Wednesday, May 25, 2011

North to Luang Namtha

Round ing out my visits to provincial offices were the journeys to Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang – both flights rather than road trips – YES!  

Luang Namtha is in the far north of Laos, bordering on China and Thailand. LN is a one horse town, but there are a lot of foreigners either travelling through from China or coming here to trek in the hills. Tourism is one of the big growth areas in the province.

However planes are only scheduled to fly in and out every 2nd day. So although we only needed one day for training, we had to fly up Monday afternoon and could only return Wednesday afternoon. Leaving more than enough time to check things out and the Provincial staff were very hospitable.

They took us to see the new Stupa built above the town 5 years ago. It replaced the previous temple that had been destroyed by American bombing. They took us to those ruins as well.

They took us to a cave about an hour's drive out of town. The village man who guided us through the cave had had a reasonable amount to drink and was quite happy to see us.

We were all dressed in work clothes and my colleagues saw nothing odd about clambering up and down slippery slopes dressed in high heels and skirts. If Andrew had suggested that to me he would have been on the end of some verbal backlash.

But I couldn't do that to my hosts.  As my work shoes didn't have much grip I ended up walking barefoot through a damp cave, hoping not to fall and rip my 'best' work clothes.  Using torches with batteries that had seen better days I clambered up and down, following a slightly inebriated guide, and a party of short Lao women.

We also had a dinner with a couple of projects working in the province. I ended up sitting beside the Deputy Director and he kept putting pieces of rattan – like bamboo- on my plate. It was... OK, one piece would have been enough, but as it was a local speciality he thought I would like more!

And some random images to finish

I wonder how often this gets opened?

Rattan in the background;
Squirrels and other rodents in the foreground
Prettu sure I only ate rattan!

When bank staff reload the ATM machine they are
guarded by a man carrying a machine gun

In contrast the trip to Luang Prabang was much more routine. We did attempt to visit a local waterfall – but as it was the height of the dry season, there was no water in the river and a garden hose would have challenged the "waterfall".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On the road for the Health Review

As part of his current work looking at the Lao PDR health system Andrew spent a week in the southern provinces of Khammoaun and Savannakhet. It is a good 6 hour drive to the 1st province on the agenda

The aim was to meet Provincial and district health administration officials to discuss finance topics and visit health facilities at all levels to learn how they manage Donor and Government funds.

A short summary of the Lao Health situation is that health indicators are poor, but improving.
  • The health situation of women and children in Laos is amongst the poorest in Southeast Asia;
  • Infant mortality rate is 70 per 1000 live births and under five mortality claims 98 per 1000 live births.
  • Only half the population has access to safe water and 30% have access to sanitation facilities.
  • About 50% of rural children under-5 years are severely malnourished and 40% of all under five children are moderately stunted.
The government pays the salaries of health workers but everything else is user pays.  There are now some schemes in place to make free health care available to the poor.  These are making a difference but the progress is slow.

Once out in the District Offices and in the villages the level of poverty is evident.

But at the same time the provinces are also lovely

There were no patients in the hospital the he visited.  The 1st picture below is a district hospital and the 2nd is a village health centre

  The facilities are clean but very basic. There are no hospital meals. If you want to eat, your family needs to provide the food.

At one facility there was no running water and the water was carried by hand from this murky pond.

Heading into the very rural countryside was the area where the Ho Chi Minh trail was located – this was a series of routes for supplies and troops used by the North Vietnamese Army between North and South Vietnam and was mainly located in Laos (a link to more information about the trail

Areas have been fenced off to preserve the history and the dense vegetation shows the how tough the job would have been.

Even back in the main provincial towns life remains quite rural. Cows cross the road to the place where Andrew and a colleague went to have a beer. Yet just over the river the prosperity of Thailand is visible.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Birthday on the road

The last 2 or 3 weeks have been pretty much all about work for both of us. 

In my birthday week I had another week trip to the Northern provinces of Houaphan and XiengKhouang.  It was NOT one of those excellent trips – it was simply hard slog – but the locations were certainly interesting and the people I met were as lovely as always. 

Views from the van on the drive

Flying into Phonsavan was a bit hairy.  Given that Laos airspace is probably one of the least congested in the world it shouldn’t be necessary to excute sharp panic turns when making your approach to the airport.  Obviously something upset the pilot and it carried through to his landing which careered from one side of the runway to the other.  However we arrived safely.
The traffic on the road outside our guesthouse for the evening
The next morning on the road to Sam Nuea – a 6 hour drive (plus stops).  The road is like driving through the Kawerau gorge – not very wide and turns the whole way.  The driver spent the whole trip with his hand on the horn.  Whenever we approached a blind corner – which was every 1 – 2 minutes - it was to signal to other vehicles and people that we were coming.  I realised the benefit of this after our 1st near miss with a truck.  Trucks go FAST, cut corners, and generally ignore anyone else.  We literally skidded into 2 corners to avoid trucks. 

And then there was the van overheating and we sat on the side of the road for at least 30 minutes to let it cool and to put fresh drinking water in.

Sam Nuea, the capital of Houaphan Province is very small.  We were going to visit the Vieng Xai caves, but did not because the delays nursing the van along.  The importance of the caves is that about 500 caves in the surrounding hills were used by the Communist resistance to shelter from American bombardment  1968- 1975.  Up to 23,000 people lived in the caves, which contained a hospital, a school, Pathet Lao offices, bakeries, shops, and even a theatre. Now some are open to visitors.   I am still bitter and twisted about the missed opportunity not seeing them!  Driving around the town and having the road that went to the caves pointed out to me was NOT an adequate substitute in my opinion.

The newest thing in town is the main street statue.  My colleague wanted her picture taken in front of it as she had seen it being built on TV.  The lonely planet describes it as a glitter disco ball on the top of tweezers in front of a communist wall sculpture – I didn’t pass this little bit of guidebook opinion on to her.

A day of training then, the next morning at 6:00am, the return roadtrip.  My birthday.  We drove 2.5 hours to a little town for a meal of Pho – noodle soup – again. 
Mmmmm more pho noodle soup - not my dream cooked breakfast
Back into the van and another few hours back to Phonsavan,  We showered and changed and went to the provincial office to meet the officials.  Lunch for me was 4 mandarins from my bag – because everyone (bar me) had filled up royally on Pho.  Dinner was at the best diner in town and was good.

Some more training in the morning then a little trip out to one of the sites of the mysterious Plain of Jars.  And I ended up with an A4 sized photo of myself and my colleague – because my colleague wanted one.  I always wondered who purchased from the photographers at these tourist sites – and now I know.
My colleague is quite tall for a Lao, but note she is
still standing on a rock to even our heights up.
It was nice to get on the plane back to VTE

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

2 Mackersy ladies in Vientiane

For the last few days we have had two lovely NZ visitors – Anne and Kate. Being adventurous they took the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai. They coped with the scammers offering expensive Visa services near the border ... Although we have heard there is a small Thai tuk-tuk driver still receiving counselling after a tongue lashing from Anne, expressing her extreme displeasure with their behaviour J Neither of us was home on Friday to meet them so they coped admirably in finding our apartment and settling themselves in unaided.   After an evening at home to watch the Royal wedding; we took them out the next day to see our take on Vientiane.

After the compulsory visits to That Luang and Patuxay (insert Andrew's Vertical runway story here Patuxay Sep 2010 ) there was the visit to the Japanese Coffee house for the best coffees in VTE and scones with cream and a chocolate truffle. Refreshed, we wandered off in the heat to see the main shopping streets before a good lunch at a French café (le banneton) We had intended to have some Lao food but our choice of Makpet (the training restaurant makphet-restuarant ) was closed a) because it was election weekend and b) because it was May Day holiday. Back to the apartment and some time by the pool and relaxing.  A dinner out with some local Kiwi's ended a nice day

(below: I suspect both ladies are being told the same story and insights  about the Mekong and the Don Chan Palace hotel)

The next day was a visit to Haw Phra Kaew, where the emerald Buddha had been for 200 years before it was taken back to Bangkok haw-phra-kaew . A walk along the Mekong a visit to Talat Sao (morning market) and finishing with a sobering visit to COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) cope-center-in-vientiane . Keeping up the international food theme we had lunch at the excellent Vietnamese café - PVO. In the late afternoon we wandered down to the Highland bar to watch the dark clouds and lightning over Thailand, while sipping Mojitos. Dinner at the Lao Garden and we finally actually ate some Lao food.

On Monday our charming guests departed, bound for Luang Prabang, and we very much enjoyed their brief stay with us

(once they return to Arrowtown and Brisbane we expect some photos to be sent to us!)