Life on the Mekong and Other Rivers

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog, including strong statements in support of weinerdog-riding monkeys, are our own, and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A few Laos Mentions

This article from the NY Times is interesting, and has a few references to Laos and it's history in all things intriguing.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Back from a great weekend in Jakarta.

We stayed with Michael (far right) our friend who is posted in Jakarta, and Marybeth (in Red) and her Aussie boyfriend Doug came up from Surabaya, Indonesia (where she is posted) and Canberra respectively.

Our weekend was filled with food and drink, orangutans and big cats (more on that later). Suffice it to say that we return to Vientiane more tired than when we left it.

AND, because of a relatively specific threat, the Embassy in Jakarta was closed Friday so Michael was able to spend the whole day with us after we arrived at noon, which was nice.

It's after 11:00 pm and time to go to bed. Katherine is already there.

Will put up plenty of pictures of our Saturday trip to the Taman Safari Park later. But here I am with my new best friend.

Based on their experience with us, I think the Four Seasons is going to increase their price or limit the amount of champagne one person can consume at their Sunday champagne brunch.

Following the 4 1/2 hour marathon brunch, we spent some QT in the pool....

...And then crashed in front of the TV.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Heading south

We're off to Indonesia tomorrow for the long Memorial Day weekend. Our friends Michael and Marybeth are posted in Jakarta and Surabaya respectively, so we are going to spend the weekend with them in Jakarta.

For those SIPA grads, we're also hoping to get together with Tom Husted.

Talk to y'all next week.

Reading Lao

ForthoseofyouwonderingaboutwhatitisliketoreadLao hereisoneaspectofit Therearenospacesbetweenwords onlybetweenphrases asifbeingatonallanguagewasn'thardenough.

On another note, Vone and I are at war with ants in our kitchen, forget being in a buddhist country and respecting the lives of all living things -- I'm on a mission to exterminate the ant population in our house. I left a plate of cookies in our kitchen and after an hour or so, I came back and the plate was covered with ants. And they were chocolate chip cookies!!


Monday, May 23, 2005

Wrong turns, sneezng elephants and men in drag -- our adventures in Vang Vieng

Our first road trip in Laos was terrific and full on wrong turns, a sneezing elephant and a rocket festival!

We headed up to Vang Vieng on Saturday morning and about 20 miles outside of Vientiane we realized we were on the wrong road. Luckily we weren’t too off track and would eventually hit the correct road after about 30 miles. And being on the wrong road meant we headed right by the Lao National Zoo which definitely required a stop. The zoo had an impressive number of animals (hippo, camel, porcupines, peacocks, lots of deer-type things, plus a kangaroo, asiatic black bear, otter, some very vocal gibbons and even procreating white macaques) and you could feed almost any of them. Besides feeding the baboon, Phil got to feed two elephants which he just loved. I thought they probably wanted the bananas peeled but the two elephants were eager to eat them peel and all. I fed one elephant once and thought that was enough, but Phil kept going and gave some of the bananas to a few local kids standing nearby. Phil finally was able to part with his new friends when one of the elephants either sneezed on him or just blew his/her (I didn’t check) nose. We were grateful that I always travel with antibacterial wipes!

After our brief stop off at the zoo we were back trying to find our way back to the main highway. The tricky thing about road travel in Laos is that not many locals know the actual names of the roads as listed on maps. We stopped on half a dozen occasions to ask where route 13 was and were greeted with blank stares. After several attempts, we finally figured out they just refer to Route 13 as “the road north”.

By noon we were on “the road north” and entering some stunning country. Winding roads, mountains in the distance and lush pastures. Plus, lots of houses on stilts, water buffalo, cows and PIGS! As many of you know, I think pigs are just adorable. We even got to see a mama pig and her baby piglets. Luckily, Phil didn’t stop or else we might have a new house pet.

We arrived in Vang Vieng in time for a late lunch overlooking the Nam Song River. Afterwards, we went for a hike to see some caves with two very capable tour guides, they were 13 and 9 years old. And the older one drove a hard bargain! The caves were very interesting, although the third cave was quite narrow so I stayed behind while Phil and the kids went inside. After our adventure into the caves, our younger tour guide Khit, an adorable girl, invited us back to her house for some water. So there we were meeting Khit's family, drinking water while their ducks and chickens wandered around the table.

It is no wonder that Vang Vieng has become a popular tourist spot; it is a beautiful place that still has retained its local flavor. As we sipped our Beer Lao at a restaurant at sunset we got to watch many locals come for their evening bath – with clothes on -- in the river. (Vang Vieng is also famed for its opium dens and “special pizzas” but we stayed clear of that scene.)

Sunday was quite a day. Most towns in Laos have a Boon Bong Fai (rocket festival) at the end of the dry season to encourage the rains to start. And Sunday was the Rocket Festival for Vang Vieng. The rockets are dressed up (almost like we have floats inthe US) and paraded into the camp grounds with everyone from the village singing and drinking Lao-Lao (Lao whiskey) as they enter camp grounds. Oh yea, and many of the men also dress up in drag. It is hours and hours of rockets being set off by each neighborhood with no real safety precautions. While the adults are parading around and drinking, all the kids from the neighborhoods are also shooting off there own rockets (U.S. moms and dads would be horrified!). Seriously, some of these kids holding rather large rockets weren’t older than 7!

And like most town fairs, there is plenty to eat and drink at the festival. BBQ chicken feet, ice cream, noodles, spicy papaya salad, beer, sodas and of course Lao-Lao. Oh and there's even a man-powered merry-go-round. We got to see Khit ride the merry-go-round with some of her friends -- we've got a great picture of that.

As we were wandering around and chatting up the locals Phil befriended one group who had already consumed a few bottles of Lao-Lao and were eager to have Phil join the fun. So there, at 10 am at the Rocket festival in Vang Vieng, Phil had his first taste of the famed Lao-Lao. I think I’m pretty lucky that he didn’t like it! Many rockets later, Phil and I were hot, sweaty and incredibly sun burnt. We headed over to a riverside restaurant to watch the rockets in the shade and with cold water at hand.

Feeding bananas to the elephants at the Lao Zoo. One of the elephants was an albino, but I didn't hold that against him. He got bananas too, even if he didn't have pigment in his eyes.

The darker (non-albino) elephant was cute enough, even playing a bit of peek-a-boo...but

This is what you look like after an elephant sneezes on you. I think the darker one was laughing at me...bastard!

So after driving through some small mountains and a relatively large valley, the mountains and karsts around Vang Vieng just kind of emerge like a wall. Very cool to drive towards.

Even monks need clean bikes...maybe especially monks.

The main bridge in town (for now...they are in the process of building one cars can go over)

Katherine crossing the town bridge. 2,000 kip per person, 1,000 kip for a bike, 4,000 kip for a motorbike.

Katherine and our "guides" on the way to the caves

In the caves. This was the second one we visited. I was a bit upset at all the graffiti (you can see hand prints and words behind me) until I figured out they were all made with mud, and weren't permanent. Then not such a big deal.

We went to three that were all in the same general area. Very interesting, although as I slithered through the very narrow passages in the third cave, I wished I had stayed outside with Katherine. It was pretty freaky.

Katherine said at one point as she was waiting outside the third cave she yelled as loud as she could into the cave. We were far enough into it that I didn't hear a thing. Plus it was hot. Plus there were big spiders...Icky.

Katherine and Khit on the way back from the caves

Having some water at Khit's house after she helped lead us to and through the caves. That's a fishing net to my right, and their house is above us (on stilts). We weren't invited in, but it was great to be invited into their yard to share some water.

Enjoying a post-caving beer by the Nam Song river. It was hot out, and contrary to popular (or at least my) belief, it was none-too-cool in the caves too. Or maybe I sweat like a mofo in the caves from nerves.

Evening comes to Vang Vieng

our new friend Khit (in the middle) with two friends on the merry-go-round

Learning from the locals, Katherine got herself an umbrella and a plastic bag of iced coffee to ward off the hot sun at the rocket festival

solitary fisherman poling his boat up the river

Another village's rocket arrives. It was really great, as each village's rocket was carried in, it was accompanied by groups of people banging on drums, cymbals, pots, pans, empty motor oil bottles, basically anything that would make noise...and singing. Then, they would put down the rocket and continue singing and dancing and drinking and beating on drums and such until it was their turn to fire their rockets.

Note the man in the middle in the dress and bra. Not only is the rocket festival meant to usher in the rains, but it is also has to do with fertility (or something) with men in drag and women carrying around phalluses (phalli?).

Rockets waiting their turn

My Lao-Lao drinking buddies with their rocket in the background. The rocket is sitting atop the ornate (gaudy?) base.

The Launchpad (and launch crew scrambling around to ready their rocket)

We have liftoff!

A rocket going more horizontal than vertical, as seen from our lunch spot.

Heading home from the rocket festival...

Back from Vang Vieng

We're back after a fun and interesting weekend. Of course when we left Vientiane we went on the wrong road. When we stopped after about an hour at a Y-junction to ask which way to go for Route 13, the guy kind of looked at us and said we had to go back to Vientiane to get 13, so instead we had to meander through the back country for a few hours winding our way back to 13 farther North, which was fun.

We even passed the zoo and stopped in to feed the elephants and the one lonely baboon in a too-small cage...very sad. Anyway, Vang Vieng, picturesque, relaxing, hot, caves, rocket festival, parade of kids following us around, etc.

Internet not working at home right now for some reason, so pictures and whatnot to follow when we figure that out.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Off to the north

Sorry for the silence....but I've been busy and you know Katherine doesn't have time to update you all on her life.

Anyway, we're off to Vang Vieng for the weekend, so hopefully something interesting enough to tell you about happens while there.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

This guy visited our house (okay, on the outside wall) the other night. We like him because he has a voracious appetite for mosquitoes and other bugs. And he makes funny noises.

Blog and other updates

So it seems we can now again put pictures on the blog, which is nice...

And now for the big news....


It only took 5 tries. I'm now 1-4.

I have to say that the win took it out me though. I usually play two matches, but could only play one today. It is indoors AND unairconditioned and it was freakin' hot and humid today (and I did have a Japanese Encephalitis shot today), so I figure that's why.

This is TAT (like the past tense of teach) our resident tennis instructor. He's given Katherine a backhand, and gives me a good workout by running me ragged. The Ambassador's residence has a tennis court on it, and she has opened it up to anyone from the embassy who wants to play, so that is very nice.

Katherine and I have yet to play together, but I think we'll play some doubles sometime soon.

Monday, May 16, 2005


Beer shops near university must close

Souknilundon Southivongnorath

District officials will inform the owners of nine entertainment venues today that they must close their businesses, in order to prevent students skipping classes and going out to drink instead.

“Too many students are going to these places. It is not acceptable that they spend their time drinking while they should be in school or university. It also creates a very bad impression when people in the area see bars full of students in school uniform sitting and drinking,” Xaythany district Deputy-Governor Phouvieng Bounsrili told Vientiane Times on Wednesday.

The clubs and bars in question are located on Nongphaya Road , close to the National University of Laos .

Talk about stacking the deck for grade inflation

I wish I was a high school student in Kansas right now. I'd get 100% on every science test.

It's easy when every science question can quite correctly (in the Kansas school board's estimation at least) be answered with "God did it".

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Blog Trouble???

For some reason, I can't post pictures right now. Not sure what is wrong. Hopefully it will fix itself somehow, because I can't figure out what's wrong.

However, while you are waiting for more pictures of my lovely wife doing lovely things in lovely Laos (and pictures of me too), check out Especially those of you planning a visit. You can get some info on what there is to see in different parts of the country.

We're driving to Vang Vieng next weekend. It's about a 3 hour drive north of here on the Nam Song river and it's supposed to be very relaxing. Lots of caves to explore, great places to bike, and you can rent an innertube and float down the river.

And the cool thing is, there are little houses on stilts in the middle of the river that sell water, soda and beer. So as you float by, you order, and someone jumps in and swims over to you to deliver your beer.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Just what Katherine needs...

So they've discovered a new species of rodent in Laos.

From what I understand, they are good eatin'!

We went for a long bike ride this morning with our friend Bryce, who is the departing Security Officer here. He showed us all the paths and roads and whatnot that you can bike on. It's alot of fun (and muddy too) and you can pretty much go for hours around the rice paddies and through little villages. We got plenty of stares and heard a lot of "oh, falang mii khi tom laai" basically, look at the muddy white folk. Katherine was an especially entertaining sight for some reason. Probably because she's so damn cute

Traffic Jam on the bike path

Katherine making some friends along the way

We weren't the only people out on the road today. I need to figure out where we can get some of those hats. Katherine's in the background

Friday, May 13, 2005

You're spending the night with Phil Nervig...Acting Consul

So today was my first day as Acting Head of Section, what with my boss being gone on R&R and all. And just like a bad movie plot, all the complicated, strange, maddening things that rarely (okay, not rarely) happen at a Consular section happened today. It was like the place was a black hole, sucking all the stuff that is anything but run of the mill right into my lap.

Thankfully the staff was here to offer me tissues when I cried, and they did coax me out from under my desk after about 20 minutes when someone finally hit on the idea of offering me candy (just like my mom used to do when she wanted me to do something). I'm still a sucker for that ploy.

Anyway, Monday will be better....if only because I plan on calling in sick and staying in bed all day with the covers pulled over my head.

Katherine's on her way to pick me up and take me to the Sunset Bar for a beer. Maybe I'll have 5 or 10. We're going biking tomorrow morning with some other embassy folk, and my friend, Dr. Mark Blegen, Ph.D, once did a study in Grad School that proved that alcohol consumption the night before an athletic event enhances performance (or at least that's the way I remember it).

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Lao love triangle at the Fried Duck restaurant.

It's the staff's favorite place to go. They serve, fried duck (of course), duck blood soup and raw duck blood...and beer.

Despite the flip flops and the rented club, Katherine hasn't lost her swing. This driving range is a short walk from our house. We happened upon it a few weeks ago.

Making friends with a 1-shoe'd local and her dog. She didn't quite know what to make of me, and the dog just plain didn't care.

The rice paddy at the end of our street. You can see 3 people working the field in the distance.

Blessing day at Wat Si Muang

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Best served with a little lemon and butter

So this morning Vone said that yesterday Phat (our gardener) saw a big snake in our yard. When I asked how big, she spread her arms as wide as she could and said BIG!

Thankfully, Phat said that the snake slithered under our gate and out of our lives.

I mentioned the snake to our night guard, because he walks around the yard at night. I figured I'd tell him to watch out because, you know, snakes are icky and dangerous and have huge fangs and poison and no legs. Instead of being scared, our guard said he would look for it, because, as he said, snakes are very good to eat. I'm sure that may be true, but I don't know that I'd go walking around a dark yard beating the bushes to try to get a snake.

By the way, he said cobra is his favorite. He also said that cobras are only out in the bush, and wouldn't be found in town in our yard, but he probably said that because when he first mentioned cobras I started to cry.

Monday, May 09, 2005

I guess my reputation preceded me: or how my name keeps us entertained

On Friday I left my Nalgene water bottle at the embassy Badminton court after a rousing game. Anyway, we went into the embassy on Sunday to pick something up, and the embassy guard who I've played badminton with before (and thus he knows my Nalgene bottle) said that he had it.

So he gave it to me, and it was labeled with a yellow sticky so that whichever guard saw me first would know to give it to me.

It was labeled....Mr. Feel.

Probably because of my caring and sensitive nature.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Okay, this is a better picture of the rain, which fell this afternoon. We danced around in it a bit, then sat back on the veranda and listened to the sound and fury of a Vientiane storm. Lots of thunder and VERY loud rain. I think we'll need some bigger umbrellas to survive the rainy season.

Katherine on the go. She's right. She has very little time for silly little blog entries.

Okay, she made some time to update all of her adoring fans about her life here in the great beyond, but as you can see she is multitasking. One can't concentrate on blogs alone here on the far side of the world.

From Katherine!

This non-working life sure keeps me busy! As many of you know, I’ve become a member of the Women’s International Group (WIG) here in Vientiane. It is equal parts a social group and a fundraising organization. It raises money to help children and schools in Laos. With the money that WIG raises, they build classrooms and bathrooms (many schools don’t have any), buy wheelchairs for handicap children and give money for needed medical care. It is a really good organization and I’ve been able to meet a lot of other terrific expat women. Socially, there is usually one event each week for members like cooking classes, golf outing, lunches, field trips. It has been a great organization to join as a new comer to Vientiane. And recently, I volunteered to help update the WIG Guide to Vientiane which is 7 years old. It will be a fun project as I’ll need to get to know the city even more and it should keep me quite busy. I’m hopeful that the Guide will raise over $10,000 for WIG.

Besides being active in WIG, I’m taking tennis lessons, aerobics classes, and I recently started talking Lao lessons twice a week. Of course, I’m also spending lots of time with Vone. And the cultural differences still make both of us laugh. Last week we were looking through one of our photo albums and we had several funny conversations. First off, she pointed to a picture of me and told me very nicely that I am fatter now than the picture we were looking at. In Laos, it isn’t considered rude to tell someone that they are “tui” (fat). Next, she pointed to my brother (not knowing who he was) and asked if he was from Pakistan. Christian, I think it is time to cut off the goatee! She also thinks my dear friend Kate Tyler is from Japan.

But my favorite cultural difference from the past few weeks is Vone’s idea of a diet. After coming back from a long weekend in Koh Samui with lots of pina coladas I decided I needed to cut back a bit so I could loss a few kilos. I thought I explained to Vone that I wanted lots of fresh vegetables, stir-fries, and fruit. And I thought I had explained that I didn’t want fried food. But it seems that a diet here in Laos just means eating smaller portions because for dinner the next night she served us deep-fried hard boiled eggs. No joke, they were battered and fried. Quite interesting and tastey, but certainly not what I have in mind when I’m trying to lose weight. I don’t even think Atkins would recommend it!

It’s Mothers Day here in Laos so happy Mothers Day to Mom/Diana, Mom/Bonnie and Mom/Marilyn!!!

I hope everyone is well and happy.


Saturday, May 07, 2005

If you build it, they will fund...

Thought this was interesting (and inevitable, given that Electricidade de France is an equity partner in the project). Credit Lyonnais (now Calyon after the merger with Credit Agricole) is in the syndicate of banks providing about $1BN in loans to the Nam Theun II dam project in Laos.

The World Bank voted to support the project with loan (and equity, perhaps) guarantees, so the original partners (EDF, a Thai developer, and the Lao gov't) will build it. Had the World Bank voted against supporting the project, it would have been built anyway by the Chinese, with far less international oversight and far less concern for limiting environmental impact. Although limiting environmental impact is admittedly hard when you are flooding a large portion of a region to create a resevoir. Anyway, the USG abstained from the vote. Didn't vote no, but didn't vote yes either. Our vote was unnecessary, however, because all other voting members voted to support.

I guess we'll need to get out to that part of the country to see it before it goes under water.

The Doctors are in...

So we went to this reception honoring the 12 graduating doctors from a specialist training program tonight. The program is run by an organization called Health Frontiers that works with the medical faculty of the National University, local hospitals, and the Ministry of Health here in Laos, and trains specialists in Pediatrics and Internal Medicine. Prior to the launch of the program in 1997 (I think), there were 7 Pediatric specialists in the entire country of Laos. The program has now graduated another 21 pediatricians, and 6 internists.

Anyway, I learned more about the state of medical training in Laos, which is relatively bleak. Generally, medical students do not get textbooks, nor do they see patients while in med school. The entirety of their studies consists of lectures by professors, many of whom just read out of outdated textbooks while the med students take notes. They graduate and are practicing doctors before they see and treat their first live patient.

In addition to the specialist program, Health Frontiers also has been working with the medical school here to change the curriculum to include more updated teaching methods, and have impressed upon the establishment that hands on training might also be a good idea. According to our friend Melanie, a pediatrician from Pennsylvania who is a volunteer trainer here for a year, there is some progress.

AND, there are now 28 specialized pediatricians for the more than 3MM kids in the country instead of just 7, with a further 6 ready to graduate from the program next year. All in all a pretty good, and very necessary program.

This is our friend Erin at the Sunset Bar, our new favorite place to drink a Beer Lao and watch the river go by. The owners tore apart an old boat to get the wood to make it. And when the river is high, it comes up below the floorboards (the bar is on stilts).