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.