Showing posts with label Indochina. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Indochina. Show all posts

06 February 2021

Recensione: Fantasmi: Dispacci dalla Cambogia, di Tiziano Terzani (2008) ****

Sinossi

La Cambogia è stato uno dei grandi amori di Tiziano Terzani. La storia di questo piccolo regno, che custodisce al suo interno i misteriosi templi di Angkor, divenne per lui emblematica della storia dei paesi dell'Asia travolti nel corso del XX secolo dai giochi delle grandi potenze (USA, Cina, URSS). Terzani visitò più volte il Paese tra il 1972 e il 1994, divenne amico del suo re e nemico indignato degli assassini khmer rossi, per denunciare infine come ipocrita e immorale anche l'operato di pace da parte delle Nazioni Unite. 

Il libro, fondato sui reportage di Terzani dalla Cambogia, contiene anche il racconto scritto in prima persona della sua cattura da parte di combattenti ragazzini, dell'attimo in cui si salvò la vita con una risata - come amava raccontare - e circa cinquanta fotografie originali, scattate spesso da lui stesso.


Recensione

Terzani ci racconta gli orrori della Cambogia dei Khmer Rossi. In realtà ci racconta dei racconti che ha ascoltato, perché in quel periodo lui, come tutti i corrispondenti stranieri, in Cambogia non poteva entrarci.

Ciononostante il libro è una miniera d'oro di informazioni, e le riflessioni che Terzani ci propone molti anni dopo la fine del regime lo sono ancora di più.

Unica pecca, che ricorre negli scritti di Terzani sull'Indocina, è il persistente atteggiamento anti-americano e anti-modernità. Lui riconosce, con grande onestà intellettuale, di essersi sbagliato sui Khmer Rossi, ma negli anni settanta sembrava cercare sempre un motivo per dubitare delle denunce che urlavano gli scampati. Mentre ogni occasione è buona per accusare gli americani, che pure di colpe ne hanno avute tante, o anche i giapponesi, per il loro imperialismo economico.

Poi si rammarica che anonimi palazzi abbiano preso il posto delle catapecchie, ma non pensa che anche ai cambogiani possano servire acqua corrente e elettricità. Insomma una testimonianza appassionata e consigliata, ma viziata da un pregiudizio ideologico di fondo.

29 January 2021

Book review: The Gate, by François Bizot (2004), *****


Synopsys

In 1971, on a routine outing through the Cambodian countryside, the young French scholar Francois Bizot was captured by the Khmer Rouge. Accused of being an agent of American imperialism, he was chained and imprisoned. His captor, Duch, later responsible for tens of thousands of deaths at the Tuol Sleng prison, interviewed him at length; after three months of torturous deliberation, during which his every word was weighed and his life hung in the balance, he was released. No other Western prisoner survived. Four years later, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Francois Bizot became the official intermediary between the ruthless conqueror and the terrified refugees behind the gate of the French embassy: a ringside seat to one of history's most appalling genocides.


Review

Bizot was incredibly lucky to see what he saw and come out alive, then move on to survive in Phnom Penh for several more years and write a harrowing and unique account of the Khmer Rouge rule. The gate of the French embassy, where many notables of the old regime had found refuge, and through which they will have to walk to their fate in the hands of the communists. A unique first-hand experience that very few western writers have been able to share so much in detail. He talks to many revolutionary soldiers and discusses politics as well as the details of day-to-day existence, the next harvest, education. Reading him is almost as good as having been there, without the dangers and the discomfort!

Read about my trip to Cambodia here.

See my reviews of other books on Cambodia here in this blog.



27 January 2021

Recensione: Mekong Story. Lungo il cuore d'acqua del Sud-Est asiatico (2006) di Massimo Morello,

Sinossi

Giornalista e viaggiatore, Massimo Morello presenta questo diario di viaggio nel Sud-Est asiatico lungo il Mekong: dal delta, sul Mar della Cina, sin quasi alle sorgenti, in un monastero buddhista nell'altopiano himalayano della remota regione del Qinghai. 

L'autore narra un percorso sul fiume e dintorni attraverso Vietnam, Cambogia, Thailandia, Birmania, Los, Cina e Tibet, tra foreste, montagne, paludi e valli incantate, piste polverose, sentieri di fango e superstrade, villaggi e metropoli, hotel di superlusso e locande malfamate. Un viaggio che l'autore ha compiuto da solo, in battello, bus, auto, a piedi, in un susseguirsi di avventure e disavventure che gli hanno permesso di osservare più da vicino quella che viene definita la nuova Asia.

Recensione

Un viaggio di sei mesi lungo un fiume lunghissimo. Anzi un meta-viaggio, dato che il percorso Morello lo ha fatto a varie riprese. Osservatore informato, ci racconta le sue esperienze rendendole rilevanti ed interessanti perché ci aiutano a capire i paesi che visita. Un libro di viaggio ma anche di storia e di politica, di costume e di gastronomia. Un ottimo compagno per chi vuol viaggiare in quelle terre, o lungo quel fiume.

Leggi qui altre mie recensioni di libri sull'Indocina.

25 November 2013

Film review/recensione: The lover /L'amante (1992), by Jean-Jacques Annaud, *****

testo italiano di seguito

Synopsis

The Lover is director Jean-Jacques Annaud's adaptation of Marguerite Duras' minimalist 1984 novel. Set in French Indochina in 1929, the film explores the erotic charge of forbidden love. Jane March plays a French teenager sent to a Saigon boarding school, while Tony Leung is a 32-year Chinese aristocrat. They look at each and they both see a blinding white flash; it's kismet. He offers her a ride in his limousine and soon they meet in his "bachelor room" where they revel in a wide variety of creative sexual encounters. However, they both realize their love is doomed.

She comes from a troubled family that includes a mentally-disturbed mother (Frederique Meininger) and drug-addicted brother (Arnaud Giovaninetti). It also appears that her family would not approve of an interracial tryst. But then neither would his family, since in order to inherit his father's wealth, he must not break from a traditional Chinese arranged marriage.


Review

A high-quality erotic movie, of course, and a deeply romantic one. Deep passion intertwined with surrepetitiousness and sin. Very exciting.

But for me the main picture was that of colonian life in Vietnam in the French colonial time. Here we see as Asian man in control of a beautiful European lady. He is Chinese, not the colonized Vietnamese, but still an "Asian". Despite his wealth and sophistication he is still considered a second tier person by the white colonizers. But here he is in control. And she, too, frees herself from the constraint of her condition as a white lady at a boarding school, and takes her liberties with the man she loves. Or maybe does not love, but desires.

Duras said her book was partly autobiographical, which adds interest and lends credibility to the story.




Sinossi

Sul finire degli anni venti, in Indocina una ragazza di quindici anni, figlia di una donna povera, conosce l'uomo piu' ricco della regione. Fra i due nasce una grande passione, ma le rigide convenzioni sociali finiranno per prevalere sull'amore.

Recensione

L'Amante è un film di grande sensualità ed intensità emotiva. Passione e trasgressione si mischiano per creare una miscela esplosiva. Molto eccitante. Questo è il primo messaggio che recepiamo dal film.

Tuttavia per me il secondo, e forse più importante, messaggio è quello di farci vedere la vita nell'Indocina colonizzata dai francesi negli anni venti del XX secolo. Vediamo un uomo asiatico (un cinese, non un vietnamita colonizzato) che controlla una bella donna bianca del paese colonizzatore. Nonostante la sua ricchezza e la sua sofisticata classe, egli è pur sempre un asiatico e come tale considerato una persona di seconda categoria. Ma qui è lui che domina la situazione. Ma anche la ragazza si libera delle costrizioni imposte dalla sua condizione di bianca e si prende le sue libertà con l'uomo che ama. O forse che non ama, ma che vuole.

Duras ha scritto che il suo libro è in parte autobiografico, il che accresce la credibilità e l'interesse per la storia qui esposta.

Versione italiana del DVD




09 December 2011

Map Review: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Freytag & Berndt, ****

Description
Explore Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with this Freytag&Berndt road map. The best way to plan your trip, prepare your itinerary, and to travel independently in this part of Southeast Asia.

10 May 2005

Book Review: Dear Mom, a Sniper's Vietnam, by Joseph T. Ward, ***

Synopsis
The letters Joseph Ward, one of the elite Marine Scout Snipers, wrote home reveal a side of the Vietnam war seldom seen. Whether under nigthly mortar attack in An Hoa, with a Marine company in the bullet-scarred jungle, on secret missions to Laos, or on dangerous two-man hunter-kills, Ward lived the war in a way few men did. And he fought the enemy as few men did--up close and personal.

02 September 2004

Book Review: Cambodia, by Anita Sach, *****

Synopsis

A guide to the cultural attractions of this emerging destination. Explore the grand ruins of Ankor Wat's temples, as well as areas of Cambodia just opening up to travellers, with this practical and thorough guide.


22 October 2002

Book review: Voices of S-21 (1999) by David Chandler, ****


Synopsys

The horrific torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge during the 1970s is one of the century's major human disasters. David Chandler, a world-renowned historian of Cambodia, examines the Khmer Rouge phenomenon by focusing on one of its key institutions, the secret prison outside Phnom Penh known by the code name "S-21." The facility was an interrogation center where more than 14,000 "enemies" were questioned, tortured, and made to confess to counterrevolutionary crimes. Fewer than a dozen prisoners left S-21 alive.

During the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) era, the existence of S-21 was known only to those inside it and a few high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. When invading Vietnamese troops discovered the prison in 1979, murdered bodies lay strewn about and instruments of torture were still in place. An extensive archive containing photographs of victims, cadre notebooks, and DK publications was also found. Chandler utilizes evidence from the S-21 archive as well as materials that have surfaced elsewhere in Phnom Penh. He also interviews survivors of S-21 and former workers from the prison.

Documenting the violence and terror that took place within S-21 is only part of Chandler's story. Equally important is his attempt to understand what happened there in terms that might be useful to survivors, historians, and the rest of us. Chandler discusses the "culture of obedience" and its attendant dehumanization, citing parallels between the Khmer Rouge executions and the Moscow Show Trails of the 1930s, Nazi genocide, Indonesian massacres in 1965-66, the Argentine military's use of torture in the 1970s, and the recent mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda. In each of these instances, Chandler shows how turning victims into "others" in a manner that was systematically devaluing and racialist made it easier to mistreat and kill them. More than a chronicle of Khmer Rouge barbarism, Voices from S-21 is also a judicious examination of the psychological dimensions of state-sponsored terrorism that conditions human beings to commit acts of unspeakable brutality.

Review

This book is a useful reference for raw data from some of the protagonists. It is not easy or pleasant reading, but it does constitute a useful addition to the library of anyone researching the Khmer Rouge.

12 September 2002

Book Review: Off the Rails in Phnom Penh (2000), by Amit Gilboa, ****

Synopsis

Phnom Penh in the 1990s is a city of beauty and degradation, tranquillity and violence, and tradition and transformation; a city of temples and brothels, music and gunfire, and festivals and coups...

But for many, it is simply an anarchic celebration of insanity and indulgence. Whether it is the $2 wooden shack brothels, the marijuana-pizza restaurants, the AK-47 fireworks displays, or the intricate brutality of Cambodian politics, Phnom Penh never ceases to amaze and amuse. For an individual coming from a modern Western society, it is a place where the immoral becomes acceptable and the insane becomes normal as they search for love in the brothels or adventure into the dark heart of guns, girls and ganja.

Review

This is an easy book to read. You will earn a genuine view of how debauchery and flimsiness governed this place in the 1990s, at least from the point of view of some foreigners who are not exactly sure what they are there to do in the first place. The book is largely anecdotal and interesting for that. It almost totally lacks analysis, which one would have expected from a professional writer like the author. You can almost breathe the air in Phnom Penh while reading this book, you can feel high, but I am not sure how much you understand... but there are other books for that. If you are not a young and slightly nut Westerner but would like to experience Cambodia like if you were one... this book is for you!! :-)



02 September 2002

Bibliography: Books on Cambodia and Laos

ON BOTH COUNTRIES

Morello, Massimo: "Mekong Story. Lungo il cuore d'Acqua del Sud-Est asiatico", (Milano, Touring Club Italiano, 2006)

Gargan, Edward A.: "The River's Tale: A year on the Mekong" (New York: Knopf, 2002). One year savoring the beauty of the river.

Goodman, Jim: "Meet the Akhas" (Bangkok, White Lotus, 1996). A detailed account of a little-known minority.

Swain, Jon: "River of Time" (London: Vintage, 1996). An account of the final years of the Vietnam war.

Road Map: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Freytag & Berndt.

CAMBODIA

Bizot, François: "The Gate". A French tells of his hair-raising experience among the Khmer Rouge and then in the French embassy, where hundreds had sought refuge.

Chandler, David: "Voices from S-21". The most detailed research into the main torture center of the Khmer Rouge, lots of direct testimonies from the victims.

Fröberg Idling, Peter: "Il sorriso di Pol Pot" (Milano: Iperborea, 2006) Un gruppo di svedesi ha il privilegio di visitare la Cambogia dei Khmer Rossi e ne torna entusiasta: non capivano o non vedevano?

Gilboa, Amit: "Off the Rails in Phnom Penh", (Bangkok: Asia Books, 1998). Funny and not so funny anecdotes from the 1990s.

Sach, Anita: "Cambodia, Bradt Travel guide", (Bucks, England: Bradt, 2001). The best guidebook on Cambodia's culture.

Shawcross, William: "Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia", (New York: Cooper Square, 2002).

Terzani, Tiziano: "Fantasmi: Dispacci dalla Cambogia". Raccolta di articoli del corrispondente tra la metà degli anni 70 e la metà degli anni 90 del XX secolo.  

Ung, Loung: "First they killed my father", (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2001). The Khmer Rouge crimes as seen through the eyes of a child.

LAOS

Bounyavong, Outhine: "Mother's beloved" (Seattle: U. of Washington, 1999). Translations of Laotian tales with a good introduction.

Murphy, Dervla: "One Foot in Laos", (London: John Murray, 1999).An unusual journey on foot by a seasoned super leftist writer.

Footprint Guide: Laos Handbook, 2000, 2nd Edition. This was, at the time of my travel, the best guidebook available on Laos, but make sure you get the latest edition.

31 August 2002

Book Review: "First they killed my father", by Loung Ung, *****

Synopsis
An unforgettable narrative of war crimes and desperate actions from a childhood survivor of Cambodia's brutal Pol Pot regime.

30 August 2002

23. - 30 AUG: Bangkok, end of the trip.

I have a couple of days in Bangkok before heading out of Indochina. The name means the “city of angels” and it is twinned, guess what, with Los Angeles in California!

29 August 2002

22. - 29 AUG: Exit Indochina

Monks alms procession

On my last day in Luang Prabang one of my goals was to be at sunrise on top of the Phousi mountain to take a few good dawn shots of the city and its surroundings. I had set the alarm clock for a quarter to five in the morning, but as it often happens to me when something important is at stake I woke up just a few minutes before it went off. How our internal clock can be so precise it is difficult for me to fathom. Be that as it may, I was immediately awake and fully alert. I was not tired, despite the early hour and the long transfers of the previous days. The sky was heavily clouded, not the best photo weather at all, to put it mildly. I realized there would be no chance for the Phousi I had been planning for, it will have to be on the next trip to Luang Prabang. I was disappointed, and the temptation to go back to sleep and wait for a civilized eight o’clock breakfast was a powerful one. However, I was up now and when I heard the irresistible call of the gong from the Wat Xieng Muang next door my mind was quickly made up and I decided to go look for the monks doing their begging rounds, a daily routine but always an intense moment to witness. In a minute I was out in the street and began looking around and listening...

28 August 2002

21. - 28 AUG: Luang namtha – Luang Prabang

Today long transfer to Luang Prabang.

Along the way a reminder of Europe: at a village that seems in pretty good shape we see a big sign with a faded blue flag and a circle of 12 stars of the European Union, which has funded development projects in the area.

The village allows us some interesting time travel. Houses made of wooden poles and mud, pigs and chicken roaming free. Many women around, young women most of whom carry a child on their back. Some older children play in the mud or in the watering tanks for the animals. They are all dressed in simple rags, and inevitably wear some jewels. Their exposed upper body and breasts reveal toned muscles and soft brown skin.

When we arrive at Luang Prabang we go to sleep at the same guesthouse as before, the French-speaking lady is waiting for us. Feels a bit like home after the adventure of the last few days.

27 August 2002

20. - 27 AUG: Muang Sing - Luang Namtha

Another town which was much destroyed by US bombing and has now found a new lease on life from tourism and trade with China – lots of advertising boards in Chinese here, and several hotels and restaurants are owned by Chinese interests; Chinese products, including food, is widely available. We are unmistakably very very close to China...

26 August 2002

19. - 26 AUG: Muang Sing market, trek in the jungle

Muang Sing market

Six o’clock in the morning and the market is already in full swing. Ladies from around the province are deployed to their negotiating positions behind tightly packed stands: fruits, vegetables, spices, sweets, the usual suspects as far as country markets go. But some not so usual foodstuffs did make me wonder what kind of recipes would be prepared that evening in some of Muang Sing’s homes: roasted and live beetles, whole raw pig heads, buckets of chicken paws…

25 August 2002

18. - 25 AUG: Udom Xai to Muang Sing

At dawn I get up and head to town. A pale almost-full moon is still high in the sky. The predictable trickle of monks drips down the one hundred or so irregular steps which lead to their dormitory at the top of the “that”, their rice baskets secured around their shoulders. Oudomxai is coming to life quickly and noisily. The market was already in full swing by the time I got there around half past six. Like the town it is part of, the market is a melting pot of cultures: Lao food is on offer side by side with Vietnamese and especially Chinese supplies. Not a few signs in fact are in Chinese. This is an important junction between the three countries, and after the end of the war it gradually came back to economic life.

24 August 2002

17. - 24 AUG: Muang Khua to Udom Xai

Departure after the usual banana pancakes for breakfasts, I am getting a bit tired of them but heck... It is not without some apprehension that we started our drive from Muang Khua toward the Oudomxai province. We had been warned of landslides, uncertain how long it would take or even whether we would make it at all. We had also been assured that work was in progress to clear the roads, but somehow that did not quite sound as reassuring as we would have wished. So we are off, no choice now...

23 August 2002

16. - 23 AUG: From Nong Kiaw to Muang Khua by slow boat

At the crack of dawn a madly crowing rooster woke everyone up. He must have been worried that if we had overslept we would have missed the beautiful early morning colors. Thanks to the cock’s zeal we could finally enjoy, over breakfast, the verandah’s river view we had only been able to imagine the previous evening.

22 August 2002

15. - 22 AUG: Luang Prabang - Nong Kiaw (Muang Ngoy): against the current on a slow boat on the Nam Ou river

On a slow motor pirogue up the Mekong

Again up at dawn, at 7:00am we were at the Luang Prabang ferry harbor on the Mekong, just a five minute walk from our guesthouse. We load up and we are off. As we leave the last houses of Luang Prabang behind us, our slow boat begins to claw its way against the slow current of the Mekong. Soon, there is only virgin jungle all around us, and the impenetrable vegetation tumbles down decisively into the water from steep cliffs.

Different shades of dark green paint quick brush strokes down the uneven slopes. A few houses, sometimes on stilts, occasionally break our of the bush and suddenly come into view. On this stretch the river seems flat and quiet, no apparent current, no boulders to break its flow. Its dense clay-like water gently parts as we slide forward along the left bank.


After a good hour we reach the caves of Pak Ou, which are actually a bit disappointing. To my inexpert eye, the sculptures there are no match for what we have seen in Luang Prabang, there are too many people and too little space. When we leave the caves the boat takes a sharp turn to starboard and we leave the Mekong to begin our trip up its tributary, the Nam Ou. We are greeted by an immediate and drastic change of landscape. The Nam Ou’s river span is predictably much narrower than that of the Mekong, and the deep green of the jungle which framed our course until now is replaced by stark vertical rocky cliffs which drop several hundred meters straight down into the water, and mark the junction of the two rivers as a monumental post. The Nam Ou is perfectly flat and seemingly still here, as if frozen, with only a few minute ripples reflecting silvery shades and thus breaking the compact glossy brick-red coat of the surface.

Villages along the river

The village to which our skipper decided to take us, one a long series we meet as we motor up the river, is ready and set for the incoming tourists. Smiling ladies a their fighting stations (wooden tables on which their wares are displayed) politely invite us to examine various artifacts and cloths. I bought an opium pipe made of bone; I will never smoke it, I knew that, but the shape and engraving are endearing and I like the thought of giving a small incentive to honest artisans who use local raw materials and help preserve traditional skills. A few men are working with a scalpel, thy were trying to carve out a tree trunk to make a canoe, but their attitude made me think it was all staged for effect, they somehow do not look like carpenters or coopers.

A completely different story awaited us at another village a few kilometers upstream. This time we saw a few houses on stilts and asked the skipper to make a landing. The inhabitants were friendly and immediately welcomed us, but it was abundantly clear that they did not expect a visit that day! A few children approached and wanted to play, but most of the adults just kept going at their daily routines, weaving, washing, sawing bamboo. A couple of adolescents were curious to see through our telephoto lenses and had a ball when they did! Their interest turned into elation when I substituted a fish-eye lens (super wide angle) for the telephoto…

It’s lunch time and I am hoping for some local delicacy but at a food stall we see it’s all imported food, except Lao Beer (not even that!, bought by a Thai company). I am rather disappointed but there is no time to go and loo, around for anything else. It’s hot and we are thirsty and hungry!

Satellite dishes are ostentatiously visible on some of the roofs. A fellow traveler commented that this was really too bad, television would for ever spoil the gentle and innocent character of these peoples. They would be bombarded with useless commercials and will want things they do not need. They will see a distorted representation of reality outside their village. Children would spend hours sitting in front of their TV sets and stop socializing and playing outside. I could not disagree more. Even though I don’t watch TV personally, it seems to me that the information and education that an otherwise isolated population can receive throught the airwaves is priceless. Yes, it will change their lifestyle as it has changed ours. Not sure even about that, this generation is moving fast away from TV and toward the internet anyway. But how on earth can one wish these people did not have this channel of communication available to them is beyond me. Except the silly, selfish desire to preserve “genuine” populations, isolated from “contamination”, so as to be able to come here and photograph “real” Laos. Dumb!

Panning for Gold in Suptiem

After one sharp bend of the river out skipper steers abruptly to starboard and makes landfall on a small island of mud. In the distance further upstream we can make out people crouching by the waterfront but it is not clear what they are up to. We are told we can not really make a landfall closer and after we are all on the island the skipper uses the boats plank to bridge the mud island with the mainland and we start walking toward the crouching people.

As it turns out they were all women, many with their children playing around, but no men in sight. The women had big pans in their hands and they are panning for gold! One proudly shows us a tiny gold leaf she has found earlier in the morning. Most are panning the river water, and about one hundred of them work side by side along the beach. Some dig into the mud a few meters inland, and go carefully through the mud in search of glittering stuff. It was noon and the tropical sun, having finally broken through the cloud cover after several days, was shining with all its might, its hot rays hitting me heavily on the head. The Mekong displayed its usual brick-red intensity, the same color as the muddy river banks, the sky was a cloudless postcard blue and the deep green jungle thoroughly covered the steep mountainsides all around. Everything in sight was either blue, green or brick-red, nature looks so simple, so perfectly assembled. After several days of sailing up the river we had gained altitude, and the air began to feel thinner.

Leaving the ladies to their work we walked up a slippery mud path toward the village itself. Perhaps they did actually find lots of gold here, because Suptiem was evidently a richer, cleaner village than any other we have seen so far. The houses on stilts were neat and proper, built on a perfectly straight line along both sides of a main street. Some embryonic urban planning must have gone into the layout of Suptiem. A shining polished communal water pump (hand powered, alas, no generators!) stood by the road side, and people took turns at showering and filling up bottles for their homes. Curious children, as always, came around asking for pens; they looked quite healthy and clean. Some older ladies intervened and tried to sell their pretty embroidery.

As we continued our course Northward, the boat’s tack became uneven. Until now the skipper had kept a steady course and speed, but now he had to carefully negotiate his way among treacherous sandbanks and all kinds of floating debris. Sudden cross currents forced him to zigzag in an apparently haphazard way to port or starboard; one minute we could almost tough the vegetation on the right bank, the next we were headed straight toward a inlet on the left bank. The skipper’s assistant made me come down from the roof structure where I had climbed in search for better angles for my pictures: must lower the boat’s center of gravity to make it more stable during the sudden turns... safety first!

As the cruising hours gently went by, the dark green of the jungle all around gradually turned darker and darker. The silvery ripples on the brick-clay river surface turned blue. At dusk, it all quickly took on a light gray patina, which then turned into dark gray. The last pirogues still in the water hurriedly made for home, and the last few children interrupted their frolics in the water and disappeared behind the bush. We were obviously late, the boat should have reached Nong Khiaw by now, but the town is nowhere to be seen. At one point the large suspended bridge of Muang Ngoy appeared before us. A modern structure, if a bit run down, aesthetically out of context in the otherwise bucolic surroundings, but obviously a great bonus in terms of both time and safety for those who use it. From the bridge, we were told, it was another hour to our final destination.

At the tropics the sun sets quickly. For another thirty minutes or so, the large white clouds which had gathered above held on to a sliver of dim sunlight which reflected down from their Western rims. Then, inevitably, the clouds’ countours became one with the black sky. The moon had not risen over the mountains yet and all of a sudden it was pitch black all around: water, jungle, boat, even ourselves, everything was ink black. At one point, suddenly, the weather deteriorated dramatically and a thunderstorm announced itself with a series of loud roars as a strange hot lateral wind began to pick up and hit the boat from starboard. It blew a pungent sand. The thick downpour delivered the first chill I experienced since arriving in South East Asia, it felt strange after weeks of uninterrupted heat. We all pulled out sweaters, wind-breakers, anoraks, whatever we had (and thought we would never need) and the skipper ordered the plastic curtains which were rolled up all around the roof to be released and made fast down onto the boat’s sides to partially protect us from rain and spray, which made the wind-carried dust stick to our skin. Luckily all photographic equipment has long been stored away for the day.

At this point we were cruising full speed ahead into a Conradian darkness on our pretty solid but light-less and radio-less, not to speak of GPS-less, radar-less, horn-less and everything-else-less boat. I was not sure we had life vests on board but what I knew for sure was that, even if we did, in an emergency we would never have been able to find them and put them on. Even if we had put them on, what would have happened once we had been at the current’s mercy is anyone’s guess. That by that hour there was obviously no traffic at all on the river did not make me feel much safer. Nevertheless, it was somehow exhilarating to be there! We did not speak much at all, but deep inside I was excited. How did the skipper continue both to avoid treacherous submerged boulders and to tame the tricky currents without seeing a thing was a mystery to me; that we did not hit a major invisible floating obstacle, like a log, the kind you can hardly see even in broad daylight was, I am sure, sheer luck! Another hour or so later we finally got a glimpse, out in the distance, of the barely visible neon lights of what by then I wanted to believe was Nong Khiaw, our destination. Which it was!

Nong Khiaw (Muang Ngoi)

When we got there, the docking station was packed solid with various boats, and we must make landfall a bit further on, under a steep muddy incline just under the verandah of a guesthouse. The boat’s wooden plank was laid as usual and Barbara and I walked onto the mud looking for shelter for the night. We climbed up the embankment and were met the owner of the guesthouse above, no problems, there were double rooms available at Kip 10,000 (one dollar) per night. Again while all my friends carry their back-packs some boy comes down to the pier and takes my suitcase for me, and earns a little tip for carrying it up the embankment to the room!

Half an hour later we were around the dining table of the guesthouse’s verandah, overlooking the river – though there was not much to overlook as it was still pitch black all around. The wind and rain had stopped, however, and it was pleasant to taste different kinds of river fish with sticky rice for dinner. A few hammocks provided an ideal setting for after dinner conversations al fresco. As announced by a notice on the wall, at about 10:00 o’clock the generator became silent and all lights went out. The erratic nature of power supply was a recurring theme in our conversations.

Power to the people?

It is amazing how so many villages around Laos, even small towns, only have sporadic and unreliable access to electricity. Often the only source of power are small diesel powered generators, with the obvious inconvenience of noise and air pollution that they produce. The reason why this is amazing is that Laos is a major producer, and exporter, of hydroelectric power. The government exports electricity, most of it to Thailand, to raise cash, but it does not yet think it necessary to provide it to its own people. In the mid-nineties a fierce debate began over whether or not additional hydroelectric capacity should be built. Opinions were as divided among the Laotians as they wre, and still are, among foreigners, interest groups and environmental organizations. Again the divide between eternal romantics and modernizers became apparent. The former see hydroelectric power as a mortal threat to the environment as well as to the traditional way of life of many hill tribes who must be resettled to make room for the new dam’s reservoir. The latter see new hydropower capacity as a clean source of renewable energy, indipensable for the economic development of the region and a precious source of foreign currency from power hungry Thailand and, increasingly, Viet Nam. No one is really pushing for additional fossil fuel power generation, so the real issue at stake is whether or not Laotian villages and towns need a reliable source of electricity.

The answer is not an economic but rather a political one. Eternal romantics believe that rural communities, and certainly all hill tribes, can live very well thank you very much the way they have lived for centuries, i.e. without electricity. (And of course without TV!) They see the arrival of electricity as a curse which changes – for the worse – their traditional way of life, creating unnecessary demand for electric tools and appliances an making it possible for hordes of tourists to invade. Modernizers, for their part, consider the need for electricity as a self-evident truth, indispensable to raise the standard of living, and argue not over whether, but over how to best provide for it.

Later at night a brilliant full moon rose high in the sky. It highlighted the contours of a few small clouds and cast a pale light over the blacked-out village. Tall palm tree silhouettes stood still behind the rooftops. There is nothing whatsoever one could possible do in the village, so I retired to my room. The manager gave us each one candle to get around in the night; come to think of it a dozen candles lying on the floor of wood and rattan constructions was a pretty serious fire hazard, but I persuaded myself that was just my prejudiced Western mindset, pulled out my diary and jotted down a few notes until all of a sudden the day’s fatigue set in and I collapsed for what I naively looked forward to be a good long night’s sleep.