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!