Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Day in the Life

7:00 am - Wake up time, I've ignored the roosters for a few hours now, light is starting to stream in through the opaque blinds at the head of our bed and the view of our mosquito net greets me.

7:15 am - A liberal dousing with DEET before I start moving around too much.  Dengue mosquitos are day-biting and are more active at dawn and dusk....after suffering from Dengue last year I'm not taking any chances.

7:20 am - Breakfast time - Bolaven filtered coffee, water to rehydrate and muesli with yoghurt.  Occasionally I'm joined by our resident singing cat and visiting Triceratops beetle Mr Jack (RIP dear friend...)

7:50 am - On the moto and off to work.

8/8:30am - Arrival at work - usually I'm the first one in if I make it here by 8am.  My work colleagues trickle in as the morning starts.  I work with three young Lao women on a daily basis - incredibly talented and gifted - and the wider office group.  The Agriculture Section of PAFO are in many ways my "Lao family", with three younger sisters that I work with (kind of like my own family, four girls, but at home I'm sister number 3!)

Like the Lao women, I wear the traditional Sinh to work - it's such a lovely custom, keeping weaving arts alive, and is a guaranteed way to impress your local counterparts and break down barriers!

8:30 am - At this point in the day (actually, make that any time of the day, almost...) anything could happen - field work, lab work, emails, teaching accounting, teaching computer skills, teaching nothing (as no one told you it was a holiday....don't expect a memo!), teaching plant pathology (oh yeah, that's what I'm here to do!)

12:00 pm - Lunch time, which can activate as early as 11am and run as late as 3:30pm on any given day.  Though, ordinarily it's 12:00-2:00.  If I'm in town I tend to haunt one of two options on a regular basis - Lao Vida Bakery, basically a good Aussie style cafe (although it's run by New Zealanders), and Champadee, a local coffee shop with a good value selection of Asian dishes.  If we're up on the plateau doing field work though it's almost always Moukdavanh in Paksong for a quick bowl of Pho or Fried Rice with egg on top.  Although, I have also had Korean BBQ up in Paksong - with Korean visitors!

2:00 pm - This is when the food coma has set in and it's almost impossible to get work done - sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get things happening in the afternoon as it's only a couple of hours to knock off time.  But if we've been in the field we'll often buckle down and get the isolations done and twice a week my dear Gavin has been taking English language classes with our local staff - which are always fun!
Workshops can always finish with a glass of Beer Lao and a spot of Karaoke, of course!

4:00 pm - The  work day is done!  If anyone is still in the lab at this time I'm astonished - usually until I notice it's pouring outside and they wouldn't leave in that weather unless it was absolutely necessary.  I jump on my bike and head home to decompress and maybe do a spot of yoga.  In my first twelve months I would head off to Lao language classes three times a week too - something I'm really happy I did - Lao isn't widely spoken outside of Lao itself and the locals really appreciate it when you speak it.  Oh, and farmers, they have little to no English - so best to scrub up if you want to know what the hell is going on when you're in the field!

7:00 pm - Dinner time, where Gav and I spend a lot of time at the incredible Dok Mai Lao Italian Restaurant, Nazim's Indian or Pakse Hotel when we eat out.  I still cook quite a bit at home though, it's such a lovely release - and given my guts have been upset more often than not I try to keep it simple and western,  We eat a lot of vegetarian dishes at home now though, lentils and eggs, as I'm not always out at the market in time to be sure that the meat is still good (there is no refrigeration at the local meat market, and I make the single concession of only buying from the market with the stainless steel benches, not the wooden tables covered with lino and occassionally sporting local animals grooming themselves right next to the entrails!)

Friday, 7 November 2014

Paying it Forward

This weeks blog is brought to you by a guest post I did for the RAID (Researchers for Agriculture in International Development) website.

Check it out here.

And check out their website - - and Connect, Engage, Support!


Friday, 10 October 2014

Letting Go, Giving Thanks and Future Blessings

People releasing their boats on the river at Tat Luang temple - you can pay a small child to release it for you and ensure it gets out into the flow of the river for just 5000 kip (falang price - I heard 1000 quoted to a local....)
This week Gavin and I participated in Loi Krathong/Boun Awk Phansa - the end of the Buddhist Lent.  Stories differ on the meaning of the holiday presently, it is the day that the monks are released from a 3 month "rains retreat" period and can be out and about in the world again.  But in the evening Lao people set small "boats" with candles to float away on their nearest river and/or send "spirit orbs" (floating Chinese lanterns) floating into the sky.

The day before the Full Moon we made our boats at my work, with the help of one of my wonderful colleagues - she rolled her eyes and giggled at our poor attempts and when we went to pick them up on the Wednesday night she had made the time to decorate our boats with flowers (on her own time, during a public holiday I might add!)

The boats are made from banana leaves and bananas stems (which float incredibly well!)  A certain amount of oragami, staples and pins finish the gorgeous little boats.

My own personal "Kratong"
The holiday is a mixed process of letting go, giving thanks and asking for blessings for the year ahead - be it from Buddha, the nagas (spirit snakes) in the river or some other form of deity or spirit you believe in.  And, next to the holiday of Thanksgiving in the USA it rates among my favorite global holidays.  Couples, holding hands (typically taboo in Lao culture - I got a bit of a shock!) typically let off a boat together to ensure a long-lasting and happy relationship, people let go of angst and anxiety and let the river take it downstream and we all dream of a better year ahead with love, laughter and fulfilled opportunities.

Gavin and I released two boats together (one discarded with roses and sparklers that Gavin found on the road - he really knows how to spoil me with discarded goods!) and also released what some Lao were calling a "Spirit Orb" - the lantern.  So - here's to the worries of last year behind us and the promise of the future ahead - I have a feeling it's going to be a good one!

Our spirit orb, with the light of the full moon to the left, takes off into the atmosphere!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

This is Lao

"This is Lao".   A phrase which is rapidly becoming one of my most spoken, not far behind the commonly understood "TGIF" every single week.

I love Lao, it has so much to offer.  The people are slow to warm to you, but once they do they are some of the best people I have ever met in this world.  Their smiles warm my heart and I know that when I leave those Lao Smiles will stay in my heart forever.

Lao Smiles!

However, my life is daily filled with "This is Lao" moments.

Staff forget to tell you it's a major religious holiday and no one will come to work today....."This is Lao"

Returning to work after lunch to discover a Karaoke Party in the office...."This is Lao"


Postage ending up in opposite directions...."This is Lao"

Gift cakes, complete with swimming pools and fluorescent animals....."This is Lao"

Cows, yes, I repeat, cows, sorting through trash....."This is Lao"

Roundabouts, where you stop to let the incoming traffic on....."This is Lao"

And the list goes on...........but that's okay......."This is Lao"!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Moto registration in Pakse

So, you're moving to Pakse.
So, you've gotta get a moto.

So, you go with your workmates to buy a select the bike, you pay, you leave and start riding around with no registration plates and you wait.

And you wait.
And you wait.

And maybe, a month or so later, your workmate tells you that your registration plates are ready - whoop whoop!  What happens next?

Step 1. Day 1. Go to the place where you bought the bike early, say around 8am in the morning. Hand them your paperwork and 40,000 LAK (Kip, the currency here).

Step 2. Day 1. Follow your salesperson to the shop around the corner.  As you're falang (foreigner) you'll likely be offered a comfortable plastic seat to sit on while you are completely confused, that's nice of them. They'll hand over your money and paperwork and insist you keep sitting while a bunch of other people arrive and hand over differing sums of money and paperwork.

Step 3. Day 1. Wait around 30 minutes or so in your wonderful plastic falang chair.

Step 4. Day 1. Follow one of the workers from this second bike shop, who is all packed up with multiple paperwork and monies out to a non-descript government location for vehicle registration.  Arrive at new location around 9am.

Sign visible at the turn-off to the "Garage",
coming from the East
Sign visible at the turn-off to the "Garage",
coming from the West
It's like a large open "garage" set up (some sort of aparatus for checking braking, mirrors and a pit to check under the vehicle).  This is located at around km3/4 on Route13, down a dirt track around 500m.  The "Garage" has a nice glass windowed a/c office, where you can see people chatting and pushing papers around while you wait.

The "Garage", approaching from
the dirt road
Step 5. Day 1. Line up your bike with with others.

Bikes lined up, taking engine number details etc.

Step 5. Day 1. Staff at the garage check paperwork vs bikes- calling names (I didn't know which mine is under...I figure it was a process of elimination?)  This is the point at which I start keeping notes of my experience....These will follow the steps in quotation marks and italics, to give you a feel for being there.
"They bring out some plastic seats to sit on - again!  What a treat!
There are toilets and a fridge, a dog and a cat."

Step 6. Day 1. Masking tape and pencil used to record engine number.
"I'm 5th in line out of 13
Now 4 dogs, 9:15am, quite cute"

Step 7. Day 1. "Wait"

Step 8. Day 1. "Wait"

Step 9. Day 1. "Wait"
"9:30 a fifth dog appears.
Very glad I put the deet on this morning.
I'm the only Falang.
And only 1 of 2 women waiting for the bikes.
09:45- familiar face from office arrived, Dao heung shirt so not sure if works PAFO or coffee and comes in for phytosanitary certificates.
10am - 6th dog
10:15- 7th dog, no discernible family lineage as such, maybe 2 siblings
10:20 - one guy leaves
All stickers seem to be on bikes now, more or less
10:30 - car comes through, light and brake check it seems
10:50- dog 8 and dog 9
11:00- leave, no plates just stickers, 2pm at talat tomorrow."

Step 10. Day 1. The staff inside the glass office seem to relax, you aren't sure why, nothing seems finished.  Eventually it occurs to them to interact with the many people waiting outside.  I was told to leave and return to the talat ("market") tomorrow afternoon at 2pm.  At this stage, you only have two stickers on your bike, no number plate.

A view of the glass office....and unregistered bikes

Step 11. Day 2.  Show up at Market at 2pm, at the second shop location.  Encounter confused staff who don't know why you're not already out with the rest of them (at least, this is what I think they think).  Be directed toward a plastic chair, again, and you guessed the next step right.....

Step 12. Day 2. Wait.  Eventually they assign someone to ride your bike out to get the number plates for you.  Then you get to wait, again, on a wonderful red plastic chair.

The view from the shop while I wait for my bike to return....
glad I didn't have to ride in the rain!

Step 12. Day 2. Wait.  I recommend bringing a book or a good tablet device/laptop with battery.  I got quite a few emails off that afternoon.

Step 13. Day 2. Wait.  Watch them close the shop at 4pm and then leave one poor staff member to wait with you for your bike to return.

Step 14. Day 2.  Your bike is returned to you!!!  Registration plate is attached!!!!  The staff member left behind berates the driver for being so late.  And why was the driver late......"it was raining".  Ah, this is Laos!!!!

Now you can ride around town secure in the knowledge that now, if the police pull you over, you have important documents that they can hold you to ransom with - delightful!

NOTE - if you are lucky, this may happen all in one day.
NOTE - if you are very lucky, a work colleague or friend may sit through the entire experience for you - consider paying someone to do this for you.....

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Sometimes I forget how beautiful Pakse is.....

I was astounded by just how beautiful Pakse is on my ride home tonight - so I thought I would share some photos to give you all an idea of how beautiful it is....

Pakse by day - view from Residence Sisouk

Pakse by night - view from Residence Sisouk

Lone fisherman on the Mekong, Pakse

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Driving in Lao

For the uninitiated:
Step 1. Watch the road ahead
Step 2. Worry only about the road ahead, rear-view mirrors and checking your shoulder are western constructs of little use.
Step 3. Beep at all things ahead which might concern you (dogs, cows, other cars/motos) and use your high beams to make the point that you now have right of way (you got there first, of course you have right of way)
Step 4. Don't worry about what is behind, it is the responsibility of those behind to worry about what is in front of them (continue this, full circle).

Just taking home some dinner.....
As a westerner, do not expect round-abouts to be easily understood. Its seems to be a first in-best dressed kind of situation, just go with the flow. At least it succeeds in slowing traffic.
In an interesting turn of events, they have put up signs on how to actually use the roundabouts in recent months, but no large behavioural change thus far....

Riding in the rain
Expect, during the rainy season, for things to move with the flow of the rain.  Staff not at work - is it pouring rain (or sprinkling for that matter....)? 

Give them some time and a rush of people will arrive with the next break in the weather :)  Soon enough, you too see the method in their madness and in no time you end up waiting out the bucketing rain before you make a mad dash with hundred of others at the next opportunity.

My rain pants have been the one of the best items I brought with me I believe - they aren't sold here in Laos that I have seen and while the poncho covers almost everything it is lovely to arrive with dry legs also.
Traffic jam - on a one way bridge - Pakse style....

Some stylish wet-weather gear on offer

Oh my Lord - cars are everywhere in Laos these days! Two years ago in Vientiane they were a rarity, but now they are a dime a dozen. They are most certainly a status symbol (who really needs a lamborghini anywhere, let alone the rocky roads of Laos), and the Lao people have a unique way of driving (as in with a complete lack of licensing and appreciation for road rules it would appear).  They are busy trying to apply how they drive their cars to how they drive their motos, sometimes with very irritating (to me anyways) and potentially dangerous consequences.

Traffic - Pakse style....
The Lao, like many of their south-east Asian neighbours, seem to be born on a bike (and perhaps some of them were!)  It's always amazing to see who and what a 100cc moto can carry - a range of plastic ware or balloons fanning out like a peacocks feathers, 50kg sacks of rice, cartons of beer, trays of eggs, four or five people (a whole family, mum, dad and the kids), people sleeping on the drivers back.....

One of my favorites that I have managed to snap thus far is this ingenious method of getting a wheelbarrow between sites - ah Laos, you never cease to amaze me!

Wheelbarrow transportation - makes sense really!