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ADB Country Director Kanokpan Lao-Araya: Bishkek is quite cosmopolitan

Kanokpan Lao-Araya was appointed the Asian Development Bank Country Director for Kyrgyzstan in March 2021. She told in an interview with 24.kg news agency why she fell in love with the country and what she will miss when she leaves Kyrgyzstan.

«It must have been fate,» Kanokpan Lao-Araya said when asked how she ended up in Kyrgyzstan.

ADB management recommended her to take this assignment after serving as ADB Country Director for Bhutan, and she gratefully accepted.

«Somehow I knew that I was destined to work in Central Asia after having worked in every other subregions of the bank: South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific. Throughout my 20-year career in ADB, I have assumed new assignments every 3 to 4 years. I usually look for new opportunities that present challenges. I always find myself venturing into unfamiliar areas, both in terms of geography and work discipline,» Kanokpan Lao-Araya told.

New experiences excite me, because they allow me to learn about, appreciate, and contribute to each new host country and its people.

Kanokpan Lao-Araya

— What did you know about the Kyrgyz Republic before your arrival and was the information relevant upon arrival?

— I knew very little about the Kyrgyz Republic before my arrival. I learned from other colleagues who have worked here that the Kyrgyz Republic is very beautiful, and that the people are very friendly.

The country is actually more beautiful than I had imagined. Snow-capped mountains can be seen from almost everywhere in Bishkek. The city is clean and well-organized, and many green, public spaces are decorated with beautiful sculptures for public appreciation.

I admire the refinement of Kyrgyz culture and its people’s exquisite esthetic sense through Kyrgyz art, music, and food.

Kanokpan Lao-Araya

— What was your first impression of Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek?

— As mentioned before, the country is classified as ADB group A country, the group of least developed member countries. But I found the basic infrastructure especially in Bishkek was quite adequate. The city is well planned and highly livable, except for the bad air quality during winter months.

The city is also quite cosmopolitan with international goods, especially food items, available in supermarkets and shops.

Kanokpan Lao-Araya

There are quite good options of restaurants serving international cuisine, including Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai restaurants. I was very impressed by the food options and prepared lunch boxes in supermarkets. There are a lot of healthy food products, such as various kind of grains/carbohydrate: rice, bread, potatoes, couscous, barley, pasta, noodle, and even quinoa.

— What impressed you the most when meeting the local population?

— I was very impressed by the talents displayed in the national art gallery and the performing art at the national theater. While Kyrgyz people are open minded to international and modern ways of life, they are very proud of and maintain their national identity and heritage. I found men of all ages, including teenagers, wearing the distinctive ‘kalpak’ hats. And I saw some women wearing beautifully embroidered dresses among others who wear modern and trendy outfits.

When I was in Bhutan, I wore the national outfit almost every day, same as all the local there. Here, I wear Kyrgyz national outfit on a special occasion, same as my hosts.

Kanokpan Lao-Araya

I also found that people are very friendly and tolerant of someone who do not speak local languages. I managed to communicate simple things when I go to the market on my own using body language and smart phone’s translation application.

— Have there been any curious cases?

— I found children are particularly adorable and friendly. One time during a weekday, I ran into two small children during my walk to lunch near my office on Erkindik Avenue. They were two siblings aged around 5 and 3. They did not care that I did not understand what they said, they stayed engaged and talked to me. The elder sister was very talkative. She did not stop or acted surprised when I did not answer back in Russian. The kids talked to me in Russian and I replied in English with a lot of hand motions. It was just like a normal chat that those kids wanted to carry out with me.

I really need to learn both Russian and Kyrgyz quickly to be able to communicate with people to have simple conversations.

Kanokpan Lao-Araya

— How different is the way of life here in Kyrgyz Republic from what is customary in your homeland?

— I find the way of life in the Kyrgyz Republic is not so different from what I am used to in my home country and anywhere that I have lived across Asia and the Pacific. I cannot think of any big difference that I face here. People do not take a nap during the day (siesta) or staying out very late. People are very civil and punctual at meetings and appointments, which may be a bit different from some tropical countries that are more laid back about timing. The working and breaking hours are the same in Bishkek as my home country and most places I have lived. I am adjusted to the living in Bishkek quite immediately. I get very easily around the city and feel at ease accessing necessities, goods, and services.

— Is there something in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Republic that resembles your hometown and country?

— The love of food. Thai people are generally foodies. We love good food and would travel far in search of good food. Kyrgyz people love food and love to feed good food to guests, similar to Thai people. My hometown is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. So, there is some similarity there. We are very attached to our land, since there are not much arable lands.

— Have you already tried the national cuisine?

— Yes, of course. I particularly like the shashlyk, manty, and lagman. I really like local fruits, vegetables, nuts, and dry fruits. I love the local pistachio nuts, dry apricots, and raisins.

I did not like the boil, sweet rice congee for breakfast. I am used to having boiled rice or congee as savory food.

Kanokpan Lao-Araya

As for something very different, I am not sure if I would like the idea of eating horse meat even though I may like the taste of meat, since I like gamy meat including venison and lamp. And I am pretty sure that I will not like kymyz, the fermented mare’s milk.

— What fascinated you when you met the local population or, on the contrary, disappointed?

— I am fascinated by the well-roundedness of the people I have interacted through work. They are well educated with high fluency in math and science. At the same time, they appreciate art, literature, and culture. They are curious and have good knowledge of other countries and culture. I think this is a natural and beneficial trait of people from a smaller country who rely on interactions and trade with neighboring countries.

The openness, warmth, and curiosity make Kyrgyz people very endearing.

Kanokpan Lao-Araya

I have not been disappointed by people so far. Or rather, I try not to be disappointed by people. Over the years, I have learned to be understanding of other people. If someone behaves rudely or uncivil, I assume that the person may have just experienced something bad prior to interacting with me or is experiencing some discomfort or difficulty at the time. I try not to take it personally and give the person a benefit of the doubt.

— Did you manage to visit the regions of the country?

— Yes. So far after being in the job for 4 months, I have only visited Toktogul hydropower plant in Jalal-Abad. I would like to visit other parts of the country, including Talas, Osh, Naryn, and Issyk-kul regions. I love natural beauty so that I am sure I will like visiting many parts of the country.

— Is there something in the Kyrgyz Republic that you are missing?

— During my work from home away from the Kyrgyz Republic, I miss the country’s natural beauty and its food. I am sure by the time I finish the assignment and have to leave the country, I will mostly miss the people I have met. I can already conclude with the little time that I have been there so far that Kyrgyz people are very warm, considerate, and fun.

If you ask about what I miss from elsewhere while I live in the Kyrgyz Republic, apart from the obvious which is my extended family members, I miss having access to ingredients to my local cuisine, such as fresh galangal, lemon grass, holy basils, Thai basils, turmeric, and chili peppers.