Thursday, September 30, 2010

Local Beer Garden

On the weekend we rode around the neighbourhood, past the USA Ambassador's residence, past the Brunei Embassy, past the North Korean embassy (you get the picture) until we found a number of stalls being set up just along from the Russian embassy compound.

It wasn't very busy but we took a short walk about just to see what was being sold. 

Having made it to the end of the stalls and starting to retrace our steps back up we spotted a local drinking establishment - outdoor tables, under a bit of a canopy.  Being that the temperature was mid-30s at least, and it was about half past four, a nice cold beer seemed appealing.

The locals were friendly and they were having a lovely time.  When we buy a bottle of beer at the shop around the corner, it costs 7,000 kip (NZD 1.17), here it cost us...9,000 kip (NZD 1.50) - not a lot of margin was being made.

We sat down and started to observe the locals wandering by. 

The numbers of people started to increase rapidly and we realised it was due to all the workers finishing at the nearby garment factory. 

This was Saturday afternoon at 5pm.  There are three garment factories in this area and the number of workers coming out of the one at the end of the lane we were on was in the hundreds.  We made the assumption that they had been paid today, as more than a few were walking along with money in their hands.  Even though it is a market area, people don't usually shop like that, so presumably it was a week's pay.

The quiet little night market had turned into a bustling area with workers buying nibbles, clothes, cosmetics....from our unobtrusive spot we had a good glimpse of local life

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sightseeing Saturday

On Saturday we had a ride around the town on our bikes.  The main aim was to get a sense of the layout of town.

We headed out toward the airport and out to the King Fa Ngum statue.  The King lived in the 14th century and had a kingdom that covered parts of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

After a coffee in town we hit Putaxay.

Left: Looking back down toward the Presidential Palace
Right: Behind Putaxay
Putaxay (also commonly spelt Patuxai,  Patousai and Patusai) was built to honour those who died in the struggles for independence from France.  It looks like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but with Asian decoration.  The was built in the 10 years up to 1968 with American funds.  The funds had been given by the Americans to build an airport, but the Laoations decided to build a monument instead. 

It is one of the tallest buildings in Vientiane, and from the upper floors you get a good view over the city.

Next door there is an enormous building which is the Prime Minister's office and was funded by Chinese money.

At Patuxay I saw for the first time photographers carrying around portable printers.  The tourists can pay to have their photograph taken and then the digital image can be printed there and then.  This is the white machine in the picture below slung on a belt over his shoulder.  

I thought this was interesting, Andrew didn't :-). The most interesting part was watching the photgrapher showing the tourist the pose he thought she should make from a shot catalogue book he had.  You didn't have to understand Lao to understand when she struck the pose of head to one side and hand artfully supporting her head the photographer said "that's it, you look great" (in Lao)!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Even in Vientiane there is wine

Even in Vientiane we have found a wine event to go to.  Actually on the first day here three or four wine shops were spotted and checked out (after that we sorted out food and accomodation)

A Melbourne chef, Ben Higgs of the Wild Oak restaurant in the Dandenongs presented an evening of wine matches with asian food.  Ben and his wife were doing a marketing trip through a few asian cities promoting Australian wines.

The wines were a mixed bunch some pretty mediocre, and some quite good.  The food matches were interesting from prawns and sushi, chickpea curry, thai fishcakes, char sui pork & korean beef.

There were about 18 people there, including 5 staff from the local Novatel hotel who were working on increasing their wine knowledge.  We sat opposite an Australian couple who had been here two years and this was the first event of it's kind they had been to in that time - so we timed it well!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bikes and That Dam

On Sunday our mission was to find bikes to give us some freedom to explore the city a bit more while we are here (and to make grocery shopping a bit easier!)

We were told about a 2nd hand bike place. It was a big open shed that also sold Mercedes and Tractors. After tire kicking a few bikes we went into negotiation phase. The man wanted $1.5million kip (NZD 250) for two rather delapidated old bikes.

The Laoations don't really negoitiate as much as you see in other Asian countries. Once he had given his price there was no movement. We walked away, and there was no call-back.

In the end we purchased a couple of new bikes, which the shop will buy back from us at the end of our time here. They aren't the biggest bikes in the world, but we'll cope. The best part about Vientiane is that we have not seen a single hill yet.

With wheels we started to have a look around.

We had a look at That Dam (tawt dahm) -That Dam translates as the Black Stupa.  A Stupa is a mound like structure that holds buddhist relics or is a memorial.

The stupa is located in the mjiddle of a roundabout in near the city centre.  Once it was apparently covered in gold.  Supposedly it was built over the cave of a seven headed dragon .  The dragon saved the Lao people during the 1828 Siam-Lao war, but the gold was stolen by the Siamese (Thais). Being black and overgrown it provides a contrast to all the decoration and gold we see elsewhere.

Shopping trip into Thailand

On Saturday we joined the other Kiwis in Vientiane to drive through to Thailand to do some shopping.

Udon Thani is 120km away from Vientiane. It took us about 2 hours, the biggest reason for this is the border between Laos and Thailand.

The friendship bridge was opened in 1997. It spans the Mekong between Laos and Nong Khai, in Thailand. It is actually 30km south of Vientiane.

We got to the border post and it was a 5 window process
1. get forms
2. get forms stamped at the next window
3. get some more stamps at a 3rd
4. pay 200 baht ($9)to take a car out of the country
5. get the car 'passport' stamped at the 5th window.

The thai side of the border was a little less painful but a few more forms to be completed.

The as you get onto the bridge you have to pay 20 baht to drive over the bridge. The bridge was mainly funded by the Australians. There was supposed to be a rail connection all the way into Vientiane, but the Laoations are waiting for someone to come up with the funding to do that.

On the Thai end of the bridge we headed on to the left hand side of the road. In Laos they drive on the right.

There are obvious signs of greater economic prosperity the minute we got into Thailand. The roads are in good condition and are multi-laned, there are obvious sign of good infrastructure and there is much more commercial activity.

In Udon we shopped at Tescos and went to a 5 storey mall with a large department store called Robinsons. And because we were on a shopping trip we had lunch at Sizzler, a steak restuarant chain. It was a sucessful shopping trip. As well as getting groceries we both picked up some jandals that fit our seemingly enormous western feet!

The journey back was in brilliant sunshine which is lovely in most circumstances. It is a little less lovely with 5 adults in a small toyota station wagon.

Back at the Laos side of the border, Andrew and I found out the 30 day visas we got when we came into Laos were only good for one entry. So regardless of the fact we 'had' 20 more days, we had to get another visa each. US$30 each, plus US$1 each as it was the weekend, we were allowed back into the country.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rice is king

There has been a swing in the Jackson's eating pattern.  We have not had a single potato (at home) since arriving in Laos about 10 days ago.  We have had a couple of western meals in restaurants and have had potato there though.

Instead rice has finally come to the fore. 

This is the most used addition to our apartment - we purchased our own rice cooker.

And to prove a conversion has happened Andrew cooked fried rice for dinner - a meatless meal!  It was delicious.

And thinking this would be up his alley this little taste treat was purchases - salted broad beans.  They are quite common here and seen in all the snack racks. They were not that exciting however. They don't taste like broad beans at all, more like palatable salted wood-chip.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Barbeque & Beers

Dinner the other night was a la Andrew - i.e. we had a BBQ.  We purchased a bag of charcoal during the market shopping trip and it was used in a ceramic pot/burner and using a cake cooling rack. 

Sausages were found, not at the Aussie butcher, but at a European butcher & charcuterie called Olla.  Teamed with carrots and beans it was a lovely meal.  The house staff were a little bemused with the process!

In the evenings we have all sat outside and had our beers in the cooler evening temperature.  The family, us, and the staff (driver & his wife & 14 month old, and the gate-keeper) all sit around and drink the local Beerlao - an EXCELLENT lager.  The staff buy bottles from a stall around the corner.  We have not been drinking much but the shopkeeper asked if his boss was drinking the beer, or if he was showering in it.

After dinner we had a fascinating experience.  We were invited by the driver to visit his old apartment.  Before he drove for the family here he was a taxi driver and lived in a 2 x 2 by the garment factory.  Translated, this meant a concrete room 2 metres by 2 metres. Many of the occupants are workers at the garment factory which employs 1500 people.  There are no cooking facilities and the shower is a concrete trough from  which you can pour water over yourself.  In the complex there were 13 families, and most families would have 4 members.  So with one large trough and 2 toilets the monthly rent was US$50 per month.  We have been told that a building site labourer will earn about NZD $9 per day.

The people there welcomed us so generously.  Beer was brought out and we were all given a glass.  Afterwards we found that normally there is one glass, and it is handed around the circle.  There is a habit of clinking glasses every 3 or 4 minutes as someone feels the need to do so.

Sitting there, we watched dogs wandering around, a family of 3 ducks walked through, motorbikes coming and going, and a stream of people wandering off for their 'shower'.

These people lead tough lives, yet seemed happy.  They were very kind to us.

This interesting experience finished only as the heavy rain began to pour down.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Home sweet Home - Laos

We have moved into a serviced apartment called Vikeo Villas. 

The apartment is fully furnished and is serviced daily.   The owner said the maid would do our dishes - but we don't intend for that to happen!  The floors are tiles made to look like wood.  The rooms are all quite large.

The bed room - sliding doors outside to a grassy area.

The bathroom - ensuite

The living area/kitchen

The spare bedroom - where you will stay if you come and visit.  It has it's own ensuite too

And there is a pool

The apartments have a gate and a gate keeper.  There are two double blocks of apartments, and one single - so a total of 15 apartments in the complex.  We are the bottom 2 bays, left-most in the block.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Driving to work

So the day of reckoning arrived this morning.  For the last 2 days he has been driven to work by Mr Kham the driver for the family we have been staying with.  But we are now in our own apartment and need to do it ourselves.  

In pidgin Lao and bit of map pointing he got to the city center (2.8km away).  And EVEN BETTER he repeated the process and got home again.

Monday, September 13, 2010

In the Neighbourhood

This morning we decided another walk around the neighbourhood was a good plan.  Within the suburb there is a number of 'villages', sub-suburbs.

The worst thing is the number of dogs.  Most just sit and watch you, but those that bark or start running up, are quite disconcerting.  Rabies is common throughout the region and you don't know which animals have it and which don't.  So you really have to assume they all are, and act accordingly.  We found it comforting to have a small rock each - didn't have to use them - but it felt safer just in case.

We heard about an ex-pat here who was bitten.  The rabies shots you have to get after the fact (and within 48hrs or you die) cost USD 1,700!  Our NZ travel doctor said we can be vaccinated just in-case, but it would have cost over NZD 1,200 each. 

Note the architectural features:
Traditional bamboo scaffolding - understand that
but why an eagle statue below the roof???
People like to use their english "hellos" and the local greeting sa-bai-dee gets called out to us all the time.

We all took a trip down to the Aussie butcher today.  Silver Fern Farms lamb is for sale.  At 151,000 kip per kg, a 2kg leg of lamb would be about NZD 50.  We took the opportunity to have a coffee in a french cafe and it was good and the walnut brownie wasn't bad either.

It was then across town to check out a European butcher/charcuterie where we sourced some sausages - which will be barbecued for dinner tonight.  There was also ham, salami, & pate.

A visit to the local fruit and veg market on the way back to the house showed us where we will be getting our ingredients from.  So with a mix of local food, and some european luxuries we will be completely set.

At this stage I can't see us putting the live frogs or snakes from the market on the menu!


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Vientiane 9 & 10 Sep 2010

The train was easy and we arrived in Nong Khai about half an hour late, but with no deadlines it was not an issue.   We took a tuk-tuk to the border post, followed by the obligatory short bus ride across the Friendship bridge over the Meekong.

Laos immigration was a couple of forms and we had our 30 day tourist visa. Andrew called Mr Kham the driver for his friends in Vientiane.

We were taken their house in the suburbs of Vientiane. It is a lovely large house, but the road is unsealed and quite cut up after the rainy season.

We went downtown after lunch to try and orientate ourselves with the city.  It is a small compact central city, with very little traffic.  Lots of Toyota utes and Prados.  Cars here have 180% tax over the purchase cost, but utes have a lower tax charge as they are 'working' vehicles.

The good news is there is more than one wine shop, access to western goods, and we have had proper coffee.  Andrew has not yet found the so-called "Australian Butcher", but he has a good idea where his shop is.  There will be plenty to explore over the next few weeks so we didn't target anything just yet.

The biggest danger that we found on the safe streets of Vientiane was the number of cracked and broken drains.

The house where we are staying is inside a large iron gate, has a cold spa and good air-conditioning.  Then across the road and around the corner is the contrast of the stalls, the cattle, the goats...Streets are a mix of paved and unpaved.

Today we have been to look for apartments and have seen a couple and have one real possibility - watch this space as we follow up on this.

After lunch Andrew visited the Ministry of Education and started the process of signing his contract. This probably means he will get paid at some time in the future and this isn't just a holiday trip. It now goes off to be registered by the government.

And we are both kip millionaires after withdrawing 2 million kip each from the ATM machine. That's about NZ$300 each. Costs are relatively cheap.  Of course western goods are more expensive.   6 of us went out for dinner last night to a local restaurant and the cost was 360,000 kip or about NZ$60 all up.

One night in Bangkok (and one day) 8 Sep 2010

After a big breakfast we headed out with a driver, who for a fixed price (200 Baht NZ9), was going to take us past the Teak Palace and drop us at the Upstream tourist ferry terminal. It was all pointed out on the map before we left  :-).

What we got was: a look at the outside of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall Palace and the the teak palace down the road was pointed out. We were offered some shopping at a friend's factory, which we declined and then we were off for the river.

It was a short trip on the map but even allowing for the constant traffic jams it was taking much longer than it should. We found out we were heading for the downstream boat pier right across the side of town. Nothing lost, except an unplanned toll to get us on the expressway and a reminder to be aware.

We had decided today in 33C temperatures, with high humidity, that lots of full on walking was not ideal. So to get a feel for Bangkok a hop-on, hop-off journey on the Chao Praya River would be the story. And it was.

For 150 baht each (NZ6.5) it was a fun way to get about.

The river was busy with all manner of boats and a much easier way to travel than the traffic locked city.

We got off at the stop 8 and took a local ferry to the opposite bank to visit Wat Arun.

This was our first taste of Thai architecture and it was stunning. We were both amazed by the steepness of the stairs you could climb to the upper levels. It also gave us a good birds eye view of the river and city. The use of porcelain from cups and saucers as decoration was interesting.

Afterwards we had a good lunch on the side of the street and 300 baht for a couple of meals and Singha beers - very important to keep the fluids up.

We explored the street markets and the river a little before deciding to head back to the hotel.  We flagged down a taxi and were once again offered a fixed price of 100 baht, but insisted on the meter and it was 40 baht.  It was a relaxing afternoon at the hotel and a chance to swim in the pool.  There are not a lot of people staying and the pool was a bit underutilised.

With a late checkout (6:00pm) we had an expensive beer in the hotel lobby bar before heading to Hua-lumpong train station.  Our taxi driver wasn't impressed we were only going to the train station and not the airport, which he had assumed.  He got quite grumpy and demanded 100 baht and we as usual asked for a meter.  The trip cost 60 baht, but we gave him the 100 baht as it was a horrible 30 minute journey through gridlocked traffic - he deserved every cent.

We got on the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, on the Laos border.  12 hours 8pm to 8am in our 1st class sleeper cabin, not a lot of room, but no problems.  We ordered some dinner and breakfast and settled in for a relaxing trip.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The journey begins Sept 6 2010

We headed through to Bangkok via Melbourne and a chance to catch up with Sophie and Hayley. 

Dinner was a taster of Asia with a really good meal at a Chinatown restaurant Hu Tong, dumpling bar.  Andrew spread his wings a bit and *enjoyed* dumplings and even had a good go at a spicy hot Szechuan chicken.

After a good nights sleep at the Atlantis hotel  (a short walk to the bus to the Airport) we had a coffee with Sophie before a brief walk around Melbourne and back out to the airport.

A short hop through to Sydney before the 8.5 hours flight through to Bangkok.  The airplane was almost 100% full.  Customs and Immigration was smooth into Bangkok and we were soon on our way to the Royal Princess Larn Luang.  A Qantas hotel not in the CBD, but in Duisit suburb.  It was quiet here and turned out to be an ideal choice.