September 2007


Last weekend I made the 60km round trip bike ride to watch a dragon boat race on the Mekong river. There were lots of spectators and it was a party atmosphere. Beer, food and incredibly loud music were all present.

Check out the photos here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/7752707@N05/

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A fellow house of volunteers has some neighbourhood kids come over every single day to play in their yard and living room. They live next door and open a side gate to come inside. The youngest is only two years old and sometimes comes around during the day. Their parents don’t seem to mind at all. When I met them for the first time they were all very polite but very shy. After a while they loosened up and started playing a hide and seek game in the living room. The four kids were running around screaming at each other, hiding behind curtains and furniture, laughing and generally having a fantastic time. Apparently the kids come do this almost every night.

Another volunteer had her work colleagues comment to her, “Your skin is dark. I don’t like. I don’t like.” Her skin is still very fair but it has probably gotten slightly darker since she’s been here. I could never imagine anyone in Australia saying the equvalent, “Your skin is pale. I don’t like it”. The obssession with light skin was demonstrated by the behaviour of  a work driver that took her to a meeting. The driver insisted on stopping up to 20 meters away from red lights to wait so they car would remain in the shade. When she went to get out of the car the driver insisted she stay inside until he could come around to bring an umbrella to protect her from the sun.

Today I had lunch at my work colleagues house. He brought out a bottle of Lao Ha for us to drink. I’m not sure what it is made from, but it looks like a wine bottle with a root stuck in it. I was very strong, with a flavour reminiscent of Johnnie Walker and a smell similar to burning tires. He said that his brother sent the root to him from another province, and he made the drink himself. He drinks a shot every day or two, and people say that it makes you strong – which I think really means it’s a natural Viagra.

My friend’s brother is returning from Canada to retire to Laos and marry my friend’s niece (I assumed it was his wife’s niece).  He told me that his brother’s wife ran off with a Canadian 5 years ago, and that in the five years since that happened he was very sad and drank a lot. Now he isn’t sad anymore and is returning to Lao to get married. I saw his niece and she looked like she couldn’t have been much older than 30. Her future husband will be over 50.

My Lao language teacher told me that he has $45 in his bank. He use to make up to $900, but he had to spend most of it to take his wife to the hospital in Thailand. She had a sore arm, but I couldn’t work out what exactly was wrong with her.  Another Lao girl I’ve met said that she recently went to the hospital in Thailand because she had pains in her stomach and it cost over $500 USD.

I went to visit some microfinance clients this week to interview them. What I found was very interesting.

The first client was a lady runnin a food stall at a local market, something she had been doing for the last 30 years. She borrowed $300 for 6 months. She used the money to buy more food and extend the range of dishes for sale. There are many Lao food stalls like hers in the local markets. They precook the food and place it in metal trays, like salad in a restaurant buffet. She also had deep fried fish and, as expected, sticky rice. The new food has increased her sales by about $10 a day, so it has been a very successful business venture for her. She’s happy to use the microfinance institution because it offers a quick loan approval that gives her fast access to money. Going through the state bank takes many forms and much waiting. Using the money lenders costs more in interest, and they’re much less flexible if you are unable to repay the loan.

The second client was a butcher. He’d borrowed $150 to buy more meat to sell. This allowed him to increase his sales and make more money. He was able to buy a larger variety of meat than just beef, such as buffalo, thanks to the loan. He was happy with the loan but didn’t want to recommend it to his friends because he thinks it’s a really good loan product and wants to keep it to himself. Overcoming this mentality in customers is something the microfinance institution needs to work hard at to amend. Perhaps giving them some kind of monetary incentive to recommend their friends would work.

The third client borrowed $4000. He runs a goat restaurant, and across the street a goat farm. He used the money to, as you might expect, buy some more goats – about a hundred more in total. These goats were used to supply his restaurant, but he also onsold some live goats to other people. He’s happy to get a loan from the microfinance institution because it’s cheaper than the local money lenders and it means he doesn’t have to make daily payments, just one monthly one.

The last client was a mobile food retailer who has a stand by the side of the road. While we were visiting her her elderly relatives were helping to prepare the food she sold. She borrowed $250 to buy some more food, cooking equipment, and pay for her children’s educational expenses. She was very happy with the loan product and service and has already recommended it to several of her friends. She liked the fact that the microfinance institution is more flexible when it comes to late payments when compared to a money lender. She is able to talk to the staff who are understanding to her situation. For example if she is too busy and can’t ride to the branch to make her monthly repayment, the branch staff are happy to come to her to help collect the money.

Notable phrases in the Vientiane vernacular are “High So” and “Low So”, abbreviations for High Society and Low Society. They are labels used to distinguish the rich and exclusive upper class of the city with the poor lower class.

A recent event highlights the difference well. Uniliver sponsored a men’s beauty contest, “Mr Clinic Clear”, a few weeks ago. It was free entry and held at a night club considered quite “High So”. Lots of people turned up to the club but just hung outside on the road, choosing not to go in even though it was free. They thought that the club and event was too “High So” for them to go inside.

A good friend recently had a baby, yet unnamed, so I’ve given some thought to the names Lao people have.

At a recent swimming carnival there was a small child competitor called “Big Bot”. I’m quite certain that’s not a Lao name, but some strange quasi-English name. Another contestant was called “Dolphin”.

A friend’s Lao room mate says when he has a kid he’ll call it “Shakespeare” if it’s a boy and “Ebay” if it’s a girl. I don’t think he’s joking.

And there’s always the four most common nicknames of Fatty (Thooey), Skinny (Joy), Small (Noy) and Big (Nyai).

Lots of Lao girls are called Fatty, or thooey. I’ve been told you can only call girls Fatty (Thooey) if they aren’t actually fat. It’s used as an ironic statement, as most thooeys are actually quite skinny.

One colleague I worked with was introduced to me as Mr Oui. It took an entire year before he finally told me that Oui was  actually just short for Thooey (Fatty). Only then did I realise I’d been calling him Mr Fatty the entire time.

One volunteer was nicknamed Moon because she had face shaped like the moon.

Babies are often given a nickname before they are given a full name. This may be due to the high infant mortality rate. Giving your baby a bad sounding nick name – like dirty, fatty, ugly – is quite common and seen as a way of keeping spirits from stealing the baby.

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