Tuesday, November 27, 2012

That Luang procession 2012

Feed the children - the smart and Lao way

We do have numerous NGOs here and consultants, spending tens of hundreds of overpaid well paid hours on project plans and concepts how to ensure that school kids have good food. And then, sometimes things just happens while people take their faith in their own hands and just act.

This happend in a school in Sokpaluang. The kids from a secondary school (so I was told) just didn't like the lunch the school was providing. They complained the food was bad. So they went to a nearby restaurant and talked to the owner. This place isn't a very cheap place, and usually is has a lot of falang guests. Not the first place school kids might choose.

In Fact, they did, maybe because they though if Falang eat there the food must be better than in their school. But there was this budget problem: they just can't afford the dishes from the menu. "No problem" said the owner, a very smart Lao women. Since her shop has a focus on fried chicken, she talked to her supplier if he could deliver smaller chicken wings. He confirmed, and she created a menu for the school kids: Chicken wings, rice and a healthy fruit shake. The dish is sold for 10.000 KIP.

You may think this is too much, and chicken wings aren't the most healthy food. That might be right, but: It is way better than what they get at school. They will spend the money anyway, but maybe for chips, chewing gums and sweets. And: they learn that something good has a value. You pay a bit more, but you get something better.

The kids go there everyday, with permission of teachers and parents. They behave well - or better learn how to behave in a restaurant - and they enjoy the school break and can take a rest. No institution involved, no consultant. Somethings good things just happen.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lao IT Dev: A success story of some Lao IT entrepreneurs

Laos isn't well known for it's IT industry, and although the National University educates a lot of IT students, most end up as hardware sellers or sysadmins. Entrepreneurship isn't widely seen here, and receiving international awards is really rare. But there are exceptions, and Outhai Saioudom (Os) one. He is the Manager of a company Lao IT Dev, a startup he founded together with some friends two years ago. While they studied IT they started a forum called Laozaa, which became very popular very fast. "It was just a forum about technology. People asked questions about computers and IT, and we and others answered them", Os describes the early days.

After graduation, the group decided to go more professional. Instead  of answering questions in a forum, they collected the most relevant topics and published the first Lao IT magazine for IT and Electronics, called E-Corner Magazine. It is still the flagship of Lao IT dev. On Thursday they received the Asean ICT award in the Digital Content section. On Thursday, 15/11/2012 Os and the co-founders Thanongsack SouksavatVirasack Viravong, and Air Chanthalavong went to Cebu, Philippines to receive the award.

The e-corner Magazine became fast the number one source for people interested in anything related to IT. From the beginning it had a professional lay-out, 4 color printing for a lot of pages and topics from installing hardware to game reviews. Soon the company started the e-corner weekly news, a IT update that went on air on Lao Start TV last year. And last but not least the even made it into the radio.

While there is still not much revenue coming in from the media activities, Os counts it as successful public relations. "Most people know us from Laozaa or E-Corner. They know our skills, and that's why they hire us." Lao IT Dev develops websites and software, in particular android apps. mainly for a local market. The client list ranges from the Ministry of forest to car dealers like chevrolet.

7 people are working now in the office of Lao IT Dev, with Os taking care of the daily operations. The new daddy who married his wife last year is getting more busy these days. "We build the website and database for 108jobs.la and recently developed an android app that shows you the current screenings at the ITECC cinema", he says.

Beside this, Os is also very active in the open source community, in particular for the Content Management System Joomla. "We made the translation for Joomla 2.5, so Lao people can use it", he explains. They also conduct workshops introducing the use of these free open source solutions. Since companies and government agencies in countries like Laos have only limited fundings, open source is a important basis for IT. Os also want to work more with Ubuntu and do some translations. "But we need funding for that, because there are not so many users in Laos right now who can do that." His experience is that if people start their computer experience with Windows, they stay with it. "But if they start with Linux, they stay with the open source solution", Os says.

His company is just at the beginning. "We are starters, others have more experience. But we are technology experts, and we understand mobile technology. We hope to be in the top five in 5 years from now."

Winning the ASEAN ICT award might be a step closer to this ambitious goal.

Monday, November 19, 2012

ASEAN summit and Obama in Myanmar: An analysis of the current political landscape

The ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh had two important tasks: Human rights and the situation in the South China Sea. Cambodia as the host failed two times: The human rights declaration is far from what is needed and isn't helping activists at all. It basically writes down the status quo for most countries in ASEAN, where torture, unjustice and a weak legal system is still the standard. No wonder that Cambodia, having a long rap sheet in human rights, wasn't pushing for more.

More important for the strategic role of South-East Asia is of course the South China Sea with it's natural ressources. China basically claims the whole area as it's own territory, while the Philippines and Vietnam disagree. But China has it's own way of diplomacy: It won't talk to all, instead it insists in bilateral talks. It tries to outplay the ASEAN countries, and the the way it does it is with pressure and money. That works very well for Cambodia, the ASEAN chair, whose dictator Hun Sen is after the death of former King Sihanouk even closer with his friends in Bejing.

So the Cambodia government failed also with this issue. Instead of bringing the ASEAN countries closer together and unite them, it's role was to support the separation managed by China.

But something else happend: Although President Barack Obama came to the summit for the second time, he made a stop in Myanmar before for the first time. Actually he was the first US-President ever to visit the country. Why he came? To set a statement, mainly to China. It says "We are here and we take the competition".

The US knows that the importance of the middle-east is fading. Recent research showed that the US can be independet from Arab oil in a decade. The Palestin-Israel conflict is annoying and doesn't come to any solution. The new markets and big players are in Asia. That's why Obama is looking for allies, trying to strenght assisting ties and reviving old relations.

He can count on the Philippines, a long standing partner. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are muslim countries, but moderate, and they don't like China at all. For them, it is Asia first, but second maybe America more than China. Vietnam had already issues with China, and the South China Sea conflict doesn't make it better. They agreed recently to accept military support from the US.

Thailand is trying to be polite and neutral. At least this is what the government does. Laos is already becoming a Chinese puppet, and so is Cambodia. But both are the poorest and least important countries.

Beside the governments, there are the people. Obama mentioned in his speech in Yangon that the most important and difficult job is not being president, but a citizen. Al his remarks about freedom and dignity and respect was targeting the common people.

What America always did very successfully was selling a life style. And it works pretty good. You won't see people standing on the street with signs "I love Hu Jintao" or "We love Wen Jiabao" (unless they are forced to). You won't see local activists demanding the Chinese premier to help them in environmental or human rights issues. But they do it when Obama comes. And they do it because he sells hope and the American way of life. This is what the people want.

Of course, reality in term of human rights isn't anymore what it was in the US. They just renamed "polical prisoners" to "terrorists" and all of a sudden everything is fine. They did not limit the freedom of speeach but instead installed the Patriot Act. The US is becoming more and more repressive, basically for the same reason regimes always become: The ruling relite doesn't want to share it's privilegies with too many others.

But still people trust America more than China. And Myanmar plays an important role. It's government is begging the west for more engagement, because they know if China wins, the old guys will come back and all the efforts for opening and more freedom will be set back.

The common people already made a decision: Their own country first, ASEAN next. But when it comes to a lifestyle, then it is the western way of living. Not just in terms of consumer goods (and safety of products), but also in freedom of speech and human rights.

Again Asia will the stage for the competiton of ideas. Let's just hope this time it will remain a competition and not becoming a fight again.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Have a great sunday everyone

Greetings from Laos

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The famous Xayaburi dam in Laos

There is a lot of controversy and politics involved with the Xayaburi dam in Laos. This first huge dam on the lower Mekong has tracked attention worldwide. While the Lao government sees itself as the manager of the ASEAN battery, NGOs like International Rivers predicting something like the end of the Mekong. The Mekong River Commission, once installed to solve disputes between the Mekong countries (and providing studies and research) shows itself as a toothless Tiger.

The early "No" from Vietnam also showed that ASEAN consensus has it limits - recently Vietnam stepped back and will not veto the dam anymore, although asking Laos to be careful with more projects on the Mekong. Thailand turned silent since it is the investor and will benefit from the electricity purchases. Cambodia says "No", but doesn't make it to a very important bilateral issue.

And then there is the outcry from the international environmental community, mainly NGOs and environmental agencies. The concern is that the dam will effect the life of people downstream, that the fish population can't migrate anymore, and that people have to move from land they were living on for decades.
So some new studies were made especially to improve the damn for the migration of the fish population and regarding the impact of the sediment flow of the river.

The problem I see so far is that it's A against B. Non of the parties is actually looking for consensus. It's clear, Laos needs some income from something. I'm not sure if rubber plantations and mining will be the future and will not do any harm to the environment. Actually I think it's vice versa.
It would have to be a way better idea if the parties have been sitting together and try to get a compromise and a solution that works for both of them instead of just fighting and keeping their own grounds. Anyway construction now has started and below are some impressions from the dam site.


Butterfly by thomaswanhoff
Butterfly, a photo by thomaswanhoff on Flickr.

Today just a nice picture I made while walking the dogs in my street

Monday, November 12, 2012

How stupid are the people?

Before you dear reader start to pull down to the comment section, let me explain why I used this provocative headline. Our night guards son recently went to the doctor because he didn't feel well. at Mahosot hospital they did a lot of checks, including blood checks. After he got handed over the test result prints and a bill. Nobody told him what to do now, what his disease is, what to do next. Even if they asked for. It is a very common thing in Laos that people are treated as they are dumb. Yes, they may not understand medical terms on first hand, but they are also listing to a explanation. Same problem is with any administrative office: People arent' treated very respectfully. Officer like to use their power to scare the people. This habit is something those working in the developing sector know quite well. While the more educated in the city may insist of a proper answer, people on the country side usually shut up. One reason is they are scared, since they experienced many times who the power has. Another reason is indeed lack of education: they just don't understand when some company explains how they want to change their village, environment, landscape etc. Help comes from an initiative that is already working in 300 villages. They basically build 3D models of a village and it's surroundings and explain - inculding landmarks know to the villagers - what the impact of a project might be.
“In former styles of land-use planning meetings, local people would usually just sit at the back of the meeting room waiting for it to end,” said Castella, one of the authors of Toward a land zoning negotiation support platform: Tips and tricks for participatory land use planning in Laos, which appeared recently in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. As result, villagers often ended up implementing plans that they did not understand and that were doomed to fail. Things changed with the introduction of the 3D maps, which are put together with the help of the residents."
, wrote ZOE CORMIER in a blog post on the CIFOR website. Most people are not stupid. They are just not educated. And sometimes, they are brainwashed and trained to refuse education. This is the real threat. Initiatives like the 3D modelling might change this.

Morning in Ban Phonesavan, Vientiane

This is the village where our night guard Mr. Sukhan lives. Every morning I take his dog home on my scooter , since the dog can't ride with him on this Honda.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Lao movie: Huk Aum Lum premiered at ITECC

It was called the press conference, but was actually the premiere already: Huk Aum Lum ist the second feature film produced by Lao New Wave Cinema (co-produced with Hemon Studio), and will be in the cinema from November 17th on (ITECC, of course). For Director Phanumad Disattha (Ton) it is his first feature film, and to make the task even more difficult, he also wrote the script.
Ton studied in Thailand and America, and he knows the business. Former short movies showed already his talent as a director, and with Huk Am Lum he could prove that he is in the premier league in Asia. The story itself caters the taste of a young asian audience, in particular the Lao people. It is a love story, a comedy, sometimes a bit confusing, sometimes a bit long, but in the end everything is fine. It looked a bit that after the huge success of the controversial and on the edge of censorship production At The Horizon Lao Wave Cinema tried to play nice with the authorities with including a lot of Lao culture (aka stereotypes) from almsgiving to Baci ceremonies. At least they didn't travel to Luang Prabang. Also, the stereotype of the city girl they knows nothing about the countryside and the singer who desperately wants back to his hometown is a bit too political correct. But this is a personal taste. The audience at the premier laughed about the story, and the well placed and written jokes make it easy to watch (the film has English subtitles, by the way.) What is more important is Tons achievement as a director. Huk Aum Lum is a highly professional production, from the equipment used to the way it was edited. Even sound, a huge problem with most productions, is well recorded. Credits also go to the director of photography, who made beautiful pictures - a piece of art actually. What is always a challenge in Laos is to find actors. There is no school for acting, so you have to rely either on singers or on amateurs. Huk Aum Lum did both: The main characters do have experience with audience and cameras, since they are singers: Sack of Cells, Alee from “Shawty”, Jear Pacific, and DJ Kaew Kun. But they showed, and this is exceptional, that they are great actors as well. In particular Sack and Jear Pacific did a great job. To include the people in the village were the movie was shot was not only a good idea, it also gave the film some authenticity, without disturbing it. All amateurs played surprisingly well. Congrats to all of them. So, since there are not many Lao movies with English subtitles, go to ITECC and watch the movie. It is nice entertainment, and you may learn something more about the country and its people. Official teaser below:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Top 5 coffee shops in Vientiane

Coffee shops are essential for big cities this days, and even a small capital like Vientiane. So here is a list of the best 5 coffee shops in the city. It is based on my experience (I basically live in coffee shops) and these factors: Coffee quality, service, opening hours, food, wifi, location. Best coffee shops in Vientiane:

  1. JOMA Cafe Ponthan Joma ponthan coffeeshop Not only has Joma the most experience in Vientiane (they are here for 12 years already), what makes them outstanding is the fact that they always keep the quality of food and service at the same level. Although Joma Ponthan is not in downtown, it is less crowded, has more seats and parking as well as a kids play room. Opens early at 7am, closing 9pm.

2. Cafe Nomad Located close to the Thai embassy, this little gem has everything you need: Good coffee, delicious paninis, free and fast wifi. Opening 9.30am, every day.

3. Benoni Cafe They do have the best coffee in town, and this place is the number one to go for lunch. Breakfast isn't really available, and they open late at 10am. Parking is difficult, staff doesn't speak English well enough (but the owner do), and Wifi is unreliable. Located in the heart of Vientiane, on Setthathirat road, next to Joma.

 4. Baan Tonmali Cake Cafe Not too many people know this place since it isn't located in downtown. But if you pass by Lao-Top College then you will find this coffee oasis on the right. It got it's ranking because of the nice decoration, the cheap and delicious lunch (Lao food), the best chocolate cake in town and the fact, that it is the place where young Lao filmmakers come together. Opens at 8am, close at 6pm.

5. Espresso Cafe Get a bit of a New York coffee shop feeling in this little coffe shop, located next to the cultural hall Not many seats available, but the coffee is outstanding, the crossant the best in town, and wifi is free and fast. Open early at 8am, closed on Sunday.

Good morning from Vientiane

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Some pictures, impressions and links from ASEM 9

Vientiane is occupied by foreign countries, but this time for good: 60 something leaders (or their delegates) gathering in Laos capital for the ASEM 9 summit. Not much outcome is expected, since the size is too big for a workshop meeting, but at least some bilateral talks might be successful here and there. Also, the Europeans want to convince their Chinese and some other major Asian business partners that everything is under control in Europe. So, the mainstream story reads like that:
Dozens of European and Asian leaders gathered in impoverished Laos on Monday for a major summit dominated by the eurozone debt crisis and growing territorial tensions in the region. Top European officials including French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti were due to spearhead efforts to reassure Asia that the long-running eurozone crisis is finally coming under control. The diplomatic offensive is seen as a sign of the growing importance that debt-laden Europe places on Asia's fast-growing economies, and its desire to counter increased US engagement in the region.
Then, there is some concern about the venue (or better the place where the leaders are supposed to sleep. And there are the side stories, like Austria's State Secretary of Finance Andreas Schieder (turns his back to the street in the picture, but yes, it's him) who decided to stop his convoy right in front of the Joma Cafe to get - a coffee. Police was a bit surprised since they were told parking isn't allowed at Setthathirat road, but nobody was thinking about if this rule applies to the delegates as well.
The Russian Prime Minister Medvedev arrived in his own bullet proof limousine (a quite old one, actually), while the German foreign Minister Westerwelle came in a regular Mercedes (I think all this Mercedes purchased for the summit aren't bullet proof at all). Yinluck from Thailand came quite early, while some Finish delegates were seen cruising around for quite a while. What is a big surprise so far is the work of the traffic police: Haven't seen traffic going so smooth like in this days. The fact that school are closed and many government officials are working for the summit eases the traffic already, but even the rehearsals done last week had a pretty good outcome. So Kudos this time for the Lao Traffic police. The fact that we have a curfew from 10pm on is something I can handle. There isn't nothing to after 10pm anyway, in particular Monday and Tuesday. (Not that I think there is a vibrant nightlife on weekends). So as proud the Lao people are these days because of the summit, the even more quiet is the city, it is actually quite nice again to sit outside in the Benoni Cafe without having an hourlong traffic jam in front of you. More links about the summit: http://www.asem9.la/ (Official Website) Press release from the European Union Wikipedia about ASEM Official Theme Song, in Lao, no subtitles, so much about the international spirit (Video)

Modern Laos: Sinh and hot pants

Took this picture this morning. It actually shows quite good the current situation in Laos. The family that lives in the house I took the picture is poor.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Naked Espresso - new coffee shop in Vientiane

Coffee shops are just great: First, you get coffee there, something I need at least 3 times a day.

Then, since Starbucks replaced the Vienna style Cafe, it is also a cozy place to spend some time. With Benoni, Tonmali Cake, Espresso Cafe and Friends de Cafe we already have some nice, individually designed places, and now we have a new kid in town.

Naked Espresso is located at Dongpalan Street, not far from the roundabout. Just pass by the flower shops and then it is on the right side.

It offers the usual suspects from Latte to Americano, while its signature dish is Totally Naked - a multiple shots iced coffee drink.

They also offer some food, from scambled eggs, ham and cheese sandwich to Bruschetta, Fettuccini Meatballs and Roasted Atlantic Samlon with mashed potatoes. Homemade cakes are available as well.

Prices are quite fair, and the coffee (they have their own supplier) is in the same league as Benoni. A relief for expat is the fact that the owner Ariya speaks fluent English.

Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to 7pm.

Vientiane on fire

I complained before, and I will not rest to rant about these fires in Vientiane. The Lao capital is already a quite dusty and dirty city, but the fires (mainly organic waste like leafs, but always mixed with some plastic parts) make it even worst. Although there is a garbage collection service, people burn like crazy. Why? Because they always did it.

And here comes one of the biggest problems Laos is facing: the refusal of change. People still like to excuse themselfs with referring to Lao tradition, culture and education. Change is only possible if there are huge benefits. Like having a mobile phone - people had no problem at all to switch to a mobile phone from landlines in short time. Or using a motobike instead of a buffalo.
Not burning trash means paying for garbage collection (what in the city they have to do anyway), but also to get rid of it in a different way.

First, for Lao people isn't a different way available. At least in their mind (beside a undeveloped neighboring plot that can be turned instantly into a waste dump site).

Composting? Not known, and more important, not taught. And there again is the education system. In some textbook it is actually taught not to burn your organic waste, but childs cant cope with their parents opinions when it comes to changes.

So change in education doesn't mean writing something nice in the textpooks of primary school students. Education - in particular in developing countries - needs to be done in all segments of society.

A government that is able to give security advice for important events like the ASEM summit down to village level has already the tool and channels for communication.

If for example the village could fine those who start fires and the fine is later used for improvments everyone on the village is benefiting from, there would be an incentive to report violations.

But maybe only when the last Laotion died of cancer or respiratory diseases, people will understand that not every tradition is something you want to keep.