Monthly Archives: September 2016

Luang Prabang

It wasn’t on my bucket list, but it deserves to be: having breakfast with muesli, yoghurt and fruit, overlooking the Mekong River in the cool morning air. Later drinking strong Lao coffee. It was a very pleasant experience indeed.

Luang Prabang is another UNESCO heritage site, but sadly, it’s being so has also resulted in a sterile, sanitised old city. Families that lived here before had rented their houses to restaurants and guesthouses and had left the city to the tourists and monks. There is none of the frantic traffic, street stalls, etcetera, that are so familiar in other parts of Asia. It is eerily silent.
Hello, waterfall.
No, I don’t want to go to a waterfall. I don’t do waterfalls anymore, I stopped doing waterfalls a long time ago. If I want to see water fall, I take a shower.

Luang Prabang is built at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the mighty Mekong river. There’s lots of history here. It’s the ancient capital of Lan Xang, the Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol. The founding father of the country is Fa Ngum who was born with 33 teeth and that was the wrong number (normal is 32, I googled that) and he got exiled for that. Then he became the ruler, fought many battles and ran the kingdom, much as he pleased. Sadly, at the end of his life he got exiled again…

Reading up about the history, I was somewhat surprised to learn that it was a Dutchman who was the first European to travel to Laos in 1641. In search of trade. The trade didn’t take off as the journey was too  long and arduous, but Gerrit van Wuysthoff wrote  a travelogue that was later translated into French. This was the guidebook for Laos in the next few centuries. Basically till the first Lonely Planet of that country was published.

One day after enthusiastically using the squat toilet in my hotel, I got pain in the back of my knees (both) again. After my struggles in the Algarve, in Portugal, I was anxious about this new development, but luckily the pain subsided and the next day was business as usual. I have no idea what caused the pain, but I go easy on the toilets now. We used to call squat toilets French toilets.  Funnily, the French call them toilette à la turque.

In a small supermarket I had found some of the local liquor. Its label made some wildly inaccurate claims about its supposed benefits for the health of the prospected imbiber: Alcohol is traditional medicine (..) [it is] to relieve nerve pain, back and waist pain, to have an appetite and sleep well. Suitable for the elderly and labor. That was too good to be true. I bought it.



This watercolour was done in a hurry and is unfortunately not finished. Maybe I will continue working on it later. The reason was the sun that forced me to abandon my place in the little park opposite the building where I had been able to work for some time. That is the bane of working on location in the tropics: during noon the shadows are not moving fast, giving the painter time to set up an outline and to get the colours right, but the light is not very good and it is extremely hot. Later, conditions are more favourable, the light gets better as the sun moves lower, but the shadows start running and the colours change. One has to work faster and faster. Then it gets dark…


Northern Laos

The Viet Laos bus would leave at 5.30 in the morning. It was a small bus that stood in the corner of the muddy bus station. It was raining and I sat in the dark bus mumbling to myself which was alright because I was the only passenger. Something stirred behind the steering wheel. It was the driver waking up. We left at 5.30 sharp but at we drove very slowly. I was still the only passenger but we had a lot of cargo stowed in the back of the bus. After 15 minutes or so  we picked up  a man who bought sandwiches. He gave me half a sandwich. The only other passenger before the border was a woman and we now somewhat resembled a bus. Then we stopped again to put some of the cargo on top of the bus. Maybe we were expecting a surge in passengers shortly? It was nearly seven o’clock and we had done 15 kilometres.

The Vietnamese border was easy and I changed my last few Vietnamese dong into Laotian kip. The Lao side of the border was rife with small frustrations. The visa cost 35 US$ and a ‘service fee’ of 20.000 kip because it was Saturday. I had to pay another 30.000 kip to get my visa stamped. I simply paid. I had given up the fight against these kinds of petty corruption when it is clear I cannot win. They have the stamp and I have the money. No money, no stamp.

Muang Khua, a village at the banks of the Nam Ou river. Nothing here, except a riverside balcony from where to lazily watch the  muddy river float by. I eat noodle soup at the small local market. Sometimes women from the hill tribes  come to trade. They leave red stains of betel nut juice on the street.


River view from my balcony

One morning I woke up at six in the morning with an astonishing amount of noise that slowly morphed into loud music. Then a woman started talking. Then  more distorted music. There was nowhere to hide. I put my head under the blankets. It was horrible. Then, after twenty minutes, it stopped again. Silence. Blissful silence.

Later I learnt the reason for the racket was President Obama who had visited Vientiane, the capital of Laos. He had said he was sorry. Not for the noise, but for the bombs. The US has thrown more bombs on Laos than on any other country. Ever. In the years 1964 to 1973 the US flew 580.344 missions and dropped 260 million bombs which is 8 bombs per minute on average. Said the BBC web site. When I divide 260 million by nine years, then by 365 days, then by 24 hours, and finally by 60 minutes, I get 55 bombs per minute. Trying to find more statistics only obtained more bewildering results, so I gave up on that… More interesting was the fact that most of the bombs were anti-personnel cluster bombs. Thirty percent didn’t detonate and remain a hazard to this day . Another astounding fact is that the bombings caused 50.000 casualties of which 29.000 deaths. This means that it took more than 5.000 bombs on average to eliminate a single enemy….
The Convention of Cluster Munitions is now adopted by 108 countries, but not by the US.

According to the website of the U.S. Department of State:
Cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility. Their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk. Moreover, cluster munitions can often result in much less collateral damage than unitary weapons, such as larger bombs or larger artillery shell would cause, if used for the same mission.

The Convention of Cluster Munitions was signed by the Holy See in 2008, which effectively limits the pope to the use of unitary weapons. He doesn’t care about collateral damage apparently.

The US did however, help with the clean up. From 1995 to 2013 the US spent roughly 4,9 million dollars per year on the clearing of unexploded ordnance in Laos, which is less than what they spent per day during 9 years of bombing the country. I stop here. Browsing through these statistics is really depressing. Maybe I should add that in the end none of the objectives of the bombings have been met. The US had to leave Vietnam and the Pathet Lao took control of Laos.


sticky rice, that is rice with glue, is very popular in Laos

From Muang Khua I travelled by bus to Nong Khiaw. The views here were rivers with forest clad hills (see photo above) and occasionally flocks of white birds flying around. The scene was reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
In a restaurant I ordered dinner and a blaring television was screaming for attention. The people love game shows, Thai soaps and violent American movies. Before my dinner had arrived I had witnessed 6 killings….

Northern Laos is not an exciting place and I have kept myself busy reading Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. Being not very inspired meant no new watercolours or sketches. Hopefully more of that once I reach Luang Prabang, the next centre of civilisation.

Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu

In Hanoi I visited the St Joseph’s Cathedral. It was built by the French in 1886 on the site of  an 11th century pagoda. Who needs old pagoda’s? the French said, we bring progress, get away with it. When the French left in 1954, the cathedral was closed. as they couldn’t take it with them, and it didn’t open again until 1990. It had gathered a lot of dust by then.

The lofty interior brought a welcome escape from the frantic traffic outside and I took my time to admire the stained glass windows. They were beautiful. Especially John the Baptist who was dressed in rags, but looked proud and defiant at the visitors. In this case two Chinese women who were making selfies with Jesus.

During one of my last evenings in Hanoi I  sat at the lake again, with four or five disciples around me, ostensibly to practise their English, but in reality it was me lecturing on a wide range of topics. Tell us about…. And I told them. I told them about religion, about science, about history, about economy, about politics (treading carefully there) and about language.
In Germany they talk Dutch? One of them asked.
–  They try, I said, but they speak it badly, it’ s terrible Dutch. They call it German.


The Turtle Tower


The sleeper bus from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu was awful. A  motorcycle taxi took me to the bus station through traffic that would scare the shit out of Jason Bourne. The bus was very uncomfortable and they had stuffed as many people as they could in the contraption. It was a different model than I had experienced before and it had double seats which made for intimate relations with  your neighbour. Around 10 o’clock we stopped. Now we eat, my neighbour said. Sleeper bus protocol requires you to put your shoes in a plastic bag and during stops passengers are provided with flip flops. Since I was one of the last to leave the bus, I ended up with two, one size fits all, but still too small, flip flops. Two left ones…. We walked into the restaurant but it was very unclear where and how to order food. I didn’t see anyone sitting down and eating, so I bought some cookies. Just as I was doing so, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, come and eat! With the help of Google Translate, I was told that the meal was complimentary, so I sat down with my fellow travellers and food was placed on the tables. A young man took my bowl and filled it with rice and another handed me politely my chopsticks.  Then we ate.


Another 3 minute sketch

In Dien Bien Phu I found an okay hotel. It was actually extremely okay after a little bargaining and considering I then got cable tv, airco and marble floors. When I went out for a walk, I saw, quite unexpectedly, some colourfully dressed women at the market who belonged to minority groups, but they seemed even more surprised to see me. I smiled friendly to show them I was really harmless. Later I sat down at a small café where the waiter giggled and pointed at my arms. Then he pointed at his own arms. Hairy arms. Hi hi. And I thought this was the banana pancake trail….

In the evening I climbed the hill to  inspect the monument built there to commemorate the battle that was fought here in 1954 between the French and the Viet Minh. The French lost and it meant the end for their Indochina colony.

– Would you please surrender?
Non, of course not. We have many cannons, now go away.
– But we have more cannons than you.
– Don’t be silly…
– But it’s true.
– Yes…Oui…
When the Viet Minh started shelling the French positions, the French artillery commander committed suicide with a hand grenade. The Viet Minh closed in on their enemies.  Another French colonel was depressed and stayed in his bunker. More fighting ensued and in the end the French were overrun.
Then the guns stopped.
It was silent.

History used to be written by the victors, but these days it’s all Wikipedia.