Posted by: da76 | April 16, 2012

Sok Dee Pee Mai!

Sok Dee Pee Mai! That’s Happy New Year for those who haven’t had the amazing experience of being in Luang Prabang during the April New Year Celebrations (13,14,15). Pee Mai is a three day celebration of water, beer, more water and more beer, dancing, singing…… Somewhere amongst this fun and frivolity is a spiritual tradition that goes back centuries. How to describe Pee Mai? Well its almost indescribable. Our first day’s experience fell on a Saturday when we were invited across to the ‘island’ on the Mekong.

Actually the island is a sand bar that is usable when the dry season is well and truly underway and the river is quite low. We visited the island at the invitation of Tou, a young man who is attending teachers’ college and who we were introduced to by a lovely Dutch couple Willem and Mieke who sponsor Tou with his studies at the college.

The impromptu island party is a cross between a carnival and a mosh pit with Buddhist ceremonies layered in between. Our day was spent making a stupa, drinking copious quantities of beer (watered down with ice thankfully) eating fried grasshoppers and watching the Lao version of line dancing. What a hoot!

The rest of a day was a blur with us moving on to our friend’s guest house and being force fed beer and nibbles to well after sunset. The Lao people are wonderfully hospitable and have a great sense of fun and sense of humour.

One feature of Pee Mai is the soaking everyone gets as you ride along the streets. No one is safe from the inundation. As you ride past kids of all ages throw buckets of water at you, sometimes laced with food colouring and other colourful things. There is a sense of etiquette to the mayhem with those traveling to work shaking their head or lifting a hand and they are left alone so they don’t have to cope with drenched work clothes through their shift.

Day two of the festivities found us at the house of our friend, Elizabeth, who is the owner of the Icon Klub, a very funky bar in the old town of Luang Prabang. Elizabeth is a remarkable woman who has been in LP for over ten years raising a daughter, running a clothing design business as well as running the bar.

Our day was spent enjoying Hungarian Goulash (Elizabeth is Hungarian) watching the passing parade and joining in the many spontaneous water fights that broke out. I must say I was channelling a (more than usual) teenage David Aaron that day! And Fiona was channelling a teenage version of herself as well.

Day Three and the adventure continued with a trip to Tou’s village, Pakleum where we were invited to take part in a Baci Ceremony, which was quite an honour and a great experience. Incidentally the village used to be a leper colony with many of the older people still showing the effects of the terrible disease. Fortunately, they have since cured the disease however you still can’t help thinking about it especially when sharing a glass of beer (literally) with someone who has stumps for fingers. Sharing a glass is quite a normal part of Lao hospitality. Travelling to remote villages is definitely not for the faint hearted.

The rest of our day was spent at the local waterfall with Tou’s family then back to a local village for more beer and of course…..line dancing!

What a wonderful three days!

Posted by: da76 | March 30, 2012

Living in Luang Prabang (Fun and drama)

We are half way through the project now and things have moved on somewhat faster than the initial few weeks. I have now visited over 20 remote villages and have a good idea of the issues surrounding the Community Based Tourism initiatives here. I hope there will be some good outcomes from the project by the time the project is concluded in July. I have also been assisting the organization to develop an online strategy and a new web site.

Fiona has been helping with copy etc and still working on her novel. I am still don’t know much about her writing project but I am looking forward to a ‘sneak peak’ in a few months.

Luang Prabang is a wonderfully ‘livable’ place. Heaps of things to do, places to see, places to eat and all wrapped in a lovely culture and amazing architecture.

Early on I was able to find a nice house to rent not far from town and I have bought a motorbike which we will sell before we leave. We have found it is simply cheaper and easier to buy a bike than rent when you consider resale costs etc.

Our days are spent between the office in town, the local markets (wonderful fresh produce) and the many restaurants in town. Laos food is a great mix of Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian. Quite frankly the cuisine has taken the best of each culture. Unfortunately we are packing on the weight we lost on Mystery Island!

But all is not roses in LP. Unfortunately we have also experienced the ‘dark side’ of the town with our bike being stolen one evening from our house (retrieved by locals in our village) then broken into (nothing stolen) a few nights later. Early one morning while viewing the Alms Giving (to the local monks) our bag was snatched from the bike as we were driving along. Fiona and I stupidly gave chase along the Mekong screaming at the top of our lungs and shattering the early morning solitude. Our bandits were not able to shake us even after throwing helmets at us and other sundry items. In the end they gave up in disgust throwing our bag at us. In hindsite a stupid thing to do as we were going as fast as the bike could go (about 90kmh) without helmets!

Quite the adrenalin rush.

Posted by: da76 | March 16, 2012

Belated update July 2011 – April 2011

As promised in the last post.

Here is a quick and dirty (read lazy) update with us “time travelling” from mid last year until the present day.

So what did we get up to in that time?


  • We did a quick trip to Hong Kong for Fiona’s 50th
  • Had friends Sally and Felicity come over for a visit (and copious cocktails) with quick trip to Boracay
  •  We became Godparents to Aiden (Son of friends Steffan and Nadia)
  •  Celebrated Octoberfest at Peacock Gardens
  • Fiona started going to Yoga
  • I started diving again
  • Started helping Tarsier Botanika with some marketing assistance
  • Celebrated our first ever Thanksgiving Dinner at the Grass Roof Restaurant
  • Early December Nadia and Tom’s visit and celebrated Nadia’s 21st
  • Stopping to perve at the swimming costume beauty contest only to find out they were all boys. Ha!
  • Started playing tennis again
  •  Celebrated Chinese New Year at Tarsier Botanika

Tom and Nadia Visit

Now how is that for lazy!

Nearly forgot the most important part. Fiona joined me on the second of March and it is wonderful having her here to share the experience in Laos.

Posted by: da76 | February 26, 2012

Ciao from Laos

Yes I know its been months since our last post but we did warn you!

This post is somewhat different as its being written by me in Laos while Fiona is back in the Philippines.

Why are we in different countries you ask? Well more of that later but before we do the update below I relate a recent ‘adventure’ here in Laos….Hope you enjoy!

Ciao from Laos

Note to self 1 – Next time you read an expression of interest from Australian Business Volunteers that reads “must be fit and willing to trek into remote communities” consider the fact that yes, you should be fit and yes, you will certainly be trekking into remote communities. I raise this point somewhat self analytically after surviving a two day trek visiting a number of villages including Long Lao, home to the Khmer and Mong people, just one of the many trekking destinations promoted from Luang Prabang in the wonderful country of Laos.

So what brings a 51 year old ‘in denial ‘ overweight tourism consultant to Laos? And more importantly trekking up ridiculously steep trails? What else but another opportunity to work with the wonderful people of ABV and of course a bit of self-delusion.

You would think that our previous assignments, living on a deserted (haunted) island in Vanuatu for three months, eating mostly tinned tuna and rice and working on a major government funded tourism project in the Philippines that mysteriously didn’t have any funding, should have ensured that our eyes were well and truly “wide open” but alas self-delusion came to the fore.

My assignment in this instance was to work with the Luang Prabang Tourism Department and assist in the development of Community Based Tourism Programs.

After a very slow start to the project due to the department being merged, restructured and otherwise turned on its head, things started to get underway three weeks after my start. And get underway it certainly did with my colleague informing me that the next day we were going trekking to visit a number of villages.



Note to self 2 – When you see an EOI from ABV that clearly reads “must be fit and willing to trek into remote communities” you may want to look at a topographic map of the area before applying!

At first it didn’t seem all that traumatic.

After a leisurely pillion ride on a motor scooter (shhh! don’t tell ABV management) we reached our starting point thirty kilometers or so outside of Luang Prabang. We set off on a well defined yet rugged dirt road, ‘not to bad’ I thought to myself and it even got better! Along came a truck with a load of sand and my colleague quickly waved it down –  “important government business, give us a lift” – well I assumed that’s what he said because my Laos is not real good.

So into the cab jumped I and onto the back jumped my two associates. After an hour or so of bumpy roads we were dropped off at a cross track and off we went again. This time the track was much smaller with no chance of us being picked up by anything powered by an internal combustion engine, maybe a pony?

After another hour of  (not overly difficult) walking we came to our first village and my first opportunity to see the CBT methodology being employed by the Department. Half an hour later the meeting with the village chief was completed (the methodology obviously has room for improvement) and we headed off again. That’s when the nightmare really started.

Up, up and away without the benefit of being superman. The track seemed endless and at amazingly steep gradients.  Of course my two associates (and volunteer guide) scooted up with little in the way of groaning or puffing.

Me? After an hour I was praying for one of the few remaining endangered tigers in the area to jump out of the bushes and feast on me. Oh please let me do my bit to help these poor endangered animals….EAT ME!

Alas nothing, my thoughts drifted to accidentally on purpose twisting my ankle  so I could forlornly hobble back down the mountain or even better whisked away by emergency helicopter.  Or then again could I make two puncture wounds in my leg and start frothing at the mouth faking a snake bite but are there really poisonous snakes in Laos?

My mind conjured up multiple scenarios all of which my male deranged ego dismissed. “I can do this” I wheezed. What added insult to injury was the fact that when I did catch up with the team, there they sat…..puffing on cigarettes! ‘Should I take up smoking?’ I recalled the people of the Andes chewed coca leaves maybe this was the Laos equivalent….but alas all the quit smoking advertisements flashed through my addled brain.

Note to self 3 – When you read an EOI from ABV stating VERY CLEARLY “must be fit and willing to trek into remote communities” you may want to start some sort of exercise regime that doesn’t include seeing how many restaurants you can eat out at in one week.

So back to the trek. I struggled between the “it’s all in the mind” psychobabble that told me not to look up at the trail just concentrate on putting on foot in front of the other with the other delusional approach whispering in my mind “I can see more sky up the trail. That must mean we are getting to the top!”

Well enough of this self-flagellation. Obviously I did survive and things got even more interesting our first evening with our meal consisting of congealed duck’s blood, fresh water weed salad, chili, broiled duck and other assorted (and unidentifiable) delicacies. That evening also showed me that the methodology was somewhat more comprehensive than I had earlier seen with a village meeting called and discussion (completely indecipherable on my part) taking place well into the night.

Every experience we have had with ABV has been wonderful and this adventure is another one that we will treasure.

Note to self 4 – When your associate says he has scheduled six more treks over the next few months………..

Dear reader…..What would you do?

Posted by: da76 | July 16, 2011

Back in Bohol

Well, we are back in Bohol after our wonderful (yet isolated) project on Mystery Island. We anticipated our return to Bohol would have been to a beautifully renovated apartment but lo and behold nothing was finished! That’s path of the course in the Philippines I am afraid. Six weeks after getting back everything is completed. New kitchen, new bathroom and awnings as well as a new courtyard.

The project in Vanuatu had it’s challenges but it was a wonderful experience. Fiona and I both lost 6kg each and hope to keep it off back in civilization but we don’t hold mush hope with all the new restaurants opening on our island. On our way back we spent a few nights on Tana Island staying in a tree house in a HUGE tree looking out on a very active volcano! This was one of the highlights of all our travels and we would highly recommend it to be added to everyone’s bucket list.

Back in Bohol we are working on the Abatan River project again moving them to commercialization. It’s great to be back and setting up our new lives. We are starting to feel very much at home in the Philippines.. Yes it has it’s challenges but that’s often the charm of the place. Many foreigners living here don’t understand why things here are not done like things at home (1st world countries etc) and keep complaining. Fiona and I have the attitude that it is there country and we must respect the cultural differences and frankly, resisting will just make you miserable. Go with the flow and keep smiling is the answer!

This will be the last blog update for a while as things will start becoming ‘routine’ whatever that means! We will however update if anything interesting happens…..until then. SAFE TRAVELS!

Posted by: da76 | May 5, 2011

Mystery Island half way there

We are now half way through our project on Mystery Island and this post is being written from Port Vila where ABV has sent us for some R & R. Mystery Island and Vanuatu more broadly is an incredibly beautiful place with wonderfully welcoming people but with all the usual challenges faced by a third world country and a small dispersed population. Vanuatu is a weird amalgamation of traditional culture overlaid with post colonial affectations like English and French speaking communities, expatriates and a regular inundation of tourists brought to the country by the cruise ships. All this makes for a fairly confused place but the locals seem to smile through the problems and accept it as just another day in paradise. Our project is pretty much what we expected, mostly about product development, business training and skills development. What we did not expect however was the lack of consolidated framework for the MITA business (Mystery Island Tourism Association) and the corporate governance issues so Fiona and I have had to develop a significant business development plan to help them with long term planning.

Our work environment is, to say the least idyllic. We are the only ones living on Mystery Island with the locals all living on the main land 600 meters away across the bay. We are visited regularly and provided supplies (rice, canned tuna and local greens mostly) which has been testing my culinary credentials to the limit! Aneityum (the mainland) is where the main villages are with a  population of roughly1600 people. This used to be about 20,000 till the missionaries turned up and brought along for the ride all those wonderful diseases that the island had previously been protected from.

NOTE: The Photos below were taken by James Lauritz a professional photographer who visited the island to do an article on the project.

We have fallen into a bit of a routine (meetings, workshops, swimming, fishing, snorkeling) that is only interrupted when a cruise ship calls and disgorges about 1,500 tourists (read Bogans) which tops up the local economy quite nicely. When the cruise ships are in we have been given security access to go aboard so we can access the internet and of course the restaurant! P&O have been great in this regard and we really appreciate the slice of civilisation every 10 days or so. Not bad living on a deserted island then having a five star hotel turning up on your door step every week or so.

Our routine is also (nicely) interrupted with yachties turning up every now and then and a few independent travellers hopping off the plane and exploring the region. All the solitude has an additional upside. Fiona and I have both lost about 6kg each. Mostly because we are not drinking alcohol but also because we are a tad sick of the boring food and this limits our taste buds crying out…”please sir can I have some more!”

For R & R we do a lot of snorkelling and I head out fishing with the locals (see mandatory pics). As you can imagine the fishing is amazing but using a 100 lb hand line is hardly sporting. Luckily an ABV volunteer was visiting sent us a rod down which I immediately broke on the first fish.

A lovely break in our routine was the arrival of Neil and Ros Thompson who wonderfully accepted our invitation to come and join us for a week. Neil was a great help on some aspects of the project and Ros was a great help finding new ways to cook tuna and rice.

After our week in Port Vila we will have three weeks back on Mystery island then heading over to Tanna (to see the Volcano) before heading back to Australia (to see Nadia) and back to Bohol for another project and seeing how the apartment renovations are progressing.

Posted by: da76 | March 14, 2011

From one natural disaster to another

An interesting start to what I’m sure will be an interesting project….

After a few great days in Sydney staying with old friends, the Digby’s and catching up with Paddy and Helen, and Elaine and the girls from school, we jumped on the train to the airport. Fortunately we had plenty of time as once we got to Wynyard we advised that power to the city train grid had been cut due to a suicide at Petersham.

We were also advised that our flight to Port Vila was being rerouted through Auckland because of a potential cyclone threatening the city. We finally arrived in Port Vila  at 7am totally wiped out. We squeezed in 2 hours of sleep then met with our in country manager, Lou.

After a number of meetings we were really looking forward to some serious sleep then the terrible earthquake in Japan happened and we put on tsunami alert for a 1am arrival.

We were due to fly to Mystery Island today but the flight was cancelled due to lack of plane (still in for repairs). The shipping agent here has kindly arranged for us to travel on Monday by cruise ship!  No more natural disasters please.

The magazine pages above are from Green Living Australia. We were interviewed by the editor while she was visiting Bohol. Nice article and Bohol gets a good rap.

Posted by: da76 | February 10, 2011

From there to back again (Sorry Mr Tolkien)

After Shanghai it was back to Darwin to pick up the van  and start on the 3500km treck back to the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane to catch up with family and friends. The event of the season was Georgie and Sean’s engagement party which turned into a very beautiful wedding. Very satisfying for our foodie sensibilities too was an abfab tagine dinner cooked by our talented daughter, Nadia. It’s also hard to beat a Christmas Day with the Licences! Our livers are still recovering.

Prior to leaving the Philippines we had made the momentous decision to buy our lovely unit in Bohol and base ourselves there for a few years while we continue our projects with Australian Business Volunteers. So the plan was to sell the car and van while were in Australia.  Selling the land cruiser took about five minutes. A lady from Ingham picked up the car and headed back north just as the dreadful north QLD floods started.

As we all know, the rain did not stop and as soon as we headed down to Brisbane the horrendous flooding followed us. Fortunately we were high and dry sponging off Max in Spring Hill.

On the way back to the Philippines we had a short stopover in Kuala Lumpur and caught up with with an old friend, Estella and met her husband Azza. Got just a small taste of Malaysia and left wanting more. Is there any limitation to the bucket list?

Got back to Bohol with everyone having a bit of a freak out about the Abu Sharif (spelling?) terrorists threatening foreigners with kidnapping. That seems to be settling down now. As soon as we got back we were invited to a wedding. Angad and Fatima met a few months back and decided to tie the knot. Angad was introduced to us through another ABV volunteer we met last year in Bohol.

We’ve been offered a project in Vanuatu which sounds exciting so we’ll be off early March for three months on the remote Mystery Island! Meanwhile we are busy organizing contracts to purchase our unit and builders for the new kitchen, fences and pergolas.

Posted by: da76 | October 25, 2010

Back in Australia

Well, we are back in Australia after a whirl wind trip to China. Shanghai is an amazing city but with a population of over 23 million (plus those attending Expo) it was daunting to say the least. The Chinese have no concept of personal space nor of the concept of queuing. To say that this was a tad wearing would be a gross understatement.  We can only assume that this ‘rudeness’? is an affectation of a third world, incredibly populated country that is struggling with quickly changing cultural practices clashing with western cultural expectations. It was a daily challenge not to vent our annoyance with them but hey, it’s their country!

We survived just over a day and a bit at Expo, queuing for 3 to 4 hours to get into a pavilion was path of the course. In hind site choosing Shanghai as an expo excursion was possibly not the most clever decision! Next time Afghanistan maybe would be a better option. at least it won’t be so crowded!

Being on a tour in a foreign country with Philippinos was quite an experience. The group was wonderful and watching them interact with the Chinese was fascinating. Being on a tour had its pluses and minuses. On the plus side it solved the (significant) language barrier but on the negative side we were dragged to third rate restaurants that were very disappointing. After a couple of days Fiona and I decided to go it alone and find our own way around (and our own food) this was the best move as we found some wonderful food and got to see some neighbourhoods that are not on the usual tourism trail. All in all the trip was a great experience and we will definitely head back to China and explore more, especially more of the country side. Our time in China reinforced our decision about the Philippines. The language issue is not an issue in the Philippines and frankly the people in the Philippines are much warmer than the Chinese and much more ‘like minded’ to us.

Our next step is to head down to Brisbane to catch up with Nadia and the family and see what happens next! Stay tuned!

Posted by: da76 | October 16, 2010

Heading home (via Shanghai)

Our project is over and it’s time to move on. Maggie and Geoff have flown over from Australia to spend a few weeks with us before we head to Manila (then Shanghai) island hopping on the way. The decision to visit Shanghai was purely spur of the moment as we discovered expo was on and we still have fond memories of the Brisbane Expo. After expo we head back to Australia to spend Christmas with Nadia and the family. We are hopeful that by January we will get another assignment from ABV. Our time in Bohol was wonderful, we made many new friends and feel that our efforts on the project will bear fruit over time. The Abatan River has great potential, it just needs the agreed financial support to really take off. Bohol was a fortunate first destination for us as no other place in the Philippines has captured our imagination as much nor are the other places as untouched. Fiona and I are seriously considering basing ourselves in Bohol for the next few years while we continue our volunteer work in Asia.

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