Monday, November 29, 2010

W.I.G Annual Bazaar

Once a year the W.I.G (Women's International Group) run a Bazaar.  It is quite an event on the Vientiane calendar and there were crowds in attendance.

In the central covered-outdoor hall, school groups provide entertainment and they seemed to be having a superb time, singing, dancing, martial was all going on.

There were plenty of stalls selling everything from silk to handmade furniture.  The number of food stalls was wonderful and the quality of food very high.

Perhaps the best attended stall of them all was the bric-a-brac.  There was a crowd of local people gathered around the clothing table - they obviously thought they were on to a bargin.  

The bouncy castle was one of the largest we have seen in a long time

Not allowed to go on the bouncy castle, Andrew's little eyes lit up when he found the home baking stand!

Friday, November 26, 2010

David Lively - Piano Concert

Tonight was an interesting cultural experience as we went to a piano concert.  David Lively a French-American had been invited by the French & American Embassies to come to Laos in recognition of the 450 year Vientiane celebration.  It was our 1st time inside the huge Cultural centre in the middle of Vientiane.  The building was a gift from the Chinese and you can only go inside when there is an event on.

We sat just behind 4 rows of VIPs

He presented a program of Gershwin, followed by Chopin and ending with an arrangement of traditional Lao music arranged for the piano.  All the sections were excellent and he was very talented. Perhaps the best was actually the Laotian music.

It was interesting how different things went during the concert.  The 7pm concert started off about 7:25 with people still wandering in looking for spare seats.  The introduction in Lao was quite long maybe 3 to 4 minutes and then it was repeated in French, which also seemed rather long...and then it was done again in English.  There were students taking photographs of the pianist with flashes going off in his face.  He took it in his stride and after about 10 minutes they tailed off.  There was a look of audience rustling and noise, and wandering in front of the stage to get to the toilet exit was no problem.  There were a number of children in the audience and some of the local children struggled with the length of the concert.  Whereas it seemed more of the European children were controlled by their parents with piercing glares and quiet words to keep them in line.

At the end of the program and after one encore a group of young ladies climbed the stage stairs and disappeared behind the curtain.  It was obvious something was going to happen to thank the pianist, but after waiting a little time nothing happened.  So he sat down and played another impromptu Gershwin piece.  Another little wait and the the presentation was....three young ladies brought out three bouquets of flowers.  Not idea why there was such a delay, but again he took it all in his stride.

A good night and well attended.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Another Quiet American - speaking in Vientiane

There are not a lot of books written about Laos.  One that was, and which we read in our first month here was "Another Quiet American", by Brett Dakin.

Brett was in Vientiane in 1998, straight out of university and working for the National Tourist Authority. It is a good read and places in context some recent history. It is quiet upfront, and he noted that the political people probably have not read it as it is published in English.

On Saturday evening Brett was speaking at the local bookshop, Monument books. 

He left Laos in 2000 became a lawyer and is now also the chair of a the Chair of Legacies of War, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the Vietnam War-era bombing of Laos. 

It was interesting hearing him talk about his impressions of the changes that have happened in the 10 years since the book was written and this visit. Since leaving this is only the 2nd time he has been back to Laos.

The book is only published/sold in Asia or available on Amazon

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bike trekking & Makphet Restuarant

We have been meaning to explore the area on the other side of town from us out near the airport.  So we set off on Saturday morning.  The plan was to get out there on the roads then take a dirt track alongside a stream back to town.  However after getting to the track we found it was blocked that day by a huge digger clearing the stream.  So back onto highway 13 and traffic and dust to get back to town

Highway 13 - main north - south road through Laos
- and bicycle racing track

Andrew tried to liven things up by racing two small boys on a bike (ie. one of them was being doubled) along the road for a bit.

AJ here, they were serious, I had to crouch down to reduce the wind resistance, it was touch and go who was going to win, I do not like losing even if they were only 10 years old. 

He was pleased to say he won and all three boys had lots of fun.

Almost anything can be carried on the back of a motorbike

We went to a restaurant in town for dinner called Makphet.  This is a training restaurant set up by the Friends international charity to train former street kids in the restaurant industry.

The food is fanstastic and gets rave reviews from diners and critics.  The staff are very attentive.  Sometimes they were quite shy to start with but warmed up as service went on.  They are taught all aspects of running a restaurant and are given training in english.  It was a very good meal.

The place was busy so we sat upstairs at low tables where you sit/recline on the floor.  A bit different for a tall, slightly less flexible man.

AJ - When have any of you sat cross legged for dinner.? I cannot do it. A good meal though...

Monday, November 15, 2010

450 celebrations - preparations are underway

When we first arrived in Vientiane we saw this electronic billboard. At that time, September, there were 61 days & 1,472 hours until the 450 celebration.

The celebration is marking Vientiane being the capital of Laos for 450 years.  Prior to that it was the town of Luang Prabang.  The celebrations will be in the week 15th - 19th November.

The number of stories in the small English local paper have been increasing as the event has come closer.  Stories about the number of parades there will be, where the sky divers will be landing, how many groups each province will send to be in the parade...

And in anticipation the town is being tidied up.  Flags have gone up everywhere, the Laos flag, the Hammer & sickle, and the 450 emblem. 

Flags have appeared at roundabouts along with flower displays.  The flowers are not planted but in black bags behind the brick edging.

In the 10 minutes I was in the mini market another sign appeared.

Road edgings  have been repainted, riversides weeded and trees and walls have been painted.  Although the execution of the white painting with the paint splatter on the footpath, makes you wonder if they should have bothered?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lamb & Food on wheels

We have been exploring the territory alongside the Mekong river and got a good feel for it during a two hour ride south & back.  You don't have to go far to get off the paved roads and to be biking through so pretty basic living.  And amongst it all a really big palatial house will appear.

Not having an oven in the apartment has meant Andrew has been deprived of roasts.  He has now rectified this situation with an attempt to tame the barbecue in our complex.  We buy small bags of large pieces of charcoal and use local sticks which have been impregnated with some sort of accelerant to get things going.  Twice he has cooked a boned out leg of lamb - both of NZ origin - one from Silver Fern Farms & the other from Alliance.

There may not be any home mail delivery here, but all sorts of food trundles past our gate being sold by mobile vendors.  Usually it is a cart or a cart propelled by a motor or pushbike.  The ice-cream man has a tune along the lines of Mr Whippy.  The fruit man dings a bicycle bell.  He has lots of fresh peeled in season fruit

Vegetables usually come past on on a long wooden hand cart, but we buy ours from the stall at the end of the road.  At the moment mustard greens are very much in season and their yellow follows can be seen on most vegetable carts.  We saw this morning when we were out walking people in the field cutting bunches for sale.  The baskets on the roadside would have been super fresh.

Today I saw a new variation on the ice cream man.  Outside a primary school lots of kids were crowding around a cart.  I turned my bike around and went to see what it was.  It was a Popsicle cart.  Frozen Popsicles made in long round metal molds and there was a variety of flavours.  They were selling fast.  From the 500kip notes being handed over the they would have cost about 8 cents each. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dining at both ends of the spectrum

As we have been eating at home for the last few weeks we decided last Friday it was time for a nice meal out.  Le Silapa has been on our list for a while.  Especially as Andrew had talked to the owner at a wine tasting we went to recently.

From the front it looks a bit ordinary - a little old house frontage - nothing special.  And when we went in about 6:45pm there was no one else there.  We were wondering if it was going to be as good as we hoped.  It was better.  It was lovely and the service was top notch.

Wonderful soup, a perfectly cooked steak and fresh and tasty fish.  Round it out with a bottle of French red.


Then this Friday it was time for a local place a couple of blocks away from the apartment.  It was time for us to visit Anna Grilled Duck restaurant, an open air establishment where we were the only non locals.

We have ridden past a few times on our bikes and seen the smoke from the charcoal barbecue, but had not been in.  The smoke is pretty intense when they are cooking and the barbecuer wears a full head wrap to deal with the smoke. 

The duck was tasty but hard work getting it off the bones and there wasn't a huge amount of meat.  The fried rice was lovely.  The broth with the other bits of duck in it was very tasty.  It was a simple meal, but good.  The half duck, cut into pieces, came first and we had pretty much devoured it before before I thought to take this picture.

The local cat and dog came around looking for scraps.  Andrew was quite keen on the Beer Girl - who's job it is to look pretty, and keep pouring you beers.  A very successful way to keep consumption up.

And here we are.  Another week older than the last across-the-table-photograph.

One meal cost NZD 125 while the other was NZD 11

Thursday, November 4, 2010

End of Buddhist Lent

Last weekend Oct 23 & 24 was the end of the Buddhist Lent and there was a lot of celebrating going on. 

There are ceremonies and offerings given at the temples.  In the evening there were ceremonies at the temples which culminated with candles, flowers and incense sticks being placed on bamboo model boats.

We had visited a temple earlier in the day and saw some of the large temple boats prepared for the evening ceremonies.  At the front on these boats are dragons made from polystyrene - effective but certainly non-traditional.  Later that evening we saw boats like these being driven to the river  on the back of Utes.

All around town we also saw much smaller, more simple versions made by households.  Some were banana leaves folded into floating objects others were smaller scale boats.  Apparently there has been a trend of using 'pretty' plastic boats.  But they are not so pretty when they collect downstream and don't decompose. 

We went out for dinner near the river and on the way home we had a look.  There were lots of people putting their boats in the river.  Disease, bad luck and other negative things are supposed to float away with the boat.  Most stayed in close to the river bank.  In town and all around there were lots of fireworks going off.

Not great photos - but you can see some of the illuminated boats and illuminations over the central city.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Boat Races - Sunday - Boun Song Heua

The annual boat races are held between teams from different villages/wats/other organisations and rivalry is intense.  The crowds really get into supporting their team and the teams wear bright colours.  Andrew counted about 53 people in one boat.  We are not sure how the results through to the finals worked but each race was between two boats and they were working hard. 

The camera video was on low resolution, but you'll get the idea of what was going on.  The other side of the river is Thailand.  There are islands in the middle of the Mekong indicating low river levels, which is apparently unusual this early in the season.

We went down early to get a flavour of things before the afternoon finals, but it was still very busy at 10am.  There were people at street level, food tents and stalls on the middle level and more people watching perched on the rocks of the flood protection walls of the Mekong.

There had been a lot of talk that the city got very busy over boat race weekend and as the week progressed that turned out to be the case.  Lots of stalls were set up on the road alongside the Mekong.  Traders selling everything from jeans to light shades.  The most dangerous job appeared to be being the attendant on the throw-a-dart-at-balloon-and-win-a-prize stalls.  Either the darts were blunt or the balloons were Teflon coated but there was quite a bit of darts bouncing off the balloons and attendants jumping out of their path. 

We also got frisked before we were allowed into the area by a wall of male and female students on each street corner. 

And while the time between races wasn't long, there were occasionally entertainment barges that went up and down in front of the crowds on the riverbank.  Below is a video of one barge with "entertainment" on it.  You might want to make sure you know where your volume control is, particularly toward the end.  They had good speakers and the sound was pretty much what we experienced except the ohhh-weee-ooooh chorus was repeated again & again & again & again....

Monday, November 1, 2010

To Attapeu for 2 nights and back to Vientiane

The journey down to Attapeu from Saravan was 3.5 hours and over a hill. Attapeu is one of the poorest provinces in Laos.

We arrived in Attapeu about 3pm and had no meetings for the afternoon so I changed into my shorts & t-shirt and had a walk around the town. The afternoon market was a bit tired.

One of my interpreters had spent a year at university in Australia. Her Mother was high up in the party and happened to be visiting the province on the same day we were there so we briefly met her.

We had meeting with the Provincial Education service and the Treasury. Then it was out to the country side to visit a school. The kids were fascinated with Falang (foreigner) and crowded the window to look. I took out my camera to take a photo and they all ran away - the 2nd photo is all I could capture after they started to run.

On the drive back to town a provincial education accountant asked if we would like to visit a special duck restaurant in the area. We made our orders and while we waited 15 minutes for it to be cooked I wandered down to the river. I saw some small local ferry boats crossing the river and saw locals practicing for their boat racing festival coming up at the weekend. The duck was good.

I went for a 6:00am walk and saw early morning life in the town. The monks were out collecting alms and women were heading home from market on their motorbikes shopping bags full.

The morning market at 6:00am was a different affair from the version I had seen in the evening. It was teeming with fresh produce and lots of people and their motorbikes.

As I walked about in the morning there were always televisions going in people homes and the doors and windows were all open given the high temperatures. It was over 25 degrees at this time of the morning.

After a 10am meeting in Attapeu on Friday we hit the road back up to Vientiane. 13 hours Attapeu – Pakse – Savannakhet – Vientiane, with some short food breaks. Travelling at night was challenging driving. The ability to spot motorbikes, tractors, vehicles often without lights on was challenging. The quality of the vehicle lights when used was also variable. Some were not able to dip their lights.

I find it hard work being the driver in the passenger seat, on the wrong side of the road.