April 2007


Finding a place to watch the Cricket World Cup in Laos was a six and a half hour mission for some volunteers. To be rewarded with such a farsical end to the tournament must have been most fustrating to them.

The game was to be watched at the Spirit House, a bar on the Meekong that had acted as the location of choice for watching all previous world cup matches. They were experiencing problems with their satellite connection and after one and a half hours of waiting for them to fix it the mission began to find an alternative place to watch the game.

The volunteers searched the streets of Vientiane, going to the most popular bars for phalang (foreigners) in hopes that one of them would be showing the game. None were. The next idea was to do the rounds of the local Indian restaurants, asking if any of them knew where the game was being shown. No success. There were rumours of the game being streamed live on the internet. A volunteer got his laptop and spent two hours tryings to set up the game to be viewed on a projector. Again, no luck.

Finally, as they reached their most desperate hour, there were rumours of the game being screened at a Sri Lankan man’s house somwhere in the city. At 2:30am, six and a half hours after the game had started, the Sri Lankan man’s house was found. How the occured I do not know. Possibly the only TV set in the whole country of Laos that was showing the World Cup cricket was found. The six Australians rejoiced and made themselves at home, uninvited. They had cricket, it made them happy.

My fellow volunteer and friend, the Professor, was walking home past a nearby primary school. The friendly Lao kids called out to him and his girlfriend, “Hello!”.

Then unexpectedly, in perfect english but with a menacing voice, one kid said “I want to kill you”.

I visited a bank last week to get a cash advance from my credit card. Seated next to me is a 12 year old boy, swivelling around on his chair in an expression of boredom. In front of him the teller is tying together wads of 5000 kip notes with platic string. The complete package of money is the size of six bricks joined together. There are another two packages of money the exact same size. Another two staff are working on counting the notes and putting the packages together. I’ve concluded all three packages are very likely to be given to the boy. The situation reminds me of the stories of hyperinflation from post World War I Germany or modern day Zimbabwe, where the price of bread doubles between breakfast and lunch, and you need to carry a wheelbarrow full of notes to the store to buy some milk

I left the bank with the following questions:

  1. Why so much money? What could it possibly be used for?
  2. Why is it in 5000 kip notes? The highest denomination in Lao is 50’000 kip. 5000 kip is worth about 50c in USD.
  3. Why has this 12 year old boy been entrusted as the courier for this large amount of money.

Lao KipInflation in Laos
Laos was heavily affected by the East Asian economic crisis of 1997. Over the following two years the currency loss 80% of its value to the USD. It use to be 1000 kip to 1 USD, and now sits at around 9600 kip to 1 USD. People don’t trust the kip anymore, so hold large amounts of money either in USD or in Thai baht, often with banks located in Thailand. Inflation in the years following the East Asian economic crisis was in excess of 100% per year.

The 6 months rent my house had to pay in advance was a total of 21 million kip. All the calculators here have an extra button for “00” which types the zero twice. The Lao word for calculator, when translated literally, means machine that thinks a lot.

I asked my Lao counterpart at work if they had a software CD with some Adobe programs on it. In particular I was looking, for Adobe InDesign to use to make a brochure. He said he would ask about it and maybe purchase it. 30 minutes later I have a copy of it on my desk. Someone in the office went off to a local PC store to buy a copy, probably at the cost of one or two US dollars.

There are no copyright laws in existence in Laos at the moment. Probably no human rights laws either.

The Miss Lao contest is an annual event held in Luang Prabang during the Lao New Year (Pi Mai) celebrations. The winner is given the privilege of riding on a peacock float during Pi Mai parade. 6 others get to ride on the float in less prominent positions, so there’s a big incentive to make it to the final 7 contestants. Also on offer is a monthly feature in the follow year’s beer Lao calender, which almost every person in the country seems to have a copy of.

The prettiest didn’t win according to a Lao guy I met that now lives in Australia. Apparently the prettiest girl that should have won didn’t look Lao enough. A volunteer read a magazine article about the strict criteria the Miss Lao contest judges its contestants against. You have to have black eyes, a streamline figure, and be a virgin. The virgin part might account to why the average age of the participants has dropped to 17 in the past few years.

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Walking towards the Vientiane Bowling Centre for another volunteer’s birthday celebrations, I spot a bakery along our way. It’s main feature are two glass fronted fridges side by side, filled with colourful cakes. One looks like it’s icing has been made out of watermelon. I suggest that we buy a cake as a birthday gift to our fellow volunteer. At this point a young man pokes his head behind the fridge and comes to assist us. He’s wearing a awfully tight shirt and even tighter short, shorts. We point to a cake and ask “tao dai?” (how much). He quickly darts back to behind the fridges and into the shop, returning with two ladyboy friends to help us. The most knowledgeable one comes forward to help us with the price. He’s dressed in a red mesh shirt that reminds of the villain Bennet from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Commando”.

The lady boys look like they’re off duty. They’ve got the clothes but they don’t have the makeup. The bakery wall is covered with pictures of seemingly thai models and tv/movie female stars. Role models perhaps, looks to aspire to.

The lady boys ask us to write a message on a white board, which they then expertly and perfectly recreate on the cake. They work together in a group, one writes while the others watch to make sure she’s not making any mistakes. They help interpret some letters he doesn’t understand.

We walk out with our 30’000 kip cake (approximately $3 USD) from three very unique bakers.

 

Ladyboys in Laos

Ladyboys in Laos are not uncommon, and are largely accepted by the community. A Lao guy I met told me that this is a recent change, and that 10yrs ago they would have been unable to so openly show themselves in public for fear of persecution. During the Lao New Year parade 5 ladyboys featured quite prominently, leading the final float. There are some photos of them on my flickr website. They were heavily targetted for water throwing by the crowd, and there was a lot of laughing at them, especially by children.

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There is a Ladyboy working girl who hangs around the main fountain in Vientiane’s central area. Two volunteers have been accosted by her, and one was even groped quite aggressively. I told them that instead of saying no and running away, they should have instead asked tao dai (how much?) and peng pawt (too expensive). Another volunteer saw her driving off on the back of a young phalang’s (foreigner) bike one evening. He looked very pissed, and there was a good chance he’d wake up the next morning very regretful. I can imagine a crying game happens every night in this town. This is the story they should tell young Australian volunteers to scare them from getting too drunk while overseas. One volunteer’s friends had joked with him that our pre departure training for our assignments to Laos lacked a “Ladyboy detection” workshop.

I’ve realised that it’s been almost 6 weeks since I’ve prepared a meal, not counting cereal or instant noodles. I haven’t even made a sandwhich. Now I know how my friend JBC has gone 25 years without preparing a meal. I think I could comfortably get through this entire year without cooking. There is an buffet korean style BBQ down my street for about $3.5 AUD. This is the closest I think I will ever get to cooking in Laos.

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