Sin Dot, Karaoke, a Black Hole and Roosters

So dinner upon arrival was sin dot, a Lao style barbecue.  I was very excited about this because last time I was here I remembered it being very good.

Sin dot is an outdoor BBQ where you sit a table with a brazier of hot coals in the middle of it. They top the coals with a aluminum contraption that looks a little like a dome with holes cut into it surrounded by a moat of broth. I didn’t take a picture so you can look here for a good picture and a great description:

Next comes the options for thin strips of meat; chicken, pork, bacon or water buffalo are your options.  We choose bacon and chicken.  Basically you start by adding a bit of fat to the top of the dome, it melts greasing the sides of the dome to cook the meat. You add the veggies of your choice to the broth to cook them while your meat is browning. Additionally you add rice noodles and the optional egg to the broth for a tasty soup.  Everyone is in charge of cooking their own meat and picking out which veggies appeal to them.

It’s a great dish and if we could ever get over the dual threats of open flame and personal responsibility for cooking your own meat it would take off in the US.

After dinner coffee I made my way back to the newly picked guest house.  I noted when we were negotiating a rate in the afternoon that there appeared to be a party setting up in the narrow street outside. When asked what was happening, I was assured that they party would conclude at 8pm.  Needless to say that was a bit optimistic on their part.

If parties can be assessed by the number of drunken people singing Karaoke then this was a great party!  It wasn’t a wedding but may have been a house blessing, I’m not entirely clear.  Karaoke is a funny thing it seems in many cases quality and enthusiasm are inversely proportional. So as the night moved into the early morning hours additional people seemed to find the courage to sing their hearts out.

The late night music barely invaded my conscious as the realization that I may not have cooked a piece of chicken thoroughly moved to become my main concern.  Thus began what we’ll call the 48 hours in a black hole…. where I slept, berated myself for not cooking chicken properly and cursed the existence of roosters.

Word of note: If you visit you will inevitably find yourself close neighbors to rooster.  There are many dogs here, but they don’t seem to ever bark. Into this evolutionary gap the neighborhood roosters have rushed. You’ll soon be able to determine distinct voices in the chorus, by the end of this month I may have named them. There is one that strangely even sounds like a dog deeply barking, unfortunately he is not the one directly outside my window.

Getting Settled – Luang Prabang

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and much has happened:

We made it to Luang Prabang our final destination,  I met a bunch of Justin’s friends, I managed to find a nice little guest house and the inevitable happened, I got “the stomach thing”.  While I expected all of these things to happen I was surprised that it was all in one day!

Our first steps off the plane in Luang Prabang were met by Justin’s friend Yoxa (pronounced Yosa), she is another Colorado School of Mines grad living in Luang Prabang. Amazingly we never met, that we can remember, in school.  We were swept up into a tuk-tuk and off to drop our bags on the way to lunch with Yoxa’s husband Brad.

After leaving a place you fell in love with you hope that it feels the same when you get back but you can never be too sure. Luckily for me while several things have changed here the feeling of the town has survived, it was a familiar feeling walking down to meet with Brad. Old town Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula created where the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers meet, which makes this charming U-shaped road allowing a visitor to loop around the town while viewing the rivers at all times.

After a very relaxing lunch Justin assisted me in finding a guest house for my stay.  We basically wandered around the city popping our heads into the numerous guest houses to see if they could take anyone for a month. This technique runs perpendicular to my normal need to have things planned out in advance and if I hadn’t already visited I wouldn’t have known that you find much better places by just wandering. Many of the guest houses are small and do not have websites, thus pre-planing becomes difficult.

Another thing I wasn’t used to the first time I came to SE Asia was that it’s very common and expected to ask to see the rooms before committing to stay.  It’s just as common to say no thank you if it doesn’t suit your needs. On one such visit I found an anomaly here… a semi-soft bed!  I’ve found if I’m just staying for a couple of nights I can stand a rock hard bed, but considering I’ll be parking myself for 3 weeks I felt that the $5/night increase in my intended budget was a well deserved splurge.

Arrived safe – Check

Place to stay – Check

Dinner – On to the next post….

The Many Sides of Bangkok Shopping

Over the past couple of days I’ve been able to see some very different sides of Bangkok shopping.  I determined that my eventual trip to London justified bringing my favorite jacket, in the hopes that I might be able to get it copied.  As we were getting ready for the day Justin told me to bring it along so that his friends could help us find a tailor…. This is a story of random adventures caused by downhill slide in the translation department.

To explain: Lao is very similar to Thai but not the same. Justin lives in Laos and speaks Lao relatively well. The Thai here at the guest house have known him for years and they take great pride in teasing him about how he speaks like a country bumpkin.  They understand whatever he’s saying but love teasing him.

Back to the jacket, his friends have me take it out they look at it intensely and have a discussion amongst themselves in Thai.  Then we’re off!  Down from the guest house about  8 blocks to the sky train terminal.  We ride several stops for about a dollar.  The first thing that happens is we get a strange look because we have three Thai (one small girl, one very tall he/she, and a very flamboyant boy) which in and of itself is not all the unusual for Bangkok.  But you add to them two falang and things get interesting. Then Justin starts speaking to his friends in Lao, which garners him some strange looks. They are basically giving me a hard time much to the amusement of an old man on the train.

We get off the train in what I can only describe as a shopping mecca.  It was amazing, seven floors of high end shopping.  I have never seen the likes of it in the US. The other thing that was amazing is that it was completely full of shoppers.

They take me to a great shop where they guide me towards a wall of coats. Two things hit me at this point: I realize something has gone awry with the translation for my desire to see a tailor.  (It turns out that the words for sew and sale are very close.) The second thing that hits me is that people apparently wear actual winter coats here… how they can manage it with the warm weather I do not know.

After a few laughs at the mistake we then move on to another shopping experience.  Next we go to the JJ Weekend Market, this place is crazy!  We’re talking 35 acres of shops and stalls.  You can find everything imaginable here.

Thus the remainder of the afternoon is spent wandering around looking for shorts for Justin, a shirt for one of his friends and whatever else strikes our fancy.  A couple words of warning, if you go and you see something that you love, buy it then and there.  Because you will never find your way back to the same stall.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for, if you are purchasing something like shorts the normal way of measuring your size is to take the waistband (buttoned) and place it around your neck. I guess the circumference of your waist is thought to be double that of your neck.  And while this seems to work very well in Asia, I’m not convinced it would work in the US.

Meet My New Favorite Breakfast…

So I’ve discovered that I love khao tom kui a rice porridge for breakfast.  It can look like chicken rice soup (if ordered at the guest house) or like porridge (if ordered for a dollar at a stand in the market).

It usually comes with minced pork and chopped green onions.  Today I found the wonders of adding an egg, slivered ginger, some sort of brown soy sauce-ish seasoning, some chili seasoning and the greatest discovery yet, vinegar chilies.  It starts out white and you add whatever you’d like to it, true Thai khao tom kui ends up looking sort of brownish red from all the seasoning they put into it.  I got a complement that mine was actually a very nice shade… meaning that I was a decent sort of falang (white person).  My next goal is to find a  person who can teach me how to make the little vinegar chilies.

I also have been amused that every time we stepped out of our guest house the little ladies who run the food carts hassle Justin.  Immediately after we got out of the taxi they were clamoring to say hello and then asked for chocolate.  Luckily we have some as you can see from the pictures of our packing list.

Packing Addendum…

Two things:
1) It was pointed out to me that I am very compulsive.

I guess I forgot to mention that I have an uncontrollable desire to organize things. At home I have a habit of placing things in piles. Prior to this trip I had several piles of items that were going with me. I had a stack of clothing, one that was to be packed into luggage and one for the items that I was going to wear onto the plane. Same with any electronics and toiletries; packed and carry on.

Ahh but then the question of how to organize these lovely piles of items? For that I needed just the right sized containers!! If I love piles then I too must also love to place things into things. Luckily for all of us who are compulsive there is a wonderful world of small bags by Eagle Creek…. now I have known this for many years but I recently discovered that they also make super light bags made of parachute material. (Perfect you say? Where can I get them? — I know, I know, I was excited too!) But now this posed a slight problem in that if you place something in a large container but you have many small items (cables, power adapters or USB drives) then you obviously must place them into something.

For this I have employed a wonderful system of using different bags that jewelry has come in over the years.  Fossil is a wonderful option, they have flannel bags, cotton bags and even burlap bags.  This way I can easily reach into my carry on backpack in the dark and find what I need based off of feel.  Larger items such as clothing are rolled and placed into backpacking stuff sacks that are different colors.  Thus in theory I can find everything I could ever need in my bags….. that is if your travel partner (who as many of you might as well) finds unending amusement in my system and keeps threatening to move items in my bags.

2) As a direct request from Paris’s question (see Packing Conundrum comments)

Yes, I did indeed pack underwear and am also wearing them!  Thank you for your careful readership and concern for my well being. 😉  I just figured that I didn’t have to list them on my packing list as everyone would assume that I managed to remember these basic items.

From Snowy Colorado to Balmy Bankok

The more common way to go to SE Asia from Colorado is to jump a quick flight to the west coast, a long flight to Tokyo and then finally a shortish flight to Thailand. We of course went the other way around….

Our flights took us in two 10 hour hops from Denver to Frankfurt then Frankfurt to Bangkok, with two “nights” in-between. Which means that we were able to fly on Lufthansa and Thai while skipping a layover.  I’m not sure if it’s any faster but it meant that we could stop off and see one of Justin’s friends in Frankfurt and just barely missed his sister while we were there.

This also means that I managed to get my first two stamps in my brand spanking new passport.  I also found an amused immigration officer, who was very nice and told me that I didn’t have to go though immigrations to get to my next gate…however by that time Justin’s less than helpful immigrations officer had stamped his passport and sent him on his way. Therefore I went through as well, welcome to Germany for all of 45 minutes.

I will say the second 10 hour flight is slightly more challenging than the first.  I apparently jumped about 2 inches when the poor Swede next to me asked for wine.  The funny thing is I distinctly remember being awake when the stewardess was 2 rows away, I couldn’t have been asleep for more than a couple of minutes.

All of this means that by the time I arrived in Bangkok at 6 am, I had no idea what day of the week it was. To the best of my meager calculations (and the handy auto update on my computer) it is now 7:30 am on Sunday. Meaning yes, I got in yesterday and other than a quick email to family to say that I made it I did not post a thing, I’m going to try to get in the groove of things to post every or every other day. We’ll see how it goes.

Yesterday we arrived with our luggage, or to be more correct our minor (and might I say manageable) personal luggage and two extremely unwieldy cases filled with donated items for Village Science.  As you can see we had quite a few items to take with us…. Amazingly we managed to fit it all into two suitcases and still be under weight limits.

This, however, did not amuse our taxi driver as he was trying to wrestle these heavy suitcases into the back of the taxi.

(You may notice the hot sauce and taco seasoning, these are special request items for friends.  The chocolate bars are thank you’s that will be handed out over our travels.)

Background on Village Science

Quickly I thought I’d give a tiny amount of background on the non-profit I’ll be working with in Laos. Village Science was started in 2009 by Justin a friend of mine from college. He was traveling through SE Asia and decided to volunteer as a teacher in Laos, as is so easy with this country, he fell in love with it.

Village Science is helping to jumpstart the science curriculum in Laos by developing bilingual science books. The current project is to write a book of magnifying glass experiments in Lao and English that can be used in small rural villages as easily as it can be used in larger cities. Thankfully Justin is skilled at languages and has lived in Laos so he can do some of the translations himself. One of the main goals over the next month will be to sit with the Library staff to validate that all the translations will make sense to a young student.

I was luck in that when I contacted Justin to see how I could help he was in Colorado so I have a travel partner for the trip, he however will be staying when I leave. I therefore get the great opportunity to see Laos through his eyes, which will be very different from my last trip as a tourist.

My goal is to be as helpful as I possibly can for the next month. It sounds as though the activities that are planned for me range from organizing contacts to helping the Library staff with a book delivery to a rural village. It should be an amazing experience no matter what I end up doing.

If you are interested in Village Science, you can visit the website:

The Packing Conundrum

So as I mentioned, I’m going to Laos for a month, but on the way home I’ll be stopping in London and Spain to visit with friends…. which leads us to the packing conundrum.  How do you pack for 80 degree weather then end in a slightly less balmy Europe?  All the while I need to leave as much room and weight for Village Science non-profit donations as possible.

This is my best attempt, you take as few clothes as you possibly can for the first part, then plan on wearing every single piece of it layered while in London. (I feel like I should pre-apologize to my London friends for looking a little less than stylish.)

I will be checking one backpack for myself and taking a couple of carry-on bags with essentials for my 24 hour journey to Bangkok.  The remainder of my allotted space and weight will be used to shove in as many of the donated items for Village Science as possible.

Here’s what goes in my carry-on:

  1. Passport
  2. Camera and cables
  3. Discovery Mind Games for when I need something to read.
  4. Colorado School of Mines hat, so that I can be mysterious. (I’ll likely spend most of my time explaining why on earth this donkey has a stick of dynamite in it’s mouth. It was originally a mining school.)
  5. Mac Air and cables, I tried to just get by with my iPad but it just wasn’t meant to be.
  6. Seagate drive to back up all my photos.
  7. iPad with headphones, for movies and books on the flight.  I also loaded it with as many educational science applications as possible.  I can’t wait to let the Lao kids use it!
  8. Malaria pills because I’m supposed to start them ahead of time.
  9. Collapsible water bottle with some tea to make the trip more tolerable.

Which leaves my checked luggage for my clothes and toiletries:

  1. One dress (below the knee, because Laos is a very conservative country.)
  2. One pair of pants and one pair of leggings
  3. One pair of long shorts
  4. Two skirts (one below the knee and one long)
  5. Three t-shirts
  6. One tank top for layering
  7. One short sleeved cotton top, one long sleeved cotton top
  8. My super warm and squish-able down vest, I am after all leaving Colorado in winter and going to London in February.
  9. Toiletries
  10. First Aid kit
  11. Merrell barefoot running shoes (Deep breath everyone who knows me… I have no plans on taking up running.) They are extremely light weight and comfortable.
  12. Flip flops for daily wear, culture dictates that you take off your shoes before entering someone’s home and at all temples.
  13. Not shown is my scarf, it can be used to cover up my arms and shoulders in the temples as well.

Because I freeze on planes I will also be wearing quite a few layers, I figure as I get to warmer climates I can use my down vest and sweater as a pillow.

I debated authorizing my phone to be used for international calls, but the prices were outrageous as $3.99/min!  I will just purchase a cheap phone in Bangkok and buy SIM cards as needed.

So with all my stuff packed, we will see how much stuff we can place in my other allotted bag for non-profit items.

You’re going where?!?

The conversation goes like this; “So I decided to volunteer in Laos for a month teaching science to kids.”       “Where in the world is Laos?!?”

Laos is a small country in southeast Asia. It’s bordered by Burma (Myanmar) and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west.

When I tell people of my plans I get various reactions ranging from:

Mild Concern  My family is concerned that I’ve had a tough year and they want the best for me, it’s taken some getting used to for them but they support me unconditionally.  My friends, I think, are concerned that I may not come back.

Wishfulness Several people have expressed that they wish they could do something like this, in truth I always thought it was way out of my reach as well.  Hey, I finally get an opportunity to use all those airline miles that I’ve saved, after all isn’t this why I’ve been hoarding them all this time.

Offers of Company You know who you are…. offering to carry bags for me.  Be sure when I’m schlepping heavy items destined for VIllage Science (laptops, microscopes and possibly a biology lab kit) I’ll be thinking of you.

The truth of the matter is I’ve already been to lovely Laos and absolutely adored it.  (Which explains why my friends are worried I may not come back.)  In addition to going somewhere I love, I am also traveling with an old friend, I’ve known Justin since college days. He is the driving force behind Village Science ( and while we will be traveling to Laos together he purchased a one way ticket to return to his adopted home.

So to those that worry, I will be safe, in a known land and with friends old and new. To those that are wishful, go out and grab onto it. It’s a wonderful adventure to travel near and far. And finally to those that offered me company, I can’t wait to see you!

I think that the concept of taking time off from your life is one that not many have the opportunity in which to indulge.  I’m extremely lucky that I have this very option open to me at the moment.

About Me….

When I was unexpectedly laid off I decided to take my engineering education and make use of it to help others. I was reaching out to all my old contacts and found that a college friend had started a non-profit called Village Science to teach science to kids in Laos.

I immediately reached out see how I could help and found myself in a position where I had the time and opportunity to travel to Laung Prabang, Laos to volunteer. In 2009, I had the the fortune to visit Laos. The scenery is spectacular and it is a truly beautiful country but I fell in love with the people, who are the most generous and inquisitive of any I’ve found in my travels.

What follows are my discoveries, observations and experiences as a first time unemployed volunteer. I hope that my experience helping others will change my perspective on life and maybe inspire others.