25 March 2008

Last days in Laos

I spent my last full day in Laos on the bus. My overnight bus broke down and so it was delayed for 12 hours. I should have guessed this would happen! Actually I did guess for this and luckily I did plan for it.

I managed to pack my things up to go home. I sent stuff home with Thai Airways cargo. To Australia it costs around $3.50US per kilo if you have at least 45 kgs. It's good because they come to pick it up in Vientiane. The bad thing is they don't tell you have to pay another $75 upon pickup! Everything did get home safely though.

I didn't manage to have a proper goodbye party or say goodbye to all my friends! Hopefully I'll be back to Laos and it's good I can keep in contact by email.

Nam Ha Valley

There are many treks you can do in Luang Namtha and I decided to do a two day walk through a valley in the national park. I think paths were the access routes to the main roads for the people living in the national park. We set off from a village where some Lanten people lived. These people still dress in traditional clothing, making their own cloth and dying them with indigo. The women wear a long tunic with long strands of cotton falling from the collar. They wear knee length pants and white strips of cloth on their lower legs. They originated from southern China 900 years ago and their written language is old Chinese script. It was a good walk through the forest, though quite muddy and slippery in some areas. Plenty of plants and pretty fungi to see. We say a huge millipede about 20cm long.

We stayed overnight with a Khamu Village. Like a pretty regular village, it had lots of chickens and pigs wandering around and a few water buffalo too. This village was on a river which we used for bathing. water and drinking water. It’s not often I drink boiled river water! They cooked us a delicious dinner of water buffalo larp, cabbage and tomato chunky sauce. The village was in the process of moving so that a school could be accommodated in the area for two villages to share. This ethnic group has their own language in the group of Mon- Khmer languages as these people originated from Cambodia. The people killed us a chicken for lunch and cooked it with ginger for us- delicious! These people collect food from the forest such as banana flowers, rattan and bamboo to eat and sell or barter at the market. I managed to sample all of these foods.

Luang Namtha and bird flu

Luang Namtha is the most north- western province in Laos. It shares its border with China and Myanmar. It is mountainous and is home to many ethnic groups. There is an awesome road that runs from Houesay through Luang Namtha to the Chinese border that only opened in the past couple of months. I think it was built by the Chinese and/ or Thailand so the two could trade. There’s not many people using it at the moment but I’m sure the next time I’m here it will be much busier.

I just hired a bicycle and rode it around town today. I knew there was bird flu in this province. So what did I do, ate eggs for breakfast, silly me, but they say a sick bird won’t lay eggs. The lady at the cafĂ© said the market wasn’t allowed to sell eggs today but I did see cooked eggs for sale at the evening market. When cycling to one village we were stopped on our bikes. They sprayed our bikes with some kind of disinfectant, but it seemed a somewhat half- hearted attempt. Then we saw people dressed in those one- piece, head- to- toe suits when they’re handling something biohazardous. If I’d known there was bird flu at that village I wouldn’t have gone! Many rural Lao villages have chickens running around so the lack of squawking and chickens running out from everywhere was distinct.

I must describe some of the awesome food I’ve had here. The Boat Landing Guesthouse (where one of the owners disappeared last year) has some great northern Lao cuisine. Last night we had some food of the Akha ethnic group. We had a gorgeous chicken ginger soup, green beans with sesame. We also had a jeo, a Lao style dipping sauce much like a salsa, made of a forest ‘saw tooth’ plant and many other spices. Tonight we had Khao Soi, fresh cold rice noodles with pork cooked with fermented bean paste like the mince you get in mapoh tofu. We had freshly cooked rice paper rolls with preserved vegetables inside. We also had an interesting steamed rice cake with preserved vegetables in a banana leaf which you eat with sweet and sour sauce. Delicious!

The Gibbon Experience

I went on a three day adventure in the forest staying in a tree house 50 metres from the ground and traversing the forest via walking and ziplining across the forest. The ziplines are amazing- they are up to 1km in length and up to 200 metres above the ground when you travel across the valley. The ziplines are like flying foxes only you are strapped in. We estimated that you travelled up to 40km per hour. When taking off sometimes you stepped off into mid air 50 metres or more off the ground. The hardest part was when you didn’t make it all the way across to the platform and you have to pull yourself across slowly because when you look down you might be 100 metres or more off the ground.

I liked walking around the forest, there was lots of different plants and fungi to be seen. We saw a green whip snake, quite a few birds and a giant squirrel. There were heaps of rats around the tree house at night. We even managed to see a black- crested gibbon, the tour’s namesake during our morning walk. They play in the morning and they pretty much swing quickly through the forest, crashing through . There was heaps of bamboo which made it feel different from home and we scrambled over and under piles of fallen bamboo. At night we could hear a really loud bark, probably from a monkey. We did hear a lot of crashing through the forest at night which could have been caused by deer or bears.

The tree houses were awesome. They were made of wood, although one was built around a metal cage. The roofs were made of the leaves that the Lao traditional houses are made of. The water is from a spring. There is a shower, toilet and kitchen. The water just drops 50m to the ground when you use it. It’s an open plan without windows so you need to use the mosquito nets to protect yourself from night visitors. I stayed in a large split level house that could sleep 6 people. I also stayed in the romantic one for just 2 people.

The Gibbon Experience is an ‘ecotourism’ project. I am impressed with how they have done the project. They did involve the community from the start. One of the guides said he helped build the first tree house and had elephants carry the wood through the forest. I think they enjoy working there- one had worked there for 4 years and all seem really enthusiastic. They were so nice to speak to us in simple Lao to make me feel like I kind of knew the language! I think that’s the most important thing. Most of the people working there are from a couple of local villages of the Hmong ethnic group.

There were a few minor glitches which could be easily improved, and I hope they do. Some tree houses can run out of water. They really have to do something about this! My friends warned me because they didn’t have water after their 3 hour trek so were quite concerned and mine ran out of water too. They also have people trek to the tree houses and back by themselves which takes up to a couple of hours without maps. In the comments book some people mentioned they got lost. They should also be more clear about how long the trek to the tree house is. I went to the closest tree houses which involved an hour trek, half of which was uphill. Other tree houses are a relatively difficult three hour walk away. One friend woke up at 5am to trek for 7 hours when the road was bad and wet. The guides don’t take first aid kits with them. They do have them in the tree houses but something’s more likely to happen when you’re walking so take one if you’re going walking. They should give some emergency procedures and tell you where the fire extinguisher is and tell people to take water when trekking. They can forget your dinner so check with them they’ll deliver it to you. They have forgotten to deliver meals, according to some comments in the book. Like in Lao generally, people might not act unless asked to, so do check for meals. The tree houses are more like camp site than guest house. That is, it is in the condition that the last person left it. I don’t think they wash sheets and towels that consistently. If they told people this, it might make their expectations more realistic and maybe they could encourage people to leave the tree houses in good condition. I just hope they take note of these things as people have written in the comments book because I’d hate anything bad to happen and have their reputation ruined!


I flew to Houeisay to the north west of Vientiane for the sole purpose of getting to the gibbon experience. I got there a couple of days early because if it’s foggy the plane can’t land and I didn’t want to risk missing the gibbon experience. I flew on a Chinese plane into an airport that comprised two rooms. This is the simplest airport I've ever seen. I picked up my baggage from the cart and noticed a few wooden stalls with thatched rooves selling food. Houesay has a border crossing to Thailand and is a couple of hours drive from the large Thai city of Chiang Rai. It’s interesting to note the Thai influence here- they advertise in baht more than in Vientiane and there is a lot of Thai food around.

My farewell party

I hate saying goodbye so was dreading my goodbye party a little. My sister gave me some good advice and said to think of it as more a ‘see you later’ rather than a goodbye, which did help. I knew I would miss the people I had worked with. The afternoon party was good. A representative from our counterpart ministry made a bit of a speech. Some things he mentioned was that when I appeared at some seminars we organised to together people thought I was deaf because I appeared Lao but didn’t really speak! He said to consider working with people with disabilities in the future. They also gave me a certificate of appreciation signed my the minister. I can just show this when I arrive in Laos and won’t need a visa, this guy joked.

Some messages I got include ‘don’t forget me’ and ‘don’t forget to send me a wedding invitation card’. That would be awesome if they could come to my wedding if I someday get married- maybe I’ll have to have a reception in Laos!

23 March 2008

Being home

Wow, I kept this blog up for a year! I think I'm going to start another one about life in Sydney. It is good to be home. It was good to see my family and grandma. The prices haven't shocked me too much- only the fruit and vegetable prices in the supermarket which I think always shocked my anyway. It feels odd waiting in a line and I can't remember the roads around Sydney very well. Good to see my friends too.

I had a fabulous time living in Vientiane Laos. I was really, truly, happy there. I liked the fact that money doesn't matter me there, because I guess I had so much more than the general population. I was ashamed that I was even thinking about it when I returned home! I did learn a lot about foreign aid. I saw a lot of stuff that can be upsetting, but still feel things can be improved one step at a time. I liked the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development program. It does well to prepare you for your time abroad and gives you a realistic picture of what goes on before you go away. I would like to work in Laos again, but not for a while. If I came back too soon and things hadn't improved I think I'd be upset and take it personally! I would totally take a family there, if/when I ever get one. I'd like to take short- term contracts overseas, say 3-6 months, once I get more experience.

Now for a little travel before continuing my career in health and hopefully work overseas again.

16 March 2008

4000 islands

I took an epic kayak trip to the 4000 islands where the Mekong river splits into many streams leaving many islands. There are a few that are really big that people live on.

The trip on the minivan there was interesting. There were a group of foreigners that were irate that they had been waiting 2 hours this minivan to leave. I think this is the first time in my stay in Laos where I felt like saying to someone 'you shouldn't have come to Laos!'. Most upsetting that there was a group of eight of them, each rudely giving a different command to the Lao guy they wanted to help them. It looked quite intimidating all these huge foreigners standing over this much smaller Lao guy. Seriously, if you can't stand waiting or need your coffee to come out of an espresso machine either you shouldn't come to Laos or you should join a packaged tour! I guess I'm lucky I had some cross cultural training before I left so I can deal with these kinds of situations. Laos just isn't quite there with this kind of stuff yet, that's why it's cheap!

I paddled for 6 hours and didn't leave the river- I even ate lunch on the kayak. We paddled 25 kms that day. It's quite scenic there on the water where there are few people and nice plants. Don Khon island where we stayed has the only rail in Laos. It hasn't been used for decades though. The Mekong River was once used for transport between Vietnam and the Yunnan province of China. The boats couldn't get through this section of the Mekong because the channels it splits into are too narrow.

Whilst paddling on the river the next day I could see Cambodia just 50metres away. We stopped to see the Irrawady dolphins, which are some rare freshwater dolphins. I did manage to see one even though I wasn't bothered if I didn't see any.

Bolaven Plateau

I made a trip to Champassak province and my first stop was the Bolaven Plateau.

I visited the waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau. There were some steep climbs up and down. What's amazing about Laos is that when tourists are wearing their hiking boots to do a hard walk the Lao guide is negotiating rocky, slippery and/ or steep terrain in thongs! Not quite as good as the barefoot bushman but still very impressive.

We also saw some tea and coffee that grows in the fertile soils of the Bolaven plateau but I didn't think it was that interesting. Coffee to me is just another crop which I think is just interesting for foreigners because it's a luxury item. I saw areas where coffee was grown and I'm sure it would have looked much more beautiful when it was natural forest. I think I saw an area where coffee had been grown some time ago where I saw some scrawny coffee plants and it was really quite unattractive. Coffee seems to be a cash crop as I saw many houses growing it and having it dry out the front of their house. I just hope Oxfam did their cost- benefit analysis before they started their fair- trade coffee program. The economic theory suggests that giving a higher than market price for coffee says that their would be oversupply and more than optimal land used for the production. Too much forest could be cut down!

22 February 2008

Interesting planes and buses with pigs on the roof

I flew to Sam Neua but couldn't get a flight home due to bad weather. Instead of a one hour flight, it was a 20 hour bus ride home.

I discovered an airline I didn't know about called Lao Air because I found out it flies to Sam Neua where I wanted to go. I need to create a page for it in Wikipedia because it's not there. When I booked I didn't even get a proper air ticket. They just gave me a receipt which didn't even list the flight times, just the check- in time on the flight on the way there.

I did do a bit of a research about the plane. It was a Cessna Grand Caravan with 14 seats. This model is from 2004 and the biggest user is FedEx which made me feel confident. We were happy that the plane could take off and land because it can't when it's foggy. It has been very foggy in Sam Neua recently due to the cold temperatures from winds originating in China.

We showed up at Sam Neua Airport for the flight home to find it closed. We called and found out it was cancelled due to bad weather. When we booked they said if that happened they would try the next day, but when we called they really had no intention of doing that because they need to use the plane to fly other routes. We didn't want to wait around until the weather improved anyway.

Some people bought pigs in Sam Neua, put them in sacks on top of the bus for 9 hours and got off just before we arrived in Phonsavan. The pigs squealed every time we went around a tight corner. The bigger pigs had their snouts out of the bag. The people on the bus spoke a language other than Lao. There was one poor woman spewing out the window and another with a very nasty cough. The driver had to stop to fix the brakes. The journey was very long because the road is mountainous so the driver can't go too fast. The overnight journey from Phonsavan to Vientiane was much quicker because the bus was better quality and it didn't constantly stop for people to get their pigs or sacks of fish food on and off the roof.

Snake in the shower

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I'm having a shower and I see what looks like a stick in the drain. Upon closer inspection I saw a snake. My housemate chased it back down with a plug and we plugged it up. Scary stuff. I'm now in the process of identifying the snake. My house mate thinks it's a poisonous one. My counterpart tells me that its unlikely to be poisonous as ones living in wet humid conditions generally are not.

Northern Laos

This picture depicts the Pathet Lao, the Lao communists defeating the Americans who supported the Royalist government. Notice the bomb with 'USA' written on it. This is in Viengxay, Huaphan Province where the Pathet Lao hid in caves for 10 years from the 1960s while it was being bombed. It is near the Vietnam border in the North East of Laos.

The USA was concerned that if Laos became communist, communism would take over the world. That's why they bombed the communists.

I visited the 400 caves where 10,000 hid for 10 years. There were a few years of bombing. They hid until the cease fire agreement was signed. The caves were quite interesting. There were enlarged natural caves, and caves they made. There are seven open to tourists. There was a cave that was a theatre. They built some emergency rooms in case there was chemical warefare that had a Russian air filter to pump in clean air. I doubted that it would have worked. We saw the bedroom of the former President and Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane.

14 February 2008

What I will miss about Laos

I'm going home in a month and I was whining the other day because of all the little things I'll miss here. Today my mindset has changed because I know I really have to go home because I've done what I have to do here and it's time to move on.

Things I will miss
  • The Lao food- so delicious and healthy
  • The kind and friendly people who know that there's never a need to be rude
  • Laughing and fun in the office- so rare where I've worked!
  • Window shopping at the markets for Lao textiles
  • Eating enough fruit and vegetables- they aren't afraid to eat them raw and have many delicious ways of cooking veggies
  • Not having hayfever here! It's so bad in Sydney but cleared up here perhaps due to humid air, cleaner air or less processed food
  • Getting exercise easily by riding my bike around town, doing cheap and convenient netball and aerobics
  • The people at my work, of course, whom all have had amazing experiences and some are particularly good people
  • The weather- I like it hot!
Things I won't miss
  • The smell and smoke in my room from neighbours burning rubbish, plastic included
  • Being harder to access services like cash, health services
  • Seeing so many accidents on the roads
  • Seeing that life's tough for people here, but I least know I know and can hopefully do more about it
  • Not being able to complain about the government openly
Things to incorporate into Sydney life
  • Eating on the floor when guests come around- no need to worry about having enough chairs
  • Eating more raw foods like they do here saving cooking time including beans, mint, coriander, cabbage
  • Trying to use my bicycle for transport more
  • Not participating in road rage- no such thing in Laos!
  • Trying to get out to explore NSW on the weekends a bit more, like I try to do here
I will miss you Laos, but I will be back.

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News about Lao

There has been heaps of international news about Laos this week. Here is the main news:

  • Laos denies that a 'Chinatown' to be home to 50, 000 Chinese families will be built, even though I've heard heaps of rumours about it. Read here
  • Bird flu in Luang Nam Tha Province, read here
  • Africans approaching Filipinos in Vientiane to smuggle drugs, read here
  • Human rights concerns relating to the Hmong people in Laos. They are being shot and killed in the forests, read here
  • Counterfeit malaria drugs made in Southern China and being sold in Laos among other places. They found pollen in the drugs so they could tell which region of China it came from. Read here and here

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13 February 2008

Bombs and ancient jars

Driving to Xieng Khuang
I visited one of the three most heavily bombed provinces in the most heavily bombed nation on earth- Xieng Khuang province in Laos. I wanted to see the Plain of Jars and the impacts of the war, whatever you want to call it, the Vietnam/ American/ Indochina war.

The drive into the mountains there was interesting. These are the people that live on less than $1 per day. Actually even our driver who lives in the centre of Vientiane earns just less than $50 USD a month. I have never taken a road trip and seen any smaller communities lived. Most of the houses we saw between Vang Vieng and Xieng Khuang were traditional houses made of wood or mats of fibre. I saw communities of just a few houses to a couple of hundred houses.

I saw children carrying huge baskets of wood on their backs. There were small children no older than ten years old carry small babies in slings across their back. There were groups of children coming home from school. There were people walking along the road by themselves.

The Plain of Jars
We saw over 400 ancient stone jars over a couple of sites. Who made the jars, how and why remains a bit of a mystery. The biggest one was bigger than I. It was a very pleasant walk seeing the jars. At one of the sites we had the jars all to ourselves. This site is in the middle of farmland It's like the calm feeling of being in a Japanese rock garden. Where the jars were there were large bomb craters. It appears that the bombs penetrated the ground at least a metre before exploding. They had to remove hundreds of bombs from the area before they could open the jars to tourism and the area you can walk on is still quite restricted.

Impact of the war
People use bomb casings for things like decoration, fence posts, to plant plants. I think I ate a bowl of noodle soup with a spoon beaten out of a bomb casing which I've heard is common. I'd never seen a rocket launcher or huge bullets designed to take down a plane before. This was all in the hotel restaurant. This area was bombed heavily but not all the bombs exploded upon hitting the ground. So there are heaps of live bombs out there. This contributes to poverty because people can't use that land to farm.

An alternative way to make a living is to find bombs using a metal detector and attempt to defuse them. They can get 0.10c per kilogram of metal. When you consider that many of the bombs are pretty big and that they would otherwise earn $1 a day, this is a pretty good option. They know it's dangerous but it's an economic decision because they perceive that the expected benefit exceeds the risk x cost. They can sell the explosives also or use them to fish. What a crazy way to make a living. There are organisations that train people to clear areas of UXO. I think these organisations detonate the bombs rather than attempting to defuse them. We saw a UXO clearance team on a hill using metal detectors. Should people be trained to defuse bombs properly because they are doing it anyway? I just don't think a ban in trading the metal is the most effective thing to do, but I don't know what to do.

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