March in Laos: Up the Mekong

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Siamesecat and I took a trip up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves, famous for its retired Buddha statues. We took one of these wooden boats and put-putted slowly up the river.

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On the muddy banks grew the occasional pair of majestic banyans, roots entwined in a charming embrace.

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We passed by typical idyllic scenes of daily life, here appearing to be quite authentic and not a show for the tourists.

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Ours was the true blue experience as we pulled up alongside a petrol shop-boat to top up the fuel tank.

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We stopped at a flight of cement stairs leading up to a little village that specialised in local whisky.

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Glutinous rice whisky (lao lao) of all sorts of interesting flavours was laid out for sale.

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There was the usual scorpion one for virility…

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… and snake too for the same. There was also the less common centipede which was so big we wondered how it got stuffed into the bottle.

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They gave out samples of the regular version. We tried out shots of the mild stuff that was quite pleasing as it was sweet and light, then progressed on to the full strength (40%) stuff that was smooth but not quite worth lugging around the country, especially considering the makeshift distillery it was made in.

We were somewhat taken aback when the villagers proudly showed us their distillery shack. This setup is it: three barrels, a wood stove and a bunch of earthenware jars. We soon moved swiftly on.

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Spirits of another sort awaited us at the Pak Ou Caves where old Buddha statues were deconsecrated and put out to pasture. It was behind an amazing cliff face, looking rather like it came out from a movie set.

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Inside were Buddha images in various stages of age and wear. Some didn’t look quite that old and others, well, had seen far better times.

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There really were hundred and hundreds of these images. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a count.

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There were statues in every nook and corner of the cave, all of them crowding even to the edges of the rock shelves. I think that was the most Buddha images I’ve ever seen in one place. Crazy stuff.

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August in China: Terracotta Warriors Overexposed

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We’d come this far just to see the terracotta warriors, just as people go all the way to the Louvre just for the Mona Lisa. We started off in the Xian Museum where there was a pretty comprehensive exhibit full of the warriors and their paraphernalia: horses, carriages, sedans. Outside of their burial pits, these sculptures somehow seemed slightly out of context and while I understood in my brain how awe-inspiring this was, I just didn’t feel any of it.

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We soldiered on the next day to the actual site some distance out of Xian. The burial complex consisted of  hangar-like shelters covering each of the three pits. Inside the biggest one was a museum section similar to the one in Xian. Here was the most famous warrior: the kneeling general.

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We then proceeded on to the huge pits where many statues were left standing as is. I tried hard to peer at the faces, trying to see if it was true: that each face was unique and no two were alike. It was pretty cool trying to imagine how they’d look like to the first grave robbers and to the excavators who first dug through.

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It was also pretty amazing the amount of work that went into creating all this before the time of mass production. Each one appeared to be painstakingly handmade.

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I wondered if the horses were also based on real beasts of war. Peering as close as I could get, their faces seemed all the same to me. They were still cute nonetheless!

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While still fairly impressive, I felt that the terracotta warriors were simply overexposed. I fell a sense of anticlimax finally seeing them, somewhat like seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and realising how small and difficult to view she was under all that glass. It didn’t help that the museum had all sorts of touristy gimmicks, from taking a picture standing with some replicas to having your face reproduced on a mini-terracotta warrior statue to having it etched in laser in a glass cube. Sigh.

August in China: An Odd Collection of Bronze Statues

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Shamian Island was leased to foreigners as they were not allowed into the city gates. The British and French shared this tiny strip of land and it’s amazing how they managed not to mix at all, staying in their separate buildings and places of worship. Today’s Shamian Island is something of a quiet escape from the frenetic and rather in-your-face Guangzhou city proper. The shady trees and quiet roads seemed to transport me out of China for a while.

There’s nothing much here except the quiet and a collection of amusing bronze sculptures that do not quite qualify as art. Here’s one of a gaggle of schoolchildren following behind their music teacher. Most of the kids are hanging on and following just fine. The last kid is the problem one. He can’t or won’t follow and is bawling at the back for attention, distracting the last boy in the chain. I wonder what this sculpture is saying. The first of the good girls in front tilts her face up adoringly at the teacher while the boys behind are acting out. Interesting description of gender roles in contemporary Chinese society.

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I quite liked this avid photographer. I felt a delicious sense of contrast taking a picture of this photographer in action.

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Of course I liked him even better from this angle. So confrontational, so bold: The real life person as mirror to the sculpture.

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And last of all was this statue on the Guangzhou-proper side. It wasn’t meant to be whimsical at all. It was a symbol of the strength of communism, represented by the powerful worker and his hammer in action. Too bad it was so ugly and too bad power isn’t really in the hands of the workers anymore.

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