Sunday, August 31, 2008

Chinese supermarket

The Chinese mall has been open for over six months and it's starting to show its wear. While people had initially gone there to gawk at the curtains and the matching bedroom sets, few people go there now. Around the fringes of the mall, shops selling heavy machinery and office furniture have sprung up. At night, the shop people sit in a small park surrounded by weeds, cooking their dinners outside. I noticed the other day that a row of Chinese restaurants has opened up. Might have to try them out some day. I'm not sure where people sleep - possibly in their stores. Some new row houses have sprung up, like mushrooms or bad dreams, while people weren't looking overnight.

Well, I was there to buy a frying pan and Chinese toilet paper. In support of globalization...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A walk and some thoughts

I decided to get myself in gear now that I had bought a new pedometer. So I left around 11 am, fortunately armed with an umbrella, so I could check out the sandbagging scene further down the river. I got down to the Mekong River Commission and felt fine, then turned back. Crossed the T2 road and noticed they had graded a new section of the irrigation canal, so went along there, returned by the Northern Bus station to T2 road and finally the last two miles to my house. 19,467 steps at 60 cm. per stride, 11.8 kms. or just under 8 miles.

Usually that's not quite a trek, but I was walking at noon - and was unhappy to notice that people had cut trees along most of the route. Some friends tell me that the branches and break off and smash houses. I guess so... but there's more.

A few years ago, my former landlady had cut her leg while cutting brush around my house. A few days later, I noticed that a nice little tree in the front of the house was gone. I asked my neighbor about it and she hemmed and hawed and finally told me that kind of tree can have snakes in it, and if you do under the tree the snake can fall on your head. I thought that was strange, as I would have to crawl on hands and knees to go under the tree and since was next to the fence, it was unlikely that anyone would go under it.

The truth was revealed two years ago when I was drinking beer with some friends and I heard them talking about the incident of my landlady cutting her leg, so I asked what the real story was. She had dreamed about the tree and believe that a spirit in the tree had caused the knife to slip. By making an offering elsewhere, and cutting down the tree once the spirit had been lured out of it, she hoped that it wouldn't cause any more problems. I asked them why they hadn't told me this at the time. "We knew that you believed these traditions and were afraid that you might move out." I wished I had known at the time, I would have helped them with whatever ceremonies. And I had to smile to think that something like this would make me move out - I've rented this house in Xieng Khouang for 12 years now.

People of Myanmar

People of Myanmar, originally uploaded by rolnero.

Beautiful set of portraits of people in Myanmar.

We hear about the disaster of Cyclone Nargis and the crackdown by the junta last year and we come away with a sense of grey. These photos show the resilience of every day people. Rolnero's set also has portraits of people in Mexico and Peru.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Skywatch Friday - machines and skies

There's a Chinese mall near my house. Inside the mall, you find curtain, appliances, clothing, and foods, etc. Outside, they sell the heavy machinery. I haven't seen any of these in use and since there's so much grass growing between the tires, I'm not sure how many they sell.

chinese machines and sunset

Chinese tok toks and sky

This post is my contribution to Skywatch Friday.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

ABC Wendesday: The F's

Well, of course the theme of the last two weeks has been "F" is for "Flooding." Since I've posted so many flood pictures, not sure if I want to do much more of that.

This is a Ferris wheel at the Mekong riverfront last October. At the end of the Buddhist Lent, which is marked by the end of the rainy season and the full moon of the 10th lunar month, the main boat racing festival is staged on the river.

A fence by the bank of the river in Ta-Oi District, Salavan province - and beyond it, the forest. I'm looking forward to getting back out there in October. It's difficult to get there during the rainy season - few bridges and the dirt road turns into the worst kind of mud. It takes at least five hours to reach the district capital - and it's only 80 kms (about 50 miles) from Salavan town.

Fish tank in a TV set. Brilliant.

Football match at the sports field in Xieng Khouang, northern Laos. There's a big fair and sports tournament for the Hmong New Year.

So those are some F's for my week. For more of ABC Wednesday contributions, go to ABC Wednesday.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More flood news

I came to work with a list of things to do, and the energy to do them. Had a schedule for six major things to take care of... and then I found an invitation for a meeting about the flood damage and the ongoing needs assessment. I tried to get my #2 to go, but he insisted that I should go. Finally, we decided we both should go.

I tried to do some of the work on my 'to do' list and remembered I hadn't written someone's letter of reference, which they needed right away. Then other staff came in with problems large and small - my tack is to make them decide what they should do rather than telling them what they should do. Better for capacity development but worse for time management.

So after finally getting the letter written, printed by my secretary, signed and stamped... it's nearly noon. Meeting's at 2 pm, and since it's an official meeting I had to return home to change into a nicer blouse and sinh (the traditional Lao skirt). My landlady was puttering around my kitchen so I started talking to her... lunch hour was up.

The meeting was very sobering - in fact, horrifying to see the flooded areas from the air - animals wandering, lost, in the high water, villages cut off by being surrounded by water, flooded fields. Even as the waters recede, the problems worsen - most people use communal wells, which are now contaminated of river water entering from the top (with 10 meter-deep wells, lined with concrete rings, water is mostly purified by percolating up through the soil). Destroyed crops and grasslands mean livestock will have problems foraging. Roads have been washed away or damaged - a big problem for remote areas. Older schools have been destroyed. The list goes on.

From the Vientiane Times (

Govt lists urgent needs of flood victims

Food, clean water, medicine and household items are urgently needed for more than 178,000 people affected by recent flooding in Laos , Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Dr Thongloun Sisoulith said yesterday.

Deputy PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Thongloun Sisoulith ( third right ) speaks at the briefing in Vientiane yesterday.

Dr Thongloun was speaking at briefing about the impact of recent flooding in 679 villages of 53 districts in eight provinces of Laos .

The briefing was held to inform diplomatic corps and international organisations about the impact of the flooding in Vientiane capital and the provinces of Huaphan, Bokeo, Xayaboury, Luang Prabang, Borikhamxay, Khammuan and Vientiane .

“Although the water level in the Mekong River and its tributaries is subsiding, the impact of the recent flooding remains widespread and the rainy season is continuing, so we are still under threat of further flooding,” Dr Thongloun said.

Dr Thongloun said the water level in some areas remained at alarming levels and teams were working tirelessly to collect accurate data on the extent and cost of damage, while also assessing communities' medium and long-term needs.

Vientiane Mayor, Dr Sinlavong Khoutphaythoune, said flooding had devastated eight districts in the capital.

He said the cost of damage to agriculture had reached 206 billion kip, with more than 15,000 hectares of rice and 314 ha of fish ponds destroyed. The cost of damage to the communication sector, including roads, had reached 22.2 billion kip and the cost of damage to the electrical network was 1.5 billion kip.

“We need funding to buy rice, clean water and medicine for our victims. We also need 3 billion kip to fix 64 schools for our children,” Dr Sinlavong said.

Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Mr Sitaheng Latsaphon, said at least 40,000ha of rice had been destroyed, but this figure was expected to increase because some areas remained under water.

“We need 3 billion kip to buy seeds and medicine to treat animal diseases,” he said.

“Our most urgent task is to encourage people to keep supplying vegetables to markets in Vientiane . We also need 80 billion kip to repair 528 irrigation systems.”

Minister of Public Works and Transport, Mr Sommath Pholsena, said his ministry needed 144 billion kip to repair highways, especially Road Number 13 and needed billions more to repair roads linking districts and villages.

Minister of Health, Dr Ponmek Dalaloy, highlighted the urgent need for flood victims to have access to adequate sanitation systems and toilet facilities.

This year's flooding is considered the worst in history. Up until now, the worst flooding had occurred in 1966 when the Mekong River in Vientiane rose to just above 12m. Flood levels this year reached 13.8m in Vientiane .

Speaking at yesterday's briefing, Dr Thongloun listed the assistance offered by friendly countries and international organisations and expressed his thanks on behalf of the government for their assistance.

Thailand has given emergency relief assistance totalling 15.3 million baht (US$464,000), Japan has given 12 million yen (US$111,000), America through the Lao Red Cross has provided US$50,000 and World Vision has informed the government of its intention to donate 1,145 tonnes of rice worth US$700,000.

By Somsack Pongkhao
(Latest Update August 26, 2008)

By the time I returned to the office, it was late; however, I got a chance to talk with staff and we decided to put together a small donation. They were rattling off figures so fast I couldn't keep up but I think they estimated they'd need about 50 million USD to make repairs of roads, schools and irrigation systems; provide seeds for next years crops and provide rice for this year's mouths. While people coped with a smile during the flood itself, I'm not sure how many people will cope in the coming months.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday morning

Wat Meaung Wa

The builders are making progress on the temple, and at the same time, the Buddha images are being prepared. This is the original Buddha image, which has not been moved during all the construction, but it's being repainted and other Buddha images are being moved into the building.

It's been raining on and off over the past weeks. I woke up this morning to the rumble of thunderstorms. I see people looking nervously at the sky, wondering how hard it's going to rain here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

across sandbags

People are just getting used to living around the sandbags and have been rearranging them so they can get in and out of their businesses easily.


This family's house is on the other side of the levee and I guess their kitchen got flooded out, so once the sandbags were in place, they rebuilt their kitchen.

This section looks very nice in the early morning light:

sandbags 22aug

Friday, August 22, 2008

Skywatch Friday - Floods along the Mekong

There's been flooding along the Mekong in Laos. It has been raining heavily since the beginning of August, and there have been flash floods in the north, wiping out rice fields and corn fields along the rivers. Along Route 13 north, a couple of sandy slopes flopped onto the road; even when cleared out, they cover the road again. In spite of the difficulties, it's actually a lot better than in previous years - the highways dept. has shored up a lot of the unstable grades in Xieng Khouang and Huaphan and there haven't been as many landslides as before.

Along the southern parts of the river, the river rose up and over the Route 13. Many of these villages get flooded every year - people are accustomed to the bottom floors of their houses getting flood and most people build houses on stilts. However, this year, the waters rose up over the road and wiped out large areas of rice fields. This is the main rice growing areas of the country so the impact on many people's lives will be great. One indicator of poverty is how long people can survive on the rice they farm - the most poor don't have the land to grow enough to last them through the year, and many people sell rice if they have a problem with health or other immediate money need. People can make up the short fall by going to Thailand and working as unskilled and exploited labor, or migrate within Laos for other forms of work.

We started off early in the morning, under gray and threatening skies.

early morning

By the way, this village has the best coconut trees in the district. People sell coconuts by the road and you can sit in a bamboo hut and drink fresh coconut juice while taking a break. We had to pass on this trip.

dark skies

View along the road (above). We decided to try to get to Vientiane on Sunday because we heard there would be more rain, and we worried about more flooding. The skies stayed like this for some time.

Around Tha Khaek, the sun came out. The waters on either side of the road lapped gently at the edges. A lot of people from the city had gone to the road for picnicking and fishing. One of the basic principles in Lao life - if you can't do something immediate about the situation, at least have fun. Once things were either cleared from the houses or left as lost, just get on with life!

But the floods still were not good.

rice fields

When we drove along this section of the road, just the week before, these rice fields were healthy. If the head of the rice plant is underwater for more than 48 hours, it's dead.

This was the worst stretch of the road - the depth of the water was about 2.5 feet and the width was 4 kms. We still had 121 kms. to go.

only 121 kms but the hardest

Other sections weren't too bad, for cars and trucks at least:

Meanwhile, back in Vientiane, people had been sandbagging the length of the levee from west to east Vientiane. Hatxaifong District, the agricultural area of the capital, was entirely underwater and I'm sure most of the crops from there will be lost.

This is the levee in my village:

This is the area at Wat Sribounheuang, about 2 km from my house. They sandbagged both the levee and the area around the Buddha images. I don't know why they did it, but this beautiful Bodhi tree got trimmed. The branches on the river side extended far over the bank. I have some links to the views of the tree in better days here.

Anyway, this long winded entry is my contribution to Skywatch Friday. It's been getting bigger and better every week - this week, my number is 375. That means that there are 374 entries before mine. Impressive!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More sandbagged Vientiane

PVO 21 aug

Across from the Lane Xang Hotel, PVO which has great Vietnamese food and sandwiches. My stop for a quick dinner.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

ABC Wendesday: The E's

Elephants being loaded on a truck:

Took these pictures in Vang Vieng last year - my colleague told me that they were elephants working for a logging company; they were being moved to another site.

Elephant statues at Pa Suan in Champasak province in southern Laos. These elephants are a little less than life-sized, and the kids like to play around them. Some times when we've visited here, people have garlanded the statues and lit incense in front of them.

Eating together at Lao New Year in a friend's village. The young people did most of the cooking while us elders sat together and talked. The kids served us and when we were finished, they all sat down to eat.

Equipment that our organization provided to a district hospital.

Evidence of spring - I took this at Wat Sribounheung in Vientiane City in February. The first shots of this impressive Bodhi tree were starting to sprout. I looked up this picture because I walked along the river to look at the flood damage this past week - and was horrified to see that the impressive tree had been pruned. I guess maybe they were worried that the branches over the Buddha images might do some damage if they fell - but why did they have to cut the limbs that stretched out over the river bank?

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday. For more variations on the letter 'D', go to ABC Wednesday, Round 3

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sand bagged Vientiane

running sandbags

While we were gone, everyone in Vientiane worked to sandbag the levee, which runs about 12 kms. along the Mekong.

sandbagged house

It reminded me a lot of a Christo art work, 'running fence.' I never appreciated the installation until I saw the movie - so much of the art involved the politics of talking with people and city councils and getting people not only to approve the project, but to participate. So this sandbagging effort in Vientiane reminded me of the work that went into the installation.

running sandbags

People used different techniques and varying amounts of care to construct their fences.

When I returned to my village, my house was dry. Although it's close to Khao Liew, where the levee stops, we didn't get wet.

Monday, August 18, 2008

kitties in one bag

kitties in one bag, originally uploaded by c_p_lew.

How many cats can you get in one bag? Everyone's favorite spot is in this small plastic market bag - mother cat, four kittens and nursemaid female cat. She's from a previous litter but has been taking care of the kittens for the mother.

In other news, I've survived floods and a crazy travel schedule. Will have flood pictures up soon.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday - travel to Vientiane

Yesterday, we got messages and phone calls throughout the afternoon and evening about the road conditions along Route 13. Many areas are flooded and the crossings are difficult. I vacillated whether we should travel today or wait until tomorrow. Finally I talked with the driver once he had arrived home - the inside of the trucks got flooded but as long as you're careful, and use 4WD in these sections, it should be all right.

So we left at 7 am. The road was fine until we got to Tha Bok. In fact, around Tha Khaek, everyone was picnicking by the side of the road, swimming and fishing (and drinking Beer Lao). The Lao have the amazing ability to shove aside worry - if they can't do something right away, they try to enjoy themselves, and return to the problem relaxed and with more energy later on. Westerners have got a lot to learn.

In fact, at each of the flooded areas, a little village would spring up. First, there were tok-toks parked at each end. These two-wheeled tractors can be hooked up to pull a cart, so they took passengers and towed vehicles across the flooded areas. Then vendors also set up shop, because waiting passengers need to eat.

vendor waiting for customers

This vendor had nearly sold all her food.

A tok-tok with passengers and towing a van across the worst flooded stretch of road:

service with a grimmace

View once we passed them (a little out of focus):

service with a laugh

The best way to travel along sections of Route 13 was by boat. And you could fish along the way:

by side of road

The worst crossing was at Pak Ngeum - we couldn't see the road so drove slowly to make sure we didn't go off the side. This is a view of one of the restaurants:


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Saturday in Salavan

On Saturdays, it takes me a long time to get myself today. Even in laid-back Laos, I feel like I'm operating on split second timing and multi-tasking. While the people in my seminar would working in small groups, I was in our office, working on e-mails and reports.

So today, I'm in the office, mainly to use the internet. We had a small meeting with my staff to talk about issues for the coming month. The hospital wants to start having a continuing medical education program, so we discussed setting up a schedule. My mental health trainings will be once/ month, with other trainings offered by the hospital staff and my medical staff themselves.

The mental health training finished yesterday. Everyone was very happy about it - they all said it got them thinking. And the psycho-social development part was useful even in their own families. The last activity was to design a small interview form to assess psycho-social issues with one patient in the hospital, then try an interview. With the next class, the people will discuss the issues they had with interviewing - did they feel comfortable, what information did they get... And then I'll do the section on interviewing. Since they had this experience, they should have a lot to share!

I did take a long walk in the morning, and took a few pictures. There are several I'm going to post on Kilometers because I haven't posted there for a while.

family on motorbike

I should have posted the above on ABC Weds - 'D' is for dangerous. It's a common sight though - one person drives the motorcycle, the passenger sits on the handle of the cart so they can pull it along behind. Surprisingly, there aren't that many people coming into the hospitals for treatment of these potential kinds of injuries. They don't happen? or are people embarrassed to go to the hospital for treatment?

This is a better way to use the cart:

walking to market

And pictures from the TV. Earlier this week, the Mekong started to rise. In fact, on Monday, one of my staff got a call that the Mekong was starting to top the levee in a few places. This is a picture of the TV coverage on Lao Star:

TV coverage

We've been a little concerned because we decided to travel back to Vientiane by car on Monday. One of our groups, having finished a meeting in Savannakhet, are going back today so they'll tell us how the road is.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Skywatch Friday - really for 15 August 2008

I don't know what got into me last week - I originally posted the date as 15 August although it was 8 August. Must have been watching the sky too much.

The skies have not been nice to Laos since the beginning of the month. While we had a long period of drought in the south, to the point of threatening the rice crops, it's been raining heavily in the north. And coupled with releases of water from dams along the Mekong, particularly from Chinese dams, the water level has been very high. In 1966, there was severe flooding in Vientiane - and this year, the water level has been even higher.

Last Saturday, we drove down to the south. This is at Pakkading:
Usually, there are 5 meter high bluffs along the river, but now they are maybe 5 cm. high bluffs.

This is the Sekong River:

Sekong river and sky
Its most recent claim to fame is that it seemed to be the source of a cholera outbreak earlier in the year.
Route 13 looking south:
Sekong sky
Keep going a little further and you're at the Cambodian border.

And back in my house, looking out the back window on Thursday:
sunset and moonrise
Nearly full moon and perfect sky.

Meanwhile, in Vientiane, everyone's been working on fortifying the levee, which was built after the 1966 floods. There are low areas to the west of where I live and to the south but my own house is dry. I've been calling my landlady for daily updates. I'm a little worried about my mother cat and her kittens!

This is my contribution to Skywatch Friday. For more views of the sky from around the world, click here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Back in Salavan

I returned to Salavan and started in on the next piece of work. While we've been upgrading medical and management skills of medical staff and administrators, everyone's been asking about mental health. There are few mental health services in Laos - and everyone confuses the term 'mental health' with 'mental illness.' So I've been teaching very general courses on psychosocial issues and culture, and how people can talk with people and offer constructive help. This course is not designed to create psychologists but to spark interest and support people's natural abilities in offering support.

Yesterday was the first day and everyone was really enthusiastic. I had them break into small groups to discuss the questions, "What is health?" "What is mental health?" The assignment at home - observe a member of the family who falls into four main age groups and gets some ideas of level of development.

Today, they all had ideas on developmental levels. I added a little bit about Erikson's psychosocial stages and we discussed the challenges for each age group. I gave them a few case studies and they broke into groups again to discuss them. Each study had a trauma issue - what happens to the person if the trauma happens at this age level. And how can we help?

Much discussion and many questions.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ABC Wendesday: The D's

Posting my D's late this week - earlier in the week, I was in a remote southern province of Laos for a meeting. The Definition of remote in this case being - outside internet contact! It's actually a three hour drive along a good road from Pakse.

So here a few D's:

The word for flower in Lao is Dok and this is the national flower of Laos, called Dok Champa

I travel a lot in remote areas. This is an example of a Difficult Road:

The transport truck was trying to Descend into a Detour, and somehow fell over. We carefully went over the bridge and headed on our way. The following day, bulldozers had removed the truck and smoothed the detour and it looked like nothing had happened.

This was a strange picture - last March, I was riding my bike along a dirt road and saw this dust devil. It swirled and moved back and forth along the road for about a half hour. And I stood there and watched it for that long!

These are Dragons on the roof of a Chinese temple in Pakse:

This is the Doorway into the Chinese Temple:

And a Drum in a village temple:

The drum wakes the monks for morning meditation, and calls the people for the alms giving at lunchtime.

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday. For more variations on the letter 'D', go to ABC Wednesday, Round 3