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, January 8, 2017

Christmas in Laos, New Year's in Thailand

We spent Christmas in a foreign country again this year. This makes the 5th Christmas outside the US for Stephen and me. To be honest, during most of those years, I was happy not to have any pressure whatsoever to decorate or buy presents or really do any of the kinds of Christmas-y things I would normally do in the US. I think I was suffering from "Christmas fatigue". But this year I felt differently. I was delighted by any and all Christmas decorations or hints of a holiday season.

And even though we are just staying temporarily at a guest house, I bought a string of Christmas lights and taped them to the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree. Several of the coffee shops and restaurants, that mainly cater to tourists, had some decorations, holiday food and beverages.

Since I grew up in a place where December is snowy and cold, heat and humidity don’t really go with Christmas for me. But this year both Stephen and I were in the Christmas spirit despite the setting. We turned on Christmas music and enjoyed our Christmas “tree” twinkling in the background each evening.

Since returning to Vientiane after the retreat/conference in Vang Vieng, Stephen and I have been doing pretty ordinary things. It’s just that we are in an unordinary place. We have rented a room at a guest house that’s only a 10-minute walk for Stephen to his office in the National Institute of Public Health.

It’s about 30 minutes to walk into the city center where most of the good restaurants are. So nearly every evening we walk in to get dinner. Our room has a kitchenette with a sink, refrigerator, and two electric burners but I haven’t found a good place to buy groceries yet; so we mostly buy snacks and then eat out. I would prefer to cook but as we are so temporary, I don’t have any of my cookware and the ones provided by the guesthouse are rusty or otherwise questionable.

Just like we did in Yangon and Phnom Penh, we pay for everything with cash. The currency here is the Lao Kip (LAK). So far I’ve seen denominations in 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000.

The exchange is 8000 LAK to US$1. The ATM machines spit out 50000s which are only $6.25 each so a common amount to withdraw is 1,000,000 kip! Pretty crazy. It’s kind of like getting a whole bunch of 5 dollar bills. But it’s hard to think about such high numbers NOT being worth a lot. At the store a few weeks ago, the total was 400,000+ kip. The decimal point was in a strange place so I didn’t read the cash register correctly and I handed the checker a 50,000 bill.  That’s like giving the checker $5 when the total is over $50. Brother.

There are tuk-tuks here but they are much less comfortable than those in Cambodia and also much more expensive. A short trip is 50,000 or $6.25 which is 3 times as much as it was in Cambodia. So we have only taken a few tuk-tuk rides so far. Once with the country director to see his rental space, once with all our luggage to move from one hotel to another

and once to go to the airport.

What that means is that we are walking everywhere we want to go and getting lots of exercise!

Our guesthouse is $25/night which includes a breakfast. The breakfast is simple consisting of instant coffee, an omelet and a baguette with butter and jam. There are twin beds in the room and Stephen’s is particularly hard. The room is cleaned about every other day by the maid service but even so I bought some sponge cloths and scoured the shower, and revolting drain, and mopped the floors by hand. We need to be careful when we shower because the electrical does not really meet US-code, with a 220v outlet on the wall practically inside the shower.

The internet at the guesthouse is quite terrible. We are almost the closest room to the main office and we barely get a signal in the room. For the best strength we need to go sit inside the office or on the porch. But that doesn’t guarantee you will have internet. It fluctuates wildly. One minute I’m connected, the next minute I’m not. Going to coffee shops is usually better but not during busy times. Everyone has the same plan and it then slows everything down for all of us.

Since we are living in a guesthouse, I don’t have a washing machine. So we found a laundry service in the city center that charges 8000kip ($1) per kg.

When I give my clothes to the owner of the shop, I hand it to him in a plastic bag. The clothes are not itemized, he doesn’t ask for my name, or give me a receipt. He simply says, “tomorrow morning”. The first time we took our laundry to him he weighed the bag and told us how much it would cost. But since then he just tells me the total when I pick it up the next day. Quite an honor system. But so far we haven’t lost a single item of clothing. So that’s pretty great!

We decided to spend the New Year’s holiday in Bangkok. It’s about an hour flight and we don’t even change time zones. :) We always enjoy visiting Bangkok after living in one of the less developed countries in the region. Things work better like shower drains and internet, we can buy clothes/shoes, medicines and toiletries if we need to, and there's a Starbucks on nearly every block!  Each trip to Bangkok is a little reprieve from the day to day living challenges we encounter in whichever country we are coming from.

There were plenty of decorations for Christmas and New Year’s throughout Bangkok even though the whole country is in mourning.

In the Thai airlines magazine there was a section explaining that though it wasn’t mandatory, visitors were requested to wear dark tone clothing to honor the late king Rama IX. All Thais are required to wear black, grey or white. The inflight magazine had a large story full of paintings of the king. When we went to the movie, there was a long documentary honoring the late king. There were phrases like, “our father hasn’t left us, he’s in the earth…and the wind”. Almost like he was deity. And as usual we stood to honor the king just before the movie started. In the airport while we waited for our flight back to Vientiane, there was another, longer documentary about all the humanitarian projects the king had started during his 7 decades of rule. I don’t know long the period of mourning lasts. The king Rama the IX passed away on October 13, 2016 and most everyone was wearing black and/or black ribbons pinned to their shirts through the new year.

On the flight back a new magazine was in the seat pocket for January. On the cover was the new king Rama X, the son of the late king Rama IX. The article in the magazine stated that the new king has ascended to the throne. Maybe the period for mourning will end soon.

These customs and practices and reverence for a king are things that I, as an American, cannot really relate to. For me kings and kingdoms are only ancient stories I’ve read about. Most of the time when we visit Thailand it’s easy to look at the skyscrapers and high end shopping malls and overlook the Thai culture underneath. But this visit was different. Thai culture was more dominant and I was glad that just by accident both Stephen and I were wearing dark colors and white.

It was a nice short trip to Bangkok. We picked up a few supplies to bring back: coffee, shampoo & conditioner, citronella mosquito repellent, and high quality dark chocolate. Just a few things to make life a little nicer. The water in Vientiane, just like it was in Yangon, is harsh on my hair. Some good conditioner cuts down on the mass of tangles I have. And though we did bring mosquito repellent with us because mosquitos LOVE Stephen and find him everywhere, it didn’t seem to deter them and they would buzz in his ears all night. Unfortunately we did not bring our mosquito net with us. Stephen did a little research and found that the repellent that we had, picardin, has little effectiveness on the type of mosquitos here in Vientiane. I’m happy to report that the new citronella repellent does work. Thank goodness.

Vientiane really is a charming little city. I like it. And it’s nice to be back. Bangkok is so so crowded and there are traffic jams nearly all day and night. Not in Vientiane. There is a short rush hour around 5pm but the rest of the time it’s easy to find a break in the traffic to cross the street when you want.

Mostly people drive slowly and there is hardly any honking. Yangon was a cacophony of car, truck and bus horns. The bus horns were especially obnoxious and loud. And on more than one occasion a driver would honk his horn just as he passed me, to see me jump, and enjoy a good laugh at my expense. I haven’t encountered that kind of rudeness in Vientiane yet. The tuk-tuk drivers are respectful too. They will ask me if I need a ride, but only once. If I say no, they most often reply, “thank you”. In Bangkok this time Stephen had to say “no” to several taxi drivers repeatedly. They did not respect our first “no” and instead went on to name tourist attractions they could take us to. I understand they need to make money, and I suppose that tactic must work for them sometimes, but it’s quite rude. So it’s nice that in Vientiane, by contrast, I can have pleasant exchanges with the tuk-tuk drivers instead.

Stephen is back at work after a little holiday break. And I’m working on my art. The ideal thing for me is a studio that I can set up and leave. But I’m trying to do what I can, given our unique situation. We’ve moved to a different room and the table outside gets a nice amount of natural light to work by.

It’s still the cool dry season so I don’t have to contend with high heat and humidity or torrential rains. So this little set up affords me a few good hours during the day to work on my colored pencil pieces. For now. :)

So that’s what we’ve been up to. We ended 2016 on a nice note and are excited to see how 2017 unfolds.

Happy New Year everyone!