Thursday, January 30, 2014

6. Landscape around Dong Hua Sao National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area (NBCA)

Dong Hua Sao is a vast mountainous area east of Pakse, including the Phou Phiang Bolaven mountain range. Maximum elevations go up to about 1,600 meters, in other words it is not the Alps, but an entirely different landscape than the "great plains" of Isaan, Thailand, 50 km west of here.

It is cold up here! This winter/or better: cold season is unusually long, everybody freezes in a country where the average summer temperatures are more around the 90s Fahrenheit to upper 90s. I am not entirely prepared for these low temperatures, especially at night!

The mountainous area was declared a protected bio-diversity protection zone in 1993.

The landscape is simply beautiful, the forests are majestic. The rainforest, at first sight "impenetrable", is somewhat decimated by illegal logging, clearing is done for the cultivation of coffee, and the teak wood creates an immense windfall for the logger. It is said the lady I presented in my previous blog entry, who currently builds herself the Chateau de Versailles on the Mekhong is largely behind the logging for coffee cultivation, since she owns, among many other businesses, also the Dao coffee company ( I am too unfamiliar with Lao affairs to know more about all this.

The climate of the mountains is perfect for coffee; neighboring Vietnam mountain ranges, only about 80 km to the east from here, propelled this country now to become the biggest coffee exporter in the world, ahead of Brasil. Laos seems trying to follow suit. 

The forests and steep valleys are dotted with numerous waterfalls, of which I experienced the E-Tu waterfall, near Highway 16 to Paksong, km35.

It is a steep climb down to the bottom, the cliffs are amazing, and where the cliffs turn into terrain less steep, banana trees grow in the wild. The water is ice-cold and clear. Trees show fascinating types of branches. It is very, very remote here, but spectacularly beautiful.

Dong Hua Sao National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area (NBCA)


Since China is not only geographically close to where I am currently but also a dominating force in the region, making it's mark by building numerous hydro-power dams and other extended infrastructure (Laos), supplying the biggest tourist influx (Thailand), and running the businesses everywhere else, I thought it is in order to wish all my readers, Chinese and otherwise, a Happy New Year of the Horse! 

This coming year is a 'wooden' horse, though. Wood is a combustible material. We will have to wait and see what it means for the upcoming year. Many Chinese astrology masters don't predict much good. 

I am a Chinese Rabbit, I was not born in the year of the horse, however Angela Merkel was.

Many businesses are closed for four days. The smell of burnt incense and burnt money is everywhere. Shopkeepers have a metal container and are burning "hundred-of-thousands" of dollars of paper money for good luck. Today was also the first time that I saw a bundle of 1,000,000 US-Dollar notes- going up in smoke!

Let's all wish for not too many "burning horses" this year, but for peace and prosperity. Albeit the signs in the region at large are pointing in the opposite direction.

1 million US-dollar bill.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


A tale of two women, two children, one river, 1,100 km apart.

Part I

When I was in Luang Prabang, northern Laos, I watched for the better part of the morning a women with her son working in the river Mekhong. She, maybe in her fifties, was standing up to her waist in the cold water for hours, scarping the bottom of the river with a plastic tray. The gravel and sand she got up from the river bed her young son, maybe ten years of age, filled in big plastic bags. He was standing next to their motorized long-tail boat, stacking the filled sacks of gravel on top of each other, one of which at least weighted 50 pounds. In the few hours I watched them they were able to collect some 10-12 sacks of 'free' material. I don't know whether they do this all day, or how many days of the week, but considering the cold ambient temperature at this mountain location and the cold water, it was surely a unhealthy working condition, for both of them. 

Part II

Here in Pakse, southern Laos, a women and single parent in her fifties is constructing the next addition to her home where she and her daughter lives, directly at the river Mekhong. The construction work goes on since years now, and sometimes the designs are not to her liking which results in the demolition and new construction of the respected building wing. The buildings in their proportion and number of floors are modeled after Louis XIV Chateau de Versailles, France. The women, a merchant with family background in Vietnam, also owns much of the land around her single-family residence, such as the large new market complex in Pakse, a street with several large banks, and a neighboring hotel complex, also under construction. Her daughter is a tomboy. 

It is also the first time that I saw a construction site with a 6.00 meter tall cast-in-place reinforced concrete construction fence, hundreds of meters long.

5. Vientiane - Pakse

697 km

It was not my intention at all to ride a distance of almost 700 km in one day, pretty much equal to crossing Germany from north to south, or in other words, from Hamburg to Zurich, Switzerland.

In fact, I am not terribly in a hurry to get back to the border to Cambodia since my time here in Laos was rather short, compared to the other countries I travelled through.

I only was granted with a “Bike-Visa” (People and motorcycles need a Visa in Thailand and Laos) for 14 days, but I my estimated time in this country will not exceed 12 days.

So when I left Vientiane, the capital of Laos this morning, the good road, Highway 13S,  allowed my mind to wander a bit; together with the light and well-behaved traffic I didn’t need my senses to be on “Code Red” all the time. While I was riding along I was thinking that I haven’t seen a single big motorcycle on the roads here, except for the parked Drag-Star in Luang Prabang.

Well, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, because it was less than hour out of the city that I ran into a group of three Laotian big bike riders on their way to the Bike Festival in Mukdahan, Thailand.

The DUCATI's and some spectators taking pictures.

Patthana is trying out the BMW.

We stopped shortly afterwards at a gas station for an espresso and I had a chance to chat with them a little. There were two brand-new 830 cc/110 hp DUCATI Hyper Motard’s and one Harley-Davidson. 

They told me that they are a group of five motorcycle riders out of Vientiane, but that two of their friends couldn’t come since their new bikes are already down and currently being repaired in Bangkok. For good reason they are utterly disappointed with their purchase, although DUCATI Thailand does the replacement of the malfunctioning fuel injection systems and fuel computers under warranty, without cost. Still, it is quiet an excise to ship the bikes on a truck through two countries, customs and all. Last year they got together as a group and ordered the bikes directly from Italy, and now: Buyer’s remorse! When I heard that DUCATI uses Magneti Marelli electrical and fuel injection equipment on those expensive bikes, my hair were standing up in horror. This alone would be a reason for me, the tested former owner of a 1979 ALFA ROMEO Spider 2000 (yes, the car in “The Graduate”, same color also) to never purchase this motorcycle.

We had fun talking bikes over our coffee. Interestingly also that motorcycles over 250 cc are illegal in Laos, since the police wants the dominance over traffic in their big HONDA’s. Nevertheless, these folks rode them. Later they explained the way it works. In always works somehow, if you know how.

They asked me what my destination for today would be, Savannakhet I told them, and they told me to forget about that town and ride with them to Pakse, some three hours further south. Well, that’s an idea, why not. Off we went on our 11 hour wild, fast ride!

Another gas stop. For them, not for me!
The Ducati's and Harley's just have small gas tanks!

The main road in Laos going south, Highway 13S. Comparable to a French country/departmental road.

It turned out that they were a great group of very well connected young guys, knowing pretty much everybody in this southern Laos city. One is the owner and CEO of a Vientiane contracting firm who studied Civil Engineering in Poland, the other one an owner of an Eco-Tour company with multiple offices across the country, and last but not least the owner of the biggest, and best Vientiane restaurant, where I ate twice, without knowing him.

They had rooms reserved in Pakse and we spend two fabulous days together.

Our food (Breakfast, lunch and dinner) was provided by a great restaurant in Pakse, another Harley rider and former Laotian chef to a French President in Paris who they know, of course, and we spend endless hours discussing all kinds of issues, including politics. I was surprised how openly they discuss and point at the rampant corruption in their country, something they wouldn't have done some years ago, they told me. The evenings were very long, and the night hours of Karaoke singing is also something I need to get more used to, but we had a blast.

My new 'Saturday Morning Coffee group' in Laos.

Of course all of them speak perfect English, travel the world, including an upcoming trip for the owner of the tour company trip to an international tourism conference in Berlin; the owner of the restaurant, a DUCATI rider, also gets ready for a trip to Switzerland where he registered for an ‘Iron Man’.

To add to all this, they introduced me to a German architect who lives in Vientiane but plans to retire in Pakse and I looked at his drawings and heard about his plans to build a huge retaining wall and retirement home on his property directly on the Mekhong for which the contractor-rider does the soil engineering.

I must say that I am a little exhausted from the days with them, and I believe the alcohol consumption must have had something to do with it. The very expensive –and illegal- shots of a Laos schnaps mixed with gall-bladder liquid of a bear (bile) from the spectacular mountains around here which the restaurant owner served didn't help either.

I followed their advice to ride up into the mountains to a VERY remote area where I currently stay in a bungalow near one of the main beautiful waterfalls in this area. Maybe I recover here from all the talking, wild riding, the crossing cows, dogs, and goats, and of course, from the alcohol.

The cows are leisurely strolling across the road. But sometimes they can jump and run pretty fast! Careful!

The roosters are flying from tree to tree in front of my bungalow, a sure sign that I don't need to set an alarm for tomorrow morning.

They went on to Thailand to the bike event. I would have liked to join them but for me as a U.S. passport holder, and with my bike U.S. registration, it would have been a time-consuming hassle at the Thai border.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

4. Vientiane

This morning I went to the Center of Medical Rehabilitation Hospital at the Ministry of Health. 

The hospital also has workshops within it's compound where handicapped workers manufacturer all kinds of prosthetic devices replacing missing arms and legs. Also wheelchairs are produced here. 

The little museum in the hospital is equally impressive and explains the history of this tortured country. Laos is the most bombed country in the world by capita in history. 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped by U.S. planes on the country between 1964*) and 1973, and still 25% of Laotian villages are contaminated with unexploded bombs. 

Numerous people including children still are loosing their lives or limbs.

*) In 1963 the United States signed an international agreement that Laos would remain independent and no military of any country would be based in Laos. One year later the U.S. airbases in northern Laos were constructed. In the same year the bombing raids on Laos were started, called "Operation Steel Tiger" and "Tiger Hound". They lasted until 1973.

Cluster bombs, or how they are called here: "bombies". They consist of steel ball bearings, the effective explosive radius is about 30 meters.

Top left: A "bombie" with trip wires, it acts as a landmine.

Worker in wheelchair workshop.

New wheelchairs

The work of COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise NGO) here at the hospital is worth mentioning in the blog. Maybe some of my readers get interested and support the great work and activities of COPE in this country.

Many possibilities to contribute to their efforts to fight the consequences of unexploded ordnance are available on their web site:

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is a relatively small city. The onslaught of today's car traffic is just to much for this provincial town. Everybody wants to drive a car, and the many used car dealerships remind me of the years directly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of both Germanys. People who can afford it want to be in a car, and these need to be accommodated. The quaint town struggles with this issue a lot.

The most beautiful Buddhist wat in town is Wat Si Saket, built in 1818 in a Siamese temple style. It is one of the few structures remaining after the destruction of the city by Thai armies that sacked Vientiane in 1827. 
The Thai forces were impressed by the architectural style they were familiar with and left the buildings intact. The French Protectorate government restored the large ensemble twice during their reign.

The temple cloister arcade holds thousands of bronze and silver Buddha statues of all sizes. It is a beautiful site.

Outside of the temple one can buy all kinds of secret roots, lotions and potions. The only root I can identify is ginger, and what the friendly girl explains otherwise I can't understand.

Amulets are also available. I feel so sorry that early on in the trip I lost my little Buddha amulet which I got at Wat Saket ("Golden Mountain") in Bangkok.

Central Post Office Vientiane.

Going on a trip.

At the open air pet shop.

Pet fish store.

The black cat studies the fish in the bottles with great interest.

There are no supermarkets or other grocery stores here in Laos. Everything is purchased in the open air markets distributed across town, or such as in this case, directly from a truck which arrived from the countryside.

Selling from the truck.

Wat Si Saket.

Old lady enters the wat.

I saw this very skinny, limping  cat on the street and had to get her a can of tuna. She truly enjoys the unexpected delicacy. How such a small cat can eat so much tuna.

What is unfortunate is the architectural expression of the newer government or cultural buildings here. In strong contrast to the fine, yet very few remaining buildings of the French Protectorate period they are not only characterized by a lack of scale but are also strikingly ugly.

Below we see the Laos National Culture Hall. It is a gift by the Chinese government and was designed by Chinese state architects in the late 1990s.

But also other newer buildings are of unfortunate in their ugliness, such as the Presidential Palace, designed by local architect Khamphoung Phonekeo, construction began in 1973, completed in 1986. It is closed to the public.

Tomorrow morning I will leave Vientiane on Highway 13 to the south. The route follows loosely the Mekhong river. 

Some 1,300 kilometers later I will be back in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.