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.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Off to Bangkok

Katherine and I decided that we (and our teeth) needed a trip to Bangkok. So we are off tonight for two fun-filled nights (and dentist-filled days) tonight. We thought about waiting until we were in the US to get our checkups, but then realized that medical care (including dentistry) is just as good and much cheaper here.

Of course, that doesn't include the cost of flights and hotel, etc., but Bangkok is fun, so whatever.

We'll catch a movie, eat some good food, laize about by the hotel pool, buy some tennis balls, meet up with some friends, avoid the demonstrations and counter demonstrations that will happen in the lead up to Sunday's election. You know, a typical weekend in Bangkok.

We'll be back Sunday

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

And finally, our transport down the river. Yes, yes, you've seen pictures like this before. Tough.

And here I am showing some kids the magic box in which I'd captured their souls. They seemed to enjoy it

And here I am explaining that Katherine's not really a white devil. She just doesn't like kids very much.

Here's Katherine scaring some kids. They were already a little skittish around the big Falangs, but Katherine really put them over the edge.

Received some photos of our trip down the Nam Ou river in November from Ari and Jennine today. Here's a good one.

Herein lies the UXO problem in Laos

This map shows bomb data from the war, and this is just the aerial bombs. Doesn't include mortars or any other type of ordnance not dropped from planes.

Notice the deep red in the middle of the country. This is the Plain of Jars, a plateau, that, unfortunately for the people living there at the time (and today, given the UXO accidents that still happen often), was the flat land between the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao forces on one side (coming in from Huaphan to the north and North Vietnam to the east) and the Royalist Army and Hmong soldiers from the south and west.

And the southern part of the country was the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Red means REALLY bombed, yellow means VERY bombed, and purple means bombed more than you would want your town bombed X 10. As you know, I was recently in Sekong Province. A very colorful province on this map.

The 17th parallel is shown, which is where North and South Vietnam were separated. As such, the HCM Trail started just above the 17th parallel and ran down to numerous exits into South Vietnam. At the height of the war the NVA was moving over 20,000 troops and tons of equipment down the trail per month. As such, it was bombled heavily.

We are finalizing our assistance plan for 2006 (which, in actuality, runs from July 1, 2006 to June 30, 2007, go figure). I'll let y'all know what the USG will be doing once it's final and public.

And she's got one on the line. Just a matter of reeling it in.

Katherine, ever the patient fisherman, doesn't set the hook too early.

He's taking the bait.

We've started a new sport called cat fishing.

Monday, March 27, 2006

When Politics collides with Policy...(part 367,663)

...Then Politics stops, backs up, rams policy again, then gets out and beats policy about the head and neck with a 2x4, all the while screaming 'YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!!!'

or something like that...

Anyway, probably not smart to do continue to do this while repeatedly making some of your biggest creditor countries feel like this.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Our friends Jon and Rose came over for tacos last week...mmm tacos...and brought Jak's sister, Amee (means cat in Khmu) over for a reunion. They ran around quite a bit, but I don't think they got along as well as Rose would have liked. Amee is a relatively well-adjusted, quiet, loving cat, while Jak seems to still be working through some childhood issues related to being abandoned by his parents at a Korean barbecue restaurant. As such, he beat the crap out of his sister for most of the night. Right now he seems to be saying 'get out of my chair, or I will MAKE you get out of my chair.' I am certain that Amee was out of the chair soon after this picture was taken.

Yet another wedding reception. We skipped the VIP table. Really, I think it is all a ruse to separate the boring Falangs from the Lao. So we sat with a couple local co-workers and some relatives of the groom (we know the bride). Anyway, I don't think we have any more weddings for a while, which is nice.

Just a reminder of where we are going very soon...but not soon enough.

So my question is...

Who do we know in Hanoi, Mainland PA. and Galesburg IL?

You've got me. But welcome to Life on the Mekong.

Anyway, Katherine is over at Dan and Dana Bischoff's house, formerly Erin's house, for a party. I was there too, but could only hang until about 5:00, at which point I came home to mentally prepare for the wedding reception we have to go to tonight.

Seriously, we need a moratorium on Lao people getting married.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Well, that was a bust...

From Today's Vientiane Times:

A Buddha image recently discovered in the Mekong River in Vientiane, rumored to be a rare emerald figure missing since the 19th century, has been found to be of slightly more recent origin. The artifact was found last Saturday evening in Vientiane’s Hadsayfong district, by local young fisherman, while he was setting fishnets with his grandfather. The small statue weights 5.3 Kg and is 37 cm wide by 47 cm high with a hollow centre, which is why the two were able to spot it floating along the Mekong River.

To find out the reality behind the mysterious green figure, the Vientiane Information and Culture Department collaborated with the district authorities to take the image for testing last Monday. Deputy Director of the Department Mr. Soutan Phonsongkham said to local media that the statue is Hindu in style and not Buddhist, and is not remotely rare or valuable. The image is made from plastic with a hollow inside, and features various decorative items which are not visible in Buddhist imagery, so the figure is not a Buddha image at all.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

They don't make it easy

So it seems that a trip to Burma is a bit harder to plan than we thought, unless of course I have the ability to rip the fabric of the time-space continuum. Thankfully, I do. It's something we learned in Foreign Service training.

Anyway, it turns out that to purchase airline tickets on domestic Burmese carriers, you must pay cash. Domestic Burmese carriers have no offices in Vientiane (or anywhere other than Burma and Bangkok).

You also need to purchase and pick up tickets (in our case) 12 days BEFORE you are scheduled to arrive in Rangoon.

As such, we will be using plan 2...time travel. Or not. I've seen what time travel can do to the universe on an important and terrifying episode of The Simpsons.

Homer: D'oh! I mean...hey.

Bart: Good morning, Father dear. Hope you're well.

Lisa: Are we taking the new Lexus to Aunt Patty and Selma's funeral today?

Homer: Hmm, fabulous house, well-behaved kids, sisters-in-law dead, luxury sedan...woo hoo! I hit the jackpot. Marge, dear, would you kindly pass me a donut?

Marge: Donut? What's a donut?

Homer: Aah! Aah! [pushes toaster handle, disappears] [donuts start to fall from the sky]

Marge: Hmm. It's raining again.

Anyway, our friend Walter in Rangoon has offered to front the cash (sucker) and pick up our tickets for us. A less messy way may be to deal with a travel agency (big sucking sound from my wallet). I guess that's what we'll do.

Now, if we can just get visas to Burma we'll be all set.

The beautiful people always get the best jobs...

A whole family of models in Laos.

Just like Miss Universe, but without Donald Trump...

Or a swimsuit competition.

The Politburo and Central Committee of the Lao People's Revolution Party was unanimously elected on Monday.

Here are the results.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


I guess the 8th Party Congress delegates were busy. After all, they accomplished the following:

After hearing, studying and making extensive comment, the delegates of the Party Congress unanimously adopted the political report of the Executive Committee of the Party Central Committee presented by the President of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Khamtay Siphandone. The congress highly valued the sensitivity and creative capacity of the Party to apply Marxism-Leninism and revolutionary experiences in the formulation and improvement of the Party’s policy, in particular its proactive and timely manner of initiating the renovation policy and leadership in the principled implementation of policy and subsequently scoring successive victory.


Monday, March 20, 2006

The things I do for you

Hot on the trail of pictures of monkeys riding weiner dogs.

And yes, Mark, I have lost a bit of humanity. How dare you, sir. How dare you.


From: Thornburg, Mark H(Islamabad)
To: Nervig, Phillip B (CONS)(VIENTIANE)
Subject: By the way

Am here in sunny Karachi, and am taking a moment to catch back up on Life on the Mekong, and so I must say: hey, best of luck in Ukraine! It’s a nice place – they’ve got a cultural fixation with wheat beer that I ADORE – but good luck on dealing with the weather moving from 17 thousand degrees to minus twenty six. I’ll see what I can do about dropping in to visit in Kiev – who doesn’t love Kiev, after all?

Enjoy your day!
Monkey on dog photo coming once I get back to Islamabad (have you lost hope yet?).

From: Nervig, Phillip B (CONS)(VIENTIANE)
Sent: Monday, January 30, 2006 8:56 AM
To: Thornburg, Mark HSubject: RE: Laos


Where’s my monkey on a weiner dog picture?

That picture is the only thing standing between me and a total loss of credibility.

Literally almost 6 people are waiting anxiously for photographic proof of the wonderous event that you captured.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Back to the beach.

Lao New Year is coming up. You all might remember last year I was duty officer, and, as such, we hung around town getting doused with water by friends, well-wishers, and strangers. This year, we are getting out of here.

There is a 3 day national holiday, meaning 4 days off gets you 11 (or 3 days would get you 11, but I got the short end of the vacation stick in the consular section). Anyway, we're going to Burma for 6 days, followed by a few days on the beach. We're going to head to Railay Beach in Krabi Province, Thailand.

We'll be doing lots of things like what Katherine is doing in the picture.

Then, a week after we get back, Katherine is off to London, en route to NY. I'll follow a week later for 3 weeks in the US.

I haven't had a full week off in two years (I think this is true) so I'm really looking forward to April and May.

Tonight we had Jon and Rose and Tom and Goht over for the best damn meal in a long time. TACOS!!!! Not so much choice in the Mexican/Tex Mex cuisine here in Vientiane. I'm heading up to bed. Mmmmm....tacos.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Just in time to avert disaster


reminds me of this one. One of the funniest ever.

The Fabulous Life of the Foreign Service Family

Oh, what wonderous adventures we have!

We're off living in a dreamworld of international travel, fabulous outings, world-shaping events...and boggle.

Yes, dear friends, our amazing life tonight includes Cambell's Tomato Soup for dinner and a rousing game of post-dinner Boggle, the game so cutting edge that when we opened up the box there were pieces of paper from previous games that my grandmother played when she was alive (at least it looks like her handwriting).

Tomorrow is another day in the life!

SOL on the RPS trendsetter thing...

Although, really, Rock, Paper, Scissors was in the shadows until we came along and shined the light on it.

And we are gentlemen enough to not require referees.

But THIS is great. I especially like the tagline: "WORLD RPS SOCIETY: Serving the needs of decision makers since 1918"

Damn that Saddam, he's stealing my mojo

So you all know about my main activity over our New Year's vacation was deciding every single thing with Rock, Paper, Scissors (or RPS...Trademark Pending) with Matt Blank.

Anyway, Geoffrey informs me that Saddam Hussein is trying to get in on the act.

Check it out Here.

That jerk Saddam is always trying to be like Matt and me.

He also considers himself quite the interior decorator.

JUST LIKE ME!!!! Damn him.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

So I've been hit with the flu that is going around the embassy. I blame these guys.

Or maybe my neighbor, who had the flu over the weekend, I don't know. Anyway, today was mostly sleep, followed by nap on the couch, followed by TV, and now time to sleep again. Hope to go to work tomorrow, but we'll see.

On a more sour note, our neighbor across the street was robbed yesterday. Punk kids, probably. Or not. Their back window was broken and the bar pried open. They lost a bunch of jewelry and other stuff. And I found out tonight an Embassy guy was robbed yesterday too. Seems the people knew where to go, because a 100 lb safe was taken from his bedroom closet.

Anyway, we are now seeing swarthy, theiving, no-goodniks in every shadow. I'm not worried though. We have a killer watchcat protecting our home by sleeping all day. Not unlike me, currently.

Wedding bells in the FS family

Our good friend Marybeth from Surabaya is engaged to her Aussie boyfriend Doug. Here they are during our trip to Indonesia last May, Marybeth with me and Doug directly behind her.

They are off to Casablanca next, but we'll be able to spend some quality time with them (and Michael too, although we're mad at him for going to South America next) back in Washington as we all cycle through for a few months after our current tours.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Red as far as the eye can see.

Nobody throws a party like the communist party. In advance of the upcoming 8th Party Congress, they are dressing up the city in sexy red.

A picture from last weekend's wedding. Not the one this past weekend, but the one the weekend before. And yes, we were kickin' it at the VIP table there too.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Expatriate weekend extraordinaire

I feel dirty. Very dirty. We have had quite an expatriate weekend. To wit:

Saturday morning expatriate Phil gets up and goes golfing with the guys. 18 holes, including caddy, $15. Expat Phil and his expat friends question why we have male caddies, when usually we have young ladies.

Meanwhile, expat Katherine goes off to do her volunteer work with the children.

Saturday night, on a whim after watching an episode of The Sopranos on DVD that was particularly full of Italian food, expats Katherine and Phil go for a lovely dinner of Italian food at one of the most expensive (okay, now those that have been here know that 'expensive' is relative, and should be taken with a grain of salt) restaurants in town, where we run into the Australian Ambassador and his wife and chat for a while about life in Asia, life in the US, Australia, etc.

This morning, expat Phil goes to the US Ambassador's house and plays tennis in the morning, while expat Katherine relaxes at home.

Next, expats Phil and Katherine get dressed up in their local garb and attend their gardener's daugther's wedding baaci. Of course, expats Phil and Katherine don't know where their gardener lives, so their housekeeper comes over and leads them there on her motorbike. Nice housekeeper, she. Once there, as the father of the bride's employers, expats Phil and Katherine are treated like royalty. "oh no, you should go to the front" "No, it's much too hot at that table, sit here and we will ensure that you have a fan blowing on you." "You have to leave early? Why don't we serve you food before everyone else eats..."

Next, expats Katherine and Phil head off for brunch with friends, followed by an afternoon at the local expat club, swimming and generally enjoying the day, while locals tend to their small garden plots on the riverbanks.

Later, we will go for massages.

I need a shower to wash off the stench of elitism.

Maybe I should hire someone to bathe me.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

If it's Saturday, it must be Dansavanh

My return to the links was less than stellar, but it was fun.

I got up at 6:00 am (god, who am I?) to head out to Dansavanh for some golf. It's been like 5 months, so it was great to get out.

Of course, Katherine is spending her Saturday teaching English to blind kids, so it makes me feel just a tad selfish. On the other hand, golf is fun.

I went with our friend Jon and a couple other American guys who live here (and are true expatriates who have lived overseas for years and years). Good day of golf, but hot, and I really, truly sucked.

But now I'm comfortably ensconced in our air-conditioned home, and don't know if I'll leave for the rest of the day.

We've been hearing from some of our friends from A-100 on their postings as well.

Sadly, our good friend Michael (Jakarta) will be far away in Bogota, Colombia. Happily, our good friend Marybeth (Surabaya) will be closer, in Morocco, so we've got a built in vacation spot. We've also heard from friends who will be in Moscow and Warsaw. And Kiev has direct flights to Paris (Marty and Cyndy, and our recently departed friend Erin) and London (everybody there), so it should be a fun place to be visit-wise too.

We don't yet know who got Windhoek. Whoever it is is on our newly-created enemies list.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Recently heard on Voice of America -- Lao Edition


Ukraine's foreign minister is calling recent developments in U.S. - Ukrainian relations "extraordinarily positive."

Me thinks someone tipped the Foreign Minister off to the 'recent development' of our next posting. I mean, what else could he be talking about?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hubris, or shrewd business move?

When trying to gain online access the Vientiane Times, the government daily Newspaper of record in Laos, you now get this message:

Dear Vientiane Times readers
The Vientiane Times would like to inform you that we are now providing an online subscription service. Readers can fill in the form on the Vientiane Times website and will be given a logon name and password so that you can read our daily news on our website. Readers can make payment with a SWIFT code through correspondent banks around the world, so it will be easy for you to transfer the subscription payment. The correspondent banks are listed below. When you have completed the transfer of subscription fee, please email the receipt details to the Vientiane Times.

$10 per month, $50 per year, or $120 for 3 years. Thanks, but no thanks.

Unfortunately, that means that I cannot continue to provide you with all the news from Laos, as provided by the Times. I guess you'll just have to be content with headlines. They tell most of the story anyway.

Such as this one that was in the Times recently:

Champassak Hopes for Goats

Concise, informative, lyrical. Really, you don't need much more to understand the desire, nay, dire need, for goats in a southern province.

And I'll tell you, there was something missing from my trip to Champassak last week that I never could quite put my finger on. I now realize it was the acute shortage of goats that I was noticing, but not quite understanding. We need to get goats there STAT!

Thank you Vientiane Times!

This is bad news for everyone; Japanese engineers surveying the main road through town for a road project that is just starting. They are going to rebuild the road from the airport to the bridge, about 20 KM, including the main road through town (and also our road from home to work). It's going to take two years and completely snarl traffic for the remainder of our time here. Time for alternate routes to work.

Some of the embassy staff enjoying a lovely pepsi, except Seng, who was drinking a disgusting, green-colored Mirinda soda.

The bride and groom and Dave, our Info Management officer.

And they keep impeding his progress into the house, so the groom has to basically bribe the bride's family by passing out envelopes of cash, such as the one the woman on the left just received. After a suffficient enough time fighting back, and demanding money, they finally let him into the house, where the baaci takes place.

And the bride's family don't allow the groom and his posse in. So the groom and his posse basically push their way in.

And as the two sides meet, they force each other to drink beer and scotch for some reason

Meanwhile, the bride's parents and family block the entrance to the house and prevent the groom and his posse from entering.

They march towards the house, banging drums and cymbals and singing songs about how the son-in-law is coming, open the doors, make way, the son-in-law has arrived, etc.

The wedding baaci generally takes place at the bride's house (which is also the bride's parents' house) So the groom and his posse (including two sword-wielding guards or something) march towards the bride's house.

An important part of any Lao wedding; trying to figure out where the groom and his posse are.

Two employees from the Embassy got married today, so we went to the wedding Baaci this morning. Katherine wore her brand new Sinh.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Current weather in Vientiane, Laos: 95 but feels like 100.
Current weather in Kiev, Ukraine: 27 but feels like 19.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Blegz and Kristin are coming our way

Our friends Mark ("Blegz") and Kristin are coming to Laos! YAY!

Mark is a perfesser or some such other fancy-book learnin' type, and he's been invited to speak at a conference about bones, muscles and the 4 food groups (or something, I don't know) in Taiwan. Too bad Eva Air cancelled their route; they'll have to fly through Bangkok or Vietnam.

But, Kristin studied in Thailand during college, so maybe she'll want to take a trip down memory lane (or at least a trip between the international and domestic terminals at the Bangkok airport), as they fly up to Udorn.

Anyway, because they are currently scheduled as our next visitors, they will likely get to share in our overpriced helicopter ride. Who cares if our money goes to help the disadvantaged kids of Laos, I still feel totally ripped off, and will only go on the helicopter ride in protest.

I like the way this guy thinks...

Girl: Do you have any exciting plans for tonight?

Guy: No. Do you want to have a hot dog eating contest?

Girl: Not so much, since I'm a vegetarian.

Guy: I guess I win, then.

--Fordham University, Rose Hill
Overheard by: Andrea

This is from this website which posts things that people overhear around New York (and send in to the proprietor of the website). Many are very raunchy and/or sexual, so if you get the vapors easily and are all out of laudanum, you best not read others.

I thought the guy's 'win' was pretty funny, though. Also a hot dog eating contest sounds like a great way to spend a night with friends.

Sounds downright civil. What could be wrong with such a system...oh yeah, right.

From the Vientiane Times, which has now gone all uppity and requires a subscription to read stuff more than a day old...

Election preparations in Attapeu province

The Election Committee of Attapeu province is preparing documents on what candidates should and should not talk about with the villagers during their election campaign.
The committee president, Mrs Vatsady Khotyotha, said all candidates should be careful not to say anything against one another. They should only introduce themselves to the villagers and inform them about their background.

“All candidates should make sure their discourse is in line with the Party’s policy. They should not promise to do anything for the villagers, only record the problems in the village, to report them to the National Assembly, where they will be taken into consideration,” Mrs Vatsady said.

The candidates will represent all the categories of the population, including ethnic groups. They will become the legislative organ of the country, representing the Party and the people at all levels.

All Lao nationals can apply to be NA members, but they must match legally determined criterions. Some citizens have applied to be candidates, but were not accepted by the Provincial Election Committee because they were not sufficiently qualified: some did not know enough about the Party or about governmental policies for the development of the nation.

“I think all our candidates now are qualified to represent the people. They will work to serve the interest of the people,” she added.

There are five candidates in Attapeu province. Three of them will be elected for the National Assembly. All candidates will carry out the election campaign together on March 15. They are also expected to meet with the villagers several times afterwards.

It is fundamental that they understand the villagers’ problems so that they can report precisely to the NA sessions.

Attapeu province is located in the south-eastern part of Laos. It has five districts and a population of 112,000 people. There are 135 election units in the province, of which 60 are mobile.

Many parts of the province are remote and mountainous with no access by road, such as Xamluang, Kongna, Vangtut, and Muangkao in Xanxay district. It takes from five to ten days to walk from the provincial town.

“We are asking the National Election Committee for airplanes,” Mrs Vatsady said. The planes might be used for the candidates to carry out their election campaign in these areas.

At the moment, the provincial committee is actively spreading information to the villagers about the election. The province has designed five informative documents at provincial level, three for district level and two documents for village level; they will be read and explained to local populations. “We inform the villagers about election rules, and about their right and obligation, as Lao citizens, to vote for their representatives. We tell them that voting is our role and that it builds up a stronger state power,” Mrs Vatsady said.

The province also planned to hold sports competitions, singing contests and other art performances, which will start this month, to celebrate the General Election and attract voters.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Goht, because she's a native Thai speaker, and as such can communicate perfectly with Lao people, teaches math there. Here she is with some of her students.

Then Katherine went off with our friend Goht to a local blind school for kids. The kids live at the school, so I guess it's more of an institution. They are very interested in learning/practicing English, so Katherine spent a few hours hanging out with them, singing songs, talking about stuff, etc. We are going to try to get a few more people to schedule a rotational thing where one of us goes there every Saturday for a few hours.

Saturday we went to a baaci for the new son of one of the Consular section employees, Kalee. So here we are with Kalee, her son Moua Ngee, her husband Neng Moua and two random people I don't know but wanted to be in the picture. Lao labor law requires 3 months of maternity leave followed by one hour a day off for a year (for breastfeeding, I guess). Very labor friendly here in Laos.

First Laos declares itself opium free, now even the tourists are having trouble scoring in Vang Vieng.

Katherine, Marilyn, Luther and I stayed at Thavonsouk back in October when we visited. The riverfront in Vang Vieng is beautiful, but the center of town definitely has the air of 'tourist ghetto' to it, with backpackers hanging out watching 'friends,' Premiere League football, and movies, all the while talking about how they are keeping it real by traveling the right way, seeing the 'real' Laos.

Here's an old pic of Katherine enjoying the 'local palm sugar beer' (not sure exactly what that means, but I know that the malt and hops come from Europe) on the deck at Thavonsouk back in May last year.

Laos: Out From Under an Opium Cloud
THURSDAY night in Vang Vieng in northern Laos, and the guesthouses along the Nam Song have gone dark. The thin clouds no longer glow with that fluorescent warmth of a small town below.Yet blocks away, two restaurants continue to show episodes of "Friends." With their own electric generators humming along, these wise entrepreneurs draw capacity crowds of homesick 20-somethings to their flickering TV's — blackout be damned.

Just four years ago, a stop in this tranquil town was de rigueur for drug-touring trekkers. Local weed and Burmese speed were sold openly on the street, and by some accounts the opium dens outnumbered the guesthouses. The backpackers flocked, and haughty fans of the writer Paul Theroux, whose travels are held up by purists as the "right" way to do it, announced that Vang Vieng was over.

Then something interesting happened. Guesthouses began posting signs saying "No Drugs" and "Please Keep Yourself Clean." Enough of the town's 45,000 residents, it seemed, refused to choke under the hazy smoke exhaled by scruffy budget travelers. The modest economy has since gone straight, attracting well-heeled tourists to counteract the dreadlock dudes.With development moving ahead — six new guesthouses are opening this year, bringing the total to nearly 70 — hotel operators and tour guides see a brighter future in inner-tube rentals than in opium dens.According to tourism officials, 47,250 people visited Vang Vieng last year.

That's a tenfold increase since 1997, the first year statistics were compiled. Meanwhile, pot-smoking backpackers seem to be on the decline. Nine years ago, foreigners made up nearly three-quarters of visitors; today, about half are Laotian, including many families with small children.

But Vang Vieng is still affordable, and still quite charming. Chickens run loose on dirt roads, lizards cover walls and puppies are forever underfoot. Afternoons, middle schoolers head home three on a bicycle.Route 13 is the only major road through Vang Vieng and the only street with a name, though the town is small enough that visitors are easily oriented using the bus station (to the east) and the river (to the west).While a few hotels might be considered upscale, the majority are no-frills guesthouses with shared bathrooms and few, if any, amenities. Most visitors are happy with places like the Dokkhoun 1 guesthouse, (856-23) 511-032, where $4 gets you a double room, clean sheets and hot water. Splurge for a $10 riverside spot, get a balcony; kick in another $5 and there's air-conditioning.

Places that pass for luxury include the Thavonsouk, (856-23) 511-096; It's a 37-room hotel with traditional bungalows at about $18 in the high season — October to April.The best restaurant in town is the Organic Cafe, (856-23) 511-174,, affiliated with the Vang Viang Organic Farm a few miles north. The menu, which features crisp salads (about $1), fresh spring rolls (about $1) and mulberry shakes (about 60 cents), changes often.Guided cave trips and mountain hikes can be arranged at any guesthouse; likewise, most guesthouses rent motorbikes and bicycles.

There are several Internet joints and at least three curry houses along the main road. The restaurants in this three-block strip are busy until midnight. Afterward, partygoers cross a rickety footbridge to a small island where several bars stay open until the early hours.

The government may have declared Laos "opium free" earlier this year, but visitors here can still order Lao Bia, the local palm sugar beer, for about 60 cents.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Geography Quiz

This is fun when you want to kill a few minutes.

Friday, March 03, 2006

We are going


Slightly different city spelling, but you get the idea.

Estimated time of arrival, October 2007. So we will have about 6 months in DC after leaving Laos and a month of home leave.

We are very happy. We got our number one choice.

Nice birthday gift.

We found out via e-mail tonight at midnight.

And that, my friends, is how you celebrate a 34th birthday in Vientiane....quite wild. Now we are home alone and Katherine and Jak are sleeping in a chair, and I'm sitting here talking to you. Pathetic, you say? Perfect, I there.

That's not gray hair, it's the light reflecting off my golden locks. And I'm throwing my hands up in defeat, yet again. Not a good night for me, except for the fact that it is my birthday.

So my birthday was today. Naiyana's birthday was yesterday. So we celebrated together.

A friendly night of cards to celebrate my birthday. I was out early. Our friend, and my co-worker, Naiyana (on the right) was the big winner, winning accolades from the assembled crowd. She and her husband, who is the public affairs officer, are off to Hanoi next. They leave this summer. We'll miss them, and not just because Naiyana works in the consular section, either.

Especially for Ari, here is an entry about my debaucherous, Caligula-esque, birthday celebration.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Bidding update

So I got an e-mail on my return from the South saying that those at 25% equity (us) and 20% equity (equity is based on hardship differential + danger pay %, no danger for us, but we are at the here in Laos) had been placed, and that those positions to which people had been placed have been marked as such in the online bidlist.

We don't know what job we have exactly, but by process of elimination, we can narrow down our bid list by seeing what jobs are now marked as 'unavailable' on the list. So assuming this is all correct, we will be going to one of the following:


I think we're going to Moscow, but having nothing to base that on. Just as likely to be going to Kiev. Less likely to be going to Windhoek or any other non-Russian speaking post left on the list. And hopefully, because Baku (and the Kiev and Moscow Consular positions that I could potentially be going to rather than the Con-Pol rotational positions at the same posts) is much farther down the list, farther than other Russian posts that are still available, we won't be going there either.

But anything is possible. Who knows, maybe we're going to Belize and there is just a mistake in the system.

Tomorrow's my birthday, so we are celebrating by playing poker and submitting my first official annual review (it's due a year after we arrive at post, which was March 4, 2005). Can't believe we've been here a year, and only have a year left.

Here's where I was. Very interesting area. Hopefully, Katherine and I will be able to go back sometime and explore.

This afternoon, on our return to Vientiane, we visited the UXO Lao national training center. The students are in a 20-week Senior Explosive Ordnance Device (SEOD) technician training program. They will be future team leaders in the field in the various provinces.

So here's our group, in all its glory. 4 NPA guys, a UXO interpreter, two wives, two State UXO guys in from Washington, a foreign service officer and an active duty Marine Colonel (on the right) and yours truly.

Then we went to a second waterfall. This one is more famous, and higher. It's about a 400 ft. fall (I think). We couldn't see the bottom from our vantage point. There's a way to walk in from about 5 KM away, but we didn't do that. Pretty stunning though.

These girls were on their way down to the river (where the waterfall was) to get some freshwater shrimp. I guess their shrimp-getting system involves a mask and a net.

So these are the NPA technical assistants (TAs) and me. The USG funds UXO Lao through NPA in three provinces. What this means is that we run UXO Lao provincial salaries through NPA, and we pay for the field TAs as well. On the right is Robby, a Belgian, who works in Champassak. On my left is Ski, a Kiwi who works in Sekong and Attepeu. And on the far left is Olivier, a finance TA who works in the UXO Lao head office in Vientiane, but traveled down with us. Ski and Robby are both ex-military with many years of UXO and demining experience all over the world, so it was interesting to spend time with them. Just so you know, the USG also funds UXO Lao in 3 other provinces as well, just through a different organization, London-based Mine Action Group (MAG). The USG is the largest donor to the Lao UXO sector. Estimates range from 60-80% of all UXO found in Laos is US-made, with the rest Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian (Soviet).

So on our way back to Pakse, we stopped at a few waterfalls. This one was about 150 feet high. During the wet season, it must be quite something. Still very cool, and a nice hike to the bottom.

Walking along a little levee out to the farmer's house.

Finally, we went to another site. We hiked a while through some coffee fields to a farmer's plot that he asked to be cleared.

Then we headed back to the clearance site, where they had set up a great lunch for us right out in the bush. The Belgian NPA technical assistant's Lao wife (in foreground) and the UXO Lao interpreter's wife (sitting cutting up stuff on the right) did a bang up job. We had some sort of German beef stew and Belgian Frites. Lovely little meal in the fresh air.

Many houses in the village had these posts in front. The village chief explained that this is where they will sacrifice water buffalo after someone builds a house, before they plant the rice, harvest the rice, etc. Bad news for the buffalo, good news for the village, as they all get together and have a feast. The guy who's field UXO Lao was clearing has 18 mouths to feed. 18 people live in his house, including his wife, kids, some in-laws and a grandkid. They currently have 1 hectare of rice fields, and that's not enough to feed everyone all year long. They basically have enough for about 11 months per year. The cleared land will give him another hectare, and allow him and his family to have enough to eat, plus maybe a little to sell.