First Day in Vientiane, Lao PDR
My work in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (commonly known as Laos, which will be used in the rest of my online journal) officially started when I landed at the Wattay International Airport, which is located approximately 3 kilometers (1 mile) out of the Vientiane metropolis. I arrived on Vietnam Airline, which transited from Hanoi via Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City. The flight time was about 5 hours not considering transit hours in Hanoi.
A taxi driver picked me up from the airport (whose name is not going to be posted) based on an arrangement by one of my colleagues at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The good thing is that he spoke English and so it was less stressful for me to communicate since I just landed and wanted to just sleep. He is a great man. We talked about almost everything during the almost 20 minutes we had stay in the car (a 1990 Toyota Corolla). Ask me how I knew that car year? Cars are my thing!:) Well, it was still in perfect shape with an air cool install and breezing us with fresh air as we cruise through warm and humid air of Vientiane City. I almost slept in the car as we drove by thousands of motorcycles and vehicles. Unlike Indonesia where people drive on the right (making me to always tell the driver he is on the wrong side of the road), in Vietnam and Laos for example, they drive on the left (just like in the US), which is cool because now I don’t have to mentally tell myself this guy is taking the wrong turn. It was always funny that my wife had to remind me that this is Indonesia…duh!
Mr. Taxi Driver also asked me few interesting questions and I thought I should also share with you. He asked whether I play American Football? My response was like “hell no!” Off-course, I didn’t responded this way. It was only in my head. I would rather be considered rule and I don’t want that impression either. He said what about basketball? I responded and said, I wish I know how to play basketball, but sorry I don’t really. If you asked me if I can throw balls into a nest, yes I can. Then I told him three of the sports that I play or engage in, which include soccer, swimming, and martial arts (shotokan). We talked about soccer for few minutes and I asked him if he had any favorite Laotian soccer team? He waved his head in negativity and said, but I do have a European team. I asked him which one and he enthusiastically said “Chelsea.” I said wait a minute! How can this be? I am a Chelsea fan too! No wonder why you came to pick me up. We both laughed over that revelation and he diverted the discussion to the weather in Laos. He said that few days ago, it was really warm/hot here and that the air temperature was around 113 degree F. I said really? And I said, right now the US and Canada are experiencing what seems to be “global cooling.” He said yes, I saw that on the news! He also said, but it gets colder here too, but not as the US, they are in something else. I said, yes right. I gotcha. By the time that discussion subsided, we were around the National University of Laos (NUL) and gradually approached the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources where IWMI’s head office is located and where I will be working for the next 6-9 months or more. He pointed towards the location of the office and said on Monday, just go through that gate and keep walking and you will see IWMI’s office building. I said to myself, “just keep walking?” Well, that reminded me of Ghana. Sorry to all my Ghanaian friends, but if you ever find yourself in Accra or anywhere in Ghana for that matter and is seeking directions to go to a place you haven’t being before. Please make sure you ask the right person and that they send you details of where you need to go, because you don’t want a guy on the street to direct you the place or you will be taking an endless walk. It happened to me once even with my 11 years experience living in Ghana.
So, back in the Taxi. As we drove by the Office of the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources Management (same compound as IWMI) we entered into a gated community and that was the dormitory of the National University of Laos. The gated compound hosts undergraduate, graduate and professional students residing in Laos for academic/research work. It was on a Sunday, so no administrative staff was around to give the keys to my room. So, the driver made few calls and later a lady in her late 30s came and asked me to follow her. I did as I had no option. I paid the driver 100,000.00 Kip and told him in Lao (Sa Bai Dee, Kob chai), meaning thank you. He responded, Kob chai and left the premises of the dormitory. I took my luggage and followed the lady on the 1st floor in B1 (Building 1). I was given a brief 5 minutes tour of the building and verbally told the policy and the key to my room handed to me. It is a nice spatial room with a TV set, a king size mattress, two comfortable chairs for relaxing, a bedside table, a study table, a huge closet, and bathroom. It was more than I anticipated at a responsible price. The sad thing is that since it is a dormitory building, it also means no cooking. And cooking my own food is something that I cherish. However, why not explore the local food and be less stress out with cooking? That was something I was willing to trade off for now.
After few minutes of rest and a nice shower, I decided to take a walk and try getting a phone and to see if I can buy a wireless modem for my laptop to be able to connect to the Internet at home. I needed to be connected to the world. However, in order to make my way through I had to make sure I know what to say to those from whom I will be buying things I need urgently. So, I learned few phrases in Lao from the brochure I was given by the agency. It wasn’t perfect, but with a nice smile on my face those to whom I spoke to knew what I wanted and it made my new life easier. In Laos, being patient means everything! If you are not a patient person and want to cultivate that virtue, Laos is your paradise.
As I walked down the stairs unto the green, I observed students (Laotian) gathered in groups of four or five (specifically) with snacks and a laptop playing western music. That was interesting. Another group of student about six in number (composing of four females and two males) were learning English Grammar. As I walked pass them, one of the females said hello and waved. I smiled back and said Sa Bai Dee folded my hands towards my chest as if I was about to pray. In Laos waving your hands and saying hello is culturally inappropriate. In order to greet someone you have to fold your hands and gradually bring your folded hands towards your chest and slowly lower your forehead. This is Laos and this is how we do it here. So, I have to follow the norm. I approached the group of students (probably undergraduates) and said I see you are learning English. They said yes and I said well it would be great to learn Lao too and I can teach you English in return. I smiled and left them to study, while I walked down the alley to where I can find some food to eat as my stomach was punching by back in anger!
As I walked through the campus there were other students also going towards the same direction as I. They were all going for dinner at local restaurants located around the campus. As I said earlier, no cooking is allow in the dorm buildings. Also, a student told me that they have to pay 900,000.00 Kip/year for housing at the dorm, which is very cheap compare to housing for undergraduates in the US let say at Clark University for example. Here at the NUL 900.000.00 Kip is equivalent to $112.30/academic year. Considering the economy here, this amount could be very high, but to us in the US it is not even close to that. However, the university policy is that since students paid this much for housing (which in comparison to other schools in the city is affordable), students now have to commit to buying food from local businesses around campus. I think this is a brilliant idea, if we should be encouraging local businesses and food systems. This approach strengthens the university’s relationships with the local community not only within the context of intellectualism and jobs for university staff, but also for local business to flourish, grow and it enhances the local economy. Can this approach be applicable to undergraduates at Clark University? Maybe or maybe not. But it is an approach that seems to work and help the communities in which the university functions.
So, at one of the local restaurants/eateries around campus, I ordered my very first Laotian dish and it was Khao Piak Sien, which is Laotian Fresh Rice Noodle Soup. You can make the noodle soup without any meat product (if you’re a veggie) or you could add just pork meat, beef, and or chicken meat. You can use whichever you prefer. Here is a good link I came across as I was writing this post for those interested back home and want the recipes. Here is the blog: http://concasse.blogspot.com/2010/06/khao-piak-sien-laotian-fresh-rice.html.
What I like about this dish is the sides that comes with it. You have freshly grown lettuce or in some cases cabbage leaves, mint/Basil leaves, young germinated beans/beans sprout, slices of lime/lemon, and with additional hot pepper paste that gives it the extra fire that you need. It is a tasty soup that you need to try.
I ended the day walking down the street away from the university to a local public market place, which looks similar to markets in West Papua, Indonesia and Accra, Ghana with little shops mixed with cooked food vendors and those selling uncooked food items. My plan was to get a SIM card for my 2 SIM Card cellphone, but I wasn’t lucky that evening as it was Sunday and all the businesses closed early. As I walked back to the campus at around 8:00pm. I saw an Internet Cafe’ next by a lady selling roasted/grilled chicken. I entered the cafe’ to send few emails and I ended up staying for about 20 minutes. Internet access at a cafe’ in Vientiane cost about 500 Kip/minute, which could vary depending on the location and speed of the Internet connection. So twenty minutes should have cost me around 10,000.00 Kip, which is about $1.30. As I checked in my wallet to pay, the guy at the desk told me not to pay. I insisted to pay and he said no (it is okay in Lao language). I didn’t want to keep insisting to appear rude or insensitive of his hospitality, so I accepted his offer and told him that the next time I return, I would like to pay. I told him sa bai dee, kob chai as I leave the cafe’ towards the campus.
My first day in Vientiane was really interesting. With very limited chance of speaking English to get around, I was able to find my way through the community and get to meet few people. The people here are caring, very kind, and hospitable. The only thing that needs to be remembered is to respect their cultures and do as they do and you should be okay. I hope you like the post and please check back soon for more stories! Also, please leave a message if you can.
Sa Bai Dee, kob chai