Tuesday, 3 December 2019

A CHANCE MEETING - IN VIENTIANE, LAOS

Good night see you in the morning 
March 2012 - Lorenza and I had just concluded a hot, frustrating trip to Udon Thani in Thailand to try and sort out some medical help for a young girl from a village close to Vientiane, the capital of Laos (I will save the details of that story for another time).

We took a stroll that evening along the Mekong road, thinking about finding a nice bar for a well earned cold Beer Lao. Our attention was drawn to the window of a night club, the bass player in a band was smiling broadly and beckoning for us to come inside. We looked at each other and thought “why not”. This turned out to be a good decision on many levels.

Lao Cabaret Show


We found a table and ordered some drinks. Rather than a DJ playing dance music, we were entertained by a modern cabaret show. It featured a number of local singers who did renditions of some western pop songs, but mostly Lao pop music. They put on a really good show and gave it their all. One young guy exploded onto the stage with such energy and vigour he had everyone cheering. A look around the mostly Lao crowd also confirmed he was very, very popular with the young ladies. The Lao Justin Beebar?

There was also the Lao version of Tina Turner, Diana Ross and many more, great costumes, lyrics we could not understand, but still a lot of fun. The place was packed.

Do you speak Lao?


Two young Lao ladies asked if they could join us at our table as we had two of the very few spare seats remaining in the place. They were dressed in traditional Lao costumes and looked so elegant.

Within a few minutes they had struck up a conversation with us, with the great opening line “Do you speak any Lao?” I ran through my not so extensive Lao vocab, which had them in fits of laughter, apparently my pronunciation was laughable. 

The young ladies could speak some English and were happy to get a chance to practise with us. We had a hilarious time explaining a simple joke to them …. James Bond was visiting Vientiane. While wandering along the Mekong he came across a chicken. The chicken asked James Bond “what’s your name” the reply being “I am Bond, James Bond”. James Bond then asked the chicken “So, what’s your name” the chicken replied “I am Ken, Chic Ken”.

We found out the young ladies were sisters, Tonoi and Khaek. They had been to a friends wedding and Tonoi had not been to the capital before and asked big sister "please take me to a cocktail bar". Hence they were dressed in such formal Lao traditional clothing.

Closing time


At closing time (which in Vientiane is 11pm) they gave us a lift back to our guesthouse and we all found it very hard to try and stop laughing in the street out front. They kept repeating the James Bond joke to themselves and it must have drove the neighbours mad - sorry. The lame joke sure sounded a lot funnier with a Lao accent, following a few too many cocktails.

As they left they offered to pick us up next day and take us on a tour of Vientiane. Lorenz and I agreed and went off to bed wondering would they remember they promised to collect us at 10am next morning.

A Day on the Town


While eating breakfast I mentioned to Lorenza that Tonoi and Khaek may forget what had been arranged. I was wrong; they arrived ten minutes early, full of smiles and good humour. We had a great day seeing the sights with them, aside from the main tourist spots we also took in a local temple and lunch at a great Pho (or Fer in Lao) restaurant. This was followed by a visit to their family house, then we decided to visit a spa for a massage before meeting again for dinner.
with Khaek on our day tour

We had a great time with these lovely young people. Khaek proved she had a very cheeky side to her by fooling me into eating a whole green chili at lunch time. She was eating them, after dipping them in a sauce and when I asked did they taste OK she promised me “they are not hot at all, you should try one”. Looking at her innocent face I believed everything she said and dipped one in the sauce and munched on it … “oh no, call the fire brigade!” my mouth was on fire. I was coughing and my tongue felt like it was swelling up … Khaek was almost falling off her chair laughing!

Tonoi had us in stitches over dinner, she was losing her voice but kept talking, her voice was getting worse and we had to apologise she sounded so funny. Then her and Khaek teamed up to try and tell us some Lao jokes. This had us all in stitches – the jokes (sorry girls) were lame but the process trying to translate them to English was absolutely hilarious. 

Fast forward to 2019


So, since 2012 we have stayed in contact almost daily - yes daily! Khaek has married, had two handsome boys. We have travelled with Tonoi and her mum, Keo to Vietnam for a holiday. We have travelled through southern Laos on a road trip with Tonoi and her parents, which was an amazing experience visiting and staying with their friends and family, a very personal experience of family life in Laos. 

With Tonoi on our day tour
In 2017, Tonoi and her cousin Ting, visited Australia for three months and stayed with us while they attended an intensive English course at a college in Sydney. That was so lovely to have them come and live with us. So far we have been back to Laos 5 times since 2012, got to know their extended family and have formed such a loving, unique bond with them - it has been a life changing chance meeting - they are our family now too. Our lives are so much richer for that chance meeting.

I agree with Tonoi when she says we must have been family in a past life.




Monday, 1 June 2015

A SURPRISE GIFT

I got a surprise gift today from some people I have never met!

Clients of my wife recently travelled to China and one of the places they visited was the Potala - the Holy Palace in the Snow Land - the temple/palace of the Dala Lama's (well maybe not the current 14th Dala Lama who has been exiled from China).

It was such a lovely surprise, the book has a huge number of gorgeous colour prints inside and I was so impressed by their kindness in thinking of me.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

TERRACLEAR WATER PROJECT IN LAOS

Kiva small loans are a great way to help fund projects and individuals in developing countries. It is a simple idea, lend $25 to someone starting a project and over time they repay you (and the group of lenders who also participated) and you re-lend to new projects. Pretty simple. You can find Kiva via this link.

The latest loan we made was to a project in Laos providing clean drinking water. In Laos, nearly half of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, causing widespread waterborne illness.

TerraClear is a social enterprise with the mission to increase access to safe drinking water, especially in remote households.

Since 2010, TerraClear has been locally manufacturing ceramic water filters, which provide effective and long-term household access to clean water. 

TerraClear's success has been built on promoting an affordable and easy to use product with an innovative design. TerraClear became a Kiva Field partner at the beginning of the year to increase its outreach and provide these water filters to its end users. Ceramic Water Filters have helped over 40,000 families to access clean water in Laos.

Currently, TerraClear is scaling up production and delivery to more remote areas. To achieve this, Kiva has partnered with Nexus Carbon for Development to provide a loan of $24,000 to TerraClear to purchase a second delivery truck to service remote households of Laos with safe drinking water. TerraClear recently purchased its first new truck – made possible by the generous support of the Kiva community – which is already helping to bring clean, safe drinking water to over 500 people across rural Laos every week.

The second truck will allow TerraClear to transport 120-130 water filter sets per trip, which will reduce the number of trips from the provinces back to the distribution center. This will dramatically increase the number of filters reaching households every week.

As TerraClear is scaling-up, this investment will require some time to produce returns. The loan has been structured with two repayment dates with the expectation that lenders could get paid back earlier if TerraClear produces results quicker than anticipated.

(Info on TerraClear from Kiva website)

Saturday, 30 May 2015

MY YERBA MATE - SMITHFIELD

The Greater Sydney area is a huge melting pot of cultures. We stumbled across a cafe in Smithfield called "My Yerba Mate" which serves great latin food and also specialises in the drink "Yerba Mate". I had never heard of it before. It is a tea/coffee like drink made from a plant in the holly family and a traditional beverage in a lot of South American countries.

I was really surprised by the taste, they made me a "mocca" style version and it had a strong flavour halfway between tea and coffee, it had a lot of body to it. Lorenza had a "latte" style and it was not as strong, I preferred the version I had. The owner of the cafe has done a lot of research into the beneficial effects of Yerba Mate and was very passionate about it. Here is a link to some info on Wikipedia. They sell 36 different varieties.

My Yerba Mate is at 895 Horsley Drive, Smithfield. They are next door to my favourite shop in Sydney - the Cooperage wine making shop.

Monday, 25 May 2015

A CHANCE MEETING - AT KUALA LUMPUR AIRPORT

We were travelling back from Myanmar, via Kuala Lumpur in 2013. We grabbed a sandwich at an airport cafe and got talking to the guy who served us. He was a very modest Shan refugee from Myanmar, who lived in a refugee camp and had a work permit for some part time employment. He was married and had one child. His wife was still living Myanmar with their child.

Sang, told us about his life and the hardship he and his family faced in Myanmar. His years living in the refugee camp were difficult also, his wife had lived there with him until just after the birth of their baby, but she decided to go back home to family with the child for a time. They planned this to be just a brief time apart, but it turned into 3 years.

Both Sang and his wife had registered with the UN as refugees and had applied to be resettled in the USA. In 2013 he told us it may take a few years to happen, but they were willing to sacrifice living apart a few years for a longer term goal.

Social media can be a great thing, we connected via the mystery of the Internet with Sang before leaving. Now and then I have sent him a message asking Sang how things are going and he has replied in English the best he can.

Today, out of the blue I got this message "hello Robert how are you and your wife. My wife, our child and I are now in Texas". We wish them the best of luck and hope we hear how they progress with this huge change in their lives - may they always be well and happy.

Friday, 19 December 2014

THE "ENEMY" IS NOT A PERSON

Following the siege in Martin Place, Sydney on Dec 15 and the mass shootings at Peshawar School in Pakistan on Dec 16, I read the following post by a friend of mine ...

"Never forget who the enemy is. The enemy is not Muslim, he’s not Christian, he’s not Catholic, he’s not protestant, he’s not Baptist, he’s not Hindu and he’s not Buddhist. The enemy is intolerance, he is bigotry, he is jealousy, and he is narrow minded. He can be white, black, yellow. He can be redneck, he can be a preacher and he can be a zealot. Do not bear false witness against your neighbour. Love your neighbour as you would love yourself. If you abide by this credo you will be blessed as those around you will be."

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

LUANG PRABANG - a quiet and peaceful former capital in Northern Laos

I have posted this report on a trip to Luang Prabang with kind permission of Tran Hoang Yen, who visited LP in July 2014. It has a lot of good info and insights for anyone considering a visit to this world heritage listed town. Over to Yen for her report:


Mekong River

This note is to express my feelings after my trip to Luang Prabang (LP) and to share with my thoughts and some information with friends who would like to visit this place in the future.

Travel to LP


From Hanoi, the best and most convenient way to reach LP is by airplane. There are direct flights operated jointly by Vietnam airlines (VNA) and Lao airlines using ART72 planes. I traveled at the peak time of airlines risk but I am not afraid of that. Flying with ATR is not always as smooth as a Boeing or Airbus but it is ok when you fly short distances, only about an hour.

The price of ticket from Hanoi to LP is around 300USD return; however, if you are lucky and book in advance, you can have quite a cheap fare. If you fly with a Lao plane, they will serve you a light snack and drink (include beer Lao), however, if you fly with VNA, they only serve you water J. I think I was lucky as on the way back I boarded on a quite new Lao plane and it was good trip back.

When you reach LP international airport, you can catch an airport taxi that costs you around 100,000 Kip to town. However, I prefer to take a private car, kind of taxi without taxi meter sign on top. Just step outside of the airport and ask for that, it will cost you 60,000 Kip for 2 persons. Or you can catch a Tuk Tuk for the same price, so I think a car would be better.

The exchange rate is 1 USD = 8000 Kip.

Stay in LP


LP has plenty of guesthouses and a number of hotels. Just get on Google you find all the information you need on the accommodation there. However, if you have never been there, it is hard to imagine the location of the place you would like to stay. After being there, I can share with you that, basically, LP has 4 main roads along the town. 2 roads go along 2 rivers banks, Mekong and Nam Khan. In fact, these two roads are a loop around the main town. The other two roads are in the town. All the nice guesthouses, hotels and restaurants face to the two rivers banks. From my observation, those that are facing Nam Khan River are normally more expensive than the other side. And of course those inside the town are cheaper. I myself prefer to choose a guesthouse facing the Mekong River bank as the price is better. If you go in the low season like me, the room will be cheaper, only 20-30 USD you can have a nice room on this side.

Food in LP


It is fair to say that, this is a tourist destination but the price of food there is reasonable and many
buffet at market
options for you to choose.

You can have a 10,000 Kip buffet dinner in the night market. You will be given a plate and you can choose your dinner from more than 20 dishes per time with the price of 10,000 Kip. And if you want, you can treat yourself better with a grilled fresh fish with the price of 25,000 Kip and a big bottle of beer Lao with 10,000 Kip. In short, a dinner here with beer will cost you around 30,000 Kip if you go with a group more than 2 persons.

You can also try Lao style BBQ-hotpot buffet along the Mekong River bank at the cost of 60,000 Kip per head. This place is always full of people, not only tourists but also local people. The food here is very nice and fresh and the service is also very good. BBQ uses 100% charcoal for cooking.

Along the 2 rivers banks, there are many restaurants and cafes for you to choose and the price is quite reasonable. They normally have a picture menu with price in front of the shops for your convenience. I spent 4 days there and I love one place called the Bakery Café, a small café shop with about 5 tables located along Mekong River, which has a great view, nice food & drinks, free wifi and reasonable prices. I visited this place once or twice a day breakfast, lunch or for a drink. If you visit LP, I recommend you to try this place.

steel bridge

Do in LP

LP is a tourist destination, so tour agents do quite a good job. If you would like to travel around, just come to a tour agent and choose the tours you want and pay. They have plenty of tours for you to select from. If you have 2 days, you can cover some popular destinations here such as Kuangsi waterfall, Pak Ou cave, Mount Phousi, the Royal Palace museum, etc.

Once you are in LP, you should visit Kuangsi water fall, around 30km from the town, it is a beautiful
Kuangsi Waterfall
area called Kuangsi Water Park. Inside the park, besides the waterfalls there are many limestone-water-ponds where you can swim, there is also a bear rescue centre. Before this place was free but recently they charge 20,000 Kip/person and I think this is the right thing to do as you should pay for environmental service you use. This money can be used to keep this place always clean and natural as it is. I have to say that Lao friends have done a good job here to keep this place always clean.

One more thing you should do is rent a bike to ride around LP with the price 20,000 Kip/day. Before I went to LP, I saw on a friend’s FB a photo of a nice steel bridge in LP and I decided I have to cross this bridge. My friend and I rented 2 bikes and crossed this bridge. After crossing the bridge we decided to turn into a small road along the river and make a journey without a defined destination. We kept cycling to a narrow earthen road until we reached a handicraft village. We found very nice things here. The village produces traditional silk and paper. I love the way people here make paper, which is 100% natural. Paper was made from tree skin, colored by leaves and seeds, and decorated by natural leaves. The paper then produced note books, picture frames, lanterns, etc. This is really impressive and I love those environmental friendly products in this village. I also love the way people here conserve their traditional handicraft. If you want to buy some of these products, just do it as the price here is 5 times cheaper compared with those selling the same things in the airport.

In the afternoon of the day we went riding, we decided to explore the other side of Mekong River, so
paper products
we got on the ferry with bikes to cross the river. The ferry costs 10,000 Kip/trip/person. On the other side of Mekong River is Chomphet district and rarely tourists come here, it seemed that we were the only two tourists at this district.

Chomphet district has a number of villages and each village located from 3 to 5 km to the next one. The roads here are totally earthen made, and are really, really bumpy and quite hilly. In addition, there was almost no one on the roads; I was a bit worried when riding along this road as we rarely met people as well as houses along the road. However, similar to the morning, we decided to have another journey without specific destination, we thought that we will reach 2 or 3 villages then will turn back. There was nothing much along the road except for quietness and the beautiful landscape.

We reached the 3rd village and saw that it was going to rain, so we decided to turn back. Lucky us, if we met the rain on the way back, it would be hard to ride as the road can be very slippery. Honestly, it is nothing special on this side, however, we love to see the different things around and have a good afternoon exercise so the day after that both of us had pains in our legs and arms. I told my friend that cycling along this district felt like we had done a “Tour de Luang Prabang”.

Wow, I wrote quite a lot already. I can say that LP is a very peaceful and interesting destination. I
waiting for the monks
love the way people here live, gently with each other and gently with the environment. Be warned that if you like active and noisy places, please do not come here as you may feel it is too quiet sometimes both at day time and night time. There is one cultural activity I almost forget to tell you about - at around 5:30 -6:00 am, many monks start the day by seeking alms along the main street. This is a daily activity in this town.

HN 27/7/2014