Friday, 10 October 2014

Letting Go, Giving Thanks and Future Blessings

People releasing their boats on the river at Tat Luang temple - you can pay a small child to release it for you and ensure it gets out into the flow of the river for just 5000 kip (falang price - I heard 1000 quoted to a local....)
This week Gavin and I participated in Loi Krathong/Boun Awk Phansa - the end of the Buddhist Lent.  Stories differ on the meaning of the holiday presently, it is the day that the monks are released from a 3 month "rains retreat" period and can be out and about in the world again.  But in the evening Lao people set small "boats" with candles to float away on their nearest river and/or send "spirit orbs" (floating Chinese lanterns) floating into the sky.


The day before the Full Moon we made our boats at my work, with the help of one of my wonderful colleagues - she rolled her eyes and giggled at our poor attempts and when we went to pick them up on the Wednesday night she had made the time to decorate our boats with flowers (on her own time, during a public holiday I might add!)

The boats are made from banana leaves and bananas stems (which float incredibly well!)  A certain amount of oragami, staples and pins finish the gorgeous little boats.

My own personal "Kratong"
The holiday is a mixed process of letting go, giving thanks and asking for blessings for the year ahead - be it from Buddha, the nagas (spirit snakes) in the river or some other form of deity or spirit you believe in.  And, next to the holiday of Thanksgiving in the USA it rates among my favorite global holidays.  Couples, holding hands (typically taboo in Lao culture - I got a bit of a shock!) typically let off a boat together to ensure a long-lasting and happy relationship, people let go of angst and anxiety and let the river take it downstream and we all dream of a better year ahead with love, laughter and fulfilled opportunities.

Gavin and I released two boats together (one discarded with roses and sparklers that Gavin found on the road - he really knows how to spoil me with discarded goods!) and also released what some Lao were calling a "Spirit Orb" - the lantern.  So - here's to the worries of last year behind us and the promise of the future ahead - I have a feeling it's going to be a good one!

Our spirit orb, with the light of the full moon to the left, takes off into the atmosphere!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

This is Lao

"This is Lao".   A phrase which is rapidly becoming one of my most spoken, not far behind the commonly understood "TGIF" every single week.

I love Lao, it has so much to offer.  The people are slow to warm to you, but once they do they are some of the best people I have ever met in this world.  Their smiles warm my heart and I know that when I leave those Lao Smiles will stay in my heart forever.

Lao Smiles!

However, my life is daily filled with "This is Lao" moments.

Staff forget to tell you it's a major religious holiday and no one will come to work today....."This is Lao"

Returning to work after lunch to discover a Karaoke Party in the office...."This is Lao"

  

Postage ending up in opposite directions...."This is Lao"

Gift cakes, complete with swimming pools and fluorescent animals....."This is Lao"


Cows, yes, I repeat, cows, sorting through trash....."This is Lao"


Roundabouts, where you stop to let the incoming traffic on....."This is Lao"


And the list goes on...........but that's okay......."This is Lao"!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Moto registration in Pakse

So, you're moving to Pakse.
So, you've gotta get a moto.
Okay.

So, you go with your workmates to buy a bike....you select the bike, you pay, you leave and start riding around with no registration plates and you wait.

And you wait.
And you wait.

And maybe, a month or so later, your workmate tells you that your registration plates are ready - whoop whoop!  What happens next?

Step 1. Day 1. Go to the place where you bought the bike early, say around 8am in the morning. Hand them your paperwork and 40,000 LAK (Kip, the currency here).

Step 2. Day 1. Follow your salesperson to the shop around the corner.  As you're falang (foreigner) you'll likely be offered a comfortable plastic seat to sit on while you are completely confused, that's nice of them. They'll hand over your money and paperwork and insist you keep sitting while a bunch of other people arrive and hand over differing sums of money and paperwork.

Step 3. Day 1. Wait around 30 minutes or so in your wonderful plastic falang chair.

Step 4. Day 1. Follow one of the workers from this second bike shop, who is all packed up with multiple paperwork and monies out to a non-descript government location for vehicle registration.  Arrive at new location around 9am.

Sign visible at the turn-off to the "Garage",
coming from the East
Sign visible at the turn-off to the "Garage",
coming from the West
It's like a large open "garage" set up (some sort of aparatus for checking braking, mirrors and a pit to check under the vehicle).  This is located at around km3/4 on Route13, down a dirt track around 500m.  The "Garage" has a nice glass windowed a/c office, where you can see people chatting and pushing papers around while you wait.

The "Garage", approaching from
the dirt road
Step 5. Day 1. Line up your bike with with others.

Bikes lined up, taking engine number details etc.

Step 5. Day 1. Staff at the garage check paperwork vs bikes- calling names (I didn't know which mine is under...I figure it was a process of elimination?)  This is the point at which I start keeping notes of my experience....These will follow the steps in quotation marks and italics, to give you a feel for being there.
"They bring out some plastic seats to sit on - again!  What a treat!
There are toilets and a fridge, a dog and a cat."

Step 6. Day 1. Masking tape and pencil used to record engine number.
"I'm 5th in line out of 13
Now 4 dogs, 9:15am, quite cute"

Step 7. Day 1. "Wait"

Step 8. Day 1. "Wait"

Step 9. Day 1. "Wait"
"9:30 a fifth dog appears.
Very glad I put the deet on this morning.
I'm the only Falang.
And only 1 of 2 women waiting for the bikes.
09:45- familiar face from office arrived, Dao heung shirt so not sure if works PAFO or coffee and comes in for phytosanitary certificates.
10am - 6th dog
10:15- 7th dog, no discernible family lineage as such, maybe 2 siblings
10:20 - one guy leaves
All stickers seem to be on bikes now, more or less
10:30 - car comes through, light and brake check it seems
10:50- dog 8 and dog 9
11:00- leave, no plates just stickers, 2pm at talat tomorrow."

Step 10. Day 1. The staff inside the glass office seem to relax, you aren't sure why, nothing seems finished.  Eventually it occurs to them to interact with the many people waiting outside.  I was told to leave and return to the talat ("market") tomorrow afternoon at 2pm.  At this stage, you only have two stickers on your bike, no number plate.

A view of the glass office....and unregistered bikes

Step 11. Day 2.  Show up at Market at 2pm, at the second shop location.  Encounter confused staff who don't know why you're not already out with the rest of them (at least, this is what I think they think).  Be directed toward a plastic chair, again, and you guessed the next step right.....

Step 12. Day 2. Wait.  Eventually they assign someone to ride your bike out to get the number plates for you.  Then you get to wait, again, on a wonderful red plastic chair.

The view from the shop while I wait for my bike to return....
glad I didn't have to ride in the rain!

Step 12. Day 2. Wait.  I recommend bringing a book or a good tablet device/laptop with battery.  I got quite a few emails off that afternoon.

Step 13. Day 2. Wait.  Watch them close the shop at 4pm and then leave one poor staff member to wait with you for your bike to return.

Step 14. Day 2.  Your bike is returned to you!!!  Registration plate is attached!!!!  The staff member left behind berates the driver for being so late.  And why was the driver late......"it was raining".  Ah, this is Laos!!!!

Now you can ride around town secure in the knowledge that now, if the police pull you over, you have important documents that they can hold you to ransom with - delightful!

NOTE - if you are lucky, this may happen all in one day.
NOTE - if you are very lucky, a work colleague or friend may sit through the entire experience for you - consider paying someone to do this for you.....

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Sometimes I forget how beautiful Pakse is.....

I was astounded by just how beautiful Pakse is on my ride home tonight - so I thought I would share some photos to give you all an idea of how beautiful it is....

Pakse by day - view from Residence Sisouk

Pakse by night - view from Residence Sisouk

Lone fisherman on the Mekong, Pakse

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Driving in Lao

For the uninitiated:
Step 1. Watch the road ahead
Step 2. Worry only about the road ahead, rear-view mirrors and checking your shoulder are western constructs of little use.
Step 3. Beep at all things ahead which might concern you (dogs, cows, other cars/motos) and use your high beams to make the point that you now have right of way (you got there first, of course you have right of way)
Step 4. Don't worry about what is behind, it is the responsibility of those behind to worry about what is in front of them (continue this, full circle).

Just taking home some dinner.....
Roundabouts
As a westerner, do not expect round-abouts to be easily understood. Its seems to be a first in-best dressed kind of situation, just go with the flow. At least it succeeds in slowing traffic.
In an interesting turn of events, they have put up signs on how to actually use the roundabouts in recent months, but no large behavioural change thus far....

Riding in the rain
Expect, during the rainy season, for things to move with the flow of the rain.  Staff not at work - is it pouring rain (or sprinkling for that matter....)? 

Give them some time and a rush of people will arrive with the next break in the weather :)  Soon enough, you too see the method in their madness and in no time you end up waiting out the bucketing rain before you make a mad dash with hundred of others at the next opportunity.

My rain pants have been the one of the best items I brought with me I believe - they aren't sold here in Laos that I have seen and while the poncho covers almost everything it is lovely to arrive with dry legs also.
Traffic jam - on a one way bridge - Pakse style....



Some stylish wet-weather gear on offer


















Cars
Oh my Lord - cars are everywhere in Laos these days! Two years ago in Vientiane they were a rarity, but now they are a dime a dozen. They are most certainly a status symbol (who really needs a lamborghini anywhere, let alone the rocky roads of Laos), and the Lao people have a unique way of driving (as in with a complete lack of licensing and appreciation for road rules it would appear).  They are busy trying to apply how they drive their cars to how they drive their motos, sometimes with very irritating (to me anyways) and potentially dangerous consequences.


Traffic - Pakse style....
Lao-style
The Lao, like many of their south-east Asian neighbours, seem to be born on a bike (and perhaps some of them were!)  It's always amazing to see who and what a 100cc moto can carry - a range of plastic ware or balloons fanning out like a peacocks feathers, 50kg sacks of rice, cartons of beer, trays of eggs, four or five people (a whole family, mum, dad and the kids), people sleeping on the drivers back.....

One of my favorites that I have managed to snap thus far is this ingenious method of getting a wheelbarrow between sites - ah Laos, you never cease to amaze me!

Wheelbarrow transportation - makes sense really!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

There's a Gecko in my Fruitbowl

There's a gecko in my fruitbowl, a scorpion in the dining room, a snake on the patio and a huntsman in the bathroom.

There's a gecko in my fruit bowl.....

Coming from Australia, these daily encounters with wildlife don't ordinarily upset me, in Australia I know everything is dangerous and to stay the hell clear.  Regular encounters with Cockroaches are simply a matter of course - squish it and flush it down the toilet (I even recall holding them by the antenna half alive as a child, this courage has since left me). Which is why I can keep a level head as I squeal with fright as that green little snake slithers quickly inside the house as we try to shoo it away.....

Isn't he a beauty......(and yes, that's him climbing our wall...)
......luckily, all the general knowledge that comes with being Australia came into full action, and so, after convincing Gavin that he could not play crocodile hunter and capture the beasty, we simply shooed it out of the house and walked loudly behind it as it slithered onto the property of the abandoned house next door. 

Later, while talking to a Canadian mate who has lived many years in Lao we enquire as to the venemous nature of the snake: "Yes, they are venemous".
This is the point where I realise that my Australian sense of "venemous" is directly linked with "life-threatening", and after continuing the discussion I come to realise that venemous simply means "the bite hurts like hell".  I sigh with relief and smile, content that this snake has nothing on our nasties back home.

The scorpion on the other hand, I am a little bit more freaked out by.  But, just like the huntsman spider, with a trusty tupperware and piece of card it can be caught and released to the vacant lot down the road in no time.  Gavin is becoming quite skilled at the task. Once again, after talking to locals, we should consider simply killing the scorpions outright....but I'm still getting used to the idea.  I definitely prefer relocation of any animal, especially the huntsmen, as they are harmless really, but just frighten the bejebus out of me when they run around in the shower while I'm naked.

Our beloved scorpion friend....
But, seriously, the geckos.  They are everywhere. You don't realise how precious we are in our daily western lives until you you set your first rat trap and clean the gecko poo off the kitchen bench each day. I know we have to deal with them in Brisbane (and at least here there is some biodiversity among them!), but not to the same degree.  In reality, I don't mind them - they keep the insects down (I hope), and in many ways, it's quite nice that rather than swatting at insects the geckos simply leave you with a nutritious packet of insect remains that can be easily swiped away without the need to engage in an aerobic session as you swat them!
Keeping the fruit flies down no doubt....thanks Little Fella!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Six months in Lao

So it has almost been six months since Gavin and I first arrived in Vientiane, Laos, and 5 and a half months since we arrived in Pakse, in the southern province of Champasak. So I thought it was time to write a quick blog and let you know how we are faring here....especially seeing I have been so slack (this blog has actually been edited from one written and not published about four months ago - whoops!)

Pakse Family
So many times when you travel, your friends become family.  Jess, the AVID volunteer who was already in Pakse when I arrived, put Gavin and I in touch with all the right people and instigated the formation of "The Pakse Crew" - a close knit group of expats, some volunteers (or vollies as Jess would say), current and retired NGO workers, English teachers and travellers to boot.

We have regular get-togethers, often at a favourite grilled duck restaurant "Poptavanh's", overlooking the Mekong on a Friday evening. Any event is a good event for dinner or lunch together though, and we have been known for gathering when someone is going away for a couple of months, a week for work training, or even just going away for a night or weekend (Pakse is very exciting, as you can see). Watch this space for updates of the up and coming "Gin and Tonic and Tutu Party"....

Myself and fellow AVID volunteer Jess
Renting a house
Gavin and I were homeless in Pakse for quite some time. A rental in this town has been very difficult to find and the volunteer who was already based here, Jess, set a high standard in the lovely home she snagged when she arrived. In total we have viewed 7 properties, ranging in price from $75 to $600, from unfurnished studios to a six bedroom furnished home. Furniture is expensive, so while the rental cost is definitely cheaper, we're pretty sure it won't be worth the effort unless it's an amazing home. Eventually, Gavin bartered down the $600 6 bed house down to $450 and we have a German housemate, Maria, who is helping to share the costs - more on the house in another post!

Our house in Ban Tahai, Pakse

Guesthouse
During our initial stay we settled into the Nang Noi guesthouse quite nicely, despite the lack of airconditioning and limited living space. The owners are amazing - we now think of them as family! They even helped us to look for more permanent accommodation :)  and have one of the best value breakfasts in town - 20,000 LAK for two bread rolls, a massive omelet, fruit and coffee or tea. Gav and I split it between us and we're plenty satisfied - we still go back for the breakfast!

Food
It has not been difficult to convince Gavin to eat out on a regular basis, but I have certainly missed having my own kitchen and have been making the most of the one in our new home. It is definitely cheaper to cook for yourself!

- Restaurants -
In terms of restaurants, most of which are located along the main highway 13, we have regular haunts at two Indian restaurants, Nazim's and Jasmine, a Viet-Lao Pakse institution called Daolin (awesome value fruit shakes) and Delta coffee for dinner. Delta has some of the best western food in town (awesome chicken diane, pasta and pork schnitzel), although it's hard to go past the freshly made burger at Xuan Mai (you can actually watch them mince the meat and cut up the potatoes to order! Every meal at Xuan Mai seems to be freshly made, one of the reasons it tastes so good, but be warned, when they're busy things can go haywire). Initially we were eating a lot of western food here and were spending about $10-$15 a day (although we're cutting that down now we have a kitchen).

- Street food -
The street food here is good, hasn't caused anyone I know here grief, and is the cheap option. Cheapest quick meal for me is 5000 LAK (less than $1) - which is a bread roll filled with a pate of some sort (I don't think about it too much), a bit of veg and sauce (with or without chilli powder). I often grab these when I'm running late to work in the morning, but it could do for a small meal any time of day.A couple of grilled chicken skewers and sticky rice will set you back around 8-10,000 LAK ($1.20-$1.50). Fresh rice paper spring rolls are about 4 for 6000 LAK on the street, 10,000 at the market, and 20,000 for a bag full of fixings and rice paper so that you can roll away at home (makes about 8 to 10). There is a lot of really good deep fried street food out there - including something Gavin likes to call "Lao KFC" - if we don't watch ourselves we could end up a little fatter (but certainly happy) than we intend!