Tuesday, June 23, 2009

De-Laosing 2: Home Sickle

My two times in to the country now it has struck me that Laos seems to have a very specialized industry. While it is true that a lot of countries rely on tourism to support them, Laos seems to have carved a very specialized niche for itself: It caters to the Visa run. As the closest foreign country to Bangkok according to maps I may not have looked at too closely, it seems like the number one reason why anyone goes to Vientiane is so they can go back to Bangkok for a while longer yet.

Laos is an interesting country. In people and food it is so mingled with Thailand and the Thais to be fairly indistinguishable, the two people (and languages and foods) sharing common ancestry among the Khmer and later Kingdoms. Vientiane could be a spruced up Thai city in one of the provinces, large but certainly not Bangkok. There is an almost charming feel of having not left...

Ok, so there might be a couple of differences.

One gets to Vientiane from Bangkok one of several ways. Driving, whether in one's own automobile or in a bus (which I did the second time), taking the train from Hualampung Station in the city, or flying out of Suvarnabhumi airport. This also ends the spelling test preparation, make sure you took notes and have studied the words for Friday.

The first time I went I took a 2nd Class sleeper train, which left the station at 8 PM. On a 2nd Class sleeper train you sit on seats normally until you (or the other person you share a berth with) want to sleep, at which point the magic happens. The two seats fold together and get a mattress over them to form the lower berth, and the top one pops out of a compartment on the ceiling. Maybe all sleeper trains are this magical, this is the only one I've been on as an adult. Magic I sadly do not have a picture of.

But I do have a picture of the train so you can get an idea of the layout I'm talking about. Which is really necessary, unless you generally know what a train looks like and having a fairly good imagination. Ok, so entirely unnecessary, but still: Photo time.

Picture Related. Haha.

In that picture you can see a guy from England whose name I forgot in blue, and a hot Canadian who didn't seem particularly interested in talking to me in the red shirt. So, being barred from hitting on the hot Canadian or her friend (apparently Canadians, like Geese, travel to warmer climes in flocks), I instead drank beers with the Brits.

They were a hoot, and the evening passed well. What would ultimately cause my second trip out was the two hours we spent waiting at one stop, doing nothing except...waiting. Daring eachother to walk across the tracks to the 7-11...and waiting more. We were told we were waiting for passengers, which I feel fairly unaccountable unless the passengers were Jesus and Buddha coming back from an all night bender. Given the unlikelihood, I think there must have been another reason unknown to us.

When you pull in to the border town of Nong Khai you then make your way to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (or the Lao-Thai FB, depending on the side), which is exactly what it says on the tin: A bridge across the Mekong river. You get your passport stamped on the Thai side, and then arrange taxi or take the shuttle across the border in to Laos.

The Mekong is not an unimpressive river to say the least, and that picture was actually snapped on the way back to Thailand (in the interest of full disclosure), not having been in a position to get a good picture going across the first time. Once in to Laos you go to Lao Immigration where you pay them 1,500 baht (40 bucks) to get in to the country for up to a month, plus one dollar (35 baht) if you are not there between 8 AM and 4 PM. If you are actually staying a month 40(41) dollars doesn't seem bad, but for three days it seemed somewhat excessive.

You then drive in to the city, and are at liberty. It takes 2 business days to get a Visa, you drop off morning A and pick it up afternoon B, and that was the problem with waiting two hours for Jesus and Buddha's All Night Party Train: We didn't get in before they stopped taking Passports for Visas that morning.

Like many formerly colonial countries Vietnam has a great deal of foreign heritage still left in it. A part of French-Indochina before they gained their independence, they have a great lingual legacy still lingering in their streets and avenues. The palace for the former French representative is now owned by the state, and the street signs come language enabled for your convenience.

Hos in different Country Codes...

My French classes come in handy.

This also comes out in the food. This is the view of Nam Phou, the city Fountain, from the view of Le Provencal, a very lovely French/Italian fusion kind of restaurant right on the fountain square.

And this is a view of the Fountain itself.
Of course, that is not to say that there is not Asian heritage or blood running through Vientiane's streets. As with the other countries in the region Monks walking down the streets are not uncommon, and the temples are also major tourist attractions. Ho Phra Keo is a temple, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, although the Emerald Buddha was taken back (re: swiped) by Thailand some centuries ago and now resides in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew. I have been there, I went with Nathan, but unfortunately like many major Buddhist relics it is considered rude to snap pictures of said viridian enlightened one.

Also, a quick primer on Buddhism. If I say 'Buddha', what do you think of. If you answered 'a rotund gentleman, frequently in gold, who does not look like he has ever starved himself let alone done so until the secrets of the Universe were revealed'...

The Good Life

Then I have bad news for you. The fat guys are totally different Bodhisatvas, enlightened ones. The real Buddha is not a chubby grinning man, he is a much more wise looking skinny fellow of an Indian aspect...

Who is not afraid to show off a little bit of nipple. Now Buddha is a big part of Southeast Asia, and they are a little bit less shy about showing him than Christians. Which seems remarkable, given Churches do not exactly shy away from the Iconography. But one of the temples in Vientiane, Wat Sisaket, puts them to shame. It is like the International Headquarters of Iconographical Overload (IHIO? So close to a functional acronym).

Consider the following picture:

Now first off, yes they have dressed that Buddha. One of the ways in which Buddhists (at least in this area) make merit (good deeds for good karma) is to play Buddha Dream House with the statues and clothe them, and leave them offerings (as the bottle of Guiness two posts ago). But pay attention to the nooks behind them: Each one contains two smaller Buddhas, just kind of hanging out. Now take a look at this:

Now imagine the whole temple, every outside wall, covered in the big Buddhas and the small Buddhas in the nooks. Rather than make you try to torture though the math, I'll give you the approximate figures from Wat Sisaket themselves:

In ur templez, Enlightening ur peoplez

10,136 Buddhas all chilling out in one place, staring at one another and hi-fiving when no one is looking. Think they're a little Buddhist?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Absolutely Killing Me


An Interlude of Politics

Before I go any further let me first establish my liberal credentials. I voted for Kerry in 2004, I voted for Obama in 2008, and I have never voted for a Republican in a local, municipal or national race. I donated money to Howard Dean in 2004, and then Obama this last year. I was at the DNC when he gave his speech, and I was moved when he won in November.

I think that George W. Bush was one of the worst Presidents in recent memory, and I disagree with the stated platforms of the current incarnation of the Republican party. I am pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and pro-welfare. I believe in the truly conservative value of the government not being able to tell me who I can or can't have sex with, not being able to tell me I have to pray in school or listen to prayers, and not being able to post any kind of religion in any kind of state building. I opposed George Bush's policies on almost every front, except for the one time I applauded him: When he raised veteran's benefits and made that change retroactive to the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan.

So I cannot tell you how angry I am at my fellow liberals at the moment because they put me in the very awkward position of having to defend the man. But here I go:

If I hear one more person whine on the internet about how the Iranian Presidential Election scandal is exactly the same as the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election, I am going to have to open up a can of Grade A Whoop-Ass, ok?

Told you it was Grade A

I was as pissed as anyone when the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Bush v Gore. I felt like the election had been stolen, like the voices of the American people had been silenced by cronyism and vote buying, like fraud and corruption had replaced freedom and democracy as the catch words of the American Republic.

But let us all look to Iran and realize that we didn't, even for a moment, know what a stolen election looked like. It's like when you get your first tooth ache and think there is no pain greater than this, and then you get your wisdom teeth out and realize you were wrong. And then you get shot, and realize that once again you had no idea what you were talking about. But the 2000 U.S. Election is not the tooth ache to Iran's being shot; it is the paper cut to Iran's being hit by a bus after being shot.

At the end of the day the 2000 election still came down to the corrupting of 500,000 votes in one state. George Bush by himself, with only the regular corruption inherent in politics, managed to get 50 million, four hundred fifty six thousand and two people to vote for him on nothing more than his own dubious credentials. Out of roughly one hundred million voters, any fraud or coercion in our election came down to half of a percentage point of the total number of voters in the election.

Estimates vary in Iran right now as to the spread of the corruption, influence or lies with the official party line of course being that there were none. However a large number of scholars and journalists have come out and made varying estimates. One estimate, from a professor at the University of Hawaii, estimates that the numbers could be off by something like six million votes, our of a total voting population of 38 million. That is over 15 percent of the total votes cast, if they are true.

In the weeks leading up to the election there had also been campaigns of direct and possibly targeted censorship, which many charge were at the directive of the Government. Wikipedia cites Al Jazeera English charging that the Iranian government forced them to " change their editorials or their main headlines". The BBC had a reporter arrested and his files stolen, and several other nations suffered similar harrasment to their press and correspondents working in Tehran.

Furthermore the government cracked down on sites such as Facebook, which the opposition parties were using to form rallies and protests to gather support for the election. Once again from the inimitable Wikipedia: "On 13 June 2009, when thousands of opposition supporters clashed with the police, Facebook was filtered again...mobile phone services inluding text messaging also stopped or became very difficult to use. Specifically, all websites affiliated with the BBC were shut off, as were ones with The Guardian. The Associated Press labeled the actions "ominous measures apparently seeking to undercut liberal voices." The restrictions were likely intended to precent Mousavi's supporters from organizing large-scale protests."

This is in addition to the already standard censorship in Iran, where anything related to 'counter-revolutionary' ideas (democracy, women's rights, freedom of religion, words you can make from the letters in Ahmadinejad) are routinely deleted or forced to change. In the 1980s a death sentence was given for the creators of a radio program in which a female caller said she most idolized a Japanese soap star, rather than the daughter of Mohammed. So this is not a country that is new to censorship, which makes these acts even more blaring. And most ominously Ahmadinejad said about the protests over the censorship: ""[d]on't worry about freedom in Iran... Newspapers come and go and reappear. Don't worry about it."

I genuinely feel like the voices of a lot of Americans were left out during the 2000 U.S. Presidential Elections, and I genuinely feel that there were a lot of wrong decisions made and terrible consequences that came from them. We were left worse off for the election, in my opinion, and it cast a shadow of illegitimacy over our government and even made it's way to the forefront during the 2004 election. An election was decided by the courts, not the people, and that is never a great situation.

And yet they were decided within the bounds of the law and the Constitution of the United States. In the end the merits and flaws were debated over by scholars, and the men charged to be independent of their parties in the interpretation of our laws; and while I may not agree with the decision, I do not doubt that they were the legitimate source to decide it. I disagree with the interpretation, not the interpreters. While the election might have been given away and might have damaged our nation, we can not say it was stolen.

A stolen election is 15 percent of the votes disappearing or changing sides. A stolen election is when the government decides to keep itself in power, and violently suppress opposition to that move. A stolen election is when any media source that dares to side with the opposition is silenced, blacked out, or arrested. We had no concept of what a stolen election looked like in America, and we still have only ever maybe had the one (the Corrupt Bargain that ended Reconstruction).

So dammit Liberals, don't ever put me in this position again. George Bush did not steal the 2000 election, he blundered his way in to the Oval Office. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a George Bush that speaks Farsi, he is an entirely different animal. Let us not sully our own politics and our own history with the comparison, and let us not be so blind to the realities of the world and the suffering of our brothers and sisters a world a way.

And please, please don't ever make me defend George W. Bush again, alright? I'm wearing a red shirt today and defending George W. Bush and it just doesn't feel right. And if you make me do it again, you know what I'll have to do.

De-Laosing Part 1: Penang

Ok, so I did manage to get one more Laos joke out of the way, but I really do think I am spent now. So here are more pictures, although I still haven't gotten around to doing New Year's Eve in Bangkok yet. That will either be later this week or next, and I apologize for the anachronistic order. Fortunately a large number of my readers are comfortable with anachronisms. Har har.

But first...on February 25th I had to do my first Visa run, and rather than doing the normal destinations of Vientiane (Laos) or Phnom Penh (Cambodia), I found a special on Air Asia for round trip tickets to Penang, one of the major cities in Malaysia. I figured I would have ample opportunity to visit Laos (which I now have, excessively) and Cambodia later. So I hopped on a plane and winged my way to the island of Penang.

Malaysia was a fascinating trip. Like most of the other areas in Asia that had been colonies to Western powers it is an intriguing mix of cultures and histories co-existing. On one street through Georgetown, which is the capital of the island, there are two Mosques, an Anglican Church and a Chinese clan/spirit house. Proximity to China, the English colonization and the fact that according to the government all ethnic Malays are Muslim lead us to a fascinating confluence of cultures.

Of course one of the fun things about going anywhere outside of the U.S. or England is having fun with local signs translated into English. Of course there are no doubt blogs out there with people from Mexico laughing at the warning sings in Spanish we have posted in the U.S., so it all tends to balance out in the end I suppose.

I don't have any pictures of my hotel room, because it's kind of what I like to call 'Generic Cheap Chic'. Four white walls, a fan and an ugly bedspread is all it takes to get me in for the night when I'm on the road. One of the delightful benefits of being 23 is that without a significant other or child to plan for I can just book in to a cheap shack and be out the next morning to get the show on the road. Of course sometimes morning means 11 AM...but that is still morning, darn it.

I also don't have any pictures of the Thai Consulate because...yeah. The Consular section was boring, and they don't let you in to the pretty parts. So after spending Thursday morning getting my Passport submitted for a Visa, I went to play the part of the tourist. First off I hit the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, the Khoo family Clan House. It is quiet, with a sort of restrained elegance, a subtle air about it.


Or not. It is pretty awesome, though. If your clan's spirits are going to live there for all eternity and watch over you and their other descendants, you might as well bling up the place. This is the Chinese Buddhist equivalent of spinning rims and big gold electroplated crosses. Penang, gangster style.

It is pretty impressive, however. Part temple, part shrine and part booster club, it also serves as part graveyard. Tucked away in one of the other buildings to one side of the Palace de Bling up above, is the memorial to past members of the family.

And here is a close-up on them:

It is actually very interesting to be in. You pay 5 Malaysian Ringitt to get in (about $1.50), which does give it a mildly mercenary feeling, but there is a lot of history here. Some interesting paintings that were too large to get any kind of good snapshot of, shrines and pictures and incense to be lit and all sorts of history going on in the building.

The Eight Immortals

One of the most unique buildings I have been in, and I am quickly racking up unique buildings.

Next I went to a couple of mosques. As I said there were two on the street that the Khoo Spirit house and the Anglican church. I didn't get too many pictures of the first one because it was not architecturally interesting. I walked up to a gate and let myself in to this small mosque on the end of the street, and the two old men inside paid me absolutely no notice. They wandered around for a bit, and then went to sleep. I took this as a sign that it was ok to explore, rather than that this tubby white boy wandering around was so boring as to drop them in to a coma.

Part of the Muslim service involves ritual cleaning before prayer, and mosques have pools set up for the faithful to do this in (segregated in to different pools for men and women). This is the pool at the first mosque.

The second mosque I went to was advertised on WikiTravel and in local pamphlets as being the mosque that handles tourists, a must see to stop by on the way so I went to do so. I managed to get one good picture, and about only one good picture. Not because it wasn't architecturally interesting, however.

I thought that was a particularly compelling and interesting feature to be set up in the windows of a mosque. You can't see it, but those windows wrap all the way around a kind of central dome raised from the roof of the mosque. From memory I would say there were about sixteen of the windows, sixteen green tinted Star of David windows letting in light to Penang's premier mosque.

Now I did say that I only got the one picture, and not because of a lack of interesting architecture. I only got the one picture because shortly after taking it I was very politely thrown out of the mosque. Apparently the central area that I was traipsing through is reserved only for muslims at this locale. I later found a tour through the rest of the mosque, but I can still say that I have been escorted out of a mosque which is fun. It is also interesting that the tourist mosque wouldn't let me wander around willy nilly and had a security guard, but the out of the way 'non tourist' one had two sleeping men who didn't care enough to not take a nap about my wanderings. Life is fun.

So then I wandered down to the Anglican church. The oldest Anglican church in South-East Asia (which seems, upon reflection, to be similar to claiming to be the richest white Jew in my apartment building, but sounds more impressive), it was...church-shaped and surprisingly boring. For a church that came out of decades of bloody fighting and on the backs of several decapitated Queens (Crown, not drag) they seemed to stick to pretty austere buildings.

After this I did stop by a couple of Buddhist temples, in a couple of different locations. My apartment was right in Chinatown, so I was literally next door to one and there were several on the street that included the mosque and the church.

One of the unique aspects to Buddhism, which it shares with animistic religions, is the nature of the offerings to Buddhe/the spirits. While Jews once sacrificed bulls in the temple and Christians and Muslims give to charity and donate to the church for spiritual means, Buddhist offerings different. They are actually concerned with giving the Buddha or their ancestors comforts from the real world, things that they would have appreciated while they were here. Offerings of food are common, in case they got hungry I suppose.

But at the Buddhist temple right next to my hotel I saw the best thing ever. I almost converted on the spot right there, simply on the promise that someday one of my descendants might leave me this offering, to help ease my soul in the afterlife and let me know that they were thinking of me. It was a religious experience. It stood there like some kind of divine artifact, drawing me in.

Yeah baby. I think I'm a convert.