The Sockeyed Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Laos

Slow Going in Vientiane

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It has been a slow-paced four days in Vientiane which kind of suits the nature of the city. On Tuesday we set up a list of photo subjects for my time here. It seemed impressive, but I managed to get through it all quite easily. Generally my days have begun with a fairly early rise and a quite-tasty buffet breakfast (mixed Asian and western food) at the hotel. The PSI driver arrives in his truck and we crawl through the chaotic yet slow traffic to the office where my days were arranged. I covered a whole range of subjects including:

  • Visits to pharmacies to document birth control options (including Chinese abortion pills) and to private clinics with Tick, the team leader from last-year’s malaria project in Attapeu;
  • The PSI warehouse plus the facilities of Diethelm, their new distributor;
  • The “New Friends” MSM (men who have sex with men) drop-in centre, including their new branding plus information and counselling sessions;
  • A new text messaging program encouraging people to get free HIV testing;
  • Wandering the Morning Market looking for moms with kids to photograph for the reproductive health program;
  • TB training for staff;
  • A primitive clinic that provides exams and treatment for female sex workers;
  • Outreach to female sex workers in the Ramayana Hotel karaoke bar; and
  • PSI staff group photos.

A PSI outreach worker educates female sex workers about STIs.

The PSI Laos Team

I am happy to have accomplished all that was laid out for me. I’ve had plenty of time to wander the streets of the central city between shoots or after my day’s work. I’ve had some tasty food, particularly phe (or pho noodles) and café lao, the best of both I’ve decided are on Heng Boun Road, west of the Lao Cultural Hall. I also found really good pad thai at a stall where Heng Boun meets Chao Anou Road.

Phe Noodles from Pho Dung on Heng Boun Road

Pad Thai Stall on Heng Boum Road


I’ve enjoyed finding a good spot to have a café lao or Beer Lao and sit watching street life or reading a book on my ebook reader.

Lao Coffee, tea and an e-book

There’s really not a whole lot else to write about. I haven’t found much personal photographic inspiration here which is probably partly a function of having spent quite a bit of time here before, of Vientiane not being that inspiring, and of the fact that my last two trips – to India and to the Arctic – were incredibly inspiring.

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

Out of Laos and Across Cambodia

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The last day in the field was a successful one for both me and the team.  The village we worked in – Somsouk – was about 2kms down a side road from our usual route towards the plateau.  It was a larger village nestled among rice fields with the rugged plateau rising up a short distance away.  Houses were of the same style, still basic, but larger and somewhat better built than in the previous villages.  Around the periphery were a fair number of rice storage structures, looking like small windowless houses high on stilts.

Driving towards Somsouk and the Bolevan Plateau


Somsouk village and rice fields


Rice storage structures

We were the hit attraction for the children, who spent much of the day peering at us in the raised open-walled community building.  Our only competition was two people from another village selling a collection of clothes – mostly t-shirts – spread out on a large tarp nearby.  A cyclone in the region was causing some impressive gusts of wind and creating some great light and the occasional spatter of rain.


Registration for the clinic


A girl looks on and smiles as her sibling gets a finger-prick blood test

A girl at the clinic waits and watches

Boys playing with a home-made toy at the clinic

It was a successful day for both me and team.  I was happy with the shots that I got, both of the team’s work and the village context, and the team tested 230 villagers, none of whom were positive for malaria.  It was a positive way for me to finish up my work with the team.

PSI field workers interview a household about malaria prevention and awareness

A PSI field worker interviews a woman

We returned to the guesthouse at 3:30, I showered and packed, then the truck returned to drive me into Pakse.  San, Seng, Tak and Dao all wanted to come along to see me off, which was touching.  The drive took about 2 1/2 hours; San drove most of the way while the others sat in the back playing cards on a cardboard box.  Sang had the luck and was rewarded by a substantial pile of Kip.  At the high point of our drive, near Paxsong, we hit thick fog and had to slow to a crawl for about 20 stressful minutes where we could barely see the road.  Once through, San joined the others in the back to play cards while Tak took over at the wheel.  Soon the pile of money found its way in front of San, which didn’t entirely surprise me.

In the early evening we pulled into Pakse, which after Attapeu seemed expansive and bustling.  I picked up a ticket to the bus and the guys found me a quiet, comfortable guest house a short distance away.  I learned then that they were heading back to Attapeu that evening; I had assumed that they were staying the night.  That made me feel even more appreciative of their gesture of joining me on the journey.

We went for a bowl of noodles near the guest house, then a beer by the (closed) airport at a friend’s place.  The guys have friends in every town that they work, and quite possibly girlfriends from what I can tell.  We returned to the guest house and said our goodbyes, and I watched them drive away.

I woke just after six, showered and walked the short distance to the bus station.  I put my bag on the bus, which was disappointingly not as luxurious as the images on the posters at the ticket office suggested.  They have some quite plush large buses in the region that put Greyhounds to shame, but this one was very ordinary.  I would soon come to appreciate its quality, however.

I had a simple breakfast of grilled pork and sticky rice at the bus station, then boarded the bus with about a dozen other folks.  About 10kms out of town, things went sideways when we hit a motorcyclist (or more accurately, when a motorcyclist hit us).  I had long expected disaster on the roads of Laos due to the quite blatant disregard for safety and the mix of different modes and speeds of transportation.  As we were passing a motorcyclist, he took a hard left turn without looking over his shoulder or consulting his non-existent mirrors.  He bounced off the side of our fast-moving bus and tumbled down the road.  Fortunately he was relatively OK – conscious and sitting up; if he had turned one second earlier, he would have ended up under the bus’ wheels, which doesn’t bear thinking about.

We all had to get off the bus with our bags as the bus and crew had to stay and deal with the aftermath.  A smaller bus from another company was flagged down and we were put on it.  It drove us to the border with a few stops along the way – at Wat Phou and the Thousand Islands.  We abandoned the bus at the border cross, an assortment of a few small buildings with a stretch of open road between two traffic gates.  The crossing was seen as an economic development opportunity for various personnel.  I was asked for an extra $1 by Lao emigration, quarantine and Cambodian control.  It’s simply par for the course here.

Another small bus was waiting for us on the far side and drove in a pokey way to Stung Treng, about 75kms from the border.  After standing in that muggy town for about 15 minutes, our original bus pulled up and we piled on again.  We continued our journey across much of the country, which seemed continuously flat, with fairly lush vegetation and the typical red dirt.  The dirt soon turned mucky was we came into rain.  It seems that we’d just missed quite a deluge.

The ride was tedious.  I listened to music while the crew played a series of movies on the entertainment system: a dubbed Hollywood comedy about three inept men trying to kidnap a baby, one about Khmer bumpkins, some Mr. Bean, and possibly the worst Indian film I’ve seen: a Punjabi production about student councils, misunderstandings, fighting and strife.  It was endless, but thoroughly enjoyed by three young Sikh men who had given it to the crew to put on.  A funny moment was when one of the young bus crew tied his krama – traditional Cambodian scarf – around his head in a perfect turban and sat watching the film.

The last 100kms from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh were also endless.  The bus was hot and stuffy, the windows were fogged up, the entertainment system blared, and I was sticky, hungry and tired.  I learned later that I was lucky, however.  We were arriving during the Water Festival in Phnom Penh, a time when an extra two million people pour into town to watch dragon boat racing on the Tonle Sap river.  On all other days they had been forcing people off of buses and onto taxis or motos 50kms from town.  This had happened to Vinh.  For some reason we made it through, and was delighted to get off the bus, hop a moto, and arrive at the Paragon Hotel on the waterfront, which was solidly jammed with people enjoying the last night of festivities.

I had just got into my room when I heard my name being called from the hallway.  I opened my door to find Vinh and Sue, and I gave them stinky hugs.  After a quick shower, I went with them for a German meal over on St. 130.  Shortly we were joined by a friend of their who is a prosecutor in the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal.  Amazing!  At another watering hole, Rick Valenzuela stopped by with Irwin Loy, a journalist I know from Vancouver who interviewed me when he was writing for 24 Hours.  He’s here now, working with Rick at the Phnom Penh Post.

I revived with food and beer and stayed up fairly late, but then retired to my cool, dark, quiet room.

Written by sockeyed

November 3, 2009 at 20:08

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More about Attapeu

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Yesterday followed the same pattern as Friday.  The village we travelled to was about 5kms down the same road.  The difference was that the locals there spoke a different dialect – closer to Khmer – that no-one on the team could understand, so the Lao-speaking village head and another local translator helped out.  The villagers seemed visibly poorer – they were dirtier and their clothes were more basic.  While not unhealthy, they appeared unhealthier than those in Pouy.  It’s a hardscrabble existence on this rice-farming plain prone to flooding and a hot dry season.  My understanding is that there is only a single annual harvest of rice here.

PSI Delivery

A PSI Land Cruiser is used to shuttle villagers to the clinic

Ban Donephay

Team leader Tick registers people in Ban Donephay village


The day’s event was quite successful – at least 200 villagers showed up to be tested, with only 2 showing positive for malaria.  PSI staff were constantly busy with intake, testing, and field interviews in individual houses.  I was able to get quite good images of all aspects, I think.  Seeing into each house was sobering as conditions are very basic: sleeping on bare floors and cooking over charcoal fires.

Ban Donephay

A girl watches as villagers are tested around her

The village head decided to kill a pig for the team’s lunch, but the collection of quivering entrails and organs in stainless bowls didn’t appeal.  Sen, as he always does when presented with any meat, dug in with gusto.  Fortunately, the team brought along other food and I munched on sticky rice, hard-boiled egg, dried beef, and a noodle-fish mixture prepared in a leaf wrap.

Lunchtime was quiet, so the team relaxed.  I managed a short nap in the back of one of the Land Cruisers, with two drivers – Sen and Seng – snoring up front.

We stayed until mid-afternoon then all piled in one truck (the other was in Pakse for the day) for the hour’s drive back into town.  Back in town I washed, rested and downloaded my images, then had a delicious meal prepared at the guesthouse by the some of the team.  It was one of the top meals of this trip: tamahoon (green papaya salad), morning glory with chillies, fish stew with lime cilantro and chillies, scrambled eggs, steamed watercress and other herbs, and of course sticky rice.  I stuffed myself.

At around 8pm I went to Champa 100 Years with Tak, one of the communications guys, who is younger and speaks English well.  We chatted for about an hour about school and work and his recent heartbreak, when his girlfriend of five years left him for a Thai fellow (note: later in the evening his ex sent him several text messages saying that she’d had a fight with the new guy and wanted to patch things up.  Tak made a point of not responding although it was clear he was torn).  Dao, one of the drivers arrived and we moved to another table with the restaurant owner and two young women, one of whom made me laugh a great deal despite not understanding her Lao.  She kept making me recite all the Lao I knew and laughing and laughing at my immense vocabulary of 5-10 phrases.

At around 9:30 we rolled across town to Happy Day on the other bend of the Xe Kong River.  Sen and Seng were there, and we listened to the music for a while, drinking more Beer Lao and munching cucumbers, fresh tamarind (sour!) and watermelon seeds.  Not a great deal happened and we were back home by 11:00 and I had a solid sleep.

I decided, however, to have a rest day.  My stomach was a bit off (much better now) and I figured that I could not get a ton of photographic value returning to the same village again.  So, I spent the day at the guesthouse, reading half of my book – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and relaxing.

At lunchtime a truck from the French Croix-Rouge pulled up three fellows – French, English and Lao – checked in.  I chatted with them, and then joined them as they went for lunch in a local Vietnamese place.  They are here to look into food security issues following the recent cyclone.  Apparently the rice harvest was damaged in the flooding and they are here to assess interventions for four days.  They will be journeying into some very remote parts of the district by boat or possibly even foot by the sound of it.  David, the Englishman, spent four years treeplanting in northern BC , has a family in Tamil Nadu, and works as a disaster-management consultant.  Benoit is from France and lives in Vientiane, working for the Croix Rouge, and I’m guessing that the Lao fellow is from the a government ministry.  It was very interesting to learn about this very direct kind of work being carried out on the ground.

For dinner I met up with the usual suspects – San, Seng, Tak and Dao – for a dinner at their friend Miss Mai’s shop at the bus station.  San cooked up a vat of boiled clams in chilli broth, and Mai grilled an entire catfish over a charcoal brazier.  We sat around a concrete table in front of the store watching the local buses come and go.

Written by sockeyed

November 1, 2009 at 18:44

Posted in Photography, Travel

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The journey was long – 23 hours from the Hualamphong train station to the Attapeu bus station – but it went as smoothly as imaginable.  I didn’t sleep so well on the train for some reason, perhaps because it seemed exceptionally bouncy, and also because the conductor and his friends were jabbering away a few feet from my berth.  The stunning thing is that the train arrived on time in Ubon Ratchatani, which is almost unheard of.  A tuk tuk drove me through the unremarkable town to the bus station where I bought a ticket for the 9:30 bus to Pakse.  I had time for a bowl of chicken on broth-y rice and a coffee.  I also realized that my Thai mobile was almost out of credit so I couldn’t send a text message anywhere.

The bus ride took about three hours.  Crossing the border was an exercise in way-finding through fences and around buildings, eventually arriving at a black-glass window with a hole far too low to actually see or hear anything through.  I passed in my passport and a bushel of papers came back at me, which I dutifully filled out and returned with the $43 fee.  Canadians still pay the most of any country for a Lao visa.  We must have really offended them at some point.

At another similar window around the side, a disembodied voice asked for an additional 50 Baht, probably for the Lao Border Guards Retirement Fund or something.  I paid and walked away with my passport and Lao visa in hand.

Instantly things change on the Lao side of the border: the landscape is hillier and more treed, and things look less prosperous.  Most houses are feeble wood things that look like they could blow over or combust at the smallest provocation.

After an hour and on the far side of the stunning Mekong, we pulled into non-descript Pakse.  I hopped on a Lao style of tuk tuk – a covered sidecar – and went for a ride through the town, stopping to get a SIM card (using French with an old guy) – then south 8km to the other bus station.  I had a couple of hours there until the 3:15 “VIP” bus left, so I drank some drinks and ate some buns.

The 4 hour ride to Attapeu was lovely.  We drove around the Bolevan Plateau, which juts up several hundred meters from the plain around it, in places with sheer cliffs and bastions of rock.  We made our way clockwise around it in the gorgeous evening light.  One thing that I noticed is that Lao people walk with their backs to traffic, which resulted in many of the having the beejesus scared out of them when our bus came barrelling up behind them honking.

The bus pulled into the dirt bus station at 7:30 and shortly thereafter a big blue Toyota Land Cruiser covered in Number 1 condom logos pulled up, and I was greeted by Tick, the young energetic team leader here, and Sen, the driver.  Both speak good English.  We drove the short distance to the guesthouse.

I had a nice room, but unfortunately it was on the ground floor right by the front desk and door, so I had a fairly lousy sleep because of noise.

I got out of bed at seven, and at half-past, Tick took me for a bowl of noodles down the street.  At eight, the entire PSI team showed up (8 folks in two vehicles), and we drove about 30kms down a rough dirt road westwards to the village called Pouy.  Flooding earlier this year damaged the whole area and the road is badly scarred in places.  An amazingly sketchy suspension bridge with a one-ton limit has been built in one place, and everyone piled out to watch the Land Cruiser creep across it.

Bridge Crossing

A PSI Land Cruiser crawls across a suspension bridge

The standard practice for the team is to set up malaria testing and also conduct field interviews about malaria-prevention practices.  A series of tables are arranged and villagers are invited to drop by, sign in and get a finger-prick blood test on the spot.  Results are available within 15 minutes.  This was the second day at the village, so it wasn’t particularly busy although by the early afternoon a crowd of about 30 or so had gathered after being tested in anticipation of draw prizes.

Malaria Blood Test

A girl winces as she gets a finger-prick blood test for malaria


The girl on the right has tested positive for malaria and is given a Coartem treatment pack by the PSI team

Villagers wait to hear the results of their malaria tests

The village, like all that we passed, is situated on a large floodplain of the major river in the area (that flooded during the storms).  To the north is an impressive forested plateau, possibly the Bolevan, rising abruptly up from the plain with sheer cliffs and waterfalls.  While dry right now, this is obviously an area that turns to soup and glue in the wet season.  The red soil likely turns to porridge, and then to concrete as it dries.  Rice farming dominates although lots of livestock – water buffalo, cows, goats, geese, chickens and ducks – roam.  The houses are simple: one or two rooms high on stilts, with a ladder or stairs leading up.  The walls are wooden boards for the most part, with lots of gaps for air and mosquitoes.  I was able to go into a couple of houses for the field interviews and they were as basic inside as out.  For beds there were simple thin mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets suspended from the ceiling.  It seemed as if most families slept in one room.

Lao Village House

A typical rural Lao house in Pouy village

Mosquito nets hang from the ceiling in a rural house

Because it was quiet today, the program wrapped up just after 1pm and we piled back into the vehicles and drove into town.  I was feeling pretty zonked, so I changed into a quieter upstairs room and had a 1.5 hour nap.

At five, Tick and another team member took me for a walk into the market.  The vegetables and herbs looked fresh and delicious, the fly-covered fish and meat, the squirrels, the crickets, and the dried buffalo skin, less so.  We walked onto the bridge and peered at the quite-lovely meandering river below, then went to a riverside restaurant, the Champa 100 Years, for a tasty meal of grilled duck, fried rice with egg, spicy salad and zesty watercress or morning glory.  And of course, Beer Lao.

Attapeu Market

Looking down on a street leading to the Attapeu market

Squirrels and Mushrooms

Squirrels and mushrooms for sale in the Attapeu market

Beer Lao was the story of the evening.  I went out on the town with a number of the older guys from the team, and each stop involved plentiful large bottle of Beer Lao, fortunately served over ice, which dilutes the beer somewhat.  First stop was an open-air karaoke bar on the river.  Instead of canned music, a fellow sits at a keyboard playing the tunes will all sorts of other instruments programmed in.  Sen sang a couple of Lao tunes very well and won the appreciation of people there.

Beer Lao

Beer Lao Heaven

Next stop was a ‘disco’ full of Lao young-uns.  It was a mid-sized room with a lot of tables, dripping air conditioners, lasers and such, and a decent and loud sound system.  The youth were having a pretty fun time moving to Thai pop hits.

Final stop was another karaoke place called Happy Days or something like that, also on the river.  In addition to a keyboardist was a guitarist; apparently they are brothers, and they were talented.  There was less actual karaoke as the band did most of the work, but there was some dancing, which, much to my dismay, involved me as I was dragged up by the guys.  Dancing in front of a crowd of Laos was not high on my list of priorities in coming here, but at least the bottles of Beer Lao loosened my inhibitions and mortal terror.  It was a late night for Laos – we didn’t make it home until midnight, leaving when the bar shut down.

Written by sockeyed

October 30, 2009 at 18:39

Posted in Photography, 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

Last Moments in Vientiane

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I’ve continued my work with PSI over the last two days. I didn’t accomplish much during the day yesterday; mostly just visiting sites – the old Wat Sisaket and the newer Wat Simuang – relaxing and waiting for things to happen. There isn’t a ton to do in Vientiane, I’ve decided, although I’m still fond of the place. At dusk I met up with Cristina, another PSI staffer just in from Washington, and an Albanian woman who used to be in the same field, at the Sunset Bar on a beautiful part of the river. There we had a beer and some delicious snacks, particularly the Mekong “river weed”, cooked up in a very tasty garlic and chili sauce, and some Vietnamese-style fried spring rolls.

At about 7:45, a taxi arrived for me and drove me to a hotel about 10 minutes from the town centre after a detour to the closed PSI office where he thought he had to take me. Attached to the hotel was a nightclub, and there I met two members of PSI’s sex worker outreach team, Mouiy and Latana, both peers I believe. Despite a profound language barrier, it turned out to be a very productive evening. They set up in the ‘backstage’ of the nightclub. Over th next hour or so, about 15 women arrived and prepared for the evening by putting the final touches on their outfits and makeup. I found out today, talking to the communications director at PSI that they were likely 15-25 years old and their clients were Thai and Lao businessmen. They worked out of the nightclub, and either went to backrooms in the club with clients, or to hotel rooms upstairs. The client pays about 1,000 Baht, or $35, for the women’s time.

To me, it seemed that the women were healthy-looking and relatively happy; they don’t seem to show the desperation that many sex workers do in Canada. Then again, what I’ve seen in Canada is the women who work the streets and in desperate situations. Again, there is less stigma associated with being a sex worker here, and it is recognized as an opportunity to make good money.

The PSI folks were there to promote good sexual health. They provided condom demonstrations and got each woman to do the same. They did a couple of simple presentations on STIs (the graphic images resulted in some alarmed looks), and passed out Number One condoms and pens with PSI’s information on them.

I was able to get some good images that I hope will be useful. The women were comfortable with being photographed, and the peer workers had a great energy and spirit. My greatest regret was not being able to communicate with them.

The club was deserted with the exception of the women when when I left at around 10pm, but I understand that the clients arrive around 11pm or so, and that the club stays open until 2 or 3am.

Today I spent most of the day at the PSI office. When I arrived mid morning, we drove out to the warehouse and I photographed the cute blue PSI truck being loaded with large boxes of condoms to be taken to the office where they’re repackaged for sale and distribution. Rob Gray, my old friend and the Country Director for PSI, arrived last night from Bangkok, so I saw him for the first time at the office. I got a couple of images of him looking officious at his desk next to his bust of Lenin (from his time in Uzbekistan).

Elena and had a great lunch at a local restaurant down the street from the office where we bumped into the staff from the men’s drop-in centre. We ate delicious green papaya salad and noodles, both in spicy, tangy sauces. The other staff also shared some very nice sweet/sour meatballs and cucumbers called something like “small children”. For dessert, a large cold and creamy iced coffee shake.

There wasn’t a lot to do this afternoon other than catch up on email and news, take some group shots in front of the office. Back at the hotel at 5:00, I decided that I’d better take in my last Laotian sunset over the Mekong of this trip, so I went to the top floor of the Bor Penyang Bar, as recommended by either Cristina or Elena, and enjoyed a dark Beer Lao and an amazing view up and down the river as the orangey sun went down.

Back at the hotel I packed up my room and will shortly join Rob and Meriem for dinner at Le Central.

Written by sockeyed

November 22, 2008 at 02:00

14kms from Vientiane

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Things generally don’t really get happening until the afternoon and evening in terms of PSI’s outreach work, so I had the morning to myself to explore the town a bit more. After a breakfast of granola, fruit and yogurt, and a cappuccino, at JoMa, I walked up to Samsenthai Road, then east to Lane Xang. A bit north there are a pair of markets, the ‘morning market’ which is mostly electronics, clothes, and so on, then the much more interesting Khouadin market, which has a covered and atmospheric clothing area and a very lively outdoor food market. I shot a lot of film on my Leica of vegetable and fish stalls, a bacci game (on which many thousands of Kip were being wagered), barrows and barrow-men, and just lots of action.

Walking back in the direction of the hotel, I stopped at a sandwich and juice shop on Samsenthai for a very tasty cheese (Vache qui rit), mayonnaise and salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and lightly pickled veggies) baguette and a mango shake, all costing about $2.50.

I rested a bit back at the hotel and tried unsuccessfully to have a nap. I don’t seem to be able to nap here, and sleeping is not coming that easily for some reason.

At 2:00 the driver came to the hotel and whisked me out to PSI. I met up with Elena and the two of us went to PSI’s nearby drop-in centre for transgender (TG) men and men who have sex with men (MSM). The centre offers a variety of services including anti-HIV and STI education (condom use and awareness), internet access, a doctor’s office, kitchen, dance area, TV room and access to peer support workers. It was a busy place and I managed to get some good shots of the action, plus some staff portraits.

Trangender men have a very different position in society here than they do back home, and katoey, as they are called, are quite visible and very accepted. It is a very similar situation to that in Thailand. Some katoey have a subtle effeminate nature while others are indistinguishable from women and have undergone hormone treatment and sometimes surgery. In some cases, their female mannerisms are very accentuated and are caricatures of what it is to be a woman. Some do work in the sex trade, sometimes with foreigners, sometimes with locals. I was told that some katoey will sleep with a foreigner, then take that money to pay a young local man (likely university age) to sleep with them. That young man will in turn take that money to buy things for his girlfriend. This is apparently not a rare phenomenon.

Being openly gay but not a katoey, from what I understand and have seen, is also broadly accepted. When I went out with the peer outreach team, we spent time in very ordinary places and the team was very openly who they were. There were no looks or energy from any in those places; they were simply who they were and that was considered normal. I can’t say that the same would happen in Canada, despite how liberal we might be. TG men certainly couldn’t live the same kind of open life.

The first excursion with the team was to a beauty salon about 14kms from the centre of town, very close to the massive and impressive Beer Lao brewery. There the peer workers chatted with about four men, some katoey, some not, about condom safety. They passed out literature and free condoms, and the men they talked to seemed very open and relaxed.

We returned to town and I had a bit of time before we were to head out again, so I went out for dinner at the same restaurant as the previous night. I had a tasty green bean salad, as was the bottle of dark Beer Lao, but the main course was challenging. Fried Vientiane-style beef sounded good, but the tough jerky-like leather that arrived, while tasty, required endurance to chew through. I made it, and also downed about a pound of sticky rice. I felt a bit dazed afterwards.

I met up with the peer team on their motorbikes at the main fountain in the centre of town just before 7:30, and I got on the back of a bike and we headed out of town again. We stopped on the way to pick up a young Danish student doing her masters in public health. Over the course of the night she provided me with some very interesting and useful information about katoey and MSM in Laos.

We drove out near the Beer Lao brewery again and pulled into a restaurant where we had beer and snacks. The peer workers knew it as a place where they could make contact and share information. There was not much action, however, so I mostly picked the Danish student’s brain.

Down the road a kilometre was a sprawling outdoor venue called the Dodo Bar, adjacent to a hopping nightclub (it seems that Wednesday is one of the main nights to go out). Here there were a great deal of katoey and some MSM, so the peers sat down at a table with some beer and would take off around the place to chat with folks, share info, and give out condoms. Sometimes it was quite subtle and fast, sometime less so. It was a challenging place to do photography as it was very dark, but I think that I managed to get some shots that captured the essence of what they do.

Sitting at the table was interesting as well as people would come and sit for a while and chat. We, the farang, weren’t of particular extra interest to anyone (as is generally the case in Laos), which was fine, and people were comfortable with being photographed. Quite a few katoey joined us, and some very quite stunningly female and certainly blurred all sorts of preconceived lines of what gender means for me. A number have spent time in Pattaya, the sex capital of Thailand. They were saying that they could make more there in a week than in a month in Laos. At least one had a regular foreigner boyfriend who called and sent money frequently.

We drove back to town on now-deserted roads at around 11:00 (Laos goes to bed early).

The evening was one of those mind-bending experiences not dissimilar to my work with deminers on the Lao-Vietnam border last year, in the sense that it’s so different from my routine experiences back home. One could not possibly pre-imagine spending an evening drinking Beer Lao with Laotian katoey at a outdoor bar 14kms outside of Vientiane.

Written by sockeyed

November 21, 2008 at 00:46

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

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Something’s Hmong with this Picture

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My train was an hour late getting into Chiang Mai, so that limited my already limited time there. Greg Rekken, the CUSO cooperant from Vancouver who I met before he headed out to Thailand, greeted me at the train station with his motorcycle. Groggy from a not-great sleep and my cold, and by the fact that my monkly companions woke at 5:30 and started chatting, our first stop was for a coffee.

Time didn’t allow for a trip out to the model farm which I documented last year, plus I found out that some of the folks I’d met last year had moved on, so instead Greg and I met up with Jeremy Mak – an American working with Burmese NGOs whom I met last November – at a restaurant in a large cob building near the university.

It was fun to drive through Chiang Mai again, seeing many familiar sights. We all caught up with each other’s activities over a lunch that was tasty but long in the delivery. Too long, unfortunately, to allow me to get my traditional mango sticky rice in the old town near the Tae Phe gate. Greg got me the airport in good time for my flight and I ventured on.

The ATR-72 Chinese-made copy of a Russian plane stayed aloft by the grace of Buddha and we touched down in Luang Prabang at around 4pm and I rode a mini van to the Wheelers’ house, down a lane across from the Rama Hotel in a nice part of town about a 10 minute’s walk from the old core. Ron was there to greet me as were their two cats, Patches and Casper, adopted as kittens abandoned on their front door. Alisa arrived soon, but was tied up with work at the Children’s Cultural Centre that evening. We shared some beer, Alisa returned to work, and Ron and I walked out to dinner at the Blue Lagoon, where I ate otlam stew and sticky rice. The food was tasty, but prepared for western tastes, so it wasn’t as spicy as what the kids made last year at the CCC.

After dinner we dropped by the CCC where a weekend of teacher training was taking place. In the evening that revolved around skits, singing and dancing, which was good entertainment. Ron and I were enticed onto stage for some festive group dancing (all moving in a circle, one hand facing up, one hand down).

I spent most of yesterday with Ron walking and biking around the town. I am struck by how beautiful Luang Prabang is, surrounded by mountains and lying between the Mekong and the Namquan rivers. There is a classic colonial feel to the architecture, and it is all really quite calm and quiet despite the larger number of tourists (perhaps because in part they are the older, calmer variety). Orange-robed monks are still ubiquitous.

Ron and I started with lao coffee (with condensed milk) and a baguette warmed over a fire at my favourite coffee shop down on the Mekong where Jeremy and I spent a lot of our mornings last year.

After that, a stop at the Viva Travel to book onwards tickets. A setback there because all of the outbound flights to Vientiane are full for the week, so I’m aiming for a standby flight today. There was a little bit of activity at the CCC when we walked past, but the kids showed no sign of recognition despite the fact that I spent a week there last year. This is not entirely suprising given the number of farang who pass through Luang Prabang.

We returned home to pick up the bikes, then went for noodles (phe) at a favourite shop in the west part of the old town, followed by a ride over the old bailey bridge and down a dusty bumpy road to the village where the weavers are. I found one of the women that I photographed at Naga Textiles last year and gave her a number of photos of her and her sister, and she was very pleased. We rode home via a Beer Lao pit stop, then had naps. I was doing ok until a Lao Airlines prop plane flew low overhead and woke me up, then I couldn’t snooze again, so I went for a wander in town with my camera, and strolled along the Mekong waterfront as the sun set over the river.

Alisa was home when I returned to their place, and we all decided to go to Nisha, the Indian restaurant. Alisa ordered a wonderful assortment of very tasty dishes which we came close to almost finishing. The owner of the restaurant is from South Indian (Madras?) and is married to a Lao women, and together they have at least three gorgeous children including one daughter about 45 days old.

On our way home we talked through the night market which is almost overwhelming in terms of how nice the goods for sale are, even if they become variations on a theme after a while. I bought two Hmong embroidered baby hats (one old, one new), plus two pairs of little shoes for Asha. For me I picked up a Lao PDR t-shirt. I love mine from last year and I wanted a second for when it wears out.

I slept well last night for the first night in a while, and my cold seems to be a bit better today. Ron was off to work before I got up, but Alisa took a day off, so we went for coffee/baguette down by the river again, then back via a quick stop at the market where I bought an embroidered Hmong duvet cover and pillow cases for 230,000 kip, about $30. Beautiful stuff.

A final pack, a tuk-tuk, and now I’m at the airport. There are two flights today and I’m on the standby list for both (#5 on the first, #3 on the second). I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to get to Vientiane today. Luang Prabang is a nice place to be stuck, but I would rather get on the road at this point.

Written by sockeyed

November 17, 2008 at 20:00