A Foldscopes Travelogue in S. E. Asia
by Richard Dorsett, Tacoma, USA


Fold and Unfold, Foldscopes Go to Laos
JANUARY 11, 2018 

A heavy rain seemed to come down my first night in Vientiane. Sounded just like the needs-to-be-repaired dripping gutter outside my window in Tacoma. About midnight, big thunder hit. I was deep in dreamland. There are no windows in my hostel room, the sound of rainfall was created by the whirring fan, and the thunder was fireworks announcing 2018. Let others have hangovers, I’m up early, looking for coffee.

Ten feet from where I write is a storm drain and I watched a man park a scooter over it and pour its oil directly into the drain.

Hoo boy, there is no getting to Asia without a long plane ride. With security lines, customs, immigration, and a few hours on the floor at Kunming Airport, a full 24 hours was needed to arrive. There are less direct and longer flights, but no need for them.

After a couple of days, the tuk-tuk drivers on the block have begun to ignore me; so too the long-legged hooker who works our corner. Vendors here are easygoing, so I can wave off a hammock for sale or a manicure. Legit massage parlors are everywhere, so too the others. (“You want massage with boom boom?”) A manicure might be a good idea, even a massage, but no boom boom.

Foldscopes were invented by Stanford University’s Manu Prakash and his team and is an origami-based microscope.

To reframe a phrase from Norman McLean, I am enchanted by waters. It is dry season and the Mekong is low, about a quarter mile walk from the quay to its shore; a nice place to sit and watch it flow. Back in the bad old days, some who needed to get away would swim across. These days it’s easier to cross to Thailand on the Friendship Bridge.

The Mekong hosts more than 800 species of fish. Logging, dams, development, and all sorts of other environmental harms make the river less friendly to wildlife. Like everywhere, the fish caught have become smaller, and some use illegal dynamite and electrocution devices to catch them. Ten feet from where I write is a storm drain and I watched a man park a scooter over it and pour its oil directly into the drain. Watershed protection efforts are underway, but theirs is a big watershed, from the Tibetan Plateau to the Mekong Delta, nearly 5,000 kilometers through six countries.

The school is a private, bilingual academy that prepares students for Oxford exams. The group assembled for a Foldscopes lesson
were high school physics and chemistry students. Perfect.

If you don’t know, I brought in my backpack one hundred Foldscope kits. Foldscopes were invented by Stanford University’s Manu Prakash and his team and is an origami-based microscope. The Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 contributed funds to buy the kits and I am looking for students and others with whom I can share the magic.

I bombed on my first couple of calls to pitch Foldscopes. You might think that a sciences university or the Institute for National Sciences Education would be welcoming, but no luck. A teacher and the Principal at the Vientiane Pattana School were excited and welcoming. I had connected with the school before leaving Tacoma and it’s walking distance from my hostel. The school is a private, bilingual academy that prepares students for Oxford exams. The group assembled for a Foldscopes lesson were high school physics and chemistry students. Perfect.

As simple as I may make them sound, Foldscopes need a bit of patience to assemble and some practice to get the specimens lined up just right. I learned that a classroom with twenty students is just too many. Better, I think, is half a dozen around a work table so each can see and watch how to fold their scopes. And a bit more than an hour is needed. Small group assembly needs about fifty minutes, but to look at specimens and to show how to take photos needs another half hour. So, I’m going to aim for two hours the next time. For now though, nothing yet in the pipeline. I remain forced to be patient.

The wonderful Valeria from Kyrgyzstan has left the building. French, Dutch, Russian, Indian, and lots of other nationalities rotate in and out.

I stayed an extra couple of days in Vientiane so that I could meet with students, but it’s time to move along. I have a ticket to Luang Prabang and an extra day to lollygag. Two days ago I finished my murder mystery set here in Vientiane and have been reading deprived since – no bookstores! But down a nearby alley I found one today with a well worn copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. No harm in rereading that. Besides, my Microbiology for Dummies should be a “Microbiology for Dumber Dummies.” If you don’t know, microbiology is hard!

I seem to thrive on not knowing. Sure, I have a ticket to Luang Prabang and a bed for a few nights. But from there, I’ll have to wait to see. Original idea was to head south to Cambodia, but I don’t know about roads going that way. Much easier is to point west to Thailand and put down in Chang Mai for a few days. Either way, travel awaits.

For now, the wonderful Valeria from Kyrgyzstan has left the building. French, Dutch, Russian, Indian, and lots of other nationalities rotate in and out. Had a good political conversation with young Matt from Canada; he tried to convince me of the value of third and fourth parties. A week is a long time for me to be still. Bob, an American living in India, will travel by bus with me to Luang Prabang.

Vientiane almost whispers its welcome. It’s low key, walkable, and has enough byways to get a little lost.
It meets my needs. Remnants of colonial architecture linger, Buddhist temples are frequent.

Vientiane almost whispers its welcome and turned out not far from what I imagined. It’s low key, walkable, and has enough byways to get a little lost. It meets my needs. Remnants of colonial architecture linger, Buddhist temples are frequent, and they seem to enjoy strong coffee here. I rarely linger anywhere for a week. Yet this is just the sort of place to get over jet lag and to let your internal clock slip back a few decades.

A little history: between 1964 and 1973 the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on this small country. Eighty million bombs failed to explode, and to this day about 50 Laotians die or are maimed each year from leftover ordinance. Per capita, it is said to be the most heavily bombed country in history.

My Backpackers Hostel is just off the corner of Rues Setthathirath and Nokčokoummane across from the Mixay Temple.
There are coffee shops on two of the corners, but this is my favorite.

My Backpackers Hostel is just off the corner of Rues Setthathirath and Nokčokoummane across from the Mixay Temple. There are coffee shops on two of the corners, one that I favor but both good for watching people coming down the rue. It’s sort of a throughfare, a couple of one-way lanes, and picks up pace about 7 a.m. Mornings, late afternoon, and evenings are my favorite times. Middays get a little warm (today will reach ninety), but it is mostly just about perfect.

I leave soon to Luang Prabang, looking for more Foldscope students.

Richard Dorsett

Vientiane, Laos


Foldscopes: Going Up The Country – Luang Prabang

JANUARY 14, 2018

This is the second article featuring Richard Dorsett’s trip to Asia to distribute Foldscopes, the fully functional microscope, which users construct by origami principles. The Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 funded the Foldscopes for adventurer and hiking and biking enthusiast Richard Dorsett:

When your bus ride of barely two hundred miles will take more than ten hours, you have to know rough roads and mountains await.

When your bus ride of barely two hundred miles will take more than ten hours, you have to know rough roads and mountains await. Tacoma, Washington, might well swoon with envy over the massive potholes on the highway leading out of Vientiane. For twenty or more miles, dirty light industrial businesses and the like lined the road. Washboard ruts and big, deep, potholes, slowed us often to a crawl. Eventually, the way became beautiful; craggy mountains, valleys, and vistas, made even a grueling ride worthwhile. I wanted to see the country, so took the eight a.m. day bus. Still, we didn’t arrive till after dark, and I know now for certain there are worse potholes than those in Tacoma.

New friend Alex rode his rented bicycle to the outskirts of town and saw a young elephant playing in a field. I am inspired.

I left my bicycle at home for this trip, but am pleased by the number of touring cyclists I have seen. One in Vientiane, but a couple dozen on the road to Luang Prabang. Some were in supported tour groups, but couples and solo pedalers are frequent. Alex, a new friend from Los Angles has toured solo in China. Two solo bicyclists rolled into the hostel. Each had been on the road for eight months. New friend Alex rode his rented bicycle to the outskirts of town and saw a young elephant playing in a field. I am inspired.

When I travel by bicycle I typically move along each day; the bicycle will not pedal itself. Now, traveling by bus and looking for Foldscope students, I have days to hang about, walk, read, write, and explore. I’m not out doing the day tours, but getting a feel for place. I enjoyed Vientiane, but like Luang Prabang even more. The Mekong River is a block away and much closer to the town. It runs faster here and I enjoy watching the long, skinny boats that ply the river. Even though this is the dry season, the river is substantial. Farmers plant vegetables along the banks, new soil is deposited when the river rises, and the cycle repeats. I walked across a bamboo bridge that crosses a tributary to the Mekong River.

I walked across a bamboo bridge that crosses a tributary to the Mekong River.

Even after a few days, a hostel begins to feel like home and small routines develop. The circuits I walk and the onion omelette I have each morning repeat themselves. A cool thing with a gig, any gig, is that it breaks routine. I walk to places I would not otherwise go. I drop into super low gear and stroll so slowly as to become invisible.

With each Foldscope presentation I become more skilled at how to assemble them. Even more useful, I get better at instructing others how to make the folds. Through word of mouth I connected with Jason, the Kiettisack International School principal. He and science teacher Robert welcomed me and my scopes enthusiastically. The group of eight students was perfect. Robert had shown them Manu Prakash’s TED talk before I arrived, so they had a sense of what was coming. We worked around a table, which lets everyone help one another as we assemble the Foldscopes.

We worked around a table, which lets everyone help one another as we assemble the Foldscopes.

I enjoy talking about Foldscopes with anyone interested. The first two schools I visited are private academies for relatively well-heeled students. I helped traveling partner Bob assemble his Foldscope on his seventieth birthday. Some students seem more intuitive than others with the scopes. One in this latest group was setting up a tripod to steady his camera to take photos of specimens while others were still folding. I get off on the overall enthusiasm for Foldscopes.

One in this latest group was setting up a tripod to steady his camera to take photos of specimens while others were still folding.

Luang Prabang is perfect for my interests. There is a daily market outside the hostel door (grilled chicken feet/grilled frogs on a stick). Tuk tuks are everywhere, but I prefer walking. Temples and monks seem everywhere. The beer at the hostel is cheap and cold. Mostly I hang out, walk about, lie about when it gets hot, then get out again for afternoon and evening walking. There are plenty of westerners here, and most are well-worn travelers and interesting to talk with. As I leave town, clouds have come and everyone seems to shiver a bit from the relative cold. My decision to bring a sweater was a good one. Partner Bob wraps up in a wool blanket he brought from India.

Sometimes it’s a crap shoot booking a hostel, but I have been lucky. Here at the Downtown Backpackers it’s a little overwhelming in the morning when I like quiet, lots of young travelers coming and going, but it empties for most of the day. Now I have a bed in Chiang Mai at SpicyThai hostel, which comes from word of mouth.

Mostly I hang out, walk about, lie about when it gets hot, then get out again for afternoon and evening walking.

A hundred thousand Lao kip is about eight bucks. It’s a small success, but I managed my way to the airport with less than ten thousand kip in my pocket. Sleeper bed or not, after the ten-plus hours on the bus from Vientiane, I’ll skip the 24-hour ride to Chiang Mai. The flight takes about an hour.

Richard Dorsett

Luang Prabang, Laos


Foldscopes: Every Picture Tells a Story

JANUARY 22, 2018

This is the third article featuring Richard Dorsett’s trip to Asia to distribute Foldscopes, the fully functional microscope, which users construct by origami principles. The Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 funded the Foldscopes for adventurer and hiking and biking enthusiast Richard Dorsett:

An hour-long flight from Luang Prabang, Laos, saved me a 24-hour bus ride, and my hostel is minutes walking to the ‘old’ quarter.

Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

– Marcus Aurelius

The first time I saw Chiang Mai on a map I likely thought of it as a northern Thai village. When it was founded in 1296 it was the capital of the Lanna kingdom; already an important place. It seems the nearer I got to being here, the clearer sense I gained that this was no village. These days the metro area is just under a million people, much more than a village, but not overly big. An hour-long flight from Luang Prabang, Laos, saved me a 24-hour bus ride, and my hostel is minutes walking to the ‘old’ quarter.