Monday, October 29, 2012

Local Markets - Laos: As I wrote in a previous post people don't go to supermarkets or grocery stores. The store comes to you or there are always markets in town that sell everything you need and it's very fresh indeed. In the mornings as we cycled out of town sometimes we'd drop into a local market to see what's on offer and to pick up some items for snacks while biking. Here's a view of a local market in Sam Neua a mountain town in northern Laos. To view any of the photos in more detail just place click on the image and it will enlarge.

A couple of ladies discussing the weather, crops or maybe children. The woman in the blue jacket is wearing a traditional wrap skirt.

Guinea pig on steroids! He was for sale. Not sure if they would butcher him for you or you had to do it yourself.

Among the fresh vegetables I found wasp larvae. Directly in front of the seller is the comb and then the red dishes hold the very 'live' larvae. Fry'em up for a snack!

And if you like bamboo larvae, then these were available just across the aisle from the wasp larvae. The seller is shaking the larvae out of the bamboo stalk. I couldn't find out whether the stock was just a method of tranportation or the larvae all lived in it.

Cooked rat. In front of them are green piles are fresh water seaweed.

Live frogs.

Rice seller. Rice; that staple food item of everyone in Asia. I've never eaten so much rice.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Laos - the most bombed country in the world: It is a land locked country of only 6 million people - very small in comparison to its neighbours like Vietnam with 80+million people. It's communist in name only as the government seems to be an autocracy that doesn't seem to do a lot for its people. For example neither education nor health care is free, people can own property and run a business and they pay taxes on land and businesses. Getting clean water is challenging for them. It's very mountainous, beautiful but poor. Many people are farmers who grow rice, raise cattle, water buffalo, chickens and ducks.

Shots from rest stop while biking in mountains

The very sad story of Laos is what was done to it in the 1960s and 70s. According to the Huffington Post (and other sources), "as part of its efforts during the Vietnam War, the United States began a nine-year bombing campaign in Laos in 1964 that ultimately dropped 260 million cluster bombs on the country -- the most heavily bombed country in history. That's more than 2.5 million tons of munitions -- more than what the U.S. dropped in World War II on Germany and Japan combined." They did this covertly and went against agreements that stated no bombing would take place in Laos which had recently switched from being a monarchy to communist rule. Naturally the United States was rather paranoid about what was going on in Laos plus they were lazy and often dropped bombs on Laos when they had to abort missions to north Vietnam and wanted to lighten their load on the way back to bases in Thailand.

Now the average person in the street in Laos or rather peasant in the rice field did not know why the USA were bombing them. They just got the short end of the stick when it came to "Air America" and the CIA's secret operation.

Cluster bombs are really a terrorist weapon. They are meant to maim and kill people. Cluster bombs are small explosive bomblets carried in a large cannister that opens in mid-air, scattering them over a wide area. The bomblets may be delivered by aircraft, rocket, or by artillery projectiles.

Unexploded cluster bombs

"The CBU (cluster bomb unit) 26, which was widely used in Laos, is an anti-personnel fragmentation bomb that consists of a large bombshell holding 670 tennis ball-sized bomblets, each of which contain 300 metal fragments. If all the bomblets detonate, some 200,000 steel fragments will be propelled over an area the size of several football fields, creating a deadly killing zone."

When the bombs hit the ground, many of them did not blow up as designed but instead remained hidden -- waiting for an unsuspecting farmer, child or livestock. 75 million bombs failed to detonate.  At least 25,000 people have been killed or injured by these bombs in the 35 years following the end of the bombing campaign. Today, an average of 300 Lao people are injured or killed every year by these weapons.  
This is what happens when a child finds a tennis ball size cluster bomb and either plays with it or steps on it accidentally.

The economy has become a casualty, too. Laos' economy is almost entirely agricultural (rice, in particular) yet one-third of the land remains littered with unexploded ordnance. Clearance costs and security concerns continue to pose a barrier to farmers large and small, leaving fertile soil untilled.

Now people are destroying ordinance and leading education programs throughout the country. The bomb-removal program in Laos is effective but it is expensive - and more funding is needed now to prevent more casualties.   Cluster bombs should be outlawed but they are still used today in many of the world's conflict zones.
Our Laos guide, La, takes us on a walk through the Plain of Jars (soon to be a UNESCO World Heritage site once they can clear more cluster bombs) near Phonsavanh in north Laos. You can see white markers and we are to walk between them because the trail has been cleared of unexploded ordinance. Outside those markers anything could be there and for as far as the eye can see there is danger
Art Shots: sometimes I attempt creativity and take what I call an 'art shot'. They actually aren't very creative. Most are close up shots of things. Here's four taken in Laos.

Chillies drying in the sun by the side of the road. These appear everywhere along roads. People spread the chillies on a bamboo mat or large pan and put them out to dry. The red is brilliant and eye catching while biking.

Wet markets are in every town and great places to visit to see local people going about their business. These little fishes were carefully arranged on leaves and ready for purchase.

There are many kinds of mushrooms growing in Laos. All delicious. Photo taken at market.

Little buddha relief. Temple in Luang Prabang

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Biking Vietnam continues. More random shots and stories.
Leaving Hanoi we headed in a west, south direction. We're starting a 20km run in a national park in Vietnam.  Left to right - me, Matt, Al, Han. 
In the park there is a primate rescue centre. However, I came across this walking stick insect. He looked to not need rescuing. Happy guy. 

Next day we were near the Vietnam/Laos border in the mountains. Stopped for lunch which is basic - either fried noodles or rice with vegetables or noodle soup with vegetables which they bring raw to your table and you just plunk the veg in the hot broth and add your own spices - chillies or more chillies. Everything is fresh. 
And next door you could get  'thit cho' - dog meat. They had  live dogs in a cage out front (very sad) but I could not get a  photo as the proprieters are a bit sensitive to being exposed. It's a very rural mountain town and no one bothers them much but it's not exactly legal. They bring the dogs in from Laos but they actually originate in Thailand. All completely illegal trade but it's there and it's done and maybe that guy on the bike is taking some fresh dog home to his wife. 

Leaving Vietnam I could not resist one more pig shot. He was too  big to be strapped onto the bike. 
Hello Laos 

The drink of choice - most times no choice - this was it. 
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has about 6 million people and it is mountains everywhere. First night we were staying in a very rural mountain town in basically grass huts - think camping. I walked in and saw these curtains and gasped. Had to get the photo. It was a surreal moment.   
Next day as we were leaving the place we stayed were having lunch for local dignitaries. This was the ladies table and they were very happy to have us join them but we had biking to do.  

 More on Laos to come.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bicycling Vietnam - The Beginning

Here are just some random photos from the trip so far. 

I arrived in Hanoi for a bicycle trip through north Vietnam and Laos. Turns out there is only one other person on the tour. On our first day of bicyling we covered some of Hanoi. Here's a shot of  'my boys' or 'posse' - Matt from Bristol, UK (hands over eyes), Al the tour leader and Han the local Vietnamese guide.
In the middle of Hanoi's madness there are moments of loveliness like this rose seller beside her bicycle.
We're in town at the beginning of the lunar month and so many shops create elaborate arrangments for temples. This one was very large, sitting on the street, ready to be purchased, picked up and taken away.
Okay, well I tried to flip this photo but I've given up. The French built a rather large prison in Hanoi in the 1800's and went about rounding up 'communists'. They filled the space with 2,000 prisoners and it was to only hold 500. This little number was a 'guilotene light' as I like to call it. Very efficient at culling the prison population. By the way this was the prison that John McCain spent time in the 1970's. It was referred to as the 'Hanoi Hilton' because supposedly the American prisoners got really good treatment. That's what the signs read.
There is an area of Hanoi that you can buy dog meat. This was a restaurant that served it. "Thit Cho" is the Vietnamese word for dog. Didn't see any - dead or alive around.
We've left Hanoi and headed south to a rural place called Coc Tom. This was just a nice photo of a woman in her boat.
As usual my favourite - pigs. There are no supermarkets in rual Vietnam. You either go to the local market in the village square or the market comes to you. The local pig seller comes to your house on his scooter, you select a piglet or two and raise'em as your own until it's time to butcher.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rant on Airports

I like airports. They are exciting. I'm going somewhere. Can't wait. Yes, there are annoyances about them which I won't get into because you know what they are. I think airports, particularly Canadian airports, can make time spent in them less annoying. Take Changi International in Singapore as an example. They have so many services and conveniences: an orchid garden, a butterfly garden, shopping, a cactus garden, spa services (real spa services), showers, rest areas that don't require some elite membership in an airline or credit card, shopping, casino, supermarket, FREE yes real free wi fi, shopping, did I mention the wonderful orchid garden, baby services for travelers with small children, FREE luggage trolleys of different sizes so you don't have to wheel a monster size around the place, lots of shopping, the list goes on and on. I LOVE Changi. They have it so right. They say 'first class feeling' for all customers. Gosh I am considered a 'customer' at Changi. What a novel idea. They look to install 'customer centric initiatives'. How refreshing. It makes Pearson look like something out of the Dark Ages. Pearson depresses me. Even the 'new Pearson' depresses me. When are we going to start doing it right and stop herding people like cattle at the slaughter house? Do North American airports even care? I don't think so.