27 December 2007

Thai massage

I've had a few Thai massages over my few trips to Thailand. I really do like them. I usually pay between 180 to 250 baht. Each massage shop seems to have their own massage routine so every massage is unique. Usually the older the masseuse, the stronger the massage will be because they are more confident and don't mind inflicting pain on you so much. The only place I find it hurts is on my legs. I've not had a male masseuse in Thailand yet, thought I've had a couple in Laos. Here are the most interesting moves I've come across:
  • Being bent over backwards over the masseuse's knees with my the top of my head on their stomach
  • Having an elbow dug into my bum and thighs- this is one of the moves that hurts me
  • Masseuse's foot pressing on my inner thigh whilst they are pulling my leg
  • Masseuse puts palm together like you do when you're praying and pushing upward into my tailbone
  • Sitting down being bent over frontwards with the masseuse holding my wrists and stretching my arms outwards so that her torso in full contact with mine

I would not recommend getting a Thai massage if you are particular about your personal space!


I was in Singapore for three days including Christmas and my birthday. A's family were so kind to look after me really well! We went to Jurong bird park because I really like birds. They did have a great variety and managed to teach a bird to sing 'we wish you a merry christmas' which was rather impressive really!

I ate chilli crab, yum which is one of the must- dos in Singapore! They are from Sri Lanka. For my birthday I was taken to high tea (my first) at the gorgeous Fullerton hotel. I had Japanese food for dinner. Singapore is an interesting place. The people aren't really free and the government controls the media. The food there's great, but I can't see so much to do there except for eating and shopping! People like to be members of recreational clubs, like an upmarket RSL club where you can hang out with restaurants, gyms and pools.

Third trip to Chatuchak

I made my third trip to Chatuchak markets in Bangkok to try to do some Christmas shopping. In this market with 15,000 stalls, this was my least successful trip yet because I was stuck in a section where I didn't want to be and couldn't find my way out.

This time though, I managed to come across the pet section. I saw a pair of Macaws for sale, though I'm annoyed at myself for not finding how much they cost. There were plenty of squirrels sitting on top of a cage looking pretty tired and inactive. I saw small rodents with tails, and was informed that they were gerbils. There were also stingrays in a bag of water. You can buy beehives there. They attach a small hive to a tripod frame, so I'm assuming you buy it and the bees extend their hive to cover the frame. There were bees flying everywhere, but I'm pretty sure they were stingless bees. There were a lot of clown fish also- I swear Finding Nemo damaged fish clown fish populations around the world! I also saw some turtles for sale.

Beaches in Thailand

I made a last minute decision to join my friend in visiting some islands in Southern Thailand. It was good to swim in the ocean again! The majority of people in the region are Muslim which is different from other regions in Thailand.

I thought this was a lovely town- pretty quiet not very touristy at all! We caught a boat to Railay beach, less than an hour away. The beach was as beautiful as I expected. It had limestone hills on each end of the beach and was a quiet bay. There was only a couple of resorts at this beach, so it isn't too developed. You can even have a massage on the beach!

Koh Lanta
We caught a minibus and a couple of ferries to this island. It was a really nice place to relax. It was mostly families from Scandinavia and Germany judging by the languages on the menus. It somehow managed to look quite elegant even thought it is a really touristy area. The beach we stayed on was just perfect and is just one of many beaches on the island.

Koh Phi Phi
I heard that this place was like paradise, and I pretty much agree. From this island we went for a speed boat tour around Koh Phi Phi and neighbouring island Phi Phi Leh. We stopped to snorkel a couple of times. Unfortunately I could see a lot of damage to the coral but did see plenty of beautiful fish. I'm not sure why they don't put buoys there- they seem to sink the anchor wherever. There were schools of hundreds of fish which was awesome. We went for a swim in a lagoon in the open ocean. We also stopped at a couple of beaches which had gorgeous white sands.

We hired a private long boat back out to Phi Phi Lei the next day and snorkelled somewhere a little less damaged, but probably could still be better protected. They really need to tell people not to touch the marine animals! Someone asked me whether they could touch things so I told them there were cone shells, stone fish and lion fish so they'd better not touch anything. The highlights were the gorgonians (sea fans) the groups urchins, the worms and the schools of hundreds of little silver fish. Also the box shaped bright yellow fish!

We stayed in Phuket town, which was pretty quiet and unexpectedly not touristy. We did catch a taxi to Patong beach where it is very touristy. There was quite a lot of nightlife there- restaurants, bars, clubs and markets. We saw some lady boys dressed up very well. They sure put in an effort with their makeup and costume. Some costumes had some traditional Thai elements- I thought they had good style. Maybe they were about to start a show. We nearly accidentally went into a gay bar until the door swung open and we saw some guy with bleached blond hair wearing only white briefs dancing on a table.

The next day me and the two guys got a facial. We were attracted by how cheap it was. They seem to have these 'Tokyo' facials everywhere around Thailand. They give you good clean, a face mask, steam and massage over 45 minutes. They remove blackheads too- luckily I only had a couple because the guys found it really painful!

Disability day

Our organisation somehow managed to organise an event for a few hundred members within a week. It took us a while to get government approval so that's why we didn't have long to orgnanise it. Members in Vientiane with a range of disabilities came to the cultural hall to enjoy a concert. It was good to see some traditional dancing, some singing and some visually impaired members who did breakdancing as part of a group. Some members are in self- help groups organised by the type of disability so they can support each other. There are some groups of children also. I saw a few people who probably could have done with a better mobility aid such as a wheelchair eg one guy who had use of one leg used a bamboo pole to get around and other walked with one foot on the crutch.

It was good to finally meet some members. The day ended with a lot of beer drinking with work friends because they had been trained to make films which were launched to the public on the day and they received certificates.

10 December 2007

Wedding 2

I was invited to a wedding of a lady’s daughter at work. I only met the daughter once last week when they dropped into the office to get something. Now I can see how this wedding grew to 500- 600 guests. I went to the exact same place as the other wedding I went to, only this time I was 2 tables away closer to the food. ‘You have to be quick’, I was advised, so I promptly got up to get some food when called. There was consumption of Johnny Walker Red and more line dancing. Another fun night!

The woman came in this morning and announced that a total of 1,500 people in total came to the wedding. 17 cases of whiskey were consumed- half Johnny Black, half Johnny red. She was pleased some high level government officials came and that the gifts covered the cost of the wedding.

Notes about foreign aid

I was reading a book called ‘The soulful science- what economists really do and why it matters’ by Diane Coyle (2007). There is a chapter about ‘How to make poverty history’. It questions the nature of the evidence available on the causes of poverty and whether the discipline of economics currently agrees upon how to detect poverty and what policy it recommends. I think it has made some reasonable, logical points about poverty. Here are some interesting things about poverty that stand out to me:
  • People in poor countries have reasonably low expectations about future prospects so they are unwilling to invest in setting up businesses (p. 68). They are also unwilling to invest in child’s education as they don’t believe they will recoup the cost of schooling and income loss. Education might be a new thing for the family, so why would they try something new instead of sticking to working if you can’t see the immediate rewards (p.68)?
  • The banking system is inadequate so poor people can’t invest in education.
  • There are issues with the system of title to property so it can’t be used for collateral
  • It takes a long time to set up a business. I remember reading some statistics about this. They say in Australia it takes 2 days but in some countries it takes years, and bribes.
  • The presence of important natural resources such as oil and diamonds is a curse. The profits and royalties go to elite, corrupt officials only in an undemocratic country. I never thought about this but I suppose this makes sense.
  • Some guy called Lord Bauer said aid was ‘transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries’ (p. 78). I was sitting there delivering an aid program and at that moment I experienced concern because in front of me at that moment it seemed true. This guy also said ‘if external subsidies were indispensable for economic advance, mankind would still be living in the Stone Age’ (p. 78). I think this might be what is happening with so called ‘fair trade’. Some people mess around with prices and subsidies without analysing the full consequences.
  • Another guy called Branko Milonovic raised the point that more than a third of Brazilians are richer than poorest 5% of people in France. Therefore there is a 10% chance that aid is transferred from a poorer to a richer person (p.68).
  • There are incentives for corrupt officials to keep the country poor because the poorer the country is, the more aid they will receive and the more opportunity they have to take money. I can see that it this certainly isn’t an incentive to move things along quickly. Similarly, in here they have a system of per diem payments that all NGOs pay if they want people to attend their meetings and seminars. I personally think this results in more than optimal meetings and seminars. Often someone not necessarily the most suitable person try to go to a meeting try to go to as many of these types of meetings as possible.
  • Agricultural subsidies in Europe and North America don’t give poor countries reasonable access to their agricultural markets (p. 90). These figures are scary- EU gives agricultural subsidies of over 300 billion euros per year which is the GDP of sub- Saharan Africa (p. 91). They say that’s enough to fly all of Europe’s cows around the world first class (p. 91). This makes me pretty angry- it just results in bad expensive food for them!

More about subsidies- I was reading an article in the Economist I liked because it was about cheese, which I love. In Switzerland they subsidise dairy farming a lot because it looks pretty everyone because it is the Swiss thing to do. This means that way too many people produce milk. The cheese is expensive because the milk they use to make it expensive. No one wants to buy the cheese because it is so expensive in Switzerland. Out of pride or something, they don’t want to lower the price of this cheese in Switzerland. Therefore they dump the cheese on the Italian market at a bargain price. Swiss people then go over the border to Italy to buy the Swiss cheese. I find this stuff crazy.

Work update

Work is going okay. On the micro level it’s going quite well. I have the time and motivation to coach a couple of guys to do some project management. Also we finished a project quite successfully which I was quite pleased with. We also held a seminar and got some agreement from some government people for some actions relating to collecting statistics and some guy from one of the UN agencies in Bangkok came to speak and initiated some good discussion.

On the macro level, our management system is a bit weak at the moment. Some people have left the organisation that probably needs to be replaced. We have been successful in getting some new volunteers and a small bit of funding in the past few weeks. But we really need much more funding to go on. In Australia a non- profit organisation could probably apply for government grants or do fundraising from the public. This is not so in Laos. There are few Lao non- profit organisations and this is likely to be one of the reasons. The government and public do not have the resources to support non- profit organisations. Foreign aid is really the only source funding, which is a challenge. I’m guess it’s good challenge for me- it wouldn’t be so fun for me if we got more reliable funding like the international NGOs and UN agencies do.

Sometimes I think this aid work is an odd thing. I only ever thought of coming here as working for an organisation that happens to be in a least developed country, not that I would be doing aid work. People have asked me to stay, but I can’t really imagine doing development work as a career. I love doing it as a volunteer where I am paid not so much and have the luxury of working one- on- one with people helping develop their skills. I hope to do this again in my lifetime but with bigger and better skills. I couldn’t do development work an environment where most of the time the work needs to be done and it means that it would be quicker for me to do it than to develop the skills for someone else to do. I’ve heard that the Netherlands are quite set in the way they deliver aid. They say they are not allowed to implement anything- they are only allowed to give advice. I think this is an interesting thought.

I also couldn’t imagine being paid over 10 times a local person to be doing the same job, or negotiate the best salary possible in my own interests. They have a system here where if a local person and an expatriate were going for the same job the expatriate go the job they would be paid about 5 to 10 times more. I suppose the low wage encourages the employer to hire the local person. But I would be uncomfortable with that gap with others working in an office. Some argue that the expatriate might have financial commitments in their own country and in the future, but I’m not sure I feel comfortable with this argument.

Another funny thing about aid is the amount of work that is repeated. In the field I work in, there is far less cooperation than I would have expected. There are so many agencies working here. There are different versions of the same agency working here eg Lao Red Cross, Danish Red Cross, Australian Red Cross, Swiss Red Cross, Netherlands Red Cross and French Red Cross down the same alleyway in Vientiane. There is Save the Children Norway and Save the Children Australia. I’m pretty sure there are two Oxfams here also. Surely this can’t be the most efficient model? From how I see it is that because there is no money in this business, people are all trying to gain recognition, they want to believe they have made the most difference, trying to be heroes. I suppose the more recognition they get the more funding they could get. I suppose in developed countries these services would be provided or supported by the government where funding is more reliable and hence while there is overlap, there is probably not so much.

Bangkok 2- day 3- lead up to King’s birthday celebrations

I had a bit of a look at Siam Square- an area with lots of shops just on street level and some arcades. The king’s 80th birthday was just a couple of days away. Outside the mall you stop at a booth can write him a birthday message. Along the footpath overpass thousands of birthday messages are strung up. There was also small stage where there were a few people sitting in a row singing a song, all dressed in yellow because it’s Monday. I was guessing they were singing a song about the king. It appeared members of the public could just grab a microphone and get up on the stage to sing. A sign indicated they could get free make- up before getting on to the stage. I walked past the stage and 20 minutes later I walked by again and the same guy was still singing there.

Bangkok 2- day 2 more shopping

I made my second ever trip to Chatuchak markets. I do love this place. I bought 3 dresses (<$10 each) and a pair of shorts (<$6). Again I only covered a tiny part of this huge market. This time I found the gemstones section where they have strands of many different semi- precious stones. I never did find the live animal section.

We then hit Chinatown. It was the busiest place I’ve been to for quite a while and had some noodles with duck for lunch. Then to Platinum another massive mall with tiny shops that sell clothes. The don’t have change rooms so sometimes you can’t try on the clothes, or otherwise use a large skirt to help you do so. I ended up with 3 large sized shorts. I probably could have bought much more stuff but luckily tiredness stopped me.

Bangkok 2- day 1 museum and shopping

Last Friday morning I decided to leave later that night go to Bangkok for the long weekend. The long weekend was for Lao National Day, when the People’s Revolutionary Party came into power around 30 years ago. Communist hammer and sickle flags and Lao flags were flying all around town.

We caught the bus to Bangkok. We left Vientiane town at 5pm, waited around the Friendship Bridge for a few hours, had some food and didn’t leave Nongkhai until 9pm. We arrived at Khao San Road at 6am. The first thing we did was have congee by the roadside. I like Thai/ Lao style congee- it always has coriander. Then we went to the National Museum. There were lots of ornamental things- ivory carvings, things inlayed with mother- of- pearl, musical instruments, puppets.

Later in the afternoon we hit the shops starting with lunch at the MBK food court. Then through Siam Paragon which is an absolutely massive shopping mall with an aquarium and shops that have Ferraris and the like on display. Then to Siam Central, another huge shopping mall. Each mall has a shrine out front where people can make offerings- very convenient! There was a sale on so I wandered around the shops until 11pm, and then sat down at the department store food court to have a pizza. The massive malls are so mind numbing- it effectively cleared my head! We went for a walk outside and it was full of people eating on the street side out at midnight.

06 December 2007

Free and cheap things to do around Sydney

I was asked to suggest some free/ cheap stuff to do around Sydney for Lao students about to study there. Here's my response.

My top 5 favourite free things to do in

1. Walking across the harbour bridge

Start at the south end, at the Rocks or at the north end, near Milson’s Point station. It is free to go in to Luna Park and walk around which is at the north end of the bridge as something else to do.

2. Walking along the botanical gardens foreshore

The best views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, in my opinion.

3. Bondi to Coogee walk

Walk south from Bondi beach to Coogee beach, or even further to Maroubra beach if you would like an extra long walk. Great ocean views along the way, a bowling club, a cemetery and you can go snorkeling at Clovelly or Gordon’s Bay if you wish.

4. King Street Newtown

Walk the length of this street from the city end. Lots of uni students and young people live here so the people are more colourful than average. There is good cheap Thai food, nice cafes and pubs, window shopping also. My favourite ice- cream in Sydney is there too- Gelatomassimo.

5. The Blue Mountains

It does cost a bit of money to get there on the train, but once you’re there it’s free. If you have a weekly train/ transport ticket ask for an ‘extension’ on your ticket to get you there, that is, the distance beyond the coverage of your transport pass.

The outdoors

Maps of free walks around Sydney accessible by ferry


Take some self- guided tour around Sydney

Australian Conservation Volunteers


This is a cheap way to see ‘the real’ Australia! You get taken to some beautiful spots a week at a time to do some conservation work. For a student is only $15 a day for travel, food and accommodation. You will meet people from overseas. They have some free volunteering opportunities also.

Paddington markets


Young designers try to start their businesses here

National Parks and Wildlife Service

http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/ - click on the ‘NPWS guided walks’ icon down the bottom

Cheap, guided walks around Sydney by volunteers run by the government and are very helpful with getting you to the walk and back home. I recommend starting with the Sydney Harbour National Park walks. Lots of information about this website here including about the Blue Mountains.

National Parks Association

http://www.npansw.org.au/web/ - click on ‘latest bushwalk program’ icon down the bottom

Cheap, guided walks around Sydney by people that get together to enjoy the outdoors. I haven’t done a walk with this group but a friend went and said she met many sweet older people that were really excited that a younger person came to join them!

The indoors

The Art Gallery of NSW


It’s free. On Wednesday it closes late at 9pm and has free talks, concerts and films on.

Customs House Library, Circular Quay


The interior decoration of this library is awesome. You can relax and read the newspapers and magazines and books for free. If you’re in the city for the day and want to sit down and relax, this is good place to do it.

Museum of Contemporary Art


There is always something unusual there and it’s free!

Sydney University


The grounds are nice to walk around in. There are a few free museums inside including a history museum, art, and biological science.


Go volunteer


Volunteering guarantees that you meet a range of Aussies and usually like-minded people also. I would recommend volunteering at a big event- they are lots of fun!

Getting around

Getting around Sydney


This website will help you get anywhere in NSW by public transport



The train website

More information

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper


Buy the Saturday edition of this newspaper. In the Spectrum section on Saturday this newspaper will have a column of free events that are on in Sydney during the week including festivals and events that are on.

City of Sydney Council


Visitor information including more maps here.

04 December 2007

Lao wedding

A few weeks back I attended a friend's wedding. Lao weddings are generally a huge party and this one was no different. I missed the ceremony but attended the dinner reception at a large function centre 4kms from the city.

Outside the function centre I could see all the women wearing their best silk sinhs and a tailored silk top. We were greeted by the bride and groom at the entrance. The groom was wearing a suit and the bride wore Lao dress. Later the bride did get changed into a white western style wedding gown. We dropped the invitation envelope with money we had put in it as a gift, in a box upon arrival. I drank a tiny goblet of Johnny Walker red where several hundred people probably had drank out of already.

No kidding, there were between 500- 600 people there. I was told a wedding costs between $5000 and $6000 USD. Every table had a bottle of Johnny Walker red and bottles of mixers. We had buffet Chinese- style food which had the usual Lao salads and ragout and baguette.

Lao people, especially the women seem to like line dancing. There were over a hundred people on the dance floor doing the same line dance. It thought it was a really fun party- more casual than the average Western wedding.

16 November 2007

Vang Vieng caving- Tham Hoi

We wanted to see some caves in the morning before going home in the afternoon. It turned out to be another caving adventure. A guide beckoned us to follow him, and not really knowing what was going on, we did. We followed them through a maze around the squares of rice paddies. The scenery was really beautiful. We followed them into a cave and found ourselves going deeper and deeper into the cave. The cave was quite nice. I think it might be full of water in the wet season so it was quite muddy rather than being pure white. It didn’t help that our guide smoked in there.

Right inside the cave there was an underground lake. It was fun to go for a short swim, even though it was a bit cold. Our huge old technology lamps were actually waterproof- we could go swimming for them. There were parts of the cave that were really beautiful. One had thin layers of caramel coloured crystal lattice. Pity the guides thought it was okay to pick off a couple of stalactites to give to us! We think it was Tham Hoi cave but are not sure. It is one of the caves in the loop of caves 13kms out of town. We booked a tuk tuk from the guesthouse to get there.

Vang Vieng tubing

We caught an early local bus to Vang Vieng. The bus was quite usual- smashed windscreen, small cracks in the floor so the dust gets through and a live chicken on board. The Lao people are so small there are three people per bench instead of the usual two and the conductor makes sure each bench has three people and that women get priority when sitting down. I sat between two friendly girls. In Australia this kind of lack of space might cause frustration but in Laos it causes friends.

The most popular activity in Vang Vieng is the river tubing, so that what we spent the afternoon doing. Tubing along the river is beautiful. Along the way there are bars constructed from bamboo that usually have a rope swing that you can use if you buy a drink. There were lots of travellers and lots of loud western music! To get you into the bar someone throws a bamboo pole attached to a rope at you and you grab it and they pull you in. I think someone drowns every so often which is alcohol related. The rope swings are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They usually involve climbing up a bamboo platform and swinging off something that either resembles a trapeze or a flying fox. I didn’t go on any rope swings but did stop for a game of badminton.

We stayed at Viengsavanh guesthouse, and at $4 a night it is the cheapest accommodation I’ve stayed in my whole life. It was simple but good.

07 November 2007

Lunch cruise

A bunch of us caught bus number 23 thirty kilometres out of town. There are a few restaurants with a few boats each where you can have lunch. We ate some food while we were waiting for a boat. The boat we did get fit a small table and wouldn’t fit more than about 15 people there. It was like a big raft powered with a small propeller. The roof was made of straw. It was very pleasant. They take you upstream and let the boat float downstream again. They made a really hot papaya salad and an equally hot red curry!

Shit pig

There was an expat that was going outside to use the toilet somewhere in Southern Laos. The locals insisted that he take a stick. This was because pigs will try to eat your waste as you’re doing it and you need to fight them off. My Korean friend said that there’s a special place in Korea where the same thing happens. You need to go to the toilet with a stick. At the same place he got to enjoy ‘shit pig’- apparently it’s a delicacy in that town in Korea.

Boat racing and end of Buddhist Lent

The end of Buddhist lent and the big boat racing festival is during the same week in Vientiane. The end of Buddhist lent also marks the beginning of the wedding season.

The boat weekend is a big party in Vientiane. The main streets are lined with food stalls, random stalls selling things like soap, fly spray or clothes, and fun gambling games. There are mountains of grilled chicken, coconut sticky rice in tubes of bamboo, steamed buns and popcorn. They had some of the best jumping castles I’d ever seen! The most popular gambling game seemed to be a game where you throw a dart into a grid of balloons and if you hit the marked balloon, you win a prize. The music was really loud and I had never seen so many people in Vientiane.

I watched some boat racing from the starting line. Two boats race at one time. Each boat has 40- 50 people in them. They are what we would call ‘dragon’ boats in Australia, but are about twice the size of the ones I’ve seen in Australia. I noticed that one of the people in group of starting line officials had two very large guns- AK47s. I wondered why he needed such huge guns- what security issue could he possibly have? I see many guns like that but it’s usually someone in a khaki uniform that carries them, usually police, military or security guards. This guy was in plain clothes. I was very surprised when I realised he used these guns as the starting guns and alternated them between each race.

There were lots of fireworks available for sale for 10-50c. It was scary to see so many people letting them off. You light the tube of fireworks and they fire one at a time. An adult was seen chasing a child with fireworks. My friend said her neighbours gave their 6 year old child some fireworks. When the first one fired out she got scared and started spraying them everywhere. My friend ran for cover.

29 October 2007

Lao Lao

Lao Lao is the Lao name for Lao whiskey made from rice. I am in Vientiane province for a seminar I helped organise. We joined one of the participants in visiting his friends nearby for some lao lao. Not surprisingly, it tasted awful. The first one was infused in wood and was probably the nastiest alcohol I’ve ever tasted. I was hoping that it tasted much more alcoholic than it actually was, like some cheap sake’s I’ve tasted before. The second variety had some bits floating in it. Upon closer inspection of the bottle I noticed that it was full of insects. I’m almost certain that they were cicadas. A few days ago my friend told me he recently had deep fried cicadas for breakfast so that gave me some peace of mind. I’m sure the wood and cicadas in the lao lao had medicinal properties, so what’s a bit of short- term loss for long- term gain?

My friend had bought a bottle of Lao whiskey infused with wood for 60c. The funniest thing about it was that it was in a Johnny Walker Red bottle and they had kept the original box. The other funny thing was that there was a lipstick mark on the bottle when my friend bought it. Some people had a few sips of this lao lao but luckily he managed to offload it to the driver that took us home from our kayak trip.

My counterpart says it’s common for people to have a sip of lao lao infused with medicine everyday. His mother has some everyday. He says there’s an animal that can be infused in lao lao that will cure his asthma. Unfortunately this animal is rare and you might only see it once in three years.

Vang Vieng kayak

17 of us went on a kayaking trip between Vang Vieng and Vientiane with the Green Discovery tour group. I though it would be a peaceful paddle along the river and didn’t really think we’d needed all the safety techniques explained to us. Of the 9 plastic kayaks and 3 inflatable kayaks that went on this trip, only two didn’t capsize in the rapids by lunchtime. I was in one of these two boats. There were 4 serious rapids and some people capsized because they ended up crashing into others. One guy was momentarily stuck in a whirlpool which can be really dangerous. He said it sucks you in and then pushes you up. This happened to him about three times before he managed to get out.

My kayak did capsize before the day was done. I did accidentally capsize my kayak with my boyfriend in it because I’d jumped out for a swim and flipped it over as I tried to climb back in. After I capsized someone else’s kayak the guides flipped mine over as revenge. The scenery was awesome and the kayaking was exciting- a great day!

Vang Vieng bike ride and caving

A group of us hired a bus and got to Vang Vieng from Vientiane in about 4 hours. When we made a stop I saw some grilled rats on a skewer for the first time. I wonder how safe they are to eat. We stayed in some bungalows by the river. After dinner we went to have a drink. Unfortunately the bar had to close because it was near midnight when the cops do their rounds. The way they sell drugs is really blatant. The bar has a menu where you can buy drugs from. Some things you can buy include opium tea or coffee, a marijuana shake or pizza or mushroom tea. Alternatively you can buy drugs by the bags. A joint costs around $2 US and a marijuana pizza around $8 US. From memory an opium tea costs around $3 but rumour has it that it is actually codeine. There have recently been lots of schemes to get rid of opium poppy farming, including in the golden triangle region of growing in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. People are trying to get the farmers another way of making a living.

We hired some mountain bikes and set off on a 7km journey to Poukham Cave. Vang Vieng is an absolutely beautiful place. It is surrounded by mountains of limestone. On the bike ride we saw lots of rice paddies. We saw young children that looked younger than 10 with fishing rods and slightly older children with a round mask and a spear gun for spear fishing. We saw families bathing in the river and washing their clothes.

Outside the cave we stopped to swim at a ‘blue lagoon’ which was actually a small stream with blue water which was unexpectedly cold- around 20 degrees. I could see beautiful fish in the water with colour so bright I thought it looked more like a tropical marine fish. We first intended to look at the cave but somewhere along the way we decided to go caving. It was quite a steep climb up- we were really climbing. There was a Buddha at the cave entrance but the cave was black from people touching it and smoking. We went further into the cave until we were in pitch blackness. It was amazing inside- large caverns of untouched limestone that sparkled. Some was toffee coloured and looked like toffee that had flowed downwards from the ceiling.

We met four monks that were acting as tour guides for a Japanese girl. I was talking to one of them and apparently he had been studying in Vientiane and started working for the Ministry for Education. The Ministry decided to send him to a monk school in Vang Vieng and that’s how he ended up there. In hindsight, I don’t think I’m supposed to talk to monks because I’m a girl, but they did talk to me first and were taking a girl for a tour. It was funny when the monks hid and then jumped out to scare the Japanese girl!

I used to think of monks committing long periods of time to studying as a monk but these days, especially in Vientiane, I think it’s more temporary. I’ve known people to do it for a day, others a week or two. Friends have seen them out buying mobile phones or at the internet café playing video games.

19 October 2007

7 months

I’m still really enjoying living in Vientiane and can’t believe I’m well over the half- way point of being here. There’s still a lot I’d like to see in the Vientiane. The weather is really pleasant now. It has dropped to 25 degrees at night and days are probably 31- 33 degrees. I’m lucky to have so much free time because I live so close to work, my maid does my laundry and I eat out. This probably won’t happen again! During the week I do aerobics about once a week, have a language lesson and have started to go to netball training once a week too. My Lao still isn’t very good, but I can understand conversations a little better now. My speaking is still quite bad- but that’s ok!

My work is going well- I can see the end of the project I’m helping manage. I’m amazed with what can be done with $50 000 AUD in Laos- have five 3-day seminars including food and accommodation, employ 2 people for 6 months, make 1000 t-shirts, a short film and lots of brochures and posters.

This weekend I’m going to Vang Vieng which I’m looking forward to. It is meant to be a beautiful town surrounded by limestone landscape on a river. The downside, I’ve heard, is that restaurants play Friends and the Simpsons all day and the backpackers aren’t particularly well behaved. This is not helped by the availability of ‘happy’ pizzas and shakes containing marijuana and/ opium.

I’m going to Singapore and Malaysia at the end of the year which should be fun. I’ll go home in March for a week and head straight back to Asia to travel. I have to go home otherwise I’ll lose some privileges from the volunteer program.

14 October 2007

Adina Spa

I had heard this was the most luxurious beauty/ relaxation place in town and went after being given a voucher from there. It did live up to its reputation. It is in a lovely house with a courtyard in the middle. It has been professionally decorated, with silks everywhere and the staff very well dressed.

I had a traditional Lao massage. Instead of the usual soap, they wash your feet with a couple of slices of kaffir lime. They give you somewhere to hang your clothes and you have a private room whatever service you order. The massage itself was very good. It cost 53, 000 kip (5.30 USD), including the 25% off special that is on at the moment. This is twice the price of the massage I usually get.

I saw a middle aged Aussie guy order a massage of 4 hours! I can see why. It felt like a 5 star hotel, not a least developed country. I think I'm happy with my usual massage for half the price, but I might come back again when someone comes to stay from abroad.

Some treatments are very expensive- one 75 minute of the facial costs 2000 Baht which is over $60 AUD. I can't think of any service that priced within that range in Vientiane. Other services include body scrubs and wraps, waxing, sauna and spa.

Location- Kaysone Phomivane Road, the middle road that extends from Patuxay. It is probably about a kilometre from Patuxay, and if drive from Patuxay it is on the left.

Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial Museum

I visited this museum about Kaysone Phomvihane, Communist revolutionary leader and former President of Laos. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I have visited in Laos so far. Strikingly it contained very little information about Lao history and I couldn't really establish what this guy did What it did contain:
  • Many photos of Kaysone posing with groups of people
  • Many photos of Vietnam- I'm unsure why
  • Some personal possessions of Comrade Kaysone Phomvihane including glasses, a clock
  • Random displays about products Laos makes including beer Lao and Pepsi soft drink, pharmaceuticals from Pharmacy factory 2, samples of Lao washing powder
  • A large statue of Kaysone Phomvihane outside the museum
More information here: http://www.culturalprofiles.net/laos/Units/163.html

Entry- 5000 kip
Location- Kaysone Phomvihane Road Km 6. It is the middle road that extends from Patuxay

A week at work

I attended a seminar that I helped organise a couple of hours from Vientiane in Thalat. This time we stayed at a government- run resort. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, just a few cockroaches and no TV. Some of my Lao collegues did notice the differences between the privately run business and this government one and could see why which was good to see.

The group attending the seminar was great. They all knew one another which helped. They sang folk songs on the bus- one about the beautiful 4000 islands in the south. The leader sang through the microphone meant for the tour guide on the bus. They tried to encourage me to sing, but I refused. During the seminar they sang a song about getting together and fighting the war against America.

Talking to my collegues, Marx and Lenin's works are still taught. There is one subject per semester on their ideas at university. They are required to recite lengthy passages of their texts word- for- word.

05 October 2007

60km bike ride and dragon boat festival

My housemates had been for some long bike rides recently and were going to cycle to a dragon boat festival some 30kms away. I decided to join them. It was one day after I returned from India and it made me appreciate Laos again. The path along the Mekong river was beautiful. There were nice houses, and fisheries in the river. All the children all yelled out ‘hello’ because we look like foreigners- my housemates in particular. There were rice paddies and gorgeous shiny new temples along the way.

We reached the dragon boat festival over an hour later. It was a huge party- not what I expected at all! There was a stage with huge speakers with a band and people out on the dance floor. Many people were already drunk at 2pm. We were invited to sit down with some Lao people, but I refused drinks. There was Lao party food out- popcorn, sticky rice with banana, ice blocks and roast meat. There was a bit of dragon boating going on. It looks really impressive as there are around 50 people in each boat. The boat goes really fast.

The ride home was also good, but I got quite tired and hungry for about the last 5kms. We saw a person draining the blood out of freshly killed duck’s neck while two of his mates looked on. People like eating raw duck’s blood in larp. Not such a good idea in these times of bird flu! Some people on motorbikes road beside my housemates for several kilometres just to talk to them and invited us to a dinner- the people here are so friendly.

Vientiane province

I am back in Vientiane province for another seminar my organisation is running on educating government officials about human rights. I helped organise it, so I thought I’d come to implement it and do some work with the project team so they’re not too bored while they’re here. Before I came to the first of these sessions, I was concerned it would be a bit challenging to be with 20 government officials and 6 people from work for 3 whole days due to the language barrier. Also, I thought the government officials would be mostly older men. I forgot the age profile is different here Laos so some people were actually young so it’s good to see some young people learning about human rights.

We had dinner with some people with disabilities who are members of our organisation. They served us barbequed fish freshly caught from the river, a chicken soup with a pretty good chilli, ginger, and coriander sauce. They have a mushroom farm and one of them makes furniture for work. Before he had his furniture business, he had to catch fish until midnight to make a living. An NGO donated some rice to our organisation which we distributed to our members. It was funny that this food aid ended up in my stomach! I could tell the quality was low, but it wasn’t bad- just a bit more crumbly and less fragrant than usual.

24 September 2007

More of Pune

What I did for the rest of my time in Pune…

Watching dance

The local dance group came to do some classical and folk dance for the group at Sangam. The teacher was an excellent dancer. She wore over a kilo of bells on each foot. Some of her dances involved slapping her foot on the floor so it made a loud noise- she said it took her 10 years to be able to make the noise!

Bollywood film and learning to Bollywood dance

We saw a Bollywood film, Bollywood being Hindi language films made in Mumbai. It was called Chake De India about an Indian women’s jockey team. We learnt a bit of Bollywood dance afterwards. It was a lot of fun. I thought it was much like aerobics- good that if you don’t keep up you can just attempt the next bit.

Laughter club

I’d heard of this laughter club being popular around the world. It started in India and an elderly couple ran the session. People get together and do laughing and breathing exercises together to help with stress relief and as a way of making friends. This session was really good. You just do silly exercises then pretend to laugh until it turns into real laughter. Eg pretending to blowing up a balloon and when it bursts you laugh, pointing at everyone and laughing, chanting hi hi ha ha ha ha, laughing when you get on the phone… really fun!

Maharastrian feast

We had a special closing dinner which we all dressed up for. I got my sari back and one of the staff members put it on for me which was good because it’s not very easy to do on a first attempt. It was about two bed lengths long. We learnt how to do rangoli, which is a type of art which involves making patterns on the ground with coloured sand for good luck. We made a rangoli artwork for our setting at the feast. Maharastra is the state that Pune and Mumbai are in, and we had food from that region. We ate with our hands from plate made of leaves.

Ghandi National Memorial
Ghandi was imprisoned in Pune in a prison. They then shifted him off to an old palace where his wife and secretary died. I visited this palace where his ashes are now stored. They had a bit of interesting information about the life of the man but the displays wasn't in very good condition! The palace is quite beautiful though. It's all white and has a big, well- maintained garden.

14 September 2007

Feasts and festivals part 1

I have been shopping in Pune and have bought some blue and amber sari material, some bangles, bindis and some material to make a Pubjab suit. I'm having the Punjab suit made. It comprises baggy pants, a long tunic and a scarf. My sari with blouse is also being made. We'll dress up with all our new clothes and accessories during the closing dinner which will be a Maharastrian feast. Mahrastra is the state I'm in. Idols of Ganesh, some elephant looking god are out for sale as the festival is on soon.

International night
We had an international night where people talked about the places they came from. The Bedfordshire bunch did a real deadpan version of Cinderella. I can't be sure I got the humour! The Devon bunch dressed up as country bumpkins and sang a funny song. They have been telling me all about Devonshire cream teas which come from their town, and about clotted cream. I did some fun Irish dancing and taught the others to do Lao dance.

Doorstep school
I visited a school which is part of an organisation that aims to educate children that would otherwise not be educated. They work alot with the children of contruction workers. Construction workers move around every 3-4 months so their children often don't get the chance to go to school. The might move to an area where they don't speak the language making it even harder for the children to go to school. They work with Mobile Creches also which look after the tiny kids so the bigger kids can go to school.

Dinner with a family
I went to house of family of a local 6-year-old cub Scout for dinner with a couple of others from England. Everone attending the event visited the families of Scouts in area with special housing for employees of the pharmaceutical company. The family took us to a temple which was a replica of one that is in Kashmir. They recreated a 10-metre long cave which had 20cm of water of water in it. Once we waded through the water there was a beautiful shrine at the end. They were so kind to cook us a lovely dinner and show us pictures of special ceremony the boy had.

Manaski Centres ( I think I spelt it wrong)
In India they have a caste system from the Hindu religion. It is technically illegal, but is still practiced and is a human rights issues. The Untouchables, or Dalits are out of this caste system and are only entitled to the really bad jobs in society. We saw a video about the discrimination the Dalits face. Some aren't allowed to use wells and rely on others to fetch their water. Others have to take off their shoes in areas of other villages. Some Dalit children had to clean the toilets and make tea when other children didn't have to. Generally the face discrimination and occasionally violence. There are 250 million Dalits.

This organisation gives Dalits the option of converting to Buddhism to help them overcome the psychological barrier that is one of the factors stopping them from achieving what they can. They have a variety of programs to help the Dalits out.

10 September 2007

Arriving in Pune

I caught a 12 hour train from Goa to Pune. Pune is a few hours drive from Mumbai. The train ride wasn't too bad. There are three tiers of beds so unfortunately you can't really sit up and I was on top so I couldn't look out of the window. I could smell toilet odour for some of journey but couldn't tell whether it was coming from inside or outside the train. When the train stops some people come a board to sell fried foods. Otherwise the train staff come around to sell tea and snacks. I ate some chapatis and chicken drumstick on the train and it was actually quite nice and am happy to have lived to tell the tale.

In Pune I am staying a centre run by Girl Guides/ Girl Scouts to run events for participants around the world. I thought I'd be one of the oldest in this event but I'm one of the younger ones. Most are over 40 and most are from Devon and Bedfordshire in the UK. There are a few people from Canada. The event started this morning is called 'Feasts and festivals' which should be good.


I spent a fun few days in Goa which was an hour plane ride on the coast south of Mumbai. It is not the most beautiful place I have seen, but I had fun hanging out with a psychiatrist from Dubbo and a couple from Parma in Italy who were happy to answer all my questions about ham and cheese.

Goa was once a Portugese colony so it looks rather European and has many churches. I stayed in the capital, Panaji. I mostly just wandered around the town and enjoyed the food they had to offer. I had some delicious Goan style fish with chilli and tomato, lots of Indian style pancakes and breads and plenty of masala tea they call chai. The tea is virtually all made up of milk which is just excellent.

I found a small pub listed in my trusty Lonely Planet. The owner stated in the book died from alcohol problems. It was the most disorganised thing I'd ever seen. No menu. I saw them run out to get food, which I guess isn't too uncommon. The most unusual thing there was the distinct lack of toilet. To go, they close the kitchen door so they can't see you and you use the gutter! Right next to where they leave the dirty dishes.

I visited my first market in a town in India in a town called Mapusa. It was not so different from the markets in Laos. Most of the produce is on the floor and there are many tailors. I also visited the beach because that's something that has got to be done in Goa. It was ok, it wasn't that clean.

05 September 2007

Australian volunteer health check

Five people have visited the hospital in Thailand of the 17 volunteers I came to Laos with.
  • One had a broken arm x-rayed and plastered after a motorbike collision with an intoxicated cop
  • One person was under observation in case their infected throat got worse
  • One case of appendicitis
  • One ankle was x-rayed and plastered as the ligaments in a dodgy snapped whilst walking
  • One fell through some rocks in Thailand and needed wounds dressed

From other Australian volunteers while I've been here:

  • I've heard of one case of dengue
  • I've heard of one case of leptospirosis which is a parasitic disease

Aside from that- I think most people have got food poisoning. Some not more frequent than the locals including me. A fair few people have had general colds including me.


I'm in India! I had always wanted to come here and when I realised it was much cheaper going from Laos than from Australia I decided to go.

I stayed with my friends' relatives in Mumbai for a couple of days. They looked after me really well, cooking me some delicious Indian foods. They seem to schedule their meals so they're served on the dot! Their family have nap time too which I appreciate. I'm glad they could give me some information about India otherwise I would have tried to bargain for taxis and auto- rickshaws before I get in. Auto- rickshaws are exactly like the tuk-tuks in Thailand and Laos but in much better condition.

Mumbai isn't actually as crowded as I expected. Maybe I'm didn't visit the most crowded areas. The city is absolutely huge so maybe it's not as dense as some of the busy areas in cities with smaller areas. I think it's fine to travel as a woman alone. Many people eat alone in restaurants so it's not so weird being alone. The people are generally friendly and helpful. Most people I've met speak perfect English. It's easy to get around- taxis are cheap and you can pre pay for them. You pay your hotel and give a slip to the driver once you've arrived at your destination so the driver can collect their fare from the hotel. The traffic is not really scary at all, I never felt like I was going to die in a taxi.

I haven't found it as overwhelming as I expected- it was probably easier coming from Laos than from Australia. I think I've just been in the tourist areas so I haven't come across much poverty. Though I've seen some of the housing where I'm sure the living conditions are crowded and uncomfortable and it smells from the outside. They look like some of the housing in Laos, but much more dense.

The weather here is nearly exactly the same as it is in Vientiane at the moment. The temperature is about the same, as is the frequency of rain. Mumbai is virtually the same latitude as Vientiane. I'm glad I havesome inner bo bpen nyang (no worries) from Lao to help me get around India okay. I get approached by many salespeople on the streets but they really bother me- I'm actually happy to see enterprising behaviour! I already learnt in Laos to do without toilet paper so I have that challenge covered too!

I have just been wandering around town. I visited some very old caves with stone carvings on Elephanta Island. The food here is as good as I imagine. I've been here 3 days and haven't been sick yet. Though Lao food is virtually fat free so even if there's a bit of butter or other fat in food I feel really full quickly.

I'm off to Goa!

21 August 2007

Art exhibition opening

A friend at work was opening an art exhibition at Monument Books for a couple of Vietnamese artists. They were identical twins that dressed similarly- both with long hair tied back, both with piercings and tattoos. They hold exhibitions together, have a joint resume and collaborate on some art works. I’ve never met twins do such similar work. They told me it’s good like that because one can look after the work and the other can look after the ladies, haha. I did enjoy looking at their works. http://www.thanhhaiarts.com/

My work friend is met one of the twins while curating a contemporary art exhibition to tour Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. The problem is that she hasn’t come across any contemporary artists in Laos. So this exhibition should be something new for Laos.

Ban Pako

A few friends decided they wanted to go away for their birthdays, so we went to Ban Pako. It is an eco-lodge 50km from Vientiane where people go to relax by the river. We left on Friday night and got most of the way there until our drivers refused to go further. We stopped at a village and negotiated a boat trip for the rest of the way there. A boat in the dark, rain did not sound like a good idea. But luckily the rain stopped and the boats didn’t go to fast. One boat was a catamaran which was made of 2 long wooden boats with wooden slats on top of them.

During the bus ride I saw a couple of monkeys in the back of a truck. One was balancing on the edge of the tray, but the other was safe inside the tray. We also saw some young frog hunters! After the rain people get out their torches and collect frogs to be sold for food at the markets.

We had arranged a buffet dinner at Ban Pako which was really good. There was no electricity that night, because there was not enough sun on the solar panels that day. So the 15 of us had a candlelit dinner. The rest of the weekend I mainly lounged around on the bamboo hammocks reading books. I went to the herbal sauna. Whilst in the sauna, a friend had a small scorpion scramble across his foot. There is a spring to sit in after the sauna which is gorgeous.

Unfortunately, Ban Pako had sold out of medicinal Lao whiskey for sale. Luckily the guy managing the sauna pulled out a sapling for a friend of mine, roots and all. The staff at Ban Pako kindly helped my friend cut up the whole sapling and infuse it in his $5 bottle of vodka. I wasn’t game to try it.

English class

I went with someone at work to check out his English class where he teaches to a group of about 20 children. The weekend class was at a school. The set up was quite basic, the walls were a bit dirty brown, and there was no fan or air conditioning. I think the Japanese government helped fund it. They didn’t have chairs the right height for the tables so the children sat on 2 wooden benches stacked on top of each other- safety first! So it was at least 32 degrees the day which was actually not too bad, helped by some small kid buying me some water. The students were between 5 and 11 years old, and one of the teachers from the school was there. The guy at work who was the teacher did not really structure the lesson or do any preparations, but I guess just showing up is better than nothing. Most of the children live in the army barracks nearby. Some people join the army so their family can move to Vientiane where there are more opportunities, according to my friend.

Eating stink bugs

My housemate bought a bag of live stinkbugs to be cooked and mashed with herbs into a dip but unfortunately I wasn’t there to try it. I was only there to see her put them in the freezer to die.

A week later we saw some deep fried stink bugs at the markets and bought a bag for a dinner we were having for some new volunteers. They have more flavour than grasshoppers. They have a distinct flavour like the smell of a scented leaf.

Tips for buying cooked insects

  • Try before you buy!
  • If it smells the tiniest bit strange, don’t buy it. It shouldn’t really smell like anything, just the oil it has been fried in or water boiled in.

At the markets I saw fried locusts also. I think I draw the line there. I saw shopkeepers pull the abdomens off the live insects. I saw some bee or wasp or similar insect’s nests for sale. Apparently the larvae inside can be eaten. I wonder how they are extracted.

When I was trying some grasshoppers, my friend said that the ones with eggs inside taste better. I agree, but now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem very pleasant!

Field trip to Loei

I went on a 3-day field trip with a few people from work to visit some community radio stations. My organisation makes a radio program, so that’s why we were interested in radio. We went to radio stations around Loei, which is in North Eastern Thailand which took about 3.5 hours to get to. My first impression was that it is very similar to Laos. The lunch is exactly what you would have for lunch in Lao- tom yum soup, grilled fish, papaya salad and sticky rice. I actually had papaya salad for breakfast too! The language is virtually the same. The buildings are similar to Laos- I’ve heard NE Thailand is generally poorer than the rest of Thailand. A friend said his organisation did a survey of young people of what their aspirations were. Wanting to marry a foreigner was the most common response.

I didn’t really know why I was on the field trip, but I thought it was interesting enough. It was frustrating not knowing the language though. One of the radio stations let me go on radio and say hi. How brave of them! In Lao you’re not allowed to broadcast directly to air unless you’re considered a professional. The half-hour radio program the people at work produce need to be reviewed by the government before it is broadcast. This was the same radio station that offered me locally brewed alcohol. Brown liquors are the worst and this was probably one of the worst alcohols I’ve ever tasted.

On the way home we stopped at Tesco supermarket and some other stores because things are cheaper in Thailand and my colleagues would not otherwise have the chance to go to Thailand. Some bought like radio and a mobile phone, but another bought different things like a packet of vacuum packed Asian meatballs. As with all field trips to distant provinces and other countries, kilos of fruit were purchased and someone bought a huge bag of smelly cockles too.

Party at my place

My housemates decided it was time our household had a party. We bought lots of Lao/ Vietnamese food and had around 40- 50 people over. Some guy brought over some grilled, sliced tongue with lime leaves. One Australian volunteer exclaimed that it was the best meat she had ever tasted, until she found out it was tongue. I thought it was a bit too chewy. It was served with a bitter runny sauce made from something inside a cow’s intestine. Exactly what, I don’t know.

One guy brought a large ceramic jar of rice wine all the way from Luang Namtha province in the far north. It sat on his lap on the plane trip home. The jar is full of rice and husks which float to the top. We had to join two straws together so that the straw reached the bottom and didn’t get clogged by the solids. It was watered down before drinking, which I think is meant to be done. It actually didn’t taste too bad- maybe sake is thing that is closest in flavour I have tasted. The Lao girls topped the jar up with Beer Lao as they were drinking it.

Despite a couple of short blackouts and stormy weather, I think people enjoyed the party.

Food fair

There was a world largest baci, the good luck ceremony people do in Laos. They had a massive phak khuan as part of the baci. This is a cone- shaped flower arrangement which looked like a giant Christmas tree.

They had a food fair after the ceremony. Much like the food fairs they have in Australia, many restaurants set up a stall. It was a really good food fair- the food was free and some were of excellent quality. They didn’t just cook ordinary food, one restaurant brought a huge tank with live prawns in it. They were barbequing them. Another stall was pouring scotch and sodas and another served cocktails only.

The funniest thing was that there was a massive terracotta jar of rice spirit with two straws for people to try. The jar would have been at least half a metre tall. In perfect English, the sign read something along the lines of ‘please try this alcohol from Huaphan province, it is free’. Scarily enough, I did see a few people testing the alcohol.

14 August 2007

Food aid

An NGO recently donated some rice to our organisation to give our members. It is a little less than ideal, but our members appreciate it anyway. The quality? Not very good- breaks apart when you cook it. It is ordinary white rice rather than the sticky rice Lao people eat. It had been stored for two years. It is from Hong Kong, but I don't know where it was grown. I just wonder how the rice came about. Some country subsidising their rice production leading to over supply? Just a good season? Farmers did not do well to predict demand? Who decided to give it away?

A quote

"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live.
It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored....
Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted.
You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator;
but you are not free to think for yourself.
Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance
is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code."

This is from George Orwell's novel Burmese Days which I have started reading. It is about the British imperialist days in Burma based on his experiences as a policeman there. It could nearly describe here. Free complete works of Orwell available here http://www.george-orwell.org/

01 August 2007

Lao disabled women’s development centre

I visited this centre to buy some small gifts for some visits to Thailand. Here the people make handicrafts and clothes. I found this centre somewhat confronting. Not because the workers had disabilities. Mostly because I never been to the source in the developing countries where my clothes are made and looked like quite tedious work.

In one room the women were sitting on the floor around a low bench finishing off some shirts. Others were making cards, not using any of that expensive scrap booking equipment you get at home, but just using your basic scissors. Some others were weaving scarves. It looked so painstaking. A scarf which is probably 3 days worth of work sells for $10. I saw people doing cross stitch. Sometimes I do it at home and it is really is slow. I somehow thought that the pros would do it quicker, but no, they do it as slow as me.

There was a group learning English. The teacher was Lao and while his English was not perfect, he was really putting in an effort to teach the people there.

I recommend visiting- if you drive away from Vientiane along Tha Dea towards the Friendship Bridge, drive about 100m past the turnoff to the Friendship Bridge. The Centre is located in a house on the right. It is open Monday to Saturdays 9am- 4pm. I have heard that if you want to visit outside these hours, you can, because the women live on campus so just give them a call before you get there. Online here http://www.laodwdc.blogspot.com/

I do wonder- production of what type of goods and services is best for this 'least developed' country? Developing their handicraft industries? Some are ok, but ‘Who buys this stuff- useless!’ comes to mind especially for some of the coconut and candle crafts NGOs have funded that I have seen. Developing their textiles industries like Laos’ neighbours? I can think people would object to Laos turning into a bunch of sweat shops but I can see some benefits. It is probably better than some of the options available. Mining? There is a big mine called Sepon mine run by Australian company Oxiana. Mining is generally perceived as bad, it damages the environment etc, but Oxiana manages to provide good training for staff such as English. They also bring in a huge amount of Laos’ GDP, some crazy 10- 20% (I will have to confirm these figures). This could probably go a long way if spent wisely. What is best?

26 July 2007

Lao language

Someone in my office had 99 white roses delivered to her today. Her English is good by the florist's isn't so good- the card read 'please merry me'. It's amazing you can get roses in Laos, I have not seen them. Maybe they are from Thailand.

The people at work were discussing words for friends. One of the words is 'very socialist' someone was saying. I'm guessing this word mai translates to comrade.

There is a Lao word for a friend of the opposite sex which isn't your boyfriend/girlfriend- kikh. This can mean- just a friend or a mistress. There are some other useful Lao has that English doesn't have.

- the word for boyfriend/ girlfriend which is good because it's not gender specific
lao- a word for he or she which is also good because it's not gender specific
puak jao- a plural of 'you'. I think yous or youse is a word but unfortunately most people don't. I use it anyway.
hottie- someone on the side! Not the same meaning as in 'strain- I did try to explain

23 July 2007

Lao National Museum

I thought this museum was quite good. The prehistory section contains artifacts such as pots, drums and tools. They also talk about what happened between the 14th and 18th centuries. Laos was known as Lan Xang, meaning a million elephants. It was much bigger than the present day Laos covering much of today’s northern and north-eastern Thailand region.

The modern history section talks mostly of the Laos battling against the ‘US imperialists’ back in the 1970s. There are heaps of guns are on display in this section- ‘This machine gun shot down this helicopter…’, ‘these are the guns the Americans used…’

The most odd thing about the museum was the display from the Lao Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They had a bunch of drugs they claimed they had confiscated. There were some crumbled tablets they said they said was amphetamines. There was a bag of leafy green material they labeled as marijuana. They had a couple of wrapped up bricks they said was heroin and opium. Surely it wouldn’t be real- but in this country I cannot be sure. Another funny thing was a cabinet of gold and silver buddhas with a sign that read ‘From the 14th to 18th century found in 1998 at the University of Laos

I learnt that today in Laos, there is not much left of the past. Say in Vientiane, all the temples were destroyed by the Siamese a few centuries ago and there is only one old one left that the Siamese used as their headquarters.

Definitely not as polished as other museums I have been to, but they do have some interesting facts and photographs. Some displays look like something that I did in year 4, but that’s ok. It is also interesting to see the way they present their history- not as much propaganda as I thought it would be.

This is located on Samsenthai Rd opposite the Cultural Hall and entry is 10,000 kip. It will take about an hour to see everything.


A’s parents came to visit during the weekend. We hired a minivan and driver to take me to Udon Thani to pick them up. On Saturday we just had lunch, watched Australia play Japan in the soccer at a pub, and had dinner at Kua Lao restaurant. This is a Lao restaurant with an evening cultural show. It is the best Lao restaurant I have been to so far. The food is superb and the restaurant itself is in a lovely old French- style house.

On Sunday we went to the Morning Markets and did some shopping. I love those markets, so I had a lot of fun. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. It was good because A’s dad was able to explain the Beijing food. When I saw it I thought hey, what is this shredded, fried potato doing on the menu but A’s dad said that they have it in Beijing.

A’s family came to visit our house in the afternoon. They are the first people from home to see our house! We had dinner at Xayoh restaurant. They do a Sunday roast there which some of A’s family ordered and seemed to enjoy.

19 July 2007

Learning English and security

We received my guard's report card from the English school. The poor thing, he got Ds and Es for everything except attendance and homework. It looked pretty similar to my Chinese school report card. He seemed keen to start another term- hopefully he really does want to do it and doesn't just feel he has to.

Since the Hmong people in the US threatened to overthrow the government, the government they have made a step towards improving security. They are re registering all the foreigners in Laos which involves submitting a photo, address, passport and visa details.


I spent just over 4 days in Bangkok to see the Socceroos play in the Asia Cup and generally hang out with a few of my friends from Australia. It was a fun place to hang out and really good to see my friends. I’ve never seen my friends shop so much, and I did quite a bit too. A went particularly crazy and probably tripled his existing modest wardrobe. I stayed a block from Khao San road, the short but busy road where most backpackers stay. It was easy to catch taxis around town, and 20km trip where we spent nearly an hour cost around $5 AUD.

I found it less of a culture shock than I imagined because it seems just like much bigger, crazier, tidier Lao. Also, I managed to pretend to know some Thai from the limited knowledge of Lao because its nearly the same language. I just substituted some key words and hoped for the best for the rest. Also I heard Cantonese for the first time for months and my brain couldn’t process it properly. All I could say was ‘ko tod’, ‘sorry’ in Lao, when some Cantonese speaking girl grabbed the underwear I was holding because she wanted to find the same thing while I was in the store.

The soccer

I saw Australia play two games of the Asia Cup. The Australia vs Iraq game was on a very hot day. The stadium was pretty much empty. There were mostly Aussie fans, a few Iraqi fans and not many Thai people there at all. It was not a good game- Australia lost 2-1. Even with my limited knowledge of football, I could see that they didn’t play very well. We were sitting a few rows from where the players come out onto the field so it was really good to see the players up really close. My friends took this opportunity to yell some non- complimentary comments to the players after the game and I’m certain they heard.

The Australia vs Thailand game was on a rainy evening. We weren’t sure whether the locals care about their national football team at all, but before the game we could tell that the turnout was going to be good. The game was on a Monday which they probably would have thought would be a lucky day as Monday is the day the King was born and most people wear a lemon yellow shirt in recognition. Their king seems to have achieved some superhuman status there and you have to make sure you don’t say anything bad about him. When we talked about him we used the name ‘Cyril’ instead just in case. So the audience was a sea of yellow- Thai’s wearing their Monday shirt and the Aussies wearing golden yellow. The stadium was just over a third full when the game started, but quite soon it was pretty much full.

The Socceroos looked a much better team than during the Iraqi game. It was like they were a different team. My friends had calculated that Australia needed to beat Thailand with a difference of 3 goals to get through to the quarters. It was great they managed to achieve this. What an exciting game!


I didn’t bring over many clothes to Vientiane so some are getting seriously worn and/ or covered in mud stains from bike riding or charcoal from new years. This was a good opportunity to replace some clothes. I only visited just a few markets and shopping centres of the many around.

Chatuchuk markets

There is a massive 9,000 stall weekend market called Chatuchuk market that has everything. I spent two hours there and probably didn’t even see half of it. I’m glad I missed the live monkey section my friends came across. Not the cheapest for clothes, but the prices aren’t bad and they do have some really nice clothes. Like Paddington markets in Sydney, they had some young people starting up a fashion label particularly in T-shirts which usually refuse to bargain with you.

Pratanum markets, Platinum and Central World Plaza

I recommend doing the three in that order as they are along the same road. Start with the cheapest and go up otherwise you’ll probably find the same cheap clothes at higher prices in the department store. Pratanum markets has lots of wholesale outlets where the clothes are really cheap and good, probably before being labelled, shipped off and sold in Australia for up to 10x the price. You can’t try some of the clothes on though, and for some reason some clothes are ‘free size’ and tend to be on the very small side.

Platinum is one step up from Pratanum these markets. They are cheap clothing stalls arranged in a compact air- conditioned mall. Easier to navigate than Pratanum markets but prices are probably slightly higher. Here you might not be able to try the clothes on.

Central World Plaza This is new and has lots of shops and a couple of Japanese department stores. It is seriously nice, probably nicer than Bondi Junction back at home but things are affordable. You can try on the clothes there.

The drinking

I’d heard people talk about doing ‘buckets’ in Thailand but never actually knew what it was. You can buy drinks in a small bucket, which is an ice- bucket. You can get pretty much any cocktail or mixer in them, but usually ‘buckets’ refer to a mixture of Thai whiskey, Red Bull and coke. When we tried to order individual glasses the waitress insisted we share buckets as the cheaper option. Classy!

I did experience a small range of drinking establishments. One was set up at a derelict Shell service station. Another was tables and chairs set up with drinks served out of a van. I also experienced another couple of backpacker hangouts.

The foodcourts

We really got into the food courts in Bangkok- they are wonderful. It seems most shopping malls will have at least a couple of food courts. The nice ones are a chain and managed by a particular company. They give you a credit card with about $30AUD on it to use when you’re in the food court. You pay it off when you’ve finished. There is a huge range of food- Japanese, pizza, Malaysian, Indian, dessert, drinks… all of very high quality. The highlights were the wonton noodle soup for less than $3AUD and the perfect slice of pizza above the quality of most Australian pizzas for around $1 Australian. They use proper crockery and cutlery is laid down on the table before you sit down. One food court had service where they seated you. I think Australian food courts and eateries in general really need to pick up their game- how come a Bangkok food court can do an awesome pizza but a regular Sydney café can’t?