We arrived in Bangkok after a long flight from North America. It was great to see some familiar faces! Nicole, Tiffany (EcoGuides group), Alison, and I found our ways through the maze of airport terminals to meet up before our last flight to our final destination, Vientiane, Laos. As we stepped off the plane in Laos we were engulfed by an intense heat that we have never experienced in Canada. This was only the first of many surprises.
After going through the immigration office to get our visas (which proved to be a little difficult because most of the forms were in Lao), we were warmly greeted by Tom Drew, a Canadian working with the National University of Laos training primary animal care health workers. We got in a van and started our journey through Vientiane. The streets were packed with cars, motorbikes, and bicycles. There were little Lao women carrying baskets of produce and other items weighing over 50kg. The cornucopia of smells was absolutely amazing; the automobile pollution, many people in a small amount of space, food cooking on the street sides, and probably the most novel of them all, Laap (fermenting meat and body parts of various animals).
We spent the next few days exploring Vientiane, met Sonia (VWB’s Asian project coordinator) and Camille
(PhD student working with the EcoGuides), and reunited with Blanaid who we met during the retreat in Toronto. Vientiane is a bigger city with more tourism than Savannakhet, so this was a good place for us to start our transition into Lao culture. All four of us VWB volunteers bought beautiful sins (the traditional skirts worn by Lao women) and had our 1st traditional Lao massage – an hour of pure bliss costing less than $10. The food has taken some getting used to, but it is delicious unless you bite into a chili and your mouth will be on fire through the rest of the meal!
Then it was time for us to journey from Vientiane to Savannakhet, our new home for the next 3 months. The trip takes about 8-9 hours so we took an overnight bus. About 2 hours into the bus ride, the bus hit something and we all jerked awake as the bus came to a screeching halt. To this day, we still do not know what the bus hit, but there was a license plate and parts of a motorbike littering the road. Luckily, no people we involved in the accident. We continued the rest of our journey to Savannakhet and arrived at our Guest House at about 6am. We were all exhausted and passed out!
Our first day at SKU was a little stressful for us all. We had prepared presentations while we were in Canada to give on our first day at the University. When we arrived at SKU we were ushered into a conference room with about two dozen people, introductions were given, and the presentations started. The Lao professors gave us presentations on the major Do’s and Don’ts of Lao culture, agriculture in Lao, and the current goals of the quickly developing University. Then it was our turn! Sonia started by giving a brief introduction to VWB, Alison presented on Veterinary School in Canada, I talked about conservation in Canada, Nicole spoke about common zoonotic diseases in Canada, Tiffany discussed EcoTourism in Canada, and Camille finished with an overview of her PhD project and conservation of monkeys. The presentations went really well despite our nervousness, but little did we know that they were being recorded. The next day we had another meeting at SKU and they showed us the videos of ourselves giving the presentations and we found out that the presentations had also been shown to some of the classes at the University!
After our presentations, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant with some of the SKU teachers where they served us all kinds of strange foods. Two of the teachers were joking with us and enticing us to eat out of the ‘mystery’ dish. I finally broke down and took the first bite of boiled pig stomach. Then Tiffany and Alison jumped in and tried it also. It was really chewy and had a strange metallic aftertaste. There was also intestine, kidney, liver, uterus, and skin. What a meal!
Over the next few days we had more meetings at SKU with various personnel. We took a tour of the campus and were standing outside of a geometry class. Every single student in the class stopped paying attention to the teacher to turn around and look at us. We really draw a lot of attention!
That weekend we went to Monkey Forest and got to feed the lively little Macaque monkeys that seemed to pop out of nowhere. We sat as a group and did some team build ng activities while the monkeys tried to steal our food. Then we took a trip over a river (which our TukTuk got stuck) and visited our first Temple. The statutes of the Buddha were amazingly intricate and the artwork on the walls was stunning. On the way home we decided to stop at a village Rocket Festival, which was an amazing taste of Lao culture that will never be forgotten! The festival is held every 3 years and its purpose is to bring the rain in the upcoming rainy season. They shoot rockets high into the sky and any rockets that don’t reach the sky means someone is going to be thrown into a mud pit. As we were getting ready to leave a group of mud encrusted men came over and were trying to get us to come play in the mud. Knowing that we had a dinner party to be at in less than an hour, we tried to politely decline, but they made sure to at least smear mud all over Alison’s and my face. It was an awesome weekend to recharge and reboot before our first official week at work!