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 cafĂ© 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.