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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


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)







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


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…


Sending you love from Laos,



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