25 March 2008
I managed to pack my things up to go home. I sent stuff home with Thai Airways cargo. To Australia it costs around $3.50US per kilo if you have at least 45 kgs. It's good because they come to pick it up in Vientiane. The bad thing is they don't tell you have to pay another $75 upon pickup! Everything did get home safely though.
I didn't manage to have a proper goodbye party or say goodbye to all my friends! Hopefully I'll be back to Laos and it's good I can keep in contact by email.
We stayed overnight with a Khamu Village. Like a pretty regular village, it had lots of chickens and pigs wandering around and a few water buffalo too. This village was on a river which we used for bathing. water and drinking water. It’s not often I drink boiled river water! They cooked us a delicious dinner of water buffalo larp, cabbage and tomato chunky sauce. The village was in the process of moving so that a school could be accommodated in the area for two villages to share. This ethnic group has their own language in the group of Mon- Khmer languages as these people originated from Cambodia. The people killed us a chicken for lunch and cooked it with ginger for us- delicious! These people collect food from the forest such as banana flowers, rattan and bamboo to eat and sell or barter at the market. I managed to sample all of these foods.
I just hired a bicycle and rode it around town today. I knew there was bird flu in this province. So what did I do, ate eggs for breakfast, silly me, but they say a sick bird won’t lay eggs. The lady at the café said the market wasn’t allowed to sell eggs today but I did see cooked eggs for sale at the evening market. When cycling to one village we were stopped on our bikes. They sprayed our bikes with some kind of disinfectant, but it seemed a somewhat half- hearted attempt. Then we saw people dressed in those one- piece, head- to- toe suits when they’re handling something biohazardous. If I’d known there was bird flu at that village I wouldn’t have gone! Many rural Lao villages have chickens running around so the lack of squawking and chickens running out from everywhere was distinct.
I must describe some of the awesome food I’ve had here. The Boat Landing Guesthouse (where one of the owners disappeared last year) has some great northern Lao cuisine. Last night we had some food of the Akha ethnic group. We had a gorgeous chicken ginger soup, green beans with sesame. We also had a jeo, a Lao style dipping sauce much like a salsa, made of a forest ‘saw tooth’ plant and many other spices. Tonight we had Khao Soi, fresh cold rice noodles with pork cooked with fermented bean paste like the mince you get in mapoh tofu. We had freshly cooked rice paper rolls with preserved vegetables inside. We also had an interesting steamed rice cake with preserved vegetables in a banana leaf which you eat with sweet and sour sauce. Delicious!
I liked walking around the forest, there was lots of different plants and fungi to be seen. We saw a green whip snake, quite a few birds and a giant squirrel. There were heaps of rats around the tree house at night. We even managed to see a black- crested gibbon, the tour’s namesake during our morning walk. They play in the morning and they pretty much swing quickly through the forest, crashing through . There was heaps of bamboo which made it feel different from home and we scrambled over and under piles of fallen bamboo. At night we could hear a really loud bark, probably from a monkey. We did hear a lot of crashing through the forest at night which could have been caused by deer or bears.
The tree houses were awesome. They were made of wood, although one was built around a metal cage. The roofs were made of the leaves that the Lao traditional houses are made of. The water is from a spring. There is a shower, toilet and kitchen. The water just drops 50m to the ground when you use it. It’s an open plan without windows so you need to use the mosquito nets to protect yourself from night visitors. I stayed in a large split level house that could sleep 6 people. I also stayed in the romantic one for just 2 people.
The Gibbon Experience is an ‘ecotourism’ project. I am impressed with how they have done the project. They did involve the community from the start. One of the guides said he helped build the first tree house and had elephants carry the wood through the forest. I think they enjoy working there- one had worked there for 4 years and all seem really enthusiastic. They were so nice to speak to us in simple Lao to make me feel like I kind of knew the language! I think that’s the most important thing. Most of the people working there are from a couple of local villages of the Hmong ethnic group.
There were a few minor glitches which could be easily improved, and I hope they do. Some tree houses can run out of water. They really have to do something about this! My friends warned me because they didn’t have water after their 3 hour trek so were quite concerned and mine ran out of water too. They also have people trek to the tree houses and back by themselves which takes up to a couple of hours without maps. In the comments book some people mentioned they got lost. They should also be more clear about how long the trek to the tree house is. I went to the closest tree houses which involved an hour trek, half of which was uphill. Other tree houses are a relatively difficult three hour walk away. One friend woke up at 5am to trek for 7 hours when the road was bad and wet. The guides don’t take first aid kits with them. They do have them in the tree houses but something’s more likely to happen when you’re walking so take one if you’re going walking. They should give some emergency procedures and tell you where the fire extinguisher is and tell people to take water when trekking. They can forget your dinner so check with them they’ll deliver it to you. They have forgotten to deliver meals, according to some comments in the book. Like in Lao generally, people might not act unless asked to, so do check for meals. The tree houses are more like camp site than guest house. That is, it is in the condition that the last person left it. I don’t think they wash sheets and towels that consistently. If they told people this, it might make their expectations more realistic and maybe they could encourage people to leave the tree houses in good condition. I just hope they take note of these things as people have written in the comments book because I’d hate anything bad to happen and have their reputation ruined!
I flew to Houeisay to the north west of Vientiane for the sole purpose of getting to the gibbon experience. I got there a couple of days early because if it’s foggy the plane can’t land and I didn’t want to risk missing the gibbon experience. I flew on a Chinese plane into an airport that comprised two rooms. This is the simplest airport I've ever seen. I picked up my baggage from the cart and noticed a few wooden stalls with thatched rooves selling food. Houesay has a border crossing to Thailand and is a couple of hours drive from the large Thai city of Chiang Rai. It’s interesting to note the Thai influence here- they advertise in baht more than in Vientiane and there is a lot of Thai food around.
Some messages I got include ‘don’t forget me’ and ‘don’t forget to send me a wedding invitation card’. That would be awesome if they could come to my wedding if I someday get married- maybe I’ll have to have a reception in Laos!
23 March 2008
I had a fabulous time living in Vientiane Laos. I was really, truly, happy there. I liked the fact that money doesn't matter me there, because I guess I had so much more than the general population. I was ashamed that I was even thinking about it when I returned home! I did learn a lot about foreign aid. I saw a lot of stuff that can be upsetting, but still feel things can be improved one step at a time. I liked the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development program. It does well to prepare you for your time abroad and gives you a realistic picture of what goes on before you go away. I would like to work in Laos again, but not for a while. If I came back too soon and things hadn't improved I think I'd be upset and take it personally! I would totally take a family there, if/when I ever get one. I'd like to take short- term contracts overseas, say 3-6 months, once I get more experience.
Now for a little travel before continuing my career in health and hopefully work overseas again.
16 March 2008
The trip on the minivan there was interesting. There were a group of foreigners that were irate that they had been waiting 2 hours this minivan to leave. I think this is the first time in my stay in Laos where I felt like saying to someone 'you shouldn't have come to Laos!'. Most upsetting that there was a group of eight of them, each rudely giving a different command to the Lao guy they wanted to help them. It looked quite intimidating all these huge foreigners standing over this much smaller Lao guy. Seriously, if you can't stand waiting or need your coffee to come out of an espresso machine either you shouldn't come to Laos or you should join a packaged tour! I guess I'm lucky I had some cross cultural training before I left so I can deal with these kinds of situations. Laos just isn't quite there with this kind of stuff yet, that's why it's cheap!
I paddled for 6 hours and didn't leave the river- I even ate lunch on the kayak. We paddled 25 kms that day. It's quite scenic there on the water where there are few people and nice plants. Don Khon island where we stayed has the only rail in Laos. It hasn't been used for decades though. The Mekong River was once used for transport between Vietnam and the Yunnan province of China. The boats couldn't get through this section of the Mekong because the channels it splits into are too narrow.
Whilst paddling on the river the next day I could see Cambodia just 50metres away. We stopped to see the Irrawady dolphins, which are some rare freshwater dolphins. I did manage to see one even though I wasn't bothered if I didn't see any.
I visited the waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau. There were some steep climbs up and down. What's amazing about Laos is that when tourists are wearing their hiking boots to do a hard walk the Lao guide is negotiating rocky, slippery and/ or steep terrain in thongs! Not quite as good as the barefoot bushman but still very impressive.
We also saw some tea and coffee that grows in the fertile soils of the Bolaven plateau but I didn't think it was that interesting. Coffee to me is just another crop which I think is just interesting for foreigners because it's a luxury item. I saw areas where coffee was grown and I'm sure it would have looked much more beautiful when it was natural forest. I think I saw an area where coffee had been grown some time ago where I saw some scrawny coffee plants and it was really quite unattractive. Coffee seems to be a cash crop as I saw many houses growing it and having it dry out the front of their house. I just hope Oxfam did their cost- benefit analysis before they started their fair- trade coffee program. The economic theory suggests that giving a higher than market price for coffee says that their would be oversupply and more than optimal land used for the production. Too much forest could be cut down!