The changes in the landscape during the beginning of the wet season are quite enchanting. Every day on the way to work we pass either the Nam Khan or the mighty Mekong River and have delighted in seeing the levels increase notably each day. All of the bamboo bridges have been washed away, to be built again at the end of the season.
The surrounding mountains and fields were green when we arrived, but have taken on an almost neon hue now, with the rampant new growth that occurs this time of year. You can literally sit down and watch the grass grow in August. The heat, humidity and daily rain creates an environment not unlike a green house.
After living in Brisbane on and off for many years, Damo and I are no strangers to fierce storms and torrential downpours, but Laos has definitely taken things to the next level. Thunder echoes off the surrounding mountains which seems to funnel and amplify the sound so you can actually feel the sounds waves pass through you with each crack of lightning. We’ve spent an incalculable amount of time gazing out the window at the approaching light show. Sometimes wide fronts come in, and it seems like a solid wall of water is coming right for you. Our top-floor apartment is newly built, but the biggest downpours always find a way in, and we quickly rearrange the furniture and run around with mops and towels. Our dirt road sometimes turns into a small river, but scooter riders still plunge through bravely. If someone topples over, others run out to help. Neighbours pass beers around as friends help them move furniture when the water starts lapping through the door.
Maintenance of the roads is ongoing this time of year. The drive to work reveals new landslides and washouts each day. “Potholes” are everywhere, and I’ve decided they must only grow at night, since a small bump in the road turns into a cavernous pit from one day to the next. A four-wheel drive in front of us was half-swallowed by one such beast disguised as a puddle.
Most days are hot and muggy with the afternoon and evening storms providing short-lived relief. In town, people get frantic during the build-up, with everyone trying to find cover before it hits. In the villages, the streets quickly fill with children who play and splash in the puddles and ditches. Nearly everyone has an umbrella – even those riding scooters. If there’s two people on a scooter, they place one umbrella over the handlebars, protecting the instrument cluster and their legs, and the passenger will hold the second umbrella over the rider’s head. This is much trickier than it looks. When Damo and I tried it, I successfully blinded Damo and we nearly rode into a ditch. I think I’ll leave that particular skill to the professionals. When the storm passes, broken umbrellas line the streets after being snatched by horizontal rain.
On days when the rain really sets in, life continues in town, albeit with less traffic. But out in the villages, there is no activity outside, with huts full of napping bodies and groups of men drinking Beer Lao. These are some of my favourite days – partly because you can wear pants without sweating. Sometimes, if it drops below 24 degrees, we even turn the hot water system on, have warm showers and sleep without the air-conditioning on. Acclimatising is taking longer than expected…but wet season or not, life continues for two sweaty volunteers from Tasmania.
When we arrived in Laos, we were provided with a handy list of public holidays from the Australian Embassy in Vientiane. We keep track of these holidays, but there seems to be a lot more celebration here in the north, and Damo and I are often surprised with special days at work.
On the way to work recently, I received a text from a co-worker inviting Damo and I to “Party fish Day”. We had no idea what this involved, but combining a party with fish can only be a good thing. It turned out to be National Fish Releasing and Conservation of Aquatic and Wildlife Day. Silly us.
The agricultural college where we volunteer has 28 different farm units, including a fish farm. So every year on Party Fish Day, they release fingerlings into their surrounding ponds to grow fat and feed the students. They also release fish into the wild to help restock the local rivers. Releasing fish is thirsty work, so afterwards there is a large lunch, washed down with copious amounts of Beer Lao and Lao Lao (rice whiskey). No Lao party is complete without a bit of traditional dancing, karaoke and patonk (Pétanque).
Party Fish Day was our introduction to traditional Lao dancing. To be clear, there’s many different kinds of traditional dance in Lao, but often at large gatherings people break out the Lam Vong – the national dance of Laos. It’s essentially a couples dance without any touching. Men form an inner circle, and female partners an outer circle, and you dance in front of your partner whilst the circle slowing moves anti-clockwise. I’m obviously not a natural, but what I took away from the experience is that rather than shimmying in time to the music, you slowly move your hands in a rotating pattern whilst trying not to use your legs or move your hips. Sounds simple, right? It certainly looked easy, but despite having flexible fingers, I couldn’t seem to match the gestures or speed of the other dancers. I can at least say that Damo and I provided a lot of entertainment to the audience…