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Three Short Stories of Laos

-Public transport and you
-Life in the (not very) fast lane
-A more pleasant way to eat intestines

By Charlotte Halligan

October 28, 2009 

Public transport and you

Charlotte Halligan gets to grips with buses, tuk-tuks, bemos and ojeks in SE Asia

There are many ways to get underneath the skin of the country you’re traveling in, but one of the most effective ways is to spend your time using the local public transport. My motivation for traveling as the locals do may be economic, but the result is a crash course in local culture.

No matter what your guide book tells you, catching a bus/ train/ bemo/ tuk tuk or motorbike is never easy, and will almost certainly leave you tearing your hair out in frustration at least once. The problem is not a language barrier, but rather a cultural one.

To survive, there are five basic rules that you should follow.

Rule 1 – Be patient  
Whoever said that patience is a virtue has never tried to catch a bus in Bangkok, where it’s an f’ing necessity. In SE Asia, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve planned, how many people you have asked, or even if you’ve somehow managed to get a ticket in advance – you will inevitably end up waiting anywhere between 1 and 24 hours. If you’re lucky, you end up waiting in some charming village with lots to see and do. If you are me, you end up stuck in some grubby little backwater where the locals can smell desperation and bleed you dry for some mediocre rice and undercooked chicken.

Rule 2 – Always ensure you have pack anti-diarrhea medicine 
See above, re undercooked chicken.

Rule 3 – Ask questions 
There is a tendency, particularly strong in Malaysia, to neglect to mention facts pertinent to your travel plans. When asking for a bus ticket from A to B, and being told that you need to catch a connecting bus from point C, you are likely to find on arrival that the counter assistant has neglected to tell you that buses no longer run from point C at all. Likewise, asking for a bus timetable is about as useful as asking for a ticket to the moon.  If you manage to procure one you should probably ask if of the advertised buses will actually be running on your day of travel. Invariably, they won’t be.

Rule 4 – Forget queuing  
Here we have one of the fundamental cultural differences between Brits and Asians:

They don’t honor the queue system.

Mere words cannot describe the feelings of indignation, outrage and injustice caused when 20 locals barge past the invisible queue you have believed yourself to be at the front of for half an hour. The system, so revered in the UK, of waiting your turn, is culturally defunct here – so you have to shed a lifetime of conditioning and suck it up: it’s every man for himself, so grow a pair and push to the front.

Rule 5 – Dismiss logic 
At home I was so used to the simple comforts of a straight forward public transport system. The buses follow a timetable – or at least attempt to. There are designated bus stops, which tell you which buses stop there. There are simple, easy to read maps, outlining the routes. And there are set fares.

Cast all these things from your memory. It’s better to have never known that such a system existed than to day dream about the simplicity of catching the # 22 at home.

I’m not sure how the locals know where and when to get buses – perhaps they are born with a special sixth sense that allows them to psychically divine how to get their desired bus; maybe there’s some underground communication channel that’s closed to foreigners; perhaps they simply guess and get lucky. Whatever the case, rest assured; nothing is going to work for you.

The bus you want will probably change route daily. It’s very likely that it will be traveling in the most counter intuitive direction possible. Often you will discover that a bus will not leave until it is full (by which I mean that people are hanging out the windows and strapped to the roof). Or you may find that instead of buying a bus ticket, you have privately chartered a whole bus.

Enjoy the Journey 
They say that life is about the journey, not always the destination, and I can safely say that’s true. The simplicity of an air conditioned tour bus can never compete with the accidental adventures and the characters you meet if you go it alone. I have met countless individuals who have enriched my travel experiences; I have found myself stranded on beautiful deserted islands: I have stumbled across villages off the beaten track; I have changed bus tires on the side of the road with Buddhist monks; but most of all, I have had an insight into the psyche of each country I have been to.

Life in the (not very) fast lane

One volunteer’s culture shock at working in Laos 

Something unusual happens when you cross over the border and enter Laos: time slows down. 

It is not always immediately noticeable: it’s similar to the effect of a music cassette (remember them?) that has had the tape inside stretched. The sound becomes distorted, the singer’s voice gradually becomes deeper, slower, distended, and before you know it you have gone from listening to Lady Ga Ga to something that resembles Enya on Ketamine. 

You can sense the slowing down in virtually all activities: grab a car or bike and hit the roads and you will find that very few people drive above 30 mph; walk into a shop and you will more likely than not discover the owner actively ignoring you and watching TV, reluctant to get up even at the sight of money; go to a restaurant and your food may take up to an hour to arrive, if it ever does (forgetfulness in waiters seems endemic here). 

It’s not that the people here are lazy (although, to be honest, I sometimes have my suspicions about certain members of the male population – but that remains true regardless of geography), it is simply that people here have a different relationship to time. It is as if Einstein’s theory of relativity is writ large here, except its not proximity to mass that slows things down, but to the Mekong and the ubiquitous BeerLao.   

As long as you are in no hurry, and especially if you have just arrived from the chaos that is Bangkok, this all adds to Laos’ charm. And if you stay here a while you find that you too slow down, and that any sense of urgency and productivity you had begins to fade in quite a pleasurable way. 

A Different Work Ethic 

Of course, as I discovered, when you’re working here, and actually trying to achieve something, Laos can come as a bit of a culture shock. 

It isn’t that things here are just slower; there seems to be a lack of basic organization and structure to just about everything. When things happen, or rather if, it is due largely to luck more than judgment – people work to their own schedules, doing their own thing, and if it results in the successful completion of a project no one knows how or why. 

In my previous life, I worked for a company that constantly pressured us to make things happen with impossible deadlines and insurmountable bureaucracy. My world was filled with corporate speak; my ideas were blue sky, I leveraged just about anything I could think of, and there were paradigm shifts, action plans and deliverables coming out of my ears. 

The simplest of projects required at least a dozen forms to be completed; sent to 20 people; amends from every individual collated and incorporated; comments from an executive (who would invariable change the forms back to their original content); and then final sign off - all before you could do any actual work.  

Following the completion of any project a series of meetings would then be held to evaluate the process, identify any unnecessary steps and to find someone to blame if it all went tits up. This would invariably lead to a new project to fix these problems, and the process would start all over again. 

This is one of the many reasons I decided to give up my old life in the private sector, up sticks and move to Laos to volunteer for a local charity. There is only so much paperwork a person has to fill in before she snaps, and my camel’s back was one straw away from breaking. 

But coming from that background into the Laos working world has been a steep learning curve. Sure, I love to procrastinate like the best of them; I hate bureaucracy and all it stands for; and I love having the freedom to have an idea and just go with it, without running it by the world and its dog first. But it would seem that there comes a point, generally after you find out that everyone has been working towards entirely different goals for the last month (albeit very slowly of course), when you realize that you can’t shake off years of indoctrination into the corporate world.  

Jumping from one extreme to the other has brought me to a deeply disturbing realization: deep down I crave forms and guidelines, strategies and plans, and I would give my right arm for someone to leverage all the synergies I am so busy creating! 

So I find myself, Buddha like, looking for a middle path. I am creating documents templates, implementing measurement systems, standardizing processes and designing forms for my colleagues to fill in. Most shockingly of all I have become friends with Excel. 

And so it would seem that you can take the girl out of the organization, but you can’t take the organization out of the girl. I suppose the best I can hope for is that my new found passion for bureaucracy will actually make a difference to the charity I work for and to the people we try to help. 

And failing that, at least there is plenty of BeerLao to drown my sorrows. 

A more pleasant way to eat intestines

… and other culinary delights 

I will start this article by stating, for the record, that I like Lao food. The fruit and vegetables are fresh, tropical and delicious. The range of cuisines on offer in Vientiane is a gastronomic delight. The prevalence of grilled chicken, crispy pork, sizzling duck and hot pot beef is any meat lovers dream. The national dish, Laap, is a taste explosion, sticky rice is addictive, and I could wax lyrical for days about the wondrous joy of BeerLao.  

But there is another side to Lao food. A side no doubt caused by the poverty and food shortages that the country suffers from. Lao people will eat, literally, anything. No part of an animal goes wasted; no road kill goes ungrilled; there is not limit to either the cruelty or the grossness of what the animals here endure in the name of nutrition. 

Let us start with the intestines. If you’re lucky, you simply end up with some intestines pretending to be noodles in your soup, which you can gently pick around. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the whole large intestine of some poor beast, uncooked, and sometimes uncleaned, for sale in the market. Do not mistake it for sausage and try to eat it. That would be wrong. 

The most pleasant way to eat intestine is lightly shredded and served in a delicious rice salad, with fresh herbs and vegetables. But still it is not for the faint hearted. 

We are familiar with tripe in the UK, so intestines might not shock you too much. Insects, on the other hand, are firmly the fare of fame hungry celebrities in the jungle. Here, however, they are a much needed, and cheap, source of protein, and apparently taste like dry roasted peanuts. I have yet to put this to the test.  

The next level of grossness is reserved for the live wasp larvae. Photos do not do justice to how gut wrenchingly wrong it is. They pulse. They writhe. They make an odd sucking and squelchy noise. They hatch and little wasps come out. The men here apparently eat them as a natural Viagra. However, given the extremely relaxed pharmaceutical laws here, and the bargain basement prices for meds, you have to wonder at the logic of it. 

If you are feeling adventurous, another popular snack is steamed duck eggs. Doesn’t sound too bad, huh? It isn’t, until you get to the steamed fetus in the egg yolk. If you can feel feathers tickling the back of your throat you know you got a good one! 

A trip to the wet market here is one you are unlikely to forget. The smell alone will be unpleasantly etched into your memory forever. On various trips I have seen dead squirrels and lizards (looking at least a couple of days old) for sale; I have watched a little old lady snap the legs of live frogs to stop them escaping; I have been offered a range of organs I didn’t even know existed; and I have seen people relishing sucking the juice out of fish heads, chewing eye balls and pickling live wasps. 

Mmmm, Yummy. 

Now, where did I put the BeerLao to go with my chicken feet?

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See the author's website here: http://escapetoasia.co.uk


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