Philately is fun!

I recently came across this cache of stamps I bought when I was in Laos last year.  I purchased them at the central Vientiane post office gift shop for about $1 or $2 per pack.  Most of the stamps dates from between 1982 and 1987.  It’s very interesting to see the influence of France and the USSR in the stamp design.

welcome to the jungle

I recently spent a few days at Rivertime Eco Lodge, about an hour outside of Vientiane.  Depsite it’s close proximity to the major population centre of Laos, it is truly like being a million miles away.  It’s in the jungle.  The closest village, Ban Thadindeng, is only a few hundred families.

I stayed in a little hut like this:

And swam in this river:

However, I think the coolest thing about staying in the jungle was the fact that I was able to get internet access via a 3g network!  Technology continually amazes me.

In addition to swimming in the river and sleeping in a hut, I also went to a karaoke bar with a bunch of farmers, ate a lot of delicious food, and did a bit of work.  Overall it was a lovely 2 days.

I have posted more photos here.

back in the Lao PDR

(if only the Beatles had sung about Laos instead of the USSR)

I have conducted about 5 pilot interviews, which have been getting progressively better.  I think I will be able to start collecting data full steam shortly.  In the meantime, I am seeing lots of old pals and enjoying catching up.

Being back in Laos after 2 years away, seeing familiar faces and places that have changed, but haven’t, has been quite surreal.   I think it’s also been stimulating my subconscious mind and stirring up quite a few dusty memories.  The other morning I woke up from an extremely vivid dream in which a friend of mine from Peace Corps Benin was getting married to one of my high school classmates who worked at Schaumburg Library with me from 1995-1997.  I haven’t seen the Peace Corps friend in something like 6 years, and my co-worker from STDL since… 1997.  It’s quite strange how memory works.

Anyway, I have enrolled in a traditional massage class, which I started yesterday.  It’s a week long class about 2 hours day and so far I have had 2 lessons.  It’s really quite good and I am very glad I decided to enrol.  I have been making studious notes, as well as photos of every step, and getting to practice under the teacher’s careful watch.  The teacher, known around town as “Ajarn (teacher) Sak”, is from Ubon Rachitami in Thailand and has been doing massage for over 20 years.  His English is not fantastic, but he is an excellent teacher and I am really enjoying his tutelage.

If you are planning to be in Vientiane for more than a week, I would highly recommend visiting the White Lotus Spa and taking a course from Ajarn Sak.  A 10-hour course costs $150 USD.  If you are in Vientiane for less than a week, just go to White Lotus and get a 1 or 2 hour massage from Ajarn Sak.  You have to ask for him specially, and you may have make an appointment ahead of time, but he is well known in town as being the best of the best, and the man seriously has magic fingers.

I plan to type up my class notes and post the photos I have taken when I have some time.  For now, these photos from around town will have to do!




Sabaidee Vientiane

The eagle has landed.  In Laos, that is.

Apologies in advance for lack of photos.  I will start taking more soon!

It’s really surprising how different a place can become in 2 years.  What I have noticed so far:

  • A lot more cars on the road.  Big cars, many driven by women.  A lot of traffic.  It’s impossible to cross the road on foot.  No one walks anywhere.  The footpath is overtaken by parked vehicles and vendor’s stalls.  No one actually uses it for walking.
  • A lot of massive, huge, multi-storey buildings have sprung up all over town.  Most seem to be virtually empty.  They’ve started construction on a new university library building, with 4 levels!  It won’t be done until 2013 but it’s still exciting.
  • Prices have gone up. A lot.  For everything.
  • Internet access is much more widespread.  A lot of people have internet in their homes now.  A lot of restaurants, cafes, and bars have free wi-fi.  The University library still doesn’t, but they’re working on it!
  • Crime rates have gone up.  A lot.  While I haven’t personally experienced any crime since I got here 5 days ago, I have heard a lot of stories.  There are a lot more muggings, thefts, and motor-bike jackings happening.   People have told me this may be drug related crime.  They have also told me the police don’t seem to do anything about it, and maybe even run away if they see somebody attacked.  A Lao person actually told me they hate the government and the police, which would have been unheard of 2 years ago!
  • Literally dozens of expensive clothing shops have opened up.  I don’t know who has the money to buy clothes there but they are everywhere.
  • Lao people are getting fatter!  I see a lot of young people bigger than a size a zero.  A lot bigger!  My friend told me some of her students from more wealthy families are so fat they can’t fit in their chairs.
  • Brand new road and park along the Mekong river, complete with giant statue of the last Lao king.  No more river-front restaurants!
  • International businesses like Swensen’s & The Pizza Company are now operating in Vientiane.  I’m assuming KFC & McDonalds are also on their way.
  • New developments everywhere.  My very good friend’s family home and his family’s vegetable garden that they have farmed for over 20 years is now being razed and developed into river-front condominiums.  The government is moving all the residents 30 kms out of town and giving them a pittance for their homes and land, and they can’t do anything about it.

Overall I would say Laos seems to be having an economic boom.   In many ways this might be good for Laos, however, it does seem to be having a negative impact as well.   I’ve only been here a few days so it’s a bit too early to tell, but thing have definitely changed.  A lot.

Ethnicity vs. Race, or, The Loneliness of a Nomadic American

Every time I fill out a form here, it asks me for my ethnicity.  My options are usually:

  • NZ European/Pakeha
  • Maori/Pacific Islander
  • Other : ____________

How to answer?  First of all, let us examine the word “Pakeha”.

“Pākehā is a Māori term for New Zealanders who are not of Māori blood lines.  The word Pākehā is also sometimes used to refer to any person of predominantly European ancestry, including those that are not New Zealanders. It is also used in a wider scope to refer to any non-Māori. Opinions of the term vary amongst those it describes. Some find it highly offensive, others are indifferent, some find it inaccurate and archaic, while some happily use the term and find the main alternative, New Zealand European, inappropriate.”

According to my flatmate, Pakeha is not a derogatory term.  However I can’t help but reminded of terms like “Yovo” in Benin, or “Falang” in Laos, which, although not derogatory, I found irritating and generalizing.  Why would I be a “Yovo” in Benin, which literally means “white”, but my American friend, who happened to be black, wasn’t?  And Falang… even worse!  It translates to “French”, but they use it to refer to any white foreigner.  So, without being able to speak Maori, and never having had the opportunity to actually discuss it with a Maori person, I don’t feel comfortable refering to myself as “Pakeha”.  In Laos, and Africa, and other countries I have been, luckily I wasn’t often asked my “ethnicity”, and if asked, I would generally just say “I’m American” (and then hang my head in shame).

But is “American” an ethnicity?

What the hell is an ethnicity?  How is it different from race?

race 2 |reɪs| |reɪs|
each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.

What are these “major divisions”, as defined in 21st century politically correct times?  In the 1950’s they decided it was:

Caucasoid race
Congoid race
Capoid race
Mongoloid race
Australoid race

I can’t seem to find a newer list.  Wikipedia says:

There is no scientific consensus of a list of the human races, and few anthropologists endorse the notion of human “race”.[103] For example, a color terminology for race includes the following in a classification of human races: Black (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa), Red (e.g. Native Americans), Yellow (e.g. East Asians) and White (e.g. Europeans).

Yet, organizations such as the US Census still employ the term. even though the recognize that it’s an obsolete or undefinable term.  They ask us to tick a box next to a race, and say:

The racial categories represent a social-political construct for the race or races that respondents consider themselves to be and “generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country.”

So…. it’s not even physical anymore.  It’s about social-political constructs and people’s feelings, and reflects a “social definition”.  How much more ambiguous could these terms be?  Just look at the Wikipedia page about Race & Ethnicity in the US Census to get an idea of how confusing this all is, especially with regards to the Latino/Hispanic category… which of course is, genetically speaking, those who are descendant from the Spanish and Native American, so, technically, “Caucasian”, right?  But no, the US government must know how many brown people are living in our country!

I guess, according to the little bit of research I’ve done, no one can even agree on what a race is, or if we should even be using the term anymore.  As far as ethnicity…. there’s another ambiguous category.  The dictionary says:

ethnicity |eθˈnisitē|
noun ( pl. -ties)
the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition .

So… in that case, what am I?  Am I American?  It’s lovely to think of America as a color-less, class-less, giant melting pot of a social group… but we all know that’s not true.

What group do I belong to?  Who do I share my cultural traditions with?  Is it my European ancestors?  Is it my fellow middle-class, white Americans?

Uhhh.. none of the above?

For the time being, I will continue to check the “Other box”, and write in “Cacausian”, however obsolete and inaccurate a term it may be.  I’ve convinced myself it’s politically neutral, and actually identifies me as being American, without even having to write American, to people familiar with the wacky ways we try to classify people.

All this in the hopes of making it easier to stereo-type and generalize, put people in nice little categories, and assume we know something about each other, without really having a clue at all.

Tham Kong Lo / Kong Lor Cave in Khammuan Province, Lao PDR

Last Thursday I realized I would have a 4 day weekend, so I decided to take a trip and see some other parts of Laos besides Vientiane.

On Saturay after I finished working, I took a bus to the Southern Bus Station, and then got on another bus going to Thakeak, about 6 hours south of Vientiane, on the Mekong river.  I arrived around 10 pm, and took a tuk-tuk to the guest house where I had made a reservation.  I hadn’t eaten dinner, so I went in search of some noodle soup.  It was about 11 pm, but the entire city was completely silent.  I saw some guys sitting around a table at a beershop and I said “Do you have food?”, and they said “Eat beer!” and tried to offer me a glass.  I said thanks and kept walking.  I came across a group of girls sitting on front of a house.   “Where can you get food around here?” I asked in Lao.  They discussed between themselves.  “Ok, I’ll show you.” one said, and then got on her motorbike.  I said “Somewhere within walking distance?”.  Again they consulted between themselves.  “No.  Come on, let’s go!” she said.  I said “Ok.” and got on the bike.  She drove me about 5 minutes away to the only shop in town still serving food.  I got a bowl of noodle soup and we had a halting conversation in my shitty Lao.  I discovered that she was 20 years old, and studying in the environmental science department at Dong Dok, and was home on holiday.  I tried to offer to buy her some soup but she said she had eaten already.  After I finished the soup she took me back to my guest house, and again I thanked her, and tried to give her some money for driving me around town, but she wouldn’t accept it.  It was a very lovely evening and it felt good to be on my own in an unfamiliar place and able to get by with my knowledge of Lao, in a situation where I’d put myself somewhere between tourist and local.

I woke up really early the next morning and some very tan guy in the bed next to mine was doing pilates.  I was so totally bewildered and confused about where I was for a few moments I had no idea what was happening.  Then I fell back asleep and when I woke up again, everyone was gone except me, even though it was only 8 am.  I went for a walk into town, and tried to stop at the tourist information centre to book a 2-day trek into the Phu Hin Boun National Protected Area, but after walking 20 minutes, I arrived at the centre to find it closed.  Not wanting to spend another day in not very interesting Thakeak, I decided to get back on a bus, go north about 1 hour to Vieng Kham, get off the bus, take another bus to Ban Na Hin (another hour west of Vieng Kham) and then the following day, go to Tham Kong Lo.

Tham Kong Lo is a cave (Tham) about 8 kms long with a river running through it, underground.  I had heard a lot about Tham Kong Lo from other people who had been there, all of whom told me how amazing it was.  I also knew that a 2-day trek from Thaekak would cost me about $100, so I ended up saving myself some money and getting to meet a lot of interesting people along the way, including randomly running into a guy I know from Vientiane on the bus to Vieng Kham.

Ban Na Hin is stunningly beautiful, completely quiet and peaceful, and full of lovely, friendly people.

lovely ban na hin, surrounded by mountains
lovely ban na hin, surrounded by mountains

I felt like I was a million miles away from the motorbikes and noise of Vientiane. Children even grown on trees there!

The next morning I went to the market to catch a bus to Kong Lor Cave, a 8 km underground river that goes through a mountain.  The bus was supposed to leave at 8, but didn’t go anywhere until 10.  Along the way we picked up a few more “falang” passengers, and eventually arrived at the boat dock around 11:30 am, and for about $12, hired a boat for 3 people to take us into the cave and then back to the bus.  We got into the boat, and took off down the river.  The bright sunshine and birdsong quickly became total darkness.  I was completely terrified.

It was unbelievable.

It was like something straight out of Harry Potter and I expected some evil zombies to come up out of the river at any moment, but some how I made it through and then back out alive.

It was really amazing and I highly recommend going, though be warned – it’s really quite far off the beaten path, and you need to be patient, flexible, and open-minded to enjoy such a trip!  Like anything in Laos… bor pen nyang!

Here’s a website about the cave:

the mouth of kong lor cave
the mouth of kong lor cave