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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

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What a crazy day

8 Dec

Ok, I know that I haven’t been keeping up my end of the bargain with this posting business. I promise I have lots of drafts saved, but have just been struggling to find the time to finish the drafts off and get them to your curious minds and curb your enthusiasm.

Today has hit me like a tonne of bricks. I woke up not too late but feeling a little under the weather. Not sure if it’s the smell of burning plastic or a lingering chest cold I picked up while doing the Thakhek Loop but I was not feeling the best. I started off with work in bed. Sent off some results from a bunch of experiments we did last week and then started to chat to Elizabeth. Fast forward a few hours and I was riding home after picking up a Lao-style Vietnamese Banh mi roll. I had one last night and was craving another one. They tend to swap the pickled carrots for the papaya salad over here but I have to say, and this is going to be controversial, the ones here are better than the rolls both in Australia AND in Vietnam. Maybe it’s the MSG or the delicious coriander but they are very tasty.

Having smashed the roll, I jetted off to the gym with plans of taking my first Lao yoga class. Now I wasn’t expecting anything amazing or anything but what I got was way, way below my low expectations. The classes at this  “western-style gym” are held in a big warehouse-type room with a concrete floor. Not unlike the floor at the Virgin Active gym I used to frequent. Well…it’s actually very much unlike that gym.

There were already a number of people in the warehouse, waiting for the class to begin. I got my soft mat-type thing and began to watch the other people take selfies, talk on the phone and just generally act uninterested to about to do yoga. It was the most un-yoga like place I’ve ever been to. Our instructor was a lovely ladyboy named Vanhly with a sparkling “sexy sure” top on. The class was in Lao and in the 20 minutes that I managed to hang around, we did a total of 1 pose that I have ever seen or done at any yoga studio.

Following that experience, I bought some groceries and was riding home, trying to decide where to get dinner when I witnessed the most horrific thing I have ever seen. Here’s a recap:

I was riding my bicycle
Riding around, not knowing if to get dinner or not
I was riding for ages
Aimlessly
Then when I was on this long and dark road, heading home, I decided to do a u-turn and actually get dinner
50m after I did that, I saw 2 motorbikes heading the opposite way
I don’t think they had lights on or were wearing helmets
A random parked car that was on their side of the of the road started to do a u-turn
They were obviously going too fast and either not paying attention or were drunk
It looked like they had enough time to stop or maybe they thought the car would stop doing the u-turn and they could get around it
One motorcyclist started to break and was swerving but managed to just stop in time
While his mate t-boned the car at full speed
He hit the car just as I was passing it
The sound of the impact was horrible
Some shrapnel hit my body
Something hit my bike
I just ducked my head and rode another 50m or so
I was in massive shock
Didn’t know if to stop or not
There were people on either side of the road that were yelling
I stopped, looked back, saw the bike mangled up in the car and then started to ride again
I have heard stories of foreigners stopping at accidents and then getting the blame by police and the people in the accident
I also watched an Insight episode that covered this very issue
I would be surprised if the guy survived
He slammed into the driver’s side of the car so the person in the car could have been hurt too
I didn’t know if to go back and help or not
I just kept riding
I rode home in a state of shock. 

From the land of Laos,

Len

P.S. To leave on a slightly more pleasant note, I have spent the past hour playing hide and seek with a mouse/rat that is part of a family that lives in our walls. It managed to get onto my bed twice. I don’t know why it wants to go there but I’m going to try really hard to not think about it.

The illusive rat

The illusive rat/mouse

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