Week 31- Thakhek to Pakse

After 2 weeks in Ban Yangkheua, everybody was looking forward to a proper bed, a hot shower, and a meal that didn’t involve sticky rice! We had a long journey south from the village to Thakhek, catching the local bus from the ‘bus station’ at Thabak which was essentially a bench by the side of the main road. The bus was absolutely rammed full of stuff that was being transported from Vientiane, so every seat had a parcel underneath it and there was next to no leg space. It was definitely our least comfortable journey so far, but it was amazingly cheap for a 6 hour drive and I, for one, enjoyed travelling like a local for a while.

On arrival in Thakhek we walked along the Mekong where we could see several ornate temples across the river on the Thai side, feeling very reminiscent of Nongkhai. We tried a couple of hotels before finding a guesthouse that we liked in the building of the old colonial police station. It certainly had character, but we weren’t certain whether the padding on the walls was left over from the old days or simply the owner’s taste in interior design! We managed to find a great restaurant serving Western food, and for once felt no qualms at all about ordering burgers and pizza after 2 weeks of local food including frogs, snails and insects. We had earned it! The hot shower was blissful and we were all appreciative of a proper bed, despite the rock hard Asian mattresses not being much more comfortable than the floor in the village guesthouse.

The following day we managed to hire a car which we were going to use for the next 3 days to tackle ‘the loop’, a circular route usually tackled by motorbike with fabulous scenery and lots of caves and swimming holes to visit. With that sorted, we were able to spend the rest of the day uploading our very overdue blog posts, continuing work on www.smallworldbigchange.co.uk, and taking it in turns to have a bit of one-to-one time in one of the lovely cafes, eating cake and playing cards. The antidote to all that time in a remote village!

We set off early on Monday morning to begin the loop, with Ben successfully managing to drive on the crazy Laos roads in a left hand drive car for the first time on our travels. Our first stop was a small cave just outside of Thakhek, 12km down the main road with enormous karst towering above us either side of the road. We were greeted at the entrance to Tham Pha Nya In by a blind, old man who turned on the lights inside the cave for us, in return for a small donation. We climbed up a staircase to the entrance at the base of one of the cliffs; inside we could look down to a very small pool of water that would have come further into the cave in wet season but which was fairly unremarkable at the beginning of May. We ventured around the upper level past some incredible rock formations, into the inner sanctum where we found a Buddhist shrine and many resident bats. It was quiet and peaceful in there, and made a really nice first stop on our journey. We had hoped to head on to Tha Falang, a nearby swimming hole, but we were told that it wouldn’t be passable in our little car. This created much resentment from the children who thought we ought to risk it anyway, and unfortunately at 3km off the road we didn’t think we were going to have time to walk there and back. It took a few hours, but eventually they started speaking to us again when we reached the next cave, Tham Nang Aen, the biggest cave we had ever seen with a roof as high as a cathedral, fabulous stone staircases heading off into the distance and amazing rock formations, all lit up with coloured lights; after exploring this enormous cavern, we came to a small underground lake which we were able to explore by boat, our guides paddling us into the long tunnel until we reached daylight once more at the other end. Getting out here, we were able to explore the stalactites and stalagmites, the natural statues, the holy water well with resident linga and noni and the enormous pile of bat guano before heading back to our starting point. Having never seen anything as big as this before, we were all impressed with the enormous size and scale of the cave, and although many people might dislike the way it has been lit up for tourists, I loved it all. There was a large picnic area here where we could relax over lunch and a game of cards before continuing on with our drive in the afternoon.

On the next leg of the journey we wound our way up into the mountains, on steep roads with sharp bends, rewarding us with wonderful views first of jungle, and later of the flooded valley. This is the site of the Nam Theun 2 Dam, a hydroelectric plant built as a collaboration between Laos, Thailand and France, which has resulted in 16 villages and large swathes of jungle being flooded to create the reservoir necessary to make electricity. We stopped at the visitor centre which was suitably impressive about how positive the whole venture has been, particularly for the relocated villagers who now have electricity, clean drinking water, schools and health clinics. It is clear that there are also many negative effects as well, such as removing their ability to earn money as rice farmers, and expecting them to become fishermen instead. How many fish there actually are in the new reservoir is uncertain, but despite the propaganda I still left feeling that the benefits of such a project outweigh the negatives, and it is clear that we need as much renewable energy as possible in the world today. Continuing on with our journey, the devastation caused by the flooding became very apparent as we saw mile after mile of dead trees, drowned by the raised water level. It felt strangely apocalyptic but beautiful in its own way too. Shortly before reaching the town of Tha lang, we saw a sign to a weaving project in the village of Ban Sobia. Hoping to buy presents for family members, we turned off here to see what they were creating but despite the presence of many looms, none of the women were at work and nobody had anything to sell. We were not sure if this is a failed project, or if they are commissioned to make handicrafts for a larger organisation rather than selling locally, but either way we didn’t stay for long before driving the final few miles to Sabaidee guesthouse, our accommodation for the night. Sabaidee is supposedly ‘the’ backpacker hangout for the first night on the loop, and we really enjoyed a relaxing barbeque at shared tables, next to the fire pit, chatting to the other travellers for a change. I haven’t felt quite so old in a long time though, as it dawned on me that the others were all closer in age to Jago than to me and Ben! It gave a glimpse of how different travelling might be as a couple, rather than as a family, and although it was fun for a night I was very appreciative that we could retreat to our comfortable private rooms rather than hostel accommodation (still very cheap at less than 10 pounds per night) and enjoy the constant companionship of our little group.

The following morning, we decided to spend a couple of hours fishing on the reservoir before heading on with our journey. After reading the propaganda about how many fish there now are, providing a good income for the displaced villagers, I was hopeful about our chances of a good haul. However half of the time the lines caught on the dead trees that were all around us, and we really couldn’t see any fish in the water anywhere; despite everyone showing great determination and resilience we returned empty handed just before lunchtime. It was a pleasant morning nonetheless in the company of the guesthouse owner who had come from Vientiane to Thalang for work building the dam, and liked it so much that he decided to stay on after work was completed. He felt that despite the loss of agricultural opportunities life had improved for the local villagers with the arrival of electricity and sanitation, and he too was positive about the impact of the hydroelectric plant on the local community. We could easily have spent more time here, but we were keen to get to a swimming hole today after yesterday’s disappointment and we had a long drive ahead, so we decided to press on with our journey. As we drove, the kids were entertained by playing ‘do you want some weetos?’, a game they find absolutely hilarious which just involves shouting that out of the window at pedestrians or motorbike riders. They managed to adapt it slightly to ‘yo, yo, buffalo’ for the locals which for some reason they thought would be more polite. Each to their own, and it certainly distracts them for long stretches of time! We arrived at the cool water pool for a late lunch and had a fantastic couple of hours here in the freezing cold but beautiful green water, the kids enjoying jumping off the rocks into the deep pool below. There were so many butterflies here, it was magical seeing Ben surrounded by them, looking like he was under a tree shedding its blossom in the wind. As we get closer to our return to the UK, I can’t help but wonder how we will cope with the cooler temperatures as even Jago, who was contentedly swimming in glacial lakes in New Zealand at the start of this adventure, struggled to get into this (very much warmer) pool! We have definitely got used to the warmer climate here and I’m sure we’re going to miss it. Our final drive of the day took us all the way to Ban Kong Lor, where once again we were in a corridor of karst towering up on either side of the road. The scenery was breathtaking and well worth the roadtrip. We managed only to stop a couple of times for photos, otherwise we would never have made it to our destination, but I can see why some people end up taking 4 or 5 days to cover the same distance, in order to really appreciate it properly. Stunning. The eco-lodge we stopped at in Ban Kong Lor provided yet more comfortable and incredibly cheap accommodation, so much so that we were able to splash out on 2 rooms and a bed each for the night- luxury!

On Wednesday morning we headed straight to Tham Kong Lor, the highlight of this trip. It is a truly massive cave with a river running through it, extending over 7km through the enormous limestone cliffs. We read about how the villagers in Ban Kong Lor had thought that the emerald coloured water at the mouth of the cave was a sacred pool originating in the mountain, until first a duck appeared out of the mouth of the cave, then a buffalo yoke, and finally a tied-up bundle of rice, which aroused their suspicion that it might lead somewhere and that there might be other people at the opposite end. They embarked on an exploration mission which took them 3 days in the pitch black with just a wooden torch to light the way, until they finally emerged out the other side. Having been through it ourselves, I cannot imagine how brave they must have been! Just entering the mouth of the cave, we could already feel the scale of this natural wonder as we were dwarfed by the size of the opening. We climbed into our boats and headed off into the eerie darkness with only the narrow beam from our guide’s headtorch to light the way. Looking up from time to time, it was clear that the roof of the cavern was a long way up, apparently as high as 300ft in some parts, but the water wasn’t deep and the river wound its way from side to side, initially creating the same kind of excitement as a pitch black rollercoaster, hoping we weren’t going to hit anything as we navigated our way around the bends. Eventually our eyes started to adjust to the darkness and the initial thrill wore off but the cave just kept on going and going for miles on end- I had never imagined that such a thing might exist apart from in the realms of imagination. At times we had to get out and walk as our guides navigated the boats up sections of rapids. At the first stop, we found ourselves on a long path with enormous stalagmite and stalactite formations lit up along the way. It is impossible to imagine the timescale required for such enormous structures to form, well beyond the capacity of my tiny mind! I found it an awesome reminder of how ancient the earth is, and how insignificant human lifespan is in comparison. I felt so small inside, both physically and metaphorically! As we emerged into the sunshine at the other end I felt quite exhilarated, and the rest of the journey down the river to the nearest village, looking back at the enormous mountains that we had just passed through, was beautiful. Reaching the village near the cave exit, we found bicycles for hire which were small enough for Jago and Cara, but sadly too big for Piran. Whilst Pip and I retreated to one of the stalls where we could sit and play cards, the others headed off for a bike ride around the nearby villages for an hour. The locals were extremely impressed with Piran’s Lao language ability, asking for a drink, saying please and thank you, and understanding the price all in Lao. Being able to communicate in their own language, no matter how limited, really helped to build a connection and felt very satisfying. I can’t work out whether it is a blessing, or a shame, that we have been able to speak English and be understood everywhere else that we have travelled to! Whilst it has certainly made travelling very easy, I do feel we have missed out on some cultural immersion by getting by in our native language throughout our journey. Having not spoken another language myself, for so many years, it has really made me want to learn French again and put it into practice once we return home. Yet another addition to my growing ‘to do’ list on return to the UK! Cycling trip complete, we made our way back into the darkness and enjoyed reliving the excitement of the cave again as we travelled back to our starting point. It had been a great morning, and I understand why this is the highlight of a trip to Laos for many people. What an awesome sight!

The heat of the sun motivated us to find somewhere we could swim to cool down after our cave exploration, and the Lonely Planet recommended a nearby resort on a clean river where we should have been able to get lunch and splash about, so we headed there for our next stop. The place was absolutely beautiful with bungalows set in a tropical garden and the food was absolutely awesome, but sadly the hospitality was somewhat lacking as the owner informed 3 very disappointed children that only residents are allowed to access the river from the resort. Clearly it is a public river, and there weren’t even any other guests at the resort- I couldn’t believe it! In nearly 8 months of travelling I think this is the first time that we have encountered such rigid behaviour, and I was so surprised that it happened to be in Laos which has been so friendly and laid back elsewhere. Needless to say, we didn’t sit around spending money on drinks which we would have done if the kids had been playing happily, and instead we walked down the public path to the river after lunch and Jago and Cara enjoyed a short time splashing about before we had to continue with our journey back to Thakek for the night. It was on the next leg of the journey that we had our near-death experience that I am sure none of us will ever forget. Winding our way out of the ‘limestone forest’ in the mountains, the roads had many steep sharp bends and lots of lorries travelling from Vietnam border over towards Thailand. As we climbed up one particularly steep bend behind a lorry that was so slow it was almost rolling backwards down the hill, the lorry indicated for us to overtake. Despite being unable to see round the bend, we assumed that the driver had a better view than us or wouldn’t have indicated that we could go, so Ben pulled out and started accelerating around him. As he did so, a songthaew appeared round the bend coming straight towards us down the hill. In his wisdom, rather than dropping back into the hole he had left, Ben decided to accelerate forwards into the ever diminishing gap between the enormous lorry on our right and the songthaew in front of us. I honestly thought we were going to die, and I am not proud of the expletives that would have been my final words if we hadn’t made it! The songthaew managed to get right over the edge of the road, and we made it through by a whisker, amazed not to have sustained even a scratch on the car. Wow! I have never felt so grateful to be alive! The kids were equally shaken, and we were all content to travel at 5 mph after that rather than risk any more crazy overtaking, and when we stopped for our final selfie overlooking the limestone peaks and back out over the valley below before returning to Thakek, our huge smiles were the genuine smiles of people very relieved to still be standing! I am never going to let Ben forget this if he ever criticises my driving again in the future! Despite our close shave, the loop had been a great way to spend 3 days, with interesting and fantastic scenery, lovely caves and pools and nice cheap places to stay.

Having made it back to Thakek, we now had the challenge of getting to Siem Reap as quickly as possible for our final week abroad. We really wanted to maximise our time there so that we could explore lots of temples without it becoming too draining for the kids, so we decided to travel straight there without breaking up the journey in 4000 islands as we had previously planned. Logisitically, getting to Siem Reap seemed to be a bit of a nightmare with much of the travel information on the internet about night buses not being up-to-date, and the stated journey times varying wildly, with the same leg supposedly taking anywhere from 4 to 8 hours depending on which source you look at. We finally concluded that the only sane way to get there was to get a bus from Thakek to Pakse on Thursday followed by a mammoth 12 hour journey by minibus from Pakse to Siem Reap on Friday. So it was, that we found ourselves at Thakek bus station at 8.45 on Thursday morning, planning to get the air-conditioned bus at 9.00, only to find out that it had gone at 8.30! We spent a long time debating whether to get the next (local) bus which would be leaving at 10.30, or to wait for the next air-con bus at 12.00; eventually we agreed that the sooner we got there the better as we didn’t have any accommodation booked in advance, and that we would rough it with the locals for one final journey. As it was, we didn’t have anything to worry about; apart from the cracked door and windscreen and the leaking roof, the local bus was perfectly comfortable and the torrential rain during our journey meant we didn’t miss the aircon at all. In fact, the kids and I got absolutely soaked to the bone as we had got off for a toilet break and to stock up with sticky rice, only to find that the heavens opened before we had time to return to the bus. The 30 second sprint back was enough to drench us, and none of us were worried about being too hot for the rest of the journey! The bus made regular stops for local food-sellers to board and offer their food, mostly chicken on a stick and various other unrecognisable snacks that I wasn’t willing to risk at this stage of our travels. There were also stops for everyone else to use the toilet- rather than paying for a western loo as we had, they just used a field by the side of the road, the women just holding up a sarong around themselves as the whole bus squatted around various bushes. There are some aspects of Laos life that I’m just not quite ready to fully embrace just yet! We made good time to Pakse and found a big, comfortable family room in a nice guesthouse not far from the bus stop, opposite a genuine Indian restaurant. There was much excitement at the thought of a good curry for our final night in Laos and we had a delicious meal out to conclude our long stay in this wonderful country. After a lot of travel-fatigue in Malaysia and Thailand, Laos had been just what we needed to regain a sense of purpose, to genuinely feel like we were getting to know a different culture, to get back in touch with nature and to enjoy working together as a team, bringing us closer to each other again. I truly loved our time in Laos and have found it to be the most interesting and rewarding part of our time abroad. 6 weeks here was enough to really experience the country properly and as we departed, I felt ready to return to ‘sight-seeing’ mode for our final week in Asia. Walking between the borders of Laos and Cambodia in the midday sun on Friday, I was content to bid farewell to this fabulous country for now, drawn on by the excitement of Angkor Wat to come.

Weeks 29 and 30- Ban Yangkheua

After a weekend of settling in, by Monday we were ready to get into our new routine for the next 2 weeks. At 9.30 each morning we taught the primary school children for just under an hour and after dinner we spent an hour teaching the local guides. The village children congregated at our homestay during their lunch break from 11.30 to 1.30 and again when school finished at 3.00, so we didn’t have a lot of time to ourselves but what time we did have was spent working on the kids’ school project (www.smallworldbigchange.co.uk), drawing, swimming, playing backgammon and draughts, washing clothes and preparing for our lessons. Occasionally in the afternoons we wondered around the village or joined in with some local activities such as fishing, basket weaving or gardening but mostly we were playing games with the village children, reading books and singing nursery rhymes, drawing and colouring together, and speaking to them in English.

Our lessons at the primary school were good fun and we all enjoyed getting involved. Although we were meant to teach the children, aged 5-9, every day for 2 weeks, one day school was cancelled because it had rained too heavily the night before for the teacher to get to the village on the dirt road, one day the teacher was unwell, one day was a public holiday and one day the teacher had to go to a meeting, so in the end we only took 6 classes. With such a short time frame, our goal was to make our lessons fun and to build their confidence, in the hope that they would be motivated and inspired to continue learning English in the future. With so many of us teaching it was easy to make sure that every child took turns at speaking out loud and receiving smiles and high fives for their efforts. We began all our classes by singing ‘hello…, how are you’ which helped us to learn everybody’s names; then we introduced our topic and taught with the use of pictures we had drawn or flash cards that we had found in the guesthouse; sang a relevant song half way through; then played a game such as bingo, guess the animal from a description, matching pairs or drawing a picture; and finished by singing ‘if you’re happy and you know it’. In this way we managed to teach numbers (singing 12345 once I caught a fish alive), colours (I can sing a rainbow), animals (Old MacDonald had a farm), body parts (head, shoulders, knees and toes), activities (this is the way we…. on a hot and sunny morning- with the words changed as we didn’t think cold and frosty would make much sense), food and adjectives such as fast/slow, good/bad, happy/sad etc. For this last topic we decided to put on a play of the 3 little pigs and the big bad wolf which we all enjoyed doing and the children thought was hysterically funny, especially when the fat wolf (Ben with a pillow inside his t-shirt) huffed and puffed and the thin pigs pretended to be scared, squealing and jumping in each others’ arms. The transformation in our own children during the 2 weeks was really noticeable, with them really embarrassed to be up at the front of the class singing on day 1, to letting all their inhibitions go by the time we were acting out the 3 little pigs 10 days later. They all took active roles in teaching, asking the children questions such as ‘what is it?’ while showing a picture of some food and then ‘do you like it?’, getting them to repeat answers such as ‘I don’t like …. or I like ….’. By the end of our time there, some of the schoolchildren had really improved from speaking single words to speaking in sentences and even the shy, quiet girls were volunteering to have a go at our activities in front of the rest of the class. This was far and away the most rewarding part of our time and Ban Yangkheua and I really loved it, leaving each class feeling uplifted and happy that we were delivering fun lessons that everyone seemed to enjoy. Jouy told us that the children were always so happy after our classes; the feel-good factor was huge!

Spending so much time with the children both in and out of school, meant we got to know them really well. Life for these kids is so different to that of our own children. One of the first things I noticed was the terrible condition of many of their teeth. It was really easy to see what happens if you consume too much sugar and don’t brush your teeth when spending time here, as some of the 5 year olds only had a few black stumps and no healthy looking teeth left at all. I felt terribly sad for them, and hope that my own children now understand better why we try to restrict sugary foods and enforce strict teeth cleaning. Another very noticeable difference is that these children spend many hours each day with no adult supervision, playing in the river and around the village together. They do wind each other up, but they sort out all their disagreements quickly, usually with the bigger child hitting the smaller child without force, and the smaller child then retreating or stopping whatever they were doing. I never heard one of them cry in all the time we there, and they seemed content to hang out in each others’ company day in and day out. Even when they fell over and hurt themselves they usually just picked themselves up and brushed it off; our constant adult intervention in the West clearly has lots of unhelpful effects, despite the obvious positive outcomes from spending more time with our children. There was clearly a difference in the wealth of the children, with many of them only owning a couple of outfits which were worn day in, day out, and a handful of others having several outfits which were always clean and in good condition. Early on we were able to tell most of the children apart by recognising what clothes they wore, until we learnt their names better. Despite some of them having nice clothes (certainly better than our children after 7 months of travelling), and their parents having good houses and even the occasional car, everyday items that we take for granted such as colouring pencils and plain paper, packs of cards, and toys were things that they didn’t have, which they were so excited to see and use. Piran’s bow and arrow were especially popular and when we threw a broken one into the rubbish, they fought so strongly over who got to keep it that it sadly ended up being snapped in half. One of the older children managed to make his own bow out of wood whilst we were there, and when Piran’s bow broke towards the end of our stay we were happy to give him the rest of the arrows which worked well with it. Growing up in the jungle, the local kids didn’t have any of the squeamishness of our own children, happily picking up live shrimps, water lice and fish with their hands whilst we were fishing, catching beetles and cicadas to eat and pulling their wings off without hesitation, and not letting the enormous leeches in the river put them off swimming for a second. I confess that these huge leeches were a step too far for me and I kept my swimming time to a bare minimum, leaping over the river bank and swimming out to deeper water as quickly as possible, not standing still for more than a couple of seconds. Our kids eventually stopped worrying about them as it was far too hot to avoid the water and although the locals had a couple of ‘bing’ during our time there, none of us were bitten by these huge bloodsuckers.

It wasn’t just the leeches in the water that worried me. There were always buffalo in the river, which at times was very stagnant with excrement floating about in it, and I am thoroughly amazed that everybody remained well during our stay, apart from a bit of earache. That said, I am sure I have eaten some form of parasites, causing a low level grumbling abdominal discomfort and think we will all need to be tested when we next reach somewhere with western medical facilities. When we first arrived in Ban Yangkheua, at the end of the dry season, there was hardly any water in the Nam Leuk, and I for one was unable to do more than splash about in it, but over the course of 2 weeks the daily rain caused the water to rise by well over 6 foot. Like many waterways in Laos, the water levels have been affected by the building of a nearby hydroelectric plant, and although my anxieties about the health risks eased as the volume of water increased, I couldn’t help but worry that the volumes are allowed to drop so low in the dry season so as to pose a risk to an entire village. We are so incredibly lucky that we have clean water to drink, wash and swim in in the UK, and these 2 weeks really brought home to me how impossible it is to avoid unsanitary water when you live in a really hot country and are dependent on the river for cooling down and washing in.

Although it was wonderful spending so much time with the village kids and getting to know them so well, we all found it quite tiring and intensive to have them around so much of the day, particularly on the days that we had expected them to go to school, only to find that class was cancelled. The village community is so cohesive with them almost living as one extended family, coming and going freely in each others’ houses, that I imagine they wouldn’t understand our strange Western desire to have time alone. On the whole we managed to cope by taking it in turns to have time out in our bedrooms whilst one or more of us manned the fort, entertaining the troops on the balcony or just providing them with cards, games, paper, pencils and books to occupy themselves. The afternoon visits to find out more about village life provided some much needed respite. Over the course of 2 afternoons we learnt how to weave sticky rice baskets out of bamboo, an activity that I found very calming. It is amazing how quickly the villagers can make them, compared to how long it took me to make a very poor version with lots of mistakes! We also saw an old man weaving baskets for fishing, and as we sat in his house we could see beautifully handmade furniture, and carvings on the entrance gate, clearly the work of a true craftsman. Later in the week we commissioned our own set of rice baskets which were made by the wife of Mr Ping, one of the local guides; it felt so special to have spent time relaxing in her company and learning from her, and wonderful to know exactly where our souvenirs have come from. I also enjoyed a very happy couple of hours gardening with Cara and the woman who owns the local shop, in her small organic plot. It was very satisfying pulling out the weeds with a hoe, and because I had to pay much more attention to the plants and what they looked like to avoid digging up the wrong thing by mistake, I emerged much more familiar with the local herbs, chilli plants and pumpkins that were growing where we worked. Despite the language barrier, it felt very companionable to work alongside the villagers, and I felt like a bond developed between us through our shared activity. She certainly made us feel very welcomed during our whole stay in Ban Yangkheua, making a special effort to cook food that we liked including delicious pork scratchings and giving the kids fruit, cakes and other treats that she knew they would like. It felt like a great privilege to be invited in to their community and to share their lives with them for that short period of time. Another day we heard that the villagers were collecting trees from the forest to build a new pagoda for their temple. One of their income sources is collecting wood to sell for charcoal production and Ben was interested to see how they manage this out here, so we wandered down to the temple to take a look. Most of the men in the village had gathered to work together on this project and by the time we arrived they were all sitting around chatting and smoking, eventually reaching the decision that they had done enough work for one day. Pim, the village chief, told us when the next day of building would be, but it never happened. I was left with the impression that the village chief doesn’t have as much authority as he might like, and that nothing actually gets done until everybody else decides they are ready, which in a laid-back culture like Laos might be very rare!

One day when school was cancelled for the second day in a row, we asked whether we could go for a walk and escape the village boundary for a while. It didn’t take long before we had 3 local guides lined up to escort us to a nearby waterfall: Moht, Jek and Jan, all primary school children with their hats on and bags of water ready. It was seriously cute. We had such a nice morning making our way along the dirt road seeing the surrounding jungle, passing a lake with hundreds of butterflies who hitched a lift on our arms as we walked, until we reached the tiniest waterfall in the world ever, apparently more impressive in rainy season but mostly dry rocks at this time of year. There was still enough water to splash around in and we enjoyed cooling off in the stream and watching the amazing pink dragonflies and butterflies. Cara managed to pick up one of the enormous leeches while splashing about, alerted by the local kids shouting ‘Bing! Bing!’. It says something about how used to them we have got that Cara managed to flick it off herself without getting worked up into a panic, luckily removing it before it had bitten her. What adventurers we have become!

On Saturday we embarked on the longer trip to ‘the waterfall’, the tour that is offered by local guides which we had spent every evening discussing with them since we had arrived. This is the trip that is meant to entice eco-tourists to the village, and we had repeatedly practised phrases such as ‘can I go to the waterfall’, ‘how much will it cost’, ‘how long does it take’, ‘what will I see’ etc, making them practice the answers, at their request. Unfortunately after all this practice, none of the local guides that we had been working with actually came with us which felt like a huge missed opportunity for us to tell them what we were seeing along the way and make our conversations more relevant. We found out that much of the information they had given us when practising their stock phrases wasn’t actually accurate! For example, throughout the week we had been told that it would take an hour to walk there, then when we were about to leave we were told it would actually take 3 hours to walk there, so when we set out we actually had no idea how long it was going to take (in the end it was roughly 2 hours). We were also told that we might see monkeys by one guide whilst another said that the monkeys were all far away, and one guide said we could spend time fishing whereas this clearly isn’t an option. I don’t really feel that we achieved anything during our sessions with the local guides except for all of us getting very confused! It is a shame that teaching the adults didn’t prove as successful as teaching the children, but we tried our very best. Despite this, we had a wonderful day out with one local guide and Jouy trekking with us as far as the waterfall. Once there, we met another villager who had come by boat, bringing lunch and company in the form of 10 year old Mitur, who was able to take us back along the river a few hours later when we had finished relaxing and playing. The trekking proceeded well despite the heat, through lovely jungle with the loud soundtrack of thousands of insects. We had a short challenging spell when we had to wade through the river where the path had been lost as the water levels had risen. It was out of the children’s depth, and none of us wanted to be soaked through in our trekking shoes so we spent quite a long time sticking bamboo into the ground until we found a way through for the adults where we only went up to our knees in the water. Our guide carried the kids across for us! After taking our shoes off, we could see that there was more of this to come, so we proceeded barefoot for a short while until we were back on the path again. There were small brown leeches along this part of the trail, and as I put my socks and shoes back on I failed to notice that one had attached itself to my foot. By the time we reached the waterfall and I stripped off for a swim, it had swollen to the size of a small slug. After so many leech experiences on our travels, I am going to be so grateful that we don’t have them at home! In the wet season this waterfall is a series of fast moving rapids, and I am sure would look very dramatic. When we were there in April, most of the rocks were dry, lacking the visual impact that we had been expecting, but this meant that we could play in the water really safely and I enjoyed sitting under the waterfall having my shoulders massaged. The pool at the bottom of the waterfall was deep enough for us to swim in, and we didn’t have to worry about whether the current was too strong for the children. For a fun day out, this was an excellent time of year to visit. The kids spent hours sliding on a natural waterslide where the rock was covered with moss and dropping plastic balls at the top of the cascade, trying to catch them as they whizzed past on the current. They also dropped masses of white berries in to the water and enjoyed watching their movement. Ben and I were able to relax in the sunshine together, playing cards and listening to music, whilst Jouy and the guides slept under the trees. The day finally came to an abrupt end when the rain came at about 3.00 and we had to run into a nearby cave for shelter. The torrential downpour passed quickly and soon we were able to make our way back to the village by boat, enjoying seeing the buffalo and the fishing nets, and appreciating how far we had walked earlier in the day. I can see why the village is keen to set this up as a tourist attraction, and we certainly recommend that other travellers who wish to get off the beaten track visit Ban Yangkheua, and hire one of their local guides to visit Tad Leuk.

Before setting out to the village, we had bought some exercise books to give to the primary school children as presents, and during the course of our time there we had personalised each one with one of the songs we had taught them. We also had enough colouring pencils to give each child a small bundle of their own at the end of our time when we no longer needed them for entertainment purposes. So on our final day in Ban Yangkheua we invited the children over to the guesthouse where we repeated our performance of the Three Little Pigs, this time watched by the secondary school kids as well as the younger ones. Later on in the day we sang songs and handed out our gifts. It was such a nice way to finish our stay, and we found children still walking around the village clutching their book and pencils several hours after we had given them out. The older children were so grateful for some of the plain A4 paper that we had brought with us, as well as some of the cards and toys that we no longer needed. I found this to be another incredibly humbling experience, to think about all the times that our children are unhappy with gifts because they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, in contrast with the delight on the faces of these kids at receiving a simple book and colouring pencils. Reflecting later on why these people seem so much happier than many of the people we know, despite having so much less material wealth than us, the kids concluded that it is because they spend most of the day hanging out with their friends and because they don’t expect to have or yearn for any material goods, so rather than being disappointed by what they don’t have, they are grateful for what they do. I hope that we can all learn from this observation and keep it in mind when we return to the UK in a couple of weeks. What a wonderful lesson to have learnt first hand at a young age!

On our last night the women who had cooked for us and some of the local guides gathered at our guesthouse for a small party and send off before we left. After sharing food together, they produced a beautiful flower arrangement, looking like a stupa, made out of rolled up banana leaves pinned together with flowers on each cone, known as a ‘pha kwan’. It was presented on a silver tray with cakes and packets of crisps surrounding it. On the pha kwan were many bits of cotton thread, some plain white and some plaited into thin bracelets, known as baci threads. They took it in turns to give us some of the food, then tie the bracelets onto our wrists whilst we held one hand up as a sign of respect, so we all ended up with 8 or more bracelets by the end of the evening. This baci ceremony has great significance in Laos, and we were told that the threads would tie us to the village, ensuring that we would return to visit again in the future. The thread is a lasting symbol that we are part of their community, and it is important that it is allowed to fall off by itself in its own time, never less than 3 days later. We felt very honoured to be treated as members of the village, and delighted that they had enjoyed our presence as much as we had enjoyed being there. Everyone was particularly concerned that Jago should return, hopefully to find a nice woman and settle there when he is older! When we left the village on Saturday morning straight after breakfast, I felt sad to be leaving such a welcoming community of people. I really do hope that the threads work their magic, and that we might be able to return there again one day in the future.