Sunday, June 22, 2008

Second week in Laos



I spent the morning learning how to the ride the motorbike in the school parking lot. I was hot, sweaty, and tired after an hour. I took a break and studied. This morning, we skipped laundry. We made a decision to do our own laundry. So we went and got two big tubs, a scrub brush, and some gloves. Steven actually watched videos from YouTube to learn how to wash clothes by hand. After the first time, I have come up with a routine: 1) Soak the clothes in soapy water for about 15 minutes. 2) Knead the clothes for a few minute 3) Rub them clothes one by one, ring them, and toss them into a tub of clean water. 4) Wash the clothes again piece by piece, ring them out and place them in another tub of clean water. 5) Final wash, ring out the clothes and hang them up to dry. Each tub of clothes takes about 2 hours to do. Maybe when I get better, I will become more efficient.

In the late morning, we return the motorbike to the rental place. After some research, much talking to people, and quick rough calculations, we were on our way searching for an electric motorbike. The price of oil soared in the U.S.A. and many countries, Laos was not speared. We thought it would be a good deal to get a cheap electric motorbike, which is both environmentally friendly and economically feasible. We walked up and down the industrial part of Asiane street under the meltingly hot sun. Since we are taking doxycycline as an anti-malarial measure, we have to be extra cautious about being exposed to the sun. So it’s either covering ourselves with clothes or sunscreen. Last time I didn’t worry about malaria in Laos, but this time, just this week alone, I have lost count of how many bites I have gotten on my poor leg, arms, and places that I didn’t think the sneaky mosquitoes could get to.

Not only there were five or six motorbike sales stores on the same street, there were also numerous Chinese owned shops and restaurants. We have met a few Chinese vendors close to the area we live (Ban Phonkheng). We knew they were Chinese because of the Chinese drama blaring on the TV in the backroom. The way a lot of shops are set up here in Laos is pretty convenient for the family. Usually the store is at the front, and then the family either lives in the back or upstairs (zero commute time!) First we would approach the Chinese owners speaking Lao, but as the buying-selling communication got more complex, we tried out Chinese since the knowledge of Lao is limited on both ends. Oh boy, did we surprise them then. One lady said she definitely gave us better prices because we spoke Chinese.

According to Ginny (the director of Lao American College), there will be 50,000 more Chinese people coming to Vientiane in the next year in exchange for a nice building the Chinese are donating to Laos. Wow, the population of Vientiane is only 140,000 (which also includes many Chinese already). How’s more Chinese going to change the dynamic of the city? Already, there exists some tension between the Lao and the Chinese.

Sabaidee from Laos


We have been in Laos for almost a week now. We took a plane from Kunming, China down to Vientiane, all in a couple of hours. Three years ago, we traveled from China to Laos on land. We were on the train for over 30 hours, then took a sleeper bus, then a sketchy vehicle with bags of rice, stacks of cabbages, and several long PVC pipes stretching all the way into the backseat, then a van to Luang Prabang.



After much debate, we decided to go and rent a motorbike and try it out. We ended up in downtown Vientiane. The streets were brimming with people, lot of them tourists. Most restaurants and businesses have both Lao and English signs. There were more fancy buildings and d├ęcor, which is a bit different from the Lao-American college town that we live in. Each province in Laos is divided into ‘Ban,’ which is basically like a town.

After visiting a couple of places (we have gotten used to noting down prices of things we bought and comparing different stores for better deals; buying things here usually takes a little more time, especially if haggling is involved), we rented a motorbike just for one day, to try it out. Steven drove it around the parking lot trying to learn how to maneuver the machine. As easy as other Lao makes it seems, driving the motorbike requires some coordination along with a good sense of balance and judgment. After Steven almost ran into a car, several men who were watching in the parking lot offered their expertise. Meanwhile, I watched from the sidelines with amusement because I was wearing a skirt. (Most women, especially adults, wear the Lao skirt “seen”. It really takes some time to get used to wearing a skirt all the time). So Steven made circles, figure eights, and doodling around the parking lot for the rest of the afternoon.

I got fed up with the mosquitoes biting my legs (oyyye, the skirt!) and I needed to prepare for my medical English class, so I took a Tuktuk (a Lao taxi with no doors) back to the school.


The toughest part of riding a motorbike for a beginner used to bicycle riding is having a light hand on the gas. Twisting the right handlebar counterclockwise toward you is like pressing the gas pedal, and it isn’t easy to feather it to go slow. Going fast and making broad sweeping curves is easy, but we learned by doing tight circles and figure eights starting off. You don’t use those skills often on the road, but meandering slowly through multimodal traffic might occasionally require some sharp turns. Traffic on the streets of Vientiane by numbers is about 65% motorbike, 30% car, 4% bicycle, and 1% large truck. Far fewer bicycles than China, and no animal traffic as compared to India. Pedestrians and dogs are mostly cross traffic, and stay on the sidewalks.

I think the unfortunate predominance of motor vehicles may be a result of the urban sprawl nature of Vientiane, and rural-distributed population of Laos. The motor vehicles aren’t just an environmental problem: Laos imports its fuel, which makes up about 40% of its total imports. And Laos has a growing trade deficit of 50% of imports. Chinese cities in similar geographical regions have more concentrated urban populations, and have lots of relatively cheap residential high-rises within biking distance of the city center. Here in Vientiane, though, nothing rises above four stories except for one hotel by the Mekong. Maybe it’s the difficult marshy soils preventing taller buildings.