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giovedì 16 febbraio 2012

Future Laos Paradise

What I first remember about this wonderful country is the distinctive scent I smelled as soon as I got out of the plane. A mix of leaves and spices and wet soil which gave me an immediate sense of well being. I was arriving from Bangkok by plane since I decided I unfortunately did not have time to take the train to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand and then the boat to travel on the Mekong for three days. So I chose the one hour flight to Vientiane, the capital. I vividly remember how peaceful I felt as soon as I got there which was how I remained for a few days, yet not for long since my staying in Laos was very very wet..Yes indeed I went during rainy season but I didn't expect it to rain ALL the time and instead it did. Luckily enough it did not prevent me from enjoying all the things I saw and I did but it was certainly very annoying. In Ventiane I booked this lovely lovely guest house called Thong Bay, a little bit out of the center but easily reachable by tuk tuk. The rooms are big, clean and basically furnished with an exquisite taste. They also have a cooking school inside and the owner cooks marvellous food. I took my first tour of the center of Ventiane where I basically strolled around the gravel roads and had about ten chats with Buddhist monks who also invited me into their convent to stay for praying time. Have you ever heard buddhist monks pray? It's one of the most spiritual experiences you can have. The guttural sound they make at the same moment in one voice makes you shiver for its beauty.
My room at Thongbay guesthouse
Vientiane Buddhist temple internal view
Streets of Vientiane
I also went to have a nice massage in a spa called Papaya owned by a Basc man married to a Laotian woman , but the best experience was to have a herbal steam bath and a massage on the terrace at Wat Sok Pa Luang also called forest temple. It is really in a forest and the temple itself is nice and extremely peaceful. The herbal saunas are amazing . The place may look a little scruffy at first but after you try it and then have a massage outside in the shade of the forest trees, that is real paradise let me tell you. Other things to see and do include of course visit to the temples like Pha That Luang the symbol of buddhist religion and Laos sovereignty with its golden cupola and Wat Si Sakhet or Wat Si Muang or monuments like Patuxai the local Arch of Triumph in the very center. Also a little bit out of town there is Xieng Khuang or Buddha park a very peculiar place where you can see very bizarre sculptures of different gods and of course of Buddha made of concrete.
Pha That Luang
Buddha Park
As far as food is concerned I ate in different places on the river serving typical Laotian food and also in a couple of foreign places including La Cote d'Azur restaurant a a very good French place and Sticky fingers cafè where you can also have a nice drink. Another place where to go if craving western food is the Scandinavian bakery where you can also meet a lot of expats. I actually liked Laotian food very much. The main specialty is làap which is minced fish or meat with fresh herbs and dried chili flakes, lime juice, garlic and green onions (just make sure that after having it you won't speak to anybody) together with khào niaw very very sticky rice. Instead if you feel like shopping you can go to Talat Sao a market where to buy handicrafts, textiles and cutlery at a cheap price. I bought many silk scarves since they are very distinctive amongst Asian textiles and have beautiful patterns and colours in particular various shades of brown and rust.
Laotian scarves
After Vientiane I left by bus to Luang Prabang. The bus was very basic and carried people, vegetables and bags of rice and fish. Laotian people are wonderful: kind, helpful and delicate. The bus ride was one of the best I ever had : the atmosphere was peaceful and relaxing and the landscape was just fantastic. The ride was going to be too long so I stopped in Vang Vieng, a place where travellers go to enjoy themselves on the river doing rafting and all sorts of adventurous sports. I just stayed the night and for as much as 5 dollars I got a beautiful bungalow by the river with a green mosquito net and a bridge just crossing the river where I took a stroll in the mist at dusk feeling just like in a movie. When I went out to have dinner I met a guy from Rome I took an actors retreat with the year before.. funny how sometimes you don't see people from home when you're there and meet then on the other side of the world.
My bungalow in Vang Vieng
Bus ride
Vang Vieng
The next day I took a (very slow) minibus to Luang Prabang. I was the only foreigner on board so I guess that's why we stopped at every single village to pick up people and to groceries shop but that was quite enlightening. We picked up a young soldier with a piece of sticky rice in his hand as a snack, a mother with two young girls with bags of what looked like moss and and an old guy visiting his family. When we got there I realized that even in the rain Luang Prabang was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been too. I wasn't aware of the fact that in those days there was a canoe race on the river so the place was literally packed. I managed to find a room in a not so nice place where I spent a lot of time since I hardly remember a moment when it was not raining. I managed to see the Royal Palace and some temples but I was always wet and miserable. So I resolved to have wonderful massages and go to a hairdresser who made such an effort to straighten my hair only to discover it was completely useless since ten minutes later the humidity was so bad I looked like a hydrophobic cat just landed on my head.
On the way to Luang Prabang
Views of Luang Prabang
Apart from the rain and the disappointment deriving from it, one of the most amazing experiences was to see the monks procession at six o'clock in the morning when they all come into town from all the temples to get offers from all the women of the village kneeling on very beautiful mats who bring jars of sticky rice and distribute spoons of it into the monks' bags. Everything happens in respectful silence and quiet in the very early hours of the day and it is absolutely marvellous. After that I went back to sleep for a couple of hours and then went to the airport since it was time to go back to Thailand where I was gonna spend a few days in an island (considering the disaster that it was going to turn into I might as well stayed in the rain in beautiful Luang Prabang but that's another story). I definitely will go back at some point because Laos is indeed wonderful only maybe in another season...
Buddhist monks morning procession in Luang Prabang

mercoledì 1 febbraio 2012

Have a ball in Beirut

I loved this movie when I saw it a few years ago! If you haven't seen it you definitely should especially if you're a woman. Of course the reason why I posted it is because it is set in Beirut, a magical place where I went for a long weekend to meet one of my dearest friends who was instead coming from Syria. In the beginning everybody was concerned that I was going to such a dangerous(?)place ..Dangerous. really? Why? I called the consulate and as a matter of fact they basically talked to me as if I was a paranoid.. It's funny how sometimes problems from the past can affect us all the time. Anyway I took a very bad Alitalia flight (as always) and got there late at night. I booked a room at Bristol hotel very beautiful old fashioned luxury hotel where for the price of a single room I got an amazing suite. Mind you Beirut is very expensive for tourists,especially hotels, so you should really try to find a good deal. I went there in April and the weather was fantastic. Pleasantly warm and sunny. When I got out of the hotel in the morning I saw a typically Mediterranean lively city. Nevertheless apart from the apparent calm and non chalance, it is not just a Mediterranean city. While in the taxi I breathed the light scent of oranges and sea wind and lost myself in the apparent peace until I started seeing some buildings still carrying the signs of war, the UN jeep trying to back up in a one way street and a tank (which I only has seen bfore in the news)stationing outside a government building, and was abruptly brought back to reality.
My suite at Le Bristol
Buildings on the corniche
The old part of Beirut has all been rebuilt since it was completely destroyed. Apparently it is very similar to how it used to be but knowing it you can see it is not as old as it probably used to look. In order to go there you have to cross some sort of a checkpoint and then you're inside a quiet and neat little neighbourhood full of reataurants bars and fast food places. I went to have lunch in Al Balad,a traditional restaurant where the food is exquisitely good and where I met my friend by chance. The specialty is red hummus which is absolutely to die for. Lebanese cuisine is one of my favourite in general and the food in this restaurant is absolutely delicious. And in truth: who can resist hummus? I certainly can't.
Clock tower downtown Beirut
Red hummus
If you want to see nice shops and have a relaxing stroll then Achrafieh is the neighbourhood to go to. There are boutiques and fancy shops and also ABC a department store with a nice terrace where all the young people from Beirut go for coffee and food. I noticed one thing in locals, the young guy I met on the plane who studied in France, the taxi driver, the friends we met there: new is good. By that I mean that they love new buildings , new shops, new hotels and consider what is old not to be so nice. To us the old buildings of Beirut are beautiful, even the hotels on the Corniche which stayed as they were in the sixties as a nostalgic souvenir of the grandeur of the city when it was the Paris of the Middle East but my impression was that in fact they are not for many people. Beirut is a wonderful place but carries all the scars of a painful war. You see it in the Holiday Inn skeleton of the hotel it used to be left almost as a remainder in the middle of the city to testify what the war did, or in Gemmaizeh the area bursting with nightlife and people wherewhile you have a drink in a bar amongst moltitudes of people you can also see soldiers with war uniforms and machine guns just walking around with everybody else. Talking about nightlife I realized why Beirut is so famous for that. Well, it'a hip place like you have almost never seen before believe me. My friends and I had dinner in Abdel Wahaba beautiful and lively restaurant with excellent food in Achrafieh and then went on to Buddha Bar where we danced until 3 in the morning and that was basically the leit motiv of the weeekend.
The next day I took a long walk on the Corniche where I enjoyed looking at all different crowds who go there: rich Christian Lebanese women jogging in their shorts and young Muslim girls rollerblading with their veil, couples walking around talking on the phone and Muslim families sitting by the shade smoking shishasA good portrait of the Corniche during the war is in the animation movie Waltz with Bashir which I consider almost a masterpiece and I strongly suggest to see it. The highlight of it are the rocks of Rauchè which are the symbol of this amazing city. I saw them from the plane as I was landing and then when I was leaving, but the most amazing sight was at night when a Lebanese friend of a friend took me there to watch them . By the way Ladies, WARNING: Lebanese men can be extremely dangerous. Velvety looks given with fiery dark eyes, captivating smiles, very attractive looks but most of all very charming and fascinating behaviour. Can tempt you even if you are in the most solid marriages. I warned you so don't say you were not advised.
Views of the Corniche
For an outdoor trip one can go to Jeita grotto or Byblos. The first one is really worth going to. I'm not a fan of caves in general : I have seen many around the world and after a while they all look the same to me . When I was younger and into natural sciences I was fascinated by stalagmites and stalactites but then in the years not so much. This cave is really fascinating though and it has an internal lake you can explore on a boat. The other is a little port town which was very famous in the sixties and the seventies. Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra were regular visitors of the city as you can see in the pictures of the legendary Pepe's Fishing club where all the international jet set used to go at the time. Now, unfortunately very little remains of this shiny and glamorous past in there, however it is still an interesting place to visit especially as far as the monuments are concerned. I remember going inside the medieval Saint John's church and listening to the rosary. The sound of the prayer of the few old ladies together as one voice was mesmerizing.
Jeita Grotto
And then it was time to go: after another night on the town and some romantic mishap I was on a plane late at night looking at the Raouchè rocks and taking off above the magic of Beirut. It was one of those times when leaving a place turned out to be really sad. I had truly loved the place, the atmosphere and the people. At the airport I bought a book of photographs showing how all the places were during the war and how they have been reconstructed: so I would say a constructive and positive before and after; meaning war is the past whereas the future lies in front of this battered and wounded city for it to shine again as it used to. Au revoir maravilleuse Beirut. We'll see each other again.
Raouchè rocks