We hadn’t originally intended to stay in Luang Prabang for so long, but Lao New Year (Pi Mai) was fast approaching and sounded like far too much fun to miss, so we decided hang around for another week. Besides, Luang Prabang is such a nice city and there was still so much that we wanted to do here, so we were all happy to hang around a bit longer. After our week at the Elephant Conservation centre, Monday was mostly spent catching up on blog posts and having long discussions about how to spend the rest of our travelling time. Until this point Ben had been working remotely 2 days a week and we had managed to spend less of our savings than we had anticipated; however his contract finished at the end of March meaning we had to think more carefully about the way we were going to spend our money. Travelling has been wonderful for us all, but has had diminishing returns as time has gone on, with sightseeing fatigue setting in for the kids big time, and the longing for friends and stability starting to outweigh the ongoing benefits of seeing more of South East Asia. We would really love to see Japan, but after much thinking about it, decided that we couldn’t justify the expense when the children are really longing to get back to the UK. The more we started to think about cutting our travels short and heading back home in the near future, the more it felt like the right thing to do. However, after so long away it also felt really difficult imagining just returning straight back to our old life and carrying on as though we had never been away. The idea of a transition period started to form in our minds, where we could continue our travels for a while, but back in the UK, with family nearby and friends within visiting distance. We have all loved being by the sea during the last 6 months, enjoying surfing, swimming and running by the beach, and with Ben’s Dad living in Cornwall it seemed like a logical place to head for a couple of months before returning to the farm. By the end of the day we were all mulling over the possibility of trying to combine the fun activities of our travels by staying near the coast where we can spend our free time at the beach, with the stability of school and work. We were delighted to hear from our lovely farm-sitters that they would be happy to continue with the current arrangement until July, even with us back in the UK, so we all agreed to think it over for a few days before making any firm decisions.
After a morning of planning, we did at least manage to venture out in the afternoon. Top of our to do list was to find some bamboo straws that we could carry around with us and use instead of plastic ones. Laos has a plentiful supply of bamboo and the ECC had been advertising locally made bamboo straws, but had unfortunately run out of them during our stay. We came across a lovely shop called Ock Pop Tok, which commisions villagers from all around Laos to make clothes, accessories, toys and bamboo items and then sells them in Luang Prabang and on the international market, providing a good income for locals using their traditional methods of weaving, silk production and dying. We were able to find bamboo straws there and enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that our money was going to local people, much more rewarding than buying metal straws from Tesco would have been. After our shopping, we went for an ice cream at the old Royal Ice cream parlour, the 3 Nagas, and over the course of an hour the kids came up with the idea of buying bulk quantities of these straws, and selling them back home. At first they thought they would give talks at school and sell them to their friends, but after an hour or so they had decided to set up a website to spread the word far and wide, to give talks at lots of local schools, to ask cafes and restaurants if they would be willing to sell them and display cards and flyers advertising their website, even contacting Blue Peter when it takes off. They want it recorded that this was the day they decided to save the world one step at a time, starting with straws. Having agreed that developing this idea could be their home school project for the rest of our time travelling, we went back to Ock Pop Tok to check that buying in bulk would be possible (it is), and we signed up for a Tie Dye course later in the week, so we could learn more about their organisation and the traditional handicrafts that they are supporting. As we reach the end of our travels, it feels right that we should put our efforts and attention towards ‘giving back’ in some way, and this project will bring together everything that we have learnt about as we have journeyed around the world. We have seen first hand the effects of human destruction with widespread loss of rainforest and associated loss of wildlife, as well as all the rubbish and plastic on the beaches. It is time to do something about it!
This desire to spend the rest of our travels giving something back to the world after spending so many months focussing on having fun whilst seeing and learning about different countries and cultures was also nurtured by our week volunteering at the ECC and the time we had spent at Big Brother Mouse. It felt like Laos would be the perfect place to find a worthy project to get involved in before heading back to the UK. After more time browsing the internet, I came across an organisation called OpenMind projects which focusses on teaching English language and IT skills to locals to enable them to earn an income from Ecotourism. They were looking for families to spend 2 weeks or more in a remote village homestay, to teach English to the local guides and children, to go trekking with them and tell them what we would expect from them as tourists. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for us, but also slightly daunting. We had agreed to go on a long trek to some remote villages near Luang Prabang with our new friends on Wednesday, staying in a Hmong village overnight, so we decided to see how that went first, but assuming that went well then we all agreed that the OpenMind project would be a great way to spend the rest of our time in Laos. Our plans were coming together at last! We finished Monday with a visit to the Grand Palace, delightfully simple after the excesses of Bangkok, another trip to Big Brother Mouse, and our usual crepes at the Night Market.
After months without any clear ideas of timings for our travels, when we would be coming home, and even all the places we would be visiting, it felt really good to be forming a picture of how the rest of our time would be spent, at last. On Tuesday we even felt ready to book our flights home, confident that one more month divided between Laos, to give us time for our volunteering project, and Cambodia, to finish with Angkor Wat, the last ‘must-see’ on my to-do list, would be plenty. We settled on May 20th, to give us time to see family and friends before, hopefully, rejoining the British school system after half-term at the start of June. I suddenly had to start thinking about work again, a huge shock to the system, and a rather worrying reminder that I really haven’t done anything at all to maintain my knowledge whilst we have been away. I am taking comfort from the fact that I did even less when on maternity leave but still managed to ease my way back in after having Jago and I still have a few weeks to revise before starting back. Applying for my old job again back at Thorpe Hall hospice, it was remarkable how long it took me to switch back into the necessary frame of mind, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I am looking forward to that level of mental stimulation and human contact again. The desire for our ‘gap year’ was partly a response to the very long hours I worked for the past 3 years, so figuring out how to create a better ‘work life balance’ on our return is important for us. The first decision we have made is that I am not going to return to the hours I worked before, instead cutting back to no more than 3 days a week, and limiting locum shifts to one a month. Hopefully this will create more time for hobbies and family; otherwise we might have to keep taking regular breaks to travel the world, like one of the other families we met in Luang Prabang who spend 6 months a year in Norfolk and 6 months a year on the road!
Our main activity on Tuesday was a trip to the ‘Living Land’ rice farm to learn about traditional rice production. We had a fantastic morning, wearing our bamboo hats, ploughing the fields with Rudolphe the pink buffalo, planting rice, harvesting it and threshing it, finishing up with lots of tasty rice snacks and a drink of rice wine. The morning was brilliantly organised and we all enjoyed it a lot. It was astonishing to see how much work goes into the production of a food that we really take for granted as such as staple part of most people’s diet. Although a lot of rice farming is now more mechanised than we were shown at Living Land, there are still plenty of subsistence farmers growing rice in this way, doing everything by hand. We are so lucky that we no longer have to toil like this in order to have food on our table.
On Wednesday we set off early to the ‘White Elephant Adventures’ office, to begin our trek to some of the remote villages north of Luang Prabang. Luckily we were able to leave our big rucksacks at their office so we only had to carry the kids’ packs with our overnight gear, some snacks and water. Joining us and the Parkers were a young German couple, and we had 3 local guides accompanying us: King Kong, Sing Song and Yalli, all of whom had excellent English. Going with White Elephant Adventures was an excellent experience where we really felt our money was going to the people it was meant to support rather than just the tour agency. The guides clearly enjoyed their jobs and felt they were well paid, and they were all from the local area. We dropped in to see Yalli’s aunt and uncle in one of the villages, and we finished the walk at King Kong’s house. It was a long, hot walk taking us about 5 hours to reach the first Khmu village, but the company and the surrounding jungle scenery made for a nice walk. Piran and Libby spent hours chatting to each other about minecraft as they walked, happily lost in conversation as the distance passed. On the way we saw a woman catching cicadas with a sticky stick, something we still haven’t brought ourselves to eat, but clearly a popular food here. It was late afternoon when we reached the village, which largely comprised wooden houses on stilts. The women and children were gathered around the village shower, water flowing through a pipe from the mountains, where they washed both themselves and their clothes. There was a small primary school which was no more than a room with benches and desks, no pictures on the walls, and very dark inside. The animals walked around freely, including cows, pigs and chickens, with no enclosures to separate them or keep them contained. The road was a dirt track, passable by moped, and there was very little evidence of technology in the village. I didn’t even see any mobile phones, although one villager was using a satellite phone just outside the village as we arrived, and there were no electricity lines. The villagers were very friendly and enjoyed having their photos taken, smiling as they looked at themselves on the screens afterwards. Ben enjoyed seeing a medieval looking blacksmith’s forge still in existence, and we could see equipment for manual rice production, still in use here. It is very humbling to see that people really do still live like this, as subsistence farmers with none of the basics that we take for granted. We found out that they get some money by selling cows to the Chinese; one cow will buy a moped that will last about one year. After we had had a good look around here, we continued on to the next village, a further 30 minutes down the dirt road, everyone now feeling very tired after the long trek. This one was a Hmong village, another minority tribe, and was to be our home for the night. Most of the houses here were on the ground rather than on stilts, and more of them had concrete or brick bases. We were staying in the home of a local family who retreated behind a screen in the corner of their main room for the night whilst we slept on thin mattresses under mosquito nets in the rest of the room. They had a small bedroom which they gave to the German couple for the night. There was a small amount of solar power which provided us with a dim light bulb. Food was cooked on a fire out the back; the toilet was a ceramic squat toilet in a hut through the garden, washing facilities again comprised a couple of mountain water outlets where villagers gathered to shower and wash their clothes. After the hot trek I was desperate for a shower so headed down in my sarong, only to realise, too late, that the thin white material became see-through once it was wet. After the quickest wash ever, I literally ran back to the homestay to change into something more modest as soon as possible! Despite the embarrassment it was well worth it to get rid of the sticky sweat. We had a delicious meal of soup and rice, washed down with Beerlao, and a relaxing evening before heading to bed. I cannot remember ever sleeping anywhere as dark as that ever before, and I managed to sleep well after all our walking despite the extremely hard floor.
On Thursday morning we looked around the Hmong village and visited their school which had 3 large buildings for kindergarten, primary and secondary school. Again, the classroom walls were undecorated and lessons consisted of teacher standing at the blackboard with the children at their desks with one exercise book and pencil. I don’t think our kids could quite believe how different school here is from their own experience back home. There was a football pitch, where a ball was being kicked about, and also a game of rattan ball in progress, consisting of 3 players either side of a volleyball net hitting a hard ball to each other, without it hitting the ground, using any part of their body except their hands. Having tried it since, I can vouch that it is extremely difficult, but the kids playing managed to make it look pretty easy! After spending some time at the school, we continued our walk past another Khmu village where we found an old woman selling beautiful purses that she had embroidered herself; I couldn’t resist buying a couple. We also stopped in at the home of Yalli’s Aunt and Uncle where the children were much admired. Here I was interested to see the second enormous goitre that I had encountered on this trek, evidence that they still have nutritional deficiencies in this part of the world despite the global increase in food production and improved nutritional status worldwide. Our guides told us that in these villages, people still have 5-10 children, expecting that many of them will not survive childhood, and men will sometimes have more than one wife if they can afford it. They are animists, despite the surrounding Buddhist influence. The trek was certainly an eye-opening experience for all of us, and everyone seemed up for spending more time living in a Laos village, so we finished our walk that afternoon hot, weary and keen to pursue our next volunteering experience.
All thoughts of the trek quickly vanished on our way home as we discovered that Pi Mai (Lao New Year) celebrations had already begun. For 4 days the Lao people wash away the bad stuff from the past year and bless the new year by pouring water on each other. It transpires that this basically involves drinking lots of Beerlao, dancing to electronic dance music, and spraying passers by with hoses, buckets, water pistols, and anything else you can find until they are completely soaked through. Groups of Lao teenagers drive around in the back of pick up trucks chucking water on pedestrians, and great fun is had by all. As we neared Luang Prabang, revellers started to throw water in to the pick up truck and we were all wet by the time we arrived back at the White Elephant office. The kids absolutely couldn’t wait to get out and buy some water pistols to join in. After a week at Villa Oudomlith already, we had booked alternative accommodation for the New Year due to a large price hike but arrived to discover that our room wasn’t actually available and we didn’t think much of the dark, smelly rooms we were offered instead. We jumped back into a tuk tuk and managed to return to our old room at a negotiated rate, delighted to have comfortable beds and a familiar home for another 5 days.
In many ways it was very lucky that we ended up back at Villa Oudomlith as it wasn’t until we returned from our trek that we realised Piran’s toy dog, Chocolate, was missing. The kids’ cuddly companions have been so important for them on our travels, keeping them company and giving them security no matter where they’re spending the night, so the loss of Chocolate was pretty devastating. We worked out that we could only have left him at Villa Oudomlith or on the tuk-tuk on the way to our trek, so we were hopeful of being reunited when we returned to our guesthouse, but the manager, who we call ‘Green Hair’ since he dyed it for New Year, told us that noone else had used our room whilst we were away and there was no sign of Chocolate. Our last hope was to ask the cleaning lady the following morning. Despairing by now, we managed to find a photo to show her, and could not believe it when she nodded and said that yes, she had Chocolate, but he was staying in a nearby village so she couldn’t give him back until the following day. What a huge relief! Thinking that some poor child was about to have the present he’d been given now taken away again, we managed to find a toy elephant to swap for Chocolate, and when Piran was finally reunited with him the next morning he was so happy! We had great fun imagining the adventures that Chocolate must have had whilst he was away, and we were so grateful to the lovely cleaning lady for returning him when she could easily have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. The people here are so nice.
Friday and Saturday were basically spent having water fights from morning to evening. It was a fun and easy way to spend a couple of days, and we definitely think that all villages in England should have similar celebrations on the first hot weekend of each summer. We will have to see if we can introduce it to Willingham. Of course it helps that in Laos the temperatures are nearing 40 C at this time of year, so being soaked through is actually quite refreshing once you resign yourself to the fact that you cannot avoid it. We all particularly enjoyed soaking the tourists who wanted to remain dry whilst walking down the busiest street in Luang Prabang with water being chucked everywhere. When it all got a bit much for Cara, we headed home to dry off and rest for a while before venturing out again. The thing that most impressed me was the fact that after drinking and partying all day long, all the Lao people quietly packed up and stopped for the night at about 6pm. No antisocial drunken behaviour whatsoever. They certainly love to party here, drinking alcohol from a very young age, but they also know how to control it. I love Laos!
On Sunday we had a break from the water fights as we had booked on to our Tie Dye class at Ock Pop Tok in the morning, a short tuk-tuk ride out of town. We had chosen a good day as it was wet and rainy, much cooler than the last couple of days, and we would all have been cold if we had been soaked through all day today. Ock Pop Tok was fabulously organised in a beautiful garden next to the Mekong river. We were taken through the steps of silk production, before learning about the natural dyes used to make the lovely colours we could use for our scarves (adults) and t-shirts (kids). We saw the plants and trees growing in the garden before we started producing our dyes. Piran wanted monks’ orange so he needed to take the seeds out of pods from the annatto tree, pound them up and then heat them in water with his t-shirt. Ben and Jago were using the bark of the sappan tree which they chopped and put into boiling water to make a pinky red for Jago. Ben’s had already been fermented for a few days so he just needed to heat his with a rusty nail to turn it purple. Cara and I were both using the leaves of the indigo bush, which had been fermented for several days. We needed to squeeze the dye into our material for 5-10 minutes to turn it from green to blue. The more you squeeze it the more intense the blue colour. The staff helped us tie plastic around our scarves and t-shirts before dying them, to create the patterns that we had chosen. It was fantastically simple, yet really fascinating. I can’t imagine how people came across these processes in the first place- did they have to try the bark of hundreds of trees before they found one that gave a good colour, or did they just accidentally cook it with a nail after fermenting it for several days? After our class, we were able to see the weavers making their beautiful handicrafts, including some fabulous silk wall hangings which I adored. I would so have loved to buy some but can’t carry anything more in my rucksack which is already splitting at the seams and looking dangerously like it won’t quite make it home in one piece.
On return to Luang Prabang at lunchtime we headed to our new favourite lunch spot, a small food market that sells sandwiches, crepes, fruit shakes and local food, passing an enormous procession that was lined up along the road waiting to make its way down the main street, past the important people at the Grand Palace. There were hundreds of locals representing businesses and villages, promoting recycling, martial arts and musical groups etc, that all waited for well over an hour before they finally got started mid-afternoon. It was fun to watch it for a while, particularly seeing the traditional costumes they were wearing, but we did eventually get rather bored and headed home for a quiet afternoon before another day of water fights on Monday.
Monday was our final day in Luang Prabang and I finally managed to drag everyone up Mount Phousi, a short 30 minute walk up the central hill to a small temple and large gold stupa, with great views over the city. We managed to resist buying any of the small birds for sale in little cages at the bottom of the steps which are supposed to give you luck when you release them, despite the kids thinking that it would be much nicer for the birds if we set them free. We appreciated the little piles of sticky rice that had been placed all the way up the wall as offerings, and wondered if these offerings are to bring good karma too. From here we could see many of the temples that Luang Prabang is famous for, that we haven’t visited after seeing so many in Thailand. It was amazing to notice that there was jungle on the hills as far as we could see in all directions, with just a clearing for the city with its beautiful tiled roofs and lovely French colonial buildings. Even in New Zealand, the countryside had been cleared away far more than this, and it seemed like a completely impossible sight- a city surrounded by jungle with no visible major roads or other towns nearby. After all the developed countries we have visited, it is so nice to find ourselves somewhere again, at last, that still has so much dense forest and nature throughout. So far, I am really loving Laos!