Mice, Monks, and Drums

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What do mice and monks have to do with one another? English conversation practice at Big Brother Mouse!

Big Brother Mouse is a Lao non-profit that works to bring Lao language books to village children who may never have owned a book before, or even been exposed to anything but a dry textbook. Laos has a big problem with illiteracy, so this is a great non-profit. (For more information, check out their website at:www.bigbrothermouse.com)

Foreigners who want to volunteer are directed to the twice-daily English conversation sessions at Big Brother Mouse. Georgina and I headed over to see whether they needed any volunteers that morning. Speaking good English is key to getting a tourism job, which for many Lao is the path to (relative) prosperity.

We were greeted by a row of six or seven young men turning expectantly towards us. Apparently we were the only volunteers that morning – no pressure! We chatted and translated and explained for two really intense, rewarding hours.

Conversation with people of such a different culture, living under a communist government, can be tricky at times. We needed to steer away from any discussion of religion (though we could ask the two young monks there about their experiences as monks). Proselytizing is illegal and you don’t want anyone to say that your explanation of a term is actually proselytizing. Ditto for politics, of course.

One of the encounters that affected me most deeply was a high school senior who spoke great English and was planning on dropping out of school to get a job. He wanted to know what I would advise him to do, because he deeply respected my opinion as a “falang” or foreigner. (After we spoke, he gave me a very respectful “nob” – the gesture of respect where you put your hands together and raise them in front of your face. The higher your hands are, the more respect you’re showing – and his were almost completely in front of his face.) Foreigners need to remember just how much their actions may influence locals, especially in developing countries.

Then there were the little funny moments of language exchange, like when I tried to explain “jumpy” and one of the guys thought it a synonym of bumpy – as exemplified by Lao roads!

Both Georgina and I were tired out when we came out of our conversation sessions. We walked around a bit and had lunch, after which I popped out briefly to visit an incredible wat she had visited the day before, Xieng Thong. The last two editions of Lonely Planet Laos have had one of its buildings on their covers, the bright pink walls covered in shiny mosaics. I honestly didn’t think the walls in the wat would be pink, but I was wrong!

The main sanctuary building is actually red, but it too is covered in shining colored mirrored glass shards within mosaics. I haven’t seen anything like it in all the was I’ve visited thus far.

There is a little smaller shrine that is pink, also covered in the mosaic work.

The sun was beating down pretty mercilessly, so I headed back to the restaurant. We left around four, and heard drumming coming from each of the wats on “Main Street”. We later found out that it’s a local tradition. Legend has it that giants used to live in the area, preying on the people of Luang Prabang. The monks made a deal with the giants, who would stop eating people as long as they got this drum tribute every day at four.

From the main street we went to a laid-back bar/restaurant/cafe called Utopia. I had heard that it was “the” place to go, so I figured it for a backpackers bar. Not the case, at least if you’re there before eight or nine. Loved it!

Eine Kleine Nacht Market

On Sunday morning, I headed out to the bus station to get my tickets for Chiang Kong. Since a songthaew driver wouldn’t take me (probably because it was too far off his route), I negotiated a ride with a tuk-tuk driver for 80 baht, down from 100. He agreed with such alacrity that I suspect I still overpaid, but hey! I’m learning this bargaining game!

Heading back, I checked out the songthaew line, but they quoted me a price of 150 bahts for me to take a non-shared ride. Obviously I wasn’t going to spend that, so I waited until they had a full load of people and felt almost like a native in my foreigner-free songthaew.

I headed back into town to look at one more beautiful Wat that I had missed, then wrapped up the day by walking through the Sunday Walking Street. I did a little bit of shopping, had a fresh fruit juice in a bamboo “cup”, and got to take a picture of some of the more interesting food (bugs).

Next stop, Laos!

Wat viewing:

Walking street:

Serene Buddhas and an Ancient Capital: Sukhothai

On Sunday, I headed up north, taking the train up to Sukhothai. The Sukhothai Historical Park houses the remnants of the 13th-14th century capital of arguably the first Thai (as opposed to Khmer) kingdom.

The train went to Phitsanolok, about an hour from Sukhothai. The trip was on a two-car special express train – I was rather puzzled to see the train because the car I was in seemed to be the engine! If you looked straight ahead down the middle of the car, you saw a door and the train tracks stretched ahead. I had bought a snack for the train, but surprisingly they served us complimentary cookies and coffee, and them later some curry for lunch.

Train curry!

Train curry!

The scenery was definitely interesting. We passed through Ayuthaya, another ancient capital, and could see tantalizing glimpses from the train tracks. Next we passed through Lopburi, where clustered around a shrine were more monkeys than I’ve ever seen before, in the shrine area, walking to it, in the street. Remember the deer in Nara? Well it’s the monkeys in Lopburi in much the same way.

We passed a lot of water, explaining why traditionally Thai houses are on stilts. We passed lots of those, too. There were many water lilies and more crane-like birds (herons, egrets, don’t know) than I’ve ever seen before. I saw some emaciated cow-like animals that seemed to have a hump (so I’m not sure if they were cows and I could just see bone structure normally hidden on a well-fed cow, or if they were some hybrid). I even saw a water buffalo!

I noticed a Western couple getting off the train at the same time so I asked whether they were going to Sukhothai and if so whether we could go in a group. As we stood looking at a map of Phitsanulok, a couple of guys speaking English joined us and we decided that a tuk-tuk to the bus station made sense. So five of us AND our luggage somehow squeezed into one tuk-tuk and away we went.

We found the bus to Sukhothai pretty easily and sat in the back by the luggage. It was a local bus, so it stopped frequently to let people on and off. A bunch of tiny older women got on, clearly coming back from selling their wares at the market. Our backpacks gradually were surrounded by piles of (probably handmade) baskets, bags of chili peppers, and finally a mesh bag of (live!) frogs. It was a great, if not terribly comfortable, trip.

The humidity in Sukhothai made the Bangkok-like heat feel 10-15 degrees hotter as we trekked to out hotel. (Turns out the first couple I had spoken to were staying at the same hotel.) Luckily, the hotel was beautiful (think teak cabins and beds with mosquito netting and a princessy feel) and, more importantly, had air conditioning. I really needed it after walking around – I’ve never been as sweaty in my entire life as during the few days spent in Sukhothai!

The following day, I set out to explore the center part of the historical part on foot. I started with the museum and then headed into the park. Some of the ruins are little more than that, while others have enough left (or reconstructed) that they are mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s just a bunch of pillars and water and serene Buddhas. I’m not sure whether some of the reconstructed ruins have been overly reconstructed, but it is a UNESCO heritage site and they do tend to be quite picky about that. Anyway, I loved it, despite being taken aback by how manicured the park is.

I had lunch at a noodle shop patronized by several of the pink-shirted park staff (delicious Sukhothai noodles) and then called it a day. I spent the afternoon reading and posting in the blissful air conditioning.

I had planned for two full days in Sukhothai, which let me be very leisurely. I booked a tuk-tuk to the northern part of the Historical Park since it seemed too far to walk in the heat. It was early enough that I beat the crowds, too. The Buddha at Wat Si Chum is beautiful. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that part of the park! My tuk-tuk driver was very sweet, off-roading a bit to get me as close to the monuments as possible. I’d have been fine with keeping our exhaust away from the ruins, but there wasn’t any way to communicate that so I accepted the offering with the spirit with which it was intended. He also picked up a turtle crossing a road so I could hold the poor creature – luckily we passed a later pond so I could set him free again!

It wasn’t even ten when I finished my tuk-tuk tour, so I wrote postcards and then walked a mile or more to the post office. People on the whole are so friendly here – I had some random people wave and yell “hello” to me in Thai and English!

I wrapped up the day with an oil massage. Massage is so cheap here!