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, October 31, 2006

Snooty city folk

Yesterday I arrived at the BKK airport to return to fly to Udorn and went to the check in counter (note: huge, modern new airport and nary a self-check in in site...poor planning). Because I already have some clothes in Bangkok, I was just traveling with my small backpack.

I went to the counter and handed my ticket and passport to the nice ticket lady, at which point she asked if I had any bags (language note: Thai and Lao are similar, but they are not the same. For example, the word for no in Lao sounds a little like 'boe' but not quite so 'o' sounding but in Thai it is 'mai', kind of like 'my'. The same for the question word, which is basically the word you put on the end of a sentence to make it a question. So, in order to say Are you eating?, you actually say something like You are eating, aren't you?)

So anyway, she asks if I have any bags, which in Thai is mii ka pow, mai?

Without thinking to change my answer to Thai, I said boe mii (instead of the Thai, which would be mai mii).

She smiled and said something to the effect of no bags, just the sticky rice, then? which, because sticky rice is eaten primarily in Northern Thailand and Laos (where people use 'boe' instead of 'mai'), and looked down on by sophisticated city-dwellers (eating sticky rice makes your nose flat, they say) was her way of calling me a country bumpkin or hick or something.

It was quite funny and we shared a laugh.

Then I punched her in the nose for insulting me and ran away shouting, 'NOW WHO'S GOT THE FLAT NOSE, HUH???!!'

Monday, October 30, 2006


Khammouane is arguably the most stunningly beautiful provinces in Laos (well, I think so anyway), and is also not on most tourists' itineraries. Most people who visit Laos do a bit of a northern loop, then high tail it past Khammouane to get further south. Shame, really, and I think it will likely change in the near future.

I didn't really do any exploring per se, but I was lucky enough to visit some villages and areas that don't see a lot of tourists, even in the limited numbers that are in Khammouane generally. I'm hopefully going back for my long in the planning yet still unrealized trip to the Kong Lor cave and surrounding area in January or February. We were supposed to go last Thanksgiving with our friends Stens and Ford, but illness conspired against me, then I was supposed to go 2 weeks ago, but weather and water levels in Khammouane forced me further south to Angkor.

Here's a bit of a dashboard tour, as we were traveling down the road, which is scheduled to be paved in 2009.

The place is chock-full of limestone karsts and mountains, and, therefore, is home to the largest cement factory in Laos (built by the Chinese). My favorite massuese (who no longer regularly works at Oasis, but will go there just for me if I call her in advance...what a nice person) recently asked me if I knew any foreign investors who might want to buy a karst. Seems her brother bought some land with a karst on it in Khammouane and wants to cash in by selling it to a dam project or cement factory or anyone who might be interested in purchasing an ingredient for cement in a VERY raw form. Maybe the Lao version of the old saying is "...and if you believe that I've got a karst in Khammouane to sell you!"

I passed, then accused her of being a spy for trying to get information on foreigners out of me.

Anyway, the road through Khammouane to Ngommalat.

It's not all Karsts and dirt roads though. There are also overturned trucks to marvel at along the way. Two on the day we were there. The road was recently graded, and as such, the traffic was moving at a relatively brisk pace.

And that, my friends, is why you never stack your loads too high or take corners too fast.

Class dismissed.

And now back to our regular programming

To continue on my tour of UXO-affected areas of Laos formerly known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, we went to a remote village called Baan Phonope, in eastern Khammouane about 7 miles from the Vietnam border, and smack dab in the middle of the entrance of the HCM Trail from Vietnam. Men and Materiel poured over the border just north of the 17th parallel and headed shouth through Laos. As such, the area was heavily bombed.

The village is off the electricity grid, and is poor, even by Lao rural standards. MAG was there doing survey and community awareness work in advance of a general clearance of the village and surrounding rice fields. We didn't actually get to the village, which was across a small river, but instead visited the school. All the kids take boats across the river every day to get to school, where they sit in semi-darkness, at handmade wooden desks and listen to the teacher, who has no chalkboard, nor any teaching materials that I saw.

But they were energetic, especially when singing songs.

Outside the school, we got a briefing on the team's work from the survey team leader (the woman on the left). Note the map. She made a point to say it was not to scale.

The village chief came to speak with us as well, and he apologized repeatedly that more villagers couldn't come to meet us, as they were all out harvesting their rice. He spoke in front of the class and to us about the hardships his village faces, made worse by the ever-present danger of UXO. Particularly dangerous are the bombies that are buried, but can be struck when a farmer is turning his soil with a hoe prior to planting.

He spoke quite passionately about the needs of his village, not least of which was the clearance that was about to take place. When he talked about the affects of UXO on his village and the soon-to-be realized benefits that clearance would bring, I detected a slight stammer in his speech and quiver on his lips. He was a very proud man, and he thanked us repeatedly for visiting. I told him he had no reason to thank us, and I was glad we were able to be there.

He confided in me that I was the first American he had ever met. He could have just been being nice.

We interrupt this tour of UXO in Laos to bring you pregnant people

Today we had our whirlwind one-day birthing class as Samitivej. As you can see, it's a popular hospital for whiteys birthin' babies. Walter and Alex were there too.

The night before we went to the illustrious Robin Hood pub on Soi 33, just across from the Emporium. It's a pub with a little bit of everything on the menu. I had the Chicken Kiev in preparation for our next post. Katherine had Bangers and Mash because she's trying to be like Madonna and embrace her inner Englishwoman.

Dueling bellies at the Emporium. Alex is about ready to pop. She's due in a week, but is really hoping it doesn't take that long.

Ah, the welcoming, disarming, comforting birthing class room.

They get us comfortable, then horrify us with a video of a birth, which just reinforced Walter and my decision to pace the waiting room and pass out cigars while our respective wives give birth.

I'll go down next on the 10th. It may be for good, depending on what happens between now and then. Doing so would hopefully give Katherine and me a few days of relaxation together before the big show.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Off to BKK

Kids at Baan Ilan in Khammouane. The village gets one growing season, and most years a part or all of that crop is flooded out. The flooding is usually up to about 4 feet or so. Triangle will provide a pump and MAG will clear the old irrigation ditch and dikes so that a 2nd, dry season growing season.

The village chief was carrying the skin of a 7 foot python when he met us, having caught it (and likely held a feast) in his fishing net a few days before.

These kids followed us around as we looked at the project site.

Baan Ilan got lucky this year. No flooding. And so some villagers start to harvest the rice on the road out of town.

Back in Phin District, a mine-risk education program has been introduced into the curriculum of schools in heavily contaminated areas. Here, the students have broken into groups and are putting together sentences about mine risk. This one says 'When cleaning up the village, watch out for UXO'.

Heading to BKK for the weekend. Will be back Monday night.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Roving Task

After the visit with the survey team, we headed east to visit a roving task in Sepon District. Sepon town was right on the HCM Trail, and, as such, was completely destroyed during the war, and is one of the more UXO-contaminated districts in Laos. So two large bombs (as opposed to bombies or miscellaneous UXO like mortars, 50 mm shells, grenades, etc) were deemed safe to move by the roving team and brought to the demolition site, which is just a cleared area in the middle of the jungle, about 2 KM off the main road.

In the picture above, the roving team arrives with plastic explosives, detonators, and a big bullhorn, all to take care of this.

The team makes numerous announcements with the bullhorn for any villagers who might be foraging, hunting, or grazing their cattle nearby to clear the area, then prepares the bombs for detonation. A line runs from the charge 2 kilometers to the detonation site. For 750 lbs of bombs, 2KM is considered the safe distance.

2KM ends at this house, where the detonator box is hooked up, given a few spins to create an electric charge, and in this instance, handed off to me.

Because the charge has to travel 2KM down the line to the plastic explosive, you have to depress the button for what seemed like 20 seconds, but was probably more like five. And then, the explosion.

Afterwards, the roving team went back to the demolition site to ensure that the explosion completely destroyed both bombs, and we continued into Sepon to have a look around. We headed into the market, where there were few shoppers but plenty of merchants. I stopped to chat with a group of ladies sharing a meal, and one offered her 18 year old daughter to be my wife. When I told her I was already married, she said no problem, I could have a mia noy (minor wife) in Sepon too.

Posted by Picasa

Phin District with UXO Lao

For some reason, I can only post with the type centered. So much for the new and improved blogger.
Monday morning we visited a village in Phin District with the UXO Lao survey team. Phin was very close, but not quite on, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I'm also told it is about as far as the South Vietnamese got in an ill-fated 1971 invasion of Laos that was meant to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In Muang Phin (the district capital), there is a monument to the Pathet Lao/Vietnamese victory, and the back of a downed troop transport helicopter that was moved there from some guy's yard. We traveled about 10KM outside of Phin town to a village and met with the village chief and village elders at their community hall/temple.

UXO clearance teams come in two types, roving and site clearance. Roving teams respond to reports of surface contamination and clear just the UXO that has been reported. For example, children playing behind a school find a bombie or two, and word travels up to the village chief, who informs district officials, who inform UXO Lao. A team is sent out to destroy the UXO, then move on to the next roving task, without clearing large areas.

Site clearance teams are just what they sound like. They come to a large site that has been scheduled for clearance, cut any vegetation down to a few inches to allow for the deminers to swing detectors unimpeded, and clear the site, surface and subsurface, by staking out lanes and methodically using detectors to find any UXO.

Before they do this, however, the survey team visits the village numerous times to determine the extent of contamination, the location of contamination, history of accidents, and map the area for the clearance team.

So we tagged along and watched the survey team at work. As we all sat down, an old lady, mouth red from betel nut, leaned over to her friend and said 'they are really big.' I turned to her and said something to the effect of 'big, are we?' which proved very entertaining to the gathered crowd. After the team was done with their information gathering, the villagers held a short baaci for us.

I was given extra attention because of the whole Lao language thing, and they even gave me my very own sash. The woman behind me was especially keen on me, and kept giving me extra blessings, including repeated wishes that I have many healthy kids. Everyone got very excited when I told them my first kid was coming in the next few weeks, and insisted that I bring Katherine and the kid back for a visit as soon as possible. I demurred, but jokingly asked if they had any houses for rent as I might just move there, our welcome had been so warm, at which point my new best friend said it was unnecessary, as we could all live with her. So it looks like we've got a place to live in Phin District.

No Baaci is complete without a little rice whiskey. The quality control of homemade whiskey is often suspect. Thankfully, Jurgen, a former East German soldier and current UXO Lao EOD technical assistant, has a good way of determining the relative safety of lao lao; dip your finger in it and light it on fire. If it burns blue, it's fine. If it burns yellow, it could make you go blind, or kill you if you drink enough. He also was quite insistent that we couldn't drink alcohol, as our next stop was to the roving team to destroy the big bombs they had recently moved to the demolition site.

I was grateful for his insistence we not drink, as it was 10:30 am. However, given the importance the villagers placed on sharing a bit of a drink, we each took about a thimble-full.

I was first, but I made sure to see the blue flame before taking it.

Posted by Picasa

I'm about to upgrade to a new version of Blogger, so it's likely something won't work afterward.

As such, it may be a while before I can post again.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Okay, one more

Because there is nothing I love more than eating Simon mixes and Octopus beards, and every now and again I'll eat a Japanese.

From a menu in Thakhek.

One more before bed

At the school in Phin District. After a puppet show by some of the students, I got up and spoke briefly to the kids, teachers, and village leadership, and then, as Consortium often does when visiting schools, I gave the kids a soccer ball and some Katoe balls. All very fun, and, as you can see, it was standing room (outside the room) only.

The school is a modern, concrete structure built by the Japanese government. A school we visited in more rural Mahaxay District was much more simple, with handmade desks, no lights (no electricity in the area), and a dirt floor.

 Posted by Picasa

I'm back in Vientiane after a few days of work visiting USG-funded UXO clearance and community awareness programs in Savannakhet and Khammouane Provinces.

Many photos, etc. are coming, but for now, I just got home after a longer than necessary return from Mahaxay District in Khammouane, about 500 KM from Vientiane, because of a few breakdowns along the way.

But, I had some enlightening, heartwarming visits with people living in places still severely contaminated by unexploded ordnance dropped on, shot around, or left in Laos over 30 years ago.

In Phin District in Savannakhet I spent some time at a school with an organization called World Education/Consortium that has a US-funded program to introduce mine-risk education into the general curriculum at schools.

In Gnommalat District in Khammouane I visited a village surrounded by amazing limestone karsts and bordered by the beautiful Xe Bang Fai river. MAG is doing the clearance, funded by the USG, for a French organization that will implement food security projects in seven villages in the area.

In Sepon District in Savannakhet with UXO Lao I destroyed 750 lb worth of bombs (a 500 lb and 250 lb bomb) with one high order demolition (I just pushed the button, the Lao technicians did the rest). 750 lbs of exploding bomb are very loud, even from the safe distance of 2 KM.

In Phin District I visited land to be used to expand a village with a UXO Lao survey team. The area was contaminated with mortars and bombies. Below are two full bombies (cluster bomb unit, or CBU) and a half bombie with the fuse still attached. The land is not yet cleared, so what we saw was just surface contamination, but there is likely much more subsurface contamination. The land will be cleared (surface and subsurface) before the villagers begin expansion of the village. We also sat in on the survey team's meeting with the village chief and elders, which was one of the great experiences I've had in Laos (pictures to come).

As I said, I'll expand later with plenty more pictures and stories from the past 3 days, probably more than anyone cares to look at or read. Working on the UXO assistance portfolio has been incredibly rewarding and interesting, and I will miss it when we leave next March.

Posted by Picasa

Saturday, October 21, 2006

More Bangkok

Katherine getting a glimpse of the not-too-distant future on a visit to Ghot and Tom and Mali's room at Samitivej.

Mali. She's very cute and small and has a full head of black hair and blue eyes. We're trusting Tom on the blue eyes because Mali didn't open them while we were there. For some reason, the hat that the hospital put on Mali says Baby's First Easter.

A photo from our 37th floor deck. If you look at the distant buildings you will see one in the middle with a golden dome. That's where we went for dinner on Friday. If you look to the middle left of the photo, you will see a low building with a yellow roof. That's as far as we got in the cab before turning back and backtracking nearly to the hotel to get the sky train. A very fun 90 minutes in a cab, made more so by my need to use the bathroom.

Suvarnabhumi Airport. I miss Don Muang. It's immense and sleek and modern, but doesn't have the Burger King or Dairy Queen that the domestic concourse at Don Muang had.

Pulling up to the airport, it didn't even feel like I was in Bangkok. Then I walked by an old, bearded white guy smoking a joint outside the terminal and I was brought back to reality.

Time for bed. 4:45 am comes early, no matter what time you go to sleep.

Posted by Picasa


Ah, Bangkok. Katherine and I arrived late Thursday night into the new, cold, steel and glass Suvarnabhumi airport. An airport without a soul, if you ask me.

Mary Beth and Doug had checked in to our room at the Emporium earlier that day, so when we arrived, MB woke up and shared a beer with me before we all crashed.

Friday we met with my St. Olaf friend, and Katherine's doula, Kate, then went off to see Dr. Sankiat. All is well, the baby is about 3 kilograms, with another 4 weeks (and likely .8 kilos) to go. We're looking at a big baby.

We also visited Tom and Goht (our neighbors) and Mali (Molly) their baby girl born Thursday morning at Samitivej.

Friday night we went to Mezzaluna, a restuarant on the 63rd floor of a building near the river.

The trip to the restaurant was long. Katherine wanted to take a cab at 6:30 pm on a Friday night in Bangkok. I suggested the sky train. Nope. So we got into the cab. At about 6:45 we had gone about 100 meters, and I again suggested we get out and get the sky train. "It's just a red light," said Katherine. 7:30 pm and we'd made it maybe 2 km and had another 3 or 4 to go. I asked the cab driver how long he thought it would take to get there and he chuckled and said maybe an hour or so. So that would be two hours to go about 6 KM.

Instead, we turned around and went back to the nearest sky train, which was also just one stop from our hotel (in traffic again, so it took about another 25 minutes). On the sky train and to the restaurant in about 20 minutes.

So we get to State Tower and go to the bank of elevators to the 63rd floor. A staff member looked at our shoes and declared that MB's didn't meet their strict dress code. Black sandals. No go. BUT, she said, she'd let her slide. How very nice.

We get to the 63rd floor, and upon exiting the elevator are met by 3 more shoes police. A woman said that MB could absolutely not enter with the sandals she had on. It was now about 8:20. We had spent almost two hours just getting to the damn place. What were we to do? Well, as luck would have it, there is a shoe store just outside the building. So Katherine and MB headed back down to do some shoe shopping while Doug and I enjoyed a lovely drink at the bar.

They came back, and while getting some drinks, MB was informed that while her shoes were now acceptable, the plastic bag in which she was carrying her old shoes was not. The Horror! A plastic back at a respectable restaurant. She was also encouraged to sit at the bar rather than stand for some reason. Anyway, the shoe nazis brought MB a paper bag that was more fitting for such a chic place.

The acceptable shoes, the unacceptable ones hidden away in an acceptable paper bag.

After all that, we did have a great meal. There was even a string quartet playing classic favorites like 'Under the Sea' from the Little Mermaid and a medley of music from the movie Braveheart.

Afterwards we went back to the hotel.

Katherine went to bed, and MB, Doug and I found a bar around the corner that had loud jazz played badly (or bad jazz played loudly, take your pick) while a Harry Potter played on a large screen tv behind the stage.

This morning, we met up with our friends Walter and Alex. Alex has been at the Emporium for about 2 weeks, and is due November 9. Walter just moved to town for the next 5 weeks on Friday night.

Unfortunately, I had to head home tonight to catch an early morning flight to Pakse tomorrow. Everyone else went to the rooftop bar at the Banyan Tree hotel for cocktails and then out for dinner together. Very sad for me.

MB and Doug will stay with Katherine until Thursday, and I'll head back down Friday night.

Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 19, 2006

On our way to Bangkok

But last Friday there was a signing ceremony for over $2MM in USG-funded UXO clearance work that Mines Advisory Group will do in Khammouane Province. The US has funded two MAG projects in Khammouane.

There I am front and center looking goofy as MAG's country director, Jo, and Dr. Maligna, director of the Lao UXO National Regulatory Authority shake hands after signing the two MOUs approving the projects.

The first, funded by the State Department, is a clearance project in partnership with a French NGO called Triangle. MAG will clear the land, and Triangle will work with villages in the area to create sustainable fruit orchards to produce for local consumption and export to France.

The second, funded by the USDA, is a school and food security project. MAG will clear around schools, and in areas for irrigation, paths, and paddy fields. The second part of the project will see International Relief and Development (IRD) provide lunches to school children and rations to take home, provided students have a certain level of attendance on a monthly basis. There will be added incentive for female students.

I will be in Khammouane next week to visit MAG's operations there.

Oh, and our friends Tom and Goht had a baby girl today at Samitivej so we will see them and their daughter Mali Isabel tomorrow after Katherine's checkup.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Large bellies and uninvited guests

Katherine and Buddha again. For comparison, here they are on July 14.

Tonight we went out for a last night in Vientiane dinner at L'Opera. About a half hour after we got home, I heard Katherine scream from the living room. I went in to investigate, and Jak(e) was staring down this guy near our shoe rack.

Thank god, too, because scorpions have a habit of setting up house in shoes, then reacting angrily when a foot is inserted.

A mighty battle ensued, the scorpion bearing claws and that nasty stinger on its tail, me armed with a broom and dustpan.

I won.

The scorpion was unceremoniously carried outside, where our guard pronounced it dangerous and decided to de-stinger it before I flung it into the garden.

Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 16, 2006

Where are we moving again?

Katherine sent me this:

On October 3, the Board on Geographic Names (BGN)
unanimously voted to change the BGN standard
transliteration of the spelling of the Ukrainian capital
to 'Kyiv'. This decision affects the whole USG, although
'Kiev' remains the BGN conventional spelling for this

So, as I understand it, if I am transliterating from cyrillic, I must write Kyiv. If I'm just writing it, I write Kiev. What if I am just writing it, but in my head I am thinking about cyrillic? So confusing.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

And then there was this...

Walking around the back streets of Vientiane, you can see some interesting things.

Monkeys riding dogs comes to mind.

Today we were driving down a small street near our beloved LV City and drove past this...

Sitting wedged between trees in someone's front yard, the fuselage of an old Lao Air jet with what appears to be cyrillic writing on the front. It looks to be an old, Russian-built YAK 40. The Lao Air Force had two of them at some point. I guess this is where one ended up.

"Honey, I like the new house, but I feel like our yard is missing something..."

"Say no more. I know just the thing!"

I asked our friends at LV City why there was an airplane parked down the street. They didn't have a good answer for me.


Did a little research. Yes, it's a slow Sunday.

Two Yakovlev Yak-40 Codlings were delivered in 1978, for use as VIP transports. As with the An-24RVs/An-26s, the pair of Yak-40s may have been used by Lao Aviation as well. The Yak-40s were supplemented in early 1998 by an Antonov An-74TK-100 Coaler. The STOL jet, registered as RPDL-34018, is most probably operated solely by the LPLAAF. It was noted at Wattay on April 14, 1998. A heavy blow to the LPLAAF occurred just one and a half month later, on May 25, 1998, when a Yak-40, (RPDL-34001) crashed into the jungle while on a flight from Vientiane to Xiang Khouang. All 26 onboard, including a Vietnamese military delegation, were killed. Apparently, at the time of its crash the call-sign was ZPX-001.

So it seems that one of the Yak 40s crashed somewhere between Vientiane and Xieng Khuang in 1998. It seems that the other one is currently parked in someone's front yard.

Posted by Picasa

Today we ran some errands. Nothing I love more than running errands. But it's Katherine's last weekend in town before Bangkok, so errands we ran.

First stop was Caruso, a local shop that sells very nice and pricey wood products. Katherine likes this place. And Ari and Jennine, your bowl will be on the way this week.

Next stop was a framing shop to pick up some artwork from Burma that we finally had framed. After that it was off to Lao Magic carpet to check on our carpet's progress. As we were getting out of the car, Katherine asked whether I had her little hmong purse that held the $600 or so that she'd brought along to put a down payment on the carpet and to pay for a piece of furniture we are going to buy elsewhere.

Why no, I didn't. But I paid for the stuff at Caruso with money from the little purse, right?

Indeed I did. So after a frantic search of pockets (cargo shorts suck sometimes) and the car, we made a tense drive back to Caruso. And there it was, on the floor right where I left it.

So, feeling slightly better, it was back to check on the carpet..

It's coming along nicely.

Now, I don't profess to be an expert in carpets or anything, but I have to say that we picked a nice one. And the process is unbelievable. Individual threads of silk are woven in, then tamped down. Four women sit side by side working. When they get to a certain point, one woman cuts the shag down and they continue (note the shears). They said they should be close to done when we return to Vientiane in mid-December.

After the drama and tension of the missing $600, I felt I needed to relax a bit. Luckily for us, LV City is just around the corner from our carpet place. So we skipped the furniture place and got a massage.

Katherine decided one wasn't enough, and made plans for 90 minutes at LV tomorrow.

Posted by Picasa