Lazy in Laos

Well, maybe it’s taken me a week since getting back from Laos to put up a post because I’ve been moping a teeny bit – RP is in the States for a little while now, and while having a great vacation is restorative, it can make it tough to come back to normal life.

Our time in Laos was sweet and relaxing, and not like many other trips we’ve taken; because our time there was short, we only went to Luang Prabang and Vientiane, both in the north. We strolled and ate and looked at temples, and otherwise didn’t do much – it was a wonderful time, even if Luang Prabang and Vientiane are two of the strangest places I’ve been in Asia.

Our guidebook, and the people I spoke to who had been to Laos, went on and on about how friendly Lao people are (true!) and how lovely Lao Buddhist art is (double true! and not as flashy as Burmese Buddhist art). But what they really ought to just come out and say about these two places is as follows:

“LUANG PRABANG: Welcome to a massive tourist trap! Every restaurant in this town is aimed at a horde of European and Thai tourists (Lao people seem not to eat in sit-down restaurants) who are kitted out like they are going on safari, even though they will actually spend their days wandering around cute little streets, eating baguettes left over from the 7 minutes that the French colonized the area, and drinking Beer Lao. Avoid the several hours in the middle of the day that it’s too hot to go outside by lazing under a fan and drinking more Beer Lao! Bon appetit!”

Man fishing on the Mekong in Luang Prabang

“VIENTIANE: Welcome to Vientiane, brought to you by UNDP, UNESCO, WHO and USAID! Here you can watch the banks of the Mekong being bulldozed, peruse a massive collection of middle school dioramas and exploded ammunition telling the story of the country’s history at the Lao National Museum, and wonder how exactly a country stays afloat entirely on the assistance of wealthier nations! And then you can drink a cup of coffee and eat granola and yoghurt and a replica of a Palo Alto coffee shop so complete that you will swear you’re on University Avenue! Cheers, dude!”

“NOTE: If you visit Laos in the dry season – which you will – the whole country will be covered in a layer of haze from all of the slash-and-burn agriculture. This will make for poor photos but truly hallucinatory sunsets!”

This is not mist

So there – now you don’t have to read a guidebook about either of these places.

This isn’t to say I didn’t have a great time: the tricky thing about visiting Laos when living in Kunming is that I actually miss good Western food, and Western-style shops and places to relax, so when I had the opportunity to hang out in those places…I was pretty excited. RP and I ate the most old-fashioned and absurdly delicious French food several days in a row, including the most expensive items on the menu because everything cost about $3. We hung out in a bookstore with more and better English-language books than I’ve seen in 9 months. I ate a chocolate soufflé that was ACTUALLY the size of my head. We chilled out and were deliriously happy.

I am fully aware that these two places are not what the rest of Laos looks like. We first flew from Kunming to Jinghong, a city in the very south of Yunnan where we spent Chinese New Year’s Eve, and then took a bus across the China-Laos border and went straight on to Luang Prabang – 19 hours of travel. From Luang Prabang we took a bus south directly to Vientiane – 12 hours of travel. The north of the country is mountainous, covered with dense but scrubby foliage, and sparsely populated, with small collections of houses raised off the ground on low stilts. People’s houses are single-story, with thatched or corrugated tin roofs and thin walls constructed of stacked planks of wood or some kind of woven material like bamboo. People are, for the most part, farmers of some kind and have very low incomes. The single major road is mostly but not entirely paved, much of it having been underwritten by the Chinese government.

But if you hang out in Luang Prabang or Vientiane, you will find yourself having to be reminded that you are in one of the poorest countries in Asia. Because from your giddy perch in an Italian restaurant – finally away from the huge stresses of your job and  researching various public health miseries and an accumulated weariness of living in China – it’s hard to see it in all of the foreign government-funded (relative) prosperity around you. And maybe, just for a week of vacation, you wouldn’t really want to see it anyway.

Man, what is happening to me?

I’ve put up the first installment of photos – these are heavy on temple art and don’t show much of what Luang Prabang and Vientiane look like as cities. RP has the rest of the photos (I will get them up here eventually…).

Click photo to see the full album.

Year of the Tiger in the Land of Ten Thousand Elephants

Depending on who you are, this coming Sunday could mean one of several things:

#1 (most correct) answer: My dad’s birthday!! (I love you, Dad!)

#2: Valentines Day!!

#3: Chinese New Year!!

Since I am in China at the moment and unfortunately have no access to taking embarrassing birthday photos of my father to post on this blog, let’s go with number three for now.

Bring New Years fortune to your home or office by hanging up 891 of these!

Sunday is the lunar new year, also known to Chinese people as “HOLY CRAP WE FINALLY GET A WEEK OFF WORK!” It is traditional during this period (also known as Spring Festival) for everyone to gather with their families wherever their home town is and, since so many people live far from their home towns, this means a massive movement of humanity around the country. This also means that during this period you should:

  • Stockpile food supplies if you are staying put, since everything will be closed for a week.
  • Not attempt to buy a bus or train ticket going anywhere in China for the entire month of February.
  • …actually, just don’t attempt to do anything in the entire month of February. Period. It will be impossible.

There are lots of things about Spring Festival that are amusing if you’re a foreigner: everyone is in a festive mood, employers hand out decorated red envelopes with bonus cash inside (thanks, Boss!), and there is a hilariously over-the-top Spring Festival Spectacular!!!! TV show (particularly good for watching while drinking a great deal of beer).

However, for foreigners, it is generally accepted that the only reasonable thing to do during Spring Festival is leave the country entirely.

Enter: LAOS.

RP and I are heading off in about half an hour for 9 days to the sunny southland, known for delicious food, tropical climes, friendly people, and the worst social development indicators in Asia. Great.

You know I’ll be back with lots of pictures, now that I have my nice camera and basically look like this all the time:

But until then, Happy Bday, Happy VDay, and Happy Year of the Tiger! 新年快乐!

Friday Love List

This Love List is dedicated to things that have nothing to do with my life in China at the moment. It’s been that kind of week.

  • Vancouver. I’ve been there twice. Dramatic scenery, politically progressive, rich cultural history, diverse population, excellent cinnamon buns.

    Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia

  • Radiolab. Everything I know I learned from this podcast.
  • Train travel. If you’re in the US, I recommend the Capitol Limited from DC to Pittsburgh.
  • Going to baseball games on the fly. I don’t know anything about baseball teams, but I always like picking up a pair of nosebleed tickets for $10 and rooting for the team of whatever stadium I’m in. I make an excellent, spontaneous fan.
  • Isadora Duncan. A free spirit. I did a biographical presentation on her for my whole 6th grade class wearing one of my mother’s night gowns.
  • Manischewitz macaroons, original flavor. They are delicious, remind me of my grandma, and come in a giant can. My grandma was a woman who appreciated things that came in cans.

    This is the chocolate kind - the original flavor is best

What’s on your Love List, dear readers?

People’s Republic of Tear-That-Down

Our apartment is generally a quiet place. On any given night, you may hear water rushing through the pipes in the wall next to our bed. You may hear the mysterious plik-plik sound of our upstairs neighbor methodically dropping thumb tacks onto her floor from a great height (or so it seems).

You may also hear, without warning, a thunderous cacophony of dynamited concrete, metal and glass – the unmistakable sound of another building collapsing as our neighborhood is destroyed-and-rebuilt around us.

There is a pun among foreigners that China should be called 拆那 (pronounced “chai-na”), which literally means “tear that down”, given the rate at which its cities and towns are being ripped apart and redeveloped. Before coming to China, I thought this must be a hyped-up story: no place could possibly be changing its face so quickly. But I am not exaggerating when I tell you that, in the seven months that I have lived here, several square-block areas just around our apartment have been torn down, had scaffolding go up, had welding and cement-pouring occur all day and night, and then been magically unveiled as a shiny new shopping center or karaoke palace or what have you.

One Wednesday night in September I walked past an anonymous 3-story construction site near my apartment. That Friday night when I passed by again it was a brightly lit Dairy Queen with a line of people out the door. As if it had always been there.

Today I followed my usual path down a little street near our place on the way to work and realized that all of the shops lining it – places selling clothes, cheap needlepoint artwork, odds and ends – had been closed for a week. This means that within the next couple of months the blocks surrounding it will be leveled. No community meetings are held to discuss it (the very idea makes me laugh out loud!). No signs go up explaining this in advance, except for this one:

The spray-painted character next to this man is “chai”, meaning that this structure is soon to be torn down. The sign of the chai is all over Kunming; a dizzying array of foreboding graffiti promising imminent destruction.

The chai photos above were taken in mid-December. This is what that area looks like now:

Photo courtesy of RP

While this process is going on all over Kunming (and all over China), it is particularly noticeable in our neighborhood because, as I think I have mentioned, we live in what might be called “Downtown Kunming”; an area of office buildings and an increasing number of fancy shops and malls selling goods at prices that no one around here can possibly afford.

The government’s plan for this neighborhood is perfectly clear: this area is to resemble the downtowns of other cities in The New Asia; a shopping mecca, a place for tourists filled with Western or Western-style goods, a shiny facade of cheerful economic growth, a place where you cannot possibly say that the Chinese government is ill-intentioned. This isn’t a place that executes more people than the rest of the world combined! This is a place where you can eat KFC while surfing the internet wirelessly and buying Louis Vuitton!

It was not always this way in Kunming. My understanding is that 10 years ago this neighborhood looked much like the rest of Kunming, with a mix of small shops, restaurants, small apartment buildings and tangled residential warrens left over from a still earlier era of urban development.

The process of converting this from an average neighborhood to a glittering palace of Chinese-style capitalism that Kunming is desperately hoping will be mistaken for Hong Kong has been swift, although the writing (or the chai, as it were) has been on the wall for years. When RP and I were in Kunming three and a half years ago, the old Muslim quarter of the city was already being torn down. It is now erased, snuffed out by the foot print of half-empty shopping malls, save for a few Hui restaurants, a couple of Muslim bakeries, and a leftover Hui population who look distinctly out of place wandering among the Disney stores and Calvin Klein outlets (an impression that I’m pretty sure is intentional).

The last vestige of this earlier era in our neighborhood, the Bird and Flower Market, is now in its final days. An area that was once home to average Kunming residents, with a lively full-time market, was allowed to crumble into uninhabitability so that the government could swoop in and say that the shopping malls they are now building on top of it were really the only humane thing to do. The population of the area was relocated to parts of the city unknown, and the shops bricked over and replaced with sanitary food chains.

A soon-to-be-replaced building

The malls that have opened in this area in the past few months are like a caricature of Chinese-iness in a Western city; a Baby Gap or a Crate and Barrel below, but look at the Oriental pagoda-like accents on the floors above! It’s still China if it’s an American burger joint that serves spring rolls too!

I will leave you to look through the photos of this destruction below, but there are a few things to bear in mind while you look at them: first, what is my giant problem this development?! Surely it is the right of Chinese cities to develop as they see fit – fair enough. But there is nothing magical or inevitable about such reimagining of neighborhoods; these are massive redevelopment projects dictated by the government to sanitize these neighborhoods and get money out of what they have deemed to be the city’s prime real estate. This means, in the most classic fashion, turning this from a place where average people lived, worked and purchased goods into a place for the monied, and (hope against hope!) for foreigners to come see what a clean and friendly place China is.

On that note, another issue I have with this: the kind of development that this and all Chinese urban development entails is one from which the only conclusion to be drawn is that China does not have its own sense of an indigenous modernity. That is to say, the process of making things look modern in China is a process of making them look Western: Western design, Western goods, endless rip-offs of Western ideas. And in case you should think this is a new story in China, let me tell you that this is exactly the same process that was beginning to happen in China before the founding of the Republic in 1949 began the process of turning China, yet again, inwards.

It is this feeling that China has no memory that is played out again and again as it redevelops its neighborhoods and cities. Although Chinese people love to parrot the old canard about its 5,000 years of glorious unbroken history, you will be hard pressed to find this history in evidence in most of the country, and certainly in a city like this one. I firmly believe that, before the government realized that the Great Wall could be a foreign tourist attraction, they would have bulldozed it if they’d had the resources.

Walking around Kunming, you can see in progress the work of erasing the memory of the city bit by bit – a memory that itself goes back only perhaps a couple of decades when the last round of erasure occurred. And here’s the rub: this process will be effective because what is being created is not ugly, only inoffensive. What’s more, the open, carefully curated spaces where Westerners and early adopters can drink cappuccino and look out at the cityscape are, admittedly, attractive and familiar – and so confidently complete in their design that the memory of what was in their place only weeks or months before simply disappears. As if the city that existed before your current glass of imported red wine were being revealed as only a myth.

RP and I have a morbid 50 RMB bet going on the block of apartments across from us: he’s betting it will be torn down before we’re married this coming summer; I think it’s got some fight in it yet. Anyone want in?

Click photo below to view full album. I will add pictures to this album in the near future, so check back for more.

Photo courtesy of RP