lao funeral

I went to a funeral for the aunt-in-law of a lady I work with last week.  It was pretty interesting.  The women who died’s children all live in the USA so they spared no expense for this funeral.

After listening to some monks chant for a few hours,  finally they placed this kind of stupa-shaped thing, draped in white cloth, on a cement block, and then everyone placed a candle and a sparkler on the stupa.  Then, they doused it gasoline, and some on light a firecracker that zoomed along a string and sent the whole thing up in blazes.

During this whole time, various firecrackers and different colored smoke was emitted from the pyre.

It was interesting.

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.

why i love taking the bus

Monday through Friday I leave my house at 8:20 to get to the Talat Sao (Morning market) main bus station by 8:30.  I bring my bike to the bike parking area, where they give me a ticket, and then staple the other half of the ticket around my brake cable, and then I walk the bike to very back of the most foul-smelling, dirty, disgusting hovel, while I maneuver around motorcycles and helmets and people washing dishes and sometimes themselves, men in speedos covered in soap, men in military garb pissing the corner.  I try to do this as quickly as possible because, it smells in there, and also because I am usually running late for the bus. The official time table for the bus informs me that it leaves at 8:10, 8:40, and 9:00, among other times.  This timetable is essentially useless.  I generally arrive at the bus station at 8:30, sometimes the bus may leave at 8:25, sometimes at 8:35, sometimes 8:45, sometimes 9:00, sometimes 9:30.  There is really no way of telling.  Sometimes, after waiting for 30 minutes, I may try to ask some one where the bus is.  Usually this is futile because a.) they don’t speak English, or b.) they also have no idea.

Assuming the bus leaves between 8:35 and 8:50, I generally arrive at the University around 9:15 am.  I usually keep myself busy working on something or other for a few hours, eat lunch with the director at 11:30, and then mess around for another few hours, and at 3:45 I leave and walk to the bus stop, where I wait for some kind of transit back to Talat Sao.  Yesterday I took a jumbo – which is basically a small pick up truck with benches in the back, and I was the only passenger. I still only paid 3,000 kip, but the ride was only about 20 minutes long.  There are also smaller buses that are privately owned that go to Talat Sao from the University, each of them takes a different route, some a lot bumpier and longer than others.  I haven’t figured any of these out yet, but basically whatever the first vehicle that passes heading towards Talat Sao, I take it.

Normally there are a few monks on the bus.  The monks wear bright orange robes, with one sholder bare, and have shaved heads.  Usually they are quite young – between 12 and 18 years old.  Sometimes you see older ones.  If you are a lady, never make the mistake of trying to sit next to a monk on the bus, or anywhere else for that matter.  They are not allowed to touch women.  If you go to the temple, and you see a monk, don’t try to hug him, or say “Koy hak hoy” to him, which means “I love dick”.

Speaking of koy and hoy, apparently for the last month I have been saying “penis” every time I meant to say “I”  the difference is much more subtle than a k or an h sound, I think it has something to do with the tone.  I read in a book that even if you are using the correct word in Lao, if you get the tone wrong, people will have no idea what you’re talking about.I have had multiple experiences of this being true, and also of saying the exact same words over and over again, and having it mean different things, apparently.

This morning on the bus I was sitting, reading Proust and hating it, like I normally do, and I started hearing some strange noises coming from the seat next to me.  It sounded like there were birds in the bus.  But I didn’t see any, so I assumed I had imagined it. A few moments later, I looked over again, and saw the man next to me had put his backpack on his lap, opened it, and was feeding some baby birds that were inside it.  He carefully dropped little bits of food into their mouths as they put their heads back and opened up their beaks.  I couldn’t tell if it was insects of seeds or what, but it was amusing in a way I had never before experienced on a bus.  Except maybe the time I saw some girl fellate a man on the greyhound, but that was more horrifying.

This is why I love taking the bus.

Yesterday I ate bugs and frogs.  I will post pictures shortly.

buying a bike, taking the bus

So, I bought a 2nd hand bike from my landlord’s sister. I will take a picture of it soon. It looks like somebody puked tie-dye all over it, it’s a one-speed, chinese, cheap-ass-bike. But it’s nearly new and gets around decently, though the seat really hurts my bum. I tried in vain to find a road bike, the only one I saw was about 3 inches too big for me, and had a seat designed to look like an eagle. I may keep looking. I may also just buy a moto. Then I could actually ride it all the way to the University instead of a 5 minute bike ride  and then a 40 minute bus ride. But actually I like taking the bus. And this morning went pretty smoothly for the first time doing so in a country where I can barely communicate with anyone. The best part about taking the bus?

Sitting next to a monk.

I think all of the folks at the central library were pretty surprised when I actually showed up for work this morning, and manged to get there all by myself. Al though I have to admit some of the past few days on my own has reminded me of my first few days at post in Athiémé, where I didn’t eat anything but bananas for 3 days because I didn’t know how or where to buy food and I was too scared to ask. And I’m constantly afraid I’m paying the yovo price for everything, but I have absolutely no way of knowing, or doing anything about it, so I just try bargaining to the best of my non-Lao-speaking ability. I did eat a good sandwich yesterday though.  It was cucumber, some weird spam-like luncheon meat, hot sauce, and some weird dried stuff that looked like rope fibers but tasted salty and maybe vaguely fishy?

Maybe it’s the events of the past month, this whole whirlwind adventure, my unrequited missed connection love affair, my mom’s surgery, pre-menstrualness, culture shock, I don’t know but I’m feeling a little lonely and miserable. Also a bit useless, I don’t know what I came here to do, or how I can help at the library. I feel really intimidated by what they are asking/expecting from me. I’m not a computer programmer! I hardly know how to catalogue! I can’t read Lao and I don’t even understand what half the people who work in the library do. But I did manage to fix one computer that had a virus today, my first day at work.

They want me to learn how to use this software:


It’s an open-source Integrated Library Software (ILS), made in France.  Somebody at the French cultural center here is working on translating it into Lao, and so, for some reason I didn’t quite understand, the University Library also had to switch.  I guess this is a good project for me because I am in the unique position of being able to understand all of the user guides and documentation, which are in a strange melange of francais and english.
Anyway, I have to do a lot of trivial things like buy a bike lock, open a bank account, buy some dishes, etc. within the next week that probably don’t seem very interesting, but each represent huge ordeals for me that I’m not really looking forward to. I’m sorry I’m in a bad mood.

exactly 8 minutes

I have exactly 8 minutes to write a post.  Here’s the low-down:

It’s pretty amazing getting to watch Drs. Gorman & Dorner work, wow.  They are really my heroes.  The Lao participants of the workshop seem to be getting these pretty abstract ideas too, which impresses me.  I have met a few people who I will be working with in the library, and they are all extremely friendly.  Communication will probably be an issue, I hope to learn some Lao as soon as possible.  I’ve gotten a few words so far, but I’m excited to sit down with a teacher and really learn.

I know I’ve been here for nearly 5 days and I don’t have a single piece of photographic evidence, but I just haven’t had any time.  It feels a bit strange to be here in Vientiane, as a foreigner but not a tourist, and yet not even remotely integrated into the Lao culture and basically clueless.  I’ve seen a lot of young white folks, and japanese, walking around town, obviously backpackers, as well as some old heads, mostly men, around the neighborhood where my hotel is.  They probably live here, ex-pats I’m assuming.  I feel a bit isolated, but hopefully soon I will be able to make friends and feel more at home, and less like a stranger.

The library director wants me to move into the University guesthouse, which I am not too keen on.  Firstly, they are trying to charge me a shitload of money, secondly, it seems quite lonely.  I’m afraid to tell him how I feel for fear I will hurt his feelings, but I am meeting some one this evening who will take me to look at some other housing options.

Just in the car, to and from the University, and my short walks around downtown (including getting lost), it seems like there are gilded temples everywhere, monks in orange robes talking on cellphones and riding around in motorbike rickshaws, and

oh no!  my 8 minutes are up!