27 March 2007


I started work yesterday. I got in a tuk- tuk by myself for the first time. The people are really friendly and seem to like having a laugh. Most are living with a disability. Yesterday I realised I have entered a new sector of the economy, development. I had not thought about that. It seems to be getting harder for me to be able to make up some kind of direction on my resume, because there is none. Oh well, I don't have to worry about that for a while. Work asked me if I had any idea what I wanted to do this year. I didn't really have much of an idea because I was so focussed on the process of getting here, I didn't think about what I'd be doing once I started work! Some ideas are different from home eg I noticed that in a planning document they were referring to 'blind and deaf-and-dump people'.

It's starting to get really hot here, when it's 30 degrees, I now consider this cool. The temperature doesn't drop much below 30 degrees, even at night. Even the office is close to 30 degrees with the air conditioning on. It's actually not too bad, I think those couple of weeks in Queensland helped me acclimatise really quickly. The sun doesn't seem too strong which is good. This could be due to the forest fires around. It has been really smokey and hazy.

The other day I started riding around on my bicycle. It's actually a bit scary. I get scared when a truck comes past when I'm in the car. I'm even more scared when I'm on a bicycle! At least people do look out for other vehicles, well, in a way. It is interesting to see how differently people drive around when there are no road rules and there is no liability unless you really hurt someone. There are no drink driving laws that can be enforced so I'm going to be extra careful if I have to ride around after dark. I'll start riding to work if/ when I move closer. I don't know what's happening with my house. We can't seem to make an appointment to see the landlord. We don't know whether to interpret this as the house is not available. Maybe it's just because in their culture it's ok to not keep appointments.

I'd also like to mention that the coffee here is great, so come over! Also, I saw a chicken yesterday with missing feathers- not good!


We went for a trip a couple of hours out of town to a dam. It was a very relaxing day, and it was surprisingly not touristy. The place was very quiet, and we had lunch on the boat on the water. The river was dammed three decades ago and some villages had to go under. We saw some chickens on the way to the dam. We pay attention when we see them because avian flu has killed a couple of people within the last couple of months. A went out of town to a training session a few days ago and noticed chickens hiding in the toilet. Scarily, he saw a fair few featherless sick chickens too. He is also the first person of the group to have tried ant egg soup. Apparently the eggs are about to hatch so the ant larva can clearly be seen inside.

Yesterday I bought a bicycle, so hopefully it’ll be easier for me to get around town. There has been much discussion about motorbike riding. I’m still am adamant that I will not buy one for at least a month. I’d like to get to know the roads and see how the others go first. It’s crazy how little safety precautions people take compared to Australia. Eg, not really having lessons, not wearing protective clothing, not having a licence, not having third party insurance, not having front brakes! For some reason, I expect the Aussies to take similar precautions as they would in Australia, but I’m not sure why. I’m still questioning whether I should bother arranging a licence before getting on a motorbike.

The food here has been good. Some of the local Lao foods include:

Laap- raw or cooked minced meat with chilli and herbs such as coriander and mint

Green papaya salad- thin strips of green papaya with loads of chilli. There is also lots of Lao fish sauce in it. It is way fishier than the usual Thai/ Viet variety and when I saw it in a tub in the market, there were chunks.

Baguette- there is some great around bread here. Usually there is weird pate/ brawn-like luncheon meat with some salad and herbs.

Fried pork- everyone is now addicted to the pork ribs fried with whole cloves of garlic and lime leaves.

Fruitshakes- you can get any fresh fruit blended with ice for less than $1 in any combination you please.

I’ve eaten at lots of street stalls, and haven’t been sick yet luckily, so the hygiene standards seem acceptable. Recently we have been on an Indian food eating spree. The difference is there’s no basmati rice, long- grain only. Also they substitute tofu for the cheese in curries. There is quite a bit of French food here that I’d like to try soon. French food is generally more expensive than local food, but for under $10 you can have a 3-course meal.

We’ve been learning Lao and one of the other volunteers asked for the bill in Lao. Apparently the ladyboy he asked looked embarrassed and asked, ‘do you know what you just asked me? You just asked me for sex’. He remembered the right sound, but the problem was the wrong tone! The other dangerous word for us beginners is ‘I’ if said with a high, soft tone turns into ‘penis’. We’ve had lots of practice with the word ‘I’ so hopefully we have it right now.

I am enjoying it here. I am trying to pinpoint why. The people are friendly, the food is good, it’s clean enough and Vientiane is big enough to amuse me. When I think about why expats enjoy living in Vientiane the main reason I can come up with is that we are wealthy enough to have virtually have anything we want here. Comparatively we’re really wealthy. Even as a young volunteer. The average public servant’s wage here is $30 - $40 USD. I think our experience of Laos would be different if that were what we were earning.


I visited my workplace. I was picked up on the back of motorbike. I wish they had told me and I would have brought my own helmet along so I wouldn’t have had to use one that would do more harm than good in an accident. It seems like a nice workplace. It’s a big house with views of rice paddies and cows out the back. There are about 12 people in the office. People generally speak English well there so it might be a bit more challenging for me to learn Lao.

Last night I met up with a guy I had studied with whom I hadn’t seen for a few years. It was really good to see him, he looked much more mature than when I last saw him in business clothes and all. He looked a bit surprised when he saw me- I must look older and different too. It was really good to see that he had done something worthwhile with the degree. Coming to Laos, I can start to appreciate how hard it must have been for him to come to Australia, from a small town to a much bigger city. Hopefully I’ll see him regularly this year.

I’ve been trying to get into a bit more of a healthy lifestyle. I have access to the Australian Recreation Club pool, which is a really nice pool on the Mekong River. I do notice the disparity though, as right beyond the fence there is a farmer working hard tending to his crops. I’ve also had a go at soccer, although I did inhale a lot of dirt due to the grassless pitch. I’ve also had a go of aerobics on the Mekong where dozens of women and a few men dress up in fluoro clothes and jump up and down along to loud music.

21 March 2007

House hunting and settling in

During the past couple of days we’ve been on the search for a house. Houses here cost around $350 to $600 USD per month to rent. A and I will probably rent with a Melbournian guy D and a Queenslander girl M. M has already been brave enough to buy herself a new Korean motorbike and ride it around! The Chinese bikes are at the bottom of the range but at least no- one will steal it. The Korean bikes are better, but you will have to kick start it once you’ve ridden it for a few months. Japanese bikes are best, but much more expensive. Some of the girls have bought 70s retro Honda Supercubs which will do the job. I’m going to ride around on a bicycle until I get a feel for the roads before I even think about buying a motorbike.

Today we got a motorbike lesson ie ride around a car park, which is not quite to Australian standards. One of the poor girls rode into a pole and is getting checked out at the hospital, but at least we know nothing’s broken. Virtually all the motorbikes here are the ones with the auto- clutch. There are very few scooters here, which was unexpected, so I won’t be getting one.

There’s a house we like which is close to work, which is good. I think there’s another interested party so we’ll have to negotiate. It has 3 big bedrooms and maid’s quarters out the back. The house is generally quite roomy with a really nice garden. It does need a good clean up though- it had heaps of dead cockroaches when we inspected it. It hasn’t been lived in for a while.

Yesterday I went to the markets. They’re very colourful! Also very hot, it was very close to 40 degrees under the covers. One of the guys bought a bag of steamed silkworms. They were in the stage of their life where they’re in a cocoon. I think it’s called the chrysalis stage. I did not eat one- I have a phobia of caterpillars and even if I didn’t, I’d still be very hesitant. A said it tasted like a wet peanut. Another said it tasted like a mixture of dirt and grass. They all agreed that frying would be a better way of cooking them. No- one particularly enjoyed them. I bought some material to have a few Lao traditional skirts made (called a sinh). Hopefully they’ll be ready soon because I don’t have anything else to wear to work!

A couple of nights ago I had my first Lao clubbing experience. The government has imposed a midnight curfew so the club closed a little after the curfew at 12:30. I could have been in Sydney, it looked like a club back home but played mostly Thai pop. Last night we saw some French band play called LoJo which were pretty cool. Their members look late 30s, sound a little folksy as they had a go on a few instruments. A few young kiddies, 5-6 year olds come to pick up the empties. All the foreigners were out. They had a Lao boy band supporting. I haven’t ever seen a boy band before, they were quite amusing with their catchy music, cool clothes and dance.

16 March 2007

SE Asia

My first SE Asian experience this time around was traffic related. During my layover inn Bangkok where the taxi driver was hooning around at 140kms per hour swerving from lane to lane, tailgating. This driver didn't believe in using indicators or checking blind spots. I arrived in Laos for the first time a few days ago. It is like the big country town I was told. Half the roads here are red dirt which will make it interesting when I ride on a bike. Apparently it gets pot- holed and muddy in the wet season. We got an idea of the program manager’s attitude towards risk when she let two guys ride on the back of a ute to keep the luggage from flying off.

We have been treated quite well in the first week. I have already had a massage. The food here is great, I'm just glad I have had some reasonable experience with chillies and stinky fish sauce. There are a lot of fried meats and hot salads. we have already been trained They've two Avian flu deaths in Vientiane within recent weeks, so I'll have to be careful what I eat. The chicken farmers only get 50% compensation when their chickens are taken away to be slaughtered so obviously they'd prefer to hide the chooks when the officials come around. The beer and drinks flow a bit too freely. Apparently at any wedding and other big function they will insist you drink a shot of Johnny Walker as you step through the door. They will go around a circle with a drink and if you don't drink you could offend them. So you can make up an excuse eg I have a headache, I'm an alcoholic, you can have some else drink your share, I have my periods 'lady sickness', or you can sip and spit or pour out your glass into a potplant. I've had my first sip of Lao Lao, the home- brewed rice wine they have here. It came in a dodgy looking recycled plastic bottle. It's like 50c for 600ml, and it tastes as cheap as it is. The thing about it is that I have no idea what the alcohol content is, but I suspect it's not too high like sake. Also, one of the other Aussies bought a home brew kit over so they could have Coopers. I think that's a bit excessive!

I'm glad that the people here are friendly, and the atmosphere is quite relaxed. I think I will enjoy living here. When meals are <$2, a longneck of beer is just over a dollar, and you can hire a maid to clean your house and your clothes for $40 per month, I can see how some Aussies come here with the intention of staying for a year but end up staying for years. You can choose to have an easy life here as an Aussie expat, but I think I'd like be a bit challenged by getting to know the Lao people and their culture, and the Communist regime they live under.

10 March 2007

Nearly there

It's the night before I leave. I don't quite think it's hit me yet. I do get a bit of the feeling that I'm leaving when I say goodbyes to my friends and family. They've all been so kind to wish me well.

I spent a week in Canberra doing the pre- departure training before being sent to Laos. The people that I met that are going to Laos are a fantastic bunch of people. They generally have a really good sense of humour and I'm really sure we'll have some great times there. In Canberra, I really got into the mindset of going to Laos, and that the group would be my main support group for a year. I actually think I missed them when I got back to Sydney! I identified some of my main concerns about going to Laos:

* That corruption is part of the culture- I'll have to play along
* That working with people living with disabilities and seeing poverty will be really confronting
* Accidentally offending people
* Riding a scooter, inexperienced, on the right hand side of the road with no insurance

Other preparations I have been doing include saying bye to friends on a trip up the coast. That was a fun one. I did the L's course on a scooter and bought some motorbike gear. The amount of stuff I bought I think I nearly have to be riding a motorbike when I come home to make buying it worthwhile. I would like go to have a go on the manual bike actually, just for the fun of it. I said bye to my gran today, she's old now!