Archive for the ‘lao’ Category

the great asian shirt drought

September 15, 2009
It’s time for a rant. I’ve had one brewing for a while now. At first, my ire was directed towards WordPress and its formatting idiosyncracies. I even went so far to draft an angry post about it but, thankfully for you, I lost it in cyberspace. However, a bigger issue has been making my blood boil throughout this trip and it’s high time I got it off my (shirt-clad) chest. This rant has the added bonus of making me feel especially righteous. And it’s far more satisfying bitching about real people than about a computer program.
It’s other travellers. Not all, not even most, but a highly noticeable minority. The sort that quibble over paying 18,000 dong for a beer in a restaurant when they paid 12,000 for one at a shop (a difference of about 35 cents) and then happily go and blow five times that amount on a crappy Zinger burger at KFC. Or those who are continuously wanting to know if they can have their noodles with vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, when it’s clear that all the noodles come out of one pot that has chicken bits bobbing about in it, all the while barking their demand at the vendor in English when it’s clear that the vendor doesn’t speak a word.
But those who get my goat most of all appear to be victims of a strange phenomenon known as “the Great Asian Shirt Drought.”* Would you walk down the high street of whatever godforsaken coal-mining backwater that you’re from without a shirt on? No. Would you even wait for a bus on the side of a highway or dine in a restaurant in the aforementioned backwater without a shirt on, exposing your flabby gut and bogan tattoos to all and sundry? No. Then why is it suddenly appropriate to do all of these things and more without a shirt on as soon as you touch down in SE Asia?
Clearly, there is some sort of acute shirt shortage! Somebody call the UN! Tell them to send urgent shirt aid!
*Nobody but Linds and me actually recognises this phenomenon. Yet. I’m hoping it will catch on.

leaving lao

July 18, 2009

And so we headed south on an overnight bus to the Laotian capital, Vientiane. God bless Mervin (or “Mer-VIN” as he introduced himself and who we quickly dubbed just “Merv”), the ebullient Singaporean beer bottle collector whose high spirits were contagious despite being weighed down by 6kg of glassware. Even against a soundtrack of spewing passengers (yet another delightful feature of Lao bus travel), it wasn’t such a bad journey and little did we know that our bus experiences were about to get a lot, lot worse in the not-too-distant future (to be continued…).

Vientiane: Apparently the Perth rental shortage migrated to Vientiane – who knew? Dodd took one for the team as he worked himself into a lather for over an hour trying to find us a room. The city is punctuated by the follies of leaders past and present: grandiose palaces both presidential and accommodational; ambitious civil works projects for the upcoming SE Asian Games and the Patuxai, Lao’s very own Arc de Triomphe aka the “Vertical Runway”, given the cement used for construction was actually supposed to pave a new runway for the airport. Runway schrunway. Heck, even the official signage talks it down:

Nevertheless, this shabby capital grew on us with each passing day. We hired bikes and cruised around, which, as well as making us the source of much amusement for locals, is proving to be a key element to us enjoying ourselves. Stay Another Day continued to deliver the goods – we really can’t rave enough about this organisation. Hands-down highlights were the excellent COPE visitors centre, which we visited on a whim and ended up staying for several hours, and an awesome dinner-for-a-cause at Makphet restaurant. Even sipping a beer in the mud on the banks of the Mekong had a certain appeal.

Savannakhet: Stinking hot and replete with faded colonial glory, this dusty little town was like something out of our new favourite book, Love in the Time of Cholera. We followed the walking tour suggested by the tourist office which featured the immaculate Saint Therese church, derelict stadium and the nostalgic Musée des Dinosaurs, a flashback to your high school science lab and as much a museum of museums as it is of dinosaurs. In proof that the world really is a global village, we even stumbled across a tiny expat enclave although, like the Druids, nobody knows who they were or what they were doing…

It would be remiss of us to make our final notes on Lao without mentioning what is known as the “secret war.” Despite a fairly horrific history of their own, Lao has just as much been a victim of the historical conflicts of its neighbours. The stats are jaw-dropping: over 500,000 bombing missions were conducted over Lao during the Vietnam war, which is the equivalent of one every 8 minutes for the duration of the war. About 260 million cluster bombs, with 680 submunitions in each casing, were dropped and of those, it is estimated that 30% of these did not explode. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war: this is the overwhelming legacy that Lao has to grapple with. By pure coincidence, a few weeks ago we managed to catch the Lao episode of Tony Bourdain‘s show, No Reservations. For a show about food, he gives a lot of coverage to this issue and offers some interesting comments on being a tourist and, to some degree, a voyeur in a land that has suffered so much for so little reason.

Yet, without wanting to sound romantic about it, there is a palpable sense of will for a better future. The New Internationalist country profile puts it well: a sort of tranquility that will hopefully lead to critical reflection and positive change.

Good luck Lao 🙂

we heart lao

June 29, 2009

Travellers joke that the “PDR” in Lao’s official title stands not for “People’s Democratic Republic” but for “People Don’t Run”. If Thailand is laid-back, then Lao is entirely horizontal.

For the most part, this quality is included in the “pro” column (world’s softest touts)  – except when it comes to bus travel. Shocking roads + PDR = very, very long days of travel. This equation already has journeys of a mere 120km taking about four hours and that doesn’t even make allowance for various statistical outliers, the value of which is X (unknown): waiting for enough passengers to accumulate so bus is filled to bursting point (they even carry plastic stools so that aisle space can be converted to seating space); waiting while driver jumps out and delivers bags of cucumbers/wads of cash to people he doesn’t know and therefore has to locate; waiting while bus is refuelled and tyres are changed; general waiting for reasons which are not at all apparent; and – our favourite – waiting while driver disappears for a rather lengthy “number two” stop. Even the Lao passengers got antsy at that delay.

That aside, there is a lot to love about Lao. Beautiful countryside, friendly people, tasty food. And the unit of currency is the cute-sounding and sleep-related “kip”.

Lots of photos in this post; we’ve been going snap-crazy.

Luang Nam Tha: Stifling heat and humidity confine us to being bantam-weight hikers these days, so we hired a guide for a very manageable one-day trek through the surrounding countryside. Leech count: 3; all on me. A really big one nestled happily in my boot and the sight of its engorged body even drew a small gasp from our guide, Pongse. Hard core. In addition to learning about the culture of local ethnic groups, we were also educated in one of the finer points of modern Laotian society: wrong number love. Nothing to do with numerology; rather, it is common and perfectly legitimate to strike up a courtship with someone when they accidentally call you after dialling a wrong number. There you go.

Nong Khiaw: Despite having already sacrificed many days on the altar of waterside lounging, we couldn’t help but kill a few more here.


Luang Prabang: Or “the town that could do no wrong”. There’s a lot of hype about this place but it doesn’t disappoint – we adored it so much, it ached. Lots of nooks to explore and beautifully restored colonial architecture on every corner. Indulged ourselves daily with treats both local (BBQ chicken on a stick! fish in banana leaf!) and colonial (wine! rillettes! baguettes!) and thanks to the Stay Another Day organisation, we were able to ferret out some unique sights, including the wonderful Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, My Library and a great photographic exhibition. Stay Another Day promotes “destination-friendly tourism” and we have been quite impressed with careful and genuine efforts throughout Lao to encourage fair trade, cultural preservation and sustainability in tourism, particularly in such a poor country where one might expect there to be an all-out, free-for-all grab for tourist dollars.

Notable mention has to be made of the Royal Palace Museum which proudly exhibits official and personal belongings of the royal family… who the State exiled to caves in the north where they starved to death in the early 80s. A little awkward, but no matter – perhaps easier to gloss over this minor indiscretion by simply stating that the palace (miraculously!) became a museum in 1975. Ah, that’s better.

On the upside, the museum does contain an eclectic collection of 1950s and 60s diplomatic gifts. Personal favourites include a to-scale model of Apollo 11 and a few crumbs of “moon rock” from President Nixon and what appears to be a set of hideous, opal-encrusted sardine tins presented by our very own Prime Minister Harold Holt. Hmmm… his future was about as bleak as the royal family’s.

Phonsavan: Ah, scenic Phonsavan. Home to the Plain of Jars – Lao’s answer to Stonehenge. No one knows what they are or where they came from. Cue Linds confusing amusing the other tour participants with jokes about Spinal Tap. And he wonders why we don’t make any buddies on the road. Thank God Kieran and Jane are meeting us in Saigon next week to deliver us from our social isolation.

tropical beer notes #9

June 25, 2009

Beerlao Lager 5% Lao
Beerlao Dark 6.5% Lao

One word, hey? Never noticed that until now. I’ve been waiting for this one – every second backpacker on the Malay Peninsula and up into the north sports a Beerlao singlet. Dickheads.

The Dark was tasted soon after crossing the border into Lao. As always when tasting beer after a day spent on various long haul buses, tuk tuks and a boat, it was the best I’ve ever had. On reflection, it’s a passable darkish ale and a wonderful relief from the sea of fizzy lager to the south. Looks like a cola beer, slight biscuit taste, wee bit of hops and sweetness. 11/20.

Beerlao Lager’s most distinguishing feature is it pours really nicely – a good foamy head even when halfway though the king brown.. Picture of a thirst quencher.

Being in a “People’s Democratic Republic”, the Lao Brewery Company is half owned by the government, with the other 50% controlled by Carlsberg. The barley in their beers is imported from France and Belgium while the hops are German (Laotian rice also goes into the mash).  Apparently they control 99% of the Lao beer market which is not all together surprising, seeing they don’t really allow other beers be sold.

NB: There is no “falang” tax on vino up here like in Thailand (where, thanks to a pig-headed tax regime, wine is slugged with what appears to be a 400% mark up). Hey, you have to give the Frenchies some credit – they sowed the seeds that led to rule by despotic communist thugs but they left petanque, vin, patisseries and pastis! So over the next couple of weeks, we are looking to enjoy some cheap red wine over baguettes and pate. Genius.