August 2007


A recent newspaper headline declared that the Lao National University has decided to restrict the number of subjects first year students can enrol in to one. Previously students could enrol in two or more subjects.

This seems like a excellent way to maintain national education statistics at a lower cost. Having students doing half as many subjects as they were previously doing will mean the variable costs will be half of what they were. The statistics on the number of students in univeristy will be the same, but at a reduced cost.

This weekend was the Foreign Experts vs Lao Nationals Swimming Competition. Essentially is was a bunch of us Australian volunteers plus a few friends in a swimming competition against the Lao swimming team. As the Lao swimming team included the junior members, you had 10 year old Lao kids racing against 40 year old foreign men.
As expected, the Lao kids were triumphant on the day.

There was one kid who had the awesome name of “Big Bot”. I tip my hat to his parents.

Pahdek is a fermented fish sauce used in Lao cuisine. As far as I can tell, it’s made by putting a bunch of fish in a bucket to rot. Visually, it looks like a bucket of human waste. The smell is so horrible that no one phrase or word is enough to describe it. Here are a collection of figurative descriptions I have collected in an attempt to accurately convey just how horrid it smells:

  • An unholy stench
  • An abomination against the nose
  • Pure evil originating from the Devil’s own arse
  • A smell most foul
  • It smells better coming out than going in
  • Probably the worse smell in the entire world

I’m constantly astounded at how little money people get by with here.

The Lao government gives scholarships to a third of univeristy students. How much is a Lao government university scholarship worth? About $7 to $9 US dollars a month, so about $100 a year.

The government plans to double the scholarship amounts soon.

It takes a second to wreck it
It takes time to build
You gots to chill

– Beastie Boys

This weekend I made a visit to the Ban Pako Eco Lodge.  What is an Eco Lodge? It’s accommodation that’s in the sticks and with very basic facilities. Although that doesn’t sound that great, it’s lot’s of fun because it’s cheap and close to nature. Think of it as camping but you stay in a small bamboo hut instead of a tent.

The trip to Ban Pako was arduous. A mini van was organised to take us to our destination. One mini van for 15 people. When the mini van arrived it was apparent there wouldn’t be enough room for all of us, especially not with the large amount of luggage us foreigners bring – moisteriser, hair dryers, sleeping bags etc. After 30 minutes of waiting a second mini van arrived as we were off.

Ban Pako is only 50km away from Vientiane according to their website. Averaging 60km/h you would think that it would take less than an hour to get there. It took us much longer.

After about one hour we hit the road from hell, filled with pot holes large enough to be created by UXOs. After a few kilometers of this the drivers pulled over, saying we couldn’t go on and would need to catch a boat the rest of the way. I’m pretty sure serious damage had already been done to the mufflers of the mini vans. The road was atrocious. Having no  road lights and with the rain bucketing down it made it near impossible to avoid the pot holes unless you were will to travel at 5km/h.

We were dropped off at a family home who agreed to take us by boat to Ban Pako. The family had to drag their heavy boat engines down the muddy embankments that we volunteers struggled to descend. The boat engines were a large motor attached to a long stick with a propeller at the end.

The forty minute boat ride was relatively pleasant. The river was very still and it was interesting to watch the large silhouettes of trees along the water’s edge. It would have been more pleasant if not for the constant fear of the boat coming apart and all of us drowning.

It had be raining continually for the past 5 days and when we go to Ban Pako they did not have any electricity. They use solar panels for their power supply, and with no sun for so long their batteries were flat. Yet despite this they managed to prepare us an excellent banquet of food. By the time we started eating it was already 10pm. I was starving and breathed down my plates contents at an alarming pace.

It continued to rain all night. There was a leak in the roof of our cabin, but not over our bed so it wasn’t too bad.

The next morning was spent playing badminton, volleyball, a herbal sauna, forest walks, sleeping, reading, listening to music, talking and encounters with scorpions. I didn’t encounter the scorpion, but another volunteer found one crawling on his leg while in the herbal sauna. Go to any market or shop near the border in Laos and you’ll find the double combo Scorpion plus Cobra in a bottle for sale – see photo. I’ve been told that it’s nature’s Viagra. I get told a lot of things are nature’s Viagra. Impotence is universally funny no matter where in the world you are from.

At night we played a clothes swapping game where everyone had to try and change clothes, coloured the different colours of a Rubics cube,  until their entire outfit was the one colour. This was followed by limpo, with T won, and some strange Survivor (the reality TV show) like games where a group of people would compete over things like who could stay standing on one leg the longest.

I got to try a shot of Vodka mixed with some root from a tree that a Lao dude at the Sauna gave to one volunteer. It didn’t taste too bad, although I did have a slight temperature and muscular pain for the next 3 days. Imagine how much worse it could have been without this herbal remedy.

The weekend was fun. It was a good chance to get a large bunch of us volunteers together. Getting there was a memorable adventure. If you visit Vientiane I’d recommend going to Ban Pako if you have the time. My tips would be to go during the day, and take a Song-Tiaw from the Morning Market as it takes less than two hours that way.

I visited the Lao National museum a few weeks ago. It’s worth a visit and I enjoyed most of the exhibits. There are a lot of guns sitting around the place, including some American M16 rifles that were captured during the civil war. The phrase “American imperialists” is scattered throughout the museum, but not quite as much as I would have expected.

There was one exhibit that housed some small ornaments. It was secured with a very large cage that had bars so close you could barely see what was inside. Next to the exhibit was a sign saying that someone had tried to steal the artifacts here but were fortunately stopped at the border thanks to the cooperation of Lao and Thai authorities.

There are pictures of world leaders near the end of the museum, including one of Paul Keating who visited to open the Australian funded friendship bridge that links Thailand and Lao near Vientiane.

The dinosaur section of the museum is quite amusing. They have some posters stuck up that you could have bought in a museum in Australia, plus a large mural painted on the wall of some dinosaurs.

It’s worth a look if you’re in town.

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