October 2007

We’ve just had the boat racing festival in Vientiane. It’s the second biggest festival of the year. There were big crowds along the banks of the Mekong. Lots of stores were set up selling clothes, food and various consumer goods. Consumer goods like Oishi Green Tea, Ovaltine, Walls Ice Cream etc. There were lots of rides for children too. I walked past a petting zoo but was too afraid to go inside. I feared there was probably some form on animal cruelty going on in there and my ticket money would just perpetuate it. There were a few free concerts going on too with Lao pop stars crooning to the crowds.

It’s somehow reassuring to see that no matter where you go in the world there are carnies to be found. There were lots of different carnival games and almost all of them seemed impossible to win. There was one where you had to throw a bucket over a bottle to win it. On offer were bottles of beer lao, cooking oil and soft drink. They proved to be near impossible to win and although I saw about a dozen attempts I didn’t see one winner. It’s good that most of the prizes are practical items like beer and cigarettes, so much better than those massize soft toys filled with polystyrene balls that leak and create an articifial snow field. There were games with sling shots and ball bearing guns in which you had to knock a cigarrette packet off a ledge, suprisingly no kids were playing those games.

There weren’t as many gambling games as I expected. One tent had a couple of dozen people gathered around it crossing things off pieces of paper. It took me a few moments to realise they were playing Bingo with a guy on a loud speaker pulling out balls from a box. The main form of betting I’ve noticed in Laos takes place on the pettanque field. People bet on games and if you’re a good player you can probably win more than your daily government wages. The only way to play the pokies in Vientiane is to make a trip to the border crossing with Thailand. They have slots machine on the Laos side of the friendship bridge as they’re illegal in Thailand.


Why does everyone in Laos answer the phone, “Hello, Sabaidee”, even when they don’t speak English?

It’s not as if all other Asians use the “hello” greeting when answering the phone. The Japanese say “Mushi Mushi”, Hongkers say “Wei?” and the Koreans, well I don’t know what they saw but I’d speculate that it isn’t hello.

I’d be interested to hear why people think “Hello” has become part of the common phone answering greeting in Laos, or at least in Vientiane. What do the Thai say? What do the Vietnamnese and Cambodias say?

I went go karting a couple of weeks ago here in Vientiane. It was really fun and the first driving I’ve had to do in more than 6 months. Go karting in Vientiane has very low safety standards. The track is in an unused underground car park section of ITECC, a large shopping mall and conference center. The go karts seemed to go very fast and there were a number of high speed crashes throughout the race. Parts of the car flew off in some of the crashes, but the Lao staff reassured use to continue to racing and ignore them. At one point other racer dropped his digital camera on the track. It took three laps, with miracuously no one running over it, before a staff member saw it and picked it up.

Go karting is a lot more physically intensive than I imagined it would be. Making the corners puts quite a bit of g-force strain on your body. Overtaking on what seemed a very narrow course was very difficult. There was a lot of fustration and bold overtaking moves, resulting in a considerable amount of crashes. Despite poorly adjusted seat belts and no safety instructional talk before the race, everyone made it out alive and uninjured.

It costs $20 for half an hour of racing. We ended up getting a practice run plus five races of 10 laps each within that time. I managed to come second in two of the races, but ended up spinning out in the other three. Another volunteer brought some fake bananas from the Vientiane’s quasi-IKEA – Home Ideal – to throw on the track Mario Kart style. The interesting thing was that for the cost of those two fake bananas he could have bought four large bunches of real bananas (probably a total of 40 bananas according to my estimates).

My Lao language teacher is part of the local football club Wednesday FC. From what he’s told me it’s much more than just a football club – it’s more like a exclusive society. Wednesday FC play football every Wednesday. They’re a senior team so you have to be over 35 years old to play. Pretty much every player has a family.

My Lao teacher sometimes helps as a teasurer to collect membership fees from Wednesday FC members. He pools the money then puts it in a collective fund to be used to help individual members. If someone is sick or needs to go to the hospital, they can borrow some money from the Wednesday FC funds.

Members of Wednesday FC help each other out all the time. My Lao teacher needed a passport for his wife’s upcoming trip to America. Fortunately another Wednesday FC member works in the immigration department. He fast tracked the passport application and it was approved in only two weeks – I believe it usually takes about 1 month.

It’s interesting to see this kind of organisation form. It seems to be so many things at once. It’s an exclusive club, my teacher assures me they only good people join, a credit union, a sporting team and a family organisation. Perhaps it is because of the restrictions on forming formal organisations in Lao PDR that these kind of organisations exist. It’s an innovative way to provide a large number of services in an informal way.