1 In Laos, Chinese Motorcycles Change Lives 12/07 (background story)
2 A Deadly Harvest of Cluster Bombs in Laos 4/08 (background story)
8 The Mekong’s Last Undiscovered City 1/11 (non-gay background story)
December 27, 2007 – The New York Times
In Laos, Chinese Motorcycles Change Lives
by Thomas Fullder, Long Lao Gao Journal
Long Lao Gao, Laos — The pineapples that grow on the steep hills above the Mekong River are especially sweet, the red and orange chilies unusually spicy, and the spring onions and watercress retain the freshness of the mountain dew. For years, getting this prized produce to market meant that someone had to carry a giant basket on a back-breaking, daylong trek down narrow mountain trails cutting through the jungle. That is changing, thanks in large part to China. Villagers ride their cheap Chinese motorcycles, which sell for as little as $440, down a dirt road to the markets of Luang Prabang, a charming city of Buddhist temples along the Mekong that draws flocks of foreign tourists. The trip takes one and a half hours.
“No one had a motorcycle before,” said Khamphao Janphasid, 43, a teacher in the local school whose extended family now has three of them. “The only motorcycles that used to be available were Japanese, and poor people couldn’t afford them.” Inexpensive Chinese products are flooding China’s southern neighbors like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The products are transforming the lives of some of the poorest people in Asia, whose worldly possessions a few years ago typically consisted of not much more than one or two sets of clothes, cooking utensils and a thatch-roofed house built by hand. The concerns in the West about the safety of Chinese toys and pet food are largely moot for the people in the remote villages here. As the introduction to global capitalism, Chinese products are met with deep appreciation. “Life is better,” Mr. Khamphao said, “because prices are cheaper.” Chinese television sets and satellite dishes connect villagers to the world. Stereos fill their houses with music. And the Chinese motorcycles often serve as transportation for families.
The motorcycles, typically with small but adequate 110cc, or cubic centimeter, engines, literally save lives, said Saidoa Wu, the village leader of Long Lao Mai, in a valley at the end of the dirt road, adjacent to Long Lao Gao. “Now when we have a sick person we can get to the hospital in time,” said Mr. Wu, 43. The improvised bamboo stretchers that villagers here used as recently as a decade ago to carry the gravely ill on foot are history. In a village of 150 families, Mr. Wu counts 44 Chinese motorcycles. There were none five years ago.
Chinese motorbikes fill the streets of Hanoi, Vientiane, Mandalay and other large cities in upland Southeast Asia. Thirty-nine percent of the two million motorcycles sold annually in Vietnam are Chinese brands, according to Honda, which has a 34 percent market share. Chinese exports to Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam amounted to $8.3 billion in the first eight months of the year, up about 50 percent from the same period in 2006. About seven years ago, residents here say, Chinese salesmen began arriving with suitcases filled with smuggled watches, tools and small radios; they would close up and move on when the police arrived. More recently, Chinese merchants, who speak only passable Lao, received permission to open permanent stalls in the towns and small cities across the region. In Laos, these are “talad jin,” or Chinese markets.
Mr. Khamphao and his neighbors all have $100 Chinese-made television sets connected to Chinese-made satellite dishes and decoders, causing both joy and occasional tension among family members sitting on the bare concrete or dirt floors of their living rooms. “I like watching the news,” Mr. Khamphao said. “My children love to watch movies.” A two-hour interview with Mr. Khamphao was interrupted twice: once when his buffalo in the adjoining field gave birth to a healthy calf and a second time when a cable TV channel was showing “Lost in Translation,” and the actor Bill Murray sang an off-key rendition of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This.” Mr. Khamphao’s children, whose daily lives are largely confined to the mountain village, have picked up the Thai language from television, and they sing along to commercials broadcast from Thailand.
The enthusiasm for Chinese goods here is tempered by one commonly heard complaint: maintenance problems. “The quality of the Japanese brands is much better,” said Gu Silibapaan, a 31-year-old motorcycle mechanic in Luang Prabang. People with money, he said, buy Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki motorcycles. People with lots of money buy cars. Mr. Gu said he could tell a Japanese brand, made in Thailand, just by listening to the engine. “It sounds more firm, and the engine noise is softer,” Mr. Gu said. Some Thai-made Japanese motorcycles can go 10 years without an engine overhaul. Chinese bikes, he said, usually need major repairs within three to four years. I want a motorcycle from Thailand, but I don’t have the money,” said Kon Panlachit, a police officer who brought his Jinlong 110cc motorcycle to Mr. Gu’s shop for repairs recently. When I ride it, it makes a noise — dap, dap dap,” Mr. Kon said. “It’s the second time I’ve brought it here for this problem.”
The cheapest Thai-made Honda goes for 55,000 baht, about $1,670 — four times the price of the cheapest Chinese bikes, sold under many brands. The influx of Chinese motorcycles is keeping mechanics busy in Luang Prabang. A decade ago there were only two or three repair shops in the city, Mr. Gu said. Now he counts 20. Mr. Gu does not worry about maintenance for his own motorcycle. “I have a Honda,” he said.
April 26, 2008 – CommonDreams.org
A Deadly Harvest of Cluster Bombs in Laos
by Richard Lloyd Parry
Viengkeo Kavongsone had lived in fear of such a catastrophe all his life – in the jungle, in the paddy fields, on the mountain – but never in his own back yard. It was late afternoon when it happened, and his wife, Van, and three young children were at home in their village in the province of Xieng Khouang in northern Laos. They were clearing the ditch that drains rainwater from their little wooden house. The tin shovel scraped upon something hard and metallic – and that was the last thing they recalled. The explosion peppered shrapnel into the legs of Van and her six-year-old daughter, Phetsida. The oldest boy, Soulideth, took the blast in the face and may lose his sight. Closest to the explosion was the youngest boy, Bounma. “He was the littlest,” his father said as he stood by the hospital beds of his wife and surviving children, “and he was right next to it.” The blast threw the child six metres (20ft) out of the ditch, and he died immediately – the latest victim of a spectral war that came to an end a generation before he was born.
The South-East Asian nation of Laos is not a country in conflict – in fact few places in the world are so torpid and peaceful. The weapon that killed Bounma was a tennis ball-sized pod of ball bearings that fell to earth when Lyndon Johnson was US President and the Beatles were at the height of their powers. It was part of a cluster bomb – one of the most stubborn, long-lasting and cruelly undiscriminating weapons of modern war – scattered by American B52 bombers in the so-called “Secret War” intended to drive back communist guerrillas and block supply lines for US enemies in Vietnam. Cluster bombs consist of an outer casing that splits open to release as many as 700 individual “bomblets” designed to explode on impact, spreading blast and deadly fragments over soldiers and armoured vehicles in a 30 metre radius. But invariably, between 10 per cent and 40 per cent of the bomblets fail to detonate.
They are small, innocuous looking, and often colourful – almost as if designed to attract the attention of playful children. And like the bomblet that killed Bounma, they can lie in the ground for a generation until the chance touch of a spade or a curious hand triggers them into deadly life. “I remember when the bombs fell,” said 54-year-old Mr Viengkeo, who was a teenager at the time. “I remember seeing them falling. I taught the children to be careful: ‘If you see something and you don’t know what it is, leave it and tell an adult’. But I had no idea there was a bomb there all the time, under my home.” Finally, the world has started to take notice of cluster bombs. Next month in Dublin, about a hundred governments will gather to finalise an international treaty to restrict their use.
Many governments, including the victorious communists who still govern Laos, are pressing for a complete ban. The world’s biggest military powers, including Russia, China and the US, are refusing to take part in the negotiations. And then there are those governments, including Britain, that want to retain the right to use certain kinds of cluster bomb. “We refer to cluster bombs as the weapon that never stops killing,” said Peter Herby, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is lobbying for an unconditional ban. “It’s bad enough when civilians get caught up and injured in conflict. But for us it’s repugnant when killing goes on for years and decades simply because of the wrong choice of weapon. In the end politicians have to decide that some weapons are beyond the pale.” The first cluster bombs were dropped by the Luftwaffe on Grimsby in 1943, and since then they have been used in more than a dozen conflicts. The momentum for the present treaty negotiations gathered after 2006 when the Israeli army fired four million bomblets on to southern Lebanon, where they continue to cause civilian casualties. But no nation in the world has suffered more from cluster bombs than Laos.
Between 1964 and 1973, when the Secret War was abandoned, US aircraft flew 580,000 missions and dropped two million tonnes of bombs on Laos. These included 277 million cluster bomblets. Assuming a failure rate of 30 per cent, 84 million of these are still lying in the ground. The best figure for casualties caused by cluster bombs is 4,847 since the end of the war, almost half of them children. Deadly explosives have become part of everyday life. In the town of Phonsavan there are fences made of shell casings. Unexploded bombs are forged into axes, sickles, cow bells, rice cookers, belt buckles, boats and ladders. One particular cluster bomb with a tripod-shaped fin is commonly fitted with a light bulb and used as a lamp.
“This familiarity is a real problem,” said Joe Pereira, a British occupational therapist whose charity, Cope, supplies prosthetic limbs to victims. “People grow up with bombs in their houses and so when they see them in the forest they don’t appreciate the danger.”
Battle lines drawn
– About a hundred countries will meet in Dublin next month to negotiate the last details of a draft treaty on cluster bombs. The biggest military powers, including the US, Russia, China, Pakistan and India, are not taking part
– Britain wants the term “cluster bomb” to be defined as a device with ten or more “bomblets” – which would allow it to continue using the M73 bomb, with only nine
– Britain also argues for exemption of the M85 because of its “self-deactivation device”. Such “smart cluster bombs” are said to have a failure rate of 1 per cent, but when used by Israel in Lebanon in 2006, up to 10 per cent failed to explode or deactivate
– Other controversies focus on the amount of time countries would be given to stop using cluster bombs, and over military co-operation between states that had signed a treaty and those that had not
October 11, 2008 – thestar.com
Looking for the other side of Laos: Land of ancient treasures and UXO has emerging gay scene
by Julia Steinecke, Special to the Star
Vientiane –It’s pouring rain but I’m determined to find a gay bar in the capital of Laos. My tuk-tuk driver has a note with a name, Pack Luck, and approximate location, written in Lao by a bilingual local, and after turning around twice, we pull up to a neon sign with a rainbow flag. I dash inside and find myself in a tiny, dimly lit space with a sprinkling of customers. A friendly expat strikes up a conversation with me and explains the difference between UXO (unexploded ordinance) and land mines. Laos, the most heavily bombed country in history (according to the Lao Unexploded Ordinance Program), is covered with UXO, which he’s helping remove.
In the middle of this, my friend, Anan, arrives, flipping his shiny scarf. Anan, who works as a Peer Education Project Co-ordinator for MSM ("men who have sex with men"), has been telling me about LGBT life in Laos and charming me with his infectious laugh. Tomorrow, Anan will lead a workshop on how to persuade teenage boys to use condoms. Part of the challenge is that there’s only one brand of condoms available in Laos, called, ironically, "#1" and it’s available in only one size. Because of HIV, the government supports health-related organizations working with MSM and this has raised gay men’s self-esteem and visibility in Lao society.
Things are different for lesbians, who live in isolation; none of the gay men I’ve spoken to know any lesbians. Transwomen, of whom I’ve seen several in Vientiane, have some visibility because of their presence in Thai media, broadcast widely in Laos. The community can’t organize social or recreational events without government permission, and clearance is mainly given for serious things like HIV prevention training and MSM drop in-centres where any man can go for counselling, workshops, English classes, games and camping trips.
LGBT tourists have an easier time than locals. Sharing hotel rooms and beds is a non-issue, I’m told, even in remote village homestays. Public displays of affection are not common among Lao people of any orientation, so it’s best for tourists to follow suit. A tourist dating a local might meet with some negative reaction because folks will assume the local person is a sex trade worker. Theoretically, sex between tourists and locals is against the law but this is hardly ever enforced.
Even in Luang Prabang, which has a mandatory bar closing time of 11:30 p.m., I was advised by the gay bar owner to "stick with the Lao people; they know how to party." After Khob Chai closes, Somphorn Boupha and his staff like to go bowling for a few hours. As another resident tells me, "When Somphorn goes to the bowling alley, it’s a gay spot."
In Vientiane, it’s almost midnight when the show begins at Pack Luck. The place is full now, with locals and a few falang (foreigners). More friends have joined us. Stage lights shine at the far end, and a series of female impersonators in elegant attire act out a full range of emotions as they lip-synch to American and Asian pop songs. I can hear Anan humming along. When the show ends and we get ready to go, a local woman strides up, sits on top of me and begins dancing. She offers me a dazzling smile and rubs her body against mine. I turn a little red and my friends smile. After a while she gives up and walks away.
It’s still pouring rain when we step into the night. Anan assigns me to another friend’s scooter and we ride, three scooters abreast, laughing as we get soaked. As we pull onto the riverside road, Anan announces, "OK, Julia, you wanted to hear me sing, so, this song is dedicated to you." Then he belts out When Will I See You Again? his powerful voice easily hitting all the high notes. He closes his eyes against the rain and steers by instinct – every few moments he wipes away the water streaming down his face.
"Do you like Edith Piaf?" he asks me, his eyes shining. Then he sings an unforgettable rendition of La Vie En Rose, in the pouring rain, flying along the banks of the Mekong River.
January, 2009 – unescobkk.org
Mekong Erotics: Men Loving/Pleasuring/Using Men in Lao PDR
by Chris Lyttleton
Unprotected male-to-male sex with multiple partners is one of the three main modes of transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the Asia-Pacific region (the other two being unprotected sex in the context of sex work and unsafe injecting drug use). According to a recent report of the Commission on AIDS in Asia (2008)1, at least 75 percent of all HIV infections in Asia are caused directly by these three behaviors; among adolescents this figure reaches 95 percent of all infections.
In Thailand, 30.7 percent of a sample of men who have sex with men (MSM) recruited in Bangkok entertainment venues tested positive for HIV in 20072, and men who have sex with men currently contribute to 21 percent of all HIV infections in Thailand3. In Lao People Democratic Republic, a recent survey (2007) found that 5.6 percent of MSM in the capital Vientiane tested positive for HIV. Condom use is very low and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases is high. Meanwhile, the general population prevalence of HIV stands at 0.2 percent. This would mean that a large proportion of HIV infections in Lao PDR are caused by the male-to-male transmission route – perhaps more than 75 percent of all infections.
In contrast to what was thought not very long ago, the HIV epidemic driven by male-to-male sex is not an isolated ‘boutique’ epidemic – and it probably has never been. HIV prevention among MSM is now deemed more important than ever, and Asian countries will be unable to retain their status of ‘low level’ epidemic and/or reduce overall population prevalence below 0.1 percent without scaling up HIV prevention, care and support interventions for MSM. We know that unprotected anal sex is an effective route for transmission of HIV.
It is more difficult to understand in which situations, contexts and circumstances men do or do not use condoms and water-based lubricants to protect themselves. Understanding better the context of unsafe sex will enable us to design interventions that can lead to behavior change. It is essential that we focus not only on the behavior and the context in which it takes place, but also on the individuals engaging in it and the communities in which they live. The variety of men who have sex with men is enormous in terms of age, class, religion, and ethnicity, but also in terms of self-identity and how this identity fits (or does not fit) with the society in which an individual is a part.
March 11, 2009 – aidsmap.com
High HIV prevalence amongst men who have sex with men in Laos
by Michael Carter
HIV prevalence is significantly higher amongst men who have sex with men in Laos (Lao People’s Democratic Republic) than any other group in the country, according to a study published in the January 28th edition of AIDS. The study was conducted in the capital, Vientiane, and found that 6% of men who have sex with men were HIV-positive, and that attempted suicide was associated with HIV infection, a finding that the investigators believe “may point to the mental health needs of men who have sex with men.”
HIV prevalence in Laos is low compared to neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Research has suggested that 0.1% of the adult population in Laos are HIV-positive, and that approximately 1% of female sex workers are infected with HIV. Investigators were concerned that there were no data on HIV prevalence amongst men who have sex with men in the country. They therefore designed a cross-sectional (or snapshot) study involving men reporting sex with other men recruited from commercial venues in Vientiane in 2007.
Men attending these venues were approached by trained peer educators and asked to complete a questionnaire. All the men in the study reported oral or anal sex with another man in the previous six months. After completing the questionnaire, the men had oral HIV tests. Participants were instructed how to obtain their test result from a clinic one week later. All the men who returned received counselling and HIV-positive men were referred for confirmatory testing and medical follow-up. A total of 540 men were included in the study. Exclusive sexual attraction to men was reported by 40% of participants, 58% reported ever having sex with a woman, and 39% reported sex with a woman in the previous three months. Sex with more than one male partner in the previous three months was reported by 42% of men.
Anal sex with another man was reported by 84% of men and, of these, 42% said they were usually the insertive partner and 44% reported usually being the receptive partner. Receiving money for sex was reported by 22%, and 28% said they had paid for sex. Sex with a foreigner was reported by 16% of men and 29% said that they had been coerced into having sex. Condom use was low. Only 14% of men reported using condoms with a regular partner, 24% with a casual partner and 50% when having sex with a foreigner.
Alcohol had been used by 96% of men in the previous three months; 59% smoked and 21% reported the use of illegal drugs. Attempted suicide was reported by 17% of men. A history of symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection was reported by 42% of men; 81% expressed concern about contracting HIV, but only 6% of men had ever had an HIV test. A total of 30 men (6%) were HIV-positive, but only four of these men returned for their test result.
The investigators’ first set of statistical analyses found that two factors were associated with a higher risk of testing HIV-positive: suicidal ideation (p = 0.02) and inconsistent condom use when selling sex (p = 0.03). However, in subsequent multivariate analysis, only suicidal ideation remained significant (OR = 2.91, 95% CI = 1.26-6.72, p = 0.01).
“HIV prevalence of 5.6% is the highest documented HIV prevalence for any group in the country. This elevated HIV prevalence compared with the general population is consistent with data from neighbouring countries,” comment the investigators. A number of factors are noted by the investigators that suggest that the HIV epidemic could accelerate amongst men who have sex with men in Laos. These include the number of reported sexual partners, the number of men reporting anal sex, high levels of drug and alcohol use, frequent buying and selling of sex, large numbers of reported sexually transmitted infections, and low rates of condom use.
Suicidal ideation was the only significant factor associated with HIV infection. The investigators believe that this indicates the mental health needs of men who have sex with men in Laos. They do not believe that prior knowledge of HIV infection could explain this association “as only one HIV-positive person in our study reported having previously tested for HIV”. Recruitment of the men participating in the study from public entertainment venues means that the men may not be representative of the wider population of men who have sex with men in the country, caution the investigators.
Nevertheless, they conclude, “this survey documents an HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men in Vientiane. The risky behaviours exhibited by these men indicate the potential for further transmission within this group. The sexual networking with women suggests that there may be transmission of HIV to the broader community unless action is taken.”
Sheridan S et al. HIV prevalence and risk behaviour among men who have sex with men in Vientiane Capital, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 2007. AIDS 23: 409-14, 2007.
18 June 2009 – BBC News
Laos tackles transgender taboos
A new drive to contain the spread of HIV/Aids in Laos is forcing officials to recognise a marginalised group – transgender men known as "katheoy". The BBC’s Jill McGivering went to meet some of them in the capital, Vientiane. Khom was born male. But she has thought of herself as female since she was about nine years old.
Now 28, she could easily be accepted as a woman. She has long, styled hair, make-up, and a gentle, feminine manner. But when she talks about her experiences of being "katheoy" in Laos, her voice is solemn. They’re not fully accepted, she says. She uses the example of trying to find a job. If she fills in an application form, it always needs a photograph as well. The selectors look at his gender – "male" – and at the photograph. It goes in the wastepaper bin, and she never gets called for interview.
But after being largely ignored for so long, katheoys like Khom are suddenly the focus of attention from the Lao government. Some are "long-haired" katheoys like Khom, who present themselves as women. Others are "short-haired" katheoys who present themselves as men. Both groups have sex with men. They have emerged as the country’s highest risk group for HIV/Aids – and are now the target of a special campaign.
In Vientiane, I visited one of three new men’s health and social centres which target katheoys and their male partners. The centres have free internet access, dance classes and a social programme – alongside education about safe sex and condom use, and a doctor’s clinic which specialises in treating sexually transmitted infections. Rob Gray of the charity Population Services International showed me around it, and explained the particular focus on katheoys and other men who have sex with men. Last year, he told me, a government survey found the HIV rate amongst men who have sex with men in Vientiane was 5.6%.
For Laos, that’s very high – higher than the rate amongst other high-risk groups, including female sex workers. There are now plans for a nationwide survey which should be completed later this year and give a much broader picture.
For Laos government officials, mostly drawn from the older generation, addressing the issue of men having sex with men has apparently not been easy. Five years ago, say health officials, it would have been unthinkable. Dr Chansy Phimphachanh is the director of the government’s Centre for HIV/Aids. It has been a struggle, she says, to get senior leaders to understand and confront the idea of sexual behaviour which seems to them to be unorthodox.
"The first time we really held a meeting about men who have sex with men, it was hard for policymakers and some government officials to recognise this. At the beginning, it was very hard. The issue was new and it was hard to explain it. Now we can talk about it much more openly." Wider Lao society seems far more in touch with katheoy culture – and generally tolerant of it.
I went with Khom and her friend to walk along the banks of the Mekong river. Families were having picnics under the trees in the sweltering heat. Children were playing on the nearby swings, and vendors were selling cooked meat and cold drinks from carts.
Everyone I asked knew exactly what katheoys were. Many people described them as a "third" gender. One or two people frowned when they saw Khom and her friend pass. One man said he would rather not talk to katheoys. But most people seemed sympathetic. "It’s their nature, they were born that way. They can’t help it," shrugged one middle-aged man.
I asked one man how he would feel if his son was katheoy. "I’d be disappointed," he said. "But I’d learn to live with it. It’s not something you can change."
The issue of HIV prevention may force Laos to acknowledge its population of katheoys more fully. Khom certainly hopes for greater tolerance. "I just want to be accepted," she told me, "and not separated from the rest of society."
Reaching the (in)visible men of Vientiane…A qualitative study of peer education programmes among men who have sex with men in Vientiane, Laos
Thesis by Ditte Hjorth Hansen
Introduction and objectives.
Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) have high risk of HIV due to unsafe sexual practices and poor knowledge about protection. Targeted prevention programmes are sparse because of limited understanding of male-to-male sex and sexuality. Peer Education Programmes (PEPs) have been implemented as health interventions to reach MSM in Laos to increase their knowledge on safe sexual behaviour and reduce their risk of HIV. The objective of this study is to explore how PEPs are applied among MSM in Vientiane, and how MSM perceive the programmes to influence their sexual behaviour.
Fieldwork for this ethnographic study was conducted from November 2008 to February 2009 in Vientiane, Laos. Key informant interviews with experts in the field of PEPs and MSM were supplemented with personal observations and participatory observation of MSM and the implementation of PEPs. Ten in-depth interviews were conducted with peer educators (PEs) as well as ten interviews with receivers of the PEPs (peers). These data were supported by informal interviews.
Findings and conclusion
The study shows that PEPs have succeeded in reaching and teaching their target group about safe sexual behaviour using different outreach activities. The PEs find it challenging to perform outreach, discuss health issues with their peers and to behave as good role models. This has implications on the intervention’s effect on peers.
Sexual practices, sexual identity and communities were found to play a role for the risk of HIV among MSM in Vientiane, and it is these factors that PEPs should be aiming at. The peers have negotiated a meaning concerning condom use and HIV, indicating that they are able to understand and learn from the way they have been taught, but they have not been able to personalise the messages given and relate them to other situations in their lives. Therefore, despite having learned new practices and gained more knowledge, most peers continue to engage in high risk sexual practices.
To improve PEPs in Vientiane, suitable candidates with strong communication skills should be recruited as PEs, and their training should include the topics that have been identified as putting the peers at risk of HIV. Also, the PEs should learn to take advantage of the fact that they share the same sexual practices and identities as their peers and therefore have a strong foundation for identifying the needs of the peers and what they need to learn in order to practice safe sexual behaviour.
January 8, 2011 – Wall Street Journal
The Mekong’s Last Undiscovered City – Or at least that’s the way colorful Luang Prabang, Laos’s ancient capital, makes even the most jaded travelers feel
by Kevin Sintumuang
Each morning I would awake at 5 o’clock. Was it the 20-hour trans-Pacific jet lag? Perhaps. Yet the romantic in me likes to believe it was the natural pace and aura of Luang Prabang—the former royal capital of Laos—that was rousing me each dawn, the sky turning a hazy purple over the tropics of north-central Laos. Something in the air seemed to be urging me: "Get up—this is a morning city."
Or rather, a morning town. As it’s a mere sliver of a peninsula formed at the confluence of the earth-colored Mekong and Khan rivers, one can traverse the length of the main historical area of Luang Prabang in about an hour. But rushing through it—past the centuries-old temples and their magnificent Buddhas, the street vendors selling hand-woven silk, the fragrant Gallic and Laotian cuisine served at restaurants in crumbling Art Deco edifices—would do yourself an egregious disservice. True, ambitious visitors could spend just a night in Luang Prabang, a stop-off on a whirlwind tour of Indochina, but they’d be missing out on so much: seeing
his may sound like mystical hyperbole, but it’s true. Luang Prabang has had this effect on people, visitors and townsfolk alike for ages. According to old lore, the first settlers may have decided to build a city here over 1,000 years ago to be close to the sheer beauty of Mount Phousi, the verdant hill that is the town’s centerpiece. In the first half of the 20th century, while the city was part of Indochina, French colonials quickly fell in love with its languid nature—to many, it was the perfect antidote to Paris. And today, linen-and-Pashmina-clad travelers, hearing of its reputation as the last "untouched" city in Southeast Asia, make pilgrimages here. Subsequently, a smattering of luxury boutique inns have sprung up, the French provincial façades restored to their past glory.
Still, despite Luang Prabang’s growth as a destination for the off-the-beaten-path traveler, it remains a magical, fabled place. And like the surrounding meandering rivers, the soul of the city will be revealed only at its own pace, a speed as lulling as a drifting longboat.
If you should rise at dawn in Luang Prabang, as I did, you will be rewarded with one of Asia’s most spectacular sights: a Buddhist alms procession. Each morning, beginning at 5:30, hundreds of monks from the town’s 30 or so temples walk barefoot in the streets, single file, oldest in the front, youngest trailing behind, all clad in burnt-sienna-colored robes and toting alms bowls over their shoulders. Awaiting them on the side of the roads are locals, kneeling on mats with bamboo baskets of kao neaw (sticky rice) cradled under one arm. As monks pass, the locals drop pinches of rice into the alms bowls.
It’s a remarkable sight, a simple act of giving and receiving, yet as quickly as it happens, it ends. The monks return to their temples. The locals go about their days.
You may want to join this stunningly meditative religious procession. Many tourists do. But unless a local invites you, position yourself at a respectful distance and simply observe. Luang Prabang excels at making one feel like it’s a lost city on the Mekong; with the dense, jungle mountains encircling it, it’s certainly removed enough from the rest of the world to be one. And because it’s a Unesco World Heritage town, crass overdevelopment may never arrive. Still, you may find yourself caring for the survival of Luang Prabang’s authenticity in a more fervent way than one would, say, Phuket’s. There appear to be no signs of tourist snobbery here, nor the hustling and con games so many travelers face when visiting destination ports.
19 January, 2011 – CNN
China announces high-speed rail link to Singapore via Vietnam – Construction of a section of railway linking Nanning to Vietnam will China has announced plans to build a high-speed railway linking the southern Chinese Guangxi Zhaung autonomous region with Singapore via Vietnam, according to China Daily.
The first stage of construction will link the Chinese city of Nanning with Pingxiang, a city near China’s border with Vietnam. Work on this section will commence in the second half of 2011, China Daily reported, citing the regional government’s development and reform commission. The construction of the high-speed rail will be the Nanning government’s main priority in the next five years. The line is meant to increase commerce and various trade between China and ASEAN nations.
"We will invest 15.6 billion yuan (US$3.05 billion) to build the railway linking Nanning and Singapore via Vietnam," said Long Li, director of the region’s transportation department. "This is extremely important for the construction of the Nanning-Singapore Economic Corridor." The corridor refers to the economic link between China and ASEAN nations, starting at Nanning in Guangxi and passing through Hanoi in Vietnam, Vientiane in Laos, Cambodia’s Phnom Penh, Thailand’s Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia on its way to Singapore. China Daily referred to Guangxi as the country’s main foreign-trade center, with ASEAN being its largest bloc trading partner.begin later this year
May 2011 Update
12 May, 2011 – CNN
Shanghai-Beijing high-speed train trial begins – As the official launch date for one of China’s most anticipated new train lines nears, cutting travel time between Shanghai and Beijing in half, the new service tests the tracks
by Jessica Beaton
Flying between Beijing and Shanghai might soon be a thing of the past. The Shanghai-Beijing high-speed train began its one-month trial yesterday, testing the 1,318-kilometer route for the official late June opening, according to state media reports. The first train left Shanghai at 8:45 a.m. on Wednesday, according to Shanghai government-run news portal EastDay.com, although it didn’t carry any passengers. The line is opening ahead of schedule; it was originally set to begin operations in early 2012.
The train will connect two of China’s economic powerhouses with only one stop between them in Nanjing. The whole trip will take just under five hours — more than twice the flying time between the two cities — with average speeds of 300 kilometers per hour. The average train trip between the two cities is currently about 10 hours. "The initially planned operation speed was 350 kilometers per hour but we decided to reduce it due to safety concerns and prices," said Wang Yongping, spokesman for the Ministry of Railways, to state media reporters.
Currently the fastest train line in China connects Beijing with Tianjin, running at 350 kilometers per hour. Ticket prices have been yet to be released, although China.org.cn reports that the train will use an ID-based ticket booking system starting June 1 in an attempt to prevent ticket scalping. Shanghai may implement the system as early as May 22, due to its policy of releasing tickets 11 days before a trip.
The construction of the 1,318-kilometer line was started in April 2008 with total investment estimated at RMB 220.9 billion. The new line is part of China’s increased investment in its high-speed rail network, which reached 8,358 kilometers at the end of 2010 and is expected to exceed 16,000 kilometers by 2020.
June 26, 2011 – Cambodia Out Website
CambodiaOut Website Expands
CambodiaOut is a Gay and Lesbian community based website. It is designed to provide information about the vibrant gay community in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Due to many requests we have recently added the The Republic of Laos, Kingdom of Thailand and The Republic of Viet Nam to our website. We try to provide a service to the Asian and expat LGBT community, as well as to the tourists that are visiting here.
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