Saturday, October 30, 2010

On to Saravan

Breakfast of noodles and down the road to Saravan (Salavan)

We passed between two national parks and in some places it was reminiscent of the West Coast with green and tall trees. It was two hours driving on sealed roads followed by a further two hours on unsealed roads.

We crossed a number of high rivers. At one point the bridge was underwater (seen in the left of the 1st picture below) and we had to use the local ferry.  There is a smaller pedestrian & bike ferry (seen in the bottom of the 1st photo with the orange umbrella)- a wooden platform on canoes.  Then there is a larger vehicle ferry with a permanently attached boat. 

The roads were muddy and we were slipping and sliding. I don’t think the driver knew how to engage the four wheel drive. It wasn’t unsafe, but I didn’t like the idea of possibly having to get out and push given the depth of the mud.

Along the way from a roadside stall we had purchased some flattened cooked chicken and sticky rice. We stopped not far out of Saravan in a small village where the wife of the director of the district education board had a small restaurant. We took our purchases along and bought a few other bits to make a lunch. It was raining heavily and we sat under the awnings. It’s been a long time since I have seen rainfall comparable with Fiordland.

We progressed to the education offices and started our meetings. The rain was so heavy by this stage that you could hardly hear the conversations due to the windows being open and rain pelting down on the tin roof.

We visited the school next door to the DEB. We sat and meet the teachers and the education committee. I ask them about the number of students and teachers, how they manage their budgets, how do they charge the students etc.

Depending on the budget the school has, the cost per student per annum ranges from 3,000 kip (NZD 0.50) in the poorest province, through to 30,000 kip (NZD 5.00) in a provincial town.

I saw local people hand-harvesting rice. Bundles were collected and bound up for drying, the bundles were carried back on balanced double ended sticks, threshing machines dealt to the bundles and then they were laid out on blue tarps to dry, before being meshed. There was also drying of chillies happening.

Different varieties of rice being sold at the market

Friday, October 29, 2010

Andrew's work trip to Savannakhet

We left at 10:00am Sunday morning driving south toward Savannakhet. Driving in a Toyota Hilux double cab Ute with a ministry driver and two ministry of education interpreters. It was good having two interpreters. I could switch off when the Lao conversation was going on and think about what I had heard and what my next question might be. They had to listen, repeat to me, ask their own questions etc – so for one person interpreting is hard work, two makes it manageable.

We headed out of town and just prior to crossing a major tributary of the Mekong, we stopped beside a roadside stall. One of my colleagues purchased a package of a biscuit and something else for 20 or 30,000 kip. I thought she was buying some snacks for the journey. We then stopped on the bridge and the offering was thrown out the window of the Ute and over the bridge rail. I was told by the 2nd interpreter that it was an offering to the gods for us to have a safe trip.

The roads were in reasonable condition and relatively straight. The southern roads are better than the northern roads less windy. The only issue was that the alignment of the approach to bridges was not too good. The road drops as you get to a bridge and it gives a bit of a thumping ride. Spine jarring. Roads are also raised to protect them from flooding situations.

Buying big bags of cabbages on the journey home
as the area was well known for good cabbage
We stopped for noodle lunch and along the way passed the major construction underway for another bridge across the Mekong between Laos and Thailand. The bridge at Savannakhet where we were heading has 100,000 people cross it each day. The major export across the bridge is copper.

The drive took 7 hours and it was about 450km.

A typical lunch spot
We arrived in Savannakhet and had to find some accommodation. We had no places pre-booked but we had recommendations from local Min of Ed staff. I passed up the top of the range 400kk (NZD 65) place that had internet but was OTT for a much more reasonable 80kk (NZD 13) guesthouse. This fitted in the budget of my colleagues also. If I had stayed at the 1st place they would have stayed elsewhere. The Guesthouse had been doing some R & M work on the room and mine had no key so someone came along, installed a new lock and gave me a key. The air conditioning had a slight issue and dropped water on the glazed floor tiles. So I had to be careful which side of bed I got out and walked on.

We had the best breakfasts of the trip here as there was warm fresh bread, butter and jam and excellent coffee.  This was a Vietnamese restaurant.

Monday was spent visiting the Provincial Education Service, District Education Board and a school. This was an urban school which made a lot of money from their school canteen which subsidises their school fees. The province has 7,134 teachers for a population of 860,000.
A school (actually from the end of the trip, but I deleted
some early photos from my camera by accident)
We had a busy meeting schedule but had a spare half hour around lunchtime. We took the opportunity to visit some cotton spinners and weavers, a skill for which the area is quite well known. The cotton was quite thick and is often used for winter clothing.

There were some particularly red sunsets while I was away

Thursday, October 28, 2010

COPE center in Vientiane

A few minutes walk outside the central business district in Vientiane is the COPE visitor centre.  The COPE Center (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise)  is the national rehabilitation centre. Cope is the only place in Laos that provides Orthotics and Rehabilitation. While the focus is on the bomb victims they also provide services for accident victims, children born with club foot and polio sufferers. Cope Centre

Laos has been called the most bombed nation on earth. Without getting into the politics of the situation, here is some information about the bombing of Laos:

  • Between 1964 and 1973 the USA flew 580,000 bombing runs into Laos - one every 9 minutes for nearly 10 years. These were done in secret and most Americans did not know this had happened.
  • 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped - more than all the bombs dropped during WWII.
  • The bombing was designed to cut North Vietnamese supply lines - bypassing the demilitarised zone that separated north and south Vietnam.
  • Of the 260 million bombies dropped (sub-munitions of cluster bombs) 30% did not detonate -> UXO = unexploded objects.
  • Since 1996 16 square miles has been cleared of bombs in a country of 90,000 square miles. The are over 1,000 people currently doing clearing work
  • According to a report in the Guardian Newspaper currently the USA gives on average $3 million a year for UXO clearing initiatives in Laos. It goes on to say "The US spent more than $2m a day (about $17m in today's dollars) for nine years dropping the bombs in the first place."
[ info sources:
these last 2 newspaper articles are interesting reading]

The visitor centre has displays and stories about the bombs and the effect on the local population. It could have been a depressing place, but it wasn't. The displays are not sophisticated or flashy - but what they say is moving and informative.

One interactive display that was particularly effective was a mirror box.  This was the was simple, but effective experience of phantom limbs.  It is hard to explain - you need to experience it.

NZ has played a role here in clearing UXO's.  This has been recognised at the entrance to the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan province.

Each year people continue to be hurt or killed by these UXOs - on average over 300 a year.  Almost half of these tend to be children.  A lot of work is going into village education to teach people not to touch the bombies and the dangers involved.  But it is obviously hard work stopping curious children.  On top of curiosity is the fact the scrap metal can be sold to make money for poor families and there is an industry in cutting the metal up to make jewellery/souvenirs for tourists.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Another one night in Bangkok

In the 1st week of work Andrew slipped on a mossy tile and banged his laptop resulting in a small crack in one corner of the screen.  Slowly the crack has increased and the quality of the screen has decreased.  So it was time to source a new computer and Bangkok was the easiest option.  Electronics in Bangkok are not particularly cheap, but it was the easiest place to fly to.

After we landed at Bangkok we took the new city link airport train connection into the city.  The journey took 30 minutes from the airport to Phaya Thai station.  The cost 15 Baht ( less than 1 NZD ).  The line also is used by locals getting in from the eastern suburbs to the city, but being on first meant we had seats and the crowded carriages were no problem.  The price is an introductory one as the line only opened a couple of months ago, but the normal prices are under 100 Baht.  A taxi costs about 300 - 350 Baht but has to deal with Bangkok's perpetual traffic jams.

We walked through the station and got on the Sky Train, Bangkok's above ground, inner city light rail system and took the train a couple of minutes along to the street our hotel was on.  The 2 minute journey also cost us 15 Baht each.  All up, we were at our hotel for NZD $1.5 and about 35 minutes on public transport.

It was a major change being in a city of 10 million rather than 200,000. We did notice the change of pace.  Probably one of the good things Bangkok has done is the series of walkways beneath the sky train route,  putting you above the traffic fumes and making walking easier.

Sky Train on top, Pedestrian walkways in the
middle and perpetual traffic at ground level
We dropped our bags and walked to Pantip Plaza - the electronics mecca mall in Bangkok.  Once famous for it's pirated goods it has become victim of tougher counterfeit laws.  They still exist, but probably not in the same numbers as before.  Andrew did get offered a few porn DVDs as we walked around.  There is a large selection of electronics, but we were not really looking for a bargain, more a reliable computer so we headed to the more mainstream malls.

The next day and a half was spent wandering through the large malls.  This is more tiring than it would appear.  The outcome was a new laptop - we bought a cheapie as the Thai keyboard and issues around after sales service didn't seem worth paying too much.  We will replace it back in NZ.  Other than that we bought a couple of pieces of clothing and not much else.

We didn't stand in the line at the newly opened Krispy Kreme donut store.  There was a line out of the mall, round the corner and no idea how far down the block it went.  The store had opened 28th September and customers were limited to 2 dozen donuts each.

There was a full range of stores in the malls from Marks & Spencers, sports stores, Japanese department stores through to Chanel.  The food courts were also an ecletic and impressive collection.

We spent some time in the Central World mall which had reopened on 28th Sept.  During the May riots in Bangkok the protesters had occupied the intersection outside the mall and a fire was lit here during the rioting and had done major damage.  Although the flag-ship Zen department store is still under renovation the remainder of the mall has been restored and you wouldn't know anything had gone on.  This mall has an ice skating rink on the ground floor.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Luang Prabang - Cooking Schools

While Andrew was visiting the provinces I went up to Luang Prabang.  It is considered the jewel in the Laos tourism crown.  It was awarded Unesco world heritage status due to its fusion of traditional and european colonial architecture. 

I did 2 cooking courses with two different restaurants.  The 1st was at Tamnak and there was just myself and an American doing the course.  We were taken to the large market then back to the cooking school to work through the recipes.  It was a fun day and we made wonderful meals - my American friend and I decided we were very talented ;-)

The 2nd school was Tamarind.  This is run by an Australian and her Lao husband. We went back to the market (which was a good chance to take photos as I had not done so yesterday) and then out into the countryside to the cooking school. 

It was a lovely location and there were 8 of us on this course.  We made quite traditional dishes and cooking over charcoal.

Both experiences were very good, but I preferred Tamnak.  They were less polished, but the recipes were excellent and I have already cooked a number of them again.  The 2 chefs knew what they were doing and it was a really fun day.  Tamarind had a really good market tour, rather than just walking around, so much was pointed out and explained.  Their recipes were also good, but I haven't made any of them again.

Smoked mouse anyone?
Congealed Blood - good for thickening/flavouring soup

Buffalo Bile - good for bitter flavour
Fertilized duck eggs - number of weeks

I'm sure we must have seen the poultry that
used to be attached to these feathers
somewhere in the market

Friday, October 22, 2010

Luang Prabang - the town

Luang Prabang (pronounced more like Long Prabong) has a lovely setting at the confluence of the Mekong and the much smaller Nam Kang. 

It was the home of the Royal family and only really reopened to tourists in 1989 after the 1975 revolution.  In the last 20 years with an ever increasing number of tourists it has transformed from a derelict shell to a major tourist destination. 

I have mixed feelings about Luang Prabang.

The Good:
Lovely temples. 
Lots of restaurants and good cooking schools (more on that later)
The walk up Phu Si hill in the centre of town.  You get some good views of the non-tourist part of town. And buddhas and shady trees

The Bad:

I think if I had come to LP from anywhere else in busier, more polluted, louder Asia it would have been a little haven.  Quiet and easy going.  Coming from laid back Vientiane it seemed overly geared for tourism.

I don't need a whole main street advertising or touts in my face offering me tours to the caves, to the waterfall, ride the elephants etc.  And it was the first time in ages I have felt surrounded by tourists.  I don't like the fact that by 2012 the airport runway is going to be extended so 737s are able to fly in and bring more tourists in

Monks are a huge part of the town and they are estimated to make up 10% of the LP population.  They have become a tourist attraction in themselves. 

Traditionally at dawn monks walk around the area around their temple accepting gifts of alms and local residents provide these to "make merit".  This is the monk's food for the day.  As tourism has grown and more accomodation has sprung up there are less locals to provide the food.  Unscrupulous people have started selling food to the tourists so they can participate in the ceremonies.  But often the food is bad or stale leftovers.  It apparently got so bad that not so long ago the senior monks said they would not do the morning procession - but the local  council said if they didnt they would use lay people and dress them as monks and do the morning procession that way - tourism is too important.  How true that is I don't know, but based on what I saw I could imagine it to be the case.

There are signs around town advising tourists how to behave, not to touch or hassle the monks taking part in the morning procession:   
I thought perhaps it was overkill.  But, no, when I went to watch the Alms procession I saw this:

I was here in the tourist off-season, I imagine it would be hell in the height of the season.  After checking out the procession the tourists hop in their buses and zoom off for the next destination on their bus trip.

And speaking of buses I took the V.I.P bus back to Vientiane 380km south.  I flew to LP, 1 hour and USD80.  V.I.P bus USD 14 and a scheduled journey of 11 hours, local buses are a couple of hours longer.  We were lucky and it only took 9.5 - the roads are dry and we had no mechanical problems.  The "funniest" thing was watching the locals get carsick about 10 minutes into the journey and continued to be so for the next 9 hours.  An attendant would go along a remove their little plastic bags to a rubbish container somewhere.  When the bus stopped they would get off looking completely pale and drawn.  I don't think the bus went over 50km p/h the whole trip and it was really smooth.

Taken across the road, from a distance

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Andrew in the provinces - Trip 2 Xieng Khouang - part 3

Omelette for breakfast and Lao coffee in the traditional manner i.e. strong with a good dollop of condensed milk in the bottom. 
Defused UXOs are commonly used as decoration
 A six hour drive back to the airport in Xieng Khouang. Four hours was along mountainous windy roads where we probably drove at speeds between 15 and 50kmph. In the village there are 30km speed signs posted but they are just guidance. The domestic activity on the road slows the pace. Such activity can include chickens and their brood, dogs, ducks with ducklings, children, buffalos, resting cattle beasts, pigs and the odd motor bike.

At 6:15 there were already school children on the country road walking to the village school, some eating breakfast on the way.

We were stopped by the police in a small village – for no apparent reason to me. The driver showed some papers, they had a walk around the vehicle and opened the back door and had a look at me. We then proceeded on.

The villages vary of construction with timber structures often at a raised level of 1.5 - 2 meters; this allows storage beneath the hut. They were usually had wooden exteriors or bamboo skin woven on a frame. Roofing was frequently made of thatched material.

Having a little time before the flight we had a look at the Plain of Jars, there a several hundred of these. NZ Aid has done major work there removing UXOs (unexploded objects). No one is sure what the origin and purpose of the jars are, but they are made from solid stone and some of the larger ones we saw were as tall as me. Because they are of organic matter it is hard to date them but they are supposed to be 2000 years old. unesco explanation of plain of jars

Returned the airport and Vientiane.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Andrew in the provinces - Trip 2 Xieng Khouang - part 2

We left at 6am to drive to the next district. Breakfast in a local village over an open fire – more noodles and hard boiled eggs.


In Vieng Xay there are 452 teachers in the district. When I asked to see the asset register I was shown well worn sheets of paper with minimal information but it did have asset numbers

It was a 40 minute drive to a 3 room primary school (45 students) where we met the head of the village, head teacher and village education committee chair. Discussions included school fees from parents paying for the operational fees (pencils, school materials, resources) which total about NZD 250 p.a. (the government pays the teachers salary).

Teacher resources - made for a class the next day
Made from a cut up cardboard box

The children were over-excited about having a foreigner in their school. They kept poking their heads around the corner to see what was going on. The noise level was so high that the head teacher had to ask them to quieten down so we could have a conversation. We were given a bunch of a bananas and water during the meeting as a snack. I got asked how old I was and we all shared our ages. The teacher and Village head were only marginally younger than me. They were a friendly bunch.

We then travelled back to the provincial capital Houphane for meeting with the provincial treasury and a couple of free hours before another dinner hosted by the head of the provincial education service. My ministry of education colleague/interpreter took me to the market where I purchased a lovely silk shawl for Paula and a kilo of rice noodles.

Dinner was just the four of us and very hospitable. It is common practice here to routinely finish the meal with the provision of toothpicks. Everyone uses them and there is a protocol of cupping your hand over your mouth while digging out any residual food from the teeth.

An early night in preparation for a 5:30am start.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Andrew in the provinces - Trip 2 Xieng Khouang - part 1

The second trip I left on Sunday morning at 10am to catch a tuktuk to the airport about 8 km away. Traffic was light so it only took 20 minutes. For domestic flights you are expected to arrive 2 hours before departure.

 Our 30 minute flight was late departing by an hour and a half. Arrived at Xien Khouang and immediately set off on a six hour drive to the provincial capital, arriving 10pm.

My Min of Ed colleague heading to the terminal

Breakfast the next morning was noodles at a local café. The 1st meeting with the provincial people was 8am. At 11 we collected our bags, had an early lunch and set off on a four hour drive. The countryside was interesting. This was where the revolutionary fighters lived in caves during the 1975 coup. In the caves were full communities with schools and hospitals.

The roads were sealed and the last half the journey the road had only been completed in 2005 (I suspect funded by donor monies). There are some major challenges in government needs and aligning donor aims. Donors include World Bank, ADB, AusAid, EU and some individual country aid programs, Japanese and other NGOs. And they operate independently.

In the district Xamtai we had a discussion about financial management for an hour and a half. The district had no fax and were looking forward to internet being available in the area in November. I have seen forms being completed using some very antiquated typewriters.

We arrived at the guesthouse and the power was off. A candle was provided to see the way up the stairs. It was a cold water shower. The accommodation in the guesthouses was unique, short and very hard beds, showers that did not work or had only cold water. All character forming experiences.

I was advised we had a dinner being provided by the education people. The district governor chaired the dinner with lots of toasts. Usual fare of sticky rice, fish and soup.

Up in the mountains the temperatures was substantially cooler than in Vientiane. It is the first time I have worn a light merino jumper.