BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, December 17, 2010

Luang Prabang, Laos: A slice of heaven -- New Internationalist

Luang Prabang, Laos: A slice of heaven -- New Internationalist

The journey to Luang Prabang, Laos takes at least 18 hours on a slow-moving bus from Bangkok. There isn’t much to see on either side of the road except hectares and hectares of rice fields.

There’s nothing entertaining to watch, either, on the supposedly VIP bus from the Thai capital. Don’t go waiting for an English film or even a Western soap opera on television. Instead, one has to endure the Asian daytime shows – lesser versions of the famed Eat Bulaga, the Philippines’ longest longest-running daytime show – more than 20 years now and still counting.

When this is done, one’s ears will have to take in the blaring Asian music that is foreign to a Filipino.

The leg room is cramped and, if you’re unlucky, the guy from the other side of the aisle will sit like a king and stretch his dirty foot towards you.

When the bus finally reaches the Northern Bus Station in the Laos capital of Vientiane, one has to transfer to another bus to Luang Prabang.

I travelled with Filipino documentary photographer Jes Aznar. We took the 8 pm bus – a 10-hour bus ride on a rough zigzag terrain that will never, not for a second, be a straight path.

I hardly slept on the overnight bus because of this dizzying journey and many times wanted to just turn around – if only it was that easy.

But just when I was at my wit’s end, the bus finally stopped. We have arrived at our destination. The sun is out and the sky, now a perfect curtain of blue. The crisp morning air greeted us the moment we hopped off the bus.

And there, staring right in front of us, is a place nestled in the middle of rolling hills and mountains.

Groggy and sleep-deprived, we head to the centre to drink some warm coffee. I see saffron-robed Buddhist monks everywhere. They wake up even before the moon hides as they line up before locals and foreigners offering them alms.

I see pagodas glistening under the morning sun. I see naked children swimming in the Mekong River.

We walk a bit more and we see more of the village. Quaint French-style villas sit alongside traditional Lao architecture.

European backpackers are everywhere, savouring the village and everything that it has to offer. Old couples travelling together are testaments that real love can go on and on.

It is my first hour in Luang Prabang and I am overwhelmed. The place is majestic, breathing the freshest mountain air and tantalizing travellers with the most colourful street market, which sells everything from vegetables to elephant puppets.

The village that sleeps snuggly between the busy Mekong River and the quiet Nam Khan River is a patch of heaven on earth. Unbelievably charming.

The atmosphere is beguiling, with touches of the town’s French past dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries and traditional architecture, making it a Unesco World Heritage Site.

There’s a lot to see in this quaint village. One can stroll along the road by the Mekong River, enjoy the view of the sunset while sipping bottles of Beer Lao or rent a motorcycle or a bike and hop from one temple to another to hear Buddha whisper in your ears.

My favourite is the Wat That Chom Sii temple on Mount Phousi, situated 300 steps above the town centre. It offers a breathtaking view of the rest of Luang Prabang and surrounding villages as far as the eye can see.

The walk is tiring but the postcard view it offers will soothe aching muscles in an instant.

Here in Luang Prabang, you spend the Lao kip by the thousands. We exchanged 100 US dollars and we got 800,000 kip. I’ve never held that ‘much’ money in my whole life.

We celebrated with a 20,000-kip- dinner buffet – the cheapest street food buffet ever in real life – loads of vegetables, pasta, salads and fried rice. It is best to bring cash, as swiping would have additional surcharges.

Accommodation is affordable: air-conditioned inns with clean sheets range from $10 to $25 a night. There’s free coffee too and bananas that go with the price.

For adventure travellers with deep pockets, travel agencies offer three-to-four day adventure packages that include a visit to waterfalls some 30 kilometres away from the town centre, trekking, elephant riding and a visit to far flung handicraft villages.

Rest assured, however, that even without the adventure trips, strolling for days in Luang Prabang is feast enough for the senses.

Sabaidee! Sabaidee* indeed, from this patch of heaven in the uplands of Laos. Nothing can compare.

*Hello, good day!

Friday, December 10, 2010


Barangay Calanan, Tabuk, KALINGA - Half naked in a tattered red shirt, the woman is crying out in pain. There are no words. Just unexplained pangs of anguish. She wouldn't stop. This goes on and on. She is pointing to her swollen stomach. It is unbelievably huge, similar to the size of a woman nine months pregnant. But she is not. She is old, wrinkled and weary.

"She is a victim of witch craft," says Francis, a driver whose employer is also among the sick people here.

They call him Amang. He is the village faith healer. As with most faith healers in the Philippines, he "heals' with bare hands. Today is "healing" day. Villagers looked forward to this all week long. On this sunlit morning, there are at least a hundred people here outside a small house along the road not far from the center of town. A giant pastel colored umbrella hangs like a canopy above the throng of people -- the sick and kibitzers alike. The sick are waiting to be touched by Amang's hands.

Amang does his stuff. "Jesus is Lord" is plastered on his white shirt. He stands across the woman who is grimacing in pain. "Who are you?!" Amang shouts in the Kalinga dialect, addressing the bad spirits believed to have possessed the woman. The woman continues to scream in anguish. Amang pours water all over her body.

"Is it holy water?" I ask Francis.

"Yes it has been blessed by Amang."

Amang has healed hundreds, he says. Many others who have been touched by his hands remain sick but are not giving up.

"It's not just Amang. It's faith in God that can heal," says Francis.

I left the place wondering if the woman's pain will go ever go away with Amang's touch and buckets of blessed water. I wonder if tonight she will sleep soundly, her stomach back to normal and her weary body no longer in pain.

Learning from the monks of Laos

They wake up even before the sun rises, while backpackers in dingy hotel rooms are still in deep slumber after a night of eating and drinking. They pray and meditate.With heads bowed, they line up and receive alms from locals and foreigners -- sticky rice, banana, flowers -- anything that could help them survive.

They sleep in cramped quarters with just enough space for beds, clean sheets and some candles for prayers. They live simply, void of any excesses. Just the basics. Nothing else. Solitary, simple and silent. Nothing indulgently luxurious.

They are guided by the eight precepts:

"1) to abstain from taking life.2) to abstain from taking what is not given.3) to abstain from unchastity.4) to abstain from false speech.5) to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.6)to abstain from untimely eating.7) to abstain from dancing, singing, music and unseemly shows, from wearing garlands, smartening with scents, and beautifying with perfumes.8) to abstain from the use of high and large luxurious couches."

Letters from Luang Prabang

It seemed like a never-ending cliff-hanging hell of a bus ride under the darkest sky and the thickest fog. I hardly slept on the overnight trip and did not for a second feel like a VIP on the supposedly "VIP" bus, no thanks to the Thai music blaring on the radio, cramped leg room and the combined stench of food and sweat.

But after more than ten hours up the rugged and mountainous zig-zag terrain, we finally reach Luang Prabang, Laos. And there, staring before my sleep-deprived body and soul is a patch of heaven on earth. I see a breathtaking, majestic land surrounded by mountains and rolling hills. Here, the air is crisp and the morning sky, now a clear curtain of blue. There is mixture of quaint French style villas and ethnic Asian homes on the side of the Mekong River. Food is good and the night market provides a welcome feast for the eyes.

Everybody says "Sawadee" --- perhaps, it's something like a hello. They smile. We smile back. Laid back yet vibrant.

Have I mentioned the Beer Lao? Good price and no hang-over but if you ever get one from the perfect Mojitos from Lao Lao Garden, you can wake up early in the morning and give some alms to monks in their orange robes. It's the perfect cure for any hangover or hang-up.

Jes captures everything with his lens -- from the golden Pagodas that shine under the glistening sun to the Lao Laos everywhere.

Beer Lao and Lao Coffee and the view of the sunset from the Mekong River -- ah, nothing can compare. Here, indeed, is a slice of heaven on earth.


Media Urges Government to Target Private Armies

Media Urges Government to Target Private Armies

A project for

Photo by Jes Aznar. As published at

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jes. My dear Jes Aznar

We crossed borders. Ran out of money -- to the last centavo, peso, dollar, baht and kip. Argued with Lao policemen in the middle of the night, in a strange, dusty road leading to the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge. Almost killed each other with the intensity of anger and love. Got stuck on the bus for more than 24 hours, up the zig-zag road to Luang Prabang. Braved the freezing aircon of the night bus back to Thailand. Endured the strange and blaring Lao music on a supposedly VIP bus. Got lost in a strange bus station, our first stop, with not a single sign in English. Played hide and seek in the Northern Bus Station in Vientiane. Fought more than half of the trip. Rented a problematic motorcycle. Got lured into getting a Lao massage only to end up like a bunch of greased roasted pork, with no comfort at all for our tired and aching bodies. Got smirked at by salesladies when we offered to swipe because we were out of cash. We walked for more than two hours searching for that mall in Bangkok. We went to the ends of the earth. To hell and back.

But we never left each other. It's a journey babe. A tough one, like the road to Luang Prabang but at the end of it, just like in the uplands of Laos, is a slice of heaven on earth.

Sabaidee, mahal.