Settled in Lao
Well, this is my first real post in quite some time. Lately, I’ve just been giving brief informational updates, but—looking back—I see that I haven’t posted anything of any real significance since January! Where does the time go? Luckily, I’ve kept most of you abreast of what’s been happening in my life and even got the chance to see most of you in June.
In a nutshell, here’s how my time has been spent these past months. In March, my Peace Corps service ended. I then spent the next couple of months travelling, relaxing, and looking for a job. My job-search kept bringing me back to Lao. My travels took me all over Thailand, mostly visiting friends who are still Volunteers. Time not spent travelling found me at Goi’s house in Nong Khai.
In June, of course, I was in the States, where I visited LA, San Francisco, Minnesota, and South Dakota. That was an awesome trip and it was great to be back and catch up with family and friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time.
A couple of you have asked to me to comment on my trip home. Surprisingly, I suffered very little culture shock. Perhaps it’s because Thailand is so developed. Honestly, I mostly just felt like I was home—it was very comfortable to be back in America. Being back there, I realized how much I actually missed the place. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll find my way back there someday.
I arrived back in Thailand in July and I spent most of that month again at Goi’s. By the end of the month, it was time to buckle down and look for some serious employment. So, I headed back to Lao to do some serious networking and nail down a job.
My timing was excellent because in Vientiane, the capital of Lao, I was just in time for the 2007 Lao Ecotourism Forum: “Bridging the Mekong Region.” The convention brought together just about everyone who was anyone in Lao, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam to “network and expand ecotourism opportunities in their respective countries.” Ecotourism is the latest buzzword and refers to a responsible tourism industry that supports local economies and preserves natural habitats and cultural heritages—prevents the world from becoming another Kao San Road. Talk about a perfect opportunity for networking!
Seriously, everyone was there, and every major organization was well-represented. I already knew quite a fair number of individuals thanks to the network I’d already established in the prior months. I showed up with a fresh haircut and a clean suit and spent the entire day talking to everyone I could, collecting business cards, and passing out my resume. I generated quite a significant amount of interest and there is more than one organization that may be interested in working with me in the future.
Anyway, it was that day that I met my current boss. A former Thailand PCV had given me a list of names of people in Lao to talk to—one of these women suggested more people for me to meet—and it was one of these individuals to introduced us. Here’s to the power of networking! The next day I was at the office for an official interview. That night they offered me the opportunity to come on for a one-month trial period. I started less than two weeks later. The following week they gave me a permanent offer to come on full-time and the week after that I accepted. Talk about a fast turnaround!
I am now the Projects and Operations Manager of Sunlabob, Rural Systems, Ltd. in Vientiane, Laos. I am responsible for the company’s social projects, managing the daily operations of the office, and overseeing the marketing department. I am about to become extremely busy. It’s a unique time for the seven-year-old company as it is about to expand and take off in many directions at once, including a move overseas. Consequently, my boss is having to spend more and more time out of the office and needs someone to help pick up the slack. That’s where I’m gonna come in.
My boss, Andy, is a German who’s been in Lao with his wife for over 11 years. He started the company in 2000 with his Lao partner. They’ve primarily been providing solar power to off-grid villages and have franchises all over the country. In Vientiane, there’s a staff of about 35—most of whom are engineers and technicians. The rest are office staff. I am now the third permanent foreign staff. The other is Lloyd, a Welshman who is the Financial Controller. The Lao staff is quite competent, but many of them are quite young and lacking in experience. They need a little bit more direction, which is also where I’m gonna come in.
As the company grows, and if I stay with it after my six-month contract is up, there should be a large number of opportunities for me. I should be able to get some experience in the field and, potentially, assist with expansion overseas (!). My contract is quite fair, with some good perks, and a nice income for Lao. I like the staff and, thus far, I’m enjoying the work. The company is quite good and definitely has a genuine goal of being socially responsible.
I’m here, I made it—I’m officially living in Lao! I’m still living in a guesthouse for now, but will be moving into an apartment (or rented house) as soon as I find one. There are some good options around, so I’m going to take my time in looking for one—would like to find the ideal place to be for the next 6 months.
I bought a motorbike the other day! It’s a good new Lao bike that I picked up for only $585. It’s black and fast. I love it—it’s good to have my own wheels.
Vientiane is a nice town. I think it’s a nicer town to live in than to visit. It’s a small city—about 200,000 people—with everything really in a close area. My guesthouse is about 2.5 miles from my work—and that’s really the furthest distance I have to travel. There is quite a sizable expat community here—probably about 5,000 white foreigners. I’m developing quite a good network of friends and acquaintances—both Lao and foreign. My boss Andy and colleague Lloyd between the two of them probably know everyone in town.
There is an excellent selection of foreign restaurants, cafes, and bars in town. In addition, shopping is good and I’m able to find western food for home. Many a night has been spent at the local bars where—I’m beginning to suspect—much of the business is discussed and decided. Sometimes it feels like I’m living in The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson where a bunch of white foreigners live in a tropical country and meet everyday after work for drinks. At Sunlabob, there is also a good number of foreigners who seem to pass through or who are, in one way or another connected with the company. Right now we have one German-Australian student working as an intern, in addition to others who are about.
I say Vientiane isn’t that interesting to visit because, well, there’s not much here for a tourist—especially when compared to the beauty of the rest of Lao. Sure, there’s a couple of nice wats—but little else. Geographically, in a nation known for its breathtaking mountains, the area around the capital is flat, just like northeastern Thailand. The Mekong River is nice and it is an enjoyable activity to sit and drink Beer Lao and gaze over at Thailand. It adds to the general sleepy feel of the place.
That being said, there are a couple of notable, um, “attractions.” One is the Patuxai, also known as the Victory Monument, or the Arc de Triomphe. This is a giant monument in the middle of town, modeled after its Parisian counterpart, which was built in the early 60s. It is ridiculous and really quite ugly. It’s built rather shoddily out of concrete and, despite some ornamentation, is really nothing to look at. As one of the tallest structures in the city, it’s an absurd eyesore.
To add to the bizarreness of it, there is a very wide avenue stretching out from the Arc all the way to French-built Presidential Palace on the river. The avenue is clearly meant to be a replica of the Champs Elysees, although the traffic and surrounding buildings are decidedly less than those in Paris. Imagine the Champs with nobody on it…. The local expats do indeed refer to it as “the Champs,” always tongue-in-cheek. That all being said, the views from the top of the Arc are nice and there is a rather nice park surrounding it, as well.
Also nice, is the fact that I’m right across the river from Goi. Once I get my work-visa (which should be this week), I should be able to cross back and forth between the two countries with very little fuss and, most importantly, for free. The current 30-day tourist visa for Lao for Americans is $30, which can get expensive. Additionally, the hassle at the borders for tourists is always annoying. That visa should make my life easier in all respects. There is a bus that goes between the market here and the bus station in Nong Khai—but tourists can’t take it because of the length of time spent at the border—but I’ll be able to take it. Also, Goi can visit Lao for free because she’s Thai. So, we’ll be seeing quite a lot of each other.
Anyway, I’m ready to begin my new life in Lao! I’ve got a good job and I’m getting settled and I’ll keep you all posted as to everything. Life is good.
Peace and love,