The Sockeyed Blog

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Vientiane After Two Years

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I arrived in Vientiane at around 11am this morning on the standard Lao Airlines ATR-72. The flight from Bangkok took not much more than an hour, and I kind of enjoy flying in propeller planes – the buzz of the turbo-props, and the sense that they won’t completely plummet straight to the ground in the event of total engine failure. The flight was uneventful unless you consider getting a tuna bun an event, and I finished the very enjoyable To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.

Lao Airlines ATR-72


There isn’t a lot on the agenda for today other than getting settled (although I will be having dinner with Rob Gray, a friend of almost 30 years and the Country Director for Population Services International Laos, who I will be shooting for over then next few days). This is my third year working with PSI; last year I documented their malaria program in the far southeast part of Laos and their injecting drug user program in Bangkok, and the year before that I worked with them here in Vientiane as well as in Cambodia and Bangkok.

They have booked me into a very comfortable new hotel – the Sabaidee Lao Hotel – in the centre of town, complete with a large bed, air con and a modern bathroom. After dropping my stuff off I picked up a SIM card for my mobile, then went for a long walk around town, revisiting a lot of familiar places from my time here two years ago (and a quick visit the year before). My sense is that it has changed a bit for the worse, but that could be my imagination or slight romanticizing of what it was like before. To me it seems there is more traffic, there are more tourists (including farang with local girls), and more tourist/backpacker-oriented stores. I suppose that these things happen, especially with Southeast Asia being such a popular destination and many places probably feeling overrun. I’ll have to ask Rob for his impression.

My wandering took me down to the riverfront which has definitely changed. An entirely new waterfront area (including flood prevention) is under construction and all of the shanty-like riverfront bars are gone, which is unfortunate. The strip is also recovering from the weekend riverboat festival which left a lot of garbage and semi-deconstructed stalls in its wake.

The New Mekong Riverfront in Vientiane


The New Mekong Riverfront in Vientiane


I changed some money (7,000 Kip to the dollar) and had a great cheese and veggie baguette sandwich with cafe lao and a mango pineapple smoothie at the Manivanh Shop on Samsenthai Road (19,000 Kip). Near the end of my walk I enjoyed my first Beer Lao, but I noticed with disdain that there are now other beers available. The Beer Lao monopoly was a fine thing given that it is an excellent beer.

Baguette Sandwich and Cafe Lao at Manivanh Shop

The Original Beer Lao

Getting here was largely uneventful. I arrived in Hong Kong on the night of the 23rd and was met at the airport by Kin-yi, Rehman and Jeremy Lai. We rode the bus to Kin-yi’s place in Tsuen Wan (her apartment always signals to me that a trip is beginning or ending) where we enjoyed very tasty curries that Rehman cooked up. We all slumbered at Kin-yi’s place, with Rehman issuing great snores from the living room floor.

After a fair sleep I woke early and Rehman walked me back to the bus in time to catch the 6:20 departure. Flying to Bangkok was fine, but the best part was riding the new train in from the airport. While not thrilling in and of itself, it was great not to sit in gridlock for an hour trying to get to the hotel.

I booked a room at Jim’s Lodge on Ruam Rudee off of Sukhumvit. It’s in a very convenient location not far from the BTS (skytrain), and the rooms are spacious, clean and bright; something the rooms in my previous go-to place, The Atlanta, were not. The price, at 1,200 Baht ($36) a night including breakfast works for me.

I didn’t get up to a lot in Bangkok in the half-day that I had. I did enjoy possibly the best Thai massage I’ve had just down the road from the hotel at Khun Tiew’s, a place recommended by my friend Nathan (there was a photo of him on the wall along with many other happy customers). I had a 2 hour massage full of eucalyptus, hot stones, intense pressure and some vigorous twisting.

Khun Tiew in front of her place

Bangkok's Most Wanted

Afterwards I was peckish so I went to a nearby cafe she recommended and had some very rich tom yum gai which was flavourful but not quite as spicy as I wanted. I was hoping to get out and find some of the primo local places Jeremy Tan suggested I visit, but I was a bit zonked and unadventurous. I hope to make it out during my next visit.

I was in bed by 8pm. Not impressive for a night in Bangkok, I know, but I wanted sleep. Sadly I didn’t get much. I tossed and turned until 5am when I got up, packed and checked out. I was at the airport well before my flight, but that was a good thing as it was pretty mobbed.

Written by sockeyed

October 25, 2010 at 03:01

Phnom Penh

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I’ve had a very enjoyable time in Phnom Penh with Sue, Vinh and Rick.  I’ve eaten three excellent meals a day, visited the armed forces market to buy a couple of pairs of new Thai army pants, drunk a river of Anchor Beer at the Rock Bar, rode on the back of Vinh’s Samyang motorbike, napped, and more.  It has been a great way to wind down my trip.  The weather has been clear and breezy.  There have been a few downsides.  The first night I barely slept despite being exhausted from the bus ride.  Second, the wonderful Kennedy Barbershop has disappeared (but at least I photographed it last year).  Finally, my laptop died.  The thing simply won’t start up and I fear the hard drive has suffered an epic crash.  This isn’t totally dire as all of my photos are backed up externally on two hard drives, plus I sent a third home with Derek.  I did lose the November 3rd blog post and had to rewrite it on a hotel computer.  The fortunate thing is that my laptop waited until the end of my trip to die rather than somewhere in India or Laos.  It’s really nothing to cry about.  Worse things happen.

Tonight I’ll be flying to Bangkok, then to Hong Kong tomorrow morning.

Written by sockeyed

November 5, 2009 at 18:22

Posted in Travel

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Anchor Beer Welcomes Ben to the Bodge

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It’s a lot of fun to be back in Phnom Penh, and it’s certainly several rungs up the energy ladder from Vientiane. After Laos, it’s noisy (lots of honking), the streets are dusty and crowded with scooters and tuk tuks and cyclos and trucks and cars, the sidewalks are jammed full of stalls and scooters and people sitting around, and there’s simply a lot more city than in Vientiane. It’s hotter, too, about 28 or 30 degrees, and fairly humid, so it’s easy to get sweaty walking around the streets.

Rob, Meriem and I had a good night out on friday. Our meal at Le Centrale was great. I had onion soup and tilapia served on a round of mashed potatoes and smothered in creamy sauce, and we all shared a bottle of French wine. For dessert we walked to a place near the fountain called Ty Na or something like that, and had a pair of very good crepes – one flaming one with bananas and rum, and one full of ice cream and chocolate sauce. I was very pleasantly stuffed after that. Rob and Meriem walked me the ten minutes to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.

Getting to Phnom Penh was very straightforward – a short van ride to Wattay airport, quick check-in, a bottle of lao lao hooch in the duty free, then I boarded my Vietnam Airlines flight for the one hour flight south. I sat next to a very young-seeming backpacker from Atlanta, working her way through Southeast Asia and Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. She seemed to be enjoying her adventures. I provide what tips I could about Phnom Penh.

I had a good laugh when I arrived at the airport and made my way out of the terminal. My friend Vinh Dao, a journalist who has worked with the Cambodia Daily and is now freelancing, sent a tuk tuk driver friend to meet me, and there he was holding up a big red Anchor beer box with my name written on it, much to the amusement of all the other drivers around him. Piy (Pee? Pi?) was his name, and he drove me to the Paragon Hotel on the riverfront. It was a lively, hot and dusty trip; very stimulating.

Vinh booked me into the Paragon. It’s a decent place to stay with a good bed, hot water, fridge, and more. It’s clean and very central. Initially I was in a riverfront room, but today have moved to the back of the hotel because of the incessant honking.

I made some phone calls and got settled, and wandered the great streets around the hotel. There are several markets close by, and no shortage of stimulation (and “moto-dops” and tuk tuk drivers offering rides, often to unsavoury locations). In fact, the ubiquitous moto-dops are very useful: for a dollar they will drive you almost anywhere in the central city. I’ve already used them a number of times.

Speaking of dollars, I’d forgotten that the USD is the de facto currency here, at least for folks like me. In fact, bank machines dispense dollars. The only time that I’ve got Riel is when I’ve been given change for amount less than a dollar (there are 4,000 Riel to the USD right now).

I got out on one PSI Cambodia project last night – an MSM drop-in centre about 5-10 minutes by car from the hotel. It was karaoke night, so the folks sat on the floor and crooned along with Cambodian pop songs. There was also a group game, although I’m not sure what was being taught through it, and a quiz with prizes. I’m pretty sure that the object of that was male sexual health. Green mango with chili and salt was being passed around as a snack and I helped myself to a fair whack as it’s delicious stuff.

I was there for about an hour, then returned to the hotel and called another friend, Rick Valenzuela, who is from New Jersey and is here working for the Phnom Penh Post. I’ve known Rick for about four years, though internet photo groups, but last night was the first time that I’ve met him in person. Since 2004, he has lived in the US, Chiang Mai and Dakar, Senegal, and has now returned here (he used to work for the Daily).

He has a great second-storey corner loft just a block from the hotel and also on the riverfront. It’s a classic Phnom Penh concrete building, and we sat on the curved corner balcony surrounded by a huge number of plants, and drank Mekong Whiskey with the tabby cat who came with the apartment. We were joined by one and then another staffer from the Post who happened to walk by and was beckoned up from the balcony. Both lived very close by.

At around 11pm, we heard from Vinh and walked the 15 minutes to the Rock Bar (which is actually called the Zeppelin Café). It is one of my favourite spots in Phnom Penh. The owner loves his classic rock and has a great vinyl library. He spends his time behind a couple of turntables and spins tracks all night. He doesn’t play the usual classic rock dreck you hear on the radio, but a great mix of hard rock, heavy metal, early punk and more. Rick and I had a few drinks ($1 Ricard on ice for me), then Vinh and Sue showed up. We chatted and drank there until after 1am, and ordered some great Chinese-style dumplings. They were up for going out some more, but I hit my sleepy wall, so we hopped on respective motos and were driven home.

Another favourite spot of mine here is the Chi Cha Indian restaurant, about four short blocks northwest of my hotel. I had breakfast there this morning at about 10am – an omelette, dahl, chapati and chai for $2.50. I had dinner there last night as well. I can imagine myself going to Chi Cha quite a few more times before I head home.

Today is sunday so there wasn’t a ton to do shooting-wise, so I mostly just walked the streets after breakfast. I strolled over to the Central Market, then to the new Sorya mall, where I bought a pile of DVDs to talk home to folks for Xmas presents. I moto’d back to the hotel just after noon and switch rooms, then wandered out again. I decided to walk down Street 63, which runs south from the Central Market. It is apparently where many brothels are found, so I figured that it would be relevant for my PSI work to see where they are and what they are like, but I didn’t spot one. They have to be there – the street is infamous for them – but I guess that I don’t know what to look for. There were no red lights, no legions of women sitting out front, no pimps dragging you in. Oh well. I’ll ask Sue about it tonight.

I went back into Sorya mall, partly to cool down and have a drink, but also to pick up a few more DVDs (at $1.50 each, it’s kind of addictive). The light was getting nice, so I returned to the hotel to get my Leica and wandered for about an hour and hopefully got a few decent street shots. Excellent material here to work with, regardless.

I’ll be meeting Vinh and Sue in about 20 minutes for dinner down at Le Cedre for Lebanese food, so I’d better get ready.

Written by sockeyed

November 24, 2008 at 02:00

Vaulting into Vientiane

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I made it on the first flight out of Luang Prabang, and in fact even had an exit-row seat with a mile of legroom (although on a 45 minute flight, that’s not a huge deal).

Our ATR-72 touched down at Wattay International Airport around 2pm and a driver from PSI was there with a sign with my name on it. All going according to plan. We drove into town and he dropped me off at a monumental new neoclassical office building on the river, so I signed in at the entryway while the driver left. I was a bit perplexed as he was supposed to take me to my guest house. This was not my guest house, but perhaps PSI’s offices were somewhere in there, but I had my doubts, particularly since the building was clearly labelled as the Mekong River Commission. I dragged my luggage up a big ramp and into the foyer and it all felt wrong. With luck I had the number of a PSI contact who had been organizing things and explained the situation, and I could sense her shaking her head. “The driver is coming back for you,” she said. So I signed out at the front gate, three minutes after I’d signed in, and waited the for the driver who returned 5 minutes later. The guard watched me get into the van and drive away.

The driver had been told to take me to the guesthouse near the MRC office (where I had been let off), but he understood that I was to be let off at the MRC itself. He spoke no English, and he was very stoic, but he may have been a bit sheepish.

My guesthouse was a short distance away. Called the B and P for some reason, it is pleasant and functional, has air con and a pretty good bed. I showered, changed, and went out for a walk.

Vientiane feels small. For a capital it is very quiet and low-scale, and the traffic isn’t that bad, at least in the centre, in part because some streets are one-way. There are many a wat, and therefore many a monk ambling about in orange robes and flip-flops. It is winter here, about 25 degrees, so I saw at least one monk wearing a toque. I walked about 10 minutes or so from my hotel and found that I’d covered most of the centre of town. I enjoyed an iced cappuccino at JoMa, got some money out of an ATM (new and novel for Laos), and dropped in an internet café to check emails and admire the latest pictures of my new niece.

I spent pretty much the rest of the day walking the streets in the town centre. This is a more attractive proposition than in Ubud, where you are in mortal danger of falling into a hole leading into a sewer, or in Bangkok where there are many obstacles and a great deal of sewer-odour. I wasn’t even pestered to buy things, with the exception of the odd tuk tuk ride.

I enjoyed a Beer Lao at an open air restaurant on the Mekong as the sun went down, and as night fell I opted for a massage. This, again, was easier than in Bangkok as ‘special’ massages aren’t on the menu here from what I know. I ventured across the street to Sabaidee Massage and enjoyed a massage several notches down the pain scale than I experienced earlier in Bali and in Thailand.

I wasn’t in the mood for restaurant food, so I went to a grocery store and bought crackers, La Vache qui rit, juice and yogurt, which I ate in my hotel room while watching TV shows (The Wire) on my laptop.

I spent today out at the PSI offices. I am working with two very nice, organized and helpful staff, Cristina and Elena, from Boston and Baltimore, respectively. Cristina’s focus is on harm reduction and family planning, mostly (their own Number One brand) condoms and education, and Elena is focusing on anti-malarial programs. PSI is a world-wide NGO working on health issues from a social marketing perspective, that is, they develop a market for health-related products by educating people and supplying product at a reduced cost, thereby creating demand which attracts other companies and their products. The end result is a healthy and educated population.

Today my work with them focused mainly on documenting their office activities. This involved photographing staff at work as well as about 12 people repacking condoms into packages of three for sale in pharmacies and stores. Staff at the PSI office include doctors, researchers, video specialists, a graphic designer, outreach workers and more. Elena also took me to their warehouse (which had been flooded during a recent surge on the Mekong) where I photographed condoms numbering in the thousands. Funny to think about their future. We also visited a number of pharmacies to document their products on display alongside other brands of condoms.

In all is was a fairly quiet day with a fair amount of waiting for things to happen. I did get locked in a bathroom once when the handle stopped working, but Elena rescued me after I resorted to knocking loudly on the door. The next few days should be a bit more productive when we can work more closely with the communications director to get me out with some outreach teams.

Written by sockeyed

November 19, 2008 at 01:18

Posted in Photography, Travel

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