Monday, January 31, 2011

A week visiting the southern provinces

I have just had my second trip to the Southern Provinces.

Monday: Vientiane to Savannakhet (6.5 hrs drive), we left at 3:30pm and got in at 10:30pm with a stop for dinner along the way.
Tuesday Morning meeting then further south to Pakse (4 hrs).
Wednesday Morning meeting and through to Salavan(2 hours) Meeting in the afternoon and through to Sekong (1.5 hrs).
Thursday: Meeting in the morning, long lunch hosted by the provincial office and then through to Attapeu a mere 1 hour away
Friday: Morning meeting, long lunch by the river and then 3.5 hour return to Pakse
Saturday: 7:00am start, breakfast noodles and then on the road north, a mere 8 hour drive but with shopping stops & lunch we arrived back at 6pm.

Apart from a couple of hours free time in Pakse it has been a lot of looking out the window of our ute. Utes are big here because they have less road tax as they are a ‘working vehicle’ unlike a car. And you can fit at least 5 in the cab (2 in the front, and at a minimum 3 in the back) and then there is all the space on the back tray. Maybe 10 of your closest relatives will fit in quite (un)comfortably. I took a picture of nine ladies (count them) in the back of a ute in Pakse – excuse the quality it was getting dark and I was using a phone camera.

The Bolovan plains are well suited for coffee growing, being higher there are cooler nighttime temperatures.  There are a number of large processing plants and most houses seem to have some beans out the front drying in the sun. 
We have a driver and he drove well.  At times we would pass a site of religious significance he would slow down, make a small prayer and then continue on. I was completely oblivious of what they might be.  For example in each direction we crossed the Sekong river and he prayed at that point.

Route 13, the main road north/south

It is therefore a little ironic I have not had a single coffee since I left VTE.  Last trip I had one good coffee and then I seemed to get Nescafe instant, with sugar.  Seriously looking forward to strong little espresso back in VTE!  And toast.  And my comfortable bed. 

Sekong and Attapeu lie in the far south east of Laos, getting close to the border of Vietnam.  They are also the poorest of the Lao provinces.  Every where, even here in VTE there are what I call Popsicle stick houses.  Houses made of rattan matting or wooden planks, but there are also the more substantial brick or concrete houses.  In these 2 provinces it was noticeable the lack of substantial houses and the lack of electricity to many, if not most houses in some areas.  People simply can not afford the electricity.  Elsewhere you see Popsicle stick houses with their own satellite dishes to provide the Thai & Vietnamese TV & dramas people seem to be addicted to.  These areas were badly affected in late 2009 by Cyclone Kettsana destroying crops and infrastructure.  Remedying this is part of the expected outcomes of one the projects I am working with.
A combo- house - rattan/Popsicle and a satellite dish
Family transport parked in front
Life is simple here and survival is about being resourceful.

A world bank statistic from 2007 stated 1 in 2 children in Laos were suffering from malnutrition.  80 or 90% of the population still lead rural lives.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A quiet week

We have had a quiet week.  On Saturday I travelled back from the south of the country.  Leaving at 6:00am I was back in at the apartment at 7:00pm.  In the middle there was however a 2 hour lunch with some friends of my travelling companions and some superb local hospitality.  So the rest of that weekend was quiet.

Flora around our apartment complex

The week has been good.  Made better by the visit of Sarah from NZ, lately of Hong Kong.  She has been taking time out from work and travelling.  Andrew has been practicing to be a local tour guide.

Today we had a fantastic lunch at a very good French restaurant. 

Cashew Nut cake for dessert

Then some time in the sun by the pool.  It has been very cold here earlier this week and we have been wearing jerseys.  But the temperatures have been increasing steadily over the week.  It is dipping to under 15 degrees at night and we have been sleeping without the aircon!

This week we have had to SHARE
 the area around the pool with
other people!  That is not normal
Andrew begins his journey back to NZ on Friday morning, so a few things to be sorted before then...

A man's work is never done - although
note the glass of beer close at hand

Monday, January 10, 2011

Luang Prabang - off to school

Andrew flew to Luang Prabang to check out the World Heritage town and to attend a cooking course (the same one Paula attended)

I have struggled with the cooking with local ingredients and here was an opportunity to improve my knowledge.  There have been a number of sauce bottles in the cupboard here that were a total mystery to me - I couldn't intuitively relate to them. 

LP is an attractive city and because of it's World Heritage status there are no trucks and buses in the centre of town.  There are attractive surrounding hills and the river provides a boundary for the town. 

After I arrived I wandered around the town checking out nooks and crannies.  I certainly got the understanding there are a very large number of Wats!  You can visit the Wats, but each one wants a $3 entrance fee.  I was pleased to find a wine bar on the main street with a couch on the street level so I sat and watched the traffic going by.  I did check out the night market, with many stalls, it seemed endless.

Next morning the course started at 10am.  It was a bit cool and I wore a jersey.  The Tamnak Lao course is run by an Australian, but the instruction is done by 2 Lao men.  We visited the market and purchased the produce for the days menu and looked around the market.

There were 7 of us on the course and I worked with a German student who had been doing a PhD in Hong Kong.  We cooked on woks over gas burners.  We were shown 3 dishes and then we worked in pairs to recreate them.  They turned out pretty damn good - we all agreed as we ate them for lunch. 

In the afternoon we did another 3 dishes.  I was amazed with what you can do with a wok and local ingredients and it wasn't difficult.  I liked the flavours and I now know what galangal is.  We ate the rest the rest of our efforts for an early dinner and that dealt to the need for any food for the rest of that day. 

I needed a bit walk to deal to the copious amount of food eaten before sitting by the river for a beer and a view of the sunset. 

I got up before 6am the next morning to go and see the monks procession collecting the alms.  It really is a very commercial event with many guests from guest houses transported to the main street to watch the event.  The numbers of monks were the difference from what we see on a regular basis here in Vientiane.  We might see 5 monks in a group, in LP it would be 40

I visited the national museum, which was previous a residence of the Laos royal family.  I was impressed by the ornateness of the building. 

I then walked up Phousi hill.  It was a shock to the system to have to walk up a hill.  I have lost the conditioning I built up in Wellington. 

I wanted to travel across the Mekong on the local ferry.  So i went down the boats and tried to work out how the system worked via sign language.  After being redirected to an empty boat I paid my 5,000 kip and soon we we were off on a 5 minute journey.

The other side was poorer and more like villages I have seen in the rest of Laos.  I found a Wat on a hill and looked back to the town of Luang Prabang.

I returned to Luang Prabang, had a late lunch and headed back to the airport and Vientiane. 

I really enjoyed the trip and learnt a lot.  We can now cook together and I am sure I will be giving Paula plenty of helpful advice.  Meanwhile Paula was in the provinces eating pho noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Civic Administration Building

While we have been here in Vientiane we have been watching the construction progress of a very large building. Initially, we had no idea what it was but eventually found out it is the new civic administration building. Every time we pass Andrew feels the need to stop and check out progress.

Earlier this week I saw there was an opening ceremony (it is very near my work) so we had another look while out at the weekend.

The front is painted, mature plants have been planted and the flagpoles have been installed. You can just see a man on the tiled roof, with his bamboo ladder, fixing something in front of the gold city symbol.  When you go around the side and back it is a different story.

This weekend Andrew also felt a conversation with the workers about the scaffolding would be informative. His slow (English) pronunciation and miming/pointing left the three workers he was talking to bemused and confused.

And in his normal manner there was a need to get a better view through the fence.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hanoi: Art, Rain and Walking

Saturday dawned ...wet.  For the 1st time in nearly 2 months we saw rain. We headed out with our umbrellas but soon realised that they were not really going to work in the conditions.  So we started looking for rain ponchos - like the locals were wearing on their motorbikes.  A few blocks accidentally out of our way (great sense of direction Andrew!) we found pvc rain ponchos.  Mine is green - apparently so I will be seen in traffic.

Suitably attired with set off to our intended destination - the Hanoi art gallery.  It is considered the best gallery in South East Asia and did have a varied collection.  It was interesting to see the influence of recent history on the collection.  You would look at a painting of a pond, and think this is a pleasant water colour.  Then you notice the soldiers hiding in the reeds.

Across the street is the Temple of Literature.  This was Vietnams 1st university and was a temple of Confuciuos.  There is a series of courtyards and paths through.  A very popular place with the tourists and a popular place to have your wedding photos taken.

Andrew was quite impressed with the kiddy suit mannequins, but with his size compared to the locals always meant clothing was never going to be on our shopping list.

On our final morning in Hanoi shoes were on the agenda.  I needed some shoes and size 40 is next to impossible to find in Vientiane.  So we headed to the shoe district and still struggled.  However a pair of red shoes were sourced.  Andrew spent time in the street conversing with the locals.

Andrew found a potential new career option, but thought the work conditions might be a bit challenging.

We had found a Financial Times - by going to the gift shop/ bakery at the Hilton Hotel.  The first international paper pretty much since arriving in Asia. 

We flew back to Vientiane.  It was amazing as we drove out of the airport how quiet the city was in comparison.  And how much warmer.