Laos


After one year abroad I’m now back in Australia. I am hoping to write more about my recent time in Laos now that I have some time on my hands and a much faster internet connection. There are a lot of photos I need to upload too.

The trip home was extremely rushed. I caught a bus from Pakse (in southern Laos) back to Vientiane on the Sunday evening. It left at 8pm as was meant to arrive at 6am the next day. The bus broke down and in the end it look me over 24 hours to get back to Vientiane. With my flight back to Australia at 1:30pm the next day there was a frantic rush to pack everything up and say goodbyes. In a way I think the fact that things happened so quickly was good. I didn’t have much time to dwell on how sad it was to leave.

One hour and about 60kms out from Pakse our bus broke down. The bus driver tried to fix it over the next few hours. As far as I could tell their attempts to fix it involved looking at the engine for a few minutes, trying to start the engine again, then standing around and doing nothing for half an hour. Repeat this process several times. I ended up going to sleep and woke up at about 1am. At this stage the bus was still stopped and a New Zealand girl told me another bus would be coming in the morning at 7:00am to drive us to Vientiane. They stopped the bus in the middle of the lane and didn’t even bother to try moving it to the side of the road.

The second bus arrived the next morning one and a half hours late. After 15 minutes driving it stopped for breakfast. Someone said at the start of the trip that we’d be in Vientiane by 2:00pm and that after the breakfast stop the bus wouldn’t stop again. They were a little bit off the mark. The bus continued to stop about ever 45minutes. Sometimes it was for a toilet stop, sometimes it was to buy food, and at other time it was to buy bottles of honey and bags of dried wood. The bus finally arrive in Vientiane at about 8pm, almost 24 hours after we started. The original night bus should only have taken 10 hours. I have rarely endured such tests of patience before.

All the Lao people on the bus were extremely patient. No one complained or even looked cranky, they were all just sucking it up. The few foreigners on the bus were also pretty good about the ordeal. There was a lot of laughing about how nightmarish the trip had become and how at least it would make a good story. This compares with my experience with some absolutely vile backpackers who wouldn’t stop whinging about how they had to spend two hours being driven around in a minivan before finally heading off to their final destination. My worse experiences with people this year have been with obnoxious foreigners acting extremely disrespectfully to Lao people. It’s sad because I can see years of this abuse will diminish the Lao culture of friendliness to foreigners. Places like Vang Vieng, which put up with some of worse behaviour, seems to have noticeably less friendly people.

This was by far the worse bus trip I’ve had in Laos. The bus trip from Vientiane to Pakse was actually very fast and pleasant. Don’t let my story put you off bus trips or travel in Laos. It’s an extreme instance that you’re very unlikely to encounter.

The bus was a new Chinese one. I think they’re far worse than the older buses donated by Japan. The older buses break down all the time too, but they know how to fix them quickly. I’ve heard lots of people have problems with their buses breaking down but they usually report that the problem is fixed in a couple of hours. Not the case for our bus.

The buses I caught were these dreadful sleeper buses. Instead of seats they line the bus with two layers of single size beds. Every bed is assigned two people, so if you’re travelling alone you have to sleep in very close proximity to a stranger. The back seats are replaced with a single large bed that five people sleep in. I’d highly recommend you go for a regular seated type if you’re catching an overnight bus in Laos.

So in the end I only had a couple of hours to pack my stuff and leave Vientiane. In the rush I left my pocket knife in my carry on luggage. The Laos airline security didn’t pick it up but Bangkok security did. Bye bye pocket knife. I also had a sharpz kit in my carry on luggage, which includes several needles. Surprisingly neither airport security checks picked this up.

On the flight from Bangkok to Sydney I had all my duty free alcohol confiscated. This included three bottles of Lao Lao. Apparently all flights into Sydney are now restricted from bringing any duty free alcohol on board. I’m not entirely sure if this applies around the world or just for flights that leave Bangkok. I was bitterly disappointed to leave the Lao Lao behind. Out of everything I was bringing home that was probably the souvenier I was most looking forward to. Oh well, I guess I’m going to have to start brewing some at home.

Recent Australian volunteers have told me they were given a most warm reception my the Lao Ambassador in Canberra during their pre-departure training. He was generous with his time and put on a BBQ at his residence.

 The ambassador was really excited about showing the volunteers a home video he had of an ASEAN meeting from a few years ago. The video turned out to be of the famous ASEAN talent contest, where foreign ministers are required to perform at the end of the conference.  The Lao Ambassador thought they would find it really amusing to see Australia’s Foreign Minister at the time, Alexander Downer, belting out some number. I’m pretty sure that the talent contest isn’t accessible to filming for the general media. It’s impressive that someone from the Lao delegation snuck in a video camera.

As overheard at the Australian Recreational Club:

Mother: Stop! Don’t run around the pool!

Daughter: I don’t have to listen to because this is a slave country!

The Vientiane Times, the local english language newspaper, had an article on Angelina Jolie, Naomi Campbell and Jennifer Aniston. No one in my office could recognise them either by photo or name. What they do know about is Spiderman, Hollywood, KFC and McDonalds.

Lao: Do you like Tanasugarn?

Falang: Who’s that?

Lao: She’s a Thai tennis player.

Falang: I’ve never heard of her before. Is she hot?

Lao: It’s a fat one.

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?

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.

Every single cat I’ve seen in Laos has a mangled tail. Sometimes it’s completely missing, sometimes it’s just half the size it should be and sometimes it’s crooked in the middle. The explanations for this given to me are as follows:

1. There are a log of stray dogs around the place and they probably bite the cat’s tails off.

2. Cat’s are considered perfect creatures in Lao culture. As such, people break their tails to remove their perfection. I don’t know why they can’t continue to exist as perfect creatures.

If you think cats have it bad, at least they’re not eaten like dogs. Apparently beating a dog while it’s still alive helps tenderise the meat. I don’t think dogs are too widely eaten here. They certainly don’t sell it openly in restaurants around town. I think under the Lao Buddhist principles it is one of the animals that you should not eat. Other animals, according to my Lao language teacher, include snakes, cats, and horse.

The recent news in Vientiane is of random macchette motorcycle knife attacks taking place around town. I’ve heard of these from only my Lao language teacher, who claimed that he went to a meeting about it in his village where it was decided that everyone should keep their children at home once it gets dark. No one I have spoken to has been able to verify this story, and I’ve asked quite a few people about it. The chances are they I’ve helped perpetuate the rumour.

There have been quite a few robberies of late of volunteer’s houses. One volunteer was followed home on her way back from work. One night while it was raining, which I’ve been told is a time when robbers tend to strike because it’s harder to hear them and chase them, someone jumped their fence and stole two pairs of sneakers. Another time, someone wondered in and stole a bottle of perfume. Another volunteer had his house broken into 5 times, and the robbers must have had keys to the place because they unlocked some cupboards. He’s since moved into a more secure apartment on his own, but lost about $1000 worth of personal possessions.

The Lao telephone culture seems to make it perfectly acceptable to give a person’s number to someone else, even if they have never met. Many volunteers get calls and text messages from random people. It’s kind of a strange, stalking-like behaviour, but without the malice.

In a random personal note about my own stupidity, I read 280 A4 pages of what I thought might have been the latest Harry Potter book after downloading it off a wordpress blog. The downloaded book’s ending was missing. After since reading a little of a real copy of the book I have since found out that what I read was a fake. I did have my suspicions throughout, such as when reading the multiple sex scenes, but it was a pretty interesting read and I don’t feel all that duped by it.

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