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.

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