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.