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...