a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Sunday, December 11, 2016


We are in Laos! And it’s a bit unexpected! About 3 weeks ago, Stephen received an email from the project manager of the sister project in Laos to Stephen’s project in Yangon. The Laos project manager had been promoted to country director and so the project needed a new manager. He wanted to know if Stephen was available to consult on the project for 3 months. Just so happens that Stephen was available and it seemed to us this was an opportunity we couldn’t really pass up. So Stephen got the ball rolling pretty quickly and here we are back in Southeast Asia during the cool dry season, heading into Christmas in a country where it’s not celebrated all that much, and working on public health that will hopefully benefit some poor people in Laos.

I had little time to consider this opportunity and even less time to prepare for it mentally or materially. We only brought 3 bags with us, not even the full allowance, which is in sharp contrast to the 7-9 bags and extra luggage charges we usually have to deal with. The week before we flew out was Thanksgiving, which we spent with my family at my sister’s house, and it was just focused family time. I hardly even thought about what I might need to buy or pack to take with us overseas. Of course we have become quite familiar with where we can purchase the things we need in the region; Bangkok and Singapore have most everything we could want or need. Plus as we have been living out of hotel rooms for the past 7 months, we’ve learned that we can live without a lot of stuff that we once thought we needed. Both of us are going into this new country/new experience with almost no expectations. A bit of a change for us, but I think it’s a healthy approach.

Our first day in Laos was somewhat of a familiar routine for us. Our hotel has a similar feel to the three other SE Asian countries we’ve spent so much time in. Oddly though, there was no electric kettle in the room; something I fully expected as every other Asian hotel room has had one. I was prepared to drink the terrible instant nescafe I thought I would find in the morning. But I didn’t even have that luxury. Ha! At 6am it’s always hard to find a coffee shop open in SE Asia but the hotel staff were happy to bring us hot water. They brought a tea pot of hot water and one cup. I poured two Starbucks Vias and a packet of hot chocolate mix into the pot. I generally need milk in my coffee to drink it but a solid night’s sleep following a long haul international flight transformed instant coffee and cocoa mix into a marvelous treat!

Our bed was hard and our pillows were lumpy but we slept well anyway. We did things a little differently this time and didn't sleep during the 11-hour layover in Seoul like we routinely do, so we arrived in Vientiane with just a few hours of uncomfortable airplane sleep during the 40 hour journey from the US to Laos. I guess being that tired helps to eliminate sleep problems.

On our second day in Vientiane, we took a long walk. It’s hard with jet lag but lots of exercise after one of these journeys to the other side of the planet helps me tremendously. We walked towards the Mekong river and found a lovely park. Then a bit further we stopped into a guesthouse to check extended stay rates. After that we looped back towards our hotel and found a large indoor market and a shopping center.

At day two I was still feeling a bit ambivalent about being in Laos. Something that helped me turn the corner was when we stopped into an independent hair salon to get Stephen’s haircut. The owner of the shop couldn’t have been more friendly and accommodating. I liked him instantly. Before we had hardly stepped inside he said to us, “How can I help you?” and when Stephen replied that he needed a cut, the owner gestured to his assistant who would wash Stephen’s hair. (Later Stephen told me that is was the most thorough hair washing he’d ever received!) I sat on a cushioned bench to wait. As soon as the owner/barber/hairstylist finished with his current customer he turned on the air conditioner just for me. Even though it is the cool season, we had been walking a lot that morning and I was warm. I had taken out my handkerchief and wiped my face just after I sat down. Something I’ve experienced time and time again is just how observant and attentive people throughout SE Asia are.

I wasn’t sure how much English proficiency the hairstylist had so I thought it would be helpful to show him a photo of Stephen when his hair was short. So I found one and when Stephen came back out front I showed it to him and then with his permission showed it to the barber. He glanced at it for all of one second and then proceeded to cut Stephen hair in EXACTLY that length, shape and style! I would almost venture to say it’s the best haircut Stephen has ever received! So awesome. And the price for this expert cut? $10.

The subtitle of my blog notes that I write about things that delight us about other countries and cultures. This is a perfect example. Getting a good haircut has become so nearly impossible for me that I’ve given up. I cut my own hair. But here we just walked into a totally unknown shop and walked out satisfied beyond expectation. The experience lifted my spirits for the whole day!

These happy surprises in Vientiane are starting to accumulate. Like the fact that the sidewalks aren’t broken up and full of holes. Hold on, let me back up: that there ARE sidewalks is a welcome surprise! And these sidewalks aren’t mostly taken up with food vendors, motorbikes, or lots and lots of people.

In general it is a quiet city. Fewer people helps. Vientiane has an estimated 760,000 people, while Phnom Penh (according to Wikipedia) has 1.5 million people, Yangon’s 2014 census report revealed there were 7.36 million people living in that city and Bangkok (according the the UN) is home to 9.3 million people. Having lived in all three of those densely populated SE Asian cities, Vientiane is a breath of fresh air. Literally! That’s another pleasant surprise: very few foul smells on the air! You can imagine just how nice that is!! :)

On Monday we drove north to the town of Vang Vieng with the whole team from the organization Stephen will be working with. It was their annual conference and since we were here we were included. It’s an absolutely gorgeous spot set on the CLEAN Nam Song river with limestone mountains as a backdrop. This is a hot tourist destination as there are many forms of entertainment: 4 wheel exploring, river kayaking and tubing, cave hikes, hot air ballon and hang glider rides plus poolside relaxing with drinks!

I’m quite content to sit at the open air restaurant and watch the myriad of traffic crossing the wooden bridge or out on our deck just enjoying the peacefulness of the mountains.

Stephen spent a long day in meetings learning about the project and getting to know the staff. The last two days have been intensive work. There’s always so much at the start of a new job. What’s nice is he’s already familiar with the project and his supervisor. Much of what he did for his project in Yangon will serve him well in this new project. And of course I am biased, but the project and the organization will be well served by Stephen! :)

As we were sitting at lunch today I said to Stephen that it feels like this opportunity is such a gift. It wasn’t something we pursued, it came to us, but these past 7 days have just been so nice.

Until the next post…

(P.S. Writing takes a LOT of time and energy. I know that’s not a novel concept but it kind of hit me today and explains a lot why my blog has been so quiet for over a year.)