Posts Tagged ‘Vientiane’
My last night in Laos – the 29th – was a lively one by Lao standards. I joined my old friends from last year’s malaria project (Tak, Saen, Seng and Dao) for a night on the town. We started at the expansive waterfront bar Moon the Night (not sure what that means), where a crate of Beer Lao was delivered to the table and there were various things to nibble on. At around 9 or so we decamped to a karaoke bar near That Louang for some crooning. Only one of them (identity protected) had a woman sit with him; I can only imagine the agony of one’s days spent listening to men yowl along to the latest Lao and Thai hits.
I was home by 11, I think. And I’ll be ice in my beer kept me sober (I’m learning to nurse my drinks long enough to get me through an evening without wobbling).
My flight for Hanoi left in the late afternoon, and to be honest I was worried about how I was going to spend the day as I really had drained Vientiane of options. Fortunately Dao was having a party at his house as he lives near a part of the river where there was a boat race festival. Apparently it’s traditional – if you live by the river – to host all of your friends, feeding and beering them under a canopy. Tak picked me up at the hotel and we joined Dao for a few hours of sitting and grazing. Once again I nursed a small amount of beer through the afternoon.
I arrived at the very quiet airport in plenty of time for my 17:50 flight on Vietnam Airlines. The flight was fine although I was disappointed not to be fed even a peanut or cracker in the course of the one hour flight. The time on board was extended by 50% when we sat on the taxiway for half an hour behind some other plane. I worked on reading my book.
I picked up my visa on arrival and was met by a PSI driver. We zipped into town, then got, bogged down in traffic, as expected, but eventually I made it to my hotel. I was very pleased with the Hanoi Elite, a two week-old little gem in quiet alley in the old quarter. I had a very nicely appointed little room in a modern Asian style, and the staff were very pleasant and helpful, running out to get me a SIM card or a moto driver, and providing excellent breakfast.
I was tired and hungry, but it was Saturday night in Hanoi, so I grabbed my camera and spent a couple of hours wandering the streets and photographing the highly-aesthetic chaos. Nothing is quite like Hanoi traffic, and organic mass of scooters with the odd car screwing things up like a clot in an artery. Crossing streets is much the same as it was in 2004 – walk steadily and let everything flow around you; hesitate or run and you’re likely to get in trouble. There is a new dangerous element however – it is not unusual for a rider to be text messaging on the scooter. Danger danger.
I enjoyed a bowl of pho ga at a streetside stall, squatting on a 6′ high stool and watching the world flow by. The chicken broth put a dent in my sore throat (which lasted until today – November 1).
The next day – Sunday and Halloween – was a free day for me in Hanoi, so I woke at 6am, hand breakfast in the hotel, then hit the streets. I crisscrossed, circled and ambled my way around the Old Quarter, savouring its vibrance and looking for spots I remembered. I also noticed the changes. It’s quite likely that I have a selective memory, but it really seems to me that there are a lot more tourists and backpackers than there were, and a lot more restaurants and bars catering to them. And locals responded differently, probably tired of being photographed and being in the constant presence of travellers.
I had a few enjoyable interactions, particularly in one case where I stopped to watch two men and one boy sanding the rust off an old disassembled child’s bike. The boy stood at the ready with a can of blue spray paint. The pulled up a stool and invited me to join them, so I did, communicating what I could and photographing the scene.
I had fantastic Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa) in a cluster of coffee shops on Trong Thanh and a massive and delicious lunch of bún chả hà nội (fried spring rolls, grilled meat, noodles, greens and soup) at Dac Kim on Hàng Mành Street (recommended by Vinh).
I laid down for a rest in the afternoon but didn’t really sleep, and got up around 4pm to catch the better light. A visit to the Temple of Literature turned out to be a bit of a mistake; it was totally mobbed and just moderately interesting. Well, it does have an impressive history and some interesting stellae celebrating ancient professors, but I didn’t feel moved. The moto ride through the Old Quarter, however, was very exciting and warranted shooting lots of video clips.
Three years ago in Luang Prabang while photographing the Luang Prabang Children’s Cultural Centre I met a CUSO Cooperant named Derin. It turns out that she’s now in Hanoi working for Oxfam Canada, so I joined her, her mom and sister for a dinner in an open-air restaurant southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake not far from the railway station. We caught up on what we’ve been up to and enjoyed a variety of Vietnamese dishes, prepared in hawker-like stands around the periphery. The dinner came to $5, or 100,000 Dong each with beer. Yes, Vietnam is still very cheap (and this wasn’t street food).
I enjoyed my last evening scooter ride through the city and slept nearly a full night.
Today it was back to work with PSI, but it was a very enjoyable and full day. My guide, Ms Ngoc, and a driver showed up at 8am for a long, slow drive to Hải Phòng (100kms in two hours). Ms Ngoc is like many of the PSI local staff I’ve worked with – very bright and helpful. Prior to work with PSI she was with Save the Children, and she spent time studying in Switzerland. She fell asleep in the car.
We passed straight through Hải Phòng, continuing another 20kms to Đồ Sơn, a resort town on the coast. It was actually pleasant, with a cool breeze, shady trees and a reasonable waterfront. We spent our time with Mr Thu, the local distributor for PSI’s Number 1 condoms. I learned a great deal from the experience. Here, hotels and guesthouses are largely responsible for providing condoms for their sex workers, but they are also seemingly the central organizing element in the sex trade. Quite often, women were based in the guesthouses and sent around the town to clients on the back of motorbikes. It was a surreal scene as the place was actually quite deserted-seeming, but there was a steady buzz of women in tight pants and heels being delivered here and there. Condoms also seem to be quite a commodity. PSI is interested in encouraging as much use of their high-quality condoms as possible, but they face competition from cheaper Chinese ones. When guesthouses run through 10 shoebox-sized boxes of them in a week, I guess economies of scale come into play. So Mr. Thu has to actively promote his product.
He drove around town with a big box of Number 1s on the back of his scooter and we followed in our car. He chatted up and made sales of varying sizes to street stall vendors and guesthouse operators, and pitched the condoms to the sex workers directly. I documented it all.
Late in day we rolled back to Hải Phòng and spent a couple of hours with the female sex worker outreach team – Sống đẹp (“Clean Living) – first in their office where they mocked up a series of 1-on-1 education sessions with sex workers, then in the field. We didn’t have any success getting into any entertainment establishments, which we expected, but I was able to photograph outreach to a couple of street workers. Much of what I’m doing is carefully shot to preserve the identity of the sex worker.
Hải Phòng is bustling and dusty, but not ugly (for the most part), and I got to see a lot of it as we drove around after the outreach teams. PSI has put my up in the decent Bach Dang Hotel in the centre of town on Dien Bien Phu Street. Ms Ngoc led us to a decent and filling dinner of pork cake and rice noodles dipped in sour-saltly-sweet-spicy soup. I was back in the hotel in plenty of time to write this and backup all of the 300 images I took today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.