A final Laos entry? For Now...?

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January 31st 2022
Published: February 1st 2022
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In our last missive I decried the residual resistance to vaccine uptake in parts of the wealthy west, as well as its hesitant roll-out to their juveniles. Even more pertinently we worried about the limited availability and constrained distribution of vaccines within developing countries. Such outcomes were likely to see new, potentially more threatening, variants emerge. And sadly so it proved. Most of Africa trails far behind the rest of the world in terms of vaccination rates, whilst several countries there still have outrageously high numbers of individuals infected with (non-retrovirally controlled) HIV whose defining immunocompromising nature enables other co-infecting viruses to multiply to horrendous densities, thereby, mathematically, increasing the probability of new mutations arising. Thus, from somewhere in the soup, we saw the emergence of mega-mutated Omicron that, whilst it is definitely more infectious, is seemingly, thankfully, more benign. With this variant we will record – especially with the now ready availability of lateral-flow tests – many more positive cases, but, hopefully, there will not be a tsunami of hospitalisations and deaths. The caveat is that without expeditious global high vaccination coverage all current circulating variants have the potential to yield another that may (through further chance mutations or co-infecting genetic recombination) exhibit the worst aspects of those already (or yet to be) present: i.e. incredibly high transmission coupled with severe virulence as well as vaccine escape. With the Omicron variant we may have fortuitously dodged that terrifying scenario, but there is no room for complacency. Still… I’m ahead of myself.

In Laos the end of September saw a development: we now – finally - had confirmed cases of community spread. And, not slow to respond, the capital Vientiane swiftly entered into a proper lockdown; indeed public transport countrywide was suspended with movement out of your province (by personal transport) requiring the nai ban’s (local chief’s) permission and any journey, however short, necessitating justification. Predictably this coincided with us needing to head an hour up the road to Salavan – same province - for a visa run. Fortunately Poh, along with M&M, also had reasons for making the trip and so off we tootled in the school bus. Just shy of town there was a roadblock and we were flagged down. Poh merely shrugged as he alighted, even without restrictions Police on the make are not uncommon on this stretch of road. Seconds later he was back. Yes, we could continue; no they hadn’t required a monetary bribe; but he had promised to provision them with four cans of Red Bull and half a dozen packs of spicy prawn crisps upon our return.

Several weeks later the inter-provincial restrictions were lifted, as long as you were not travelling to/from a region currently experiencing an outbreak. Thus M&M headed to Pakse for their postponed R&R trip and we found ourselves house and puppy sitting.

Rainy season had assuredly arrived and a pattern of hot steamy mornings, followed by torrential afternoon downpours that thundered upon the tin roofs before morphing into tranquil frog-serenaded balmy evenings, ensued.

Having enjoyed the use of their kitchen, not least that almost forgotten mystical appliance, an oven; and having overseen the continued well-being of Pukey (mum) and pups, before you could say “new litter” we were back at Sipasert and Lulu, little more than eight months old, was popping out her first brood.

There had been talk of Thailand opening up and indeed for those vaccinated individuals arriving by plane and heading to a limited number of “sand box” destinations who were
prepared to jump through the necessary quarantine/testing hoops, it was. But, the Thai’s stuttering vaccination rate and stubbornly high number of active infections was not going to see the land borders flung open any time soon.

One afternoon Pancake appeared brandishing a cardboard box. Inside was a tiny ball of fluff, a baby rabbit. The next day we were reacquainted with the cute little lagomorph although it was not a happy bunny, its home seemingly being a polystyrene cold box housing but a few sad lettuce leaves. Both rabbit and food were covered in urine. We washed the box out, provisioned some absorbent bedding, a dish of water and rather less acidic greenery before speaking with Pern (previously incorrectly spelt and still dubiously pronounced as Pon): “if you keep the rabbit in there it will be dead within the week”. Immediately we thought of the now disused (we ate them all) partially covered duck enclosure: we could modify a woven rattan chicken dome as a safe sleeping environment and during the day it could hop around freely in its protected grassy enclosure. Pern agreed, it was a fine idea. However, the Laos are rarely hurried into delayable actions and it was decided that we’d prepare all tomorrow. That night the polystyrene casket was – unbeknown to us – left in the kitchen, the domain of the cat… with predictable grizzly results.

Lola, who thankfully hadn’t seasoned quite as distastefully early as her sister Lulu, was now the focus of all the neighbourhood’s male dogs and our balcony became a snarling battlefield. Previously unknown beasts were relatively easily repelled (aided by our resident dogs); but two, well-known to us (and loved), seasoned old campaigners, When and Diego, were anything but. No amount of water thrown or threatening brandishing of brooms would deter them. And so we constructed a barricade blocking access to our annex. The fortifications seemed full proof, yet we hadn’t reckoned on the resilience and fortitude of randy old dogs who subsequently risked life and limb in desperate attempts to breech our (and her) defenses – not that she wasn’t, on occasion, a flirty little minx. Diego in particular, not a small dog, balanced on the thinnest of ledges before making improbable leaps between buildings and twice I had to rescue him as he remained stuck straddling a chasm unable to advance or
retreat – he’d reasoned (correctly) that he could stretch between two particular ledges, but hadn’t considered the wooden parapet that immediately faced him once in such a precarious position.

By phone my mother proposed two solutions to thwart the amorous advances. The first involved the liberal application of garlic, both to boundaries (no effect) and to the poor bitch’s punani (not performed, wouldn’t that sting?). Her second inspiration was that we provision Lola with a pair of Ali’s old knickers thereby creating a physical barrier. Apart from the obvious limitation to this cunning plan (nothing in = nothing out), such perverse behavior on our part would probably have seen us drummed out from the village. And so, predictably, regardless of our efforts, it was a battle lost. These are free-roaming animals, she was only isolated when she wanted to be, and so was only partially shielded… a kind of sexual harassment respite. Several weeks after the onslaught subsided it became apparent that she was indeed pregnant. The local populace don’t have access to veterinarians, the money to pay them if they had, nor the inclination to sterilize/neuter regardless. We have a veterinarian ex-pat friend, Marta, up in Luang Prabang who we might lure south and who might, through a combination of our funding and her generosity of spirit, perform some snips; but really, in this rural environment, it wouldn’t be well received. In all likelihood the effort would be shunned. Most houses have several associated dogs (including ours, Sipasert currently has seven) and there is always someone who is happy to take a pup or two (dogs don’t tend live to ripe old ages), plus it is not totally unknown for them to end up on the menu and their meat is even more expensive than goat.

And on that note, in ascending order, a quick hierarchy of Laos’ meat prices: fish (from the lowly catfish through to tilapia), frog, freshwater crabs, chicken, pork, duck, beef, goat, dog, snails and freshwater clams/mussels. A kilo of chicken feet is more expensive than that of breasts, whilst there is no price differential between fillet steak or what we would know as far cheaper cuts of beef (skirt or flank), not that “joints” are artfully butchered. Nothing of an animal is wasted and typically the beast is merely hacked into sellable-sized pieces. You do also occasionally see rats, song birds, lizards and unidentified ground hog-resembling mammals for sale, but – far from tempted - we have never enquired as to their price. Snakes, given their revered status among animists, is a tricky one. If you had to kill it you would no doubt eat it, but they are generally left alone. Indeed there was a six-foot-long green specimen enjoying the river at the foot of the wat recently and the villagers rushed to view it as such a sighting is considered most auspicious. Ali was less inclined to swim the stretch for several weeks. Tigers (our friend Somphone had a closer than desired encounter in the jungle near here as a child) are now a thing of tales past, whilst monkeys are not far behind them.

I had mentioned that it was rainy season and, sure enough, one day the dams were – literally – opened. We awoke to find the river lapping around our pilings, the waterfall now a mere menacing fold in the river’s torrent and the water was rising, rapidly. We’d had to evacuate our room the previous year and once again it was all hands-on-deck as we piled mattresses atop tables atop bed frames in the most vulnerable rooms, packed our personal belongings and relocated to the second floor of the further elevated brick house. Great tree trunks were being washed downstream and the eddying current in front of Sipasert saw them crashing against our flooded nether regions. This necessitated several bold ventures into the water to either beach them on higher ground or, for the biggest, tether them out of harm’s way. Fortunately, although our room was semi-breeched with the waves splashing up under our planked flooring, the main building was not and several days later, following the river’s retreat, an airing and thorough cleaning we moved back in. However, relocating with us from our temporary air-conditioned and far plusher billet (“but you can stay there for as long as you like”) was also a fridge/freezer. Whilst this was a wonderfully kind donation from our hosts I suspect that our evermore extensive expansion into their personal facilities was also a mitigating factor.

It was around this time that we discovered BBC Radio 4 and, I guess, we are of the demographic who should; but, still, it is… rather good. I’ve already written off to “Gardener’s Question Time” for advice on/the possibility of growing peas and runner beans in our climes. Whilst, if they do, as threatened, take off “Women’s Hour” then there’ll be a strongly worded letter heading their way.

Ali got roped into teaching an additional, real beginners’, class as well as providing solo tutorials for one student who suddenly decided he didn’t like riding home in the dark after our usual evening (post-school) lesson.

The UK opened its doors without enforced quarantine to vaccinated individuals although they – initially - refused to recognise Sinopharm which - temporarily - excluded us. Several flights per week were now departing from Laos (if you could get to the capital: public transport still wasn’t running) although the regulations and requirements necessary at the transit hubs were far from clear, whilst many of these flights were being cancelled at short notice and anguished reports on the many “Stuck in Laos” Facebook pages described the hardship of extracting refunds.

Our friend Dan (Youtube’s Dan vs. Food), already in Vientiane, managed to exit Laos via the Friendship Bridge and walk into Thailand but this did necessitate a week’s pricey quarantine.

The Laos immigration office finally took pity on my packed passport and began to overlay visas thereby extending its life to another six months or so; hence we weren’t overly twitchy: and, hell, Covid-wise things really did seem to be on the up. Another few weeks, a month or two (?), and surely we’d be able to amble into Thailand, visit our friend Andy and his wife Oi, have a quick beach holiday (don’t tell the parents… “it’s about time you jolly well got yourselves back”) before booking a reasonably priced and straightforward direct flight from Bangkok to good old Blighty.

Then there was unwelcome news from South Africa and… enter Omicron stage left…

Serendipitous timing saw a temporary clinic set-up in the village with the availability of Astra-Zenica boosters no less. Unlike the truly old-school jabs we’d had previously this left us both with flu-like symptoms that at least indicated a serious immune response.

With the children now confidently speaking in English, Grandma, Sipasert’s matriarch, began to take an increasing interest in our lessons and suddenly we were regularly presented with gifts of a tray of eggs, several kilos of pork, a dozen chicken drumsticks or – most welcome of all – a whole (non-quacking) duck.

The entire guesthouse was treated to a re-paint. Keen for an alternative activity we readily volunteered our aid but were constantly infuriated with pot-belly-man’s efforts: gobsmackingly he actually painted around furniture, seemed happy enough with applying more paint to the floor than the intended surfaces and remained oblivious to the fact that you can’t roller to the top of a wall without smearing the ceiling (still leaving the junction unpainted). Hence we were forever rectifying his mess.

Yes, there was a meaningless series of cricket matches - some call it The Ashes - whose outcome was only too predictable. Yet, as I type, our ladies have demonstrated rather more backbone. If Ms. Knight declared herself transgender could she play for the men?

Mid-January, Somphone popped by with a gift of his coffee beans and implored that we come stay with him, his wife Duc and the children up on the top of the plateau. This just happened to precede the harvesting of the manioc (cassava/yukka) and, much to his disapproval “you visit for holiday not work”, we said we would if we could help. This would provide some much needed exercise (it is a back-breaking task), give us the opportunity to stay at his remote farm rather than within the Katu village itself and, not least, halve their personal toil.

His distaste for the nutrient-leeching crop (ultimately sold as flour to Vietnam and China) is well known to us – unlike most he won’t contemplate the clearing of trees on any of his land for the purpose and indeed his totally organic twenty hectare (still largely undeveloped) farm of rice terraces, fish pond and market garden is untouched by it. Yet, with the absence of tourists his village homestay sits empty, there are no excursions to conduct and his revenue stream is non-existent, the family surviving solely on what they grow. There is currently no excess for sale. So, for the first time ever, he had planted manioc on a quarter of a hectare of his brother’s land, land already tarnished by six previous seasons of the insidious, yet lucrative, crop. I say lucrative: a first planting in the fertile volcanic red soil yields sturdy, tall plants with tubers the size of muscular calves (human not bovine), but each successive re-plant sees a progressive dwindling in size and the land increasingly infertile. It’s a sad state of affairs, much akin to the fast (but limited) buck of palm oil plantations in other realms. With this crop weight is everything, the current market price being approximately 800-2000 kip (slightly less than 8-20 US cents) per kilo. To attain the latter price you need to partially process the tubers yourself which entails cutting them into wafers and drying them on tarps in the sun for three days. Easy if you have access to a macerator. However, if it decides to rain during your drying process the crop drastically loses value and may even become worthless. Really. It may simply have to be thrown, not even fit for animal feed. Covering the shredded crop with additional tarps during inclement weather can only be tolerated for so long. Whether and when to cut your bounty is an edgy affair. In a wet year do you go for the safe lower price or run the risk? For some (I’d say seriously shortsighted, although in these times you could substitute desperate) this is their only source of income and there is no welfare state to fall back on.

Aboard his tourist chariot, a benched cart attached to a battle-weary and contrary old rotivator that still bears outstanding debt, we juddered and rolled up the rutted mud trails, regularly hailed with waves and “sabaidees” as we chugged past workers in fields and children playing in the dust.

Situated within a centrally ridged basin and loomed over by the long extinct volcano the farm is idyllic, especially when viewed from on high, looking down through the swaying grasses, golden in the late afternoon sun. Nurtured rivulets of streams crisscross the land as they descend successive tiers, not currently given access to the dry, fallow terraces. Other neighbours have opted to plant a second, unseasonal, crop of sticky rice and these fluorescent green oases contrast against the now parched landscape. Old women enshrouded against the beating sun squat at the margins of cracked fields digging for diminutive frogs lurking in the still moist sub-soil and herds of water buffalo wander in search of a cooling boggy corner.

Somphone’s stilted hut sits perched on the dividing crest and
further down the spine is our (his brother’s) even more bijoux accommodation. Duc and their youngest, Keow (probably about four, although he may still be three, what does it matter?), are in residence with the two oldest children remaining at home with grandma in the village four kilometres away – they have school to attend.

On arrival a channel was immediately diverted to flow through a pipe projecting over a ledge: our shower. We were provisioned with a spade and told that toilet facilities (with a view) are in any discrete location we choose. Our residence, accessed by less precarious steps than Somphone’s (Ali would always descend from his hut crab-like on her bum) comprises a balcony (provisioned with loaned hammock and padded floor matting), the bedroom bearing a lovingly Duc-constructed pile of mats and blankets for a bed, and a tiny lower gallery with a corner fire pit. The whole building shimmies just a little as you move about it. There is no electricity. In Somphone’s hut there is a single light bulb powered by a, mostly reliable, solar source although it is only used to cook and eat by. The views are gorgeous and the constant (day time) silence sublime. At night it is pitch; the lack of light pollution and any visual obstructions revealing a total hemisphere of stars in their millions. And, as you sit in awe, the night echoes with the constant cycling chorus of frog calls.

On the second morning, not long after daybreak and breakfast, we headed off in the chariot to the manioc field. It was tough work, becoming progressively more so as the sun beat down. Ali and Duc cut back the woody stems with machetes (these may later be replanted), pursued by Somphone and myself with our levering tools to raise the tubers.

Day three saw the crop’s full gentle encouragement from the earth (some tapering bulbs extend to three feet in length and you don’t want to waste any), their gathering into localized mounds before trimming and then the assembly of a giant collective pile atop tarps.

As lunch approached it became apparent that Duc wasn’t constructing a ground oven, we had been invited to join a throng of Katu clearing a much larger adjacent field. Here there were multiple families with numerous children in tow, many of the women (and children) sucking on their characteristic giant tobacco bongs. It was later related to us that the increasingly more confident, and comfortable with us, Keow had been waxing lyrical with the other children present: “the falang bring sin (meat), makkiang (tangerines), khoanom (sweets, if you can count salted crackers as such) and… paupau (balloons)”. Cue sharp intakes of jealous breath. “Surely not” came the replies. “Yes, balloons, you ask my father” the retort. OK, admittedly, not the most ecologically friendly of gifts...

And then, almost completed with something approaching 1000kg amassed, as dusk threatened at the end of day three, it started to rain; the first rain in six weeks. Our intact tubers would be fine, uncovered, for a day or so until the sun returned, but as we trundled back to the farm we passed numerous fields whose crops lay chopped, spread, exposed and suffering.

Our fourth day of work was thwarted; it was counterproductive to clear the few remaining plants as the soil was currently too cloggy and dense and it wasn’t quite safe to commit to cutting yet. Hence we did little other than wander the surrounding hills, gather some fish from the pond to make a laab and chill with our friends. Little Keow was now thoroughly enjoying our presence: who knew you could devise so many games from the shells of Mac Bo nuts? Hugely of note for us we had now been beer-less for the entirety of our stay. Somphone proposed picking some limes to accompany a bottle of Lao Lao he’d been given, but this slipped our minds and our livers breathed a continued sigh of relief. Late into the evening we discussed how work-awayers might expand the fish pond, what would be required to host them, about how best to construct and where to place a composting toilet and what new, profitable fruits and vegetables he might plant.

The next morning we had to return to Tad Lo: yet another visa run called and we’d promised to teach that evening. Still, most of the hard graft was done. Somphone subsequently reported that the final tally was just shy of 900kg, the drying had gone well and he’d finally found a weighing station where the scales seemed only marginally corrupt. His crop had generated almost $180 US. It may sound very little, but it really will make
a big difference to the family.

And so that sees us pretty much up to date.

Different countries are pursuing markedly different strategies with regards to the souring numbers of Omicron cases. The largely boostered UK, where numbers may be plateauing, is open to all. Laos remains closed to tourists and requires a week’s quarantine for returnees; if flying into Thailand they demand a test on arrival and on day five, ensured by the insistence of a pre-booked quarantine hotel for those days (only those specific days). It remains unclear whether a week’s quarantine is still necessary if you manage to enter by the Friendship Bridge from Laos.

We’ve looked into flights back to the UK and Singapore is the most transit-friendly hub although here there are issues with obtaining two flights on a single itinerary. Only Scoot, the budget subsidiary of Singapore Airlines flies from Laos and, bizarrely, linking this with a Singapore Airlines’ onward flight is impossible for the independent traveller (infuriatingly it’s easy in the reverse direction). Agents are exploiting these logistical difficulties and doubling, or worse, the airlines’ advertised prices. Two unlinked flights would work, but you
can’t reclaim checked luggage from the first for the second. Do you book the flights and pray that you can then get the two (associated) airlines to organize the transfer of your luggage (we’re waiting on replies to our queries)? Do you perform the Thai entrance dance that would then enable a direct flight from Bangkok? Or do you or hope that existing restrictions will ease in…. well, sometime soon?

We’ve let our (imminent?) intentions to depart known, amidst promises of a none-too-tardy return. And this eventuality really is our intention. Laos still retains that sleepy South East Asian charm of yesteryear. We didn’t dream that we’d be welcomed into our little rural community so warmly, nor make such strong friendships and bonds. We’ve been adopted by so many families, children and dogs. The last two years have been a true, beyond expectations, pleasure. We really have been incredibly fortunate where mere chance placed us when this ugly virus changed the world.

Additional photos below
Photos: 66, Displayed: 38


2nd February 2022

Thank you for your blogs
I have really enjoyed sharing your stay in Laos. I was only three months in Thailand and found it very difficult to settle back into the "western" world. I suspect you may find the UK not the country you left. I would go back to Thai/Laos if I could though I am sure they will have changed as well.
9th February 2022
Visitor to the balcony

That's an awesome insect
Wow! I love that insect. It looks really awesome. /Ake
10th February 2022
Visitor to the balcony

Praying mantis
Hiya, yes we get a lot of praying mantises here. He was a feisty one and lashed out a few times as I moved him to safety away from the dogs.

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