22 February 2008

Interesting planes and buses with pigs on the roof

I flew to Sam Neua but couldn't get a flight home due to bad weather. Instead of a one hour flight, it was a 20 hour bus ride home.

I discovered an airline I didn't know about called Lao Air because I found out it flies to Sam Neua where I wanted to go. I need to create a page for it in Wikipedia because it's not there. When I booked I didn't even get a proper air ticket. They just gave me a receipt which didn't even list the flight times, just the check- in time on the flight on the way there.

I did do a bit of a research about the plane. It was a Cessna Grand Caravan with 14 seats. This model is from 2004 and the biggest user is FedEx which made me feel confident. We were happy that the plane could take off and land because it can't when it's foggy. It has been very foggy in Sam Neua recently due to the cold temperatures from winds originating in China.

We showed up at Sam Neua Airport for the flight home to find it closed. We called and found out it was cancelled due to bad weather. When we booked they said if that happened they would try the next day, but when we called they really had no intention of doing that because they need to use the plane to fly other routes. We didn't want to wait around until the weather improved anyway.

Some people bought pigs in Sam Neua, put them in sacks on top of the bus for 9 hours and got off just before we arrived in Phonsavan. The pigs squealed every time we went around a tight corner. The bigger pigs had their snouts out of the bag. The people on the bus spoke a language other than Lao. There was one poor woman spewing out the window and another with a very nasty cough. The driver had to stop to fix the brakes. The journey was very long because the road is mountainous so the driver can't go too fast. The overnight journey from Phonsavan to Vientiane was much quicker because the bus was better quality and it didn't constantly stop for people to get their pigs or sacks of fish food on and off the roof.

Snake in the shower

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I'm having a shower and I see what looks like a stick in the drain. Upon closer inspection I saw a snake. My housemate chased it back down with a plug and we plugged it up. Scary stuff. I'm now in the process of identifying the snake. My house mate thinks it's a poisonous one. My counterpart tells me that its unlikely to be poisonous as ones living in wet humid conditions generally are not.

Northern Laos

This picture depicts the Pathet Lao, the Lao communists defeating the Americans who supported the Royalist government. Notice the bomb with 'USA' written on it. This is in Viengxay, Huaphan Province where the Pathet Lao hid in caves for 10 years from the 1960s while it was being bombed. It is near the Vietnam border in the North East of Laos.

The USA was concerned that if Laos became communist, communism would take over the world. That's why they bombed the communists.

I visited the 400 caves where 10,000 hid for 10 years. There were a few years of bombing. They hid until the cease fire agreement was signed. The caves were quite interesting. There were enlarged natural caves, and caves they made. There are seven open to tourists. There was a cave that was a theatre. They built some emergency rooms in case there was chemical warefare that had a Russian air filter to pump in clean air. I doubted that it would have worked. We saw the bedroom of the former President and Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane.

14 February 2008

What I will miss about Laos

I'm going home in a month and I was whining the other day because of all the little things I'll miss here. Today my mindset has changed because I know I really have to go home because I've done what I have to do here and it's time to move on.

Things I will miss
  • The Lao food- so delicious and healthy
  • The kind and friendly people who know that there's never a need to be rude
  • Laughing and fun in the office- so rare where I've worked!
  • Window shopping at the markets for Lao textiles
  • Eating enough fruit and vegetables- they aren't afraid to eat them raw and have many delicious ways of cooking veggies
  • Not having hayfever here! It's so bad in Sydney but cleared up here perhaps due to humid air, cleaner air or less processed food
  • Getting exercise easily by riding my bike around town, doing cheap and convenient netball and aerobics
  • The people at my work, of course, whom all have had amazing experiences and some are particularly good people
  • The weather- I like it hot!
Things I won't miss
  • The smell and smoke in my room from neighbours burning rubbish, plastic included
  • Being harder to access services like cash, health services
  • Seeing so many accidents on the roads
  • Seeing that life's tough for people here, but I least know I know and can hopefully do more about it
  • Not being able to complain about the government openly
Things to incorporate into Sydney life
  • Eating on the floor when guests come around- no need to worry about having enough chairs
  • Eating more raw foods like they do here saving cooking time including beans, mint, coriander, cabbage
  • Trying to use my bicycle for transport more
  • Not participating in road rage- no such thing in Laos!
  • Trying to get out to explore NSW on the weekends a bit more, like I try to do here
I will miss you Laos, but I will be back.

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News about Lao

There has been heaps of international news about Laos this week. Here is the main news:

  • Laos denies that a 'Chinatown' to be home to 50, 000 Chinese families will be built, even though I've heard heaps of rumours about it. Read here
  • Bird flu in Luang Nam Tha Province, read here
  • Africans approaching Filipinos in Vientiane to smuggle drugs, read here
  • Human rights concerns relating to the Hmong people in Laos. They are being shot and killed in the forests, read here
  • Counterfeit malaria drugs made in Southern China and being sold in Laos among other places. They found pollen in the drugs so they could tell which region of China it came from. Read here and here

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13 February 2008

Bombs and ancient jars

Driving to Xieng Khuang
I visited one of the three most heavily bombed provinces in the most heavily bombed nation on earth- Xieng Khuang province in Laos. I wanted to see the Plain of Jars and the impacts of the war, whatever you want to call it, the Vietnam/ American/ Indochina war.

The drive into the mountains there was interesting. These are the people that live on less than $1 per day. Actually even our driver who lives in the centre of Vientiane earns just less than $50 USD a month. I have never taken a road trip and seen any smaller communities lived. Most of the houses we saw between Vang Vieng and Xieng Khuang were traditional houses made of wood or mats of fibre. I saw communities of just a few houses to a couple of hundred houses.

I saw children carrying huge baskets of wood on their backs. There were small children no older than ten years old carry small babies in slings across their back. There were groups of children coming home from school. There were people walking along the road by themselves.

The Plain of Jars
We saw over 400 ancient stone jars over a couple of sites. Who made the jars, how and why remains a bit of a mystery. The biggest one was bigger than I. It was a very pleasant walk seeing the jars. At one of the sites we had the jars all to ourselves. This site is in the middle of farmland It's like the calm feeling of being in a Japanese rock garden. Where the jars were there were large bomb craters. It appears that the bombs penetrated the ground at least a metre before exploding. They had to remove hundreds of bombs from the area before they could open the jars to tourism and the area you can walk on is still quite restricted.

Impact of the war
People use bomb casings for things like decoration, fence posts, to plant plants. I think I ate a bowl of noodle soup with a spoon beaten out of a bomb casing which I've heard is common. I'd never seen a rocket launcher or huge bullets designed to take down a plane before. This was all in the hotel restaurant. This area was bombed heavily but not all the bombs exploded upon hitting the ground. So there are heaps of live bombs out there. This contributes to poverty because people can't use that land to farm.

An alternative way to make a living is to find bombs using a metal detector and attempt to defuse them. They can get 0.10c per kilogram of metal. When you consider that many of the bombs are pretty big and that they would otherwise earn $1 a day, this is a pretty good option. They know it's dangerous but it's an economic decision because they perceive that the expected benefit exceeds the risk x cost. They can sell the explosives also or use them to fish. What a crazy way to make a living. There are organisations that train people to clear areas of UXO. I think these organisations detonate the bombs rather than attempting to defuse them. We saw a UXO clearance team on a hill using metal detectors. Should people be trained to defuse bombs properly because they are doing it anyway? I just don't think a ban in trading the metal is the most effective thing to do, but I don't know what to do.

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07 February 2008

Articles about deafblind woman, rising health costs in America

Deafblind woman attacked
BBC has a fantastic website by people it disabilities, for people with disabilities called 'Ouch'. Reading it feels like an insight into another world. They have some bloggers with some great stories to tell including one amazing deafblind woman who's doing a PhD. Here she tells a story ' My story: deafblind street attack' which is quite scary.

High health care costs in the US
I used to work in the Australian health sector and it seemed to bag the US for spending twice as much money but when we look at them they're not looking healthier than us. This article in the NY Times argues that the high health costs aren't such a bad thing. Incomes are rising so people can afford to spend money. The can also afford higher technology health care. It also offers some ways that health care costs can be reduced.
The High Cost of Health Care.

Economics and disability

My major studies were in economics and while I've never worked in the field, but always use economics it to make decisions in everyday work and life. Here are some articles I found interesting that are a look through the lens of economics into the field I work in, disability.

This article is titled 'The Decision to Abort When Faced with a Down Syndrome Diagnosis'. These guy wrote this article co- wrote quite a popular book called 'Freakonomics' and sadly his son was sick and was faced with the possibility of becoming deaf but instead died.

Another article is about the unintended consequences of anti- discrimination laws in the US. They actually cause less employment of people with disabilities. It makes it so hard to fire them that they don't want to employ them in the first place. Logical when you think about it.
FREAK-TV: Is the Law of Unintended Consequences the Strongest Law Around?

UXO casualties in 2007

There is stacks of unexploded ordnance (UXO) which are bombs that didn't explode when America dropped them during the Indochina war. Lao is the most heavily bombed nation in the world, having more bombs dropped on it than the total bombs used in WW2. Therefore accidents happen.

Last quarter 2007
The statistics from the National Regulatory Authority, the entity responsible for coordinating UXO issues in Lao show that in the last quarter of 2007, there were five deaths and eight injuries. This is how some of the accidents happened:
  • Played with the grenade HE Frag F1
  • They made a fire near the house and the 23mm of artillery underground exploded
  • He found the mortar fuse then hit it and it exploded
  • They played with the UXO with a stick causing it to explode
  • He played with the UXO by throwing it against a tree causing it to explode
  • He cut the vegetation and hit the 33mm of artillery causing it to explode
Six of the casualties were children (three male and three female), six were adults (all male). Males have a higher rate of casualties because they are work outside. Statistics are collected from 9 of Laos' 17 provinces, I'm guessing from the most heavily bombed ones. I would expect that these casualties are underreported because not everyone, particularly in remote areas, would not know to report them.

2007 statistics

These statistics for the 9 provinces surveyed
  • There were 30 deaths
  • There were 69 injuries
  • 19 deaths of male children
  • Nil deaths of female children
  • 11 deaths of male adults
  • Nil deaths of female adults
  • 27 injuries male children
  • 7 injuries female children
  • 30 injuries male adults
  • 5 injuries female adults

06 February 2008

Chicken fighting

If I ever want to participate in chicken fighting, I can, because my Lao counterpart has given me all I need to know.
  • Selecting a good chicken is important. You need to check the back of it's neck, the wings and the neck to make sure it's strong.
  • You should feed it a special diet of egg mixed with paddy rice and then dried. Feeding it vegetables is important too.
  • It needs to exercise. My counterpart made a chicken running machine comprising a cylinder with a handle. He also puts the chicken in the water so that it flaps about for exercise. He places the chicken down a large tube and it exercises by trying to get out.
  • If it's not winning, trade it in!
He mentioned that some people seal the chicken's wounds during a fight by putting a hot iron in it, but he thinks that's going to far. He also boasted that his best chickens can take out another with just one kick.

05 February 2008

The shooting range

I went to the shooting range in Vientiane. I was a bit scared, but a few friends have been, so I thought 'why not'. It’s quite open, and when I walked in I saw someone using an air rifle and another shooting a really loud gun. I had a go of using the rifle. The woman loads the bullets for you one at a time. They cost 15000 kip for five. Pity I didn't really understand the woman's instructions of how to use the rifle and ended up completely missing the target. They put the target, which is a piece of thin cardboard on a string and draw it down the range. The particular gun I used was from the 'USSR' and the other I saw was from 'West Germany'. The boys sat there with their rifles and five bullets and waited for the woman to load the bullets. She never did, so they just had a go themselves.

The other cheap bullets are the handgun ones which cost 17000 kip for give. This is less accurate than the rifle but really easy to use. I'm not sure what other guns you can use but their bullets are around 20000 to 30000 kip which is probably a bit out of my price range. It's quite a casual setup with a small dog wandering around between the guy with the air rifle and the target. There is a small bar there too but I really hope the don't serve alcohol.

Fear of foreigners in Laos

The journalist in Laos wrote an article titled 'Fear of foreigners in Laos' upon one year of a Lao ecolodge in the northern province of Luang Namtha. He talks about the Lao government disliking foreign influences in Lao.


I just wonder where he gets this information from because after a year I’ve found it hard to get information around here. Generally, people just rely on rumours. He highlights the point that the Lao National University, Lao’s only university opened in 1996 which is very recent. It does not yet have postgraduate courses. My friend says that students are expected to learn long passages of Marx’s texts. Lao doesn’t produce textbooks so they learn from Lao or Thai textbooks.

Another Quiet American

This is a book by Brett Dakin. It’s a short account of his time in Vientiane volunteering at the Lao National Tourism Authority about a decade ago. He has found out about the history of businesses and buildings around Vientiane which is still relevant. Many of his experiences are similar to mine with respect to cultural differences the challenges faced and the interactions with the Lao people.

Australia day party

The Australian embassy held a party for Australia day at the ambassador’s residence. Ambassador's, Australians working in Lao, government officials and NGO representatives attended. These events are important to get the support from the high- level government officials such as the Lao Deputy Prime Minister who was there. The ambassador made a great speech highlighting democracy and a fair legal system as contributing factors to Australia’s success. I think they were hoping the Lao folk would hear.