Our last few days in Laos were spent in the capital city of Vientienne. Although lacking the charm of Luang Prabang it definitely feels more like a city than a town.
Throughout our time in Laos we had been amazed by its history and the problems still faced today from the unexploded bombies. We had heard from other travellers that visiting the COPE centre, which works to provide artificial limbs, support and rehabilitation to those who need it, was a must when in Vientiane and we were interested to find out more.
We decided to walk there so we could take in some of the sights of the city along the way including the presidents office and Laos replica of the Arc de Triomphe, Patuxi.
We did get a little bit confused where we should go and started to debate whether we should have just got a taxi as we couldn't see signs for the center even though we were on the road it should have been on.
We decided to keep going and soon came across the hospital. It turned out that the COPE visitor center was located in here which shouldn't really have been a surprise as this it would make sense for them to be located where they have the facilities required. It would have been a handy heads up in terms of directions we had been given.
The visitor centre has a great free exhibition which explains about the UXO problem and the work being done to help victims.
Did you know that just one bomb case can hold up to 680 individual bombies, that can cover the same area as 3 football pitches and each one has a killing radius of 30m!
Some of the figures involved are insane and it is no wonder there is still a problem today.
It is not just bombies that are a problem as we found out from the huge fieldworkers manual that is used when they have to do clearance of UXOs covering anything from grenades to landmines.
A quarter of incidences with UXOs are due to people looking for scrap metal. Even though this is illegal and carries a huge risk to their lives the 1000-2000 kip per kilo of scrap metal is enough for people incentive to try. We watched a harrowing video interview of a mother and father who had lost their 12 yr old son when a bombie exploded. He and his friends had followed some older boys who were collecting scrap metal, they had put aside some bombies and moved on but the younger boys did not realise the danger and one of them picked one up. The result was devastating and I could not hold back my tears as the mother relived the desperate attempt to save her sons life. In a back of a truck they had to drive to not one but two hospitals, only to be turned away by both as there was no blood or oxygen! The next hospital was too far away and the truck driver was superstitious about the boy dying in his truck. All they could do was go back home and try to comfort their son as best as they could as he died.
We take it for granted that if we get injured that we can go to a hospital and that they will at least have the basics of oxygen and blood. Having been to Savannakhet where the family was from we knew the areas they were talking about and just how far they had had to travel on bumpy roads. I can not imagine how helpless they must have felt not being able to save their son.
Many people are either too far away from help, can not afford the transport to get to it or even are not aware that there is any help out there. This is where COPE comes in. They are able to help cover the costs of surgery and treatment for those who can not afford to pay. They also offer free transport so that people in remote areas are able to access the help that they need. By sending people out to the villages they are spreading information about the help available as well as being told about and finding people who need help and this is not just limited to bombie victims. Many people have been surviving for years isolated with makeshift limbs.
They also provide training for local people in occupational therapy and fitting and making artificial limbs . Having grown up seeing people suffering, not being able to work and live a full life due to their injuries the trainees are very proud of their new skills and to be able to help others. Such a worthwhile career choice! It was amazing to see the process of how artificial limbs are made and all the different types of aids made to help people do everyday tasks we take for granted.
It was a very inspiring and humbling part of our trip and made us realise just how lucky we are to be living in a country that has not been ravaged by war in our lifetime or had cluster bombs used on it to make it dangerous today.
You can find out more on the great work COPE do here www.copelaos.org It is also possible to make donations here too if you would like, so go on buy a leg!
After visiting the center we went to the Laos National Museum.
What looked impressive from the outside turned out to be quite dilapidated on the inside and at points were weren't sure we wouldn't fall through the creaky floorboards! Some parts were quite interesting though including info on an dig that had found a burial pot that would have been used for a baby. All the tiny ankle and wrist bracelets and beads were still intact and they are not sure if it was used as a sign of wealth of the family or a sign of their mourning. One of the most impressive things at the museum was actually outside, a huge piece of carved hardwood depicting Laos culture, history and nature.
There not much else to report on our time in Vientiene as it rained and there was lots of planning for our next adventure in Thailand. We could not leave without making sure we had Laos food for dinner one last time so went to a local restaurant where we were recommended the grilled fish, Tom Yam soup and of course Dans favourite sticky rice. We tucked in and soon realised we had forgotten to say not spicy! The soup was one of the hottest things we have had and the only way to recover was to go to the ice cream parlour for some desert! Unfortunately I ended up being ill all night (some might argue too much ice cream but I think it definitely was the Tom yam soup!) Knowing we had a flight to catch in the morning this wasn't the best ending to our time here!
Bye Laos! It's been awesome and we ll definitely be back one day!
We were starting the final leg of our journey in Laos from Huay Xai to Vientienne where we would stay a couple of days before flying out to Thailand.
We knew it was going to be a long journey but as time was running out on our visa we did not have time to take the slow boat back to Luang Prabang and get a bus from there. Instead we opted to take the VIP bus which was faster than the local bus and also had air con and reclining seats, which would make the 18 hours more comfortable.
With pick up organised for 11am we headed into town to get some breakfast only to be stopped in the street by a man who said he was to drive us to the bus station and he had to take us now. Given it was 9am we were a bit confused but rushed back to pack our bags and jump in the back of the truck. The bus station was a couple of kms out of town but the one we stopped at was not the VIP one we had passed the day before.
Instead of a big VIP bus there was a smaller more dilapidated local bus. Normally we would not mind taking the local bus, infact we had only taken local transport so far in Laos but knowing it would take longer we were a bit concerned. We were just as bemused as the driver as he told us that there were no direct VIP buses to Vientienne despite what we had been told at the hotel. Several phone calls back to the hotel later it was established that the only way for us to now leave today would be on this bus and it would take 24 hours!! Very frustrating but what can you do!
We had over an hour to wait till we left so we went to a local stall for some breakfast and watched as bags, crates and bundles of all shapes and sizes were hauled up to the roof by a guy standing on the top. He looked weedy but was clearly really strong to be able to pull them up by rope on his own.
Soon it was time for us to find our seats. Now I should point out that the local bus never gets full...by that I don't mean that it's not busy, I mean completely the opposite...there is always room for one more! Once all the seats were taken, small plastic stools are pulled out and placed back to back down the aisle fitting in another 15 people on an already full bus! I was glad we had proper seats and we had a window and each other to lean against if we wanted to try and sleep.
At least we weren't going to be traveling like the cockerels that were being loaded into the hold below! And the 3 live ducks in the pink bag which were unceremoniously plonked in followed by some heavy car parts and other bits and pieces. Knowing how bendy the roads were going to be I wasn't sure they wouldn't be crushed by the other goods moving around in the hold during the journey. Animal transport does not seem to be a cause for concern out here.
Once you re on the bus the driver passes out plastic bags. We had been told about this by Dennis at dinner the night before, these bags are not for rubbish! We had experienced the twisting mountain pass roads already but it turns out that a lot of Laos people do not cope with this very well. True to form the first person started to be sick about 2 hours in to what turned out to be a 26 hour journey! Those being ill were as discreet as possible, using the bags and then chucking them out the windows, so you had to be careful if your window was open that nothing flew back in at you!
This was to be the sound track for our journey, fortunately iPods were charged and we could drown it out. We were also armed with motion sickness tablets and the tactic of trying to sleep through as much of the journey as possible.
The bus stopped for short periods several times along the way. At one stop at about 11pm we decided to brave getting some food. The lighting was a bit poor so we opted what looked like beef in some kinda sauce and rice. Once at a better lit table it was clear it wasn't beef, Dan thought it might be testicles but thought it was more likely kidneys but either way it wasn't very appetising so we just at the rice and found the rare treat of a Kit Kat!
There's not much more to say about this journey just that you had to grin and bare it! The longer the journey went on the more rubbish was on the floor, bits of food etc so you can imagine what state it was in after being crammed full of people of 26 hours.
Miraculously neither Dan or I were ill but we both didn't want to set foot back on a bus for a while and were glad we would be flying out of Vientienne!
I'll don't think I ll complain about the night bus in London again!
The next day we woke up early to get to the gibbon experience office for orientation. Sarah and I with Kate and Sam went to take our places in the tiny office with the rest of group that were making the trip that day. After storing the big bags and sadly my guitar as well in the back office due to needing only essentials for the trip we sat down and were given the video intro and the rules and regulations video in one go.
The Gibbon Experience describes itself as an eco tourism forest conservation project. The project funds forest protection and community projects in Bokeo Nature Reserve, Northern Laos. The premise of visiting the area is to hopefully experience the gibbons in their natural habitat and also hear their unique sound. To sweeten the deal you are given access to the jungle via a network of zip-lines, some of which are 600 metres long!
Having watched the video the anticipation was building as we saw images of jungles and zip wires and even the possibility of monkeys hanging around, this was part of the rules and regulations video as a 'potential problem' that may occur. You don't want to crash into a monkey on the wire! Sarah had already started getting nervous watching the 'how to' video and I think wasn't made to feel more confident having also read the 'potential accidents' page in the handbook! I found it quite funny that the disclaimer we had to sign was essentially allowing the organisation to not take responsibility for anything even of it is the fault of their equipment, but also a little concerning. Knowing that our insurance would cover any 'potiential accidents' made it easier to sign but it reminded me of one of Eddie Izzards sketches where he recalls agreeing to the T's & C's that Apple have for itunes and asking "does anyone actually read these?", to which he answers for the audience "course you dont, you just want your £0.69 song!, for all you know you could be signing over to Apple your life to slavery". And I think this would probably be the case for most people when they sign off for the gibbon experience, you know you what to zip-line in the jungle so you sign it regardless.
It was it more than 20 mins of video watching and form signing before we jumped in different trucks to start the 2hour drive to the Bokeo Reserve out side of Huay Xie. Sarah and I jumped in the back of the van and were joined with some really friendly people from Thailand. During the trip they offered us a snack of seaweed and we were able to have some small talk with them as we braved the winds that buffeted us in the back making it cold. Every so often we could hear the sound system from the cab blaring out Ronan Keating, Westlife and Savage Garden which we didn't know at the time was chosen by our guide who loved it, singing at the top of his voice and according to Kate and Sam who were riding inside asking about the meaning of the lyrics.
We arrived at a small store by the side of road and were met with sunshine which was warmly received. The travel although cold was pretty comfortable as the roads were some of the best roads we had driven on in Laos. During our stop we chatted a little with the other people who were in the other car and then in no time we had to jump back on as we still had another journey to take in order to get to the 'base camp'. Before we left Sarah and I had joked about how the car trip which had been described as a 'difficult drive' had actually been a breeze and we didn't understand why it was made into a big deal... but then we veered off down a steep dirt track and had to cross a river......we had spoken too soon!
This was a dirt road that undulated and twisted further and further into the landscape and as we journeyed it really emphasised to just how far we were going into the jungle. On route the landscape opened up and it was an endless sea of green as far as you could see with the occasional pocket of logging damage that was indicative of the area. At times we had to duck and dive past overgrown plants that came into the back of the truck and it was a little bumpy to say the least. You just had to hold on and hope bamboo didn't swat you in the face!
About an hour later we made it to the 'base camp' village which had a small population of locals living there. After ridding ourselves of any sort of warm clothing with the sun beating down it was the turn of the Ronan Keating fan, who was to be our guide, to introduce himself and get the groups to divide so that one party would go to the waterfall first and the other would go the next day. The guide was a young guy who was so laid back he was almost horizontal it seemed and he vaguely asked us to spilt ourselves which left everyone in that awkward position of thinking 'someone needs to take lead here but I don't want to'. A few people discussed options and we decided being a hot day it would be good to go to the waterfall first, so with our free can of beer given to all of us by the horizontal guide, who we found out was called Ni-ah(phonetic spelling), we siad goodbye to Kate and Sam who were in the other group and made our way in our group to the waterfall.
We had to take on a couple of streams before we stopped for lunch and Niah started to talk to us about the day ahead. My original impression of him was that he was laid back but after hearing him crack a joke about his preferred name being 'Coolman' I started to see he was just a bit shy and was making the effort to break the ice. He told us he and the other guide Don had been guides for only a year so sometimes they get a bit lost (another joke). He also said the walk would take an hour and was going to be a little tough with some hills to tackle. Bring it on!
The walk was quite nice and sort of scenic, but the best thing I think was that at some point you found yourself next to another person and was able to have a chat and start to get to know one another. There was 9 in our group so there was plenty of stories to hear about which made the walk seem far shorter than it was, everyone was really open and friendly which was great.
As we went further into the jungle the trail was getting steeper and it was also getting more humid so by the time we made it to the stop off point to go down to the waterfall I was bursting at the seams to get down to the water to cool off! We all made our way down and Niah showed us the pool that was at the bottom of the waterfall which had a rope swing!! Cue a bunch of us getting all excited and playing around like school kids! Niah took the first plunge and was hesitant because he knew the water was going to be so cold, but he did it and so it was then my turn!
I had to get Sarah on the rope but being blind without her glasses it was going to pose a problem. It took sometime but she took the plunge but unfortunately without the gift of sight, she didn't know when to let go before the swing stopped itself and so was quickly shocked when hitting the freezing water!
The waterfall was a welcomed stop but we had to move on, there was still the first zip-line to contend with!!
It was only a short, but steep, walk back up to the first zipline. There was a simple wooden platform next to a huge tree that had a zip line tied round it and the line fed out into the trees a short distance away and then disappeared, you couldn't see what was out there beyond it but you had a good idea. After Niah and the others took there turns there was only Sarah and I left. Unfortunately Sarah really was struggling to get the confidence to even walk up the 4 ft high walkway due to fearing her first attempt, and in hindsight had allowed herself to get worked up watching the others to the point where she thought she couldn't do it. I have to thank Don the other guide because he was very patient and calm whilst I tried to convince a tearful Sarah that it was ok and that she can do it.....with small steps and some expletives! .........she walked off and the screams which turned to woops of excitement must of alarmed the whole forest! I was so pleased she taken on her fears, because once you did the first one it wasn't possible to go back so I knew that if she took it on she would have to do the rest but wouldn't fear it.
After that it was plain sailing for the rest to the day as we trekked then zip-linined and trekked and zip-lined, it was so much fun as you can see from some of this video.
Once we got to the first treehouse we were in awe of its surroudings and the prospect of fulfilling every kids dream of sleeping in a treehouse! It was basic but that didn't matter and we all relaxed after a long day of excitement. The other interesting part of the treehouse was the toilet/shower which bizarrely had the best view in the house but was totally open to the forest for any peeping tom or gibbon! Not soon after settling in to the surroundings Don zip-lined in with a big kettle that had just been boiled on the other side, how he got across without scalding himself I'll never know but it was nice to have a warm cup of coffee/tea.
Before he and Niah left, Niah gave us a few details but it was a little brief and essentially we were on our own for the night. Cue one of the funniest nights we've had involving 9 adults and a huge spider, watch the video below. I think everyone was thankful that Lois and Ching took it on but just listen out for the other comments. Hilarious!
After that ordeal we got the cards out and we introduced everyone to Yaniv. It was a good night although we were all a bit apprehensive about going to sleep after the spider incident and we also had a mouse/rat run up the roof. What else was out there?!
The next morning we woke with expectation to hear the gibbons but unfortunately was left waiting but even without them it was still a wonderful place to wake up. As each of us woke up it became apparent that we all had experienced some weird goings on during the night as both myself and Glenn had moments of madness thinking a Monkey had jumped into our treehouse and most of us, except Tyler I think who slept through it all, heard the scurrying of either mice or rats which didn't help with getting to sleep. Our bed was right next to the kitchen area and there was a lot of foraging going on and Sarah and I definitely jumped up a few times in the night switching on the torch and seeing who was brave enough to poke their head out of the mosquito net to take a look.
After coffee and breakfast which was zip-lined in by a local lady we packed our bags and for the rest of the day we were tackling zip-lines again and trekking to get to the second treehouse. With everyone knowing the ropes and the fact that we had all bonded the night before after dealing with the spider it was another fun day of chatting whilst trekking, this time decidedly more difficult due to steeper hills.
Niah pointed out some markings on a tree, can you guess the animal?
We made it to the second treehouse in an couple of hours and we had definitely saved the best till last. It was 65 metres from the ground and boasted a fantastic view which you got to see as you zip-lined into the front door.
I tried to zip-line all the way in but was denied by my bum.
This treehouse like the first had a superb view.......from the toilet!
This time lunch needed to be zip-lined in which Ni-ah pulled off in his ever so causal manner. During the trek we had a chat and he was asking me some translation questions like 'what does Snoop Dogg mean when he says D.O.G?'. Gangsta rap being the more impressionable kind of music to cross nations of course. I had no real answer for him other than 'it means dog?'. Also 'how much does it cost to buy a passport? He didn't know. And I didn't know either, except in our country. He wanted to see other countries but realistically he could never earn enough and I don't think there is Internet for him to access to find out how to. He was a good laugh and a good guide to have.
Lunch was a delicious treat after trekking and we had the rest of the afternoon to try out the circuit of zip-lines around the treehouse....the thing with this one though was that the only way to exit the treehouse was by climbing onto a small ledge before you had to drop off trusting just the zipline and your harness! We were going to spend the afternoon going round the zipwires before a night in the 65m treehouse and this one was the first one to tackle. This I think for all of us was a little nervy. I was definitely nervous but also eager to go to try it. My first exit was a little clumsy but it was great fun. Everyone made their way out and Sarah had waited till the end...I knew it as soon as I left that I needed to be there to help out....I could see through the zoom on our camera that she was reluctant to leave and although she had got herself to the ledge had changed her mind. So it was split decision time and I ran round to the entry zipline to join her back in the treehouse. We both chatted and at first I thought it wasn't going to happen, but it was the only exit so she had to. I got her out to ledge and the tears were flooding but again with closed eyes and extreme expletives.......she jumped and made it down to a rapturous applause...I was glad to get a second go! . It turns out later that the reason Sarah kept getting freaked out was due to the opening scene from Cliffhanger!
This was the view we had to contend with.
We then had a short walk around circling the treehouse with a couple of zip-lines before we got to the longer entrance zip-line which offered an amazing view.
The rest of the afternoon a few of us did the rounds three or four times before dinner to get in as much ziplining and Glenn even managed to pull off zip-lining all the way over the doorway....... but only just.
I perfected my exit out of the treehouse
We settled in for the night making sure no food rubbish was left after dinner to encourage the rodents and continue our game of Yaniv with everyone this time and the final 'scores on the doors' were:
Glenn - 25 (we don't know if there is a rule against sticking to 25 but it was a good tactic) Tanny - 59 Lois - 60 Sabrina - 78 James - 94 Sarah - 140
And I lost being the first one to 150 (I never claimed to be good at the game despite suggesting it).
Waking after a good uninterrupted sleep to the sounds of Gibbons was real treat. We had discussed with the help of Niah what the actual sound was the night before and consequently realised what we had thought was gibbons the other day was actually monkeys. We definately heard them this morning as you can hear from this video (about 3 or 4 seconds in ) there is a long wooooooooOoop sound, a bit like a siren which is common to the black gibbon. Another goal ticked off the list!
Before we left the treehouse we had some photos and even got to see the local family who tend to the treehouses zip line in with their little child in tow. The girls made their awww sounds in unison. We set off early again, this time Sarah was the first the exit the treehouse, and trekked for what seemed a long time going up pretty steep hills and the heat was quite intense at times (at this point I had to take off the beanie).
And Sarah made it out of the 65m treehouse without a scream.
We trekked and zip lined and luckily got to try some of the classic experience zip lines, even seeing some other groups fly over us, and we got to see the classic's treehouse before following the signs to the village. I wish we had these in my home village of Angmering, W.Sussex.
On our way down we had to drop off our kit at the guides office where some of them were playing a game of rattan ball, a local game that came out of Thailand where you play volleyball but not with your hands. Tanny, Glenn, Sabina and I all had a go as well. It was fun to do a bit of sport and reminded me of keepy-ups back home.
We left soon after and took a pleasant walk over steams and paddie fields before making back to the 'base camp' village. It was back on the trucks again but we had some extra passengers, who fitted in no problem. A quick stop for lunch and we were back on the paved road onwards to Huay Xie.
Needless to say it was a thrilling experience and despite no sightings we achieved what we wanted by hearing the gibbons and as a bonus made some friends. We were fortunate to be able to hang out with James and Sabina as almost everyone else was carting off to Thailand the same day. After arranging a meet up time we chilled, washed and headed back out to a cafe to blog a little. It was not long before we stumbled upon Dennis, the Dutch guy we had met through Thomas in Saigon almost 2 months ago!, as he was strolling down Huay Xie high street. It was great to catch up with him again and hear of his motorcycling stories though Vietnam.
Relaxing by the river at a restaurant James directed us too was a perfect way to relax after all the excitement, and we watched the sunset over Thailand on the other side of the river whilst sharing stories.
Before signing off just want to say a BIG thank you to Tanny, Tyler, Lois, Ching, Glenn, James and Sabina for being great fun and I hope all of you have enjoyed your travels onwards and look forward to seeing the pictures we all have captured.
It was time to leave Luang Prabang and start making our journey north for the Gibbon Experience which is based out of the border town Huay Xai. We had decided that instead of getting on another bus we would take the slow boat on the Mekong. It would take us two days to get there with a night stop over at Pak Beng. We had got our boat ticket to Pak Beng directly from the dock and would get the onward ticket from there to Huay Xai on the boat the following day. This was cheaper than the through ticket that the tour operators in town were selling.
We were up early to go to the morning food market to pick up some sticky rice and chicken to have as our lunch on the boat and also stopped off at one of the stalls for a noodle soup breakfast.
To get on the boat we had walk across some planks and I some how missed the first one and went into the mud! Such a muppet! The boat was meant to leave at 8.30am but we got there about an hour early to try to get good seats. We had heard that it was better to get a seat near the front of the boat to be further away from the engine as the noise can be a bit intense particularly for 8 hours a day! We were some of the first people there so got seats near the front. Luckily they were the more comfy ones that were basically car seats that had been put in the boat rather than the hard wooden benches. I'm not sure if that cushion would be very comfy after a few hours.
It was a misty morning on the Mekong, we had not seen it like this before as we had not been up early enough before!
The boat soon started to fill up with people, bags, goods even some very fresh fish still gulping for air in a plastic bag. We were sitting right next to where all the bags were being piled which meant we had something to lean on, once I'd double checked I wasn't leaning on the fish.
Whilst waiting to leave we chatted with some of the other people on the boat and met Kate and Sam, a brother and sister from New Zealand. It turned out that they were also heading to the Gibbon Experience and we were booked in on the same 3 days Once the boat was full we set off upriver, waved goodbye to Luang Prabang and settled in for the long journey.
I was glad I had my fleece as it got quite cold on the boat even when the mist had started to clear, but fortunately we could get a hot cuppa to warm us up!
We made several stops along the way to drop people off at villages along with the goods that were on the boat and gradually the pile next to us started to get smaller. Here are some of the views along the river...
We got to Pak Beng just as the sun was starting to go down and found a guesthouse close to the dock for the night. We met up with Kate and Sam at an Indian restaurant which seemed to be the most popular place to eat. We found out again what a small world it is when Sam mentioned he had done an exchange and worked at Gordans School which is not far from where I live and he used to go out at The Chameleon and Yates in Woking!! We shared tales of Woking and Guildford which was fun although a bit random There is not much going on in Pak Beng and it was surprising how tiring just sitting on a boat all day could be! So early night for us.
Down at the dock the next morning we could see just how many more boats there were. This route was busier heading in the opposite direction from the boarder with Thailand to Luang Prabang. I was glad we were heading the other way as there were so many more people and we saw some boats with only room to sit on the floor. Of all the boats only about 2 of them were going in our direction.
We managed to be one of the first people at the boat again and good seats secured we waited for the boat to fill up. People had to clamber from one boat to the next to get to ours as there was not enough room to get it right up to shore. As we waited I noticed some movement on the otherside of the river, can you see what I saw...
Yep an elephant!
The mahout was driving his elephant down to the water to drink, whilst texting on his mobile phone!
Before we left the wife of the captain prayed by wheel of the boat and lit two candles for a safe journey. I'd also noticed the white threads tied around the wheel much like the white threads we had been given with blessings of good luck at our welcome ceremony.
There was a bit of drama before we left between identical twin sisters. It seemed they had fallen out over something, my suspicions were it was about a guy they had both been flirting with on the boat the day before, and now one of them was refusing to continue the journey. After tears and urgent whispering she jumped ship and got on a boat heading in the other direction back to Luang Prabang. The other sister went to cry it out in the toilet only for at the last minute the deserting sister to jump back on board. Having made her point she had decided to go to Huay Xai after all! This lead to a lot of confusion with the ticket sellers who had already swapped her over to the other boat but it got sorted in the end.
As we pulled away from Pak Beng we could see there was more development happening on that side of the river, maybe to try and tempt people to stay longer than one night on their way further into Laos. This time we had some live pigs on board!
There's not much to do on the slow boat, I was on my second book already and Dan was getting more addicted to his game.
But what was good about the slow boat was getting to see life on the river...
There is a quicker way of making the journey on the river and that was by speed boat where you can travel the same distance in a day. We saw several of these and it looks like a very bumpy ride and the people on board wear crash helmets. Although faster this is a lot more dangerous way of travelling as they go at break neck speed and there are hidden rocks in the river. There were several times our boat had to carefully navigate areas where you could tell by the swirling surface and movement of the water there were obstacles underneath to avoid.
As we approached Huay Xai we could see Thailand on the otherside.
The sun was setting again and the four of us headed off to find the Gibbon Experience office to check in with them before the office shut. The directions we had been given were vague to say the least and it was a lot further from where we were dropped off than we had thought. When we arrived to our dismay the office was shut already, earlier than the time we had been told. Fortunately one of the staff had waited to see if we turned up and told us to be at the office at 8.30am the next day. We found rooms in a hotel over the road, bought gloves and a torch and found somewhere for dinner.
Tomorrow we would be flying through the jungle like gibbons!! Eek!!
I've been a bit of a bookworm since I was little. I was one of those kids that would sneakily put the light back on after bedtime and when I heard my parents coming up the stairs I would pretend I'd fallen asleep reading, book slipping out of hand and glasses at a bit of an angle etc.. "Ah bless her" they would say carefully taking off my glasses without waking me and turning out the light...only for me to put the light back on again once I thought they were asleep and continue whatever adventure I had been reading...
Books and stories played such a huge part of my childhood (and still do today). I can not imagine not being able to get lost in a book and so when I heard that many Laos children had never read or possibly even seen a book I was keen to find out more.
Big Brother Mouse is a Laos based project which looks to improve literacy in Laos by publishing books in the Laos language and also distributing these books. You can find out more detail about Big Brother Mouse here www.bigbrothermouse.com
One of the ways to help is by sponsoring a book party and mini library in a rural village, bringing books to children and making literacy fun. I decided that instead of spending money on Xmas presents to send home that I would use that money to sponsor one on behalf of the Doyle family. We knew roughly when we would be in Luang Prabang but there was no guarantee we would be able to attend a book party when we got there. Fortunately for us even though book parties don't normally happen end of Jan due to the school exams we were able to attend one and it was so great to see what the donation is used for.
At the office we met the enthusiastic Pi who has worked for BBM for the last 5 years. He told us that he loves his job as he gets to put a smile on children's faces! He runs book parties and also has written a couple of books too that BBM has published. He told us that his latest is a book about a magic cave that when the characters go inside takes them to another world (a bit like the top of the Faraway Tree). This one takes them to the time of dinosaurs!
He plans it to be a series where the children will be able to learn about other countries or times in history. We also met Sung who illustrates some of the books and helps at the book parties, and Magherita from Australia who was also joining the book party.
We all got into the minivan and started to make the hour drive out of town to Ban Hadkor Village. Pi told us there would be about 100 children there and that it had been over 2 years since BBM had been able to visit this village with books. We found out that the kids also didn't have work books so we stopped off at a local shop to buy 100 exercise books and pencils so each kid would get these too as well as a reading book of their own to keep.
When we arrived at the school the children were playing outside but quickly lined up and watched expectantly as we got out the car and started to unload. The book party itself would last for 3 hours and include talking to the kids about literacy, games, story time and the exciting ending of choosing their very own book for them to keep, which for some of them would be the first book they had ever owned!
After an intro by Pi we gave each child a piece of paper and a pencil as we would start the morning with some drawing of whatever came to mind. The little ones seemed a bit nervous of us to start with and as soon as they had their paper and pencil they ran as fast as there little legs could carry them back to their classroom. We sat in one of the classrooms with our own paper and pencil and started to draw too, although I'm sure you can spot which pictures are ours and what we were missing at home!
Soon the kids were showing us their drawings and giggling at ours! We helped to tell them what the English words were for what we had all drawn and they told us the Laos, but I think they were better students than we were, maybe its why one of the girls was giving Dan evils in the pic below!
After drawing was over it was time to head back outside for Pi to talk more to the kids on literacy, sing some songs and play some games! He was great with the kids and they were so engaged.
Isn't this the most amazing backdrop to a playground ever!
One of the games the kids played they were in a circle holding on to each other. Pi had 3 signs (red, orange and green) and they moved in a circle depending on which one he held up, much like traffic lights with green being the fastest etc... This is when we noticed how the brothers and sisters look after each other and sometimes the little ones who are too young for school still come along with them anyway. One little boy lost his sister in the circle as his legs couldn't keep up and started crying. The only person who could comfort him was his sister, who came running out of the game to him for a big hug. So cute!
Then it was story time...and the kids were transfixed standing or their seats to get a better look as they were told the story that I think was about a duck who lost his mother and then found her again.
Whilst the kids were listening to the story the team started to get the books ready. There were enough books for each child to have one and also to start a mini library with educational books for the teachers as well to help them too. The books were organised according to the age group as each class started to line up.
Pi had explained to the children that we had brought them books and once we had given them an exercise book they could go and choose a reading book of their own to keep. You could feel the excitement in the line of kids but they still remembered to be polite and not push to the front and each one gave us a 'nop' of thanks. This where two hands are placed together in front of you with a little bow, the higher the hands are raised and the lower the bow the more respect/thanks is being given and the kids were doing the biggest nops we had seen since we had been in Laos before running over to chose their reading book.
Pi explained that often the largest books would be chosen first and that the kids were very excited about owning their own book. They would be encouraged to swap them with their classmates once they had finished reading them but Pi explained that this sometimes took awhile as they got quite attached to them.
It was amazing to see that as soon as the kids chose their book that they immediately went to sit somewhere to eagerly read it.
As we walked round the classrooms to shouts of thank you in English and Laos (Khwap jai) the kids were keen to show us which books they had chosen and how they could read. Some were more able than others but they still loved their book and you knew they would be reading it all the way through in no time!
We then presented the remaining books for the library to the head teacher, Mr Kham Lah, who thanked us on behalf of the staff and the kids. He told us how they had had other volunteers from other organisations who have helped to build and paint parts of the school but that to actually receive the books and resources the children needed was a real pleasure and would make a difference. We thanked them for having us in return and that we hoped the kids like the books and keep enjoying reading.
It had been a fantastic morning and one of the most worthwhile experiences we have had on our trip so far!
If you would like to get involved please visit their website www.bigbrothermouse.com or if you are going to Luang Prabang you can pop into their shop to buy books to give to kids on your travels in Laos or help people with their English at their drop in sessions.