Hello Something

6 Jun
A handy fortune teller right there when you arrive at BKK airport

A handy fortune-teller right there when you arrive at BKK airport

 

Hello! This post comes to you direct from Jakarta, Indonesia. For those with no time to read, photos are at the bottom.

A lot has happened (once again) since my last post. Before Liz and I set off for a 2-week trip to Thailand, we got a chance to celebrate the Lao new year (pii mai). I won’t dawdle too much about it as not only am I over a month late but a few of the other volunteers here have already written about it on their blogs. If you’d like to read more about this awesome, week-long celebration then you can do so here and here.

To summarise, it involves bucket loads of water, beer and Super Soakers. It puts water restrictions and conservation to shame. Considering the exactly same thing happens in Thailand which has almost 10 times the population of Laos, you begin to see the picture.

Here’s a video to help you understand what I’m talking about.

Songkran festivities

Songkran festivities

The Thailand trip was really fun and it was nice to be in a more developed country for a while. We certainly made the most of the food options by eating ourselves to daily standstills. Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the beaches were all awesome.

We started out in Bangkok where the malls had a constant smell of tiger balm (Jimmy, here is a link for you). The Thais call their version of the new year celebrations, Songkran, and we landed right in the middle of the water fights that were raging all across the country. When it’s 40 degrees outside, a country-wide water fight sounds awesome but when people add ice inside their water pistols it adds a whole other dimension to the game.  Luckily we arrived ready with rubbish bags for our luggage and plastic pouches for the wallets and phones.

We had a rough idea of what we wanted to do while in Thailand but hadn’t yet booked flights or accommodation when we arrived. We decided that Chiang Mai was next, a place that I had heard so many good things about before. On our second day there, we hired a random driver (Mr Chai) with an awesome car to take us out of the city to see the Mae Sa waterfall, Tiger Kingdom, Monkey School and the Huay Tung Tao lake. We attempted to rent one of those cycling boats on the lake but the rental guy took one look at me and just said “overweight”. I tried to take his advice as constructive criticism.

The highlights and lowlights of the day were had at the Tiger Kingdom and Monkey School. While both places provided some great entertainment and excitement, it was really sad to see the monkeys at the Monkey School chained up and pacing around their enclosures, clearly in distress. It was one of those surreal experiences where the tricks performed by the monkeys were really cool but the way they live was not so cool. It’s really hard to get much information on these places. Apparently the monkeys get let out onto the main property outside business hours but who knows if that’s actually true or not. In hindsight, I would definitely go to see the tigers again but probably not the monkey place.

The next day we hired a couple of trusty bicycles and spent the day touring around the Old City of Chiang Mai and then headed north-east to the Chiang Mai Zoo. I hadn’t been to the zoo for ages and this one was awesome. We got to TOUCH and feed hippos, giraffes and an elephant!!! There were also a whole bunch of other cool animals there.

In Laos, Liz always gets mistaken for a local and I have a great time asking her what they said to her as I know she doesn’t understand a word but politely nods along. Well, it was the same in Thailand except that not only did the locals think she was Thai but she also got local prices for some of the attractions. We also came up with many creative ways to save and cut costs but I won’t get into that as they weren’t all entirely legal.

Everywhere we went, there were stalls filled with random stuff that locals were trying to sell to ‘falang’ like us. A common way of enticing the foreigners to look at their stall was by calling out “hello, something” as you pass by. This is matched in Laos by similar stall holders calling out “looking” to passersby.

Following our week-long city stay, we spent the second week at the beach. First at Koh Lanta, an island just south of Krabi and then a few days at Railay which is located on the mainland and has some really beautiful beaches.

On our last day at Koh Lanta, we hired a motorbike and spent the day riding up and down the island. We went to the really interesting Lanta Animal Welfare shelter and saw how they employee volunteer travelers to help the local cat and dog population. We then headed south and managed to find this awesome spot overlooking the sea where we watched the sun set, sipping on the local brew.

Sunset at Koh Lanta

Sunset at Koh Lanta

I liked Railay better than Koh Lanta if for no other reason than that on the first night we got to watch Wolf Creek 2 at this outdoor restaurant while it absolutely bucketed down (which only added to the horror movie vibe). As weird as it might sound, Wolf Creek actually made me homesick. This was until we got back to our accommodation and were promptly kept awake half the night by one of the most bogan groups of Aussies I have ever met. They were from Queensland.

Overall, I loved Thailand. We ate at so many buffets that I don’t want to see another buffet for a long time. Thailand is a much more dynamic place than Laos which you would expect as it’s almost 10 times larger. Both Bangkok and Chiang Mai were cool in their own rights and the beaches were really nice. They still have nothing on Australian beaches mainly because the beaches back home have waves. I know, I know, there was that whole tsunami thing but seriously, it’s only for so long that you can waddle around in still water.

Following our holiday in Thailand, I was called up to drive north to Luang Prabang for work. This time it was to start a new project with the local government office. We were to survey the ground around the two weirs we are planning on building fishways for, install water level rulers and undertake a fish survey over the entire wet season. The plan was to engage the local fisherman at both villages to catch fish for an hour, once a week and record it all on a simple data sheet. Having translated the data sheets into Lao, we spent two days driving out to the sites, meeting the Naibans (village chiefs) and having lunch with everyone. It was really interesting to interact with the villagers and see more of how they live outside the main cities. No trip is ever complete here however without a binge drinking session which the group managed to do at one of the engineer’s restaurants. Karaoke was included.

However, my favourite experience while up there was definitely an impromptu dinner at our driver’s friend’s house. Both named, Bounphan. Bounphan the Friend (BtF) lives in a really cool house, the inside of which is completely covered in wood furnishings from floor to ceiling. Once Bounphan the Driver told BtF that I could speak Russian, BtF became really intrigued and excited that he could once again practice his Russian. We pretty much became best friends instantly after that moment.

It was awesome getting a chance to practice Russian while also interacting with a local. A lot of the 50 year olds over here studied somewhere in the former Soviet Union which is where they learned their Russian and communist skills. Over the course of the night, BtF managed to bring out five different bottles of Lao Lao (the local moonshine), one of which contained bile from a bear’s spleen, imported all the way from China.

Back home, things have rolled along and I am now over 7 months through this adventure. I can’t believe how fast time has flown and it won’t be long before I’ll be back to a more (less) familiar environment. I’m both anxious and excited about the next 6 months.

More recently, Liz and I went on a weekend trip to a really remote little eco-retreat called Dreamtime, about 25km north of Vientiane. To get there, we hired a motorbike for the weekend. On the way there we had a small stack as the last 2km was on a really dodgy off-road track. A broken mirror and some cuts and bruises were all that were sustained. However, on our way back to town, we has to drive home first so that I could fix the broken mirror and so that we could put on pants to hide our scratches. The motorbike rental place didn’t even take a second look at the bike, I guess as long as it still had two wheels and could go, they were happy.

So that’s a brief summary of the adventures since I last wrote here. Elizabeth and I are currently taking a short holiday in Indonesia, getting wined and dined by her family and friends. We’ve also got a couple of days in Kuala Lumpar before heading home so that Liz can pack her bags and say goodbye to Laos. It’s been an awesome experience having her here and I’m sure it will be really strange once she goes home.

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Not only am I about to say goodbye to Liz but we also recently said goodbye to our beloved dog, Pac. With Liz going and me constantly away on work trips, we decided to find a new home for him. There was no way of taking him back to Australia due to the customs restrictions and we did rescue him from being put down so all in all, it was the best outcome. It was really sad to see him go but luckily I can still visit him at his new home until I leave Laos later this year.

Till next time,

Len

Elizabeth with a cowboy

Elizabeth with a cowboy

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One of the many Thai malls that we visited. A staple of locals and tourists alike.

 

Monkey playing basketball

Monkey playing basketball at the Monkey School

Bit of a bushwalk to the top of the waterfall

Bit of a bushwalk to the top of the waterfall

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Panda

Chiang Mai night markets

Chiang Mai night markets

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Feeding an elephant at Chiang Mai Zoo

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Giraffe

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Liz and a hippo – love at first sight

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Liz + tiger

Liz + tiger

This one was a bit angry (check out its open mouth and the 'I'm about to bite you' pose

This one was a bit angry (check out its open mouth and the ‘I’m about to bite you’ pose

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Temple hoping in Bangkok

Temple hopping in Bangkok

Building fish traps and getting ready for the wet season experiments at Pak Peung

Building fish traps and getting ready for the wet season experiments at Pak Peung

Work lunch at Luang Prabang province

Work lunch at Luang Prabang province

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Sok Dii Pii Mai – Monthly Update

13 Apr

Hello curious people! As much as I always have plans to write more, it never quite works out that way. Once a month looks like it’s all I’ll be able to do for the next little while.

The last few weeks have flown by with lots of things going on. Work has been really hectic with trips to Paksan, working on the fishway model, exhibiting the model at the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute symposium and working from home on upcoming work in Luang Prabang.

Working here in Laos has definitely been an eye-opener so far. The aid and development sector is very dynamic and confusing. It’s hard to know who the aid money and workers actually benefit. Is it the locals, struggling to make ends meet or the locals struggling to decide whether to they need an upgrade of their SUV. There’s also the aid workers themselves (myself included) leading relatively wealthy lives, sending their kinds to posh schools, hiring cleaners and gardeners to look after their every need, 7 days a week. There are definitely people here who do good and make a positive impact but it does feel that it could be done so much more efficiently and with much less fanfare. A lot of people give the excuse that everything is because of the communist government but I’m not as convinced. Yes, the government is certainly not perfect and has many issues but I don’t think they’re the cause of so many projects here failing.

I don’t want to become a “typical” aid worker though. Complaining about everything. I’m super-stoked to have been given this opportunity and am loving every bit of it.

Some updates:

  • I had a discussion recently with my Lao language teacher about the English words ‘crab’ and ‘crap’ and the difference between the two
  • One of my colleagues bought what I thought was a baby dog for his wife’s stomach as it was apparently some sort of secret Lao remedy. I promptly accepted this as fact and made a note to look it up online later on. Turns out it was in a fact some secrete Lao remedy. Not for his wife though but for his baby dog. Glad that one was cleared up before I made too many judgments. Language barrier wins again.
  • Had a fish bbq at Pak Peung village. The fish was really fresh. In fact it was still jumping after having lemon grass stalks stuck down its throat and placed on the grill.
Jumping fish

Jumping fish

  • Lao people love beer and they like to start you on it early. I’ve seen toddlers given a glass.
  • We saw a snake at the work site. The workers promptly split the snake in half (almost) and buried it alive. Slightly different to ecological practices in Australia but much more entertaining.
  • Calling roosters stuck in the trees all day with minimal water and food. Occasionally falling down and dangling from the string that keeps them tied there.
Calling rooster that lives in the tree (not by choice)

Calling rooster that lives in the tree (not by choice)

  • Many  highs and lows. The locals tend to throw rubbish down everywhere. As soon as a bottle or plastic bag have been used, they get tossed into a rough pile to be burned later on.
  • Animal cruelty is quite prevalent as well as love for animals and using up every last bit of a slaughtered animal in cooking and eating
  • There are lots of dogs in Laos. Like really a lot. Anyway, as well as seeing all kinds of wildlife (cows, buffaloes, pigs, chickens and ducks) along roads and highways just casually munching on grass, I also got to see what happens after dogs mate. They stay like this for about 15 minutes:
This will show my ignorance but I honestly thought these were some weird Lao conjoined dogs.

This will show my ignorance but I honestly thought these were some weird Lao conjoined dogs.

If you’d like to know why this happens then you can find out here.

Explaining the fishway model to the government minister (this was actually taken once he had left and took all the paparazzi with him)

Explaining the fishway model that I built to the government minister (this was actually taken once he had left and took all the paparazzi with him)

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The boss and I at the NAFRI symposium

Well, that’s it from me for now. Liz and I are off to Thailand in a couple hours for a 2-week holiday. 1 week in the city and 1 week at the beach should be a nice break from the grind.

Len

P.S. I’m half-way through my placement here which means that people back home should start planning/organising a ‘welcome home’ party.

The Easy Life – Monthly Update

14 Mar

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Hello, how have you been? It’s been a while…

So it’s now been over four months since I arrived in Vientiane and I feel like the time has flown. But it’s not the same as when I was back in Sydney, when weeks, months and years seemed to go by so fast and without notice that it would be scary. The difference here is that I feel like I have done, seen and experienced a huge amount in the last four months.

Here are some of the things that I got to do since arriving here:

  • live in a big house for the first time, sharing it with pretty cool people
  • get a dog!
  • have a cleaner and a gardener (this bit is kinda weird but does mean that I don’t need to do the washing or the ironing! Actually I never did the ironing back in Sydney)
  • have checked out 2 or 3 farms, had time to look into farming and have realised that is what I want to do (on a small-scale)
  • learned to ride a motorbike and went on a pretty awesome motorbike trip with hopefully more to come
  • time to do some online courses (currently I’m finishing a course on nutrition and health)
  • learn a new language
  • a chance to travel and live with Liz!
  • explore Laos and the south-east Asian region
  • grow a 2-month old beard (I would still have it except food started to get stuck in there and Liz was getting pash-rash)
  • drink bone marrow juice from giant cow bones with my Lao colleagues while at lunch
Bone marrow juice!

Bone marrow juice!

  • work on cool projects, do some interesting engineering
  • live in another communist country
  • time to continue learning to play guitar and learn to play the ukulele
  • work from home
  • work in a remote village and with the villagers themselves
  • time to relax!

That’s a pretty solid list for four months. Can’t wait to see what the rest of my time here brings. To counteract that list and so that you guys back home don’t get too jealous, here is a list of the not so good things that have happened:

  • witnessing a brutal motorbike accident
  • seeing a dead person on the road
  • feeling home-sick and missing the comforts of Sydney life
  • get multiple cases of diarrhea and other stomach related sicknesses

And finally, here is a list of things that I miss from back home:

  • being able to speak to everyone, fluently
  • smooth roads with no potholes
  • tap water
  • cheese
  • chocolate
  • clean air
  • my parents, brother and grandma
  • watching the footy

Now on to what I have been up to here since my last post….

Over the last few weeks, I have been working in Paksan. A small town about 2-3 hours south of Vientiane. This town is definitely NOT touristy. It gets a large number of Vietnamese visitors and so most restaurants sell pho…and only pho. It’s been an eye-opening experience working directly with rural Lao people and seeing what village life is like.

I was quite lucky to have two other volunteers/travelers working with me in my first week in Paksan. Linda and Andre are both fellow engineers and have quit their jobs to do a huge world trip. They are partly funding their trip through their newly established online business which is pretty cool. Having heard that Laos is more a place to live than a place to do touristy things, they found my details and contacted me about volunteering on the project.

It was great to spend a week doing some engineering, surveying and some laboring with the village workers that we have employed to fix up the very first Lao fishway that was built last year. Working in such a small town is both tough and interesting at the same time. Simple things like water, food and toilet paper become things that need to be considered at all times. There’s also a huge array of things to see and learn from.

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Fixing up the previous contractor’s mistakes

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BBQ duck – the rest of the ducks were walking around in mourning. No joke.

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Andre and Linda

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Getting read for sindat – Lao version of Korean BBQ

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The workers

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I was amazed at how different the lives of people in the small village were not just to my life back home but even to the lives of Lao people in Vientiane. I saw kids washing their clothes by hand straight after school, different animals wandering around and sometimes getting slaughtered for food, people not being able to afford proper medication and treatment for illnesses, the consumption of food and the value placed on every part of an animal and plant so that nothing goes to waste. It’s really crazy to think how much a person’s life can vary depending on where you happen to be born on this planet. The lifestyle of Sydneysiders seems alien-like compared to the simple life on the outskirts of the Pak Peung village.

It’s all a lot to take in and I definitely haven’t got my head around it all yet but I’m trying.

Last weekend was the International Women’s Day long weekend so Liz and I took that chance to go to Vang Vieng. It was the second time there for me so we managed to avoid most of the tacky, touristy aspects of the town (except watching Friends on large flat screens while having dinner) and just see the really cool scenery and a bit of the village life. This included sharing a motorbike for a fun and bumpy day-trip through the dusty back “roads” of the town and then a 35km mountain bike ride that Liz managed to smash despite some reluctance. It was really nice to get away from Vientiane for a few days and see something different. We also stayed at this awesome place called, Laos Haven

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Petong

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Petong

 

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Pig

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Next few weeks for me will be filled with trying to finish off the work in Paksan while also building a scale model of a fishway that will be used as a display at an exhibition that’s coming up. The only catch is that the model will need to work properly as we will be passing small fish through it. Hmmm, I was never that good at art and craft.

Here’s the model so far…

Fishway scale model...in progress

Fishway scale model…in progress

Till next time,

Len

Len’s Kitchen Wins Foodie Freestone ‘Best New Entry’

10 Feb

Len’s Kitchen Wins Foodie Freestone ‘Best New Entry’.

via Len’s Kitchen Wins Foodie Freestone ‘Best New Entry’.

Land of a Million Crazy Dogs and Sticky Rice – An Unknown Adventure

8 Feb

It’s been a little while since my last post as I’ve been really busy over the past few weeks with work, field trips and Elizabeth arriving in Vientiane!

The past month has been such an eclectic mix of emotions, experiences and weather that I’m going to struggle to put it all into words. But I shall try!

My last post generated a bit of concern from concerned individuals about my working conditions and the type of work that I am doing over here. I guess specifically the killing of fish. The whole point of this blog was for me to document this adventure and for anyone interested in seeing what I’m up to or maybe doing something similar themselves to be able to follow along the journey with me. I’m going to tell it like it is. No point covering up some aspects of life and work here. Anyway, that’s the end of my rant.

I’ve now been in Laos for just over 3 months and it’s the longest I have spent overseas at any one time. It’s usually around the 2/3 month mark that I start feeling homesick (based on my previous adventures overseas) and realise how awesome a country Australia is and that I really miss the lifestyle and food back home. I haven’t felt as homesick this time around (partly because I actually like living here and have a sweet house, dog and now my girlfriend here with me) but have had thoughts of home a bit more often than before. I miss the beach, watching sport, my family and Sydney in general. But I know that my time here is finite and I want to try to make the most of it instead of reminiscing about home too much. I know that in the last 3 months not much has changed back there and upon my return things will feel like nothing had changed at all. Except for maybe my brother’s broken voice and the fact I will need to find a new place to live.

Before I left Sydney and while living here, a lot of my friends and family have asked me why I left a secure job, comfortable lifestyle and those that love me to pursue an unknown adventure in a foreign land. Well at this point into my journey the answer is a little clearer than before. 

I’ve given different reasons to different people as my perspective has shifted. I was quite uncertain about taking this placement on at first, not really sure if it would turn out to be a positive or a negative. I believe in taking opportunities when they present themselves and embracing change. That’s what I’ve done with this it’s paid dividends so far.

Laos is an interesting place to live. In some ways, polar opposites to Australia and in some ways quite similar. They love beer here. It’s just that they only have 1 kind of it and they drink it with ice (both of which I now like doing). Australia is girt by sea, Laos is girt by land. The Laos government is communist, taking directions from China and letting them raid the land here. The government in Australia is fucked up, taking directions from the US and letting China raid the land there.

It’s become much clearer in my mind what my professional interests are and what I want to be doing once I get back home. I’m also set on buying a block of land somewhere in Australia and living a much more sustainable and less consumerist lifestyle. I’m gonna be at least a part-time farmer. This idea will develop further over the next few months and I will start putting it into practice once I get back home. 

But enough on that stuff, I recently came across a really cool quote by Bill Bryson which summarises my reason for taking this adventure on. Here it is…

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

A quick update on work stuff:

I’ve been travelling around the country with the working group here, looking at different weirs, dams and other barriers to assess their suitability for a fish passage to be installed. It’s been great to be able to see some of the more rural parts of Laos as well as the beautiful city of Luang Prabang. A real eye-opener seeing the very poor conditions that the locals live in here. As much as you see the rich locals in Vientiane driving around in their giant SUVs, it’s in the villages that you see what it’s like for the majority of Laotians.

Work is going to be really busy for me in the coming months. A construction supervision job, design of a few fish passages, design of a pond and a fish hatchery as well as teaching at the university to both the students and lecturers. Exciting times ahead!

From my home-office,

Love Len

Oh and here are some photos of the recent adventures here:

Duck blood soup

Duck blood soup

Dried fish

Dried fish

Luang Prabang markets

Luang Prabang markets

A weir that we'll be building a fishway for

A weir that we’ll be building a fishway for

Yummy - not

Yummy – not

All in a Day’s Work – From civil engineer to falang

21 Jan

Lao PDR is certainly not a democratic country. It’s for this reason that the acronym part of the country’s name can stand for something else – please don’t rush. This is a much more apt description of a number of things here that can be both endearing and frustrating.

I feel this is also an apt description of how my work here has been so far. Going from the hustle and bustle of working in a big organisation in Sydney as a civil engineer, to my work here, has been a huge shift in dynamics. It didn’t take me too long to adjust however. The Lao way of doing things can be annoying at times but I think that it also has a lot of merit. I hate the materialistic lifestyle that a lot of Sydney-siders live. The keeping up with the Joneses mentality is just not for me.

I have had to take on a steep learning curve as I tried (and am still trying) to come to terms with doing lethal experiments on fish, going to local markets with pretty poor animal welfare conditions, dealing with the language barrier and the many other challenges. But so far, it has all been worth it. I am loving living and working in Laos.

Here is what a typical day might look like for me (this is when I’m not working from home):

730am – wake up and do some exercise if I’m feeling lively

8am – feed the dog and myself

9am – get picked up by driver and try to teach him English while he teaches me Lao

930am – arrive at the lab and plan the day’s activities

10am – go driving around Vientiane looking for pipes, pumps and tools to continue building/improving the shear tank experiment

1230pm – lunch at a local restaurant – generally pho but sometimes fried fish with sticky rice or maybe a banh mi

3-5pm – finish work and drive home

Not too bad, right? I feel like I have already got quite a bit of work done in my short time here. I’ve managed to build an experiment from scratch  which was never in the placement description when I took this project on. On Friday I leave for a week-long field trip travelling to some cool places around the country. We’ll be surveying some water mitigation structures and then it will be up to me to design the upstream fish passages. There’s no funding for construction yet but this is not uncommon in a lot of engineering projects.

The Shear Tank Experiment

Setup

When I turned up for my first day of work, my supervisor talked me through one of my main tasks for the first 2 months. That was setting up (from scratch) a shear tank experiment. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this experiment aims to simulate the forces that are exerted on fish when a weir gate (or similar) is opened.

The lab

The lab

Buying the last bit of pipe

Buying the last bit of pipe

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I have a bit of experience in water and sewer main design so I had a fair idea of what was required. I just didn’t know that besides designing the experiment, I would also be building, checking and modifying the thing. It was a lot of fun and I loved getting a chance to work with some tools.

Centrifugal pump (ie BEAST)

Centrifugal pump (ie BEAST)

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Gansta

Gansta

Welding

Welding

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The fish feeder and outlet which will generate a jet of water travelling at 20m/s

The fish feeder and outlet which will generate a jet of water travelling at 20 m/s

Testing

Having built the experiment with the help of 2-3 Lao colleagues and some students, we were ready to test!

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The Aftermath

This experiment is pretty brutal. Something that I’ve had to learn to accept as I’m not a scientist and am not used to testing on animals. The results speak for themselves. [UPDATE: I’ve been asked to remove the photos showing the results of the experiments]

 

Besides my assignment here, I’ve also met some really interesting people outside of my placement. It’s amazing how many different organisations are here and they all seem to be willing to discuss their work. As part of my networking so far, I’ve managed to get a couple of volunteer roles.

One will be writing the odd article for the Laos Investment Review and the other one will be helping the guys at SERC to organise a clean up day similar to Clean Up Australia Day. The focus of our work will be on reducing the amount of plastic bags that are used here. It really blows my mind how much plastic bags are relied upon here. Not only are they used way too often but a lot of people then burn them to not have to pay the fee for a rubbish collection truck to come pick them up. Here is a short (and really interesting) documentary on the problem of plastic here:

From Banana Leaves to Plastic Bags

On a side note, Elizabeth arrives in a couple hours! She’ll be working as an English Teacher at the Australian International School here. I’m really excited to have her here with me, to live with her and to share all these experiences with her. This also means that today is the day for a well overdue haircut and shave…

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Sending you love from Laos,

Len

Flying Fish and Vang Vieng – A Working Holiday

13 Jan

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Just before the Christmas break I was working on setting up an experiment to test the effects that water regulation structures such as weirs have on fish. The gates that regulate water flow past these barriers exert very large shear stresses on the fish and we’re trying to simulate these scenarios to work out injury and mortality rates. It was up to me to build this experiment having no previous fish experimenting experience. On one of my first days here, my supervisor showed me the ‘lab’ that still in construction and gave me a very rough outline of what I needed to do to make this experiment happen. A few sketches and a lot of googling later, and we were ready to do some trial runs. We managed to chuck down a couple hundred fish through the makeshift fish feeder and work out what needed to be fixed in the new year to get better results. 

My office

My office – that’s a diesel pump that doubles as a desk

Cutting steel Lao style

Cutting steel pipe Lao style

Action shot

Action shot with one of my Lao counterparts. The water was REALLY cold.

Taking video of the fish being shot out by the jet

Taking video of the fish being shot out into the high velocity jet

Having managed to get this done before Christmas, I basically had the next 2 weeks to work from home which involved doing a bit of research and some time honing my CAD/Google SketchUp skills. I was originally planning on going to Malaysia for this ‘working from home’ period but ended up going local to nearby (4-5 hours by bus) and very touristy Vang Vieng.

I decided to go to Vang Vieng the night before I left, having done some online research on the place. The picture that was painted for me was not a pleasant one . Vang Vieng has been the a backpacker destination for some years now. With the infamous river tubing, river bars, river rope swings and the river death slide having taken the lives of around 25 people per year for the last 5-10 years. However, in late 2012 the communists decided enough was enough and closed most of the riverside bars, the crazy slides and swings in an attempt to curb the death rate and make the picturesque town a little more family friendly.

Party Over for Vang Vieng

Party’s Over for Backpacker Mecca

Is the Party Over in Vang Vieng

The thing that sold it for me though was an Organic Mulberry Farm just a few kilometres out-of-town which sounded quite nice. The next day, I managed to make it on the 11 o’clock bus at 11:30am and we promptly left Vientiane at 12pm.

It was my first Lao bus ride and I was excited. I bought a banh mi at the market for sustenance and had my Lao language book for entertainment. The 4.5-hour bus ride was adventurous with plenty to see. As we were leaving Vientiane, the bus stopped next to two foreigners who had signs written in both English and Lao to go to Vang Vieng. They rejected the lift cause they did not want to pay. I guess they were after a free car ride or something. Silly falang.

Having made plenty of random stops to drop and pick up things and run errands, we made one proper pit-stop where I bought some more boiled corn. I love boiled corn.

Laos (932)

Road-side sustenance

Road-side sustenance

Having not booked any accommodation for the night, I set out to do a bit of exploring. For my first night in Vang Vieng I settled for the in-town bungalows on the other side of the infamous Nam Song River called Otherside Bungalows. The bungalows were nice but it wasn’t till the next morning that I discovered my first Lao/western toilet (i.e. it had no seat). It’s really up to you whether you squat over it or decide to place your bum straight onto the ceramic. I chose the latter for those playing at home.

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You gotta love the pink toilet paper

My first impressions of VV were great. It seemed chilled out, touristy and had the most beautiful mountain ranges. I didn’t have a set time-frame for how long I could stay there and knew that I would enjoy the next few days.

The next morning I set off to get a bike and rode the 4km journey to the farm. The farm turned out to be awesome. I milked goats, helped out with planting some food and taught English to local school kids as part of a separate program that they were running.

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Goat city

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Otherside bungalows

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Inside Blue Lagoon cave

Pig!

Pig!

The farm also happens to be the starting point for the tubing which I did on Christmas day with a bunch of other revelers. It was really fun to float around the river, check out the scenery and watch the dozens of dirty backpackers getting wasted. The tubing was actually inadvertently started by the farm’s founder, Mr Thanongsi Sorangkoun (affectionately known as Mr T). Mr T wanted the farm’s volunteers to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery along the river by floating on old tyre tubes that he bought. Before he knew it, some of the locals turned it into a big commercial endeavour which was almost the death of the town. Mr T does not like it to discuss this. With the new government reforms, I hope that the town continues to thrive and the drug-riddled backpacker scene tones down a bit.

Apart from milking goats and making delicious goat’s cheese, I also tought English at a local school. It was a great experience and one that I didn’t know I would enjoy as much as I did. My only previous teaching experience was as a high school maths teacher to snobby private school kids and trying to help my brother with his homework. These kids were really clever and eager to learn.

Farmer

Farmer

Teacher

Teacher

During my first night teaching, I was busting to go to the bathroom. Upon asking where the toilet was, the volunteer high school teacher asked if I wanted to shit. I said no and was promptly shown to a wall at the back of the school where you pee. Not quite sure what girls do at the school or what they do when it’s not just a pee that they need to do.

All in all I really enjoyed my time in Vang Vieng. I met some lovely people and did some cool stuff. I would definitely recommend it to anyone thinking of going. I just don’t suggest you stay in town and make sure you rent a good mountain bike to check out the beautiful scenery and villages in the area. Vang Vieng is a great place if you like Friends. The TV show. A number of the bars and cafes play Friends, South Park and other random shows on repeat on big plasma TVs. It’s actually really fun to get dinner and chill out watching Friends. The only nuisance are the tourists. There are lots of them and most are annoying. From the snobby older type who complain about the service to the teenagers with dreadlocks and wearing happy pants, glued to their iphones and ipads. 

I came back to Vientiane for NYE and it was fun!

SAMSUNG

Till next time,

Len

Q and A with Kate Martin – Former Volunteer in Laos

29 Dec

So I know I haven’t been posting too much on my actual work here. In part because I’m still getting my head around what I will be doing while I’m here and in part because there is just so many other interesting stuff that I want to write about. However, I will try to tell you guys about my work here a little more and to start that process, below is a Q and A style email thread that I had with Kate Martin as I was getting ready to make the trip to Laos. Kate is the volunteer that I have taken over from while she takes a well-deserved holiday and comes back as a full-time employee in 2014.

A bit of background on Kate:

Kate was based in Vientiane for twelve months working as a Freshwater Fisheries Research Officer with the Living Aquatic Resources Research Centre (LARReC). LARReC is responsible for conducting research in the development of fish passage technology.

The aims of Kate’s assignment were to build capacity to develop and trial fishways. Kate  assessed the organisation’s core skills, developed training, procedures, guidelines, and a monitoring and evaluation system, and delivered training to staff. Kate also strengthened partnerships with existing networks.

Kate has a Bachelor in Applied Science in Adventure Ecotourism and, after working in the tourism industry for four years, decided on a change to working for Fisheries. Kate has worked for fisheries for the last three years and has experience in fishways, fishway assessment and social surveys. 

Kate applied for the program because she wanted to share her knowledge and skills, immerse herself in another culture, and learn from the life experiences that it has provided.

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[LB] How have you found your placement? It seems like this one is really well-developed with a large number of people working on the project from both Australia and Laos. I’ve heard some mixed responses in terms of these kind of placements. Nothing negative but some seem to be much more structured and organised than others. 

[KM] My placement so far has been great. The first couple months are a great settling in period, just be willing to get to know your colleagues. Having lunch and parties with them will make the transition a lot easier. The project is very much supported by Australia and a number of Lao organisations, so you will have a great support network. It is very well structured in terms of meeting deadlines etc. but there are still things that pop up in between that throw us off course and there will also be some down time. The best advice I can give to people is to take initiative during those times and provide training in emails, Powerpoint etc.

[LB] What is your professional background? How did you find the settling in period?

[KM] I actually studied adventure eco-tourism and found myself in fisheries. I have worked with Lee and the rest of the team in Australia for the past 4 years at Narrandera Fisheries Centre so I was very familiar with their work before arriving here in Laos. So the settling in maybe a little different for you as I just left Australia and was doing the some work here in Laos. Don’t stress there will be people here to support you if you are having difficulties. Also, there is an Australian guy based here in Laos who runs the ACAIR project. He will be your boss and will point you in the right  direction if things become too confusing or if you find that you are struggling a little. It is a very relaxed culture they don’t stress.

[LB] What have been the hardest aspects of the role?

[KM] Hardest part has been communication but you will pick that up as you are going and you will find the best way to communicate. Sometimes the project is hectic and things don’t always go to plan so you will have to think quickly on your feet during these times. You will get frustrated, I won’t lie, but that is all part of it.

[LB] What have been the best aspects of the role?

[KM] Best part is that you will learn so much in such a short time, you have a great time with everyone you work with and other people you will meet along the way. You will get to see a lot of the country in through work and you will have opportunities to take holidays as well.

[LB] How many volunteers do you know/work with?

[KM] I work with no other volunteers, just me and Lao colleagues. There are a few volunteers here in country from Australia and the rest of the world. You will meet them during your first couple of weeks in Laos and they will become a little family/support network.

[LB] Do you live in a shared place or your own unit?

[KM] I live in a share house with an Australian and Swiss guy. You will do house hunting when you arrive. There are a couple of websites that you can look for share houses, houses or units for rent if you’d like to get your head around everything but you will do most of this when you arrive. LB note: I now live in Kate’s old house and it’s awesome!

[LB] Have you had much time to check out the country and travel?

[KM] You will have plenty of time to see the country and many other countries. There are plenty of annual holidays that Laos has that will give you time to travel and it wont eat into your recreational leave and you can also do plenty of weekend trips.

[LB] When do you finish your placements and what are your plans afterwards?

[KM] I finish in November so I may get to meet you in person before I finish my placement. Afterwards I am coming back to Laos to work more on the project so I may get the opportunity to work with you. I will be travelling before heading back to OZ and having Xmas with the family and then probably be back in January sometime.

[LB] How have you found learning the language? Difficult?

[KM] You will have language lessons in you arrive and you can continue with it throughout the year its not to difficult you just have to stick with it.

Thank you to Kate for allowing me to publish this stuff. I hope it’s provided a bit of insight into my placement here.

Until next time,

Len

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22 Dec

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Falang on Bikes – Tackling the Thakhek Loop

12 Dec
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A view of the river in front of the Sabaidee Guesthouse

The Lao National Day celebrates the day the Communist Government gained control of Laos and took this great nation that I now call home into the 21st Century (debatable). Unfortunately, 8 Aussies and 2 Americans couldn’t hang around for the festivities and set off on a crazy adventure, touring around a 450km loop of the Khammouane province in central Laos…on Chinese mopeds.

I have to say straight off, this has to be in the top 3 trips that I have ever done. I dunno what the other two are but I’ve traveled a fair bit so I’m sure there have been other great trips. The scenery, the locals, the company, the red dust, it all came together into a perfect soup of fun.

We arrived in Thakhek late on Thursday night, tired and a little drained from the van ride south. It took us some time to find the much vaunted Thakhek Travel Lodge (don’t be fooled by the Travel Lodge part of the name, like many things in Laos, it’s a copy). Apparently this place is owned by Mr Ku, the guy who “invented” the loop and has some expensive mopeds to rent out with the guarantee that if anything goes wrong along the trip, he would help. Make of that what you will.

Once we off-loaded our bags and found the reception, our next task was to convince the sleepy/drugged up guy at reception that we had in fact booked enough rooms for all us and that no, it wasn’t a falang scam.

I had booked a single room as I was a last-minute straggler to join this trip (I was a bit hesitant to join a 4-day motorbike trip having absolutely no motorbike riding skills). The website said that it was standard single room with a fan and it was true to its word. I awoke on Friday morning a bit weary and confused. Not really sure if I was in Sydney or in Laos.

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My standard bed and a fan room

We set off in pursuit of our bikes and landed 4 Mr Ku and 4 Wang Wang specials. Fueled up, badly drawn maps memorised and with excessive amounts of Iodine, we set off, excited of the adventure to come.

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

Badly drawn map

Badly drawn map

DAY 1 – THAKEK – BUDDAH CAVE – THA FALANG – MAHAXAI – THALANG

First stop was Buddha cave. The most exciting part of this being the bit of off-road track where I almost stacked it on at least 3 or 4 occasions. The cave itself wasn’t too bad and was full of Buddhas. When we were leaving some monks were having lunch and it was funny to see them looking at us in awe and us looking at them in equal amounts of awe. 

Monks

Monks

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Next stop was Tha Falang swimming hole. It was picturesque and refreshing. It was also around this point that I realised how dusty it is here in Laos. The red dust gets on and in everything.

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We hit a nice patch of highway before and after our lunch stop and I was gaining in confidence quickly. Even managing a few wobbly waves at the local school kids who, as if on cue, would wave and greet each of us as we sped past.

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Gangnam style Lao-style

We even manged a quick stop at a stoned mechanic’s house to fix a wobbly basket and a few other wobbly things. Lunch consisted of Pho and some boiled nuts which I’m now addicted to.

Stoned mechanic

Stoned Mechanic – spot the little girl

Having split up into two groups, the fast and slow (I’m proud to say that I was in the fast group), we powered forward. Having grown accustomed to the heat here in Laos and being a complete noob on the bike, I thought I was being clever by wearing a t-shirt and boardies (commando style). However, as the sun started to set and we hit the mountains, it started to get cold, really cold. By the time we managed to find a local market, I was at the ‘it’s really fucking cold’ stage. The locals watched me put on all but 2 of my t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts and a newly acquired pair of trackies.

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

This wasn’t close to enough to keeping me warm but we pressed on. By the time we reached the Sabaidee Guesthouse in Thalang, I was cold and frustrated at having just driven 20km, in the dark and through very gravely/sandy road. We arrived to a welcome fire and the awesome Mr Pontoon. An amazing feed was provided and we got a few hours rest before another tough day on the road.

Oh and Pete and I began our 4-day-long Petong dominance over Tom and Sean.

Len and Pete's court

Len and Pete’s court

DAY 2 – THALANG – LAKSAO – BAN NAHIN

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We mustered the courage to tackle day 2 after hearing many stories that this was going to be a tough ride, potholed roads and construction sites. We managed to easily conquer both the first bumpy section to Laksao and the next highway section with relative ease and minimal problems. I managed to get up to around 70km/h as my confidence continued to rise on the bike.

Tom doing his thing

Tom doing his thing

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My beast

My beast

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Once we arrived in Ban Nahin, Tom and I ventured out to try and find a massage place with no luck. Pete and I once again cleaned up on the Petong pitch.

DAY 3 – BAN NAHIN – KONLOR CAVE – KUON KHAM

The Konglor cave is probably the biggest attraction in this part of Laos, and the reason most people do the Thakhek Loop. It’s a 7.5 km cave under a mountain with a river flowing through it. It takes about an hour to get through it by motorised canoe.

The night before I met a couple of travelers who gave me some tips of how to get to the cave. They told me about a shortcut that would cut a fair chunk of time out of our trip and was also kinda fun if also a little dangerous. It was a creek crossing!

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The Konglor cave is massive and dark (as you’d assume a mountain’s undercarriage would be) and has some pretty impressive stalactites and stalagmites. You can rent headlamps if you want to see anything, but even then it’s pretty dark and kind of peaceful just cruising through the darkness.

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Miner Sean

Miner Sean

The rides on day 2 and day 3 were probably my favourites. The long windy roads in the mountains, cruising through small villages, saying hello to welcoming kids and the awesome lengths of off-road fun. The only not-so-fun bits were when wildlife would decide to end their lives (and potentially mine) by running across the road without any warning or sense, right around  the time I would happen to pass them by. I lost count how many close calls there were but I remember fondly at least two dogs and a piglet who all tried to get a tire tread tattoo. It was all a bit like Mario Kart in real life.

DAY 4 –  KUON KHAM – THAKHEK

The last day was a cruisy 150km ride home. I got some clear road and got to around 85km/h before slowing down when I realised that I had almost completed the whole loop without any problems and it would suck to come off the bike and taste bitumen now.  The dozens of speeding buses, trucks and 4WDs, coming dangerously close to wiping me out on a number of occasions made me swear out loud every time they passed by.

On the way back to Thakhek I passed a sign which said “Great Wall, 200m”. This and a half a tank of fuel was enough encouragement to venture out on my last dirt road. I drove a good 500m or more before I reached the river where there was no Great Wall in site. Luckily I managed to see some cool pictures of the Great Wall when I googled it from home.

Some of us got very, very bad massages in town which was a funny-in-hindsight way to finish off a great trip.

The whole trip was absolutely amazing and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering doing it. The places we stayed at were great and quite cheap. Including the minivan, bike hire and post-trip massages, I spent around $260 over the 4 days.

Much love,

Len

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