Thursday, December 29, 2011

Laos, Please Don't Rush.

Laos P.D.R. People's Democratic Republic. Or rather, as they say: Laos, Please Don't Rush. Crossing the Mekong from Thailand's Chiang Khong to the other side is where the chaos in Laos begins. 
A slow boat takes you in two days downstream to Luang Prabang. No life vests, smokers sitting on gas bottles. That's the safe travel option. The not so safe option is a fast boat that gets you there in a day. The captains of the fast boats wear helmets. The passengers don't as they speed down the Mekong which is during the dry season now full of rocks peeking out of the water. Accidents waiting to happen...

slow boat on the Mekong, no rush

Mekong, please don't rush.

boat people, they don't rush

chicken run, Pak Beng, what's that rush?

Mekong girls, never rush

4 monks join the slow boat ride on the Mekong, they don't rush

sun sets over the Mekong, Luang, no need to rush

Luang Prabang is a laid back town on the Mekong. Coming from Thailand this is the first place where you can get a decent glass of red wine and proper bread. oui, c'est vrai, les Français étaient ici. merci! I took another cooking class with the Tamarind restaurant and cooking school. Laos cuisine is slightly different from Thai cuisine, less spicy, balanced textures, sourness, spicyness and salt. No coconut based curries. The menu consisted of sticky rice with Jeow Mak Len (Lao tomato salsa), Mok Pa (fish steamed in banana leafs), Ua Si Khai (stuffed lemongrass with minced chicken) and Khao Gam (purple sticky rice with coconut sauce). Flavours exploded in my mouth...

Laos kitchen equipment

Fish in banana leafs

Chicken in lemongrass

Laos menu

I moved on to Phonsavan, home to the Plain of Jars, sites with huge jars, no one really knows who left them here, estimated to be older than 2000 years.

Plain of jars

It was in an Indian restaurant where I met a friendly bloke in a Joe Strummer t-shirt working for one of the NGOs. He suggested I take a look at the Mines Advisory Group centre in town. The MAG supports the people of Laos to clean the country from the explosives and save lives by educating the locals in how to act when UneXploded Ordnance (UXO) is found and giving on the job training to teams so that they can defuse them or blow them up in a controlled way.

During the secret war between 1964 and 1973 the USA dropped about 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, although the country has been declared a neutral nation at the 1954 Geneva convention.
What remains of it today are still around 30% of UXO that will take ages to clear. It's advisable to stay on the beaten path. 
More bombs were dropped by the U.S. on Laos than the U.S. dropped on both Germany and Japan combined during world war II. And while the Vietnam war was probably the most televised war in history thus far and everyone heard about Cambodia, the bombings on Laos were not known to either the public nor the U.S. congress at the time (hence the name: the secret war). During the Vietnam war, when planes coming from airbases in thailand or southern Vietnam could not drop their load in Vietnam due to enemy fire or weather conditions they would detour and drop it on Laos instead since no pilot would want to risk landing plane loaded with bombs. 

The fact that the country is still littered with bombs slows the building of even simple infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals down and kept Laos among the poorest countries on the planet. Most of the bombs used were cluster bombs, spreading small explosives (they call them "bombies" here) that are too small to cause damage to tanks, but their only purpose is to kill or injure people. They are of the size of a fruit or a ball, some are coloured and have nicknames like "pineapple". In Laos it is a common game between boys and girls to throw balls to each other. Kids are curious if they find a ball shaped object in the fields. That's why there are still many accidents happening today.

Let's hope that the work of MAG helps to clean the country at a faster pace of UXO. Laos, just here, please do rush.

If you're interested this is a clip of a good documentary: bombies

Areas that were cleared of UXO are marked white. Always stay on the white side of life...

Mines Advsory Group

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thai food, Thai flood

Meet Poo:

Poo lives in the Klong Toey slum in Bangkok. Her mum taught her how to cook. After having a small restaurant in the slum for some years Australian NGO helping hands supported her to start up her own cooking school. It's obviously called cooking with Poo.
We met up in the centre of Bangkok and drove to Klong Toey market to do the shopping for the class and learn about the ingredients of the Thai cuisine. Loaded with bags of food we moved on to the kitchen in the slum and put our aprons on. What I liked particularly about this class is that everyone is doing their own dish and not a part of everyone's. This way you get to do all the steps to the final dish yourself, can adopt the spicyness to your likings and vegetarians can do a veggie version of the dish. What started as a small project supports now about 200 people living in the slum with food and a small income. Shopkeepers, women sewing little bags that you get to keep your recipes in, a driver etc.

fishmonger at Klong Toey market

Batman and the other superheroes from Klong Toey slum

starter: spicy green papaya salad

soup: Tom Yum Goong

main: Pad Thai Gai

dessert: sticky rice with mango

Krua Apsorn is a restaurant in Bangkok that according to this list published in the guardian serves the best Thai curry. It's not easy to find and I had to walk the streets close to the national library up and down a few times and ask the locals about its whereabouts. It was worth it. Plastic table cloths, no frills atmosphere, and the best Thai curry I had in my life. Ever. Whenever I am in Bangkok I will go back. Well balanced spicy and sour tastes that stayed on for more than an hour after I finished my dishes. I can die happy now.

Lotus root yellow curry with river prawns

Stir fried crab meat with yellow chili

'nuff foodporn.

I left Thao Khao San, the capital of Backpackeristan, for Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand about 2 hours north of Bangkok. This region was hit severely by the recent floods in the country and is still recovering from it. The Baan Lotus guesthouse I stayed in had just reopened about a week ago, the water levels have been so high that they reached the first floor of the buildings. Trees have been knocked over by the floods. The region is slowly recovering and in many places the high watermarks are visible up to where the flood levels rose. The probably most photographed Buddha head in the roots below was completely submerged. The temples have just been opened for visitors again.

aftermath of the flood in Ayutthaya

Fallen tree, Baan Lotus guest house, a victim of the flood, Ayutthaya

Buddha head in tree roots, Ayutthaya

Ceremony at Wat Phanang Choeng, Ayutthaya

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How I won (and lost) the Dubai metro jackpot

So, I'm flying emirates. Now how did that happen? Surprisingly it was not the cheapest but one of the cheapest options to get me where I wanted to go at the time I wanted to go and when I found out that I can have a stopover at no additional cost in Dubai and fork my flight it was a no brainer.  And while I was expecting all the shopping options (yes, you can get all the bling-bling or hello kitty or a combination of hello kitty with bling-bling on board) the entertainment system just blew me away. Latest movies? Check. Old time classics? Check. Bollywood, tagalog or Arabic cinema? Check. Mad men season 3 or rather peep show? Check. The latest Bon Iver, The Vaccines or TV on the radio album? Sure. So I charged my iPad at home with the master chef season that I planned to finish on board and now I am sitting at 30.000 feet listening to The Clash’s white riot on the emirates 70s punk rock podcast while charging my iPhone on the USB connector. As you do. It was a bit of a downer though that the shiraz from the Barossa valley was served too cold. Unforgivable. I'll never fly emirates again. Ever. O.k., adam and the ants are singing stand and deliver and I am on my second serving of Shiraz. Emirates, I think we can sort this out. And while yoshimi is battling the pink robots lamb rendang is served. It's not that bad actually. But it would be tragic if these evil robots win.

A friendly bloke at Dubai immigration stamps me in after enquiring about Amsterdam's coffee shops and the red light district. My transsiberian travel mate Mathew is expecting me at the carousel where my bag is circling. He arranged a driver and a hotel for us since he had some vouchers left that expire soon. Sheraton Jumeira beach. They apologize that they cannot upgrade us to a better room with a sea view for the night and offer a bottle of wine on the house in return. Apologies accepted. My accommodation will be all downhill from now on for the rest of the trip...

view from the Sheraton

So I'm off the following morning to explore Dubai. It's Friday. Holy Friday. The metro does not start running until after lunch and I take a cab to the souks which are also closed and so is the museum in old Dubai. After a walk by the creek I decide to catch the metro (shocker: you're not allowed to carry fish) to the world's biggest mall and the world's tallest building (warning to the reader: there will be many tallest, biggest, most expensive etc. in this edition. It was unavoidable). Ticket for 2 zones = dirham 6,50. Insert dirham 20 note. Machine prints ticket. Machine gives change. Machine gives more change. Machine does not stop. I won the Dubai metro jackpot! The guys at the ticket counter seem alerted and walk over. “machine not working correctly” one of them explains. We carry 6 hands full of change to the counter. I get a fraction of it back. You win some. You lose some. Probably the guys at the counter won the jackpot after all...

something's fishy here

Dubai to buy?

The metro stops at a few (Norman Foster designed, no less) stations before I get off at the Burj Khalifa/Dubai mall stop. Mental. I stare at a 829 meter giant. A shuttle bus drops me at the Dubai mall. Did I mention it's the world’s largest? Well, it is. Name a brand, it’s there. So is the world’s largest suspended aquarium, an ice skating rink, 22 cinemas and prayer rooms. It's the beginning of my trip, I'm not in a shopping mood and leave.

Burj Khalifa. it is tall.

feeding of the sharks, aquarium, Dubai mall

The next day we park Mathew’s Ford Mustang next to the Porsches and Ferraris in the car park of Abu Dhabi’s zero emission Masdar city and change vehicle to a driverless electric car that takes us around the project of a future clean tech world. Wind towers catch the air to cool down the area, everything is solar powered and high tech. Blade runner. Some issues need yet to be resolved: so far the solar panels need to be cleaned by hand from the desert sand to stay operational. Not by Emiratis I guess.

Solar powered building in Masdar city, the waves shall provide shade

Electric car, Masdar city

getting high in Dubai

Before heading back to Dubai airport we take the world’s fastest elevator at the Burj Khalifa to the (right!) world’s highest outdoor observation deck. Which is only half way up the building on the 122nd floor. Stunning views. Back down you can buy gold at a vending machine.

gold to go

bye, bye, Dubai

It was interesting, but if you ask me what is typical for the emirates... I don't know. Ferraris? Starbucks? Gold vending machines? The media selection on emirates flights is great though.

Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi