Sunday, 15 January 2012

Dai hard ... with a hangover

While I'm dredging up some old Timers, here's one from the 'My Wife's Wacky Family' department. This was a shot in the dark, could easily have been a bust story-wise, but with a bit of dumb luck we stumbled into the right people and I wound up with a touching tale. I'll add the pix when i can dig them out of boxes in our flood-ravaged house. The story originally appeared here:,9171,268237,00.html#ixzz1jWHp3znU

It was after the seventh or eighth tumbler of rice whiskey that the tears began to flow. Nai Tong, the weather-beaten, gold-grinning village chief, blinked hard, splashed the whiskey jug around and raised his glass. "Welcome to Sipsongpanna, daughter of the Dai. Welcome home." It was a magic moment and the culmination of an emotion-charged journey for my wife, Sawitree. She is the first of her large northern Thai family to travel back to the land of her ancestors, the Dai people, who inhabit the southern tip of China's Yunnan province. The region is now known as Xishuangbanna, a Sinicization of the Dai name, which means "12,000 fields."

Exactly 130 years ago, my wife's great-grandmother, then a seven-year-old named Bua, left her village to walk with her parents to a new life in old Siam. Why they left is lost in the mists of time; most likely it was amid turmoil as colonial powers bickered over the region, sandwiched between Burma's Shan states and modern-day Laos. They were following a well-worn path. For centuries, the Buddhist, rice-farming Dai have been tempted by the wide open spaces of Thailand's north, and have ventured across the Mekong to start anew. This migration was actively encouraged by northern Thailand's kingdom of Lanna, which means "one million fields''. To Bua and her family, the math was clear and so they packed up what possessions they could carry and set off. They would settle in Chiang Rai first, Bua would marry an enterprising Chiu Chow trader and their family would grow to sprawl out all over the fields of modern day Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Lampang provinces. Sawitree grew up speaking Dai Lue, the main Dai language, which remains the lingua franca of many northern Thais.

Our first glimpse of her roots had come two days earlier, as our plane dropped through a thick layer of cloud to reveal steep, wrinkled peaks flanking a jade patchwork of paddies. As we skimmed the treetops to land outside the main town of Jinghong - or in Dai Lue, Chiang Rung, "the city of the dawn" - what looked like dozens of Pizza Huts peeped from the verdure. This was the unique architecture of the Dai, their signature, high-canted roofs perched atop thick teak pillars.

With no clue other than the name of Bua's childhood village - a place handed down in family legend named Baan Yandee - we decide to start at the palace of the Dai King, Jau Phaendin, a shadowy figure kept on a very tight leash by the Chinese authorities. After hours of wandering Jinghong's wide boulevards, we spot two elderly Dai women in traditional dress; long, silk sheaths and blouses, cinched by wide, silver belts. "Jau Phaendin?" asks my wife. "Don't you know?" whispers one of the women. The last Dai King, she tells us, was exiled to Kunming during the tumultuous early years of the People's Republic of China, and his teak palace was torn down by rabid Red Guards. The Dai were a feisty people, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and it was felt they did not need a monarch around to stir up ethnic pride or notions of independence. (These days, the septuagenarian King works at the Yunnan Research Institute for Nationalities, and the Chinese government prizes the bright costumes and quaint villages of the Dai as a lucrative tourism draw.)

Does the old woman know of Baan Yandee? "Of course," she replies. "It's the village where Jau Phaendin was born." My wife explains her quest and the woman leads us through a maze of backstreets to a house with a handsome Dai roof, crouched in the shadows of tiled apartment blocks. We knock, and a man named Saengau answers the door with a scowl that fades as Sawitree explains her story. "Come in, come in," he smiles, calling his wife. They were once dancers at the King's palace, Saengau explains, and he is related to Jau Phaendin. "Very sad, very sad," he says. "We had to run for our lives when the red guards came to destroy the palace."

Saengau rummages in a drawer and puts on a video of Baan Yandee's New Year festival. It shows a noisy, musical procession, where an elderly chap is carried though cobbled streets on a moth-eaten throne. "That's Jau Phaendin," he says reverently. "He is allowed to come back to his village once every year."

Next morning we're bumping over dirt roads through rice fields, on our way to meet the past. Word of our arrival at Baan Yandee gets around quickly. Within 10 minutes, dozens of smiling villagers have materialized, each trying to drag us to his house. Nai Tong, the headman, introduces himself and listens with rapt attention to my wife's story.

"Bua? Bua?" he ruminates. One of the oldest women mutters and squawks, professing vague memories of a cousin of that name who left as a little girl. "Come," says the chief, "we must eat and drink." His house, a rambling, postcard-perfect example of the Dai style, was built 10 years after Bua would have begun her long trek. I soon lose count of the glasses of firewater raised and quaffed, as the women bustle about, assembling a feast. My wife is the center of attention, showered with questions and hugs. Overwhelmed, she chokes back sobs. The chief raises his glass and asks for silence. Then he clasps her hands and says once more "Welcome home."

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Amber warning for the land that time forgot

I just got back from a business trip to Luang Prabang. As I rolled into town I fully expected to see sweeping changes to Asia's most charming sleepy hollow since I penned this piece for Time almost a decade ago. I was shocked and delighted to see that in fact, almost nothing seems to have changed, with the exception of wi-fi, some ATM machines and the miserable silty trickle that now passes for the Mekong. Here's the link to the original:,9171,230444,00.html
Here's the story: 

Luang Prabang marches to the beat of an indifferent drummer. Nothing is rushed in this sleepy Lao hamlet where the somnolence is contagious and you can spot the new arrivals by the briskness of their gaits. On the streets, teenagers conduct confabulations on motorbikes, two or three abreast, scarcely going fast enough to stay vertical.

Rheumy-eyed old timers lean on fences in the grip of some nameless torpor. Silent saffron parades of monks glide by, footsteps raising little puffs of dust, stooping now and then to solicit alms. Time creeps by. You imagine some indolent imp has fallen asleep inside your watch and gummed up its works. Indeed, Luang Prabang might just be the best value holiday destination in Asia, if only because a day here seems to last as long as two anywhere else.

Its mellifluous name hints at hidden wonders, and Luang Prabang has certainly achieved cult status among travelers since UNESCO pronounced it the best-preserved city in Southeast Asia six years ago and put it on the World Heritage list. "What a delightful paradise of idleness this country protects, by the fierce barrier of the stream, against progress and ambition for which it has no need," wrote Marthe Bassene, a resident French doctor's wife, in 1909. Her words have since been immortalized in the august pages of the Lonely Planet. "Will Luang Prabang be ... the refuge of the last dreamers, the last lovers, the last troubadours?"

Once the capital of Lan Xang, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, this town of about 16,000 inhabitants perches on a peninsula where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers meet about 200 km north of Vientiane. It's a place of unsurpassed charm, which seems all the more fragile when you consider it's a mere 100 km or so from the infamous Other Theater where between 1964 and 1973 the U.S. was busy dropping a planeload of bombs every eight minutes in the so-called Secret War.

The town's old quarter, which on the map looks like a boot giving the fat brown snake of the Mekong a kick in the belly, is a conservationist's paradise: a kind of colonial Disneyland with lane after unspoiled, shade-dappled lane filled with French brick and stucco buildings and teakwood homes that sag with age. On almost every corner and rise sits a temple: there are more than 30, some half a millennium old. The golden sweep of their winglike roofs seems to suspend them in the hazy skies. The place is so photogenic the local Kodak concession must be a license to print money.

Luang Prabang has no McDonald's, no 7-Eleven, no ATMS. It doesn't have a single place to get a cash advance on MasterCard, as I discovered to my embarrassment, which resulted in a last day spent in penury hiding in my hotel. The town is refreshingly free of things to do, apart from wander around, drink coffee and beer in cafes, and soak up the ambiance. A dust-choked side trip to the gorgeous Kuangsi waterfalls or a jaunt down the river to the Pak Ou caves, which are crammed with ancient Buddha images, make up the extent of nearby attractions.

How long can Luang Prabang's slumber last? There are ominous signs of a rude awakening. In the old quarter's main street, Sisavangvong Road, tourists now outnumber locals. Satellite dishes bristle from roofs and backyards, sucking from the ether a steady stream of inane Thai game shows. Internet shops spring up daily, each filled with earnest backpackers clicking away. Highway 13 from Vientiane is now paved, putting the capital just a day's drive away.

Luckily, aside from a few dissenters who would rather get rich quick, most locals seem to welcome the World Heritage status and the protection from rapacious development it confers. "I think it's a good thing," says Mae Ouay Kum Lek, 86, owner of Ban Xieng Mouane, a 150-year-old teakwood home that's now a unesco-sponsored "Heritage House." She smiles. "And a nice young man from unesco gives me $50 every month."

Luang Prabang's charms seem safe enough if the abject failure of its first full moon-style party, modeled on Thailand's island raves, is anything to go by. "Us backpackers have got to make our own fun," said a shaggy type who bounded up to me in Sisavangvong Road and thrust a flyer proclaiming the birth of the Full Mekong Party into my hand. "I'm the Great Disco Dane," he explained, assuring me the party would be "wicked." Around 9 p.m., I ventured down to the sandy strip where the ferries land to find about 20 people sipping Beer Lao around a fire, a decided lack of music and a disconsolate Disco Dane. "I can't believe it, man," he moaned. "We got shut down."

Who needs a thumping techno beat anyway? It's clear that in Luang Prabang, the indifferent drummer continues to call the tune.

Read more:,9171,230444,00.html#ixzz1jBIoRXp5