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!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

There's a Gecko in my Fruitbowl

There's a gecko in my fruitbowl, a scorpion in the dining room, a snake on the patio and a huntsman in the bathroom.

There's a gecko in my fruit bowl.....

Coming from Australia, these daily encounters with wildlife don't ordinarily upset me, in Australia I know everything is dangerous and to stay the hell clear.  Regular encounters with Cockroaches are simply a matter of course - squish it and flush it down the toilet (I even recall holding them by the antenna half alive as a child, this courage has since left me). Which is why I can keep a level head as I squeal with fright as that green little snake slithers quickly inside the house as we try to shoo it away.....

Isn't he a beauty......(and yes, that's him climbing our wall...)
......luckily, all the general knowledge that comes with being Australia came into full action, and so, after convincing Gavin that he could not play crocodile hunter and capture the beasty, we simply shooed it out of the house and walked loudly behind it as it slithered onto the property of the abandoned house next door. 

Later, while talking to a Canadian mate who has lived many years in Lao we enquire as to the venemous nature of the snake: "Yes, they are venemous".
This is the point where I realise that my Australian sense of "venemous" is directly linked with "life-threatening", and after continuing the discussion I come to realise that venemous simply means "the bite hurts like hell".  I sigh with relief and smile, content that this snake has nothing on our nasties back home.

The scorpion on the other hand, I am a little bit more freaked out by.  But, just like the huntsman spider, with a trusty tupperware and piece of card it can be caught and released to the vacant lot down the road in no time.  Gavin is becoming quite skilled at the task. Once again, after talking to locals, we should consider simply killing the scorpions outright....but I'm still getting used to the idea.  I definitely prefer relocation of any animal, especially the huntsmen, as they are harmless really, but just frighten the bejebus out of me when they run around in the shower while I'm naked.

Our beloved scorpion friend....
But, seriously, the geckos.  They are everywhere. You don't realise how precious we are in our daily western lives until you you set your first rat trap and clean the gecko poo off the kitchen bench each day. I know we have to deal with them in Brisbane (and at least here there is some biodiversity among them!), but not to the same degree.  In reality, I don't mind them - they keep the insects down (I hope), and in many ways, it's quite nice that rather than swatting at insects the geckos simply leave you with a nutritious packet of insect remains that can be easily swiped away without the need to engage in an aerobic session as you swat them!
Keeping the fruit flies down no doubt....thanks Little Fella!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Six months in Lao

So it has almost been six months since Gavin and I first arrived in Vientiane, Laos, and 5 and a half months since we arrived in Pakse, in the southern province of Champasak. So I thought it was time to write a quick blog and let you know how we are faring here....especially seeing I have been so slack (this blog has actually been edited from one written and not published about four months ago - whoops!)

Pakse Family
So many times when you travel, your friends become family.  Jess, the AVID volunteer who was already in Pakse when I arrived, put Gavin and I in touch with all the right people and instigated the formation of "The Pakse Crew" - a close knit group of expats, some volunteers (or vollies as Jess would say), current and retired NGO workers, English teachers and travellers to boot.

We have regular get-togethers, often at a favourite grilled duck restaurant "Poptavanh's", overlooking the Mekong on a Friday evening. Any event is a good event for dinner or lunch together though, and we have been known for gathering when someone is going away for a couple of months, a week for work training, or even just going away for a night or weekend (Pakse is very exciting, as you can see). Watch this space for updates of the up and coming "Gin and Tonic and Tutu Party"....

Myself and fellow AVID volunteer Jess
Renting a house
Gavin and I were homeless in Pakse for quite some time. A rental in this town has been very difficult to find and the volunteer who was already based here, Jess, set a high standard in the lovely home she snagged when she arrived. In total we have viewed 7 properties, ranging in price from $75 to $600, from unfurnished studios to a six bedroom furnished home. Furniture is expensive, so while the rental cost is definitely cheaper, we're pretty sure it won't be worth the effort unless it's an amazing home. Eventually, Gavin bartered down the $600 6 bed house down to $450 and we have a German housemate, Maria, who is helping to share the costs - more on the house in another post!

Our house in Ban Tahai, Pakse

During our initial stay we settled into the Nang Noi guesthouse quite nicely, despite the lack of airconditioning and limited living space. The owners are amazing - we now think of them as family! They even helped us to look for more permanent accommodation :)  and have one of the best value breakfasts in town - 20,000 LAK for two bread rolls, a massive omelet, fruit and coffee or tea. Gav and I split it between us and we're plenty satisfied - we still go back for the breakfast!

It has not been difficult to convince Gavin to eat out on a regular basis, but I have certainly missed having my own kitchen and have been making the most of the one in our new home. It is definitely cheaper to cook for yourself!

- Restaurants -
In terms of restaurants, most of which are located along the main highway 13, we have regular haunts at two Indian restaurants, Nazim's and Jasmine, a Viet-Lao Pakse institution called Daolin (awesome value fruit shakes) and Delta coffee for dinner. Delta has some of the best western food in town (awesome chicken diane, pasta and pork schnitzel), although it's hard to go past the freshly made burger at Xuan Mai (you can actually watch them mince the meat and cut up the potatoes to order! Every meal at Xuan Mai seems to be freshly made, one of the reasons it tastes so good, but be warned, when they're busy things can go haywire). Initially we were eating a lot of western food here and were spending about $10-$15 a day (although we're cutting that down now we have a kitchen).

- Street food -
The street food here is good, hasn't caused anyone I know here grief, and is the cheap option. Cheapest quick meal for me is 5000 LAK (less than $1) - which is a bread roll filled with a pate of some sort (I don't think about it too much), a bit of veg and sauce (with or without chilli powder). I often grab these when I'm running late to work in the morning, but it could do for a small meal any time of day.A couple of grilled chicken skewers and sticky rice will set you back around 8-10,000 LAK ($1.20-$1.50). Fresh rice paper spring rolls are about 4 for 6000 LAK on the street, 10,000 at the market, and 20,000 for a bag full of fixings and rice paper so that you can roll away at home (makes about 8 to 10). There is a lot of really good deep fried street food out there - including something Gavin likes to call "Lao KFC" - if we don't watch ourselves we could end up a little fatter (but certainly happy) than we intend!

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Forgive me father, for I have sinhed.....

In Lao, the textiles industry is thriving, in part because the locals still wear traditional dress almost daily.

The "sinh" is a traditional Lao skirt made from a single panel of fabric which folds back on itself to be closed. You can pretty much judge a person by their sinh - natural or synthetic fibers, cotton or silk, the amount of needlework (some extend for the entire length of the sinh, very expensive).

My work sinhs - my fancy work sinh on the left is the most expensive, with them
dropping in cost from left to right
So when in Lao, do as the Lao do, and so I have bought myself a few dress sinh for formal occasions (silk, of course, and 1,500,000 LAK (~$200) cost before tailoring), and extra formal sinh (~$100 cost) and a number of work sinhs (~$100 for six sinhs, one of which is a slightly more formal work sinh- generally though it seems I have expensive taste!). Cost of tailoring in Vientiane is 100,000 LAK (they often start at 120,000 or 150,000, but you can barter down AND there are places there that do cheaper if you can find them. In Pakse, it costs around 50,000 LAK per sinh, no frills, I just got mine done for ~80,000 LAK each after she revised up from her original 50,000 for lining etc (I may have been taken for a ride, but I didn't really care at the time, I just wanted them done and she is known for doing good work).

So all in all I've spent about $500 on sinhs...whoops!

My formal sinh - I bought the whole outfit
straight off the mannequin!
Formal sinhs, at the top especially. Torneat tailors,
across from Lao Kitchen.
They specialise in using natural fibres and dyes.

The best thing is that I don't have to think too much about what to wear to work and the Lao people really take to you when you wear their national dress. They also are made just about perfectly to sit on a moto with modesty. And if you're after something uniquely Lao for a gift or souvenir, a sinh is perfect. You could definitely get them made into a gorgeous pencil skirt or the like, I can already see myself missing them when I finally leave in 17 months time!

Gavin and I in traditional dress for our formal
dinner with the Australia ambassador
and AVID/AYAD host organisations

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Eating our way through Vientiane

During our orientation in Vientiane we ate - a lot! I think we tried a good selection of restaurants, mostly westernised as we let our bodies adjust to the new food. ;Based on our eating experiences I can unequivocally recommend:

  • Lao Kitchen
  • La Terasse
  • Noor Indian Restaurant -The halal Indian restaurant right down on the main road on the Mekong
  • The Chinese dumpling place, also right down on the main road on the Mekong (although if you're sensitive to MSG maybe give it a miss - I'm not super sensitive and it affected me, but given how superb the food was I would almost consider it to be worth it!)
  • Sticky fingers - especially if you need a dose of home-style food
  • Joma cafe (there are two of these, I only know the one in town)
  • Benoni cafe (pretty much next door to Joma, in town)
  • Makphet
  • Noy's fruit heaven - BEST fruit shakes! Across from Lao Kitchen. If you want to pay a bit more you can get just what you want in a shake (Gavin's fave was mango and passionfruit- YUM!)
  • Amphone
  • La provincial
Interesting choices at a local Korean restaurant.....

I almost forgot - for the best Pho in Vientiane - Pho Dung! On the same street as Lao Kitchen - it's the closest you'll get to fast food, big steaming wonderful bowls brought out in a matter of seconds!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Safe arrival in Vientiane

After a 36 hour travelling ordeal - consisting of a red-eye out of Perth followed by two international flights, $320 of excess baggage and forgetting a bag at the airport - Gav and I arrived in Vientiane with the rest of the AVID/AYAD crew (pictured above- James, me, Gav, Sean, Ash, Michele and Julie).

Might I suggest that if you need more than the 30kg (which is 10kg extra, ONLY if you ask) of baggage that an international airline will often allow you, that you call the airline or make sure that you get in touch with their local branch manager if you don't want to pay excess.  It was of course too late for us when we found this out at the airport, and I must say that I was seriously disappointed in the website and customer service provided via email by Thai airways in this regard. Don't get me wrong - Thai airways had great customer service in the airport (they gave us ~30% discount on the excess as it was) and on the flight (brilliant in fact) - but I would like to see them improve their online services.

Yesterday we managed to open a bank account (we are now millionaires- yay! In Kip of course...) and get ourselves sorted with Lao mobile numbers. While enough English is spoken to get around, when it comes to organising some of these more technical things we are more than grateful for our In-Country Management Team. Today, we continue our orientation into Lao life, language and culture - I can't wait to get a handle on the language beyond "Sa-bai-dee" (hello) and "Khap-jai" (thank-you)!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Pre-departure preparations

With only three days to go Gavin (my partner) and I are in the full swing of final preparations. Although we have had a great deal of information from current and past volunteers in Lao, we are still not entirely sure what to expect- we have packed our Australian standards motorcycle helmets, cotton sheets, shoes and decent shirts and are busy finding room for our "luxury" items such as boardgames and hiking gear. We are heartened by the support we have through the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program and Austraining, but we're not likely to really know what it's like until we experience it for ourselves. The AVID program is an Australian Government, AusAID initiative which deploys skilled volunteers to live and work in developing countries as part of the overseas aid program and I am very excited to be a part of it!

A mix of emotion is setting in - excitement and trepidation - with a certain sadness to leave friends and family behind for so long.  It will be amazing to see how people's lives have changed and families have grown while we're away - being in our 30s it seems everyone is "settling down" and "growing up" while we're setting off on a great adventure (maybe one great last adventure, but I'm loathe to say it!)

This blog will be my record of my life and times in Lao - designed to be about those things which I find most fascinating, both culturally and academically, and hopefully most useful to others considering a move to Lao. Lao still seems to be growing as a tourist, volunteer and work destination and I hope these blogs can be a source of information (and perhaps comfort) to those considering life in the country- especially those who are planning on being in a more rural location such as Pakse (Champasak province), where Gav and I are going.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Gavin and I all dolled up at our pre-departure orientation dinner in Melbourne. I met Gavin in Perth while I was studying my PhD and love him dearly. He works in accounting and is a great support to me in many ways - he's definitely better with languages and numbers than I am! We're really looking forward to our adventure in Lao.