We Went to Laos

So we went to Laos. More properly, we went to Luang Prabang, the old capital in the north, which is a place that makes you feel like you are a city slicker if you are from Bangkok. While it is chock full of tourists, of the sort that seem to avoid Bangkok entirely, it is still laid back and there’s not very much going on there, which is nice if you’re looking for a vacation. The center of the old town – which is a peninsula between two rivers, the larger of which is the Mekong – is under UNESCO control, which is probably why it seems more attractive than any other southeast Asian city I can think of – the closest comparison would be Siem Reap, but that feels insanely hectic compared to Luang Prabang, mostly because of all the package tours going to see Angkor Wat. There is not, strictly speaking, very much to see in Luang Prabang, but it is a very pleasant place. In the middle of town is a hill, Mt. Phousi, which gives you a nice view across the Nam Khan, the smaller of the two rivers:

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There’s not a lot of development, which is vaguely shocking coming from Bangkok, where such waterfront would be quickly lined with poorly constructed condos. Though it’s generally hard to tell, Laos is still officially a communist country, and they’re a little slow to catch up with the hypercapitalism of the region. Also, of course, the country was extremely thoroughly bombed by the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s, which didn’t help very much, though it did provide some nice flower pots:

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Luang Prabang is up in the Annamite mountains, which means there’s a lot of mist in the mountains. The Mekong is extremely wide and muddy:

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There are plenty of tuk-tuks which pleased Harriet:

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And a lot of Khmer-seeming nagas:

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There’s a festival coming up and everyone was busy making nagas out of paper and bamboo; these are floated down a river, I think. Here are some from last year, a bit weathered:

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The lions in the wats don’t often look very leonine, but they are reliably well-fed with sticky rice:

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Harriet was very pleased to discover a statue of Hanuman in front of Wat Aham:

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And I was very pleased to discover that Namkhong Beer is brewed with water that’s up to World Health Organization standards:

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There are restaurants where you can eat delicious food or look out over the river:

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And you can get paddled across the smaller of the two rivers, which Harriet enjoyed:

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After tromping around Luang Prabang and eating too many baguettes we went off to see the Kuang Si Falls, which are south of the city. There’s a bear sanctuary there for rescued bears – Laos, for all of its charms, has a pretty terrible record on wildlife preservation & there’s a thriving trade in bear bile – but somehow we forgot to take any pictures of the bears. They looked much like other bears we’ve seen, perhaps slightly more sleepy. One gets a bit apprehensive when you hear about a bear sanctuary in southeast Asia, but this seemed like a nice one. Anyway, we were not there to see bears, we were there to see the waterfalls, which cascade down a mountain, creating pools for swimming. The current is a little strong – I lost my second pair of flip-flops on the trip there – but it is extremely pleasant.

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When you leave the waterfalls you can buy more flip-flops (this was maybe a little suspicious, but not very) and then we went off to see a butterfly sanctuary, which was full of butterflies. My feet were attacked first by fish:

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Then by butterflies:

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It is hard to take good pictures of butterflies with my telephone. One might also note what terrible taste in flip-flops Harriet has. They did have some fine butterflies though, you’ll have to imagine them. After admiring the butterflies, we took our songthaew back to town, which Harriet was pleased by:

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The next day we took a boat down the Mekong to see the Pak Ou caves. On the way we stopped at the village of Ban Xang Hai, where tourists are sold lao-lao, which is rice whiskey, almost insanely cheap. One is encouraged to buy bottles of it with snakes, scorpions, or both, but we bought it without, then forgot to drink it, and had it taken away by customs when leaving the country. Alas. Bang Xang Hai does have a lovely wat:

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And the nagas are well fed, though how a snake is supposed to get a ball of rice off its nose without any hands is not clear to me. Maybe they feed each other? I don’t know.

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The Pak Ou caves themselves are a set of caves along the Mekong where people have been setting up Buddhas for a long time:

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They are relatively nice, though most of the pleasure in going to see them is just taking a boat slowly down the Mekong:

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It was a bit like our trip up the river in Myanmar; and the caves with Buddhas were a bit like the caves with Buddhas we went and saw outside of Kampot in Cambodia. But still, pleasant. After getting back, we went to spend a couple of days up in the mountains outside of Luang Prabang, which you can see in the distance here:

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The mountains were nice! though there is not very much to do there. We went for a lot of walks and did a lot of swimming and I read a lot of Henry James (The Other House, not so good). Also we ate more baguettes. The roads around there are lined with the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica:

There are a lot of these! You can’t see it in that video, but sometimes you’ll touch one leaf and other leaflets on the same plant will close up, making it seem like the plant has a nervous system. Also growing wild are what look an awful lot like poinsettias, though those aren’t native to the region:

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That concludes the botany portion of this blog post. It is very pretty in the mountains:

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Also Harriet found a dead snake:

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They have a lot of dead snakes in Laos – there was another one on the street in Luang Prabang as well as all the ones drowned in lao-lao – but we didn’t see any live ones. We took a very long walk around the local village, Ban Xiang Nouak, which almost ended in disaster. It started out very nicely:

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But as you can see from that photo it was already the golden hour, and we kept wandering on and on until it was dark and we found ourselves in a confusing banana plantation in the dark. So we turned around and went on an equally long walk back, this time in the dark, and just as we were about to get back to our hotel we were met by a search party. Success all around!

The next morning we met a very large praying mantis:

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And after a lot of nonsense involving telephones at the airport which I won’t dwell upon we came back to Bangkok. The end. Oh, somewhere in there we also went to the national ballet where they performed part of the Lao version of the Ramayana, which Harriet enjoyed, but we didn’t get any pictures of that. It was about what you’d expect the Lao ballet to look like? If you are a small child interested in the Ramayana you should go. If not, you might take a pass without missing too much. But that’s mostly what happened.

A Weekend at the Atlanta

Somehow we have never really stayed at a hotel in Bangkok. This is a little confusing as we have been here for two years and you’d think something would have happened, but no. There was the time we were flooded out of our apartment and were sent upstairs to stay in another apartment, but that wasn’t really a hotel. And certainly people visiting us have stayed at the hotel part of the Chatrium and we have taken the breakfast there but we have not stayed there. So having a long weekend and being blissfully free of ambition we decided to take the boat (and other modes of transport, not pictured) to a hotel in Bangkok, the Atlanta Hotel.

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The Atlanta Hotel is a confusing place, which you might get a sense of from its website. They gave us a reservation (it is not expensive) though we did have some qualms about whether we would manage to keep our child under control to their exacting specifications, and we were not sure whether we qualified as “cultured occidentals”. Do we have too much of an air of “post-modern primitivism” about us? That seems like a charge that could be levied. Anyway, we found the place:

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And then we checked in and were given the first in a huge number of paper coasters for drinks which give a sense of what the Atlanta is like:

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Basically it is the Nightingale-Olympic of Bangkok hotels, if the Nightingale-Olympic was overrun with stray cats, turtles, and a stray dog, as well as being covered in a great deal of signage. If George Leonard Herter started a hotel, it would probably turn out very much like the Atlanta. The lobby is splendid and features some incongruous bronze dachshunds:

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Over on the left is Max Henn, the founder of the Atlanta Hotel. It is hard to tell if he is still alive, but he would be 109 if so. He had a lot of opinions, and seems to have started the hotel as a chemical company before changing his mind.

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Our adventures at the Atlanta started early: Harriet was attacked by two feral cats while we were checking in. The cats are kept out back. We had assumed they would be tame, but the Atlanta Hotel is not a cat café; that would be post-modern primitivism.

The Atlanta prides itself on keeping things the way they were and informing you about it:

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Thailand’s first children’s swimming pool has perhaps seen better days:

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As has the regular pool, though it’s still pretty splendid:

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Even at night:

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There’s a lush garden which is full of snails:

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But it was late, so we went to the restaurant.

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The restaurant was not very busy. It specializes in American food as prepared in the 1950s and Thai vegetarian food. The dinner menu is astonishing – it goes on and on for pages and pages and explains everything in excruciating detail. But you are not allowed to look at it for very long because there are only three copies of the menu and other people might need them. I would have liked to spend more time with the menu and photograph it, but those things are not allowed. The restaurant has an exciting if vague history:

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Curiously unlabeled was this stuffed cat who seemed to have had a rough time before his death:

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And there was a fine picture of more exciting days in the restaurant, when the King played jazz with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman there. The pleased young man on the right is George H. W. Bush:

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(I don’t think I was supposed to take a picture of this, so it is blurry. It’s hard to tell what the rules are at the Atlanta.) There are also a lot of magazines that you can read at dinner:

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This is almost certainly the only place in Bangkok where one can read The New Criterion while eating vegetarian food. I don’t think I’ve ever been to any restaurant that provided so many copies of The New Criterion for diners’ pleasure; there were more copies besides these. Maybe I am not going to enough conservative restaurants.

The rooms of the hotel are not so exciting, at least not the one we stayed in; possibly that’s because we wanted air conditioning. But the next morning we woke up and went swimming and then to inspect all of their turtles, who sometimes live with their cats:

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The turtles are large, if not quite so interactive as those at Wat Prayun, now more complicated to get to since they changed where the express boat stops.

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The turtles also have an extremely long explanation:

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And that is what we did at the Atlanta Hotel. Does it have, as promised, “incomparable character, charm, style and atmosphere”? Probably. Also somewhere in there Harriet was menaced by the hotel’s dog, but we didn’t get a picture of that. She didn’t want to leave.

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Maybe we will go back some time.

Last Day in Kolkata

The train from Siliguri arrived in Kolkata early in the morning, and we went back to our old hotel, where we’d rented a room for the day so we could shower and not smell as awful as we had been from surfeit of train stations and trains. Then, a day of odds and ends. We went and had breakfast at Flurys (sic.), roughly a fancy Indian equivalent of Denny’s. We admired this shrine on the corner of Park Street:

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I’m not sure who that is. We kept walking down Park Street to find a little park which had, as its sole attraction for children, this slide, made, confoundingly, of concrete, marble, and an enormous tire:

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Harriet approved. We kept going down the street to the Park Street Cemetary, a colonial collection of graves and enormous monuments to the dead in Roman style:

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Then: shopping at Fabindia, and an astonishingly delicious Bengali lunch, during which Harriet decided she wanted to get her hands painted. So she did:

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The results:

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After that, we got on the plane, and now we are in Bangkok.

Catching up: Kumartali in Kolkata

One of the things that we did while in Kolkata was to wander around Kumartali, a neighborhood where sculptors (kumar) make sculptures. Most, but not all of these, are statues of the ten-armed goddess Durga, made for the Durga Puja festival in September or October; some are of Kali, who might be the source of the city’s name. (We went to Kalighat, the main temple devoted to Kali, but it was night and no photography was permitted. It was slightly crazy?) But the sculptors cover straw forms with clay; the clay’s then painted. There weren’t that many close to being done when we were there, but Durga Puja is still six months off.

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A Visit to the Pig Shrine

I know everyone wants to see our visit to the Crocodile Farm over the weekend, but the photos from that are on several phones and I need to get them all in one place. But! Yesterday I went to go visit the Pig Shrine, in Thai อนุสาวรีย์ หมู, which is pronounced Ànúsǎawárii Mǔu if you need to talk about this with a Thai who does not know the English words for “monument” and “pig,” respectively. We are not afraid to be helpful here! Here’s what the pig shrine looks like:

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And here’s a closer view of the main pig, who’s been canopied, garlanded, and gilded:

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This is what the sign tells you about the Pig Shrine – this is in all capitals, but I’ve spared you that particular idiosyncrasy:

The memorial was built in the year 1913, the year of Her Majesty the Queen Sri Phatcharinthra’s 50 birthday anniversary. It has another name as Sahachat Memorial, literally means the memorial of those who were born in the same year, which were Prince Narissara Nuwattiwong, Phraya Phipat Kosa (Celestino Xavier) and Phraya Ratcha Songkhram (Kon Hongsakun). All of the three had joinly built the memorial as a gesture of gratitude to the Queen. The memorial was made of metal cast in the pig sculpture, meaning Year of the Pig which was the Queen’s year of birth, as well as the 3 donors. The designer of the memorial was Prince Narissara Nuwattiwong.

The queen in question was one of the wives of Rama V, who was the mother of Ramas VI and VII. The Snake Farm is named after her. Prince Naritsara, the designer of the monument, was Rama V’s brother and important in Thai arts and crafts.

The pig shrine is fairly popular! It is not an unfair generalization to say that Thais do love pigs, though mostly for eating. Here are a few secondary pigs:

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The pig shrine is on the western side of Rattanakosin, the royal island in the center of Bangkok. It’s across a canal from the Ministry of the Interior and the Department of Provincial Administration; though there aren’t any more protests around here, there are still barricades on the bridges across the canal:

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Okay, more soon.

Sailors at Wat Suthat

Wat Suthat is a first-class royal temple (you can see the list here), but it’s not generally visited by the non-religious, simply because there are plenty of other first-class royal temples in Bangkok, many of which are more splendid. Wat Suthat is notable because it’s close to the Giant Swing, which is more correctly a giant swingset with no swing on it; people used to swing on it, but there were fatalities, and now it is only to look at, which explains why we haven’t said anything about this until now. But. Wat Suthat is guarded by a bunch of statues of sailors, some pictures of which you may look at below. Wat Suthat was completed under King Rama III, in the early nineteenth century, and I assume that these date from then:

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Rainy season update

Today we finally remembered that Harriet has a raincoat, useful for the sort of weather we’ve been having:

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Then she had some fried pork on a stick for lunch:

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Then she paid her respects to the Chatrium’s spirit house:

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Then she decided to practice riding the Chatrium’s metal hippopotami, first Flopsy:

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And then Butter:

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It was a busy day.

Climbing Golden Mount

Golden Mount (Phu Khao Thong) is an artificial hill inside of Wat Saket. It’s composed of the dirt that used to fill some of the canals; once it was the tallest structure in Bangkok, but that hasn’t been true for years. But it’s a pleasant walk to the top, where you can see the whole city, and back down again:

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Also there are bells to ring:

The Erawan Museum

Somehow we didn’t get many photos of the Erawan Museum over the weekend despite its being one of the most obviously photographable things we’ve visited yet. It’s in Samut Prakan, the province immediately south of Bangkok; Samut Prakan also contains Ancient Siam, an enormous park containing replicas of the wonders of Thailand for people to wander around; we have not visited this yet. Like the Erawan Museum, Ancient Siam was constructed by Lek Viriyaphant, who seems to have had a lot of money and grand ideas, though this was not explained to my satisfaction at the Erawan Museum, which is an enormous building shaped like the three-headed elephant Erawan, who figures in the Hindu cosmos:

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Inside the building is a shrine and filled with religious art, both old and new: the structure is of relatively recent construction, and you can climb all the way up into the elephants. The grounds are beautiful and make for a nice escape from Bangkok. After this we went to the Bang Nam Pheung floating market, a journey partially accomplished on a rickety speed boat, but we didn’t take many pictures of that so you’ll have imagine how idyllic that was.