How a vegan restaurant in Singapore tries to fight cancer

Along the tourist-flocked Chinatown Food Street in Singapore, a long-established restaurant hails potential customers to get inside with its free spiritual books in English and Chinese, old tapes and CDs with Chinese labels.

Nothing in its facade is delicious. A menu of three dishes handwritten in Chinese and English on a chalk board: BROWN RICE WITH FOUR VEGETABLES, SOUP AND PASTA.

If not with the stickers of positive ratings from popular travel companies or the book that you take for free, you wouldn’t get in.

Unless, you’re vegan.

What is veganism? According to The Vegan Society, it is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

What is common among vegans is the plant-based diet, avoiding animal meat and by-products such as dairy, eggs and honey. Vegetarians also avoid animal meat but still eat some animal by-products.

Inside the restaurant, there are more shelves of tapes, CDs, books and pamphlets about Buddhism, spirituality, meditation, the story of underworld, and the Dhamma, and symbolic instruments. And another chalk board of the menu.

At the edge of the counter, a bunch of chopsticks, spoons and some bottles of condiments. About 10 small wooden square tables each with four stools are arranged neatly. Posters of meaningful sayings, an altar of a Buddha figure the one with multiple arms adorn the walls.

Is this really a restaurant? Despite the absence of burning incense, nothing smells like food in this place. But, before a customer could imagine the menu or choose a table, a tall skinny man asks from his chair, “What’s your order?”

Adrian Seow relays the order in Chinese to his father, who will then go to the kitchen and comes out with a plate or bowl of a dish. The rest is self-service, such as getting a glass of water from a dispenser or cold drinks in the fridge, utensils, and even putting them all to a basin for washing after eating.

The chef, his mother Wong, is leisurely watching television, sitting on an elevated platform at the corner also surrounded with packed bookshelves.


“She is the owner, not me,” Adrian says and takes a spoonful of his soup while surfing the internet on his tablet.

Wong, a petite woman with shoulder length hair and humble smile in lieu of her limited English, conquered leukemia 22 years ago and at the same time opened up the Ci Yan Organic Vegetarian Health Food.

Upon learning that she had Stage 3 cancer, Wong swore to survive and dedicate the rest of her life serving other people. Nobody convinced her to be vegan, neither her friends nor religion, as she adheres with the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It was after her bone marrow transplant that Wong could only eat certain foods and she realized that vegetables are actually much better for her health.

When she decided to be vegan, it was hard to look for organic vegetables and fruits during that time, so opened up a vegan restaurant to provide healthy meals for other people.

“What you eat is important”, says Wong, advocating that being vegan or vegetarian does not mean healthy. “At the end of the day, a healthy mind is more important.”

“It’s not just about changing your diet, but having a reason to live,” Andrew says, who was vegan for three years long before his mother’s diagnosis. “I’m not a vegan anymore, but I always make sure to have a balanced diet.” In the last 11 years, Andrew has helped Wong manage the restaurant, where he had most of his meals. “The question is not about why you got cancer but how are you gonna fight it. Perfect balance is having good nutritional food with a healthy mind,” he says.

Outside Wong’s place, the Chinatown Food Street is teeming with food stalls and restaurants, cooking Singapore’s best traditional dishes. The air is redolent with barbecue smoke.

Salvaging Tai O in Hong Kong


By Lorie Ann Cascaro

HONG KONG — One of the city’s tourist attractions for its centuries-old stilt houses and salt pans, dried fish and seafoods, Tai O screams out for salvaging.

Despite a decreasing population of nearly 3,000, Tai O had survived typhoons, landslide and big fire in 2000.

Such oldest existing fishing village in Hong Kong has remained steadfast, as villagers thrive to beautify the old and rubbish.

Since fishing ceased to be the villagers’ primary livelihood, tourism has provided a source of income for vendors and business owners. In 2000, the village had a total of 300,000 visitors, 90 percent of which were Hong Kong citizens, according to a 2010 study.

But, massive influx of tourists and development projects in the village have caused the destruction of habitat for marine plants and animals.

The big motors in their modern boats tell how far they need to sail to catch fish.

Garbages found under the stilt houses, in small canals and vacant lots show the persisting problems of solid waste disposal and household discharges.

As their backyards and street corners gather up scrap metals and old appliances, their traditional architecture and implements have slowly been eroded from their daily lives.

An old woman cycles along the salt pans in Tai O village on a Wednesday afternoon. The village once had a salt-making industry for export that ended in 1970s. The government wanted to restore a few thousand square meters of the pans but the salt makers are already over 70 years old.
An old woman cycles along the salt pans in Tai O village on a Wednesday afternoon. The village once had a salt-making industry for export that ended in 1970s. The government wanted to restore a few thousand square meters of the pans but the salt makers are already over 70 years old. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

A fisherman in Tai O starts up his motorized boat on a Wednesday afternoon. The village had been flooded many times by storms but despite the threat of coastal flooding, it has not fully developed a strategy for coastal flood management, according to a 2013 research[1]. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

Tai O, Hong Kong PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro
Some Tai O villagers buy fish from the fishermen to put salt and dry in the sun and sell in the market for a meager income. Most tourists from Hong Kong visit the village for dried fish and seafoods. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

The stilt houses in Tai O, locally called Pang O, have existed since 200 years ago [2] to respond to the practical need of fishing people to have a land-based residence. They are designed to protect them from high tides, but the impacts of climate change pose coastal flood risk[3]. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

Amid the cracked walls and dilapidated buildings in Tai O, villagers thrive to beautify the façade of their houses, especially that tourism helps them earn income. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO
Amid the cracked walls and dilapidated buildings in Tai O, villagers thrive to beautify the façade of their houses, especially that tourism helps them earn income. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

The traditional hats, which have a round brim and crown that distinguish the Tanka people[4], the major ethnic group in Tai O, have almost lost touch in their daily lives. Only seen being used by street sweepers, the hats can be bought at HK$40 from a store owned by two old women who made the hats themselves. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

Old boats, like other unused implements in Tai O, found their places, unmoved and unintentionally serving as an artifact of a fading culture of the village. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

The people in Tai O continue to pass on the skills in boat-making to the young generation, especially crafting the traditional dragon boats that also provide a source of income. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

The Dragon Boat Festival is a parade of Tai O’s dieties in long traditional boats made by the villagers to drive away “water ghosts” that caused epidemics hundred years ago. Today, they continue to make boats also for dragon boat racing that has been a popular water sport event, not only in Hong Kong, but also in other Asian countries. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

Villagers keep scrap metals and other old items in their yards either to find new usage or make money by selling them. They bring life to their places by planting flowers and vegetables in used boxes and pots. PHOTO BY LORIE ANN CASCARO

[1] Chan, Faith Ka ShunView Profile; Adekola, Olalekan A; Ng, Cho NamView Profile; Mitchell, GordonView Profile; McDonald, Adrian TView Profile. Environmental Practice15.3 (Sep 2013): 201-219.

[2] Dryland and Syed. 2013. Tai O Village. Retrieved from

[3] Chan, Faith Ka ShunView Profile; Adekola, Olalekan A; Ng, Cho NamView Profile; Mitchell, GordonView Profile; McDonald, Adrian TView Profile. Environmental Practice15.3 (Sep 2013): 201-219.

[4] Dryland and Syed. 2013. Tai O Village. Retrieved from

Hong Kong food waste reduction counts on children, creativity

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

HONG KONG — The city is counting on the younger generations in solving the problem on food waste, while being creative in promoting sustainable habits.

The Environment Bureau launched last December the pre-primary environmental education kit to raise children’s awareness of protecting resources and reducing food waste. It points out that childhood is “an important part of environmental education.”

The bureau also prompted the education sector to cultivate among children the culture of “use less, waste less,” which is the theme of the government’s food waste plan launched in February 2014.

Supported by different sectors, the Environmental Campaign Committee set up last June an internet platform called “Waste Less School” for kindergarten, primary and secondary students. It aims to promote “zero food waste” among children, extend awareness through school events and encourage the public “to change their behavior.”

In its plan, the government aims to cut the disposal rate to landfill of municipal solid waste on a per capita basis by two-fifth in 2022. It says the critical part is to reduce food waste production.

Food waste here reached 3,600 tons every day in 2011. Households produced two-thirds of it. The rest came from food-related commercial and industrial establishments.

The amount of food waste from households had increased from 786,200 tons in 2008 to 925,200 tons in 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Department.

“Apparently, it is still more effective to start the environmental education at home,” said Wise Wong, who used to teach at the York International Kindergarten. Children learn the value of conserving food from their parents first, she added.

Sandy Zeng from Hung Hom district said she occasionally takes her 4-year-old daughter to a farm to show where their food came from. The child can see the tedious processes of planting and harvesting vegetables in the farm, and learn to give importance to the food and its sources, Zeng said.

Since the Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign began in May 2013, schools have done various activities and platforms for their students to participate in reducing food waste.

Meanwhile, Wong said it is effective to use animation characters to instill the values among children, especially if the ones being used are their favorite cartoons. “It’s like having a role model in a creative and fun way,” she added.

Cartoon character “Big Waster” that symbolizes food wastage in the FWHK Campaign “is gradually gaining popularity,” according to its press release. It also went online to interact with the public, especially the young generation, through its Facebook page.

"Big Waster" of Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign poses in a poster retrieved from its Facebook page.
“Big Waster” of Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign poses in a poster retrieved from its Facebook page.

However, it is yet to be surveyed how Hong Kong people respond to animation characters and mascots of environmental and other campaigns, said Ms. Wong of the industry support section of Create Hong Kong that has the mandate to boost creative industries.

CreateHK held in 2013 the first mascot design competition here for “Hong Kong: Our Home” Campaign. Its four themes each with a mascot were “Hip Hong Kong,” “Vibrant Hong Kong,” “Caring Hong Kong,” and “Fresh Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s food donors seek funding for sustainability

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

Hong Kong — Helping to reduce food waste in Hong Kong, food donors are seeking a funding to sustain their operations, Astor Wong, project manager of Food Angel by Bo Charity Foundation, said Monday.

“Like all non-subvented charities, money is always one of the biggest challenges,” she said in an email. Food Angel had saved 752,600 kilograms of surplus food from going to wasteland, and served 1,030,000 meals since March 2011, its website states.

Some 30 small and medium food donation organizations have collected and distributed recycled meat and vegetables to Hong Kong people, said Celia Fung, former environmental affairs officer of Friends of Earth (FOE), a charitable organization here, in a phone interview on Monday.

Having worked with FOE in the last 4 years, Fung said they began advocating food waste reduction in 2010 by pushing markets to donate their surplus foods to organizations that distribute recycled foods, she said.

“The campaign was successful,” she said, however, food donors “cannot put all their efforts in saving food.” She said, as non-profitable groups, they collect and distribute for free, thus, seeking subsidies to be sustainable.

Another challenge that food donors face is the difficulty in persuading commercial sectors to donate food because of safety issues, Fung said.

As for Wong, it takes more time to popularize food donation among industries because the concept of food recycling is “still relatively new in Hong Kong.”

Furthermore, commercial sectors hesitate to donate their surplus foods because there is no law to regulate food donations, including food recycling measures, Fung said. She said non-government organizations have been lobbying policies related to food waste management for three years now, but, the legislative body has other priorities. She added that while accident related to food recycling has not occurred yet, there is no urgency for the government to tackle the issue.

Hong Kong produces an average of 9,000 tons per day (tpd) of municipal solid waste, one-third of which were food waste, Fung said.

Solid waste monitoring reports show that food waste was reduced by 247 tpd, from 3,584 tpd in 2011 to 3,337 tpd in 2012. This was due to reduction of food waste in industrial and commercial waste from 1,056 tpd in 2011 to 809 tpd in 2012.

Fung said the campaign has helped to achieve such decrease in food waste, adding that food donors had served meals to over a thousand families.

On the contrary, the same data show 282 tpd increase in total municipal solid waste from 8,996 tpd in 2011 to 9,278 tpd in 2012. The government is yet to update data on solid waste monitoring in 2013 and 2014.

Meanwhile, environmental experts and officers from 22 Asian countries will exchange views about solid waste management, including food waste, during the Eco Expo Asia-International Trade Fair on Environmental Protection, being held from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 in Hong Kong, Sum Luk of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council said Monday in a phone interview.

“Food waste remains a big problem in Hong Kong, but it could be solved if people would only get what they can eat,” Jerry Lo, 28, sales executive of Harbour Grand Hong Kong and resident in Tsing Yi, said in an interview.

Street food in Mong Kok by Lorie Ann Cascaro
A man passes by a food shop at Mong Kok, Hong Kong. (PHOTO BY Lorie Ann Cascaro)

On the Lao side, Naga fireballs remain…

By Lorie Ann Cascaro on October 24 2013 5:59 pm

People swarm into a small village in Vientiane to see the Naga fireballs themselves despite others’ belief that the phenomenon is but a legend

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 24 Octet) – Somewhere around 7 p.m., visitors and the villagers of Pakngum in Vientiane see hundreds of golden lanterns rising slowly beyond a full moon from Thailand’s Nong Khai province. Between Laos and Thailand, where the Nam Ngum and Mekong rivers converge, an intermittent exchange of fireworks conveys the people’s excitement at seeing the Naga fireballs shoot up from the deep recesses of the river.

Locally known as “bangfai paya nak” and described as pinkish-red fireballs, they surge like rockets every Boun Ork Phansa at the end of Buddhist Lent, says Mr Khamphuan Bouthsingkham, 65, who was the village’s chief 13 years ago, speaking in an interview hours earlier. He says that according to their ancestors, the Naga festival has been a 400-year-old celebration above and “under” the Mekong. “While the human world holds a festival with boat races and fireworks, the Nagas underwater create fireballs to honour the Buddha,” he explains.

Buddhists believe the Nagas are servants of Buddha in the form of water snakes residing in the Mekong River. As Mr Khamphuan imagines, they resemble the structures of dragon-like snakes with golden and green bodies found in the four corners of a small tower inside the compound of the village’s Vat Pra That Yadee Sama Khee Tham Thin Soy. Built in 1570, the temple has a 500-year-old stupa sitting about 50 meters from the riverbank. He points out that the Naga visited the stupa 30 years ago as people discovered its tracks from the riverbank.

The Naga also took a human form, Mr Khamphuan continues. Sometime in 1978 or 1979, a novice monk crossed the Mekong to Thailand before the Naga fireballs appeared and bought two boxes of powder used to make explosives. The young monk has since disappeared, but people believe he was the Naga who used the powder to make fireballs.

The young Khamphuan saw fireballs rapidly emerging from the water and rising up past a big tree before they disappeared. He grew up in a traditional house which is a hundred footsteps away from the confluence of the two rivers. “They came out right from the centre,” he says, and points to an imaginary line in between the two flows. The water from the Nam Ngum is greyish green with a steady flow, while the one from the Mekong is brown and fast.

He has never seen the Naga, but a village fisherman did see it some years ago. Mr Khamphuan tells Vientiane Times that on the day of the festival, the man’s fishing net caught something heavy. Instead of pulling it up, the man was pulled into the river. Thought to be dead by his family and neighbours, the man emerged on the third day after his disappearance and told them about an underwater festival. He was sent back to tell the villagers to honour the Naga by refraining from fishing on Buddhist days, and practicing the precepts of Buddhism such as not telling lies.

The villagers’ strong belief in the Naga and Buddhist teachings might have influenced the emergence of the fireballs. Mr Khamphuan ’s 99-year-old father, Mr Thit Saun Bouthsingkham, says he saw hundreds of fireballs coming out of the river during his younger years. The only one left of his generation, this toothless old man narrates his earlier encounters with the fireballs. He says he could not touch them as they rose so quickly into the sky and there were hundreds of them coming out from the sides of his boat. But, as the environment changes and people’s belief fades, the fireballs seldom show up, he explains.

His granddaughter, Ms Lounee, 28, says she has seen fireballs every year for as long as she can remember. Her two children, a one-year-old and a five-year-old, also saw them last year, she adds. While decorating banana stems with flowers, candles and incense sticks that would be floated on the river later, she says “I expect to see them again tonight,” and smiles broadly.

But 13-year-old Jonas Onthavong from the distant village of Khosaath, who has been visiting Pakngum every year for the festival, has never seen any fireballs. He says he was too busy talking or playing with his friends and didn’t really care about them. Asked whether or not he believes they are real, he looks at the river and scratches his head with his left hand. “Ha-sip, ha-sip (50-50),” he says dismissively.

As the night darkens, everyone waits to see real Naga fireballs while drinking Beerlao and eating tam-mak-houng (papaya salad). Amid whistling firecrackers, a sailing boat loaded with some bubbly locals entertains the hovering crowd on the Lao side of the river. Hours pass as fireworks and flying lanterns continue to amuse the watchers’ eyes. Until, a red light, like a laser point, appears and rises over the silhouette of the dark part of Thailand’s shore. It is too dark and far to figure out if it emerges from the river. The people who see it gasp in awe as the light quickly disappears. A few minutes later, another one appears, coming from the same direction as the first. More people are now looking in the same direction, waiting for another red light to rise. The third one rises after a longer wait. And who knows, how many more red “fireballs” rise that night.

Last year, many fireballs appeared the day after the festival when there was less noise along the river, Mr Khamphuan says, adding that the more visitors there are, the fewer fireballs are seen.

But, the existence of the Naga fireballs remains controversial. Online articles try to provide scientific explanations on how the fireballs could be formed but until then they remain theories. For example, American writer Bryan Dunning said during his weekly podcast, Skeptoid, in 2009 that the “scientific” explanation of the Naga fireballs “is not very scientific at all”.

Dunning argued that there are “two fatal flaws” with the hypothesis that the decomposition of organic matter in the riverbed produces methane gas, which bubbles to the surface, have caused the fireballs. He said “methane can only burn in an oxygen environment within a specific range of concentrations” and “requires the presence of phosphine combined with phosphorous tetrahydride, whose needed proportions are unlikely to be found in nature.” But, he added that even if such conditions did exist in the Mekong, “the combination of oxygen, methane and phosphorus compounds burns bright bluish-green with a sudden pop, producing black smoke” and “under no conditions does it burn slowly, or red, or rise up in the air as a fireball”.

Some people have tried to solve the mystery or prove that the phenomenon is a mere fraud. In 2002, a Thai TV programme showed how soldiers were found on the Lao side firing tracer bullets to produce what those from the other side of the river saw as the fireballs.

Meanwhile, whether or not the red fireballs that people have seen in recent years are actually firecrackers discreetly set off to attract tourists does not matter for Mr Khamphuan . “Why should I care about those stories when I saw the fireballs myself?” Nevertheless, as long as there are still people like the Bouthsingkhams who hope to see them every Ork Phansa, the festival will continue to draw visitors to small villages like Pakngum and let them get to know its humble people.

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]

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Cooking hot to keep the climate cool

By Lorie Ann Cascaro on October 16 2013 4:00 pm

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 16 Oct) – Buying a new cookstove is not easy. Sellers offer heaps of different models that look alike and as a buyer, how do you know how it performs at home? Not to mention that the human brain does not like to make decisions. The problem is apparent in Dongmakind market, along Road Number 10 to Thangon. All outlets offer a wide array of models.

But, if you believe the saleswoman, Ms Sai, 35, choosing has now become easy. She sells something that the others don’t have yet – the improved tao payat (fuel-saving cookstove). A prominent, blue sticker distinguishes the stoves and a tarpaulin poster states that these stoves are “quality-tested and more efficient” than traditional stoves.

“They are better,” Ms Sai, who had sold two out of a first batch of five cookstoves a week after she began displaying them, tells Vientiane Times on a Friday afternoon. She promotes the stoves to customers, saying they are fuel-saving, long lasting, and friendly to health and the environment.

She is among Vientiane’s first five retailers of a new, improved tao payat model, which resulted from a project of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation and the local Non-Profit Association Normai. It was paid for by the European Union, Oxfam and the Blue Moon Fund.

The project started in Savannakhet in 2011, where in 2012 about 1,500 stoves already have been sold. Sales will reach 5,000 in 2013 and go up to 20,000 in 2014. Now, the first stoves are being sold in Vientiane. They are also going to be promoted at a special booth during the upcoming boat racing festival.

Mr Bastiaan Teune, Sector Leader of Renewable Energy of SNV in Laos, says the project tries to connect the private and the public sector and to improve the lives of the people as its main purpose. It focuses on making the traditional stove more efficient and durable. By replacing the old tao dam with the improved tao payat, a household can save about 20 percent of fuel, which is equal to 300 grams of charcoal per day. It also boils water faster.

This might not look like much, but quickly becomes so when scaled-up. In total, Laos can save at least 30,000 kilograms of charcoal per day with the 100,000 improved cook stoves that the project aims to produce by 2016. About 50,000 cookstoves of them will be distributed in Vientiane capital and province, 25,000 each in the provinces of Savannakhet and Champasak.

Mr Teune explains that the roughly 100kg charcoal that one new cookstove saves per year results in greenhouse gases equal of one ton of carbon dioxide (CO2). The total greenhouse gas emissions reduced by the project during the period of 2014-2016 will be 150,000 tons, he says. “This is equal to the emissions of 20,000 passengers flying from Vientiane to Amsterdam and back,” Mr Teune explains.

The reduced greenhouse gas emissions could theoretically also be sold on the international carbon market in the future. Unfortunately, they’re not worth that much nowadays. “The ‘market price’ to sell one ton used to be US$10, but is now at an all-time low at US$1 only due to the low international commitment to the Kyoto Protocol,” adds Mr Teune. The greenhouse gases saved by the improved cookstoves would have a total market value of about US$150,000.

While it is true that the use of the improved tao payat reduces carbon emissions from cooking, it does not stop suppliers of charcoal to cut trees and char wood. But wood and charcoal can be considered as renewable sources of energy only if another tree is planted after cutting one, says Mr Teune. This is beyond the scope of this particular project, and he has made steps to do so.

The producer of the first cookstoves in Vientiane is Mr Loth, 35, whose workshop lies in Oudomphone village. On the ground, hundreds of grey tao payat stoves wait to be baked in the kiln. While his employees are crafting stove after stove in the back, he says that he doesn’t expect to earn much more from supplying the new-designed stoves instead of the old ones, due to the longer durability. “But after using three of these stoves at home, I knew then that they would quickly sell out in the market”, says Mr Loth. An improved cookstove costs 10,000 kip more than a traditional cookstove but it lasts a year and a half longer, he adds.

Around the world, 1.6 billion people depend on charcoal and wood for cooking. In Laos, over 80 percent of the households still use traditional stoves for cooking, at least twice a day. Cookstoves are “detrimental to the livelihood of people,” according to Mr Teune, and their use also brings certain risks. Firewood takes time to collect, for example, and smoke creates a lot of health problems. Worldwide, about four million people die per year from smoke-induced diseases. Increasing the efficiency of the cookstoves lessens all these troubles.

Another long-term impact of the project, Mr Teune says, is the introduction of quality standards: “Let producers agree on quality standards with retailers. Consumers will distinguish a good stove from a traditional one by the blue label. The government can take part in quality assurance, using better methods to check the efficiency of stoves.”

Testing is done by the Institute of Renewable Energy and New Materials of the Ministry of Science and Technology, where staff tests the efficiency and characteristics of different models. For the first time ever a quality standard is introduced to the cookstove market in Lao PDR.

The second outlet that features the tao payat in Dongmakind market is the one of Ms Khek, 29. The new model is lined up together with old ones like the tao dam (black stove) or stoves made of cement. She points to a small wood-fired stove when asked which one sells best. Why? “It’s the cheapest and costs only 20,000 kip each. But it can only last for seven to eight months.” She notes that although the improved tao payat costs 45,000 kip, it can last up to two years. On her shelf, a quite special one, the first ever produced cookstove with the serial number 001, produced by Mr Loth, waits for his new owner.

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]

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More Koreans choose Laos

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

A growing number of Koreans visit the country for “healing” while some of them stay for retirement, business or volunteering

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/02 September) — The air is redolent of mouthwatering grilled meat at Dr. Hye-Hun Hwang’s residence at Naxay village in Sisattanak district. He is hosting a dinner party for the opening of his consultation clinic, KMC Centre, with a few of his Korean friends – volunteer nurses, doctors, professors and businessmen here. Without any formal ceremony, everyone just begins eating kimchi, kimbap, grilled pork and chicken, fresh leafy vegetables and other Korean dishes, and drink Soju and Beerlao.

Some of Dr. Hwang’s visitors have lived in Vientiane for many years, like Mr. Kyu-Suk Han, the owner of K-Mart on Dongpalane Road. “There was no other Korean food mart before I opened it in 2007,” he tells Vientiane Times. While most of his customers are Lao, Mr. Han expects to have more Korean customers with more and more of his fellow countrymen visiting Laos or opting to live here. Over 2,000 Koreans are now living here for work or business reasons.

Laos has become attractive to Koreans recently. Nearly 54,000 visited the country last year, an increase in arrivals from Korea of 55 percent compared to 2011, according to the Director General of the Tourism Marketing Department at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, Mr. Saly Phimphinith. He expects a continuous influx of Koreans here this year as well. They do not require entry visas and direct flights from Seoul to Vientiane will be regular by October.

“Laos is attractive to me because I have a chance to work and enjoy my life here. And I still have many chances to run another business here,” Mr. Han says.

It is especially citizens from Seoul that choose this option, says Dr. Young Un Choi, an international surgeon with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) who is working as a volunteer at the Lao National Children’s Hospital in Vientiane. “The economic problems in Korea these days are leading more elderly Korean people to consider Laos as their second life place.” He mentions Kolao, which is owned by a successful group of Korean investors. It is probably best known for automobile sales, repairs and maintenance, but is also involved in banking, farming and the K-Plaza electronics shop. The families of young Koreans who work for the company have taken up residence here.

In Seoul, space is becoming scarce. Almost one quarter of the citizens of the Republic of Korea live in the capital. The best companies, hospitals, schools/universities, and even restaurants are based in Seoul, according to Dr. In-Chang Hwang, also a volunteer doctor at the Children’s Hospital: “Although the concentration into Seoul makes it really difficult to survive in this megacity, most Korean people still hope to live in the capital.”

The situation, he continued, has resulted in a big increase in housing prices compared to that in other cities. He explains that, for example, “to rent a beautiful private house with a garden in Seoul, one has to pay US$14,000 per month.” The monthly rental of a small apartment with one bedroom and one bathroom in Gang-Nam (south of the Han River) area, costs US$2,000 plus a deposit of US$2,000. For an apartment with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, rental is about US$3,500 a month. To buy a “big house”, one has to put up anywhere between US$400,000 and US$2,000,000.

On the contrary, in Vientiane, one can rent a big house with four bedrooms for US$480 a month. “The KOICA office pays the monthly rental fee for my house, which is bigger than anything I could rent or buy in Seoul for my entire life,” he says.

Therefore, many “average Korean people” want to live in less developed countries after retirement, Dr. In-Chang Hwang says. Normally, they “save money during their early career to send their offspring to university, to get married and buy a house” and, consequently, they do not have enough money to live in Seoul. Their choices are limited, he noted. Either they find an appropriate place in a smaller city or a peaceful (and less expensive) place in other countries. The majority of Korean people choose the first option. They move to suburbs or another, smaller city. However, many emigrants choose Laos: “For people who are looking for more peaceful and calm country, the Lao PDR is a good option.”


But Koreans don’t pick Laos only for monetary reasons. There is a recent trend in Korean society that Dr. In-Chang calls “healing”. He explains: “There is a new consciousness that people need to heal their minds to live a peaceful and happy life. It means getting rid of our obsessions about money and power, and just LET IT BE AS IT IS.” He mentions a Korean talk show on late night TV called “Healing Camp, Aren’t You Happy”, which has been covering “healing” dishes since 2011. Blogs that introduce traditional medicine are increasingly popular. Other “healing” trends in Korea include “healing” music, “healing” travel, “healing” exhibitions and “healing” movies.

He says “healing” is essential for every marketing strategy. “The social trend is that we have to heal ourselves to strengthen our mental health and to be successful. Why? Just to survive in this competitive society,” he explains.

The “healing” trend has also changed the mindset of young Korean travelers. Last May, 29-year-old Korean Hee Su Jung stayed in Vangvieng for a full 12 days. She saw it as “therapy”. College students in Seoul, Choo Jiyong and Bae Joong Hyeon travelled together in Vangvieng and Luang Prabang for 10 days last August. “I think that if I get tired of living a city life, I may come back here and stay, just drawing all day long and going swimming. That’s something I couldn’t get tired of,” said Hyeon. They went tubing and kayaking in Vangvieng, and swimming in Kuangxi waterfall in Luang Prabang. “We also went to local markets and stores just looking around, observing how people live. It was very interesting. I would say my favorite experience in Laos was meeting the people,” said Jiyong. Admitting that their whole trip to Laos was cheap, both Korean students said they chose the country for its nature and culture.

“For healing our injured minds, Laos is one of the best places in the world,” says Dr. In-Chang Hwang. Word has long gotten back to his home country. Tour operators in Korea are advertising Laos as a tourism destination for “healing” with ads like “Laos Healing Tour”. There is no end to the Korean influx in sight.

(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)

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Noodles and raw veggies

Eating raw vegetables: a ‘healing’ experience

By Lorie Ann Cascaro on June 11 2013 2:56 pm

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/11 June) — A plateful of raw mint, basil leaves, cabbage, sliced string beans and lime was served on my table ahead of the rice noodle (feu) soup that I ordered.

Then small bowls of raw bean sprouts and suki, a sauce made of ground peanuts and garlic cooked in oil with a dash of chili powder, arrived before I finally got my noodle soup.

It was my first day after arriving in Vientiane a month ago. My colleagues from the Vientiane Times, Pou and Samly, took me to a popular noodle restaurant here.

I needed a heavy meal at the time, but eating those raw vegetables piqued my appetite. I already knew though that Lao people eat raw vegetables, either with noodle soup or any dish. Despite my strong desire to try everything they eat here, it was totally different when you’re about to actually do it.

Lao people eat raw vegetables and leaves that we don’t usually eat in the Philippines, or at least in Davao City.

They wrap dumplings with wild betel leaves aside from cabbage and lettuce. They eat raw morning glory, string beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, dragon-bone beans and young leaves from mango trees.

Some people also eat bergamot leaves, which are often cooked with fried meat or insects. Most Lao dishes contain raw garlic, along with other seasonings.

The first time that I ate them, I was worried that my stomach couldn’t digest all those raw vegetables. I grew up thinking that meat and vegetables have to be cooked for good digestion and to kill the bacteria with the heat.

Eating my first raw vegetables with a supposed “delicious” noodle meal was nostalgic—I felt like my mother was staring at me when I was a kid, chiding, “Eat your vegetables!”

As they say, “There’s always a first time.” But, after a month, I have been craving for raw vegetables every meal everyday. They really taste so good, especially if dipped in a variety of sauces or mixed as salads.

I learned from reading online and health tips from friends in the medical field that eating raw vegetables allows one to consume more nutrients. They said cooking the vegetables destroys vital nutrients and kills enzymes that aid digestion.

Most vegetables that Lao people eat without cooking contain folic acid (vitamin B9), which is an important nutrient to prevent many types of cancer, fetal deformities, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, among other mental conditions.

Dr. Somchine Singharaj, head of Food and Drug Division of Vientiane Health Department, said folate, the form of folic acid in food, is essential for the brain and nervous system to function properly as it is needed for cellular growth and regeneration.

The health expert said uncooked vegetables contain higher amounts of folic acid and antioxidants, including lycopene, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E.

Many varieties of tropical fruits that are also rich in antioxidants and folic acid are sold in the streets here at reasonable prices.

As a city girl, I badly need detoxification from the processed and junk foods I eat almost every single day for lack of time and creativity. Surely, I will need much folic acid!

But, Singharaj said, you cannot get all the folic acid you need from food alone. If you badly lack folic acid and other nutrients, it is important to seek your doctor’s advice. But you may still want to experience Lao food while you can.

You will not only regain your sense of wellbeing while enjoying a calm and stress-free life in the countryside, but will also restore or reinforce your good health and youthfulness.

With the way people here eat their vegetables, Laos is indeed “a place for healing.”

(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is a fellow of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)

Has Vangvieng changed?

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

One year after the government closed the bars and put an end to drug outlets in Vangvieng, the village is struggling to get back to business. We spent a weekend.

It’s past midnight and the “jungle party” is in full swing. Maybe a hundred foreigners, most in their early and mid-20s and seemed drunk, dance to the beat of western house music. The beat drowns out the sounds of crickets and frogs that were supposed to be heard in a “jungle”. Here, in the outskirts of Vangvieng, the night is pitch black and the air damp. We go for drinks. There is not much to choose from: Beerlao, vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and the usual soft drinks – not to drink, but to mix with the harder stuff. The bartender, a tall, European guy who looks quite knackered himself, pours them in plastic cups. We join the dance floor again, which could be anywhere in this world. There is nothing “Lao” about it at all. Soon it starts drizzling, then raining, and we head back. It’s around 4 a.m. and the party is still going.

Vangvieng was once known to be the country’s backpacking town and had a worldwide reputation for its “happy pizzas” and intoxicating “mushrooms”. Everyone went “tubing” in the river. While floating down the Nam Xong River in old truck tubes, tourists got hammered in riverside bars, used “death slides” and fox swings to jump into the river. Many broke their necks. As the “Guardian” reports, 27 tourists died in the river in 2012.

All this is gone. “Entertainment” places are supposed to be closed before 12, based on a new policy after the authorities folded up all bars on the island and at the riverside a year ago. Restaurants are supposed to sell “unhappy” food now.

But the remnants of the “old” Vangvieng are still there. Some of our travel mates got their hands on a whole “happy” menu only about a hundred steps from our guesthouse. And the curfew seems to be only partially enforced. After a late-night Pad Thai in a self-proclaimed “best restaurant in town”, a tuk-tuk driver pulls up on the pavement, yells at us to get in his carriage, where a group of falangs (westerners) in short pants and “Beerlao” shirts is already waiting: “Jungle party! Tuk-tuk free.” This gathering seems to happen every Friday and lasts till early morning.

The next day, we get up late and go for lunch, choosing Otherside restaurant, one of the classical Vangvieng restaurants with scenic view of the karst hills at the backdrop of the foggy Nam Xong River. It rains the whole day. While we take a more comfortable approach to the nasty weather and enjoy the comfy pillows of the “Otherside”, the rainfall did not hinder Frenchman Stéphane Le Poupon, 28, and his two friends from tubing. We meet them in late afternoon, their hair still wet.

Stéphane has never seen the old, excessive Vangvieng himself. “If those bars were still open, I would not be here,” he says. For two years he has been working for Arasa Tour Laos, based in Vientiane, which caters to high class tourists, not backpackers. “Vangvieng is not good money for us. It is a backpacking village which means shitty hotels, shitty food and so on. People who go to my company want to go to Vientiane and Luang Prabang.”

One of his friends, Sam Leslie, 27, from Washington, D.C., was in Vangvieng in October last year. He remembers seeing the wreckage of the old bars and a ghost town. “Now, some bars are open again and there’s much more people in town. This restaurant had no customers, now you can see that about seven tables full,” he says.

The owner of the four-year-old restaurant, Ms Khamphaeng Chittavong, tells us she has only 30 percent of the customers that she used to have. Two years ago, she made an average of five to seven million kip per day in low season, and 10 to 12 million kip a day in high season. “We can still make money everyday but not too much. Since the bars were closed, it’s very bad. There are not many tourists anymore.” But she also sees a change for the better: “Before, they were drinking, jumping to the river, tubing while drunk, and so accidents happened. It was not good for the tourists. Now, the local people are happy because they can live peacefully with few tourists,” the 36-year-old woman says. She adds: “But they were also okay with many tourists because we were earning money.”

Unlike the Otherside restaurant, the Domon Guesthouse next door continues to earn enough. Ms Sengthida Lachanthaboun has been operating her 25-room guesthouse for three years now. “It’s good that the government closed the bars because I have less young guests now,” she bares and complains about young tourists whose rooms were “dirty” and who cared less about other guests especially at curfew hours. Back then, in high season, her rooms were almost full or 90 percent occupied. Now, albeit in low season, she can rent out only half of her rooms.

She says the western backpackers stayed for four days up to two weeks two years ago. “They stayed longer than the new groups of tourists now,” she said. The Domon’s guests lately had been from China, Japan and Korea, who came in groups but only stayed for a day or so to go kayaking.

This is the road that the government wants to take: Steer the visitors away from drinking to outdoor sports. According to Vangvieng District Tourism Office Head Mr Bounpanh Phommavong, the plan is to improve Vangvieng’s tourism potential through water experiences like kayaking, tubing, and boat riding at the Nam Xong River. He says in the next three years, Vangvieng will build better infrastructure like roads and bridges to access tourism spots, including the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall. A zipline, among other interesting activities, will soon be opened to attract more tourists, he says, adding that the government will train more establishment owners on “how to operate business under the guidelines.” According to Mr Bounpanh, there are only three “entertainment” venues operating at present, while the one is under monitoring and investigation as it had not followed the regulations, therefore, it’s not allowed to open for business yet.

It is difficult to say, if one only looks at the hard numbers, whether the new direction is working. Mr Bounpanh’s statistics show that the town had 68,000 visitors in the first six months this year. He is expecting 70,000 more for the second half of the year. This would be a total of 138,000, compared to 170,000 tourist arrivals in 2012.

Visitors Stéphane Le Poupon and Sam Leslie agree that Vangvieng will not change from being a backpacker spot. “I think they will make it the same, but a more responsible version of what it was before. They will have the bars but no more jumping, no more slides, the more dangerous things,” Leslie says. “I don’t see that as a negative thing. Even backpackers bring in a lot of money. Vangvieng with its karst mountains is still a very unique experience. It is also very very enjoyable even if there are only few bars,” he adds.

The jumping towers and the slides are gone. But the tubing still remains. So we decide to give it a go the next morning, while the rain is still pouring down. I never did tubing back in the Philippines. From the guesthouse, the river looks high and brown. We can’t even fathom the depth of the river. Back home, if the Davao River flows this fast, the downstream would be warned for preemptive evacuation. We’re all a bit scared.

We sign a waiver and get registered. The locals that rent out tubes ask my Filipina friend if she can swim. She ticks the “No” box and nobody blinks an eye. She gets a life vest. After a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride we reach the entry point. We face our fears with all the courage we can muster. The rain is falling on the river in crescendo… But off we go! We grab each other’s feet and float down, the tubes turning slowly in the brown water.

We stop at one of the four bars that are open for business along the river bank. Our friend, who can’t swim, doesn’t manage to reach the shore and floats away. “No problem!” yells a guy in a wooden boat and goes after her. The bar is a dull remnant of what it must have been one year ago: An extensive bar, blaring techno music, a pétanque court and a basketball basket. Some foreigners sip Beerlao.

It takes us 45 minutes to reach the end of the tubing route. Before the island, tubers have to head right and enter a small canal that branches off the main flow. We realize it quite late – there are no signs at all – and paddle hard. We barely make it. Our friend is too scared to get out of the tube. If she would have been alone, she would have floated down to Vientiane. Shortly before the end, a group of women from a restaurant above shout at us that we should stop. We wouldn’t have known that it was the end. Battling the current, we manage to dock at the bank – there was no sign that it was the exit – and save our lives by ourselves.

“Every activity should have a guide to make sure safety of lives and properties of tourists,” Mr Bounpanh from the District Tourism Office told the Vientiane Times. He is right. (With Lukas Messmer, Swiss freelance journalist)

Cycling to the Blue Lagoon in Vangvieng, Laos

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]