May 17, 2007

221206 Viphaphone Hotel, Phongsaly

With cat laundry on left half of rooftop:


Honghaem Wiphaphawn (Lao) aka. Fengshali Xianjin Binguan (Chinese) - lit. Phongsaly Golden Immortal/Fairy Hotel:


Room interior:


Comes with a tiny cake of soap, a pair of flip-flops for use as 'toilet slippers', a clothes tree & thick, heavy acrylic blankets - the type with huge peony flower patterns & bright red satin-ish trimming. In Singapore people stick paper cut-outs of Chinese words (glorifying the deceased) on this kind of 'condolence blankets' & hang them up like banners at Chinese 'void deck' funerals =P The cat has a few at home brought back from a grandparent's funeral.


The wardrobe & drawers were lined with pamphlets advertising Malaysia as a tourism destination - photos of white sandy beaches, in a land where the majority of the people have never seen the sea except on TV ;) Partially hidden by the TV set is one of the things that made this double room worth every bit of the 80,000kip (approx USD8) per night rate - a clean drinking water machine that dispenses both cold & boiling water, which enabled the cat to survive two freezing nights without heating with piping hot Horlicks malt drink. A pair of mugs & teaspoons are provided.

Tai Dam headscarf used as table runner for the coffee table:


Ubiquitous problem with loose sockets - electrical tape saves the day yet again:


May 13, 2007

221206 Phou Fa, Phongsaly

'That' (chedi) atop Phou Fa:


Sometimes you wonder about the wish and life behind each candle, each offering:


Incredible how you can have such places almost all to yourself. There was no one around except for a few Lao having a little picnic behind the 'that'. The surviving plants in the row of pots surrounding the structure were bare, all flowers having been plucked for use as offerings.


221206 Phou Fa views

Guidebooks describe a climb of about 430+ steps to reach the top of Phou Fa hill (+1625m a.s.l.). In actual fact, there is a seems-just-as-long climb up from the starting point near a little restaurant (or a drive up a winding deeply rutted unpaved track) to get to the start of the aforementioned climb of about 430+ steps. While climbing up the cat ran into a bunch of high school boys on their way down, who yelled what seems to be the standard English that most young Lao teenagers know - 'I WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND I LOVE YOU!'

At the start of the final climb is a sort of clearing with a structure that seemed like another restaurant, some wooden benches among the trees where high school kids were hanging around, & a caretaker who collects the 3000 kip admission fee and 5000 kip camera fee before sliding away the PVC pipe that he uses to barricade the stairs leading to the summit.

Views from the top - Phongsaly's main street narrows into a little lane leading to the left past a basketball court & on to Hat Sa:


The cat had earlier lunched on noodle soup with the most delicious broth it had ever tasted in one of those little houses along the street, sitting in front of a cupboard full of family photos in the living room. Midway through the cat feeding session, it looked up & straight into a bedroom directly across from its table, where a young guy sitting on the bed was watching the cat eat. Later when the cat wanted to pay and leave, it had to hunt around for the lady who had sliced the noodles from a freshly-pounded rice flour 'pancake' - she was washing two tubs of laundry along a drain outside the house. The yellow Beer Lao buntings hanging across the doorway seemed to be the only sign that this was a restaurant, & proof that the cat had not strayed into someone's kitchen begging to be fed =P

Bamboo grove:




Almost all of Phongsaly town:

click here for larger version

There was this great feeling of being on top of the world & away from it all, of having reached the northernmost point of the cat's route in the northernmost province of Lao, a long long way off from anywhere else, with nothing much except forest & mountains after mountains after even more mountains for miles and miles around - far from the madding crowd =)

221206 Phongsaly architecture

Concrete - the sign of affluence and 'having arrived':


Traps an incredible amount of heat during the hot season, poor ventilation compared to bamboo walls, and lacking much in character, but more resistant to insects and storms.

This seems rather characteristic of concrete buildings in Lao - rooftops often have these steel bars poking out, waiting to impale anyone who falls on them:


Makes the building seem incomplete, as if there were once plans for higher storeys to be added on.

Some government building with Western-style columns and an attempt at Lao-style roof finials:

PC220004-govt bldg

Traditional brick & wood:

PC220220b-old houses

Most houses in Phongsaly town seem to be this kind of single-storeyed rectangular zinc-roofed brick and wood affair, with a main door flanked by two sets of windows & holes for ventilation above:


Many also have a round 'symbol' made from short bamboo strips hanging above the front door, which somewhat reminded the cat of the Akha 'asterisk' taboo sign - wonder if it is the mark of a certain ethnic group?

Every open window tells a story, & it is interesting to wander down the little streets past these houses - a granny looking up from her treadle sewing machine, a pile of green vegetables, a wooden cupboard with an assortment of bottles and crockery stacked on top, a rosy-cheeked baby in the arms of a grandparent, a wooden bed piled high with a stack of faded quilts with large flowery patterns...and listen to the sounds - the hiss of heated oil in a frying wok, the plunging of a plastic scoop into a water-filled earthen jar and the accompanying splash of water, the laughter and shrieking of kids playing the 'throwing slippers' game, the rhythmic chopping of firewood, the slow chugging of a tractor climbing upslope, and the occasional bark from a dog...this is Phongsaly's charm =)

May 07, 2007

221206 more Phongsaly

Propaganda-ish-looking signboard:


Wording roughly reads literally as: sukyuu (push) sohngseum (promote) kaanphalid (production) sinkhaa (merchandise) hadthakam (handicraft) thii bpen (that is?) mun (heritage??) seua (ancestry) khawng (of/belonging to) bpasaason (people) bandaa (all) phao (tribe) yaangkhaenghaeng (strongly)*

*corrections most welcome

  1. selling machetes, shoulder bags & shirts
  2. Lao men have to do their share of laundry?
  3. containers for sticky rice, khantoke tables, chicken coops & conical hats for sale
  4. [R-L]: Akha lady spinning thread with Akha spindle in right hand, lady weaving at loom, man weaving basket from bamboo
Right in the centre of town paths like this one lead off the main road into a rabbit warren of stone & wooden houses decorated with assorted plants & laundry:


Lantana - a most familiar (poisonous) plant from home!


Notice in Viphaphone lobby - missing since March 2006:


View from Viphaphone entrance reflected on reception window:


Two ladies sat here the entire morning, washing glass bottles to be recycled:


Boys playing in front of the Kaysone monument after school, spinning homemade wooden tops identical to those that Akha boys play with during the Men's New Year:


Very little needed to set up a food stall:


May 06, 2007

221206 way off the banana pancake trail

Wandered into the compound of several ministries before finding the right government building with the provincial tourism office - a one room one man one mobile phone operation:


Housed in the building of the 'Organisation of the People Prosecutor Provincial Phongsaly Province':


Had a long chat with Mr SKST, a Luang Prabang native who speaks good English & was posted all the way here by the government to sit in this little room surrounded by posters of butterflies & beetles of Phou Den Din NBCA, a table & shelf full of information leaflets, a whiteboard plastered with 3R colour photos of locals from various ethnic groups & tourists in villages taken during treks, & another whiteboard with maps & details of multi-day treks in the province.

Mr SKST has been in Phongsaly for 4 years, & misses his family back in Luang Prabang, where his brother runs the Blue Lagoon cafe. In this time he seems to have built up a relationship with the people in the villages around Phongsaly, who will inform him whenever they are having some special celebrations that outsiders may join in, so that he can send interested tourists their way. He has picked up a bit of Akha language, & could explain a little about some of the Akha subgroups found in the province e.g. Pala, Nakui, Akui, Pusang, Oma & Muchi.

Nice thing was how Mr SKST would simply say that he didn't know when he wasn't sure about some fact. There are guides who don't bother to learn much about the ethnic groups that they bring tourists to visit. Some even respond with inaccurate information when asked about unfamiliar cultures, which can perpetuate stereotypes & offend some villagers. The cat is sick of hearing people saying things like 'Akha do not bathe at all', equating Lolo with barbarians, & describing Katang as 'stone age primitives'.

In this little office the cat got to meet just about every other tourist in town.

Mr & Ms Sydney were the Caucasian couple having dinner in Phongsaly Hotel the previous night, & were surprised to meet the cat here as they had thought it was one of the hotel staff. They had flown from Vientiane to Ban Boun Neua, not knowing how far out it was from Phongsaly town proper, & climbed up to the top of Phou Fa hill to catch this morning's sunrise. Both are trekking guides back in Australia & were here to sign up for a trek.

Mr French & Mrs Thai are a middle-aged couple from Bangkok who were also heading for Hat Sa to travel downstream on the Nam Ou river, albeit a day later than the cat. They were here to ask about the dates of the Hmong New Year celebrations, but Mr SKST had no clue - Phongsaly is one province in Lao where one can hardly find any Hmong. The cat told them about the celebrations it had seen from the Luang Namtha-Udomxai bus - if they were lucky they would still be able to catch it as it lasts for 12 days. A week later, the cat would run into them again in Luang Prabang, where they gave it directions to a good guesthouse in Pak Beng =)

A grand total of four others.

Phongsaly seems to be a good place to escape from the 'pounding the banana pancake trail' type of backpacker tourists doing the Chiangmai-Huay Xai-'backpacker ferry' slow boat-Luang Prabang-highway 13-Vang Vieng-Vientiane route, far from the fisherman's pants, 'happy pizzas' & 'happy shakes' ;)

221206 west Phongsaly

Museum of Tribe & library:


The provincial tourism office insisted that the museum was open. A little primary school girl who walks by the museum on her way to class every school day insisted that '没开,它不开的!' (not open, it does not open). Trust kids to be so brilliant at stating the facts plainly ;)

Cute thing was how the little girl speaks perfect Mandarin without any hint of an accent, much like a China Central Television newscaster, & very much unlike every single other Chinese that the cat met in North Lao. A welcome break from deciphering thick regional Chinese accents, which reminded the cat too much of its workplace & university hostel days back in Singapore.

Hornbills in Phongsaly?


After a couple of days of road travel by second- & third-hand vehicles, the cat started to wonder if Lao could ever bear to scrap any vehicle. The cat even heard of a bus driver who sounded his horn by asking a passenger to bring together the frayed ends of two wires to touch. What Lao consider unroadworthy:


From 勐腊县 Mengla county in 西双版纳 Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna):


Sitting among the vehicles enjoying the sunshine was an old lady. Some might see an eyesore in this vehicle graveyard. Others will see insurance & savings in the form of a safe (compared to UXO) source of scrap metal that can be sold piece by piece to dealers as & when an urgent need for cash arises :)

This is so out of a Chinese period drama:


拿酒来! (Bring the wine!):


Marche du Phongsaly:


Marche is one of the few French words the cat can understand, because of Marche restaurant in Singapore. For some reason the cat didn't venture in to explore until the next morning, when in search of something to eat on the Hat Sa-Muang Khua boat, & now it wishes that it had spent more time here. Markets give an instant overview of local lifestyle, a snapshot of what locals eat, drink, wear, use, & value.

When reading a cat's travelog, you have to put up with photos of its relatives:


Continuing past the stadium in the direction of the bus station, the cat took a random turn-off into a side lane. It led past a huge kindergarten (the nicest school facilities the cat had seen in Lao so far) with a field full of screaming tots, through a residential area, up a hill, & right smack into a military base with many friendly & puzzled soldiers curious to know who the cat was!