Sounds of a Lao PULSE Summer

In the USA, there is generally a song of the summer that captures the airways. My life in Lao follows a different daily playlist of sounds that punctuates most days. No need for a wristwatch, the sounds of the day tell me what time it is.

4 a.m.                  First chimes at the Buddhist temple across the street (a loud triangle bell)

4:01 a.m.             Neighborhood dogs respond, lots of dogs, a canine choir that appears to grow daily, like the “wave” at a football game, gaining size, volume and momentum as it races around the stadium, or in this case answering back to the chimes.

5 a.m.                  Second chimes at the Buddhist temple.

5:01 a.m.             Dogs can’t be bothered this time around, they have started their morning already.

6 a.m.                  Drums at the Buddhist temple, time to get up and start my day.

“Sabaidee!” all around as I leave my building. The night guard, the building manager, the market women across the street.

Giant “clang clang clang” as I get my scooter out of the lock-up and rev its little engine to start my eight-minute commute.

Head to work. The most prominent sound is the scooter fleet, think of a high pitched whine. Not a motorcycle gang. No Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Easy Rider here. More like a large squadron of mosquitos that you for once, thankfully, are part of rather than the feast.

Absent Sounds That I Don’t Miss: Morning radio for the commute, news, weather reporting on a 20-minute cycle. Is any of it good news? “Ping ping ping” of the mobile phone from the back seat of my car where it goes off with texts, calls, voicemails, alarms, urgently pleading for attention. Honking horns of Chicago rush hour. The piercing sound of another ambulance. My commentary about the driving habits of others, offering suggestions of, well, you know….

Back to Present sounds: Once in my office, the sounds of the nursery school next door trickle in. At least twice a week there is a rousing rendition of the national anthem, Baby Shark, and other gems in little high pitched voices in stereo, very enthusiastically. You don’t know about Baby Shark? Neither did I but I could sing it in unison now. (Your guide to Baby Shark:

The day goes on, meetings, discussions, work plans: rapid fire back and forth from English to Lao language, well, just English for me. Trying to grasp some of the Lao language. “Nu.” Where was the accent on the word? It’s important because it can mean meat, snake, one, or several other words depending on where the accent is, or at least the way I pronounce it. Every-day-a-new-Lao-word added to my vocabulary goal, I should be at 60+ words by now. Epic language fail. I get a lot of strange looks and big smiles in the “Let’s let her practice her Lao” mode. (Perhaps the topic of a future blog or storytelling slam…).

The sound of rain, persistent during this season, its “shhhhhhhh” as it laughs at me dressed in my poncho, helmet, and face mask to run out and grab lunch on my scooter or drive to a different work location.

3 p.m. Local ice cream pushcart jingles its bells (think of childhood, it’s all I can do not to run down the street after the pushcart screaming “ICE CREAM” at the top of my lungs, I haven’t yet, but there are still many months left, so who knows…).

3:30 p.m. School bells ring, screams of delight as the nursery schoolers are let out for the day.

“Coffee run!” from a co-worker, hero of the late afternoon!

Sometime between the end of work and bed there are sounds of negotiating for vegetables in the market, cheers as sports are played with friends (badminton, petanque, football), BeerLao glasses clinking in “cheers” of another kind welcome new friends or send off others, karaoke Lao-style where even the most timid join in with the enthusiasm of a nursery schooler (maybe I should pull Baby Shark out of my back pocket? I hear it’s a crowd pleaser…).

As the sun has set, the Night Market near my apartment beckons. A mishmash of tourists, hawkers, food sizzling on a grill, balloons popping from the carnival games, giggles and shrieks from gaggles of teenage girls facing off with teenage boys, not roving together but acutely aware of each in a well-choreographed dance. Disco booming from crackling speakers, “tuk-tuk” drivers call out followed off the motors sputtering, zooming off to deliver their passengers. Sandwiched between all the noise is a plethora of spas, a quiet oasis of calm once you enter. Sabaidee!

I roll back to my building, lock my scooter up, and head upstairs to my apartment. I often take the stairs as I don’t want to add the elevator chimes to my day.  In my room I turn on the swap cooler/air conditioner and it vavooms and woooooshes to life, braving the heat and humidity that have set into my bedroom as it was locked up tight for the day. I think of its sound as the “I think I can I think I can” mantra that determines if sleep will come easily or require a battle.

As I climb into bed there’s one last sound and I know it will be time for sleep: a cacophony of cats several stories down on the street call out to me as their night wandering is just beginning. “Come out and play as we go wilding” I think they call to me. Tempting, but not tonight little cats of Lao, not tonight.

It’s been a good day, time to turn off the lights because the chimes start at 4 a.m., sharp.



  1. Helen, such a descriptive post-I feel like I can picture/ “hear” what you are describing- I hope you are able to get some ice cream from the cart during your assignment!! = ) (ps I know the baby shark song!)

  2. What a beautifully written perspective on enjoying all that life has to please your senses daily!!! More of us need to be aware of our surroundings in our every day life not just while on vacation or out of our element. Take time to smell the roses and please put the phone done. Be the change. Well done Helen

  3. Great blog Helen – I can just imagine being their with you!!! Oh and baby shark is the summer tune in my house too! Lessons in how to go global there I think!!

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