Browsing Category

Laos

Laos

The cultural differences between East & West

December 14, 2015

It’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy living in Asia. But, I still wouldn’t change my experience for anything in the world, it truly was life changing in lots of little ways that I’m still discovering.  I often reflect on certain memories and I still marvel at just how different life in the ‘east’ is to the ‘west’.

A couple of days ago a friend I met in Laos shared this link and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.  These graphics are so accurate, yet somehow sensitive and humorous at the same time. It’s reminded me of just how many differences existed between me and my students, my colleagues, my landlords…sometimes it really felt like I was from a different planet not just a different country.

This picture is probably my favourite because it resonates deeply within me.

the traveling anthropologistWhen I first arrived in Laos I was given a local ‘buddy’ by AIESEC to help me get settled – show me around, take me to the supermarket to buy some food, answer my questions etc.  I saw a lot of her in my first few weeks and then gradually less and less but we kept in touch.  A couple of months later something happened that I never fully understood but the gist of it was that she went back on her word to a mutual friend of ours (I’m sure it was a complicated issue with her family and some miscommunication).  From then on she literally cut this friend and everyone associated with her (including me) out of her life. We worked at the same school so occasionally we would run into each other – but on these occasions she would put her head down and walk straight past me without acknowledgement – or seemingly hearing my greeting.  She stopped returning my text messages and never made any effort to contact me again.  She left AIESEC and stopped socializing with everyone attached to it. Bemused I asked my friend what on earth had happened and she explained that in Laos culture rather than admit fault and apologize, its common to ‘save face’ and simply avoid the situation by whatever means possible. I confirmed this theory with some of my colleagues and students. What seemed so bizarre and an overreaction to me was quite common in Laos. During my remaining four months in Vientiane I ran into this girl probably ten more times but she never spoke to me, or acknowledged me again.

If you’ve ever lived in Asia, or have any close Asian friends you will have a giggle while looking at these.  Then again you’ll probably have a giggle even if you haven’t. 🙂

The cultural differences between East and West, according to one artist.

Laos

Some short tips for long distance survival

July 15, 2015

Long distance relationships suck – whether you’re a city, a country or a continent apart.  Me and Guy have spent a few different periods apart over the years; some a few weeks and some a few months.  For the first 8 years of our relationship we (proudly) hadn’t spent more than two weeks apart. But then after Guy graduated he moved a two hour drive away to Whangarei.  The following year he moved to Wellington – an eight hour drive/one hour flight away.  The next year I spent six weeks in Samoa while he remained in New Zealand.  And last year I went to live in Laos for six months while he lived in Wellington.

Here are some truths we’ve learned along the way:

You feel isolated because no one else seems to get it (they don’t)

You get really close to some of your friends

the traveling anthropologist

Even when you miss them all day when you talk to them they still make you mad and you still fight with them

You feel lonely a lot of the time even when you’re around other people

alone-in-a-crowd

You find yourself thinking “(name) would love that!” and then feeling sad

It’s never going to be easy

the traveling anthropologist

If you want to make it work you will

Breaking the time into chunks makes it more bearable

long distance relationships

Keeping busy really does help

It does ultimately make you stronger as a couple and (I think) more complete as an individual because you know you can stand on your own two feet no matter how hard it was

I noticed that the people who gave me advice (the times going to go so fast!) were the ones who had never experienced a long distance relationship, and often were single themselves. Meanwhile the people who didn’t try to console me or perk me up were those who had or were going through it themselves.  So I’m not going to offer advice or quick fixes – I can’t tell you anything that you can’t tell yourself, but I will share what’s worked for us over the years.

Email

I wrote Guy an email each night I was in Laos except for a couple of occasions when I had no internet left (and all the shops were closed because it was raining). For me it was a nice way to debrief and share my day with him. I told him about everything; how my students were, what I ate for lunch, how humid the weather was.  For him, it was a glimpse into my strange new life and a way to feel like he wasn’t missing out.  It became akin to his morning newspaper. Occasionally he wrote back but not very often.

Blog

We created a blog on tumblr where we uploaded photos and videos.  This was actually much more fun than we initially expected because we’d forget about it for a few days and then when we’d jump on to take a look there would nearly always be some new posts to look at. It was also the easiest (and most fun) way of sharing visual messages quickly.  Sometimes we made video messages and other times we just posted photos of things we’d come across in our week.

Skype

Thank god for Skype – I can’t imagine travelling without it.  We tried to skype twice a week – sometimes we didn’t manage it at all and occasionally we fit in more than two.  The connections were often sketchy and we frequently had to drop our video link but nothing beats talking in real time.

Letters

I love to write – I always have a notebook and pen in my handbag, and I can happily spend a morning or afternoon in a cafe/bar writing and sipping on coffee or beer. While I was in Laos  I wrote Guy a letter every month. It was just a nice change from the emails, and I find that I talk about different things when I’m using a pen rather than a keyboard – and who doesn’t love getting post!

Like I said above it’s not easy – but I firmly believe that if you want to make it work you will find a way – and yes it does ultimately make you stronger. And if it doesn’t work out, then you’re probably better off because you’ll find someone who you can make it work with.

long distance relationship tips

I’d love to hear any other methods of keeping in touch that you have used!

Laos

5 restaurants that make Vientiane a worthwhile stopover

July 2, 2015

I spent six months living and teaching in Vientiane and I am the first to admit that there isn’t a lot to do there – and I can completely understand why many tourists don’t stay very long. The one thing Vientiane does have going for it is some excellent restaurants. Most of these are located downtown where the majority of the accommodation is so their easy to walk to.  Please, please avoid the restaurants around the Nam Phou fountain – they are crappy and overpriced and there is much much better food to be had nearby.

It’s likely that Vientiane won’t be your first stop on your Asian adventure, so by the time you get there you might just have had enough Thai/Vietnamese/Cambodian food for a while. Luckily my pick of the best restaurants are mostly foreign ones.  That’s not to say that there’s not great Lao food in Vientiane – there absolutely is, but there are just better expat restaurants and the quality is so great that you know you’re getting an excellent deal.

Ray’s Grille. The best burgers I’ve ever eaten – and I’m not the only person to say that.  These burgers are seriously huge, and they all come with a complimentary side of fries.  I’m not even going to recommend a burger because they are all amazing – though I am partial to the Bleu Bleu Bleu cheese one.  Also the Philly cheesesteak was pretty phenomenal.  It’s an unassuming little place tucked behind a gas station right at the end of Rue Samsenthai (the main street downtown).  To get there walk against the traffic until you get to the end of the road and see the gas station (to your left there will be a mens suit store), cross the road and it will be on your right.  It’s often full at peak times but just wait a few minutes and a table will free up.

vientiane, laos - the traveling anthropologist↑ The best burgers everrrrrrr ↑

Ban Gai House of Chicken.  This place has probably the best Mexican food I’ve eaten outside of Mexico – it is really really good!.  I highly recommend the Chicken Fajitas – they come with at least an entire chicken breast grilled to succulent deliciousness, along with sides of refried beans, guacamole, spicy rice, salsa and cheese.  You only get 3 tortillas (though you can order more) but I was never able to finish a plate. The leftovers are delicious the next day so make sure you ask to take it away.   Other favourites are the vegetarian burritos, beef enchiladas and the apple cobbler for dessert (not Mexican but absolutely delicious).

ban gai house of chicken vientiane - the traveling anthropologist↑ Chicken burritos (complete with rice, refried beans & condiments) ↑

It’s worth mentioning that this place is hard to find the first time you go there, and not every tuk tuk driver will be willing to drive you there because it’s off their normal tourist route.  It is worth making the effort though and with a little bartering you should be able to find transport reasonably easily.  For reference, it’s on the same road as the German embassy (tuk tuk drivers will know this location) and as you approach it from downtown the embassy will be on the right.  It’s about 400 feet up the road from the embassy on your left.  

Le Banneton.  I didn’t discover this place until halfway through my time in Vientiane, but I made up for it by going there for breakfast almost every Sunday for the next 3 months.  For 35,000 kip (less than $5) you can get half a baguette (the best baguette I’ve ever tasted) with butter and jam, eggs and bacon, a croissant, a glass of orange juice and a coffee.  Yes it is way too much food for one person but you order it anyway and have no problem fitting it all in because it is that delicious.  To top it off the service is great, there is somehow always a free table, and it’s right in the centre of downtown.

le banneton vientiane laos - the traveling anthropologist↑ Strong coffee & a mouthwatering croissant = a perfect brunch ↑

Via Via.  This is an Italian place just up from the night markets along the Mekong River (and on the same road as Le Banneton). It remains one of my absolute favourite restaurants of all time. I cannot recommend the goats cheese, thyme, honey and bacon pizza highly enough.  I won’t even try to describe it because no words can do it justice.  Just order it, and get one to yourself because you won’t want to share.  Close runners up are the Greek salad (it literally has an entire block of feta cheese in it), and the apple and bacon salad. Yum!

via via vientiane laos the traveling anthropologist↑ The best pizza I ate in Asia ↑

Lao Kitchen.  Though not the best Lao food in Vientiane (the best I had was at the little nameless family run stores in the suburbs), it is in such a convenient location, and has an extensive menu that in my opinion it’s the best option for Lao food in Vientiane for tourists passing through.  Many tourists head straight to Khop Chai Deu as it’s on the main road downtown but I highly recommend you walk a couple of blocks to Lao Kitchen because it really is so much better. The fresh spring rolls are delicious, as is the duck lab and the river fish stir fry. For dessert the mango coconut sticky rice with a Lao coffee is a must.

lao kitchen vientiane laos - the traveling anthropologist

↑ Morning Glory, Pork Laarb, Noodle Salad ↑

Other places that deserve honourable mentions if you’re hanging around for longer than a couple of days are Makphet, PVO and Soul Kitchen.  Also, if you do want to try some authentic Lao food there are several small places tucked away along 23 Singha Road (the road which connects Patuxai and That Luang) so if you can brave the heat it’s worth walking along there and stopping for lunch along the way.

noodle soup vientiane laos - the traveling anthropologist↑ Noodle soup (salt & msg laden and delicious!) ↑

If you’re passing through Vientiane on your way to Thailand or elsewhere in Laos, consider spending a day or two there so you can sample the food – I promise you won’t regret it!

Laos

Learning to live in a city you don’t love

June 11, 2015

It’s been six months since I got back from Laos and almost a year to the day since I first arrived in Vientiane.  I still can’t adequately describe what life was like there, or why I didn’t like it.  It’s just one of those vast things on par with ‘why is chocolate so amazing?’ or ‘what’s the meaning of life?’.  People ask me “what was Laos like?” and all I can say is “the complete opposite of New Zealand” which is such an inadequate answer I feel like a total dick saying it but it’s the truth.  How do you describe the feelings of loneliness and isolation, frustration, excitements and changes that happen to you when you live in a culture so completely different from your own.

Some of the things I want to say I struggle with because they go against my personal morals, not to mention my anthropological background.  But I also struggle with not being honest about what travel is sometimes like.  That’s why I wanted to start this blog – to stop romanticising travel because sometimes it’s not fun and exciting and wonderful.  Sometimes people are rude, mean and dishonest.  Sometimes you don’t enjoy it and you don’t want to be there.  But, travel is always eye-opening, and most importantly I think, worthwhile.

[A little background] When I finished my masters I didn’t really have a plan.  I knew I needed a break from school and I needed to earn some money – but most of all I wanted to travel.  Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that simple – Guy wasn’t ready to leave his dream job or Wellington just then.  So we talked, and yelled, and cried and talked some more.  We agreed that I would leave and he would stay.  It wasn’t the option either of us wanted but it was the only solution we saw short of breaking up (which we also discussed).

So I applied to teach English in Japan with the JET programme, and I was accepted but decided that one year apart was too long so declined.  But the idea to teach stuck with me so I applied to teach English in Laos for a six month contract.  A couple of phone calls later I was hired, and a few months after that I was saying a tearful goodbye to Guy at the airport.  In hindsight I didn’t really think it through too much – it was an option to escape and I seized it with both hands.  Having said that I also don’t think you can ever prepare for life in a different country, especially one that is so fundamentally different to your own.

vientiane, laos

My first morning in Vientiane, and my first experience with the locals I got ripped off buying a bottle of water from the store across the road from my apartment.  I guess I stuck out as a new falang (foreigner) because there were no others in my village that I encountered over the next six months.  The next day I ventured downtown – a terrifying experience when you have the directional abilities of a pumpkin.  I tried to ask for directions to the Mekong a couple of times but no one could speak English and I didn’t know any Lao so I wandered around aimlessly.  I bought some fruit from a tuk tuk stand and the man point blank refused to give me my change.  Later on I stopped in at a bar for a Beerlao and when I received my change, noticed that the staff were all grinning at each other and laughing – bemused I realised as I was walking away that they had short changed me a couple of dollars (presumably on purpose). I went home hot and sticky and feeling distinctly unwelcome in my new home.

I’d love to say that my first unpleasant experiences were just one-offs and that life improved after that, but unfortunately it didn’t.  I did meet some absolutely lovely Lao people – there was an old lady at my local noodle store who treated me like her long lost daughter, and a man at my local bike repair shop who started giving me free tyre pump ups since I was there so often (I insisted on paying him), and a lovely security guard at my work who spoke no English but always greeted me with a big grin and ensured I had a clear path across the rain flooded walkway.  But, largely my experience with Laotians wasn’t positive and it hugely shaped my experience living in Vientiane.

life in vientiane, laos

It took me nearly two months to accept that it was okay for me to not love Vientiane.  That sounds absurd I know, and it was, it absolutely was.  It wasn’t until I was writing a letter to my sweet friend Kiri that I allowed myself to be okay with it.  After a particularly hard day where I’d come home from a party in tears, I was pouring out my frustrations to her and my clouded mind cleared as only happens when I’m holding a pen in my hand.

For the first time I became conscious of how much pressure I’d been putting on myself.  I acknowledged that my pride was a huge barrier in settling into my life.  I don’t think of myself as a proud person, but I was putting huge amounts of pressure on myself to make my time in Laos a success.  I think this was due to two things; first I had just finished my masters so I was full of a wonderful energetic longing to ‘do anthropology’.  And I felt that if I wasn’t able to cope with living in a new country I wasn’t shaping up to be much of an anthropologist.   Secondly, and equally importantly, I’d left Guy and our life together in New Zealand and I felt a lot of guilt over that.  When I wasn’t enjoying life in Laos I felt like I was incredibly selfish putting him through the stress of a long distance relationship for an experience that I wasn’t even enjoying.

My struggles were made worse by people in my life both from back home and new friends in Laos telling me that I just needed to “go out and make more friends” or “try a bit harder” whenever I mentioned my unhappiness. I can’t even describe how unhelpful that advice was.  Firstly it implied that I wasn’t doing those things which was offensive and hurtful at worst and just plain rude at best.  It also completely invalidated my feelings of loneliness because it made it seem like I was doing something wrong, or at least that I wasn’t doing things the ‘right way’.  Of course, there’s not a lot you can say or do in a situation like that – and I recognise that people were trying to be helpful but keeping quiet is truly better than giving useless advice.

vientiane, laos - the traveling anthropologist

When I did finally accept it, life didn’t become instantly easier, and I didn’t suddenly start loving Vientiane – but I did let myself soak up the good moments; dinner at the night markets, teaching my teenagers, catching tuk tuks, sunday morning brunch dates over croissants, free time to watch sons of anarchy…When I accepted it I stopped blaming myself and I stopped thinking that I must be doing something wrong just because other expats loved it. I stopped trying to defend my dislike of the city, and I stopped letting people tell me to try harder.

I still had bad days, I still felt unhappy and unwelcome at times, and I was still glad to leave at the end of my contract – but I did manage to make the most of the bits that I did enjoy, and I look back on my time there with a smile on my face.  It was such a great experience and one that I wouldn’t change for anything.  It made me grow up, look after myself more and re-evaluate some aspects of my life, treasure my friendships, appreciate New Zealand’s beauty, and it ultimately bought me and Guy closer together (as well as taking our relationship to the next level).

If you’re traveling or living somewhere you don’t love I urge you not to give up on it – give it time because you will find some things about it that make your efforts worthwhile.  And please don’t ever blame yourself or feel guilty about it.  You don’t have to love or even like every place you visit. And, if you know someone going through a tough time overseas please think before you spout out advice however well intentioned it is.  Unless you’ve lived through it you don’t know how tough it is so don’t judge just support them.

Laos

The best and worst of life in Laos

May 27, 2015

When I finished my masters degree I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.  I knew I wanted to get out of New Zealand for a while and I needed to earn some money. But Guy wanted to stay in Wellington and keep building his career.  So we compromised and I got a job teaching English in Vientiane, Laos for six months (he visited me for two weeks halfway through, and we met up in Bali at the end of the year).  A strange sounding compromise to some I admit but we’ve never really had a conventional relationship.

Anyway I thought I’d share the best and worst of my time in Vientiane.  The first few months of my stay I was really unhappy and couldn’t wait to come home.  The last couple of months I gradually grew happier and when I left I was actually quite sad to go.  I don’t think I’ll ever return, but I am glad I have fond memories to look back on.  It was a formative time in my life.

The Best

the traveling anthropologist

My job

I taught English at Vientiane College to a range of students (eight year olds to sixty year olds and a whole bunch of teenagers) and it was one of the best jobs I can imagine having.  I’d never taught before but I took to it quickly and did a good job (I think).  I fell in love with my students especially my teenagers who made me laugh every single class with their crafty excuses for not doing their homework (“the rain made it hard to concentrate”, “I was watching TV to practice my listening”).

I had days where I liked it less than others of course and there were parts of it I didn’t enjoy like handing back low grades and giving them tests – but overall I had so much fun, and I think I made a small difference in some of my students lives even if only temporarily.  I’m looking forward to teaching again in Central America!

The food

Laos food (or at least the Lao food I was brave enough to eat – I didn’t go near the blood soups) was delicious.  Just about every second night after work I’d walk a couple of blocks to the That Luang night markets and buy grilled chicken and pork, sticky rice and papaya salad.  Gosh I miss them so much! There were also these amazing coconut jellies that a little old lady used to sell on the side of the road that were dangerously delicious.

I also miss the fresh produce.  Admittedly it was more limited than what I’m used to in New Zealand but what it lacked in choice it more than made up for in flavor.  I don’t think I’ve ever tasted fruit as fresh as the pineapples, mangoes and bananas bought from the roadside tuk tuks.

Mango and coconut jelly in LaosSticky rice in Laos

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cost of living

I sometimes think ‘once a student always a student’ – or maybe I’m just cheap by nature.  Or maybe it’s that New Zealand is so damn expensive to live in.  Whatever the reason I loved that I paid $250 a month for my own apartment, and that my weekly grocery bill was about $25 (including beer/wine) and that a dinner or lunch out never cost more than $5 for a really nice meal.

I was also earning good money ($3000 a month) so I literally couldn’t spend it all if I wanted to.  It allowed me to travel, to buy some presents for Guy, to pay off some debt, and best of all for the first time just not worry about when my next pay was coming  I’d never had financial freedom like that before – and I’m not gonna lie it was pretty great.  🙂

The Worst

The lack of things to do

There really isn’t much to do in Vientiane – except eat and drink and although I wouldn’t have thought it possible even I got tired of doing those.  There were also several team sports that were popular with expats but working in the evenings ruled me out from joining those (not to mention my complete unco-ordination and lack of sporting enjoyment).

Before I went to Vientiane I was reading a blog by an American who was living and working there.  She advised anyone moving there to bring several sets of tv programs to watch during the rainy season when it wasn’t nice to go out.  I laughed thinking she must be a real introvert to be able to get through so many seasons in a few months.  Of course, she was right.  I watched the first four seasons of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy not to mention catching up on the last two seasons of Once Upon a Time, American Horror Story, Nurse Jackie and Justified.  That wasn’t just in the rainy season either.

Being away from Guy

We’ve been dating for a long time (coming up on twelve years) and we’ve lived in different cities in New Zealand for two of those years so we weren’t completely unprepared to be so far apart.  But it was still incredibly hard and made a difficult experience even worse. I don’t think you can fully appreciate how straining a long distance relationship is until you go through it (I certainly couldn’t).  It’s hard enough trying to merge two people into one life when you’re under the same roof, but when you’re miles apart and functioning on different time zones, interacting with different people, and having completely different experiences it’s a hundred times harder. At least it was for us.  I’m immensely grateful that we live in a technological age with cell phones and email and skype.

As difficult as it was I’d honestly do it all over again.  I talked to so many people who told me “I couldn’t do what you’re doing” and it got me wondering how many dreams go unrequited because one or both partners are scared.  We struggled and we suffered, but I’m proud that we found a way to both live our dreams.

Vang Vieng engagement

Culture shock

I’ve already written about my experience with culture shock in Samoa here, and unfortunately it wasn’t much better in Laos – in fact I think it might have been worse because unlike in Samoa where it quickly abated and I fell into the groove of Samoan life after a week or so, in Laos I don’t think I ever reached a level of comfort.  There were so many things that I just didn’t like, or didn’t want to accept it ultimately never felt like home.  Although I was sad to say goodbye to my friends and students and the food, I didn’t have anywhere near the same heart wrenching sadness that I experienced in my final days in Samoa.