29 June 2007


Evidence that the United Lao Council for Peace Freedom and Reconstruction , members of whom were recently arrested in the US, is available on the internet.

The 25- page document outlines the following
  • The Hmong peoples' role in the Vietnam war
  • What happened to Laos after 1975 after the Lao People's Revolutionary Party took over the country
  • The ongoing conflict between the Hmong and the current Lao government
  • Human rights violations by the government
  • The new national policy of Laos, assuming they were successful in overthrowing the government
  • New domestic and foreign policies
Available here: http://abclocal.go.com/kfsn/story?section=local&id=5396406

It does sound like they were serious. I wonder what research they to come up with those policies. I wonder how close they were to overthrowing the government!

28 June 2007

Hospital story

A woman at work told me a story about her son being involved in a motorbike accident last year. He was knocked unconscious. She took him to a doctor but he was drunk. She took him to the hospital which kept him there for 6 days and didn’t do much to help him recover. Eventually she saw a doctor who she recognized from her province and begged him to do something. The sterilizing machine was broken so the hospital was using instruments that were not as clean as they should have been. Eventually he received surgery and has been in and out of hospital for the past year and a half.

Lao stew

My housemate went to some night markets and bought $3 worth of food sufficient to feed 3 of us last night. He bought the most interesting dish ever. It was green, resembling creamed spinach. When I tasted it, it was very bitter and rather unpleasant. There were small pieces of hard buffalo skin in it. For fear of eating some kind of bile that volunteers have tried, I stopped. When my Lao language teacher came we asked him what it was. In the three Lao words he said, my housemate recognized the middle word meaning ‘s**t’ (my workmates are polite and proper so I don’t know such words). Keeng Khii Lek- the other words translating to soup and iron. We feared the worst but actually our teacher explained that the bitterness came from the wood of a tree. If I saw food at home with the word s**t in it, I would stay well away, but scarily does not seem that unusual here. My housemate said there’s a pastry thing that translates to ‘cat s**t’. There are few dishes we’ve eaten here that just has chunks of wood in it for flavouring and usually it doesn’t taste that good. Later I offered it to my cat and even the useless whingeing thing refused to eat it.

Another weekend

This week my first visitors to Lao from home came to visit. It was really good to see some people from home. I’m also glad they didn’t get food poisoning from the eateries I took them to. Pity the weather was so hot and humid for them, I think yesterday, their last day, was 37 degrees. Over a couple of days we chatted over a fair few beer Laos and some cocktails too. We went to That Luang, a large gold stupa, one of Lao symbols that appears on the bank notes and on the Lonely Planet I have. We didn’t go for very long because it was so hot. We also went bowling which was quite fun. A few lanes down my mate noticed a guy that was bowling and was holding the ball in the palm of his hand instead of putting his fingers in the holes. His technique seemed to work- I saw him bowl a couple of strikes.

Yesterday I had lunch with people at A’s work. We went for a buffet called Don Chane- part of the chain of Don Chan restaurants. It was cool to meet the people he works with. A’s boss owns the Microfinance Centre he works for. It trains financial institutions about microfinance and generally running their business. He also owns a lending institution and a magazine. Owning media in Laos is risky- it can get you chucked in prison so he has to manage it very carefully. He was much younger than I imagined- he has at least a few years before turning 40. I think this guy has the skills to promote real ability to lift people out of poverty and contribute to development in Laos. Therefore people from overseas take notice and he is often attending conferences and training sessions overseas.

It is wonderful living with an entomologist- we have a large millipede in the freezer. I suppose she will take it to work for training, but she is gone for a week so we’ll have to put up with it until then. Actually it is not an insect- it is a myriapod, I am proud I remembered! I like coming to Laos and discovering that ordinary things are different to home. The snails are longer and thinner and have flatter shells. There are extremely large snails with cone shaped shells. The millipedes here are tan in colour and look like mini- cigar to me. I think I have only ever seen black ones.

I went to an interesting market today. I’m feeling I know more about where food my comes from. The market had several pig heads. It had a couple of cow heads too. A woman was digging into a cow head with a knife- possibly trying to extract the brain? People were using small knives to cut the hair off pigs ears and legs for sale. I noticed some blackish coloured tripe sitting in a tub of water when usually it is pale in colour. I wonder why? Also, I saw a woman pouring brown liquid into sausage casing. It didn’t look quite red enough to be the colour of blood so I’m not sure what it was. Come to think of it, it may have been blood that had oxidized and she was making black pudding.

Office happenings

‘Can you please help me interview some people, please make up some questions’.


‘In 5 minutes’

The interviews went okay. They were in a mixture of English and Lao which made it a bit more interesting. They are less structured than what I’m used to, as Laos is in general- maybe I can do some ‘capacity building’ in that area. It surprised me that the thought the married woman couldn’t really do the job because if she had to do 2 weeks of work per year in the provinces the people wouldn’t take her seriously because she’s a woman. They commented her husband might not let her go even though her resume indicates she has recently done field work. This attitude came from the youngest woman in the organization and who I considered to have most perspective on things as she has studied overseas. Maybe they criticized her because she was the only woman interviewed? I’ve read Australian research that women are really silly like that, they’ll compete with each other rather than support each other.

Our organization received some funds. I’m not sure why, but they asked me whether I would agree to let them give the staff a pay increase. With all the years I’ve had studying economics, human resources and management and now working in development my head could not come up with a way to decide what to do. Maybe if I’d had some more time I might have been able to figure something out. Someone else sorted it out and it was decided that everyone’s wage was to be increased for the duration of the project with the theory that they would be required to be more productive.

27 June 2007

How things are done

There are two ways rules can be made in Laos. They have laws that are passed by parliament. I understand that they make a list of laws to be passed by parliament for the year and slowly work their way through the list. It seems that more of the rules are made by Prime Minister's decrees. These are approved by senior bureaucrats. So this means the rules are not made by the parliament, the people who are supposed to represent the public. I think there are few laws compared to decrees. Laws have higher status than decrees. If there was a law for something at home, there might an equivalent decree for it here rather than a law. If you can be punished for not following a decree.

I'm not sure how their common law works. People that arrested and accused of doing something will generally receive a guilty verdict, I hear. What does this mean for their common law?

It is strange that there are some really big things that go on here that everyone finds out from international news, but the government will not comment upon. Therefore people rely on rumours for information, but you never know what the source is and how accurate the information is.

I wonder how the Lao government will operate in the future. Similar to home, an older generation that is not mine, is in power, and has a certain way of doing things. At home we might say it's the baby boomers in power vs the younger generations X and Y. When my generation is in power will it be different in Laos? People my age I have talked don't seem to work in the way that the current senior government do at all. I think they can see ways that things can be improved, so they seem to have a vision for their country's future. I just can't imagine them working like the senior government officials do.

The average government employees are paid a base rate of around $30 US. I'm guessing the senior ones are paid more. I'm unsure of what they can get on top of that- they can be paid by external organisations to attend meetings and training sessions. This may be around $10 per day. So they don't have that much money compared to a local project officer/ manager/ consultant which may be paid $200- 500 per month. It's hard for the government to get foreign aid money compared to international and local NGOs.

So they need control! The government wants to know much of what everyone does, including the organisation I work for. They like us to do the work and give them credit and pay them to attend meetings which is fine. You have to mention things casually to them privately, then let them think about it and eventually they'll agree. They will oppose new ideas if you tell them for the first time in front of a few people. They don't like not knowing something. I don't know how much benefitting the public is a motivator but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

18 June 2007


Sunday I rode my bike a whole 4kms to town and had breakfast at Croisaant D’or. I had a reasonable brekky with scrambled eggs, small sausages, bread, fruit and coffee for 23 000 kip ($3 AUD). It is very similar to the breakfast at Vista Café. It was quite enjoyable to sit inside and read my Lao language notes. I went to have a massage on the main road in town which is really ripped up at the moment, affecting business in that area.

I went to the big liquor store with a large range of wine from Argentina, Chile, France and Australia. It also has the best collection of spirits I’ve seen in Laos. They seem to have the entire range of Absolut and Smirnoff Vodkas- I might have to try the ‘peppar’ Absolut which I think is chilli, because I’m curious, even though I don’t really like vodka. I bought a 750ml bottle of Malibu which cost $13US. I can’t remember the name of this store what it is called but is located at That Dam.

I found a really nice salon at That Dam and got my haircut. The hairdressers usually give a good head massage which I like. I had a lady boy cut my hair. She had good hair and was wearing cutoff jeans, as I’ve noticed a few lady boys do. I like the cut she gave me- she had the vision to cut all the faded bits off and the confidence to hack off much of the volume. She did take lot of care. I’m glad I didn’t end up with a mullet- one of the hair magazines I looked at had a disturbing number of them. A haircut costs $10US and this is probably the most you’d pay in Lao. I'm sure the locals would wonder why anyone would pay so much for a haircut.

There was an environment day concert on at the cultural centre on Sunday night. My housemate and I managed to catch a public bus for the first time just randomly. It costs less than 30c for a trip the city. Lao style, it was quite old with a cracked windscreen. To open the door, the driver pulled on a dodgy looking rope that is attached to the door handle. I wonder whether Lao buses are buses retired from Thailand.

The concert was held inside the hall, even thought I thought it would be outside. People barged into the hall even though the police tried to let just a few people into the hall at a time. They simply ducked under the policeman’s arm as he was holding the door open. After getting some dinner, we did manage to get into the packed hall and was standing on the side aisle. The Lao people seemed to be really enjoying it. We saw a play in Lao that featured a battle between evil tree fellers and environmentalists. Eventually the environmentalists end up stabbing the tree fellers. Some big Lao acts played that nigh- the Cells, Overdance, LOG, Modern Dance and Princess. One of them did a metal version of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after time’… bizarre.

Work is good. It is a similar level of difficulty to the stuff I was doing back at home. The difference is that we seem to be under more scrutiny here. Sometimes at home there can be a general tendency for monitoring and evaluation to be a little too relaxed- we don’t want to make the pollies look bad if something doesn’t succeed! The funding agencies want to know whether what we’re doing has worked which is fair enough. Also the government wants to know exactly what we’re doing. Some little things require a little more patience eg starting a new job, the language barrier, working in a new sector, figuring out bad, lazy English from native English speakers to make it useable for Lao people, people occasionally smoking in the office- (office falangs are big offenders).

Generally people seem friendlier and easier to work with than at home. If something goes a bit wrong, they are pretty cool with it, so there is little pressure there. The other perspective is that foreigners in the office are more concerned if something goes wrong and it can be challenging to explain why we are so bothered by something we think needs to be done! The hours are reasonable and it only takes me 15 minutes to get there. I can go home for lunch if I like too. It is flexible so if you need to leave an hour early to go to the bank or catch a bus you can. In Lao it is also generally acceptable to take a day off to look after your family if you so had to. I think these little things make a lot of difference!

Udon Thani 2

I went back over the border to Thailand on the bus on Friday. The bus was worse than any bus I’ve traveled in at home and sweat was pouring off me because it was over 30 degrees inside, but it really wasn’t that bad and it left on time. The purpose of this trip was a visa run/ holiday for A and I was just tagging along for the trip to the airport. This time when I reached Thailand I think I may have experienced culture shock. The tuk- tuk drivers run alongside the bus with one hand on it as it pulls in to the bay and crowd around people exiting the bus. This just wouldn’t happen in Lao! The tuk tuks in Thailand are so shiny and new. I heard the few taxis in Lao are retired taxis from Thailand. I suspect the tuk- tuks are the same. Luckily it was a short walk to the hotel. That night we went for some all you can eat shabu- shabu and walked around the shops.

A left early the next day and I made a mission to the orchid farm. I was the only visitor to this farm and was given a tour. There are some dancing plants there that move to music. It is just the small baby leaves that move. They didn’t move when I was talking really close to them. I did see some leaves move, in a circular motion, maybe to the background music. I did ask whether I could have a walk around the orchid farm by myself because to look at the orchids more closely but the girl didn’t let me.

I went to the shopping centre and did most of my shopping at department store Robinsons. I bought some shoes more appropriate for walking and a blender. There are some well priced nice clothes there but they are not modest enough for everyday wear in Lao. I missed the first bus I wanted to catch back to Vientiane because I lined up 45 minutes too early and thought it had sold out already. You have to go to the ticket booth one hour before the bus departs. There was a lot of pushing to get to the ticket booth initially, but eventually a line did form and I was happy to get a ticket. Just so I remember, buses from Udon Thani to Vientiane are at 8am, 10am, 11:30am, 2pm, 4pm, and 6pm. You need visa for Laos to get on that bus. The bus returning to Vientiane was much better than the one I caught to Udon. Bigger, more air conditioned and for some reason it took only 1.5 hours – half an hour quicker. They did have more people in the aisles though, and more shopping. I still can’t work out why anyone would bring 4 bags of 5 mini watermelons from Thailand to Laos. I don’t know why they bring back rambutans and bitter gourds either.

13 June 2007

Hmong return to Laos

Below are two articles about the Hmong people who are returning to Lao from Thailand. Some Hmong people supported the US in the Vietnam war and the government can't seem to handle this. Have a look to see how different the articles are even though both are reporting about the same event. Note that Lao does officially have an office for propaganda. It is called the 'Propaganda and Training Committee of Central Committee'. One article is from the Vientiane Times and the other is from the Brisbane Times.

Vientiane Times

Laos welcomes Hmong returnees

'Lao authorities have welcomed back another group of Lao Hmong from Thailand , who had been detained in Thai prisons as illegal migrants for several months.'

Brisbane Times

Hmong vow to resist repatriation to Laos

'LEADERS of 8000 Hmong people in a refugee camp in Thailand have vowed to fight deportation to Laos, where they say they will be tortured because their relatives backed the US in the Vietnam War.'


Recently, there was a big initiative to test Lao people for HIV aids. Over 14 000 people volunteered themselves to be tested. Around 1/7 of the people tested found out they had HIV. I'm guessing and hoping the people tested suspected they had HIV or were in a high risk category ie testing wasn't random. People chose to be tested after hearing that drugs were available to cure the disease. When word got around that the drugs only slowed the onset of sickness rather than curing the HIV, the numbers of people coming forward to be tested dramatically decreased.

11 June 2007

Fathima and Vista cafe

We tried a new Indian restaurant for dinner last night called Fathima. The prices there are very reasonable, and I thought the food was quite good too. The hightlights were the crisp dosa filled with spiced vegetables and the tandoori chicken. The breads were quite good, but would have been better had they served them hotter. The curries were spicier than the other Indian restaurants around Vientiane which was good. Vegetarian curries are around 10 000 Kip ($1 US) and meat curries cost up to 25000 kip ($2.50 US).

I think there's only one Indian restaurant in Vientiane to go! I do think Fathima is the best one. I've had the buffet at Rashimis which is quite good, but you can have a better variety of food for cheaper if you just go out with at least 4 friends and order a few different dishes. Definitely better than Nazims and the availability of dosa and being slightly spicier pushes it just past Taj Mahal.

One activity that I'm starting to do regularly on the weekends is ride my bicycle into town and have breakfast at Vista Cafe. I've even found a good journey there as the main road through Vientiane is being repaired and is entirely trashed. They've dug the road a few metres deep and are starting to fill it up. Vista Cafe makes a nice cooked breakfast which is a more manageable size than the ones I in Sydney. Brekky comprises tea or coffee, fruit salad, eggs, pancake or waffle and sausage or bacon. All for 21000 kip ($2.20 US). It's popular because you can use the internet free if you eat there and the connection is quite good. They use Linux on their computers too which I hear is good- that was my first experience with it. There is wifi access so you can byo laptop, although this isn't always reliable. It has a nice verandah to sit on, or you go inside to air conditioning if you wish. Pastries, cakes and tarts are from nearby Croissant D'or so are always perfect. Vista also has a massage business upstairs which I'll have to check out sometime.

10 June 2007

No water in Vientiane

The water supply in Vientiane was cut off for 24 hours, from Friday night to Saturday night. At first we didn't think it affected our house. I had not realised that the large tank that is taller than me, out back next to the clothesline, is full of water. The main purpose of this tank is to give our house water pressure. I learnt that water pressure is really low in Vientiane. This tank was such an effective water supply, we didn't even realise the water was cut off in our area.

My housemates only lasted 15 minutes of Napoleon Dynamite... we are divided!

08 June 2007


Our modest office has a supply of coffee that tastes absolutely perfect. It is something to look forward to each morning. I’ve heard Lao is supposed to have some of the finest coffee in the world and this could be it. This coffee is probably from a farmer that earns little for their work has no idea what their produce is worth. Most people drink their coffee with condensed milk. I have my coffee black because condensed milk it’s bad for the teeth and the coffee is smooth enough to not need milk. The coffee beans have been crudely ground- they look like they’ve been mashed with a blunt object, perhaps ground with a mortar and pestle. You simply put the coffee in a cloth net and pour water through. It comes out rather well for such simple technology.

Another popular use for condensed milk is to put it in Ovaltine and add sugar.

In Lao they banned the ‘R’ sound in their alphabet... just like that. This happened some decades ago when they decided it was too foreign in a time they didn't feel friendly towards foreigners. Therefore the ancient capital of Luang Prabang is technically supposed to be Luang Pabang, but people still say it the old way.

Recently I was granted a visa to stay in Laos for a year. They let me stay because I am a 'foreign expert'- I have a yellow card that says so.

05 June 2007

People arrested over plans to overthrow the Lao government

I think this is serious!

10 Lao- American people in America have been arrested for plotting to over throw the Lao government. They planned to do this using a range of weapons, destroying government facilities. The leader is ethnic Hmong who 'led CIA-backed Hmong forces in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s as a general in the Royal Army of Laos'.

The article in the Sydney Morning Herald is here.
There's another article in the Washington post here.

I'll wait to see whether this is picked up in the Vientiane Times tomorrow.

04 June 2007


Friday night A and I went out for dinner for his birthday. We tried a French- style restaurant with views above the water fountain nam phu called La Cave de Chateaux. It is probably one of the more classy restaurants in town, and is much cheaper than home. We sat upstairs where it has the traditional straw roofs were we could see a large gecko on the power pole. I had a grilled toast as an appetizer. It was quite unusual- it had slices of apple with a Swiss, smooth sweet style cheese on top. It also came with a substantially- sized salad. It was enjoyable. A had an onion soup. Honestly I have had so many variations of onion soup in my time I still don’t know what a good onion soup should taste like. I guess the onion soup tasted ok but would have expected more onion and I think it should have been more obvious what the base of the soup was!

I had duck breast for my main meal which I really enjoyed. It was cooked perfectly medium as I’d ordered it. It was probably a bird- flu risk but I think Vientiane is over it now. The red wine sauce was supposed to be caramelized, but it wasn’t, so it was too runny. It came with a small pile of morning glory (I cannot remember what this is called in Sydney, it’s the green vege usually eaten with shrimp paste, garlic and chilli, please help me someone), a roast tomato and a stack of potatoes much like a rosti. It was a very large meal. In Sydney we would probably consider this to be too much going on, on the plate for a restaurant like this. But that’s probably an excuse for having such small portions. So I’ve decided I like this huge plate of food which is more bistro style.

A had a steak with grilled mango, grilled green beans wrapped in bacon and a stack of potatoes. I had a taste and it was good. It was also a very large meal.

Both of us had nearly ordered a buffalo tartar but luckily from watching Mr Bean we didn’t order it, although if we had we would know exactly what to do. I had some profiteroles with ice- cream and chocolate sauce for dessert. It was delicious, but so rich, this definitely made me feel quite full. A had grilled bananas with banana ice- cream. That is too much banana for me, but I think A enjoyed it.

I liked the atmosphere. The waiter was very friendly, as Lao people generally, and attentive. My only complaint is people being allowed to smoke which is generally the case in Lao and the occasional person’s mobile ringing. Large portions, quality food means it’s quite good value so I will be back. I think I’ll be back to try the $6 US 3-course set menus.

Saturday I was happy to be out and about seeing as I had spent my last weekend in bed. I had a nice fruit salad and fruit shake for breakfast at a café in town. A tried to connect my computer to the internet to get it fixed, but my computer was going so slow, annoyingly, it did not get fixed.

A and I went to ITECC which is a large exhibition hall with a large supermarket. Out the back there are cows, water lilies and rice fields. We went to a Thailand exhibition there. There was nothing very interesting there, just a lot of clothing stalls, some food stalls and others selling random products such belts with huge skulls and motorbike locks. There were so many people there!

That afternoon I had foot/ leg massage at my local massage service which was very nice as my legs were a bit strained after cycling around the whole day. That night we went to a cocktail party at our friend’s place. Fruit and alcohol is so inexpensive here, it is feasible to host a cocktail party and have a sufficient alcohol collection to make them at home yourself. I think our household will have to invest in a blender.

Sunday I had breakfast by the pool on the river at the Australia Club. I went home and stayed inside the whole day because it was so hot and humid. Impressively, one of friends borrowed a projector from work. Another brought his sound system from his home down the road. So a few of us played the Wii with a huge picture projected onto the wall! Our living room seems perfect for it. I beat a friend at Wii boxing- his Mii was Amanda Vanstone and mine was Gandhi. I beat her up good. Other characters that were made that day include Jesus and a Michael Jackson which looked just disturbing. I also bought my first crate of beer. 12x 640mls cost around $11 AUD ($9USD).

01 June 2007

Work stuff

'Why doesn't Lao doesn't have an entrant into the Miss Universe competition'
'Lao girls are too short?'

'Is there an English word for short nose?'

Apparently it is not considered beautiful to have a short nose.

If you would like government officials to attend a conference or training session you are holding, most organisations will pay a 'per diem' ie a daily payment of a few dollars directly to the person attending. This is quite a lot of money as they would otherwise be paid $1 per day. Some foreigners think that people shouldn't have to be paid extra to do their job. I'm not so sure. Where I used to work at home, some people hated attending training courses because it meant they had to work twice as hard when they returned to catch up. They probably weren't interested in the course anyway. If you were being paid $1 per day why would you be bothered going if you did have to work harder later? I'd consider the extra payment as a bonus for having to be more productive!

This week I've had a couple of dinners with people for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who have come to visit. We just went to a couple of local joints serving the usual Lao food, with some Thai in the mix too. I overdosed on MSG, chicken stock and salt but I'm over it now. The thing that stuck out in my mind that was particularly unfortunate was that the Myanmar government behaves so badly it's hard give aid to them there. Australia does give some aid, but it would be just through big international aid agencies such as the UN. Myanmar extended the house arrest on their leader of opposition Ms Aung San Suu Kyi last Sunday, boo.