some insights into lao culture

I witnessed/participated in a really funny conversation yesterday that I though provided some insight into the Lao culture and thought I should share with the rest of the world.

It began when the ladies told me that the dress I was wearing was very beautiful, and I told them that I had made it.  Then they pointed out that my shoes and my earrings also matched (yes, I did that on purpose.).  Around this time the director wandered over, and started talking about how his outfit matched too; his shoes, his pants, his belt, and his hair were all black!  Then some of the ladies said “What about your underwear?”, and suddenly everyone was trying to guess what color underwear the director was wearing.  He tried to change the subject by asking Mrs. Bounsalome what color underwear she was wearing, to which she replied “No underwear!”.

I thought this was really funny considering the fact that Laos scores quite high on the “power distance index” according to Dutch Sociologist Geert Hofstede; meaning that normally there is a very well defined hierarchy of authority which people tend to respect, and have very high expectations of “professional behaviour”, and are generally quite reserved and reluctant to talk about sex or other topics in a direct way.  But they also usually have a good sense of humor and like to tell dirty jokes!

One of the young guys I work with (Vay) was telling me about some other Lao jokes.  He told me that a lot of Lao jokes are about how all men don’t get along with their father-in-laws.  Kind of like the mother-in-law jokes in the rest of the world, right?  Anyway, he went on to to tell me this really long joke that was actually quite funny.

An old man visits a medicine man and buys some kind of spell that will make him invisible.  So, he goes back home, takes off all his clothes, and does the spell, and then comes out of his house and sees his son-in-law.  He says “Son in law!  I have a magic spell that has made me invisible.  Can you see me?”  Of course, the magic did not work and the son in law and clearly see the naked old man. But he says “Wow!  It’s amazing!  I can’t see you!  You really are invisible.”  Then the son-in-law says “Father, since you are invisible, you should go to the market and everyone will be very impressed.”  So, the father in law decides this is a good idea, and walks to the main road and then to the market, where everyone sees him naked and makes fun of him.

Anyway, I didn’t tell it as good as Vay, but hopefully you get the gist of the joke.  It involved being naked and being mean.

He also told me this strangely sexy joke about how to spell the word “error” in English.  At first I didn’t understand.  “E-R-R-O-R” I said.  And then he said “Eeeeeeeee, ahhhhr, ohhh ohh, ahhhhhhhhhr.”

I don’t know if that’s appropriate for a workplace but I feel quite comfortable and enjoy the occasional bawdy conversation.

not at all about laos

Ok, I just wanted to say that last night I watched a really shitty quality camcorder-in-the-theatre version of “Batman: The Dark Knight” and felt kind of emotionally exhausted afterwards.  But I really enjoyed the film.  My favorite thing about it was at one point I thought to myself “That looks like the Rush Presbyterian St Luke’s Parking Garage.”, where, as many of you may know, I worked for 4 years, and then later I realized, it was the Rush Parking garage.  However actually the best thing was seeing how they totally amazingly transformed the CTA buses in “Gotham Transit Authority” by making the C into a G.  Those movie people are SO BRILLIANT!  I also enjoyed the car chase scenes along Lake Street and the Marina Towers in the background of Bruce Wayne’s penthouse view.  It made me homesick for a minute.  And was that the old Cook County Hospital they blew up?

more buddhist stuff

One of the ladies I work with’s brother-in-law died on Monday morning.  So, I went with Mr. Somephone to the temple to visit her and her husband Monday afternoon.  This is a rough account of that experience which I found a little surreal:

Firstly, there were a total of about 20 people seated in various places on the floor of the wat.  There were about three distinct camps – one for the men, one for the women, and one for the teenagers.  The women sat and rolled up 500 kip (5 cents US, approximately) in banana leaves and chatted.  I am assuming these will be used for some kind of religious ceremony.  Mrs. Bounsalome, the lady I work with, was seated among these women.  They all seemed to be laughing and having a pretty good time, despite the fact that some one had just died.

The men mostly sat around playing cards.  They were also laughing and of a generally congenial disposition.

The teenagers played with their cellphones.

In one corner, a really old monk laid on a matress and drank some weak tea.

Several dogs kept running in an out of the temple, which various people would then shoo away.  There was also a cat that people kept shooing away.

I asked Mrs. Bounsalome what they would do at the temple.  She told me that they would stay there all night and then the next day the would have the funeral.

Mr. Seethong also came around this time, and he told me that the next day they would take the body to some other place, and burn it, and then put the ashes in the stupa outside the temple.  I asked him if they would sleep in the temple, or stay awake all night, and he told me that many people would come to visit Mrs. Bounsalome and her husband during the day and the night and they would probably not sleep.  He said they would stay awake playing cards most of the night, and that people would bring them food.

At one point the monk went into a little room in the back and didn’t come out again.  Then Mrs. Bounsalome went to go eat lunch, and I sat and watched Mr. Seethong and Mr. Somephone play cards for about a half hour.  They were playing some kind of card game that I tried to understand but could not, but it did involve betting money. They tried to explain to me how to play but when it got to complicated they told me “just observe.”.  After a half hour Mr. Somephone had won about $5 and then we decided to leave.

During this whole time the teenagers were still playing with their cellphones, which would occassionaly start playing pop music really loudly.

Another thing that was pretty interesting is that at most of the wats you go to visit as a tourist they have signs that say “you must be dressed appropriately” etc, some of the girls I saw Monday were seriously wearing booty shorts at the temple.  And the men were gambling.  They might as well just bring in a boom box and bottle of Lao whiskey.

Speaking of cellphones, and I am really digressing here, I have noticed an interesting trend.  There is an entire genre of music and music videos that I have seen countless times (mostly on bus rides) that involve young Lao and Thai people starting longingly at their cellphones.  Once I watched an entire compliation of approximately 10 songs that all involved the same scenario – a girl staring at her cellphone, putting it away, then it cuts to a boy calling her, but she doesn’t pick up, then later she looks at her phone again, and it says “missed call”, and she tries to call back, but he doesn’t answer, and then they go on gazing in expectation at their cellphones for the entire duration of the video, cutting between different scenes of the boy and the girl.

If there was ever an apocalypse, and the only records of humanity that were left were these music videos, the aliens or whoever eventually found them would probably think that people were in love with their cellphones.  Which may be true.  I don’t know.

Anyway, that was my temple experience.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to go to the funeral the next day because sometime Monday afternoon I became ill and feverish with what I know with certainty is Giardia.

So I didn’t come to work yesterday, I stayed at home and did laundry and made some lentil soup. That means have a lot of work to do today, and also some guy asked me to edit his dissertation for him, which he needs by tomorrow, and I am starting a job teaching English on Monday.  So I am pretty busy these days.

vientiane times

Things have been pretty calm an quiet here in Vientiane.

Last weekend I went to a party at Mr. Seethong’s house, one of the people I work with at the Central Library.

I arrived around 11:30 am, and Mr. Seethong had explained to me that he had invited some monkes over to give them alms and then they would bless his house or something along those lines.  So, when I arrived, the monks were seated on the floor in the living room, eating.  Then, some kind of ceremony took place, where some old guy gave a speech, then the monks started chanting, then the took a bowl of water and flowers, and dipped some leaves in it, and then one of the monks used the wet leaves to sprinkle water all over the place.  I suppose this is not a very good description of the events, but I didn’t really know what was happening, and couldn’t understand anything being said.  They just told me to sit down with my head bent and my hands together.

During this entire ceremony, several people answered their cellphones.  At one point everyone took out small bottles of water and poured them into bowls with candles in them.

Then some people went up to the monks and had them tie string bracelets around their wrists.  Mr. Seethong told me I should go and get one, so I kneeled in front of one of the monks, who is probably about 80 years old, and he tied a white string bracelet around my wrist, and said some things in Lao I did not understand.

Then, at 11:57, all of the monks left.  For some reason also there were rice grains all over the floor.  I tried asking people about the significance of all of these events and aspects of the ceremony but the only thing I could understand was that it was for good luck.

After the monks left, my boss arrived, and some food was served, and excessive amounts of Beerlao were distributed.

While a variety of food was present, the most notable (sorry… no picture) was some kind of Tom Yum style soup with chunks of congealed blood in it.


Luckily, the Beerlao was also served room temperature with lots of ice, so even though they insisted upon refilling my glass every 10 minutes from noon until 3pm, I managed to not get totally schlitzed in front of all of my work colleagues on a Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Chansy Phuangsouketh, Director, Central Library, National University of Laos, and Beerlao spokesperson.
Mr. Chansy Phuangsouketh, Director, Central Library, National University of Laos, and Beerlao spokesperson.

However I did glean this important detail from the whole experience:  the little bracelet the monk gave me would bring me good luck, and according to Mr. Chansy, help me find a “Pubao Lao” (Lao young man) to marry.

more about luang prabang

Some years ago the entire town of Luang Prabang was declared  a“UNESCO World Heritage site”.  I’m not really sure why this is the case.  There are lots of wats, and some interesting colonial architecture, but I’m not sure about it’s status as a world heritage site.  Everywhere you go in the city there are “no smoking” signs that say “Smoke Free World Heritage”.  I wish I had been able to take a picture of one but my camera wasn’t working.

However, I recently read an article in the Vientiane Times saying that UNESCO had sent a committee to Luang Prabang in the past month to evaluate it’s status as a “World Heritage” site, because apparently since it was granted this status about 10 years ago, tourism has grown incredibly, and the city has begun growing also at a fast pace.  A lot of new developments, mostly hotels and guesthouses and other tourist infrastructre, has been built or is being planned.  UNESCO basically said that all that needs to stop or they will un-declare Luang Prabang a world heritage site.  They also mentioned that several wetland areas were about to be developed into hotels or something, and one of the provisions of UNESCO re-granting world heritage status was that the wetlands had to be restored and the city had to work towards conserving the historical aspects of the city.

Here is the full text of the article from the Vientiane Times (re-produced without permission!!  shhh! ):
The government will crackdown on violations of UNESCO rules to ensure Luang Prabang does not lose its status as a world heritage listed city.

Past violations related to construction of new buildings had put the city’s status at risk, Standing Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad told the National Assembly on Friday.

The only solution was to strictly enforce UNESCO rules from now on, he said.

“If we don’t solve the problem, Luang Prabang will be out of the list of world heritage sites,” Mr Somsavat said.

Last year UNESCO requested the government report on how Luang Prabang has changed since being listed as a world heritage site in 1995. UNESCO officials also inspected the city and asked the government to respond on 15 points.

One of these relates to road construction approved by the Department of Public Works and Transport without agreement from UNESCO, when UNESCO should have made the final decision, he said.

Mr Somsavat said some people knowingly constructed new buildings which breached UNESCO rules, while others sold their houses to entrepreneurs and moved away.

One troubling sign of this development was a reducing number people giving alms to monks in the morning, he said. Not only does this indicate a move away from tradition, the decline could also negatively impact tourism, because this tradition is one of Luang Prabang’s major drawcards.

“World heritage is still new for us and our biggest challenge is making local people understand the need to preserve cultural heritage and how this impacts on development,” Mr Somsavat said.

“Some people ask why we should preserve heritage if it means we cannot develop. But I don’t think heritage preservation delays our development. On the contrary it encourages development.”

UNESCO officials have asked the government to make an updated map of the city and encourage cooperation between UNESCO and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

The Standing Deputy PM said coordination must be improved between relevant sectors, and local people needed to be educated about the importance of Luang Prabang’s world heritage status.

Luang Prabang’s popularity as a tourist destination has increased since the city was listed as a world heritage site in 1995.

Mr Somsavat said the influx of visitors helped local people generate more income and improve their living standards.

“Now we have two world heritage listed sites: Luang Prabang and Vat Phou Champassak in Champassak province. But we won’t propose any more sites to UNESCO until we improve the existing ones,” he said.

“We will assess what we have done and try to address challenges. We have many sites to be proposed to UNESCO, but we want to study them carefully first.”

By Somsack Pongkhao

haircuts, lao style

I asked my mom to send me my hair-cutting scissors and razor, but she claimed that it would be more expensive to send them than for me to just go to a Lao hair salon and get some one else to cut my hair.  Normally I don’t like letting other people cut my hair, because of some bad experiences in the past (thanks mom), but I thought I could give it a try.

I got off work a little early yesterday, so I decided to stop in the beauty salon nearest to my house and get a trim.

Little did I know, until after already taking my shoes off, this was a ladyboy salon.  However, in general, all of the ladyboys I’ve seen around Vientiane have impeccable style and are much more “hip” than the other ladies (who sometimes seem quite dowdy in comparison to the transvestites), so this was good fortune for me that the closest hair salon to my house happened to be a hub for transgendered individuals.

I was directed towards the shampoo station, where a rather tall ladyboy washed and conditioned my hair. She then sat me down in the chair, and gave me what I think is an excellent hair cut.

Then, she straightened and styled my hair in a very attractive manner.  She managed to get rid of some of my layers, my split ends, and did not use any styling products, and spent a good 1/2 hour blow drying and combing my hair, all for 50,000 kip ($6).  Overall, I was very pleased with the results, and I will certainly be a repeat customer.  I’m wondering how much she would charge me just to straighten and style my hair, I might start going every day.

Everyone was really friendly, too!  One of the other ladies just hanging around the salon asked me if I like drinking Beerlao, and then said I should come back and have a drink with them sometime.  It seemed like there were ladyboys, regular ladies, gay guys, straight guys, all hanging out eating fried chicken together in a convival way, which was nice to see.  I should hang out at the salon more often.

flood crisis averted

It seems like most of the flood danger has passed.  Laurie-Anne has some nice pictures on her blog of the water when it was at it’s highest.  I went out on Friday and actually got some day-light pictures of the river, but by then most of the Mekong restaurants were back open.

mekong riverside restaurants
mekong riverside restaurants

However, I find it important to note that normally the water level is a good 2m below these wooden platforms.  But things have mostly returned to normal.