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?