Friday, 15 July 2011

The forgotten bombs

Some "bombies"
When people think of bombing campaigns and landmines, countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Angola come immediately to mind.  But Laos has also had its fair share of the misery, and is unfortunately still suffering today.  Over 25% of Lao villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance (termed UXO); they stem from the period 1964-1973 when the States was attempting to support the Royal Lao Government against the combined forces of the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. During this period the United States conducted over half a million bombing missions over Laos, dropping 2 million tons of ordnance, including 270 million "bombies" (cluster sub-munitions). This equates to a planeload of bombs, every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.  Those are some fearful statistics.

These bombing campaigns gained Laos the unfortunate accolade of the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita, untold human, financial and capital damage, and a whole load of unexploded bombs.

It is estimated that 30% of the bombs failed to detonate, leaving approximately 80 million unexploded "bombies" after the war.   Of course this unfortunate legacy has resulted in continued loss of life and capacity, right up to the present day.  It is estimated that 20,000 people were killed or injured between 1974-2008.   The majority of the unexploded bombs still left today are in rural areas, where access to health care and roads is also significantly reduced.  Mostly it is simply a case of bad timing (like Vongphone, 49, who set off a cluster bomb whilst farming his rice field:, but on other occasions the bombs are actively handled by children (thinking they are some sort of toy or stones) or sought out by impoverished villagers desperate for their scrap metal and explosive content value.

Many countries (including the United States) now donate funds towards assisting the clearing of bombs and treatment and rehabilitation of victims. The EU has earmarked 4million Euros for the coming few years and in 2010 for example, the US gave $5.1million to the UXO sector (whilst also spending $900 billion on direct costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan...). Yet the UN predicts an average of $30million per year will be required for this sector in order to clear the remaining contaminated agrilcultural land (approx. 200,000 hectares), reduce the number of UXO accidents and treat those who have already suffered.

As with everything, there is still room for more effort to reduce the impact of these unexploded bombs and many groups are working hard on this issue.  One such organisation that is doing remarkable work in this area is called COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) which provides treatment and rehabilitation for people in need, including victims of the bombs, traffic accidents and correctable birth defects (such as club foot) and more.  There is a treatment and visitor centre in Vientiane which explains about the history and threat of the bombs, and the treatments that the centre offers.  Some of the stories they have to tell - both in the centre and on the website - are incredibly inspiring.  They also sell great icecream.... :)   Check out their website here:

Leg, anyone?!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Thailand, baby!

Among the Vientiane expat community, Thailand assumes a near mythical and god-like status of a country.  Everything imaginable is "available in Thailand".  Got a toothache? Go to Thailand. Need a blood test?  Go to Thailand. Computer screen cracked?  Go to Thailand.  Need some DEET (strong insect repellent)? Go to Thailand. Want some terrible-tasting Western coffee?  Go to Thailand.   Anyway, you get the picture.

However, the funny thing is, Vientiane actually is pretty well equipped when it comes to most things, but yet Thailand is built up to be this wondrous country, where everything available, possible and achievable.  Before I came here I had never really associated Thailand with expert medical care or a haven for Western "must-haves", but the way people rave about it in Vientiane you'd think it was paradise itself!

But yesterday I finally succumbed and entered this mythical land to go shopping in Udon Thani (about 2 hours bus ride away from Vientiane).  It was overwhelming!  Four floors of shopping mall (and that was only 1 of the malls); there was a Boots, there was KFC, there was McDonalds and there were even clothes my size!  Capitalism is indeed a marvellous thing.

Luang Namtha trip

 A few weeks ago I went to one of the northern provinces (Luang Namtha) for a work trip.  The provincial meeting (about developing plans for maternal and child health and nutrition) started on Monday but I managed to fly up there the weekend before with a friend from work. We decided to go trekking and spent 2 days hiking around a beautiful area of protected forest and stayed in a Lahu village.

Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in South East Asia with 149 officially recognised ethnic groups within 47 main ethnicities.  The Lahu ethnic group have a very small presence in Laos (around 10,000) and belong to the Tibeto-Burman sub-group (I think....) - of course, Wiki will tell you more here:   :)  

The village was on the top of a mountain, about 3 hours hike uphill to the nearest road - no running water, no latrines, no electricity (although we did see some solar powered lamps) and the people there do not speak Lao.  The kids had never been to school and receiving health care, injections etc. is problematic as the villagers have to find out from another village a few hours walk away when the health visitor is in that village, and bring their children at that time for their jabs.  

A lot of  UNICEF's work in Laos focuses on trying to improve equitable access for more vulnerable communities, particularly more minority ethnic groups (like the Lahu), so it was really interesting to get to visit a village like this in a non-official capacity.  Sometimes the "real picture" can be distorted somewhat if the visit is planned and accompanied by the district authorities... :)  So far in my travels around the country I've been able to meet people from a variety of ethnic groups, but this was the first time I got to stay in such a remote village with so little in the way of services - most places I had been to before at least had a shared water tap or even a basic 1 or 2 grade primary school.

The trek itself was great fun. After arriving in the village late afternoon (after a couple of hours hiking) we walked down to the nearest water source (about 15 mins downhill) to try to get rid of some of the sweat from the hike (impossible). Despite our efforts at maintaining our modesty, the village children thought the sight of us washing ourselves was absolutely hilarious.  My pitiful Lao was also useless as they speak another language! Walking back up to the village again rendered us sweaty once more, so we just resigned ourselves to the smell.  Our two guides cooked the evening meal (which included potatoes! - I felt like a little piece of Ireland was right here in Laos) and a couple of rounds of cards was followed by enjoying an amazing sunset before succumbing to a disrupted night's sleep - cockerels don't just crow at sunrise... The next day we packed up and continued on our way - this time about 5 hours hike along a different path down to the road.

The most hilarious moment of the weekend has to be visiting one of the tiny local houses and seeing this toothless old grandmother happily smoking away on a homemade bong - of course my first thought was opium (it is grown in the mountainous regions), but one of our party gamely offered to sample it and assured us it was only tobacco.  Anyway, the old granny was having a great time with it!

UNICEF is about to open a field office up in Luang Namtha, so I may have the opportunity to visit once again!
dinnertime for the pigs - yum

dinnertime for us - double yum


Thursday, 12 May 2011

Rules of the Road

Road rules and traffic regulations are a little different here.  Insurance is optional, driving licenses easily obtainable (...), the larger vehicles rule the roost and the rules are more like guidelines.  The old "mirror, signal, manoeuvre" mantra is fairly irrelevant, since many vehicles do not have mirrors, or even signals for that get the picture.  Due to their more accessible price and relative speed, motorbikes are the vehicle of choice for most families, and by families I mean families: limited public transport means 4 or 5 family members (plus dog!) squeezed onto a single motorbike is not an uncommon sight. Other passengers sighted include 20 live chickens, masses of market produce and newborn babies!

bike and motorbike
Since the outset my plan was always to get a motorbike; following the advice of a previous IrishAid volunteer I faithfully schlepped a massive UK-safety-regulation-meeting helmet through four airport security controls and 6000 miles from Belfast to Vientiane and I'm now the proud owner of the largest helmet in Vientiane!  The initial sight of the traffic put me off a little and for the first three weeks I suffered the long and sweaty cycle to work until I finally caved and took some informal lessons from a friend and bought an "entry-level" Kolao (cheap Lao brand). Whilst I've gradually learnt a bit more about motorbiking, my Lao vocab for transport has stalled somewhat, resulting in any problem with the bike (ranging from needing petrol, to the engine not starting) typically being solved through a combination of pointing, miming and a frantic game of charades.

Even after more than two months on the motorbike it is still scary sometimes, but once you grasp the basic principle of keeping your mind on what's ahead (because they will almost certainly NOT be thinking about you or your ability to react as they pull out from a side street/slam the brakes on/suddenly turn left) then it gets a bit better.  Unfortunately there is still a very high rate of traffic accidents so it never pays to be too careful, that said, I do think it's safer on a motorbike than a bicycle provided you're not going too fast.

Ultimate goal would be to hire a dirt bike at some point for a road trip - maybe in a few months!

A mother's delight! Not My Bike (a friend rented this beast)

Sunday, 1 May 2011

A very enjoyable weekend - Kong Lor Cave

A few weekends ago myself and a few friends were lucky enough to visit one of the most beautiful places in Laos - Kong Lor cave.   An early start saw eight of us scramble into a hastily arranged minibus and head south.  Four and a half hours later - enduring the cheesiest music CD on repeat ("We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun", multiple times, you get the picture) - we finally arrived.

It was magical: a tantalisingly clear aqua-blue pool of water marks the entrance to the impressive limestone cave, which houses a 7.5km long tunnel formed by the Hinboun river. Due to the topography, there are no paved roads on the other side, so the waterway is a vital supply line to the people living in villages on the other side.   Keen to get through to the other side, we headed down to the boats and began the hour-long water journey through the cave.  As the motorised canoe puttered along, torchlight illuminated vast chasms - tall enough to easily accommodate Big Ben apparently - as well as collections of stalactites and stalagmites.   On a couple of occasions we were able to hop out and walk around the larger areas.  The whole experience was very humbling, and made me wonder how vast the cave actually was as we probably were only able to walk around one tiny bit.

The sun was still blazing as we emerged on the other side.  Eager to work out where we would stay for the night, we pressed on to find the nearest village (about 1.5km walk from the cave exit).   The plan had always been to do a "homestay", which is, unsurprisingly exactly what it says on the tin - staying in someone's home.   This is quite a common accommodation option in Lao villages, you just need to say the magic word "homesatay (yes, like that!)" and you are instantly hooked up with a family who'll gladly lay out some blankets on their wooden floor for you to kip beside them and go out of their way to make you feel welcome, all for the price of a couple of beers.  For us this hospitality meant showing us around the area, killing a chicken for our evening meal (!), inviting us to a massive party that evening (which turned out to be a funeral celebration bizarrely) and giving us a blessing ceremony (baci - see a few posts below) before we left.  The village itself was fairly typical - a collection of wooden stilted houses, teamed with a temple and school and populated with kids playing chasies, women weaving and a veritable menagerie of free-range animals (chickens, ducks, pigs, dogs..).   It had also only just received electricity a few months ago, so unfortunately for us there was no escaping the Thai soap operas in the wee small hours!

The followed day we awoke early (wooden walls are not soundproofed against cockerels) and the group split for the journey back; half of us went on a gentle hike around the area before heading back through the cave, whilst the other 4 decided on a 6 hour hike *over* the limestone cliff which housed the cave - guess which group I was in (!) ?  The villagers were so doubtful of our ability to survive the hike (it is not a common tourist route) they insisted we took two guides for safety and even put together a hasty blessing to appeal to the gods to keep us safe.

It clearly worked: 5 and a half hours of pretty steep rock scrambling, 10 litres of water and a lot of sweat later the four of us emerged on the other side of the mountain relatively unscathed.  The guides managed to lead us up and over on a seemingly invisible path.  As we huffed and puffed (and the 4 of us were not unfit!) and downed litres of water like one possessed, they didn't drink a sip a drop or seem to sweat at all, AND they did it all in flip flops.  Impressive.

Pleased to have reached the other side with (most of) our dignity still intact, we proceeded to down yet more water and then leap into what is arguably one of the better swimming spots in Laos.  After finding the others we were reunited with our minibus and driver (who had sensibly stayed the night in a guesthouse in the nearest town - Laos people think falang (foreigners) are very amusing - we stay on hard floors in a homestay when we could chose a guesthouse and suffer on 6 hour long hikes when we could just sit in a boat for an hour), raced to catch the sunset from a great viewing point and then began the journey back to Vientiane.   A late dinner at a great Pakistani restaurant (Jamil's) rounded off what can only be described as a very enjoyable weekend.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Sabaidee Pi Mai! (Happy New Year)

The year can only be "new" once, right?  Not when you live in Laos!  Last week I had the opportunity to renew any New Year's resolutions which may have survived into the wee small hours of January 1st 2011, but soon to be broken shortly thereafter.  Why? Because last week was Lao New Year, or "Pi Mai" in Lao language.  On Wednesday the entire nation faithfully downed tools (hoe, buffalo, pen, keyboard - whatever the profession) and took up arms.....with water guns.

It's any kid's dream and for one week only, a nation's occupation; water is absolutely everywhere as the whole country turns to participate in a one great big waterfight (complete with flour and colour dye just to make everything that little bit more pleasant).  No one is exempt - young, old, rich, poor, local or falang (foreigner) - from the soaking.  And soaked we were.  From waterguns, cannons, hosepipes, buckets, funnels and rubbish bins the liquid poured down.  So what is the appropriate response in all the mayhem?   Well, you know what they say...if you can't beat them, join them.  So we did.

Of course there is method in the madness. Traditionally water was used to clean the home, temple and buddha images once a year, wish people luck and just generally give everything and everyone a spring clean and fresh start for the coming year. Whilst these traditions do still take place in Lao homes, the public image of Pi Mai seems to have been somewhat thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, with the "cleansing" of people (!) taking centre stage and becoming the more prominent and memorable image of this festival.

For the festival itself I was able to maximise my days off and spent a few days in a village up north before the celebrations began (more on that later).  On Wednesday 13th I travelled to Luang Prabang - the ancient Lao capital and *the place* to be for Pi Mai.   Thousands of people - both Lao and foreign - converged on this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town to take part in the multi-day waterfight.  I was joined by a few other UNICEF and Vientiane friends for the party and we also met lots of wide-eyed backpackers.  Each day followed a fairly similar pattern: a relaxed start enabled the troops to regroup and gather ammunition and before the celebrations (/battles) commenced around 11am and continued until about 6pm.  The afternoon was taken up with waterfights and plenty of Beer Lao in different locations, depending on the day (a sandbank island on the Mekong, the main street to watch the parade one way, the main street to watch the parade going the other way - you get the picture).  The first few nights were spent watching the "Miss Luang Prabang" competition, but otherwise evenings were fairly quiet, with most of the town abiding by the midnight curfew.

By Saturday it was all getting a bit much, so myself and some Vientiane friends decided to get our water "fix" in another way, by visiting Kuang Si Waterfalls.  These are absolutely stunning - a series of aqua-blue cascading pools lead you up a hill to the base of a powerful waterfall.  You can climb all the way up, but swimming and jumping off the rope swing were better options for me... :)

All in all, a wet, but wonderful week.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sin City

Sin is the name of the traditional Lao-style skirt; it goes to your mid-calf (longer if you are older) and can be made with a variety of fabrics (silk, cotton, mix).  About two weeks after my arrival a Japanese friend introduced me to a wonderful lady in the Talat Sao (morning market) who sells fabrics and arranges speedy tailoring with her family.  The cheaper ones cost about $15 including tailoring, and the price just rises from there.   I've heard that the sky is the limit with Lao silk, with some skirts costing $1000s because of the high quality of material.   I now have a grand total of 3 sins (alas, each of which falls closer to the lower price bracket mentioned, rather than the higher :) ); they are super comfortable for walking around and include a foldable panel of material which helps maintain your dignity whether scrambling out of a car, praying in the temple or riding your motorbike.  They're an absolute must for government meetings and are very good at breaking the ice with strangers (people think it's funny but like the fact that foreigners wear/try to wear* the skirt).

my work sins

*I say "try to wear" (see left...) because my efforts at dressing myself invariably warrant constant correction by Lao friends (i.e. the seam is not perfectly aligned with my hip, the belt is not right, I'm not wearing a belt etc.)

Friday, 18 March 2011

Baci ceremony

A few weeks ago in work one of my colleagues came up to me saying, "Quick, come to the terrace, it's your baci".  Confused, but curious, I headed out to our huge outdoor meeting area at UNICEF - a 40m long terrace overlooking the mighty Mekong river and Thailand - where a number of people had gathered for a religious ceremony.   Buddhism is an important part of the fabric of Lao society, and whilst I haven't had much opportunity to learn about it yet, the signs and symbols of it permeate the city and its environs.   Every morning at 6.30am I am woken by the low chanting of the young monks as they go around the houses to receive gifts of sticky rice and other foods from more devoted and early-rising neighbours (!), monks of all ages - in their bright orange robes - are instantly visible wherever you go, many houses and shops have small shrines in one corner and on my daily 10 minute commute to work I pass scores of street stalls selling elaborate floral decorations for ceremonies not unlike the one I experienced at work.

The baci (pronounced "bassi") is a ceremony that celebrates a special event, such as a birth in the family, sickness, marriage, departure for travels or in my case, a welcome.  After the prayers that are conducted by the elder, wellwishers gather around to give their blessings to person involved by tying a white string around their wrist.  These symbolic threads are kept on for 3 days, after which they can be removed (you need to unpick them - cutting is bad luck apparently).  At the office I only had about 20 or 30 bracelets, but at larger events like weddings the bride can have her whole arm covered in them.

Our baci was welcoming two newcomers to the office and saying goodbye to four people who were leaving.  It was a pretty emotional time for the people who were going, with all their friends coming up one-by-one to wish them well for the future and pray for their well-being: I'm already dreading this time next year....!

You hold the strings that are attached to the centre; wellwishers gather around and hold the edges of the thread (note the food in the background - baci ceremony always are accompanied by food - I'm not complaining!)
The first thread is tied on to your wrist as they say the blessing; you also are given some symbolic food to hold in your palm - we had chocolate wafers!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

One Month in....

It is one month to the day (and hour!) since I arrived in Vientiane.  Time has flown by and I still can't quite believe how much has happened during that time.

Patuxay Monument - 3 mins from my flat
Vientiane is such an amazing city; curious and full of contradictions everywhere you turn.   In some ways it's very Westernised, but this doesn't seem to dominate the local culture.  French restaurants and Swedish bakeries stand alongside very local dining spots where a decent main course Lao meal and a large Beer Lao (the local brew) can be purchased for little more than $2 or $3.   Echoes of the Champs Elysees can be seen in the magnificent Lan Xang Avenue - a straight, tree-lined 8-lane boulevard between the President's Palace and the impressive "Patuxay" (a large monument reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe).   Yet only a few minutes away from this area are more "shanty" style corrugated-iron single story buildings.   The French influence lingers on in the fabulous cafes and restaurants, some boulevards and architecture, but the presence of other nations - China, South Korea, Thailand and the English-speaking world - is certainly more tangible.   In any case, I have the feeling that there is more to Vientiane than meets the eye at first, and certainly a lot more than the 72 hour backpacker gets to see and understand before their overnight trip to the next destination.

Lost in Translation
Hopefully the next few entries - which will be much more frequent, I promise (!) - will give a bit more insight into what has happened so far.   Definite highlights include moving into an amazing new apartment (sharing with the other IrishAid UNV, Nancy), settling in at work (it's great so far!), buying a motorbike, exploring lots of different restaurants (I have yet to cook a meal the entire time I've been here...) and meeting lots of new people.  The only lowlight was having my bag stolen last Sunday afternoon from my bicycle basket; the thief didn't get much cash or anything valuable, but he now does own a lovely new red sin (traditional Lao skirt - more on that later...) which I'd just picked up from the tailor only 2 hours beforehand.... :)   I'll also try to post any amusing photos of "interesting" English formations - I found the one to the right on the first night in the hotel where Nancy and I stayed before we found our flat: I'll leave the interpretation to your imagination...

Friday, 21 January 2011

Training, round 1

IrishAid training - all the gang and our two trainers
First lot of training is now done and dusted (4 days in Dublin) and round two is fast approaching (3 days in Bonn).   The reality of heading away is starting to dawn on me and this initial preparation was really useful.  It was great meeting and getting to know the other IrishAid UNV (United Nations Volunteers - the scheme we're going with) people. There are 14 of us all together, spread out amongst 11 different developing countries across the globe.  I also had the chance to meet two girls who have recently returned from working with the UN in Laos, one of whom worked in a similar role to mine in UNICEF (Child Rights).   Their stories were amazing and I now have a list as long as my arm of places to visit, festivals to attend and organisations to look up when I arrive in Vientiane.  

I've got just over two weeks left in Europe before I head off to Vientiane on the 7th of February via what is arguably the longest route possible (Belfast-London-Frankfurt-Bangkok-Vientiane) - thank goodness for airmiles....!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

What's in a name?

A common road sign maybe?
Brief explanation of the name of the blog (pretentious, moi...?!):

The official name of the country where I'm going is   "Lao People's Democratic Republic", or Lao PDR for short, but it's mainly known abroad as "Laos" (and often pronounced with the "s").   Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge) reliably informs me this is because the French added the final consonant to signify their unification of the multiple Lao kingdoms of French Indochina in 1893 - good pub quiz knowledge if nothing else!  

History lessons aside, back in the day between the 14th and 18th centuries the region was known as the kingdom of Lan Xang - the Land of a Million Elephants - and hence the blog title.   Hopefully Laos will live up to its namesake and I'll get to see at least a few.....

Laos in a year

In February 2011 I will be leaving the U.K and heading far, far away to South East Asia for one year.   A few months ago I was lucky enough to get offered a one-year placement with UNICEF in Vientiane - capital of Lao PDR.   It's organised and sponsored by the lovely people at IrishAid (Irish Government Department for International Development) and organised by the United Nations Volunteers scheme.

I will spend the year working on Child Rights Policy in the UNICEF office, but am also hoping to get a real insight into life in Laos and the work of UNICEF.

Laos is a landlocked country in S.E Asia - surrounded on all sides by Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and China - hopefully all future travel destinations!  

Anyway, swing by this blog for photos and updates every so often and do keep in touch.  I have training in Dublin and Germany over the next 10 days and then will be leaving Belfast on the 7th of February.   But before all that, a crazy weekend of furious packing up my London room....