Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Laos (page 1 of 5)

Serpico in Laos

There’s nothing like a person being proud of what they do, even when it comes to driving a tuk-tuk or songthaew for a living. And to show that pride, not to mention showing off to your friends, a little help from Serpico a.k.a. Al Pacino wouldn’t hurt.

Back in 2010, Aon, Jeremy Aaron and I went shopping in this big market in Savannakhet and when it came time to leave we needed to take a tuk-tuk. There are dozens of tuk-tuks outside the market and as soon as I saw this one, I figured if the driver was hip enough to know who Serpico/Al Pacino was then this was the one we were going to take. 

On the road to Pakxe

Tonight I attended a ceremony and dinner to commemorate an honorary Lao Consul on the Woosong University campus. During dinner, when it was learned that I am the author of four books, I was asked when I was going to write a book about Laos, which got me thinking. I really should at some point. I’ve already written a short story, “Lemongrass” which is featured in Damaged Goods.

This photo was taken in July 2007 when Aon and I went to Pakxe and Wat Phu. This photo was part of the inspiration for “Lemongrass.”

When you stop in town, whether in one of these songthaew-like (a pickup truck converted into a bus) modes of transportation, or a bus, vendors immediately surround the bus selling their food and beverages. It happens from one village to the next.

Home Sweet Home — Our House in Laos

Work is still progressing on our house in Laos; now the workers have started to work inside.

More photos will be coming soon; in the meantime here’s a slideshow of the work so far.

Help a school in Laos

I am starting a campaign to help a small school in Laos near the house that Aon and I are building in Paksong. It is also the school where Bia attends.

This is a two-room schoolhouse, but as you can see it is overcrowded and has no electricity or running water.  The school is very cold and drafty in the winter and very hot in the summer. The desks are old and decrepit and the benches the children have to sit on are dilapidated and rickety.

If students need to go to the bathroom, they have to go outside the school because there is no bathroom. The students  go either behind the school or in one of the rice paddies that surround the school.

There are just two teachers and it is obvious, at least from this photograph, that the two teachers have their work cut out for them, especially what they have or don’t have to teach with. In Bia’s classroom, the children range in age from  five years old to around six or seven. The other classroom is for older students.

I visited the school one morning this past January–Jeremy Aaron and I walked Bia to school. As a teacher myself, my heart went out to the two teachers who teach at this school.

I would like to start a campaign called “Adopt-a-School” where we can help less fortunate school children around the world who lack a proper school to attend or such things as books and other school needs. Maybe a school can “adopt” another school and have fundraisers to raise money for these schools or instead of monetary donations send pencils, erasers, notebooks, and other school supplies. Teachers can come up with lesson plans to teach students about these countries and have students come up with special projects.

People always talk about how the world has become more of a global community and that it takes a village for this or that. Well, it also takes a school and lots of them. Of course, that goes without saying when it comes to really investing in our future with our schools and teaching our children in them.

Some of the children cannot even afford pencils or paper.

Bia hard at work on one of his lessons.

What can we do? What can you do?

Ferry ‘cross the Mekong

One of my first trips in Laos was back in July of 2007 when Aon, her family (her mom, younger sister, and Bia) and I visited the famous Buddhist temple and Khmer ruins Wat Phou Champasak near Pakxe in southern Laos.

Getting there was quite an interesting journey because to get to the temple and the ruins one has to cross the mighty, magnificent Mekong River on a ferry.

For those who are vaguely familiar with the Mekong River, the name alone conjures up all sorts of images whether it’s the Mekong Delta from the Vietnam War or if you are much of a Thai whiskey drinker, Mekong Whiskey. However, for those who live along its winding path, the river is an important waterway and natural resource.

The river itself can get quite wild during the rainy season (last year in the capital city of Vientiane it rose above flood stage and flooded out streets that run along its banks) but when I crossed it in the July of 2007, it was simply magnificent and peaceful.

The ferry is a couple of boats lashed together with a makeshift platform to accommodate a few cars and a bus or two. It might not look like much, but it serves its purpose well ferrying people and vehicles across the Mekong.

It takes no more than thirty minutes to cross, and when the weather is gorgeous like it was the day we crossed it, the scenery is breathtaking.

Someone stole my new Doc Martens!

Yesterday, I bought my first new pair of shoes in four years.

The Doc Martens that I had bought in the States back in 2005 had served my feet well. As Forrest Gump mused, “there’s an awful lot you can tell about a person by their shoes, where they’re going and where they’ve been.”

In my case it’s been all the places I’ve visited wearing them—from Illinois, Korea, and Thailand to Japan back to Korea and Laos. Likewise, in those four years alone, so much has happened in my life—leaving Korea, going to Thailand and meeting Aon, hanging out in Japan a few times, back to Korea and Laos, the birth of Jeremy Aaron and the passing of my mother.

Yes Forrest, you can tell a lot about a person and the shoes they wear.

I had worn those Doc Martens down and stretched them out so much from all my walking that the time had come to buy a new pair. Fortunately, there is a Dr. Martens’ store in Daejeon (I have tried other shoe stores and outlets but I’ve never really liked the shoes; I’ve been wearing Doc Martens since 1993 and they’ve always been good to my feet) and when I stopped in there yesterday, the store carried my size (finding western-sized clothes like shoes, socks, pants and shirts is not easy in Korea, and especially in Daejeon where there is a much smaller foreign community).

However, and as expected, the shoes were pricey: 170,000 Won or around $150.00. Sadly, they are not even original Dr. Martens. They are made in China.

I needed new shoes so I can live with the price. Made in China? Whether or not they are originals, or only original in price, that is—to excuse the pun—the price one has to pay when you want something you like.

Once I had them on my feet, my feet were happy so I was happy. A spring bounced back in my step and I was walking tall again—not shuffling my feet because my last pair of Doc Martens had been stretched out so much.

Everything was right with the world. Got up this morning, talked to Aon, Jeremy Aaron and Bia (52 more days!), worked on my novel, and then went to school, paid some bills, filled out a form to have money transferred to my Korean Exchange Bank account each month, and then went to the gym.

That spring in my walk also was evident on the treadmill where I ran another 10 kilometers in an hour. When you’ve got happy feet you just want to keep on running and running.

After that exhilarating run, I decided to cool down with some Gatorade and went to my locker to get some money. That is when I noticed that my new Doc Martens the ones that had made my feet so happy and that had set me back 150.00 had been stolen.

Okay, so I didn’t lock them up in my locker with the rest of my street clothes. I am guilty as charged for being stupid. I just never imagined any of the four or five people who were at the gym when I was would steal them. But one of them did, or someone else who came in when I was running.

Now maybe you’re wondering why I would take off my shoes and leave them out? Well, this is Asia and at restaurants, dentist offices, and even gyms, people take off their shoes before entering these establishments. (A lot has to do with the “sitting on the floor culture” but I could never understand why a dentist’s office or a gym.) To be sure, if one really wanted to steal someone’s shoes, it is not that difficult. I have heard numerous stories of someone going to a restaurant and then leaving to find their shoes had been stolen.

Steal someone’s shoes though? How low can a person go? Well, low enough to bend over, pick them up and walk off with them I guess.

When I explained what had happened to the worker-cum-trainer, he didn’t seem too shocked or overly concerned. I’ve been a member of this small gym for three years and I would have thought he would have been a little more surprised. Instead, he asked me if I had locked them in a locker. Well gee; maybe I just took an extra stupid pill this morning because no, I did not lock them in a locker.

After he did a perfunctory search of the gym he went back to washing towels and gym wear.

“Excuse me, I’ve just been robbed,” I said. “Maybe we should call the police.”

“Do you want me to call the police?”

I guess I was not the only one who took a stupid pill in the morning.

Finally, he got around to calling the police and that is when I did my best Joe Friday impersonation and tried to get him to search the computer records for the people who came in to the gym. When a member comes in, they have to show their membership card, which is then swiped in a card reader, so there is a record of who is there. You don’t have to be a Joe Friday, Columbo, Starsky or Hutch to figure out that it was a matter of simple deduction: one of those four people who were in the gym when I was on the treadmill walked off with my shoes.

Now, what I am thinking is that it had to have been an inside job. Why? Whoever absconded with my Doc Martens knew I was on the treadmill at other end of the gym and not in the shower room or outside the locker room. This person knew exactly where I was at when they took them.

The police finally showed up but there was not much they could do. There was a bit of a language barrier and I was told that it was my mistake for not locking them up. Again, I am guilty as charged for being stupid. They took down my personal information as well as the telephone numbers of the four men who were in the gym when I was and who could have stolen my shoes. All they could do was call these men and ask them if they had stolen the shoes; don’t think they are going to bring them into the station and grill them for hours until one of them breaks and confesses.

The officer who had done all the talking was very apologetic and in broken English told me that he was ashamed this had happened to a foreigner. They said they would get back to me if there was a lead in the case or if they broke the case open. No, they didn’t say that per se—I’ve just watched a lot of movies and TV dramas about cops and robbers and knew that was what they really wanted to tell me.

In the meantime, shoeless Jeffrey was in need of another pair of shoes, so I hopped into a taxi went back to the Dr. Martens’ store and bought another pair of the same shoes that had been stolen. In the end, a new pair of shoes cost me $300.00.

I should probably thank the guy for giving me something absurd to blog about today. I also should ask the gym for a one-year’s free membership; it’s the least they could do for me.

One thing is for certain, I am not going to let these Doc Martens out of my sight when they are not on my feet, and lock them up if I can’t keep my eyes on them.

Vientiane – Gateway for your Laos Adventure

that_louang_dec_31_2007_009Hugging a bend along the Mekong River as it winds south between Thailand and Laos, Vientiane first appears a rather non-assuming town with a mixture of French, Chinese and Vietnamese-style buildings interspersed among Buddhist temples and modern structures.

Busy and hectic compared to the rest of the country, with a population just a little over 200,000 Vientiane is quieter and more laidback than other capital cities in Southeast Asia. Don’t let that fool you, though. As quiet and unassuming Vientiane might first appear, it is an exciting and vibrant city filled with antique shops, quaint open-air cafés, and a trove of restaurants and guesthouses, amidst cultural landmarks steeped in Laos’s historical heritage.

The origin of the name Vientiane is rather interesting: it either means “the King’s grove of sandalwood” in Pali or “City of the Moon” in native Lao Language and today’s spelling is of French origin. Depending on whatever name origin you choose, Vientiane is a city that has retained much of its exotic Indochina charm amidst dizzying modernization.

The gateway for exploring Laos for some travelers might begin at Wattay International Airport—which is just a short taxi or tuk-tuk ride downtown to many of the hotels and guesthouses (which are the best bet for budget-minded travelers). The town always seems busy with travelers and tourists coming and going.

Most travelers spend two or three days here before heading north to Louang Prabang or south to Chiang Mai and Bangkok or perhaps even further to Siem Reap or Hanoi. That’s pretty much all the time you would need to take in most of the sights here unless you are like me and just want to have a week to chill out, enjoy some delicious Lao food, and enjoy sitting outside some café.Patouxai

Most of Vientiane’s landmarks can seen in two or three days. For starters there’s Patouxai, Vientiane’s very own Arc de Triomphe and That Louang, the country’s symbol of national unity and Buddhism. There’s also the mysterious-looking chedi, That Dam—what really is inside?

If Buddhism is your thing, Vientiane has two very important temples Wat Phra Kaew (yes, like the one in Bangkok, and there is a reason for the same-sounding name—the Emerald Buddha, now in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok, used to be here in Vientiane) and Wat Si Saket, located right across the street.

There is also a museum that might be a little short on artifacts, but not on historical scope. All of these landmarks can easily be walked to from most of the guesthouses along the Mekong River and side streets.

However, the best way to get around Vientiane is by renting some bicycles and riding around the city. You can rent one for the day from most guesthouses.

Of course, there are always tuk-tuks to get around, but they can be a little expensive and in many cases a rip-off for unsuspecting tourists. You might not think twice about spending 2,000-3,000 Kip for a tuk-tuk to get from say Wat Si Saket to That Louang (you could walk there in under an hour if you wanted at a nice leisurely stroll) but it’s still a little pricey. Most of the rates are already fixed so there’s no negotiation.

Streets of VientianeThat’s why one is better off walking or renting bicycles. You are really not that far from most places—the farthest place being That Louang if you are walking from Fa Ngum Road or Setthathilat Road (which runs parallel to Fa Ngum Road).

And no trip or stay in Vientiane would be complete without having at least one or two baguette sandwiches, which are sold throughout the city—from sidewalk vendors and cafés. Without question, it’s some of the finest bread you’ll ever taste in your travels in Southeast Asia.

If shopping is you thing, there are plenty of antique shops to satisfy one’s hunger for souvenirs, bric-a-brac and antiques as well as the city’s morning market (near Patouxai).Morning_market_in_Vientiane

After you have had your fill of Vientiane—whether it is visiting it’s stunning landmarks, enjoying its tasty baguettes, or strolling along the Mekong at night—and it’s time to move on to your next destination, you just might find yourself missing this quaint, historical and charming city along the banks of the Mekong.

Haw Pha Kaew — Once home to the “Emerald Buddha”

One of Vientiane’s “must see” attractions is Haw Pha Kaew, once the king’s personal Buddhist temple. Although it is not actually a temple per se with monks on the premises and services being performed, today it functions as a museum of art with a very impressive collection of Laotian Buddhist artifacts.

Built in the sixteenth century, the temple has many priceless Buddhist statues and antiquities on display; however, what makes this temple interesting and perhaps somewhat infamous is its controversial past, which revolves around the Emerald Buddha, one of the most sacred items in all of Southeast Asia and the symbol of Thailand.

According to legend, the Emerald Buddha was found when lightning struck a chedi at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, in 1434. Inside the chedi a statue covered in stucco was found and when the stucco was later removed, the Emerald Buddha was discovered. Realizing the statue’s religious significance, it was taken to Lampang, Thailand for safekeeping where it would stay there until 1468 when it was moved to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai.

Here’s where the story of the Emerald Buddha gets interesting (and sounds like the plot for an epic movie): The King of Lanna had no sons but his daughter married the King of Lan Xang and a son was born who would become the future King Setthathirat (King Chaichettha in Thai). Both Kings died almost at the same time and he was given the chance to become King of Lanna, but instead returned to Lan Xang to become King, taking the Emerald Buddha with him.

Got all that? The story gets better. Around the same time, Burma invaded Siam. Chiang Mai which was the capital of Lanna, was invaded and conquered in 1558. Because of the danger posed by the Burmese, King Setthathirat moved the capital to its current location, Vientiane in 1560 and brought the Emerald Buddha with him and once again, the Emerald Buddha was on the road.

Five years later, in 1565, Haw Pha Kaew was constructed in Vientiane to house the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew means ‘Jewel Buddha Image’ in Lao; actually, the image is made of a type of jade). The Emerald Buddha would end up staying there for over two hundred years until it was taken back to Siam by Phraya Chakri, the future King Rama I of Thailand, in 1778 and placed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo or “The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.”

Sadly, Haw Pha Kaew sans the Buddha that had once given its name would suffer another tragedy when it was destroyed in 1827 by Siamese troops in revenge for then King Anouvong attacking Siam. The temple would not be rebuilt until the 1930’s by the French supposedly following the original plans; however, the reconstructed temple looks more like a Thai-style structure from the eighteenth century.

While the loss of the Emerald Buddha might still be a bitter pill for many Laotians to swallow, the temple today houses some fine and exquisite Laotian Buddha statues and related Buddhist antiquities. It is one of the finest collections of Lao art in the country. Outside, bronze Buddhas, many looted of the jeweled inlay that once decorated their eyes, line the terrace surrounding the building. Inside are a trove of statues and relics-one of the most striking being a Buddha in the “Beckoning Rain” pose (the Buddha is standing with arms to the sides and fingers pointing to the ground) and bearing a jewel-encrusted navel. Photography is prohibited inside, but there is plenty to see and photograph outside.

Located on Setthathirat Road (just past the Presidential Palace and across the street from Wat Si Saket) the temple is open daily from 8:00-12:00 and 1:00-4:00. Admission is 5,000 Kip (about 1.00). The best time to visit the temple is in the morning when it opens to avoid the throngs of tourists that start piling out of tour buses in mid morning or an hour or two before it closes in the afternoon.

Goofy Falls — Somewhere in Panama

Path between the Seas -- Panama Canal Zone, 1978I can’t recall the first time I heard about Goofy Falls when I was stationed in Panama at Howard Air Force Base from 1976-1978 or understood why it had been called Goofy Falls in the first place but for many people stationed on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, it was an alternative to the beach at Howard and Fort Kobbe and the adjacent Veracruz Beach.

I do remember that the first time I went to Goofy Falls was in May of 1977. Some of the guys from the 24th CAMS Squadron (Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron) who I knew quite well and who lived in the same barracks as I did (Barracks 714 was shared by CAMS and the 24th Supply Squadron) had already been there and were raving about how great it was to go swimming there. We had all been to the beach at the far end of the Howard AFB/Fort Kobbe military installation as well as the supposedly off-limits Veracruz Beach (I think it was off-limits because there were no lifeguards and shark nets) and some of the guys were just looking for some other cool place to hang out in Panama.

So, one Saturday afternoon a bunch of us from the barracks piled into two cars and headed off to Goofy Falls, which was located about an hour outside of Panama City. What I do remember about where it was located was somewhere past Tocumen International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen) in sort of in a small rocky valley carved out by a stream and erosion. I know we parked on a small hill and that in the distance we would see Tocumen, Panama City, and the Pacific Ocean.

We had to walk down a path about a hundred yards or so until we came to a freshwater pool fed by a stream that had rushed over the rocky terrain that created Goofy Falls. It was also quite interesting how the geography had changed once we had traveled into the interior-gone were the rain forest-like jungles that surrounded Howard-and now, the geography appeared more like grasslands characterized by dark red soil. The falls were not that spectacular by any means-there was some cascading action over the rocks but what really made Goofy Falls cool was that you could slide down one of them into the lower pool (there were, if I am not mistaken two upper pools).

It was definitely more fun-when one slid down the falls or jumped/dove off some of the rocks into the lower pool-than just swimming at the beach at Howard and Fort Kobbe or Veracruz. The water was cool and quite deep-not sure if anyone ever tried to touch the bottom. In addition, it wasn’t too crowded: there were a few Zonians there along with some other service members when we arrived. Maybe that is one of the reasons why a lot of the guys had raved about it so much because it was sort of like our own private swimming hole.

We brought plenty of beer and other beverages that day and got a pretty good buzz going soon. I just remember a few of the guys who had gone out there that day: Rusty Steele, Harry Tschida, and John McPherson. Aside from John and Harry everyone else out there that day had served in Vietnam. That’s one of the things I will always remember the most about the two years I was stationed at Howard: how a lot of the guys I hung out with had previously served in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. There was even one guy who supposedly was assigned to Air America and had brought his Thai wife along with him to Panama.

I forgot to wear suntan lotion that day and with the hot sun glaring down I ended up with a pretty nasty sunburn. Indeed, it was so bad that later in the evening I swore I suffered from a mild case of shock. After we had gotten back to base and had chow, some of us went to Veracruz beach to keep on partying. Even though it was around 80 degrees I was shivering but by then my skin from where I had gotten sunburn was burning me up.

The next day I could hardly move. I couldn’t report it to my supervisor when I went to work on Monday because I could have been reprimanded or if my supervisor wanted to really make a fuss out of it, I could have gotten an Article 15-non-judicial punishment. What I got though was worse: I was assigned to a detail to help set up some booths for the base carnival later that week. There was no way I could get out of that detail. It was a classic example of Catch 22-either I got out of the detail because of the sunburn and risked the Article 15 or I suffered being out in the heat setting up the booth. I opted for the latter. In the end, it took me over a week to recover from that sunburn.

I would end up making two more trips to Goofy Falls before I rotated back to the States in September 1978. Just add Goofy Falls to the list of other memories I have of serving in Panama: driving across the Thatcher Ferry Bridge that spanned the Panama Canal, taking the train across the isthmus, hanging out in the Ancon Inn and Ovalo Bar and getting my first tattoo.

“Combat” on the bus to Vientiane

When you take a VIP bus or similar bus for long distances in Laos (and other Southeast Asian countries) there’s usually a television mounted at the front of the bus where TV programs and videos/DVD’s are shown.

 

If you’re lucky whoever is in charge of entertainment for the bus might play a decent movie (unfortunately it is probably going to be dubbed in Thai); on the other hand, you might get stuck having to endure some Thai Karaoke Pop favorites like the ones playing on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong that feature scantily-clad models with heaving breasts bouncing up and down while they rode on horses, scooters, and bicycles to the bouncy pop back beat.

 

On the return bus from Paksong to Vientiane this past February, though there would be no bouncing boobs but instead a Charlie Chaplin movie was played. Interestingly, some Thai dialogue had been dubbed into the silent film that was quite surreal. I guess someone must have thought that Charlie’s slapstick antics were lost in translation and needed to have him speaking Thai. Nonetheless, I could at least enjoy the film if I tried to shut out the Thai dialogue.

 

The Chaplin movie was followed by three episodes of that 60’s war drama Combat. I wonder if whoever was in charge of entertainment on this bus tried to choose something that would be interesting to the only foreigner on board. If that were the case, it was kind of cool watching these episodes of Combat even though the dialogue had been dubbed into Thai. If I thought it was weird for Charlie Chaplin to be speaking Thai, it was weirder hearing Vic Morrow speak it.

 

Even more interesting was that they had originally been aired in Japan, judging from all the Japanese language at the beginning of the tape, and more than likely pirated for the Thai market and eventually ending up in Laos.

 

I could follow some of the story with what Thai I do know, but fortunately there was more fighting than talking. Maybe it was all the shooting and explosions in the episodes of Combat that caused the right half of the windshield on the bus to break.

 

About an hour after the bus had left Savannakhet, that part of the windshield just shattered. I can’t remember if the windshield had already been cracked that caused it to shatter the way that it did. Fortunately no one was hurt and fortunately when the windshield did break, not much glass went flying through the air.

 

However, the bus would not stop to have the windshield fixed or even boarded up. And we would not be getting on a different bus either. Instead the bus would keep on driving north to Vientiane with the cold wind rushing in freezing all of us huddling in our seats to keep warm.

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