Category Archives: Laos

Gold and Red

We walk for hours through Chinatown and then blocks and blocks of the flower market. In preparation for Loy Krathong there are orchids, mums, roses, peonies, fragrant tuberoses, and without exaggeration, billions of marigolds.

Alan and I decide to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the Erawan shrine. It’s a small, favorite shrine in what we  remember as being a rather sterile business district. It is so popular that there’s a guy whose job it is is to continually circle the alter and remove the bottom layers of marigold wreaths as the offerings pile up quickly. We take the metro and skytrain there – neither of which existed 20+ years ago – and find the little shrine as it was, but now completely dwarfed by ultra high-end shopping malls, the Inter-Continental Hotel, and skyscrapers. Just half a block away, at the base of the Louis Vuitton store, in one of Bangkok’s most important intersections, thousands of red-shirted, peaceful demonstrators gather for “Truth Day,” the six-month anniversary of the deadly military crackdown.

To see more flowers and demonstrators, click on the Red Shirt photo.To learn more about the political climate and Day of Truth, check out the New York Times article. (


Rep, Eung and Pink have gone to great lengths to entertain us, (over)feed us, buy us gifts, take us to places only a local of 70 years would know (remind us to tell you about the Thai Sophie Tucker at the German beer garden), show us a Bangkok few farangs have seen, and make this one of our most memorable trips. The name they’ve given me, Alee, should instead be given to them for it means, “giving and generous.”

Click on the photo at right to see lots of more from the markets,  the Loy Krathong  festival, an eco-Ploject Wunway fashion show, Wat Pho, food (of course), and other random shots from Bangkok.

Alan Works, Harriet Does Not

Alan is up early, putting on his SBIR shirt and good shoes, reviewing materials, practicing a few words of Thai, readying his materials. We have “American” breakfasts and then get on the road to work… er.. first to the bakery where our hosts load up on the little cakes and pastries that we never see again. We drive to the “base” which is…rustic. There’s a lot of sitting around and sodas and waiting for who knows who or what. As the week progresses, we will learn there is a good deal of that. Everyone is very friendly. Eung is “one of the guys” and shoots the breeze with the brass. By the end of day two, I’m cracking jokes with one of them. Of course, he’s three sheets to the wind after Happy Multi-Hour, which started for him at 3:00, so he thinks I’m hysterical. Pink is feeding everyone snacks. Alan has lots of work tales to tell that are probably best not shared on the web.

Eung, Pink and I begin our ladies’ day out. First stop, the dried fish shop. I’m into it. Totally into it. My favorite is the long, thin-as-potato-chip variety with a smoky BBQ flavor, but I do like the jerky-like curls as well. Then, since it has been almost two hours since breakfast, we head to lunch in Pattaya where Eung and Pink order up seven (count ‘em, SEVEN) dishes plus sticky rice. For the three of us.

They take me to the magnificent, 20-story Temple of Truth which is built (rather, in the process of being built) without a single nail, and I join an English-speaking tour guide; a couple very fun older German guys whom I enjoy until I realize they’ve hired Thai “wives” for the week; and a young Cypriat interested in Buddhism who is thrilled I can speak a few words of Russian including, “Excuse me please, where is the toilet?” and “What is that? That is a lamp.”  (Click on the photo at right to see more from the temple .)

Eung and Pink are bored with the tour. I am completely enthralled watching the artisans sculpt this teak and redwood temple that has yet to be completed after 30 years. They decide it’s time for us to get massages. Really, really, really good massages. Oh, I am a happy executive wife-equivalent. Later, they may suspect I am less enthusiastic about visiting the outlet shopping mall, but Eung needs to pick up a few things so I try to act interested. I’m tempted to buy a Wacoal bra for a mere $12 but don’t want to risk the humiliation if they give me that look of “we no sell XXXL size for farang who has had too much sticky rice and chicharones.” I want to tell them I’m just retaining a little extra water from so many salted fish treats, but we all know that’s not true.

The next few days and nights Alan and I try to look interested in everything, but not too interested because Rep, Eung and Pink will buy whatever it is we look at too intently or order another dish of something and shovel it on our plates. There is also a lot of sitting around and killing time watching other people sit around and kill time; there is a lot of being plied with soft drinks and water and snacks courtesy of Pink and the Royal Thai Navy; there is a lot of smiling and nodding and joking around; there is Alan’s unending patience around work (be sure to ask him his lucky number story); there are too many enormous meals; and there is a lot of driving.


We spend time at Eung’s office – although we don’t know why – and see some of her products. She owns a company that manufactures and sells armor (protective vests, helmets, etc.) to the police and military. Some women love shoes. Eung loves guns. We see several from her very large personal collection – not small pistols one might carry in a little clutch purse for self-protection – but big, honkin’ Lugers, a few semi-automatics and a couple of revolvers.  And those were just the ones in her  desk. She and Pink laugh a lot. She makes me laugh; she makes me a bit sad. Pink mothers her (and everyone else) a bit. I think she and I both worry about Eung’s need to down several Singhas every night although I think I understand why. Stories about her previous career available off-line.

We’ve been treated extremely well, and Alan has more than earned every baht they’ve spent on us. He is tired. It has been a very full week.

Back To Bangkok

We’re still half asleep but it’s a quick, easy ride to the Vientiane airport at 6:00 a.m. There’s a very nice Canadian (of course) guy in front of us at check-in who’s trying to reallocate his books and papers in order not to exceed the weight limit. Later, we have an interesting conversation about the weeklong international conference on UXO that just wrapped up in Vientiane. I learn more about the treaty (which the big players – the US among them – did not sign);  the use of bombies in recent and ongoing conflicts today;  and the manufacturing of “safe” bombies. It is a mind-blowing (no pun intended) concept to me.

We touch down in Bangkok a few hours later and Alan’s wonderful work rep is there to greet us. Phase Two  of our trip has begun.

After a series of cell phone exchanges, we meet the two women who the rep has arranged to “take care of” me. We have no idea how or if they’re related to Rep or their role other than “software engineer’s partner handler.” They’re both dressed very, very casually. Eung is 44 and looks 30-something, I think, and very pretty. Pink, as I call her because she is wearing rose colored, skinny jeans, is 59. “Harriet” is impossible to pronounce so we shorten it to “Hallee” and eventually to “Alee.” We meet. They proceed to talk only to each other. I’m thinking this is going to be a very long, awkward week.

Alan and Rep climb into the front seat of the SUV. Eung and Pink open the back doors and, like women everywhere, they think they are fat and indicate that I should sit in the middle on the hump. Of course, they are not fat at all. Pink still looks good in her skinny jeans. Eung is thin and 4 inches taller than me. However, after not having passed up a single grain of sticky rice all month, by the time we fly out of Bangkok, I will have made up the 4 inches in girth.

Within minutes, Pink opens a big Tupperware bowl of sliced fruit that tastes something like a mild apple with a less dense texture. Then she cuts open a yellow pomegranate with juicy seeds the size of peanut M&Ms. Eung explains that Pink is always eating, cooking or talking about food. Over the course of the week I will learn that this is an understatement. (Note to Marla, Richard, Gayle: Another sibling in Thailand?) Alan and Rep make small talk. The women talk almost non-stop. They are loud and rowdy. They laugh easily, often and loudly. Later, I find out they thought I was 10 years younger. Funny – I never thought of a gray ponytail and pair of Tevas as age-defying fashion.

We drive almost two hours on a 6-lane freeway until it narrows, lane by lane, and we find ourselves in the bowels of Pattaya. We drive through the ugly, traffic-clogged streets lined with tawdry hotels, German beer gardens, massage parlors, discos, billboards for cheap high-rise condominiums, souvenir shops and loud motorbikes that carry scantily clad, bulging, sunburned Europeans. The two-story  McDonald’s stands out as one of the most attractive buildings. Honestly.

I’m grateful not to have been in one of the minivans of our recent excursions, but I have been sitting in a tuk-tuk, then on a plane, and now on the middle bump and my ass is killing me. Rep wants to continue the driving tour through Hell and it takes another 45 minutes before we reach the waterfront restaurant. The first Singha is poured (over ice) and I realize that after less than half a glass, I’m already getting a buzz. I think I should at least wait until I get a little food in me, but the more I drink, the less I feel my aching buttocks. The first dish comes out. It is green papaya salad, this time with less lemongrass than its Lao cousin, but with more lime juice and chiles. Forget my butt; I can’t feel my lips.

It makes Rep and the women very happy that I can – and do – eat like a water buffalo. They are very pleased with Alan’s capacity as well, but we later learn that Eung can drink him – and pretty much anyone we know – under the table.

We pile back into the SUV after the papaya salad; cotton fish in garlic and ginger; delicate greens; rice; fish in spicy garlic oyster sauce; a heaping platter of huge crabs; another fish that’s poached with garlic, ginger and chiles in a rich broth and ends up in our soup bowls; salacca, another fruit with a slightly floral orange mango flavor, floating in a simple syrup; and probably a few other things, but I’ve been sucking down diluted Singha beers through my singed lips and can’t remember much at this point and have begun to pray we’re now on the way to our hotel.

Eung, Pink and I take our positions. Eung asks, “You have enough?” to which I reply “Too much” and pat my bulging belly. Not five seconds later, Pink whips the top off the Tupperware and starts in on the sliced fruit again. The three of us burst into hysterics. Okay, I’m going to have a good time with these women.


We’ve been up since 4:30 a.m. It’s now after 2 p.m. Sattahip is about 30 kilometers south of Pattaya. I can make it another 45 minutes. Oh, but wait. Rep first wants to take us to their famous zoological gardens. It is a Thai Disneyland/botanical garden/zoo/“cultural center”/amusement park filled with everything from fields of fake pink flamingos to drugged baby tigers; model stupas, pagodas and temples; a forest built out of stacked flower pots; and two different shows of colorful dancers, traditional music, Thai boxing and elephants painting pictures, playing soccer and throwing darts. How many Singhas did we have anyway? Probably not enough.

We are thrilled to finally reach the Navy hotel in sleepy, peaceful Sattahip. The décor is nautical of course, but the color scheme is powder puff pink. There’s a Popeye statue out front. Vandenburg, it is  not.

Vientiane Again

About this time in our trip, we often start to have a little food craving for something back home. It’s usually a fresh salad or maybe something Mexican. This time, we’re really not craving anything, but we can’t resist the idea of ice cream sundaes on this warm summer night. So we walk up the steps to the brightly lit shop with a very familiar logo, and a smiling young woman in her sporty uniform opens the door for us. As we enter, the entire staff – we count 5 guys behind the counter, 4 girls running the tables, as if we were in an “It’s a Small World” ride/sushi bar – say in cheery unison, “Blah, blah, blah (rather “brah, brah, brah”)… sesanes.”  Translation: “Something, something, something… welcome to Swensen’s.”

Alan convinces me to spend the extra $70 to forego the “taxi to bridge to immigration to bus to second tuk-tuk to second bus to second tuk-tuk to Udon Thani (Thailand) overnight to tuk-tuk to airport” itinerary in favor of flying directly from Vientiane back to Bangkok. I succumb. I’m getting soft in my old age.

Purchasing our air tickets turns into a lesson on Lao women in contemporary society… and a counseling session of sorts. First, we’re quoted a price that’s lower than online. Then we have a little bonding moment over the need for reading glasses. So far so good. Forty-five minutes later we’ve learned about marriages, infidelities, divorces, Bollywood videos, self-sufficiency, teenage sexuality, and asthma. There is Kleenex involved. Long story.

We walk several kilometers to That Luang, resting place of the Buddha’s breastbone and the most important sight in Laos. It is impressive. Hundreds of booths are being set up in the surrounding area and we return later that evening to see them filled with clothing, cheap goods (a lot of shampoo, lotions, soy sauce and underwear), and carnival games. There are a couple huge sound stages, several gigantic blow-up “jumpies” and slides for kids, food vendors, and thousands of individuals and families strolling about. There are few, if any, farangs besides us. This is just the warm-up for the “real” celebration that takes place at the end of the month. After a couple of steamed pork buns for appetizers, we choose one of the streetside restaurants for a simple, but tasty, final dinner in Laos.

Click on the photo of the Buddha to see more from Vientiane.



There isn’t a cheap flight. There isn’t a flight, period. Back on the bus. Seven hours. We can do this. We’re first to be picked up by a new-ish minivan and score the choicest seats. We’re psyched. Okay, well, we’re not psyched but we’re not in a state of total dread.

For six hours, we drive nothing but hairpin turns with one-room bamboo houses dotting the roadsides in what seems like the middle of nowhere. We stop once for a short toilet and snack break at a little village in the mountains. A young woman pumps out tuna sandwiches at twice the speed of your most efficient Subway employee. We stop a second time along with all the other minibuses, cyclists and buses for lunch in a little crossroads town. The “market” is maybe 50 feet long. The “bus stop” food is remarkably good and cheap. The toilets, however, are squats. Grateful that I have strong thighs…

The final hour, the road begins to straighten, the landscape changes to more gentle slopes; the driver dodges more little pigs and cows than chickens; the temperature drops. We’re close.

The relatively new city has all the charm of a strip mall. It’s a hodge podge of neo-Lao concrete buildings, old wooden shops, markets filled with cheap goods from China, and a smattering of hotels and guest houses. Ours is off the main drag, behind what used to be an airstrip. Built by the owner when he was a child 20-plus years ago, the two-story French colonial home sits beside the restaurant/bar and a half dozen cottages. We’re lucky to nab the the last one. En suite bathroom. 60,000 kip. About $7.50. Score.

After checking in, we continue our education about Laos, the Secret War, and UXO (unexploded ordinances) with a visit to the MAG center. We drop some money there. Not enough. It can never be enough. We’re in the province most heavily bombed in the war. The US dropped more than 2 millions tons of bombs here — more than on Germany and Japan combined in WWII. Thirty-five years later, the bombing of this peaceful place continues with UXO being inadvertently detonated by farmers, scrap metal collectors, pond diggers and children.

In the morning, we take a spin through the market  to buy our picnic supplies and snacks for the day. We drive to see lots of bomb craters and our first UXO in situ. Here, our happy-go-lucky guides who speak excellent English from watching HBO, take a more serious tone. There is no animosity toward the U.S. now, but there is a very reasonable frustration that efforts/money to deal with UXO are slow and small. There is a well-founded fear that his own newborn daughter and her generation will likely live their entire lives as a potential victims.


Our first trek is to a quiet little village where bombshells have been used to build house supports, troughs, planters, fencing and more. There are scores of very young children around who attend school and/or take care of the house, younger siblings and animals while the older children and adults are busy with the rice harvest, several kilometers away.

The two Austrians, two Swiss, one Scot and one German-Scot, ein Berliner, the two from Uruguay and the two of us pile back into our minivans and drive to the start of our hike up to the waterfall. After our picnic lunch, I have my very first little leech experience. Both leech and experience are small. The hike is spectacular.

We end the afternoon at the Plain of Jars. We’re intrigued by the mystery of how and why these gigantic stone jars exist — as are archaeologists — and the jars themselves are pretty cool, but I am a bit underwhelmed by the site itself. There could, however, be dozens or even hundreds more jars. Again, the presence of UXO hamper the discovery process. With funding from NZAID, UNESCO and others, MAG has cleared 127 UXO and provided markers to keep visitors on safe paths through the site. Laos will remain a poor country until all the UXO are eradicated. It is impossible to develop without an infrastructure, and that requires building the basics like roads, irrigation systems, schools, shelter. 

Our tour concludes at the guest house restaurant  where Kong’s wife has turned out another fantastic meal for the group. Following dinner, we watch a fascinating PBS documentary about the Secret War and UXO. What surprises me more than anything is that we’re still using cluster bombs (“bombies”). I can make it through only half of the second video which documents the work of one of an Aussie-based recovery/removal team. I’m already obsessed (had you not already noticed). It’s not until the next morning we realize our tour coincided with Veteran’s Day in the U.S.

Click on the thumbnail of Alan examining the herbage to see more photos from Phonsavanh.When you have a few extra minutes (and surely you must if you’re slogging through this blog),please check out the MAG website to learn more about their life-saving work and mission to change the legacy of Laos.