Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Chili Poisoning and the Art of Tuktuk Maintenance

After my excellent encounter with Luang Prabang cuisine, I scaled the heights of Mount Phousi. Despite the spelling the pronunciation is 'pussy' and it causes Charles no end of embarassment. What's more it has prompted the local massage parlour, which naturally takes its name from the location, to take the 's' out of Phousi in their signs. One way or the other, Mount Phousi, is the highest point in the city and an impressive stupa (building to hold ashes) surmounts its height. Midway up the steep stairs, I passed the redheaded girl again conscious that in my panting state I was not to be seen at my best. I bought my ticket and prepared to scale the next set of steps. Helpfully on one side of the stairs someone had written '139 steps climbed', while on the other side, '190 steps to go'. Thanks. A trio of young monks greeted me with a snigger halfway up this set, but with a nudge to each other, they ignored me in preference of the redhead and her pal who were on the steps behind me. I suppose I couldn't blame them. Superior in my knowledge that monks were mere men after all, I puffed up to the top.

The view was amazing. The Mekong wound down reflecting sunlight from one direction, while a tributary river snaked down on the opposite side. Temples, fields and crowded streets could be seen silently going about their business on all sides. Somewhere a gecko chirped to a lazy frenzy before subsiding. I was happy. Step lead away from the top to various other sites, including a standing and reclining Buddha, a holy cave (concrete roofed) and 'The Imprint of the Buddha's Foot'. I was intrigued by this supposedly authentic mark of the great man and hurried past some of the lesser sights to see what I expected to be an elaborately displayed footprint. Eventually I got to the location. Outside the small building housing the sacred imprint, a young monk read aloud while reclining on a wall. With the river behind him, it was a classic photograph. However, we had been warned about taking pictures of monks without asking, so I passed him by. The footprint had to be seen. I stuck my head in the little room. There was a huge depression in the floor, but no footprint. At least that's what I thought. As I stared at the curved hole, it struck me that at one end were five grooves that could be toes. Yes, folks, the Buddha's footprint was six foot long. Hmmmmm.

Outside another monk had joined the first. Although he had a book, he wasn't reading, just staring picturesquely off into the distance. I took a chance and asked him if I could take their photo. With a grin, he said yes and stood there, still grinning, ruining whatever spontaneity had attracted me to the shot in the first place. Ah, well.

Dinner was at the hotel and was to be a barbeque. It was okay, though the extent of the barbeque was a sauce coated chicken fillet and I was crazy about the rest of the spread. However, there was Beer Lao and where there was Beer Lao there was joy. Phil (Dolby), who has been carting a guitar around with him, is, it turns out, the former frontman of a band called Death by Milkfloat. Around at the time of The Wonderstuff and Pop will eat Itself, he had not one, but two sessions on the John Peel show. I was very impressed and his account of wild gigs around the UK (Joe Strummer let him use his guitar and amp!) was further proof of a band on the cusp at an exciting time in British music.

Zooey, then told me of her escapades working for an American summer camp. She's had some bad luck and her account of her neighbour ransacking her house while she was in the US, was particularly unpleasant. the night though was a drunken success, however, we had a 4.30 early wake up to feed the monks.

It is an unlikely tourist attraction, but giving alms to the monks at daybreak, usually in the form of sticky rice, draws so many tourists as to exclude the local townspeople from what is a centuries old tradition. Now the locals supply chairs and wooden canisters of rice to bleary-eyed, snap happy idiots like us. To our credit we had no seats, not even a kneeling mat, unless we brought it ourselves. Getting to the main street before anyone else, we claimed our spot on the pavement. Beside us locals unfolded a long mat, on which they placed a long string of rice pots and a parallel line of blue, plastic seats. Just before the sun rose, the inevitable busload of Japanese tourists arrived to take their places. To be fair the woman at one end, sitting beside me, was from Thailand and she replenished her stock of rice many times from vendors, as well as supplementing it with flowers and what looked like stuffed vineleaves (Mekong weed again). A flurry of orange robes down the street, alerted us to the oncoming monks. Holding large metal pots, they file past the kneeling tourists, opening their pots enough to accept a little ball of sticky rice. Once upon a time this constituted one of their (2) main meals; nowadays, though I am sure some is eaten, it mostly goes to feed the hens. (For those of you wondering, I made a point of washing the deet from my hands before rolling my offerings.) It gets very frenetic with the hundreds of monks zipping past and wanting their rice NOW! In the end I was grabbing handfuls and throwing it into the nearest pot, something that depleted my meagre resources very quickly. I stepped away from the line and watched as more sensible tourists doled out their rice more frugally.

Breakfast in Joma's, bacon and eggs and strong black coffee.

At 10.30 we checked out and went to the airport for a 30 minute flight to Laos' capital city, Vientiane. The plane was a 50 seater, propeller job, but, despite some shaking, it got us there without disturbing my napping too much. When we exited, the supposed 32 degree heat (it seemed a lot hotter) drove us quickly into the shade.

Vientiane, may not be as pretty as Luang Prabang, but it is just as laid back, and seems very small. The town centre, taken up by roadworks and a non-functioning fountain, is no Trafalgar, probably being the quietest capital city heart I have ever encountered (even with the very industriously pursued roadworks; they would give Irish council workers a bit of a shock).

Having passed on my sandwich at lunch (possible butter), I was hungry and went in search of frogs legs in a restaurant famed for stir-fried frogs legs. I found the place, the Riverside Restaurant, beside a very depleted Mekong (the dry bed of the river seemed to stretch for miles). There indeed on the menu was 'Stirfried Basil Leaves and Frogs Legs'. Lovely! I ordered. Suddenly there was confusion. the waiter called for help. Another man, with scarcely more English, informed me frogs were off. I was devastated, but went for squid and shrimp. As I sipped my fresh lemonade a tiny frog hopped by my table. A tear dropped from my eye.

After a visit to an Internet cafe, I didn't have much time before we were to meet up. I came back to the hotel, met the others and promptly made my way back to the Riverside Restaurant where Charles thought it might be nice to have a riverside beer. It was. Some ants menaced our wooden table for a while, but the waiting staff, equipped with an anti-ant can, soon put a stop to that.

Our next port of call, a restaurant with live music, promised a happy hour of 2 dollar cocktails. Dinner first though. I ordered the Lao feast, another meal with a bit of everything; fish soup, beef salad, rice, Lao whiskey, corn dessert. Very soon into my hearthy attack on this food, I suffered an accident that was to ruin my subsequent eating; I ate a full chili. All of it, seeds and all. My mouth erupted, but that was dealt with within five minutes. More fatally my stomach revolted and though I drank lots of beer and downed much sticky rice, I never got my appetite back. The Lao whiskey too, made from rice, was particularly potent. Naturally in my delicate state I had to down it in one swallow. If nothing else, all this masochism justified my resorting to mint juleps. Gradually these nursed me back to alcoholic health. The hotel closed its doors at 11.30, so the night was cut short early.

Breakfast in a lovely French cafe this morning betokened a good day. But it was hot. Pairing up with Sian and Sarah, we walked to the Black Stupa, then wandered the Morning Market, then the Putaxai, a kind of replica of the Arc de Triomphe made from US donated concrete originally intended to make an airport (hence the unofficial title, 'The Vertical Runway'). It was getting really hot then, so we took a tuktuk to our final destination, the Golden Stupa, Pha That Luang. The tuktuk driver initially gave us a wild quote of 70000 kip, but our threat to walk away, brought it down to a more reasonable 15000. The other passenger in the tuktuk, wanting to get to the Thai Embassey, had to watch his watch sadly as our driver passed it bySitting beneath a tree, eating a Magnum while waiting for it to open was a memorable few minutes. The stupa itself is all gold and cloisters. The tranquility of the place was the real winning point for me though, and I was glad we took the trouble to get there.

A tuktuk back and I dozed for a while. Forcing myself to get up and out, I spurned the local cafes for one of the riverside stalls. In the end I plumped for some barbequed pork. Behind the stall were around twenty tyres spray-painted gold and supporting plywood tables. The old Thai-style triangular cushions and thin pillows gave me something to sit on. It was all very basic, very fly-ridden and very tasty. The owner himself served me, asking me often if all was well and whether I'd like to buy some homemade ice cream. I resisted the ice cream, but thanked him for his attention.

And so now I sit at a pc. All is up-to-date.


Post a Comment

<< Home