The views expressed in this blog are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of Cuso International. That being said, our views are at least three times more attention-grabbing than what you find on the official site. Now on to the exciting stuff!
Before I left for my Cuso volunteer assignment in Southeast Asia, I was frequently asked where I was going to live.
I had no idea.
Parents and friends both expressed concern that I didn’t know if I would be in an apartment or a house, what it would look like, and how big it would be. There were plenty of questions I didn’t have the answers to. Would it have a fridge? A stove? An air conditioner? A decent neighbourhood? A lock on the door? Wasn’t I worried about it?
The short answer was “no”.
When you volunteer with Cuso International you don’t usually get to choose where you live. Instead, after arriving at your placement destination, you’re provided lodging.
This is great, because you don’t have to worry about apartment-hunting in a foreign country.
This is not-so-great, because you don’t get a choice of where you stay (and choice is always good).
Cuso housing has standards, so you’ll be guaranteed some basic comforts like privacy and security (and a working toilet). In other words, you won’t end up living in a cardboard box on the side of the highway. But, Cuso also has an upper limit for how much rent they’re willing to pony up on your behalf. Don’t expect your volunteer lodgings to come with a swimming pool or a dishwasher.
So far I’ve had two Cuso apartments in Vientane, Laos – I stayed in one during training, and moved to another once our placements started. I lived with my husband in both, so we keep in mind there were two people living in a space that was probably intended for one person.
Keep in mind, these apartments are typical of Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. Out in the provinces, housing is quite different.
Here are the differences between the two, along with their advantages and disadvantages.
My initial lodging was in an apartment near Patuxay, Vientiane’s Victory Monument. I’ll call it the Patuxay Apartment. My second (and current) apartment is near the Lao-Thai road so I’ll call it the Lao-Thai Apartment.
The Patuxay Apartment is (shockingly) located near the Patuxay Monument, a must-see tourist attraction in Vientiane. The neighbourhood around the apartment is mainly government ministry buildings, but you can also find cafés, restaurants, and minimarts. Hop on your bike for about ten minutes, and you get downtown to the Mekong River, night market, and a plethora of foreigner-friendly restaurants.
The neighbourhood around the Lao-Thai Apartment is a stark contrast – it’s very much where locals live. You’ll barely ever see foreigners (unless they’re going to and from the nearby Irish pub), and if you’ll be hard pressed to find a shop with a sign in English. Less traffic and more green spaces makes the Lao-Thai Apartment quieter, but it’s farther to downtown. You’re looking at about a 30-minute ride to get to the Mekong area with its flashy lights and foreigner restaurants.
The Patuxay Apartment is a bachelor apartment, so it’s basically one big room with the bedroom/livng room/dining room/kitchen all in one.
This is a corner apartment with windows on two sides, which makes for a nice cross-breeze to keep the apartment cool. The curtains are to close in the “bedroom” area so you can use the air conditioner without having to cool the entire apartment. Electricity costs add up in Laos (especially) when you run your air conditioner.
The Lao-Thai Apartment has a separate bedroom and a living/dining/kitchen area. It’s smaller than the Patuxay apartment, but there’s more privacy for two people.
The door on the bedroom in Lao-Thai lets you isolate the bedroom for using the air conditioner. Having a separate bedroom is nice when guests come over, so you can close it off if you want to.
The kitchen in Patuxay is equipped with dishes and basic cooking utensils. There are enough for two people, which is handy. Unfortunately, the kitchen counter is really low (for some reason), and Tim had to do the dishes on his knees like a peasant.
In Lao-Thai the kitchen is smaller and more compact. One of the counters goes overtop of the fridge, which means we’ve got one low counter and one ridiculously high one. There’s also a nice pantry area for storage. Cuso apartments come with a fridge, hot plate, rice cooker, microwave, and a kettle for standard appliances.
There are two wardrobes to store clothing at Patuxay, while Lao-Thai has a walk-in closet as part of the bathroom. In Patuxay the dining room table is right in front of the wardrobes. The table has 4 chairs, and a built-in pot rest for putting hot foods on.
The Living Area
The Patuxay Apartment has two ceiling fans, one over the living area and one over the bed. There’s also a third, standing fan (Laos is hot). The couch is vinyl, which is comfortable, but sticky in the heat. A small coffee table and a TV face the couch.
In Lao-Thai, the living area (really, a couch and coffee table) is across from the kitchen, and has a soft couch (not vinyl). The dining table is across from the couch, and has 3 chairs (whatever). Because there’s a shelf under the table, we can’t really put our feet under it.
Lao-Thai has standing fans, but we miss the ceiling fans to keep things cool. Fortunately, Cuso provides at least one fan for your apartment (we bought the other ourselves).
Both apartments have a balcony, which is great for air flow, drying our laundry, and looking out at the scenery. At Patuxay the balcony doesn’t have a great view, but there’s plenty of space for the drying rack.
The balcony at Lao-Thai looks out at the yard and a nice bunch of houses. Our drying rack fits nicely. We’re on the second floor and with the balcony door open, air flows through the apartment.
Patuxay’s bathroom is a single room for the toilet/sink/shower. The disadvantages include soaking your toilet paper and having a wet bathroom floor whenever you take a shower. A good point for this bathroom is the butt-sprayer. Butt-sprayers are weird yet awesome once you learn how to use them. Unfortunately we don’t have one in the Lao-Thai apartment.
The sliding shower door in the Lao-Thai Apartment keeps our shower-water out of the rest of our bathroom which is great. There’s no butt-sprayer (as previously mentioned), but it is convenient to have our closet right in there with us. Neither bathroom has a fan.
Which Apartment is Better?
Well, that’s a tough one. They both have advantages and disadvantages.
To be honest, I like both. They both come equipped with basic appliances, a TV, cable connection, furniture, dishes, and utensils. The bed is comfortable in both, and there is enough space for two people.
Both these Cuso apartments are comparable to apartments I’ve had in Canada (not sure what that says about me…).
If you’re adaptable and not too picky, you won’t find living in Cuso housing a hellish ordeal – you’ll have everything you need for a comfortable stay during your placement. Don’t expect anything fancy, and you’ll be fine.
If you’re nervous about your housing during your placement, get in touch with your in-country office and ask questions.
Want to know what it’s like to go through Cuso’s selection process?