I want to remember this forever! @ Elephant Conservation Centre, Lao PDR

My first encounter with Asian elephants in Thailand last year was shadowed by an underlying fear of large animals. Possibly connected to my childhood trauma of being thrown off the back of a pony. So I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing when I agreed to visit the Elephant Conservation Centre in Xayaboury province with a friend last month… Turns out this visit completely transformed my attitude towards large animals and by the third day when we had to leave, I would rather have stayed and ventured back into the forest with the mahouts.

Elephant Conservation Centre viewed from the lake

I learned to ride an elephant on its neck, passed my mahout training course with flying colors (i.e. managed to instruct an elephant to walk a figure eight whilst riding it) and admired little baby elephants in the centre’s nursery. In addition to visiting the centre and making a donation for the elephants, encouraging other people to visit the centre is probably one of the best ways to keep supporting their vitally important work in safeguarding the future of the Asian elephant in Laos and the region.

Baby elephant eating bananas at the nursery

One time when I was was riding one of the elephants towards the centre from the forest, I found myself gasping for air as the view opened before my eyes. I want to remember this forever! I told my friend who was a few steps ahead of me on her own elephant. Through my pictures and the sound of a wooden elephant bell made by one of the oldest mahouts in Laos, I think I will. Go if you can and you will too.

Elephants bathe twice a day (and drink some 150 litres of water daily)

Elephants spend the night in the forest where they sleep for 4-5 hours

Elephant Conservation Centre viewed from the forest

Sunset view from a bungalow

There are travels and then there are travels

The past months have been defined more or less by travels. Trips to Thailand, the south of Laos, Cambodia, Malaysian Borneo, and the north of Laos. Some for work but mostly for fun. Here’s what I have learned about travelling in South East Asia.

Re: Air travel

1. Security and immigration queus are not the only reasons why you should be at the airport two hours before departure. The plane may also be leaving up to one hour early. I had heard of this happening on occasions with domestic flights within Laos, before it happened to me on an international flight out of Pakse in the south of Laos.

2. If a flight is cancelled, it may be a good idea to hang around at the airport as there’s a fair chance that the flight has merely been postponed. Happened to me yesterday on my way back from a work trip to the north of Laos. Good thing we decided to have a late lunch at the little bamboo hut restaurant next to the terminal building, so we could get on the plane a few hours later after a guy ran from the airport to announce that there is a flight after all that day.

Re: Travel by bus/minivan 

Bus travel in Lao PDR

1. Seat numbers are meaningless. Worst case scenario, you insist on your assigned seat and find yourself tucked between the driver and another passenger on the front seat of a minivan for six hours; with no leg space to speak of, no seatbelt but with a front row view of the road and all its horrors. Best case scenario, you find your assigned seat occupied but smile at the toothless guy in your seat and continue along the aisle to find a half empty back row of seats. Enjoy the trip (as much as reasonably possible given that the bus is from the 1960s and the road conditions are appalling) in what is probably the best seat in the whole bus with a properly opening window, ample leg space and plenty of space above your head too.

2. Avoid travelling on popular travel days e.g. first and last days of public holidays. Thankfully these words of wisdom spring not from my own experience, but that of a good friend of mine who spent 18 hours on a bus that was meant to take 4-5 hours. With double the amount of passengers allowed on the bus. All of whom had their luggage and at least one big bag of rice. Which naturally were stacked up on the aisle so windows were the only possible exit when the bus stopped for toilet breaks. Or when the bus just broke down (which it did on multiple occasions). Oh joy.

3. Always, always pack travel sickness tablets. Not just for you but also for those silly fellow passengers who are yet unaware of this simple but effective way to take the edge off hours of windy mountain roads. Even if your medicated stomach can take the roads, it’s very difficult to handle a coinciding case of people vomiting around you and sometimes directly on to you. Fact.

Whilst writing this: President Obama has just announced his support for same sex marriage. Apparently this will become a major issue in the presidential elections with roughly half of the American people opposed to gay marriage. This may be a stupid question, but since when did the US President have any say in marriage issues that do not fall under federal legislation? Surely the American people are more intelligent than allowing the election to be defined by single issues like this that are not even part of their president’s job. (For the record I support gay marriage.)

Currently reading: I was quite worried after having finished Shantaram that I will be disappointed with whatever I read next. For a moment I was, when I started to read A Scandalous Man by Gavin Esler. Half way through, I was reasonably happy again. And then I started reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I’d heard about a movie coming out but didn’t really have much of an idea of what I was getting myself into. Honestly the last time I found a book that gripping was when I read the Harry Potter books in my teens (the only time I ever skipped a full day of school to finish reading a book). This time I nearly skipped three consecutive night’s sleep as I was sucked into the world of Panem and had an uncontrollable need to finish the trilogy. How I wish more books would be like this…

Celebrating the ordinary

Buddhist countries around South East Asia are currently gearing up to one of the biggest – if not the biggest – festivals they have, the Buddhist New Year. Here in Laos, temperatures have been rising steadily in the lead up to Pi Mai Lao that turns the country into a massive, week-long water fight. Pi Mai Lao is officially a three-day holiday, fixed in the calendar at 13-15 April but celebrations tend to start early and carry on for days after the official holidays are over. Now, a week before Pi Mai we have already seen the first Beerlao-fueled parties and heard the karaoke that goes on into the early hours. Come the weekend and early next week, I’m mentally preparing myself for the chance that people fail to fight the urge to hose down passers-by as I innocently make my way through town on my blue little bicycle. But before I give in to the water fight, I want to spend a moment celebrating some of the more ordinary aspects of life over here.

First off, coffee. On my recent trip to the south I bought a few bags of coffee grown in the region on the Bolaven plateau. I noticed the prices had risen since my previous trip last year, but figured it was still worth it. I picked up some beans for a couple of friends as well, and couldn’t but smile when I witnessed their ecstatic appreciation of the coffee once they had tasted it. It’s that good.

The coffee "sock", traditional method of brewing lao coffee. Picture taken at a small lao restaurant near my house.

Secondly, crafts. On a recent work trip to Sangthong district in Vientiane province, some 2,5 hours drive north of Vientiane Capital, we visited a village where most of the women are engaged in weaving traditional lao sin fabrics with a hand loom. The high quality silk with its intricate patterns woven directly into the fabric is simply a form of art. I was gutted that there were so few finished fabrics available for buying, and none of those colours really made me tick. There were so many gorgeous ones still tied up in the looms, see for yourself. Finally, food. In particular, street food. I’ve recently had an amazing omelette-filled baguette from a tiny stall set-up in a street corner on a motorbike, and last night I found myself overeating (again) at a night market that was set up near the Mekong here in Vientiane not too long ago. On the menu: neem khao, a deep-fried ball of sticky rice mashed and mixed with peanuts and fresh herbs (a veggie version without shredded pork skin); laap paa, one of my favourite lao dishes of finely chopped fish with chili and fresh herbs such as mint and lemongrass; stir-fried mixed vegetables and papaya salad, the spicy mix of shredded green papaya, not-yet-ripe cherry tomatoes, peanuts, lime juice, chili and fresh green beans. I think after Pi Mai it’s time I head to a cooking class myself…

Whilst writing this: Easter is here and while it is not celebrated in Laos, I hope my friends and family back home (and elsewhere where Christian holidays warrant a few extra days off work) enjoy the extra light in the evenings that daylight saving time has given us and take the opportunity to relax.

Currently reading: Having finished Shantaram, I’m on such a bibliographic high that I’m not sure what to pick up next as part of me is worried I will simply be disappointed with just about any book. I shall take some time this weekend to select a book or two to read over the holidays.

Forces of relativity

My first trip to Cambodia was both shocking and surprisingly pleasant. Our arrival at Siem Reap airport with visa applications, luggage, sim card purchases and airport taxis was a real breeze, very far from the kind of arrival in a developing country that I was expecting. Relative development points: Cambodia 1 – Laos 0. Our hotel was an oasis with its gorgeous pool area, delicious food and friendly staff.

The first shocks were experienced when we headed to the Old Market area across the river from our hotel. I couldn’t believe my eyes – or ears for that matter – of how jam-packed this area was of tourists. Sure, when you do the math of some 2 million visitors every year you realize that there are probably over 5000 tourists in the city on any given day. But there were way too many for my taste in such a small area, and the same kind of crowds were expected at the temples during the day. Whoa! So we tried honing our crowd tolerance to the max before heading to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. Limited success, but I had great fun photographing the masses of tourists that were quite effective in blocking the view of the sunset.

Sunset seekers at Phnom Bakheng

Unmotivated to spend the next day amidst busloads of fellow tourists on temple tours, we selected two temples way out of Siem Reap for our Angkor temple experience: Banteau Srey and Baeng Maelea. We figured that not that many people would venture that far out to see piles of rock. Approaching Banteau Srey in the morning in a line of buses we were clearly wrong, and it was somewhat of a challenge to see parts of the temple for the groups that gathered around the main attractions. Thankfully most of the tourists seemed to be Asian and we had the advantage of being a head taller than many of them. Oh well… We were more successful at Baeng Maelea and started exploring the ruined temple for a good 20 minutes with nothing but butterflies and an odd monkey as our company. It was straight out of Indiana Jones!

What would happen to most buildings if humans abandoned them @ Baeng Maelea

Drives to and from the temples crossed through Cambodian countryside where we saw conditions similar to the Lao countryside, though with more variation in buildings that to me signaled larger differences in income levels within villages. Based on this cursory view of life in the rural villages in a relatively affluent area within the country, the poor in Cambodia seem to be on par with the poor in Laos, at least in rural areas. But the other end of the scale is certainly light years ahead in Cambodia relative to Laos.

My admittedly speedy visit to Phnom Penh left me in a state of awe that took days to shake. The city of some two million residents was full of mainly black Lexus and BMW SUVs (in Vientiane cars are mainly Toyota), despite some construction activities there was no dust in the city (I’m assuming all roads are paved), the sun was dazzling from the sides of what looked like brand new skyscrapers and generally everything was clean. I had been told though that poverty is much more in your face in Phnom Penh so it’s probable that I just visited the city at an unusual time when the streets had been cleared of debris and beggars for the ongoing ASEAN meeting. The only beggars I saw in the whole town were near the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, which was an utterly chilling place. UNESCO has listed the place on its Memory of the World register – let us hope that the world never ever has to live through another period of injustice and horror that was the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia.

Some of the last 14 prisoners executed at Tuol Sleng are buried in the courtyard

To avoid finishing on a totally depressing note, I add some photos I took of the drawings displayed at the museum, made by children in Cambodia and Japan and exhibiting their hopes and dreams of a better future. 

Some pictures taken on an early Sunday morning tuk tuk journey through the streets of Phnom Penh are available on flickr.

Signs of development

One of the ever-present and ever-persistent elements of living in Vientiane is the sound of construction. In the past year or so my ears have learned to tune out much of the constant noise caused by hammering, electric saws and drills. I have learned to focus on an outdoor yoga class next to a massive construction site where Sundays don’t mean a day off, and barely noticed the sounds echoing down the hallways when most of our office building was under renovation. While in my heart I wish Laos could retain some of its old charm that comes from traditional buildings and landscapes, I do realize that building is often first and foremost a sign of development.

Distance is most effective in making us more observant of the changes around us. Here are some of my observations from the past weeks and months:

  • Upon returning from holidays back home, I was shocked to see my corner shop in ruins and found myself thinking where on earth am I now going to buy my emergency rations of phone credit, toilet paper, sticky rice and similar essential items. Only to find out some weeks later that they were merely upgrading the shop and in the same place is now a much improved new shop. Run by the same family headed by an almost toothless grandma who never seizes to smile and ask me where I’ve been if they haven’t seen me for a while, only now she’s moved from being impressed with my Lao language to correcting it. But the new shop means I no longer need to wash dust off the top of my juice carton before opening it.
  • I recently returned from a work trip to Thalat, some 1,5 hours north-east of Vientiane. I stayed at a hotel in Ban Sengsavang with magnificent views over the Nam Ngum reservoir. It’s been some 10 months since my last visit to the place but parts of it were barely recognizable. The hotel now has a swimming pool and they were building new bungalows and various other structures on the grounds (this was the recognizable part). The village right next to the hotel was not. I remember walking down a dusty road lined with small wooden shacks on both sides. This time the left side of the road was bare and there were no signs of buildings of any kind and most of the shacks on the right hand side looked abandoned. I was puzzled – where are all the people? It was almost like walking in a ghost town, only we were led by a small stray dog that assumed the role of a guide dog when we left the hotel. At the end of the street we found closed down restaurants and more empty buildings, but also two brand new ones. Bamboo and light wooden sheets were making way to brick and proper timber – sure signs of development. But I couldn’t help feeling somewhat startled at first.
    image

    This modern building certainly looked alien in its environment to me

  • In anticipation of the upcoming ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) meeting in November 2012, various parts of Vientiane are undergoing construction. A massive conference center is being built with Chinese support along with a series of high-end villas to house foreign dignitaries and heads of states at the time of the meeting. Much of the river front in the southern end of the city centre is currently blocked off by a long white fence informing of construction activities.
  • Last week I noticed that all street food stalls near the vibrant new night market by the river had vanished. I went back night after night in the hope that they were only temporarily gone, but was met with empty stretches of street where only a few weeks ago I was enjoying dinner with my friends on the pavement, sitting on a bamboo mat and a small pillow. Then the other night I noticed what looked like a set of new open-air restaurants on a formerly empty plot of land on one of the side streets leading away from the river. Today, slightly disheartened by the loss of my favorite street food venue, I proposed some friends we could check out this new place on the side street as we were looking for a place to eat in the area. We found out that they were the same people cooking the same delicious food, only now you could eat without the company of constantly passing trucks on the busy road and they now have proper tables and chairs (still plastic but much better for those of us wearing skirts!). Two more signs of development.

Whilst writing this: We’ve had some rain in Laos in the past week and more is forecast for the weekend. Seems it’s again time for the mango rains – this means a new season of mangos, mangosteens, lychees, rambutans and other yummy tropical fruits is just around the corner!

Currently reading: I have made it almost half way through Shantaram, and my first impressions are confirmed – it’s a great book! I’m loving the fact that I have another 500 pages to go.

Making the most of it

Why is it that we find it difficult and at times completely fail to appreciate what we have before it’s too late? Sometimes I find myself regretting something when it’s already too late and the opportunity has passed. Lately I’ve been thinking about how an expiry date can wake one up to see the world around them with much more enthusiasm than when there are no major mile markers in sight. Even though I don’t currently have a definite end date to my adventure in Laos in the form of a one-way ticket home, I have realised that my time here is limited and it’s high time I start making the most of it in case I wasn’t before. Here’s what’s on my list:

Rock climbing – a plan from the beginning that didn’t start realising until some weeks ago for many reasons, with poor road conditions and the rainy season topping the list. So far I have conquered some of the magnificent limestone formations in Vang Vieng and soon I’m heading south to Khammouan province, where a new climbing centre was recently set up by a German couple. Stay tuned for updates!

Last climb of the day (6a)

Learning to ride a motorbike – although the number of cars on the roads is constantly increasing, Lao people are as Asian as their neighbours in their affinity towards riding motorbikes. Why shouldn’t I give it a go? Especially when both Laos and Finland are signatories to some international traffic treaty that makes it possible for me to change my Lao motorbike licence to a Finnish one when I return home. Having overcome a major case of sloth, I finally signed up with a driving school some time ago and successfully passed my tests earlier this week.

Improving my French – not really the most obvious choice but learning more Lao makes very little sense to me at the moment. But being in a former French colony makes it relatively easy to learn French: reasonably priced quality teaching is available and there are many people to practise with – short of living in a totally French-speaking country is doesn’t get better than this. Currently enrolled in an evening course at Vientiane’s Institut Francais du Laos.

Travel – as my work didn’t take me around the country to the extent I expected, I need to make an additional effort to see the country. Unfortunately a regular weekend is nowhere near enough time to explore Laos given the distances required to travel, the poor road conditions and the lack of 4WD in my car. Luckily I have some friends visiting in the coming months so I can take some leave and venture to the south of the country.

Whilst writing this: Winter has finally arrived in Finland and my friends and family seem to be spending a lot of time cross-country skiing. As temperatures here in Laos are climbing there have been days recently when the temperature difference between the two countries has been 60 degrees or more.

Currently reading: After having finished ‘Disco for the Departed’, #3 in the Dr. Siri Payboun series, I’ve finally started reading ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. With only 30 pages in I have a feeling I’m gonna enjoy it a lot. I’m also loving my new Footprint guide to Diving in Southeast Asia that brings past and future dive trips one step closer to my landlocked existence here in Laos.

Wind, blues and rock for COPE

Last night, Saturday 10 December, was the occasion of the annual charity concert for COPE, a not-for-profit organization in Laos that provides prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services for disabled people. The event coincided with a complete lunar eclipse and what felt like the start of winter in Laos. Strong winds and temperatures below 20C were fortunately not enough to keep people away and the concert was attended by hundreds of locals and expats looking to enjoy an evening of great music and to support COPE in its important work. Personally I had one of the best nights in a long time, enjoying a great line-up of local acts including the Red Eye Fish, Pull-T Club, Honky Tongs blues band and the ever-so-amazing Lao Bang Fai breakdance group.

Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. During the Vietnam war, over two million tons of explosive ordnance was dropped in Lao territory by the US in an effort to stop the North Vietnamese troops advancing through Laos. It is estimated that some 30% of the ordnance did not explode, leaving some 80 million unexploded bombs around the country. Needless to say, most of these bombs remain buried around the country to date as UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance is time-consuming, costly and dangerous. UXO Laos, an organization dedicated to UXO clearance in Laos with the support of MAG (Mines Advisory Group) reports that since starting operations in mid-1990s they have cleared approximately 500,000 sub-munitions from cluster bombs which accounts for just over 0.5% of all UXOs dotted around the country.

COPE’s services will thus be needed by people injured and maimed by the remaining bombs for a long time and they can use all the help they can get. Last spring, my friends and I fundraised for COPE at our joint birthday party. Those in Vientiane should definitely visit the COPE center and its permanent exhibition, not to mention its cafe with delicious homemade ice creams (open daily 9am-6pm). Why not donate to COPE this Christmas and give someone a new leg that will change their life forever, for the better?

Whilst writing this: Finnish presidential elections in early 2012 are getting closer and MTV3’s Good Morning Finland (Huomenta Suomi) show is broadcasting live interviews with all the eight candidates in English starting Monday 12 December. I look forward to hearing what the candidates have to say to the international audience! Available also online after the interviews. More info on the Facebook event page.

Currently reading: I’m back in bed with Dr. Siri Payboun. I also recently finished Diplomatic Incidents: Memoirs of an (Un)diplomatic Wife by Cherry Denman, which was a most refreshing read and thus warmly recommended.

Aligning stars

I’m happy to report that lately many things have been working for a change. Alternatively, I’ve managed to rise above the everyday craziness that is living in Vientiane but nonetheless the effect on my spirit has been a positive one. Here are some moments that have made me happy in the past days and weeks.

My seemingly never-ending struggle with car paperwork is over! As of today, I’m in possession of a brand new pink book for my car that allows me to take it out of the country. With that and Thai car insurance I should finally be able to take my car across the border to Thailand. I say ‘should’ because if there’s one thing I have learned whilst living here, it’s that it’s not done until it’s done (like having a flight ticket for a work trip for the day after tomorrow and learning that the whole thing is cancelled). Fingers crossed I haven’t jinxed it now…

Ordering drinking water over the phone in Lao language and coming home to see that the water has actually arrived! That means they (a) understood what I want and where I live, (b)  wrote down my order and sent someone to deliver it and (c) my landlady/cleaner/guard was around to let them in when they came round. Trust me, the number of times each of these three have gone wrong is something I gave up counting long time ago.

Our beloved Mekong beach is back and as a result we can play frisbee on the beach again! There’s something simply amazing about exhausting yourself by chasing after a plastic disc on the sand, watching the sun set over the Mekong while you do it and create a sandbox in your shower as you scrub yourself clean afterwards. The best part is that it’s at least another six months before the rains return so we’ve got plenty of time to enjoy it!

Last but most definitely not least, my wonderful friends who remind of the many finer things in life whenever my mood starts to sag. And then of course there’s cheesecake, this mind-blowing goodness that melts in your mouth and makes you smile for hours afterwards. Two particularly worth mentioning include a passionfruit cheesecake at La Signature and a Mars-bar cheesecake from Benoni Café.

Whilst writing this: COP17 has just started in Durban, South Africa. Two of my friends are part of the Lao delegation to the climate negotiations, I look forward to following their days at the conference. I’m also remembering the days two years ago when I was part of COP15 in Copenhagen. Let’s hope the stars are aligning in South Africa too and we get a real outcome from these two weeks.

Currently reading: In fact I have just finished all the books I was reading simultaneously. No worries though, my beach holiday for the next five days is likely to bring me back to a similar situation as I’m not planning to pack much more than a pile of books and a bikini.

A hat a holiday

People collect all sorts of things as souvenirs from their holidays. My recent trip to Vietnam with a friend revealed to me that my token souvenirs are in fact hats. Since moving to South-East Asia I have collected a wide-rimmed straw hat with a brown ribbon from Bali, a white cotton hat from Chiang Mai and more recently two more hats from Vietnam, a straw Panama hat and an olive green cap with a distinct red star on the forehead. I have also lost a hat, but that was a typical Lao farmer’s cone hat that was offered to the nagis occupying the Nam Song river whilst tubing in Vang Vieng. For a non-hat person, this is definitely  impressive.

Apart from hat shopping, here are some top moments from my holiday.

★ Getting my hair washed at a salon in Ho Chi Minh City – who knew this would include 45 minutes of head and shoulder massage in a dimly lit room with soft music and a cup of really good green tea?

★ Four dives into the deep blue with Rainbow Divers – with amazing diving buddies, a great boat crew and a dog named Scuba. The universe must have decided I was having too much fun as the situation was balanced by broken swim ware. Below is a picture of  our last dive site at Coconut Island just South of Phu Quoc island. 

★ Gate-crashing the beach of the island’s only four-star resort. Because we could and because we had a few hours to kill.

★ Shopping pearls. Though probably not quite as fresh from the ocean as the seafood we enjoyed at the same night market, I fell for the locally produced pearls and went a little bit crazy. But they’re beautiful!

★ Smiling with the locals. While the Vietnamese have the ability to go from zero to furious in next to no time, they are just like the Lao in their inability to return a smile with anything but a wider one.

Whilst writing this: I just learned about Restaurant Day, a great concept created back home in Finland. For one day roughly every three months, anyone can set up a pop-up restaurant anywhere and share their passion for food. I look forward to taking part next time I’m in Finland for this!

Currently reading: The last few pages of Colin Cotterill’s first Dr. Siri Payboun book, The Coroner’s Lunch. I’ve already lined up the next two in the series on top of my reading list and can’t wait to get my hands on them! I’ve also made some discoveries at the Phnom Penh airport bookshop and one of the local second-hand bookshops here in Vientiane so all I really need now is time.

Silk and needles

I’ve recently had various new experiences that have opened my eyes in many ways. Life really is full of surprises that widen one’s horizons if you let them. The two stories below feature silk and tiny, barely visible needles.

First, I saw with my own eyes where silk comes from, after literally stumbling across some silkworms. This is what some of the worms look like:

Silk worms eating mulberry leaves

They are also super soft when you touch them, just like the silk they produce. Each worm spins itself a protective cocoon from one single strand of silk that can be as long as 1,5 km. The cocoons are mostly white or yellow as in the pictures above. The cocoons are put in hot water and somehow the ends of some dozens of silk strands are collected (I failed to follow this part as I was simply staring at the process in amazement) and spun together to create the silk thread that is used to weave the fabric. Below is a picture of the process through which the cocoons turn into a skein of silk. 

From what I’ve seen elsewhere, the weaving is the hard part as it takes hours and hours to create a few inches silk fabric with a hand-loom. Suddenly I have much more appreciation for the art of silk making as well as the craft that turns it into all the beautiful clothes!

The second new experience I’ve recently had was acupuncture, part of the ancient world of Eastern medicine. I tried this in connection with a cold I developed after the boat racing festival, after I had lost my voice for four days. Two hours and some 30 odd needles later, I could speak again. I took two more sessions and experienced how I could suddenly breathe through my nose again. During these sessions I was also treated for allergic symptoms, unhappy tummy and poor circulation in my feet and hands and at least the tummy problems and itchy eyes have since been absent. Remarkable.