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: Drum Towers of Northern Guangxi

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The Dong minority is also very well-known for its drum towers, probably even more so than its fengyu qiao (wind rain bridges). Every village must have at least one of these structures. Rising above each village, it serves multiple functions. It’s a community centre, a meeting place, a town hall, a fire alarm and all-purpose emergency service.

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Each of them is unique, a variation on a theme. Count the number of tiers and observe the carvings and you’ll notice that each drum tower is completely different from its cousins in the neighbourhood.

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Each is so much a centre of village life that shops open only in the vicinity of a drum tower. Here, they even build a small basketball court in front of the tower. It’s since been converted to a good space for drying rice.

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It was lovely to watch how grandparents congregated in the drum towers with their grandchildren. The sandwich generation was away working the fields, or in recent times, had already moved to the cities for work, leaving their children in the care of the elders.

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This place was almost like a childcare centre, until we realised that the caretakers weren’t really the grandparents.

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It sure looked like the grandparents ran the show, but it was really the TV that got everyone in here.

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