collars. There are more tourists than natives in Luang Prabang--at times it seemed that every other person was sporting the Lonely Planet guide to Laos. The Lao Democratic Republic has figured out how to cash in on the tourist interest, by charging a hefty $30 visa fee on the way in and a $10 exit tax on the way out. But, considering that accommodations run under $30 a night and meals a few dollars a day, it's probably a fair bargain. There were many backpackers from Europe--especially France-- and Australia, and most in singles and couples. For the most part, Japanese and Korean tour groups have not yet discovered Laos--though there was a huge contingent from Elderhostel. Due to the French background, the baguettes were great.

On Monday I took a hill trek into some nearby villages, and then on to the Kuangsi Falls. We visited villages of two of the several hill tribes of Laos--the Khmu and the Hmong.. They live quite differently, but both are animist (not Buddhist) and so there were no temples or other obvious signs of worship in the villages. The Khmu are said to be related to the Khmer people of Cambodia, whereas the Hmong migrated from China several hundred years ago. There were several Khmu about the village when we visited, including a group of women who were preparing vegetables to sell to a nearby market, and many young children--several of whom looked to be of school age. In the Hmong village, on the other hand, there were only a few old people--two women and a man tending a baby--as the children were in school and the able-bodied adults were in the fields.

There were other interesting differences between the two villages, which undoubtedly stem from their differing origins--e.g. the Khmu build their homes on stilts, whereas the Hmong are flat to the ground. Both groups are also found in Northern Thailand.

After leaving the villages, we took a three hour hike that took us through some fields, a dense forest, and finally to the top of the spectacular Kuangsi Falls. It had rained a couple of days before and parts of the trail were very slippery and steep, but despite falling three or four times I only had a banged up wrist which healed in a day or so. Along the way we saw people working in the rice fields--some rice is grown dry here.

And this was the reward for the hike--this is a view of the falls from the front, after we had climbed down from the top.

In Luang Prabang itself I visited several of the temples ( the shot at the top of this post is taken from the one at the top of a hill in the center of town) and watched the morning alms giving to the monks. More on that in a separate post.

Friday, November 02, 2007
On the way to Laos
Heading to Luang Prabang and parts east for a few days. Will post when I am back.

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