Monday, July 28, 2014

My thoughts on: Green spaces

I'm not entirely sure why, but for some reason our holiday to Phuket has got me thinking about green spaces, or more specifically, the lack of green spaces in Vientiane. Its strange, because we didn't visit any parks in Phuket, or get a larger dose of "green". The only connection I can find in my head is that we spent time at the beach, and being outdoors in nature. Maybe that is what it is: I miss nature.

Anyway, since I starting thinking about it, I can't stop.

I've been thinking a lot of the bigger picture of Asia and development and urban planning. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) website says that cities in Asia have grown faster than any other urban area in the world. By 2022 there will be more people living in cities than in the countryside in Asia. ADB conducted interviews of people in Vietnam about what they wanted to see in their cities and the response were following:

In harmony with nature
More trees
More small parks
More spaces for children

Exactly what i would want from a city!

Unfortunately, this is far from the reality in a lot of Asia cities, Vientiane included. Everywhere I look there is construction happening. At the end of our street there is a canal. When we got to Vientiane if you looked past the canal you would see open scrub and the river. Since then, in 5 months, this scrub has been demolished and a huge new shopping centre is being constructed. The rate of construction is incredible!

The World Health Organisation recommends that cities provide 9 square metres of unpaved open space for every inhabitant. I don't have a figure on Vientiane but Bangkok had 3.3sm. This is in stark contrast to my home town of Melbourne which has a whopping 17.8% of the city as green space.

As I look around Vientiane and how much it is changing I know that it will rapidly be a different city.  I will come back in 5-10 years time and there will be parts of the city that I won't recognise. I just hope that it learns from previous Asian cities to consider open areas with trees and parks. We know that they reduce pollution, improve air quality and reduce temperatures.

Vientiane does have some green. There is quite a large park along the river very close to us. The road between the park and the river is closed to traffic in the evening and it seems that everyone in Vientiane is down there to enjoy the fresh air and a bit of badminton/aerobics/soccer/roller blading. We are lucky to have this area so close. The park is also home to Vientiane's only public playground (that we know of).

Anyway, I don't really have any exciting conclusions or grand ideas from these thoughts. If I was an urban planner maybe I would. But it has been interesting to research and to actually find research that confirms that the residents of green cities are actually happier. I, for one,  have been trying to spend more time outdoors walking along the river and getting out of the city on the weekends and into green spaces. A few weekends ago we headed to an eco resort with a little stream and rock pools. It was lovely to get away from the concrete and back to nature.

The only playground in Vientiane 

 A bit of green at Patuxay 

Aerobics by the river every evening

Monday, July 21, 2014

Trip review: Phuket

I have been to Thailand on holiday a grand total of 5 times so far in life (lucky girl). There is a lot to enjoy- culture, amazing food, amazing beaches, friendly people, excellent diving. These reasons make it one of the more popular Asian holiday destinations for Australian's.

So when we wanted to plan a week holiday with my parents it was the obvious choice. 

The big question was where in Thailand we would go.

Phuket has never really been on my radar as somewhere I wanted to go in Thailand. I thought it was big, and touristy and that the beaches had been spoilt by tourism. In some ways that still holds true. But it also had a lot of EXACTLY what we were after and was a lot easier to get to and enjoy from where we are in Laos.

Still, even once we decided on Phuket there is a plethora of places to stay. In fact if you go to Agoda and type in Phuket it will tell you there are 1465 hotels to choose from. How do you even begin? 

I spent more hours researching Phuket than I care to let on. It was tricky- we wanted somewhere nice, with a pool and very close to the beach (or on the beach). But we also wanted it to be within a village so that we could leave our resort and eat in other restaurants or explore other shops without having to get in  taxi. Oh, and we wanted the resort to be quite and not next door to a party place. 

In the end we decided on Kamala beach, and more specifically the Sunwing Beach resort. Kamala beach is one beach north of Patong and is known for being a bit quieter but also having a variety of accommodation. Unfortunately the combination of being shoulder season and the recent political unrest in Thailand meant that all of Phuket was pretty quiet and many restaurants in Kamala were closed. 

That said we still managed to find some gems both locally and further afield.

We did two day trips during our 8 day stay. We hired a taxi for a day to take us on a tour of the island. Essentially we went to Phuket aquarium, a few different beaches and a few gorgeous look outs. The other day trip was to Phang Nga Bay to go sea canoeing into some caves and lagoons. We had brilliant weather and everyone (especially bea) enjoyed the canoeing and going into the dark caves and popping out the other side in a lagoon. The trip was topped off for Bea by seeing a monkey outside one of the caves- the sight of it causing her to actually squeal in excitement!

The other days were spent doing a mix of the following: in the pool, at the beach, having a massage, shopping, eating and generally hanging out together. Tough times. 

Anyway, it was a great holiday and we came back feeling refreshed from the soft sand, sea breeze, and fresh seafood.

Sunset walks/runs along the beach are the best aren't they? 

View from a view point on our taxi tour day

White sandy beach stop on our day trip to Phang Nga Bay

Canoeing into this cave and then out the other side into a lagoon

One of the 7 pools at our resort, Sunwing Kamala Beach

Seafood on the beach- what the best holidays are made of!

Sunwing Kamala Beach mascot Lolo, Bea was so excited!

 Life is tough when you have to curl up with Nana on a couch and read some books

Friday, July 11, 2014

True of false part 2

I might have been too quick to hit publish on my post the other day about Bea's reality.

I have been thinking about it some more and realised I neglected to mention all the things that Bea would NOT be surprised about.

Things like the following:

- some children don't have any toys

- some people don't have any shoes

- there are some foods you just cannot get, and some people only get to eat rice

- there is another country called Thailand on the other side of that river (a totally foreign concept for most children from Australia or New Zealand)

- some children are looked after by their parents but also by their maeban (nanny).

- shoes should never be worn inside

- when you go to the park everyone will stop and say hello a bit like you are a movie star

When i look at the list from today and the list from the other day it generates a mix of emotions. I am proud of my little girl and how much she has learnt and adjusted to over the past 5 months. I feel pleased that i have been able to expose her to different ways of living and different walks of life. I smile when i think of some of the things that have come out of her mouth in response to new experiences. But i also feel a little bit sad for her. Sad that there isn't five parks in a 2 block radius anymore. Sad that she can't dip her toes in the ocean. Sad that we can't go to the park and feed the ducks. 

The reality is that life in Vientiane has many bonuses but also quite a few negatives. There is a lot of stimulation for us here, but sometimes i wonder about how much there is for small children? Everyone sends their preschoolers to school because they need to to entertain them. There is a once a week playgroup but other than that you are on your own with your toddler. No library music class, soccer, gym, story time. On one had I know that kids don't need all of those scheduled activities to be happy. They are just as likely to be happy with a cardboard box. But on the other hand, i know that if we weren't here we would be doing those things and with Bea, and she would be enjoying them. 

Anyway, i don't know why i decided to be so thoughtful on a Friday night when my brain feels slightly fried from the week at work. Perhaps its time for bed.

Melinda x

Monday, July 7, 2014

True or false?

I am home alone with Bea this evening.

While i was washing the dishes she was getting a bit frustrated and i thought i would test theory 101 about having a 2 1/2 year old.

So i said "whatever you do, don't put your teddy in that bucket or he will get wet."

What did she do? She put it in the bucket! Theory proven. I love it.

But it got me thinking about all the new things I have had to teach her here in Laos. All the "don't do this" and "do this". And then i thought, if i told her any one of the following statements she wouldn't believe me. She would tell me that i am being a "trickster." Her answer to any of the following would be false. False, false, false .

- In some parts of the world everyone has to wear seat belts
(FYI Bea has a car seat but she is a minority)

- In some parts of the world kids are not allowed to ride on motorbikes
 (don't worry Bea is also not allowed to ride on a motorbike)

- In New Zealand you can drink water straight out of the tap

- There are people in Melbourne wearing coats and jumpers and hats right now!

- In some places you can do all your food shopping in one location (ie. a supermarket)

- Some countries have bus stops where people wait for their bus and if they aren't at the bus stop the bus won't let them on!

- In some countries you don't get taught in 3 languages at preschool

- In some cities there is more than one playground to visit

That, my friends, is a toddler adapting! Stage one is here, stage two is returning and trying to reverse some Lao realities. I can totally see her telling her friends in Auckland that they can't drink the water out of the tap as it isn't drinking water!


Saturday, July 5, 2014

We're back!

Hi everyone!

Hope you are all well. Sorry for the hiatus. As I mentioned in my last blog post, we headed off on a family holiday to Phuket with my parents who were on the final leg of a 3 month trip. It was so nice to have a holiday! As much as i love my job here, it is challenging and complex and the medicine, the culture and the responsibility can sometimes feel all encompassing.

Anyway, after 4 months without seeing the ocean, it certainly lived up to expectations. The wind, the salt, the sound of the waves- it was magic! Good for the soul.

I will write more about what we got up to on our trip to Phuket another time but here is a bit of a snippet:

Eating: fresh seafood (so much of it!), fresh fruit

Drinking: nice wine, soda with mint and lime

Smelling: the subtle salt of the ocean, coconut oil as people walk back from the beach after massages

Feeling: Thai massage. Had forgotten how invigorating it can be. The head and shoulders combo was the best! Semi painful, but still the best!

Listening to: Bea squeal when she saw her first wild monkey

Reading: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

It was a great holiday. We got back a week ago but have had mum and dad's company for the week so it has felt like the holiday was extended a wee bit. They left yesterday so we have a bit of post holiday adjusting to do. Don't you find the week after holidays a bit draining? Any tips for post holiday blues?

Its 06:30am and its just me and the computer as the sun rises in Vientiane. Oh. Me,  my computer, and a coffee. Little Bea has had 2 weeks of a 4:1 Adult to child ratio and I have a feeling that this week is going to be pretty demanding.

Check back soon,

Melinda xx

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Happy Friday!

Happy Friday everyone!

What do you have planned on the weekend? Hopefully something exciting. It has been fun over the past few weeks to follow friends in colder part of the world at the moment and reminisce about evenings with warm cups of tea, woollen blankets and open fires. That seems so far away from our lifestyle at the moment. Despite the rain setting in, it is still hot and humid here and we are finding ourselves with the air con on overnight.

I am pretty excited today because we are off on a week long holiday to Phuket. I've never really had much time for Phuket, but there are some times when you want an easy holiday and this is one of them! We are totally ready for the direct flight, kid friendly resort accommodation and some relaxation with my parents in tow. All of us are super excited to see the ocean again. 4 months without the ocean is a really long time! I will let you know what we thought of this resort type holiday when we get back- it is a first for us!

Thankyou so much for your recent support and comments about the blog. I really enjoy writing it and glad you enjoy reading. Please let me know if there are any particular things you want me to cover. Hopefully after a week of holiday my mind will have the space to dream and i will be back with better blog posts to share!

By the way, anyone have any good holiday reads to recommend? I have been getting back into reading recently and am looking forward to some time by the pool/ beach with my kindle and would love to hear of any good books to add to my list.

Melinda x

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Foodies Q&A

Since starting the blog I have had quite a few questions about the food.

I have been putting it off up until now, partly because i am trying to collect a few photos, but also because it is a really hard thing to talk about. It is hard to know where to start.

Food in Lao is a spectrum. There is some amazing food, and there is some very average food. There are amazing restaurants, and also local roadside food stalls. It pays to be adventurous (but maybe not really adventurous?!)

Here are the answers to some of the questions that i have had.

1. Where to we food shop?

There is no one place to get everything. We shop at a combination of places. We go to the western supermarket (small) to get cheese, and smoked salmon and meat. We go to the local market to get our fruit, vegetables and fresh fish, and we go to the Asia supermarket for everything in between.

2. Is food expensive?

It varies. Western things are about the same price as at home. The only things i have found that are more expensive are cheese and chocolate (large sigh inserted here). Meat can also be expensive. We haven't been brave enough to buy meat at the local market yet so we buy it from the supermarket, usually frozen, and this is not cheap. For example, we haven't bought any lamb since we got here.

The food at the market is cheap though. And getting cheaper. Interestingly it seems Joff gets charged more than i do at the market which is not a reflection on language skills or anything else. I think it is a gender thing.

3. Do we eat out or cook at home?

Again a combination. Because we have a toddler we eat home more than most of the other expats who live here. A lot of the people without children eat out most nights. In some ways, for an individual it is cheaper than getting all the ingredients to cook at home.

That said, we eat out at least one or two times a week, and there is no shortage of good meals to be found in Vientiane. Almost every cuisine is represented including French, Italian, Thai, Middle eastern, Indian, Japanese, Russian, Korean etc.

We also often head out for breakfast on the weekends. There are a couple of popular choices- Kungs (a cheap and delicious little alleyway restaurant that is a favourite), or a French bakery for croissants and coffee.

4. What do locals eat?

Most people seem to eat noodle soup (pho) for breakfast (and often lunch) and sticky rice with bbq chicken or rice for dinner. We also enjoy all of these things. Most of the other dishes in Lao are made with lots of chilli and lots of fermented fish sauce. I'm thinking papaya salad, fish stew/soup, laab. Don't get me wrong, i like chilli, but sometimes it can be a bit full on.

Street side papaya salad

Lao people are also renowned for eating the whole animal. They think falang are crazy for not eating the fish bones,  cow udder,  chicken legs,  pig intestines and blood tofu. Each to their own i guess.

Oh, and absolutely every meal is washed down with a Beer Lao (with ice cubes).

5. What food do we miss from home?

Melinda: Chocolate
Bea: Fresh blueberries
Joff: Chocolate and meat (steak, lamb chops and roasts)

6. Does Bea eat Lao food?

The short answer is yes (if it isn't too spicy). I dare anyone to find a child who doesn't like sticky rice. Most children, falang and Lao alike, are obsessed with the stuff. She likes BBQ chicken and fish. She has had some laab if it isn't too chill packed, she will eat noodle soup (sometimes). Usually there is enough around to keep her happy and she will pick though the meal for the goodies- the meat and the nuts (her favourite). She also eats all manner of fruit. Some of her favourites are mango and rambutan.

I will note that she still has a lot of western food- porridge for breakfast, often a peanut butter or vegemite sandwich, and her fair share of dairy (which is missing from Lao food).

I hope that answered your questions. What else do you want to know?

Melinda xx

Ancient Fish- Makphet Reastaurant. AMAZING

Breakfast at Kungs- a meatball soup with baked egg and coriander

Fish with lemongrass and ginger and chilli and peanuts

BBQ chicken everywhere you go

Some kind of deep fried curry pork goodness

Out of this world lychees

And mangosteens, so good