Tag Archives: khan river

Around Town in Luang Prabang: Climbing Phousi Hill

The sky here is grey at the moment – a dense, dull, iron grey. You can’t see the mountains in either direction. Black and white flakes of ash have been drifting down for the past two days, coating everything from plant leaves to laundry. Everything smells of smoke and we’re all sneezing. Even Zulu’s exuberance has been dampened. Every time I go downstairs he’s curled up in his crate or by the door and half the time he doesn’t even bother to raise his head and invite me to play. Luang Prabang is not at it’s finest at the moment.

We were warned that this was coming – March is traditionally the start of the slashing and burning as the fields are prepared for the rice planting. But as March came and went with only minimal haziness I’d thought people were exaggerating. Alas, it seems that the bizarre rain of recent weeks just delayed things a little. People were not exaggerating.

The grim gloominess of the past couple of days reminded me of a very different Luang Prabang – the town we were walking around on the first Saturday in January. On that Saturday we decided to climb Phousi Hill as a pilgrimage of sorts – an opportunity to look out over the town, reflect on the upcoming year, and burn enough calories to justify eating a heaping bowl of ice cream from Café Mekong Fish afterward.

(Well, that last was a significant motivator for me, anyway).

Phousi Hill is pretty awesome, so today I’m going to take you up there on a brief, sunny, and entirely (for you) sweat-free jaunt.

My favorite way up Phousi Hill is from the Khan side, which during the first week of January was decorated by a stack of beer crates announcing that it was now 2011, in case we’d forgotten.

About halfway down this road are a set of white stairs leading up the mountain.

On your way up the 320 plus stairs you walk past a monastery and a number of commanding Buddhas. There’s this fellow, who would seem to be forbidding entry but for the smile on his face, and a corps of them guard the steps.

Then there are the weekday Buddhas. Of these, the Tuesday Buddha looks to have the easiest gig.

Then there’s my favorite group of statues, nestled into a cleft in the rock, Buddha teaching his disciples.

There is a small temple up near the top of Phousi Hill, but the crest itself  is unadorned save for a few tall golden spires, visible all over town. People leave offerings of flowers at the base of these spires.

However, when you are up there the real grandeur isn’t those golden spires, it is the view. On a perfectly clear day (which this wasn’t, though the haze had nothing on the current grey pall) the rivers are spread out below you in crisp detail and the mountains hem the horizon with sharp stitches. If you look in one direction you see the Khan.

If you look the other way you see the Mekong.

Before we descended Mike and I bought a pair of caged birds to release from the summit. Tradition here holds that you’re supposed to say a prayer as you release the bird. As we watched the tiny birds dart away into the blue I thought of the baby within me, so little at that stage we hadn’t yet gone public, and prayed that it would fly (metaphorically speaking, of course).

After you’ve marveled at the view and looked up at golden spires and released birds there’s nothing for it but to go down again. So that’s what we did, down the Mekong side this time. At the bottom of the drop a long straight sweep of steps leads out onto one of the main roads in town. And right across from the stairs stands the National Museum. Partnered by an imposing gold-plated temple and gleaming white amidst lush tropical gardens, the museum used to house the monarchy that ruled Laos before the communist revolution in 1975 relocated the royal family to re-education camps.

That’s it today from this edition of “around town in Luang Prabang”. Let me know if there’s something you’re curious to see and I’ll get out there with our camera (once this smog clears) and see if I can track down some pictures for you. Happy Wednesday!

In the spirit of random

I’m having one of those mornings when I’m not quite sure what to write about. After all the hustle and bustle of the last couple of weeks the last few days have felt very still, and somewhat empty. So, today, I’m going to do a brief summary of what’s going on in life at present and wrap up with a question for you all.

In no particular order, here’s the big and small of what has been going on this week:

  • I am super excited about our puppy coming home in about two weeks, but somewhat sobered by all the people who are telling me (with the sort of passion and graphic detail usually reserved for stories about labor and delivery) how much hard work puppies are. Most people who’ve weighed in seem dead-set against getting two puppies. One friend laughed out loud when I wondered if our little puppy would be house-trained by the time Mike leaves for Australia on Dec 10. The vehemence of all the facebook comments prompted yet another facebook friend to fear that I’d be dissuaded from puppies entirely and write me a long and lovely email reassuring me that it would be worth it.
  • As a PS to the puppy commentary, is it seriously messed up that I’m already dreading possibly having to leave this puppy here if and when we leave Laos and the puppy hasn’t even come home yet?   
  • Mike’s down south in Vientiane for a couple of days. He gets back tonight, yay!
  • I re-read on old friend of a book this week that I remember loving when I was twenty. It was one of my top twenty most incandescent reading experiences ever. So I was rather disappointed to return to it and find it still engaging but no longer incandescent. On the other hand I read a new book I loved – A Girl Named Zippy – which was just a treat of a memoir about a relatively happy childhood in a town of 300 in Indiana. The author’s voice is wonderful – a study in childhood resilience.
  • And, speaking of resilience, I have started interviewing people this week for the consulting project on resilience in humanitarian managers that I am aiming to have wrapped up by Nov 28th. It’s a fun topic to be pondering, and a real treat to have a good reason to chat to some of the many acquaintances and friends I’ve made over the years in the humanitarian field and make some new ones. Three more interviews today – Kenya, Australia, and Central African Republic. Once again I think of the pure genius of skype with shivers of awed gratitude.

So now, the question. I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blog posts lately about themes in blogging, and offering your readers useful content, and the strategic use of twitter, and how to time your comments on facebook so that you get the most traffic… and it’s all leaving me a bit baffled.

This is a level of strategic thinking I just haven’t reached with social media (and am not entirely sure I want to, either). My usual blogging process is to get up in the morning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, grab some coffee, and then figure out what I feel like writing about that day. Sometimes that is snakes, or toilets. Sometimes it’s sick kids.

So I’m really grateful that so many of you come here regularly to check out what Mike and I are up to, and I’ve been wondering this week what constitutes “useful content” for you all? What do you enjoy about this blog? What would you like to see me writing more of? What topics would you be interested in?

And, have a great weekend, all.

PS. In the spirit of random, here’s a photo I took from the back of the elephant the other day, because Laos is beautiful.

Date Night

“What do you want to do tonight?” Mike asked me after he got home from work on Monday to find me where he’d left me that morning – sitting on the bed under the air conditioner, writing.

I looked up and smiled at my play buddy.

“I want to have hamburgers and French fries at 28 Degrees in Alhambra,” I said, thrilling at the thought. “And then I want to go to Coldstone for ice cream. And then I want to go to the movies.”

There was a long pause.

“Oh,” I said. “You meant things we actually could do. Realistic plans.”

“Those are generally my favorite kind,” Mike said.

“Boooooring,” I said. (Not, I will admit, because I thought this allegation had any merit, but simply because I felt like being difficult.)

“I want a daaaaaate night,” I whined. “I want haaaaamburgers.”

“Listen to you,” Mike said. “You’d think we hadn’t had dinner together in months instead of spending every night of the last four weeks together.”

“Eating bamboo and egg,” I said.

That was just one or two nights,” Mike said sternly.

I grinned.

“They have hamburgers at Utopia,” Mike said.

“Alright,” I said. “Let’s go to Utopia.”

I think Utopia is my favorite restaurant venue in Luang Prabang. To get there you leave the main road down the Khan River and walk down a long, twisting, alleyway and over a stream on a small wooden bridge. Just before you start to think that the alley is leading you straight into a thicket of green along the river, stand a set of heavy wooden doors with brass trim. Inside these doors is a stone courtyard shaded by a thatched roof. If you walk through the courtyard, past the low wooden tables surrounded by cushions, and down the stone path across the grass, you will reach a bamboo platform overlooking the Khan.

On Monday night Utopia was particularly atmospheric. There was a storm brewing and every ten seconds or so the sky sheeted white. Across the river the occasional incandescent spear was being tossed from cloud to cloud. The scent of coming rain arrived, thunder growling at its heels. Lit only by candlelight, our bamboo perch felt perfectly suspended across that paradoxical canyon that lies between cozy and wild.

And they had hamburgers! And saffron robes – a nectarian concoction of mango and tamarind that is a Utopian specialty and possibly the best drink in Luang Prabang. This was turning into one of our best date nights ever.

Except they didn’t have hamburgers or saffron robes, our waiter eventually managed to communicate. Because they didn’t have any electricity. Because of the storm.

Hence all the candles.

“OK,” I said, with a small sigh. “What can you make?”

“Sausages and potatoes,” they told me. “And lemonade.”

“OK,” I said. “Sausages and potatoes and lemonade.”

“Sorry,” Mike said.

“Meh,” I said. “Watching this storm is worth the death of a dinner dream.”

“If we stay too much longer we’re going to get wet walking home,” Mike said.

“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s warm.”

It was, too. By the time we’d lingered over our lemonades and fully debriefed our respective days the storm had pretty much passed, leaving only a slow misty rain and distant thunder in its wake. The streets were fresh and slick, and by the time we were halfway home we were both more than damp – our hair crowned with shiny beads, the drops of water on my glasses creating a dozen different worlds.

“Wowee,” I said happily, as we walked along hand in hand. “We should walk around in the rain all the time – it’s so nice and cool. And there’s a whole box full of DVD’s back at the house, so we can even watch a movie on the laptop on our date night! I love Laos!”

Thirty minutes later we were all clean and dry, and excitedly anticipating the first movie we’d seen in a month.

Well, I was. I don’t actually think Mike cared much one way or another about the movie. Which possibly explains why he was the one to keep his cool during the subsequent parade of DVD disappointments.

The first one we tried, Letters to Juliet, was a movie I’d really been looking forward to seeing after hearing rave reviews. Sadly, however, the version we were trying to play (as best we could figure out) been re-filmed on a hand-held video camera in a Chinese movie theatre. The cinematic entrepreneur had managed to get rid of all the annoying Manadarin subtitles, but he accomplished this by focusing the camera above the subtitles and thereby cutting off about a third of the screen. The picture was grainy and so was the sound.

I was desperate, but I wasn’t that desperate. So it was on to option two.

Option two started out promisingly. The cinema lady appeared on the screen, announced by trumpets, in all her pomp and glory. All the familiar warnings about how we’d go to jail for the rest of our natural lives if we were caught watching a pirated copy of this movie were there, crisp and clear. It even had previews. We couldn’t fast forward through them, but we figured ten minutes of previews was a small price to pay for what we hoped would be one hundred minutes of good comedy.

Except, we ended up paying it for nothing, because as soon as the previews had finished the sound receded to something vaguely resembling the low buzz of drowsy bees on a hot summer day.

We tried turning up all the volumes we could find. We tried plugging in travel speakers. No joy.

By the time we put in the third DVD, Date Night, I was frazzled.

“If this doesn’t work we have plenty of options,” Mike said. “We’ll find one.”

“But I was emotionally invested in the first movie,” I said. “And then, while we were watching the previews, I was getting all invested to the second movie. This sort of sequential emotional commitment takes a lot of energy, you know.”

Mike looked at me in a way that made it perfectly clear that, no, he did not know.

“Let’s just try the next one,” he said carefully.

Again the previews, loud and lovely. And I was so relieved that the movie, when it came on, was also loud and lovely, that it took me approximately six seconds to realize… that it was dubbed.

“Ahhhhhhh,” I wailed, throwing myself sideways on the bed and burying my head in my arms. “They are speaking Korean!

“Maybe we can fix it,” Mike said, rescuing the laptop from the vicinity of my flailing.

“You can’t!” I said. “They’re speaking Korean.

“OK,” Mike said, scrabbling around on the keyboard while I lay there and moaned.

“What else?” Mike asked, wisely recognizing that I had ventured into Fully Unreasonable Territory and that maybe, just maybe, hyperbole would prove a quick shortcut exit.

“We’ll never watch another movie,” I said.

“Probably not,” Mike agreed, still working on the language settings.

“And this is the worst date night ever!” I said, smiling just a little.

“It is,” he said. “The absolute worst one we’ve ever had. What else?”

“Nothing else,” I said, pathetic, lying there limp and spent.

“There’s more,” Mike said. “There’s always more.”

“I hate Laos?” I offered.

“Yes!” he said. “You hate Laos.”

“Look,” he set the computer back on the bed. And, lo and behold, there was the movie. In English. With a choir of angels singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the background.

You are a genius,” I said, bouncing upright. “And this is the best date night ever.”


Theory to practice

I have spent much of the last decade making a living by helping people think through stress, resilience, and how to undertake humanitarian work without burning out in a spectacular (here, insert one or more of the following: angst-laden, guilt-ridden, ideals-flagellated, faith-battered, self-destructive, passion-and-energy-depleted) blaze of non-glory.

As part of this, I have occasionally run workshops on cross-cultural adjustment dynamics. I’m well versed in the relevant lingo – culture shock, the differences between surface culture and deep culture, and the cultural competency continuum. I’ve shown pretty graphs that help chart the cross-cultural adjustment process, and beautiful pictures of icebergs that illustrate the “hidden” culture of assumptions, habits, and beliefs that lie below the surface of the water and our own consciousness.

“Culture shock is a natural process,” I may have said, serenely, in a former life. “Feeling lost, confused, and out of the loop will be the new normal for a while after relocating to a new country. Feelings of competence and achievement will temporarily become distant memories.”

(No, no one has yet come up to me after a workshop and told me that I came off sounding like a tosser. No, I’m not quite sure why not, either.)

The point it, I know a lot about the theory. But theory to practice… theory to practice… Therein lies the rub.

Friday was a Bad day. (Please note the capital B in the previous sentence; it is there for a reason.) It didn’t start out that way. In fact, things didn’t start to go pear-shaped until after I had put in a good, solid, morning of writing. After six months of writing abstinence due to moving logistics and general life chaos, I’d been extraordinarily authorially productive and remarkably cheerful all week. But, after almost five days of happy buoyancy, I was starting to suspect that I was in for a bit of a dip.

I hoped that I was wrong about this.

I was not wrong.

By Friday at 2pm I’d completely run out of creative energy. The rest of the afternoon stretched out in front of me, hot, humid, and empty. I tried all the quick fixes I’d amassed during the previous two weeks. But the lemon-mint freeze up at Joma just reminded me that what I really wanted was a glass of sauvignon blanc. And the book I read reminded me that I was more than halfway through the stack of books I’d the foresight to pack, and that our shipment bringing fresh supplies had not even left California and may not arrive for another six months.

I started to slide.

I had a shower. I washed my hair. I noticed I was running out of shampoo. I shaved my legs. I lay on the bed and thought about the beauty of having time on my hands – the luxury and gift of slow. I thought that this would be an interesting blog post, but I could not be bothered to write it. I thought about inertia. I pondered, staring at the ceiling, whether what I was doing was understandable, or merely lazy and self-indulgent. I felt the first internal tickle of self-loathing.

The downward spiral accelerated.

I waited for Mike to come back from work.





6:45pm. I phone Mike. Mike says he is drinking beerlao with Kapono. He says he will be home within half an hour. He calls me sweetheart.

I hang up. I am furious.

[Side note: In all fairness, I must pause here and alert you to two facts. One, I had my mobile phone turned off until 6:45pm, so Mike, who had diligently been trying to call me periodically since 5pm, was unable to get through. Two, there turned out to be very good reasons that Mike was drinking beer with Kapono. In this highly relational culture it is usually during eating or drinking together that truly important information is communicated. And truly important information was being communicated.

I, however, did not know about the important information. And in the moment, I may not have cared anyway. Because, in the moment, I was in an emotional freefall. I hated the fact that I was sitting alone at almost 7pm on a Friday night. I hated highly relational cultures. And I wasn’t too fond of my highly relational husband either. End side note.]

Mike was back within half an hour. By that time I was trying to talk myself out of pissy territory by reminding myself that Mike had had a long week, and that he was doubtless very tired. It was not working.

I ventured a half-hearted smile. Mike looked a little nervous.

“How as your day?” he asked.

I shot for a positive take.

“Really crappy,” I said.

“Lot’s of things for you to write about then,” Mike said cheerfully.

That was the last straw. “Don’t you joke about that!” I said. Then, much to my angry mortification, I burst into tears.

Some people cry gracefully – with cute little hiccups and delicate swipes at the perfectly spherical tears sliding down their cheeks. Their nose doesn’t turn red, or run. They seem unconcerned by their overt and uncontrolled display of emotion. Some people, while crying, are even capable of using words to express what they’re so upset about.

I am not one of those people. I do not cry easily, or openly. By the time I reach the tears stage (once every six months or so) I am usually totally overwhelmed, ashamed and surly about my meltdown, and mostly non-verbal. I do not want Mike to ask me questions and try to understand why I’m upset. I usually want him to just go away until I stop crying. The major problem with this (apart from the fact that it goes against Mike’s natural instincts to abandon me to my misery) is that if Mike does go away, I generally end up feeling even worse. By most indices, I don’t think that I do tears well.

I tried in vain to stop crying while Mike drove down the street to the restaurant we’d planned on for dinner. After Mike parked the car, I didn’t move.

“I don’t want to go in there and sit down and eat dinner,” I said.

“What do you want to do, then?” Mike asked.

“I want to go for a walk somewhere,” I said. “But not on these roads, with motorbikes and cars everywhere.”

“OK,” Mike said, “let’s drive down to the other end of the peninsula and walk around there for a while, and eat at one of the cafes along the river.”


“Do you want to talk to me now?” Mike asked. “You don’t have to talk to me now, or tonight, but you do have to talk to me at some stage.”

“Not now,” I muttered.

So we walked around in darkness, along quiet streets out on the peninsula. We found a riverside café. Mike did most of the talking. I concentrated on not crying again.

In bed the next morning, Mike asked me what had gone wrong.

“I’ve just been in the guesthouse or Joma all week,” I said. “And I know it could be worse. We could have no AC, or we could…”

“Nope,” Mike interrupted. “Stick with the negative this time. No positive reframes allowed.”

“Fine,” I said. “I hate the tile cutters and drills and saws and cement mixers across the street.”

“Good,” Mike said. “What else?”

“I hate roosters, and I hate dogs that howl before dawn.”

“What else?”

“Two and a half thousand dollar plane tickets to Australia.”

“What else?”

“It’s five thousand and forty three degrees outside and I’m stuck inside all day.”

“What else?”

“A husband who works five thousand hours a week,”

“That’s sounds right,” Mike said encouragingly. “About one hour per degree.”

“And all we ever talk about is work.”

“Yes,” Mike said. “That is so true. That’s all we ever talk about.”

“And there’s a ‘Welcome to Asia’ party in my digestive tract.”

“Well,” Mike paused. “That one is actually true. Plus, there’s the uterus.”

“Yes,” I agreed fervently. “There’s the uterus. And PMS hormones. And I’m running out of books. And I just want to drown myself in the Khan river,” I finished in a rush – giggling a little by now, but leaking a few more tears, too.

“The Khan now, is it?” Mike asked. “That makes a change from the Mekong.”

So we laughed a little more, and then we got up and tackled the weekend…

I wasn’t going to write this post today. I worried that posting about Friday’s meltdown would come across as a cry for pity, or a desperate plea for friendly cheerleading along the lines of “hang in there, things will get better.” So I was going to write instead about our house hunting adventures and disappointments during the last couple of days, or the tensions inherent in trying to find a new routine while fully embracing exploration mode. I was going to write about the definition of fun in during this time, or the luxury of slow.

But I’m striving for honesty in this experience of moving to Laos, and transparency. And that means not omitting all of these low points, or putting too much varnish on them. It means acknowledging and accepting them for what they are – raw moments, hard times – even though I know even as they’re happening that things will get better and easier, for the theory says it will be so.

Of course, the theory also says it probably won’t get consistently easier for a couple of months at least, but let’s never mind that right now. Because, right now, I just need to focus on practice, today.


Sabaidee – The Banquet

By any standard, learning the Lao language is no piece of cake. The Lao script is based on an old Thai script. There are no spaces between written words in Lao. As the Lonely Planet Lao phrasebook bluntly informed me, “The rendering of Laos words into Roman script is a major problem as many Lao sounds, especially certain vowels, do not occur in English. There is no official system of transliterating Lao, and [even the] Lao government is incredibly inconsistent in this respect.”

Lao is also tonal. But not just two or three tones – there are six of them. As Mike learned the hard way, the same sentence can mean: “I go to the office”, “buffalo go to the office”, or “male organ go to the office” depending on your tone. Seeing as how we seem to be incapable of even hearing the difference between some of these tones, I can foresee some challenges.

I have, however, picked up my first Lao word, sabaidee.

Sabaidee means hello – a friendly hello. You can also use it as goodbye. This is one word you hear everywhere in greeting and farewell, and on Friday night all the local staff Mike works with decided to formally say a friendly hello by inviting us to a banquet, that night, in our honour.

Kapono, his deputy, informed Mike of this plan at 3pm Friday afternoon.

The chosen restaurant was a five minute drive out of town, through a stand of coconut trees and out to the banks of the Khan river. When we arrived most of the office staff were already there, about forty of them, standing around on the tile patio overlooking the river, talking, laughing, and drinking Beerlao.

A word about beer… I don’t like it. I never have. I know that this is unusual for an Australian – it’s practically cultural heresy. But what I hadn’t known before I got here was that, in Laos, beer is similarly venerated. Beerlao, with its charming slogan, “beer of the wholehearted people”, is officially the national nectar. And, while refusing a drink in Australia won’t earn you much more than mockery, here it’s just not on. As Kapono said as he handed me a full glass of beer as soon as we arrived, “In Laos, drink together very important. Make like family.”

I looked from the beer, to Mike.

Mike smiled.

“Put some ice in it,” he said to me, sotto voce. “It’s better cold.”

So I loaded it up with ice, and I drank – again, and again, and again. For every two or three minutes someone would wander up to clink glasses with us and make an incomprehensible toast to health or life or work or happiness. And, as Mike informed me gently, if you toast, you must drink. And if someone wants to toast, you must toast.

And so I stumbled through the evening, a cultural neophyte, but learning fast. I learned for example, to be more careful in the future about what I put in my mouth when it’s battered and fried and I don’t know quite what might be inside. I learned to take Kapono seriously when he leans over the table, wiggles a cautionary finger at the fish, and says; “I think many many chili for you.” I learned that at Lao banquets, after everyone has finished eating the many many chilis, there will be very loud karaoke. And I learned that when there is karaoke, there is usually dancing.

Oh yes, dancing. Not swing dancing, mind you, or ballroom, or even disco – all of which I can make a decent go of. But something of a slow, stylized, Thai-esque, line dance.

As the guests of honour, I also learned that Mike and I were expected to open the dance floor. Mike smiled at me again as we got up to follow Kapono and his partner Aelan to the dance floor – a sort of coded apology for failing to forewarn me of this special privilege – and I smiled back. For what else can you do in front of forty watchful pairs of dark and merry eyes?

And so we danced. Or, more accurately, we shuffled after Kapono and Aelan, trying to imitate their tiny steps and fluid, twisting, hands. Above us a disco ball was generating a neon meteor shower – a hail of purple and green stars flashing across Mike’s face.

I tried. Aelan tried too.

“Look,” she said, slowing down her graceful fluttering and breaking down the moves for me. But in the five long minutes that we tripped in a circle to Nampang’s heartfelt wails, it was no good. One of my hands was supposed to twist in while the other faced out, and then they should have reversed. Here my thumb was supposed to be angled down – lightly kissing my first finger. There my fingers were to spread like a fan. I could master each of the poses in isolation, but I simply could not make my hands move simultaneously as they were supposed to – fluid and independent, in opposite directions.

I looked at Aelan again. She smiled.

“It is easy,” she said to me.

She meant to be encouraging.

I think.