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.

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.

Last weekend I participated in the fun run down Vientiane’s main boulevard and under Laos’ answer to Paris’ Arc De Triumph, Patuxay. It’s the big thing in the background of this photo. Rather amusingly, Patuxay has a plaque at its base labelling it as a “concrete monstrosity”, also stating that “it looks worse up close than it does far away”. The concrete was apparently supplied by the Americans (source: Lonely Planet Laos). It was meant to build a new airport, but instead the Lao government used it to building this tribute to France. There is no greater indication for appreciation of your work than plagiarism.


Photo from the Vientiane Times website.

I had to wake up at 5:30 am to get to the fun run on time. The run’s purpose was to raise awareness about the usage of Child Labour in Agriculture.

Some Lao people were a little suspicious behind the reasons of the run. In rural communities, it is very normal for children to be involved in the subsistence farming process of their families. When it is the rice harvesting season, many children do not go to school. At home, children after often responsible for the domestic duties as both their parents spend the day working. When some Lao people hear about this plan to stop child labour in agriculture, they think wonder how these poor rural families will survive. Without their children working to support the family they may not be able to produce enough money or food to survive.

When I look at something like this I always think of the opportunity cost. For example, a lot of people in the West look at sweatshop labour and think of it as an evil that should be banned. The pay is poor, the hours are long, the conditions are inhuman. By this perspective is only relative to the pay, hours and working conditions faced in the West. This is not the viewpoint of sweatshop workers who see the alternative to their factory work as subsistence farming, something with much harder work, lower pay and at the mercy of the weather (ie. drought = nothing to eat).

China’s economic growth has been the biggest contributor to poverty reduction in recent times. It has been foreign investment, and it’s exploitation of cheap labour in China, that has allowed millions of people to claw their way from poverty. The number of persons living in poverty in China was reduced from 250 million in 1978 to 29.27 million in 2001 according to World Bank figures. Working in a sweatshop is pretty terrible, but many have decided that subsistence farming is far worse.

As you can probably tell, I’ve probably been reading too many copies of The Economist. For some reason it is only $1.40 USD here, which is about a fifth of the price of anywhere else in the world.

One volunteer is a sports coach to the national swimming team. She made a major breakthrough a few weeks ago by teaching the team to shower before getting into the pool. That’s reduced the amount of dirt in the pool, improving visibility.

Another volunteer works with the athletics team. Currently they are without water, as the money meant for buying water has been misplaced.

Lao’s national sports teams are probably close to the worse in the world. Recently the national soccer committee decided it would not bother entering the world cup qualification process for South Africa 2010. The reason given was that results from previous qualification attempts were very poor, so another attempt would just be a waste of money.

There is a Nigerian football team living in Laos, though I’m not entirely sure why. They don’t play any games, though may be in August. They don’t train the national team. The football pitches here are terrible. They’re dust bowls that turn to mud pits in the rain. Why anyone would want to come here to play soccer is beyond me, especially all the way from Africa.

Yesterday a fellow volunteer, the Queensland Lawyer, had a birthday party and badminton game at her house. While we were playing badminton in the front yard some Lao kids started hanging around to watch us play. Someone offered them some fairy bread, and later we asked them to join us in our badminton game. The kids were really good. There were 2 boys and a girl, probably brothers and sisters. They were better than any of us volunteers, despite being about 7-10 years old and about 2 foot shorter. They seemed to be really happy about playing us and had really big smiles on their faces. They were also imitating some of my badminton moves, such as my spinning of the raquet and swatting technique. At the end someone gave them some Mirinda to drink.

Giving Lao children lollies or soft drink is not a very good thing. Firstly, i encourages them to spend the little money they have on sweets that are more often than not imported into the country and relatively expensive to their income. Secondly, sweets cause tooth decay.

Badminton is a very popular spot here. A person at work plays it every night after work.

Other popular sports here are snooker/pool, football, boules and rattan ball (or “Sepak Takraw” as it is officially known). The Professor tells me that they play boules for money at his work. It’s 10’000 kip or 2 beers for the winner of each game. Rattan ball is very popular here and there are competitions between Laos and other South East Asian countries. The game is like volleyball except it is played with your feet. The ball is made of rattan, and is about the size of a lawn bowl ball (proving that there are better uses for rattan that what the Singapore government have made it famous for). You can see some players make spectacular mid air flip kicks on the games that take place after work in the courtyards of Vientiane’s offices. Search youtube for videos on “sepak takraw” to see what the game looks like.

Katie is an Australian volunteer in Laos who successfully organised the first marathon in her far north province in Laos. By the sounds of it she did a fantastic job, getting many people in the town involved and getting support from her Australian contacts at home. She told us that one woman that was running in a shortened version on the marathon told her she was doing a long walk every day as training. Her husband was getting angry at her for not being at home, but she didn’t care. A running magazine will be writing an article about the event.

The winner of the marathon was a man who had no friends. He had no friends because he speaks an ethnic Lao language that no one else in the town speaks. For training he ran a round trip, about 40km from memory, to set an animal trap every single day. When he won the marathon he was awarded with a football tracksuit. He was extremely happy about his prize.

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.