Dick and Eric's Travels

Our trip to Burma, Laos, &Thailand, March 2008

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A note on Burma

We saw everything in Burma (or Myanmar, as the generals have renamed it) from a tourist perspective. Much was invisible to us: the brutal suppression of dissent, the intimidation of all non-military professionals, the forced labor that built roads and railroads and cleaned up some of the tourist sites we admired, such as Bagan. Anyone who travels to Burma should read especially Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin and Whispers at the Pagoda by our daughter Annette's friend, Julie Sell. We didn't forget that the simplicity of the villages, the absence of commercial development, the underpopulation of the rural districts and even of the cities, had heavy costs for the people we enjoyed photographing.

We made a loop through space, from Thailand to Burma to Laos and back to Thailand. It was also a virtual loop through historical time. Burma sometimes seemed unchanged since the 1920's, as we read Maugham's The Gentleman in the Parlor and Orwell's Burmese Days. Laos, with its current socialist-capitalist economy, is on its way to becoming a thriving country, recovering from the horrific bombing of the Indochina War, as it's called there (more bombs fell on Laos than on all countries in WW1 and WW2 combined). Thailand seems as thoroughly modern as Singapore, though much more interesting because of its ancient culture.

Bangkok Wednesday March 5 - 6

We arrive in Bangkok at 2:00 in the morning after a tiring, uneventful flight (24 hours in the air, 8 hours in airports), to find our room in the Peninsula Hotel, on the banks of the Chao Praya river.

Looking out from our balcony we see barges and water taxis up and downstream against a skyline of high-rise office buildings, with here and there a temple spire or low-rise 19th-century roofline. We're enjoying the feeling of pure potentiality: nothing accomplished yet except that tiring trip, and everything in the offing. First item will be a six-hour tour of the city arranged by our hotel concierge. It's a beautiful warm day.

Our tour guide is named Nok (with a glottal stop for the last consonant), which means “bird” in Thai, so he asks us to call him Bird.Bird and Eric

In the course of our wanderings by boat along the river and canals, by van through the streets, and by foot through the various monuments, we learn that he is a gay man of forty something, with a partner who shares his free time but not his apartment. Bird has been introduced to his friend’s family, who are very affectionate and welcoming to him. But his own family, though they know his sexual preference, would rather not meet his friend. He has an older brother and a sister, and his family is very important to him.

Inside our water taxi

We start with a trip in a water taxi, powered by a truck engine which drives a shallow propeller, up the wide Chao Praya river.

Modern buildings alternate with temples and schools.

We turn into a narrow canal, where we pass by elegant teak houses, mixed randomly with shacks with corrugated metal roofs. We see families within eating meals, selling groceries, tending their potted plants, playing with their dogs.

Truck engine powers taxi

Some of the details of canalside life remind us of the Brazilian settlements we passed by in rubber Zodiacs on our trip last year to the Jungle Rivers of South America. March is the beginning of the summer school holidays, and boys liberated from school run along the walkways by the river.

Inside the barge museum We stop at the Royal Barge Museum. The current king, Rama IX (his real name is Bhumibol Adulyadej) has been on the throne for 62 years. The museum has many gilded barges, which are brought out for the celebrations of royal birthdays and coronation anniversaries.

The most recent royal event was a sad one, the death of the king’s sister, Princess Galyani, in January. Everywhere we go we see groups of women in black and some men in black and white, who are here on pilgrimage from other parts of Thailand to mourn and prepare for her cremation this summer. Meanwhile her embalmed body is on display, for those appropriately dressed, in one of the temples we see. She was the sister not only of Rama IX, but of his older brother Rama VIII, who reigned for less than a year before he was assassinated in the royal residence in 1946. No one knows who was responsible for his assassination, but it may have been the result of a power struggle among the government rulers, who since the 1930’s have had only a ceremonial relationship with royalty. The government is known as a royal democracy, but when Dick asked him about the violent political coups that seem to take place independently of voters’ wishes, Bird acknowledged that the government is not always responsive to popular wishes.

Glittering tiles everywhere

We visit the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, built by Rama II and extended by later kings including Rama III and IV, one of the holiest places in the Buddhist world.

The Buddha lived only in India, but there are not many Buddhists left in India (10%, Bird said, still a huge number). The temple is splendid, glittering with glass, semiprecious stones, enamel, and porcelain brought from China.

There is a pagoda containing ashes of the king, a monastery, and a meditation hall where we stop to admire the gilded images of the Buddha and attendant angels.

Exterior of the restaurant where we lunched We stop for lunch at an old established restaurant that Bird likes. We are the only tourists. A family brings a box with a cake for a birthday celebration. Solicitous waiters keep our plates filled with food, Pad Thai, glass noodle salad, and Masuman curry, and our glasses filled with Singha beer.

After lunch we go by van to the Grand Palace, passing by a traffic island with elephant decor.

The Grand Palace is an enclosure of many acres containing many temples, pagodas, the royal residence (since the assassination no longer lived in) and government buildings.

Golden surfaces

The vast gilded surfaces and the mirrored glass mosaics that cover many of the buildings dazzle the eyes and overwhelm the imagination.

Many of the most impressive details are derived from other cultures: we see Chinese temple dogs, for example, and a vast mural containing more than a hundred scenes from the Hindu Ramayana.

There is a large replica of the temple of Angkor Wat, which is in Cambodia in a region that was once part of Thailand, but which was bargained away to the British colonial government as a defensive maneuver. Bird is proud that Thailand, alone of all the countries of Southeast Asia, has never been colonized, though it was once briefly overrun by the hated Burmese.

Near the end of our tour, we stop at the temple of the Emerald Buddha. We can’t take pictures inside the temple, but we manage a photographic glimpse of the Buddha from outside. The statue is made from one piece of jade, intensely colored green so that it looks almost emerald. The statue is clothed with costumes appropriate to the four seasons; once a year the entire jade image is visible.

Worshippers outside the temple excitedly dip long-stemmed lotus buds into a vat of what we suppose is holy water and dab the buds on their heads.

Movie: Holy water and lotus buds at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Bird is an earnest Buddhist. He spent several months as a monk in his thirties, and though he doesn’t attend services regularly, he prays and meditates. Wnen we reach the Emerald Buddha in the Royal Palace, he urges us to kneel with him and the other worshipers and ask the Buddha for a wish.

We end the day with a swim and exercise in the well-equipped hotel gym, and dinner across the river in a Sheraton hotel, after a frustrating trudge through smelly, crowded back streets, polluted with tuk-tuk and motorcycle exhaust, searching for a more authentic place to eat.

We wake up early, after a good sleep. I do my twelve laps in the splendid outdoor pool, swimming alone in the lovely clean water. Resting in a poolside cabana, I look up and see in the clerestory panels under the roof scene after scene of domestic life in (I gather) 18th century Thailand. These are replicas, clearly, but they are wonderfully painted, with comical scenes of boys playing with dogs, men at work or relaxing with their wives and families.

One of the cabanas has scenes of a military battle and siege. Some of the soldiers behind the castellated walls have white faces, and I would guess Portuguese hats. The violence is moderated by the comic-book faces and the playfully tumbling bodies, even those in pain.

I am relieved to see that in one scene of torture, where a man tied to a wooden rack is whipped, none of the faces is white.

The next morning, after another luxurious swim and some paragraphs in this journal, we ride to the airport hotel where we will join the Zeco Tours group for an early morning flight to Rangoon.

More photos of Bangkok

Yangon, March 8

The Yangon (Rangoon) airport in the 1970’s, we were told, was the largest and most advanced in Asia. Now the airport, unchanged, is one of the smallest and most run down. On our bus ride through the city we have a sense of time travel to a city under a spell of suspended animation. Very few buildings have been built in the last 50 years, none above 5 or 6 stories, by governmental decree, and the older buildings are moldering and poorly maintained.

British colonial buildings have been converted to other uses, like this hospital, stained with black mold, which was earlier the central British colonial headquarters. There are trucks, buses, taxis, and bicycles in the street, but no motorcycles, again by decree. People buy groceries at vegetable stands, as in provincial towns; but this is a national capital. There are commercial billboards but they have no glamour, no luxury, no sexy images. Much of this feels like a relief: no Gucci, no Ralph Lauren, no MacDonalds.

Gary, our tour guide, had said we would probably not be aware of the government; we’d see no uniformed policemen, no guards with rifles or machine guns.

But today is an unusual day: the UN representative Ibrahim al Gambari is conferring with Aung San Suu Kyi, and the government is apprehensive about the possibility of demonstrations, so we see several convoys of personnel transport trucks, each with a dozen helmeted young policemen on benches, their automatic rifles presumably ready but not pointing at the sky. We have lunch (delicious butterfish) at a restaurant on an unpaved back street.

We see a billboard with propaganda slogans in English that might have come from Orwell’s 1984:

· Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views

· Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation

· Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State

· Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy

Our guide didn’t want to take the bus back for us to photograph the billboard, and he promised to find another similar sign. We didn’t find one (there may have been many in Burmese, of course) but we found the same four slogans later in the official English language newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar.

We pass by a small gilded pagoda in a back street near the central square where the monks’ demonstrations were violently suppressed in September 2007. Nothing unusual is happening.

Our hotel is the renovated British Governor’s Residence, near the outskirts of the Rangoon. The hotel is operated in a grand way by the Raffles Hotel of Singapore, where we enjoyed a Singapore Sling in wicker chairs under rotating ceiling fans several years ago. A long drive between rows of palm trees leads to a large 2-story bungalow. (The name derives from a Hindi word meaning “a house in the Bengali style.”)

The entire second floor is a veranda open on all sides to the surrounding garden, perfect for afternoon tea with the Governor’s wife, or for an evening party around the teak bar. Our room, in an extension of the Residence built in the same luxurious bungalow style, is commodious. A bus ride in the afternoon takes us on a tour of Rangoon, and a stroll through the grounds of the Shwedagon Paya, a pagoda that we had glimpsed from several angles during our bus tour.

The central stupa of the Shwedagon, shaped like a bulging golden oilcan or (using one’s imagination a bit more) like a Buddha in lotus position, was built by the Mon people sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries.

Movie: Washing the buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda

Because of earthquakes over the centuries, the pagoda was rebuilt many times, most recently in 1769. Somewhere inside is a casket containing eight hairs of the Buddha, given by the Buddha himself to two merchant brothers who brought the hairs to Burma. When the chamber that would house the hairs was built and the hairs were taken from their golden casket,

“There was a tumult among men and spirits…rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell…the blind beheld objects…the deaf heard sounds…the dumb spoke distinctly…the earth quaked…the winds of the ocean blew…Mount Meru shook…lightning flashed…gems rained down until they were knee deep…all trees of the Himalya, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.” (from the Lonely Planet guide book).

In an attempt to render these audiovisual effects, perhaps, some of the images of the Buddha in the various temples surrounding the central stupa have electronic halos.

Movie: Electronic halos

No one here finds these high-tech accoutrements at all banal, crude, or out of place, but they seem that way to our eyes.

Movie: Electronic meditation at the Shwedagon Pagoda

There are many young monks and ceremonial Shinbyu processions for young boys entering their novitiate for periods of typically a few weeks or months.

Brothers and sisters of the novice are dressed in elaborate gilded costumes, and the children’s faces are painted fancifully with thanaka, the cosmetic made of pounded bark that children and many adults wear in all the cities and villages. Daniel, our Burmese guide, says he has spent four different times in monasteries, the most recent lasting several months in his late twenties.

Movie: Shinbyu procession at the Shwedagon Pagoda

Our tour of Rangoon ends with afternoon tea in the dining room of the Strand Hotel, another recently renovated monument to the British empire, built in 1896 by the Sarkies brothers whose chain included the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Movie: Music at The Strand Hotel

More photos of Rangoon

Bagan, Monday, March 9

We arrived yesterday in Bagan, a region in which more than 5,000 temples were built in the 11th century, of which more than 2,000 survive. They are in varied states of disrepair: some whitewashed, some with gilded stupas, many with recent but incomplete repairs. The more elaborate temples have gilded birdcage spires called “hti.” The generals, anxious to demonstrate their Buddhist piety and earn merit for the next life, often finance the repairs. Recently one general won praise in the newspaper by paying for gilding the stupa atop a large temple; only to receive a bullet in his leg the following month. The rumor was that he had been earning more, from one source or another, than his superior officer.

We walk through plowed fields from one temple to another, often going inside to admire the Buddhas and frescoes on the walls. Until a few decades ago, there were bamboo huts among the temples. To encourage tourism, the generals relocated the farmers to New Bagan nearby, with little or no restitution for the houses torn down.

They do allow the farmers to till the fields.

Village pictures


Woman & child at the market



Marionette show at the restaurant

Movie: Marionette show at the restaurant

March 10, Balloons over Bagan

We woke up early to ride to the launching pad of Balloons Over Bagan, an enterprise owned by a local Burmese but operated by an international venture based in New Zealand, which manages hot air balloons at tourist sites all over the world.

Our bus, made of teakwood with open-air windows, and with a teak floor, was evidently left over from British colonial days, with a rattletrap engine just as ancient. Within a quarter mile of the balloon site the clutch gives out, and the Burmese driver can’t shift into any forward gear. Just as we thought the sun would rise and throw our timing off, an identical bus appears, summoned by cell phone. We even have a moment for coffee and rolls before we get instructions from Adam, our British pilot, in the gray dawn. The briefing is serious stuff; Adam demands our complete attention as he describes the dos and don’ts of ascent and landing.

Movie: Balloons inflating

Soon three balloons inflate on their sides, each by a pair of powerful fans, and then a propane blast like a dragon’s exhalation lifts our balloon and sets its wicker basket upright.

Four pairs of us in each balloon, in compartments surrounding the pilot’s compartment, hold on to loops of rope as the balloon gently lifts from the ground.

We wear blue "Balloons Over Bagan" souvenir baseball caps for comfort against the heat of the sporadic roaring flame,

Movie: Balloon takeoff

and we look out through the haze at the rising sun and the thousands of temples and stupas scattered across the plowed fields of Bagan.

Movie: Balloons rising over Bagan

At that hour of the morning, there are predictably several layers of air moving in different directions, and the pilot maneuvers us at will by raising and lowering the balloon.

There is a smoky haze near the ground, from cooking fires; but we soon fly over another source, a brick kiln with a smoldering heap of bricks which had been fired all night.

We see hundreds of the temples beneath us at any moment, all the way to the Irrawaddy River and the smoggy horizon beyond. Sometimes our companion balloons fly near us, and sometimes they drift hundred of feet beneath as we ride on a higher wind current.

Most of the time, when the propane torch is quiet, we drift in silence over the landscape. The trip lasts an enchanted hour or so. Sometimes we see quails scurrying along the ground. Every now and then we see the truck following our progress down the roads beneath us, carrying crews ready to retrieve us and our balloon when we set down.

We ask what would happen if the balloon landed in a crop of peanuts or cotton or sunflowers. Adam says, “The farmers hope it will happen, since we pay them $15 each time. That’s as much as a whole field brings in a growing season.”

We come down just past a small hotel resort, where women with brooms sweep the driveways. Children, and some adults wave to us, as we shout “Mingalaba,” with a lingering glide on the last syllable, roughly “good day.” Scraping the treetops as we landed, there we find ourselves in a well-prepared landing field, with trucks all around. As we climb out, crews are spreading tarpaulins on the ground to protect the balloons from stones and underbrush. Our pilot opens a bottle of Champagne Veuve Clicquot, and pours it out all round. What fun!

Our bus stops at the large Pindaya limestone caves high above the river, where a king hundreds of years ago established a Buddhist shrine. The cave is filled with more than a thousand images of the Buddha, old and new, some thrice-lifesize, some barely an inch tall.

Movie: Pindaya Cave

Later, we take a bus to a village to talk to the people, with the help of our young Shan travel assistant, and to watch them husk and grind peanuts in a foot-powered mill.

Movie: Husking and grinding peanuts

An ox turns a large mortar in a stone pestle to grind the peanuts.

A wheelwright makes elegant cartwheels.

Movie: Wheelwright

A woman smokes a handmade cheroot, protecting her clothing from flying sparks with a coconut ashtray.

Women and girls draw water from a deep well, using ropes and cans, without the help of winches or pulleys.

Movie: Women at the well

Gary has a surprise for us: he has reserved a dozen horse-drawn buggies to carry us, a couple in each buggy, along the dirt roads through the temple-strewn countryside.

Our driver speaks enough English for us to ask him about his business. The horse and buggy belong to his father, but he’s saving up money to buy his own horse; he hopes to get married some day. His plan clearly depends on the tourist business, and we wonder how that business will fare under the continuing rule of the generals.

Outside one of the temples we see a man demonstrating how concentric rings of bamboo are formed into bowls and smoothed into shape to be lacquered. He pushes and pulls a bow-lathe with his right hand and wields a curved chisel and sandpaper with his left.

Movie: Sanding bowls to be lacquered

Men climb the palm trees with bamboo ladders to gather sap. These are toddy palms, from which sugary sap is collected every day and brought to the open kitchen of one of the families, where the wife has four pans boiling on wood fires.

She reduces the sap to syrup, ladling from one shallow pan to another over wood fires as the sap becomes more concentrated. We forget to ask who will eat the toddy palm sugar; but we think it will probably be sold to make toddy beer and distilled into toddy firewater.

More photos of Bagan

Irrawaddy River Cruise from Bagan to Mandalay, March 11-12

We spend two nights aboard a floating diesel-powered hotel that carries us up the broad Irrawaddy River from Bagan to Mandalay. Our group, ten couples, two singles, and a travel guide, just fits into the small but comfortable bedrooms, each with a toilet and shower. We're not roughing it.

The ship is just one year old, surprisingly quiet and free of vibration. From the decks we see flocks of ruddy shelducks and occasional rafts loaded with bamboo or teak. There is very little industrial shipping on the Irrawaddy, partly we guess because of Burma’s backward economy, and partly because this stretch of the river has not been dredged for commercial traffic. Our boat has an amazingly shallow draft of less than two meters.

Two sailors stand at the leading corners of the boat, plunging striped bamboo poles to the bottom and shouting reassurances to the pilot at the helm. The boat has no sonar or radar. The Irrawaddy is too muddy for views ahead through the water, and the bottom is too soft to reflect sonar waves.

You couldn’t build a ship in the US in 2007 without this equipment, whether needed or not. The boat occasionally runs aground on a soft sand bar, but since this is of little consequence, no monumental efforts are made to avoid it. They just back up a little and slide off, taking a slightly different path.

The boat stops at a village where Zeco Tours will deliver school supplies to the local teacher. The children sing (tunelessly) the Laotian national anthem for us.

Movie: School children waiting to sing

We respond with a rousing and probably startling three verses of “Old McDonald had a farm,” complete with moo-moo, quack-quack, and meow-meow.

A clever boy demonstrates to us a mousetrap he has devised out of bamboo and twine. He may have the skills needed eventually to be admitted to MIT. What will become of him?

One of our most demonstrative group members, Dawn, has brought a Frisbee to give the children. The boys quickly let themselves be organized into a team, and she teaches them the technique. The girls hold back and giggle, until Dawn organizes them too and shows them the tricks. They enter in tentatively, and some of the boys sneak over onto their team, trying to take over. Dawn is in charge, and for now at least, the girls have an equal chance. Of course we don’t know what will happen after we leave.

At Yandabo, another more prosperous village, we see all the stages of producing clay pots for cooking and storage.

Clay and sand from the river banks provide cost-free materials, which young men mixed together by foot. What gives this village an edge and makes it the source of pots for many miles around, is the quality of the local clay.

A little boy drives a treadle pottery wheel while his mother shapes the pots.

Movie: Kid-powered pottery wheel

Another woman decorates the damp pots by pounding them all round with stenciled paddles.

Movie: Decorating clay pottery

The pots are piled high with branches and straw and covered with mats before the overnight open-air firing.

Movie: Dismantling the kiln

Oxcarts take the finished pots down to the riverbank where brokers pay for them and transport them to other villages up and down the river. Each family manages all phases of the pottery production independently, but they have a bargaining cooperative to negotiate a common price with the brokers and shippers.

More photos of Irrawaddy River

Mandalay, March 13

Approaching Mandalay from the Irrawaddy River, we see a hill crowned by temples and stupas.

Entering Mandalay we see a marble sculpture shop, with 9 nuns filing past.

At the Mahamuni Pagoda we buy gold leaf to add a few layers of our own to the large golden Shweyattaw Buddha, made more bloated by the layered gold-leaf contributions of worshippers over the previous centuries.

In the courtyard of the temple a man strikes a triangular gong every time a contribution is made to the temple, "sharing the merit" in Buddhist terms.

Movie: Temple gong, celebrating donations

Later we visit a gold leaf workshop and watch the muscled young men pound hundreds of sheets of gold leaf at a time,

separated by layers of bamboo paper which is also manufactured in the workshop.

Movie: Goldbeaters in Mandalay

Movie: Beating bamboo papers to separate gold leaves

Our hotel looks out over the moat surrounding the Mandalay Palace, bombed during WWII when the Japanese occupied it, and now used by the national government for administrative offices. Our tour avoids it, as we avoid everything that might add to the national coffers rather than the local economy. But elsewhere on our tour we see the remarkable Shwe Nandow, a temple building from the original palace moved to a monastery after King Mindon’s death. The temple is constructed entirely of carved teak, showing remnants of its original gilding and mirrored glass surfaces.

In the evening we organize a van ride to the Moustache Brothers, a Burmese vaudeville revue that became famous when the show was raided and one of the brothers spent five years in a hard labor camp because of their dangerous political satire.

The brothers are now allowed to continue their show, but only in English, and only in their private house, to protect the local population from dissident ideas.

The surviving dissident ideas seem pretty silly to us: lots of references to FBI, CIA, and KGB, with winking hints that the real topic is the secret police that report to the Myanmar generals. A lot of miming about extortion and payoffs. The master of ceremonies, Lu Maw, brother of the once-imprisoned Par Par Lay, tells a joke we’ve heard before about a Burmese who goes to Thailand to find a dentist. “Are there no dentists in Burma?” “Yes, but we can’t open our mouths.”

Movie: Moustache Brother Lu Maw

The wife of Lu Maw is a dancer; she demonstrates classical Burmese dance maneuvres.

On the van ride back to our hotel we all agree that we’re glad we saw the show, but one of our group asks: How much would you pay not to have to see it a second time? There are varying offers. Dick says, “The saddest thing is that the government is afraid of these guys.”

For more on the Moustache Brothers, see International Herald Tribune articles from
February, 2002 and
October, 2007.

More photos of Mandalay

Inle Lake, March 14-15

A narrow canoe, powered by one of the same 4-stroke Chinese engines that drive the farmers’ tractors, takes us to the elegant Inle Princess Resort on the shore of Inle Lake. The lake is 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, but quite shallow with a marshy shoreline.

There are 70,000 people living on the lake in bamboo huts built on poles.

The canoe that the native fishermen use is much narrower than our passenger boats and raised at both ends, with a broad platform at the stern where the man or boy, dressed in a tee-shirt and longyi, stands on his left foot, wraps his right leg clockwise around the front of his 5-foot paddle, and pushes with the sole of his foot against the paddle blade. This technique, we're told, developed from a need to use one or both hands simultaneously to control fishing nets and traps.

Movie: Leg rower

From our veranda we watch a fisherman scouting for tell-tale bubbles from the weedy bottom. Earlier in the day two fishermen had demonstrated the complicated probing procedure that forced the fish into a pocket of the net.

Movie: Probing for fish

Four or five small fish a day is a typical catch, a surprisingly small number for such an apparently fertile environment. There were also surprisingly few birds. They must also be regularly trapped and eaten. A posted sign designated one small area as a bird sanctuary. We see egrets fly to their roosting places in the evening, but fewer than we expect.

The lake is beautiful and tranquil, with hazy mountains on both sides. Farmers make long floating gardens fertilized with green lake weed and loam from the bottom. The gardens are staked to the bottom by large bamboo poles, lest they drift away.

Movie: Floating gardens at Inle Lake

We see tomatoes in various states of cultivation, as well as chrysanthemums and asters growing for the market.

At a village market we see some of the women from the Padaung subtribe of the Karen people, who wear brass rings around their necks, arms and legs.

The rings don't actually make their necks longer; but they press the collar bone and shoulders down so that more of the neck is visible. The rings weigh over ten pounds.

On our way to the silk factory on one shore of the lake, there is a large lotus garden. The lotuses are grown both for the buds and blossoms sent to the cities, and for the 2-foot-long silken fibers in the stems, which are laboriously extracted and spun, to be woven into scarves that feel like slightly rough and stiff silk.

Movie: Winding silk

The silk looms in the factory are elaborately mechanical, but entirely manual. One of the weavers, an engagingly intelligent woman with good English, explains that she produces a meter a day of the fine blue silk, with an ikat pattern, a repeating stylized flower that she shows us, using a compact mirror to display that the underside is identical. She has two sons, one twenty-something and one nearly forty, who live in a city nearby. She is genuinely eager to talk to us in order to improve her English, and she waves at us from her window when we glance back in her direction on our tour.

Movie: Weaving silk

The next day, as we drive in our motor launches through the town at the end of the lake, we pass a procession of dozens of boats, each carrying a gilded hti from the spire of a temple, under the shelter of an embroidered parasol. In the leading boats musicians play their instruments and chant. The hti are to be reconsecrated at the Phaung Daw U pagoda, before being returned to their proper lofty locations.

Movie: Reconsecrating the hti

More photos of Inle Lake

We make a stop at the Golden Triangle, the intersection of the borders of Burma, Thailand, and Laos. This area used to be the center of opium production; it is still a transit point for other dangerous drugs such as amphetamines. There is an opium museum which we don't visit, and a monument with grotesque elephants designed for tourists to photograph each other. We photograph those tourists in turn.

More photos of Golden Triangle

Mekong River, Tuesday, March 18

Since yesterday morning we’ve been steaming down the brown Mekong River, the tenth longest in the world. We started at the Golden Triangle, and we stopped overnight at a lodge built strategically halfway to Luang Prabang, to accommodate boatloads of tourists like ourselves.

Movie: Mekong Rapids

This stretch of the Mekong is beautiful, with large, dangerous rocks jutting up from the river bottom and steep wooded banks on either side. In earlier decades there were 500-pound catfish living in the whirlpools around the rocks, but they haven’t been seen now for years. People blame the Chinese and their dams in the upstream tributaries, which have lowered the level of the upper-Laotian Mekong.

For dozens of miles at a time we encounter no river traffic except other boats like ours, and few signs of human commerce except fishermen tending their poles and nets and boats, and only occasional villages of bamboo huts on poles set high behind the hills on either side. On our previous travels to Asia we have rarely been out of sight of cities, or else forests dense with bamboo houses barely concealed. But here, as in the Shan State agricultural areas we pass through by bus, the villages are compact and out of sight behind the river banks. The mountains have been stripped of large trees long ago, and they’re now reforested with young teak, clusters of bamboo, and groves of bananas planted among the wild growth. It’s as green as the Amazon, and to our eyes almost as varied, and more dramatic because of the steep hillsides and the dark rocks threatening our passage. The pilot has a hard job, since the muddy water conceals shifting sandbars as well as rocks. Sometimes we see children swimming, and in many stretches of the river we watch old women and sometimes whole families panning for gold.

Despite the sparse population, the air here and everywhere in Laos is dirty. We never have a clear day. The air is polluted by slash-and-burn agriculture, open fires for cooking and burning trash, and gasoline engines without pollution controls.

On our way down the Mekong we stop at a Hmong village, high up above the river. By luck the whole village is in the midst of a wedding celebration, eating beef curry at long tables under plastic awnings.

As we enter the village, we see a group of men, wedding guests, passing around a beer bottle. After some hesitation, Dick tastes the brew: not beer but a powerful toddy booze. According to Gary, the sip is safe, as you could sterilize surgical tools with the stuff! We are invited in to a large house with an animist altar at one end.

The groom, in a shining green jacket , stands next to his bride, dressed in a simple blouse and skirt, with their one-year-old baby in her arms. An older woman standing outside wears the most beautiful costume in the wedding party, a traditional Hmong garment.

On our way back to the boat we see a sow with only two of her piglets. Her swollen udder suggests that the other piglets may have furnished forth the wedding tables.

At our last night at the lodge there is a surprise presentation arranged by the proprietor, a Muslim from Bangladesh. He gathers from the neighboring town a group of 15-20 children of various ethnic backgrounds, dressed in their distinctive costumes, and he has an orchestra with a xylophone, two-stringed viols, and percussion, playing pentatonic melodies while the children dance and sing. It is all presented as authentic animist ritual, and we withhold our skepticism. The children are sweet, and they teach us one of their dances.

This morning we are all still wearing the white strings the children tied on our wrists to welcome us and to propitiate the 32 phi, which the Burmese call nats, the natural spirits of the local animist religion.

Moving on down the river from the lodge, we stop at a Khmer village. Women are pounding rice to remove the hulls, one with a long heavy pestle, the other with an even longer lever weighted by stones, while chickens and baby ducks peck at the grains that spill over.

Movie: Pounding rice with lever

A blacksmith works an axe blade at a fire, sharpening and hardening it.

Several women are peeling mulberry bark, to be fermented and pounded into paper for parasols manufactured in another village.

Two boys have made pinwheels by cutting mango leaves into propellors and nailing them to the ends of sticks. They run around showing off to us, making suitable noises.

Our tour guide, Gary, has made a contribution on behalf of Zeco Tours to the village school, as they do in all villages we visit. Literacy is officially said to be about 80%, but with no library, and no books, papers, or magazines in the houses where we were invited in, the standard of literacy appears to be extremely low. (When Burma applied for an IMF loan as a disadvantaged nation, the official literacy rate appeared as 18%.)

More photos of Mekong River

Luang Prabang, March 19 - 20

At the end of our Mekong River boat ride we come to the city of Luang Prabang, which means “Large Peace-Buddha.” Almost immediately we wish we could stay here longer. Our hotel is one of the best we’ve stayed in, beautifully designed and constructed of teak and other exotic woods, with a beautiful pool and delicious food. (Dick tries to take a bath in the beautiful molded-stone tub but declares it a usability disaster.) The town is thriving from the tourist trade (especially backpackers, who apparently stay for months), but like most places in Laos it is free of overpopulation, and there is no visible poverty. We wander the streets, looking into shops and enjoying the casual Laotian pace of life. Laos was formerly a French colony. With a socialist government, communist in name only, the former royal palace has become a museum.

As our Laotian guide talks about the surviving members of the royal family, we are surprised to see that his every word is being recorded by Laotian man with a handheld recorder, tagging along behind our group. From his bold behavior, and his obvious relationship with the museum guards, our consensus is that he must be a plainclothes policeman.

An American woman described by our guide Gary as a “one-woman NGO” tells us about her special project, establishing an English-language library. Her first library was situated in a monastery and catered to novices; but the library is now in its own building and serves all young people who want to learn English or acquire computer skills. Dick spends the hour talking to a young man about his life. When Dick approaches, the man is looking up a word in a Laotian/English dictionary. The word translates as “give alms,” and he asks about the exact meaning in English. He looks up words like this to help him write in English. He has been using the library for over 3 years, and he works as a tour guide. In the off season, he spends much of every day at the library; when working, he comes when he can, which may be most days.

Eric looks at the sponsored projects, such as a photography contest and a display of student writing, and thumbs through the books on the shelves. Many are adult primers, 50-page simplified versions of novels by Tom Clancy and Jane Austen. There is a large section devoted to skills needed to get jobs in the tourist trade: manuals on hotel management, how to be a waiter, how to qualify as a tour guide. The library doesn’t accept contributed books, anticipating that most of them wouldn’t be of interest to young Laotians. But the librarian has a shrewd sense of what’s needed in Laos. She says that students at every level and every professional track, even those in medicine, can go through Laotian primary schools and university without ever having to write an original sentence. All state-sponsored learning is by rote, and with few if any books. Instead, a teacher stands at a blackboard writing what students must then transcribe into their notebooks and reproduce on examinations.

There is a night market with lots to buy at low prices, and the friendly vendors, unlike those in India, stay seated, greeting us with palms held together and a friendly “sabai di,” and though they’re glad to bargain, they never become importunate or impede us from wandering to the next vendor stall.

Movie: Frogs for sale in the Luang Prabang market

The market is so extensive than in an hour and a half of cruising the market we only cover about a quarter of the stalls.

More photos of Luang Prabang

Vientiane, March 21

Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, is a disappointment after Luang Prabang. The streets are hot and full of polluting motorcycles and tuk-tuks. The markets are crowded and confusing.

Haw Pha Kaew, the former royal temple which is now a museum, has some interesting Buddha statues (it used to have, but lost to the Thais as spoils of war, the Emerald Buddha which we saw on our first day in Bangkok).

But we’ve seen too many images of the Buddha by now, and the displays here are arranged in dusty socialist museum fashion.

Pha That Luang, the “Great Sacred Stupa,” seems tawdry compared to the Shwedagon Pagoda we saw in Rangoon.

This pagoda is carelessly painted with fake gold paint rather than applied gold leaf. It seems to us neither great nor sacred, and no one seems to be worshiping here.

We stop at the shop of Carol Cassidy, an American who organizes Laotian and Cambodian weavers to do traditional weaving modified by her own design sensibility.

Movie: Supplementary weft weaving at Carol Cassidy's shop

After a delicious farewell dinner

it's time to end the trip with a return to our luxurious Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok.

More photos of Vientiane