A Lao Serenade

It's an oppressive heat that hangs in the air of the guest house where I first meet the colorful Mr. Somnuek Bounsa. The efficient young man works the front desk where I check in, exhausted and jet-lagged, to this quiet inn on the banks of the Mekong in beautiful Luang Prabang, Laos.

I’ve traveled extensively in my life, and Laos (pronounced without the “s”) is objectively one of the most beautiful places on earth. Lush green mountains are a gorgeous backdrop to the lazy serenity of the dusky Mekong river. Monks in bright saffron robes populate brilliant gold-laden temples, which dot the landscape amidst tranquil, earthy villages. But it’s the people of this little corner of the world, their peaceful nature and genuine warmth, that captured me on this first visit – as it is with Somnuek this warm November evening.

A stout young man with a firm handshake and huge smile, Somnuek committed to learning English as a youth by riding his bicycle across a mountainous landscape every day to a monastery giving lessons. He spends his one day off a week aiding his fellow Lao either through LAO UXO, a local organization aiding bomb and land mine victims, or through his own efforts serving the people of the surrounding hill villages, in one of which he was raised. I'm so moved by his huge heart, infectious personality, and love for the Lao people that we strike a fast friendship as I implore him to describe life on this side of the planet.

Laos stands as one of the last remaining Communist regimes among the poorest nations on earth, but political oppression and intrinsic poverty cannot veil a culture rich in history and colorful tradition. Sadly this country is known to the world as the most heavily bombed nation in history, a misfortune of its locale between North and South Vietnam. I discover some staggering statistics – in three years during the war more bombs were dropped here than were dropped worldwide in WWII – that's an unbelievable ½ ton of ordnance per Lao (!). Land mines and unexploded ordnance (known as UXO) still blanket the entire Laos countryside, usually in the form of shiny metal spheres – millions of them - that children find irresistible. Every single day in this part of the world – even now thirty years after the war – another villager, usually a child, meets a horrible death as a result. Every single day.

I had no idea.

After that first brief stay in Luang Prabang, Somnuek and I continue to correspond all year by e-mail (by working in one of the finest guest houses, he has rare access to an old computer), though our labored efforts at written communication in broken English illustrate the value of gesture and expression that makes our face-to-face communication so effective. I consider his work with LAO UXO – Somnuek volunteers to travel the region documenting all-too-frequent deaths and injuries from the “bombies” as they’re known locally – and decide to send him a few bucks for a camera to augment the worn leather notebook that he’s been using for the task for years. His gratitude far outshines the small gesture on my part; I start to wonder what more I might do.

It's a little over a year until I am able to return to Laos with some friends, wanting to explore this culture further. I ask Somnuek for a deeper look into Lao life; he responds by inviting us to visit some local villages including the one he grew up in; I jump at the chance. On his day off he collects us early and suggests we pick up some school supplies for the locals – he says the people are extremely poor and will appreciate the gesture – of course I agree. On our way out of town we stop at a local market and clean them out of notebooks, pens, toothbrushes, toilet paper, shoes, and blankets – all dirt cheap by western standards. Pretty sure we made the market owner’s month. We follow a dusty dirt road up into the lush mountains, where the day becomes surreal.

It's a steamy, damp sauna of a morning as we approach the first school, a structure you or I would take for a tool shed. The long bamboo hut with dirt floors features walls alternating between corrugated metal and woven leaves. The structure is divided into four classrooms, one blackboard each; the students sit at wobbly planks as desks, three children per plank. Faded Communist posters on the wall depict something about toilet hygiene, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted disease. In the rainy season water pours through the thatched roof and the floor turns to mud.

We pull up in a van and 150 children dash into formation – our arrival apparently anticipated and rehearsed. The rest of the village is there erecting bamboo structures for what I’m told will be a new year’s celebration later in the week. We exit the van to giggling and commotion in the hot dry dust and I sheepishly unload the boot. The staff, three village elders, greet us in dusty suits – the principal an ancient man missing his right arm from bomb schrapnel 40 years prior. He whistles as we approach and the children line up by age, dressed in simple blue shorts and skirts, smart white shirts, red scarves for ties – all dusty, many without shoes. We stand quietly as they break into song and slowly raise a tattered flag. I notice even Somnuek singing, eyes closed, sharing what must be a national anthem for our benefit.

Somehow we’re guests of the highest honor, the eyes of the village on these tall white Americans. I’m asked to step forward and make a statement. Reluctantly I stammer out a few words about the beautiful Lao country and the even more beautiful Lao people – and how I can’t wait to share my experience with the people of America, and Colorado, where the snow is piled up to here – but words don’t serve me well at the moment. Somnuek translates to a response of giggles and cheers (is there even a Lao word for snow?); he’s beaming, as am I.

Soon the children step forward one by one and we hand each a book, a pen, a toothbrush, and to those without shoes a pair of cheap sandals – and every child from 4 years old to 10 looks me straight in the eye, bows with hand on forehead, and offers thanks; my eyes are tearing up by the third child in line.
We snap photos all day, flipping the camera around after every shot to show the children their image – they roar with uncontrollable laughter, which completely cracks us up every time, which makes them giggle all the more.

This scene repeats three times this morning of 21 December. Three remote village schools, including the one Somnuek attended 20 years previous. He takes us to the house he grew up in – a wooden shack at the base of a hill populated for countless generations by Lao rice farmers. People in this part of the world rarely see money – no electricity, no running water, little medical care, but by every visible measure are among the most peaceful and gracious people I’ve ever met, with incredible family and community ties. We have much to learn, I reflect, from such simplicity.

We give a blanket to his elderly neighbor, right leg lost to a bomb in 1968 – his 35 year old prosthetic patched together with metal plates and rusty screws.

Each school has prepared a lunch of coconut milk and fruit; each group of children as excited as the last; every child thankful for the small gift; me a basket case by the end of the day for having been treated like royalty for a few hundred bucks stretched ridiculously thin. We ask about life at these schools - the teachers explain that the structures are in dire need of repair – roofs need patching, floors need concrete. There are not enough desks, chairs, or supplies. The outdoor squat toilets have no running water, causing serious health problems for the children.

We look at each other, then have Somnuek ask – so what would it take for basic repairs to a school – to fix roofs and mend walls and build toilets with clean water? The teachers huddle, scribble some calculations, and respond – about 500 US dollars.

Wow. In my head flash shameful images of some of the frivolous things I’ve done with $500 in my life. Electronic gadgets. That Kobe beef dinner at Nobu. A perspective-shifting moment, to be sure. I vow silently to do something.

It seems the government does little to support these areas, and no foreigners have set foot in these villages in decades – so incredibly our tiny gift this day represents a substantial charitable act, and we’re the first white people 500 children have ever seen. On a day I awoke as a tourist asking what life was like in the heart of this country.

My final request for the day is to return to a village for UXO victims we’d visited the year before. With no assistance from the government or the outside world, these survivors and their families gather to live together and support each other, surviving on what they can grow or cultivate on this small patch of land. Old prosthetics - and I mean rusty metal cylinders - are shared amongst this group, children included. The only Lao hospital offering government aid is hundreds of miles away in the capital city of Vientiane, which for these families might as well be on the moon; it's an impossible journey. So they come together and take care of themselves, however they can.

Considering the history of this place, I wondered how we'd be received as Americans in this village. I mean if ever a people had a right to be resentful, it's here, in this village, where their only contact with the western world rained down from the sky thirty years ago. But to my continued, humble amazement, they welcomed us warmly that first day, and walked us through their homes, and proudly showed off the one-room schoolhouse that they'd built themselves.

Their warmth, their peace, with materially so little and so much to rightly be resentful for, moves me to the core. How do they do it? To smile peacefully, from crippled bodies, to welcome us as friends among their children - could I be so strong? My shift of perspective that day is immeasurable.

We’d taken some wonderful photographs that first visit that I wanted to give as gifts to the locals this day, one year later. We arrive just before dusk and hand off the last of the school supplies to their tiny schoolhouse. I then share the photos with the village leader, unsure of his response to this gesture.
After a good laugh he walks us through the village to the subject of each photo, where the responses range from puzzlement (they’d surely never seen a photograph of themselves before) to a sweet smile and laugh – the children go absolutely nuts on seeing their image in print. They join our procession proudly showing off their likeness to one and all. The photos are a hit; I quickly wish I’d printed many more. Soon half the village is in tow, kids giggling, Somnuek beaming.

The very definition of irony: one of the children running around in a U.S. Army t-shirt. In this village created by bombs.



After returning from Asia and continuing correspondence with Somnuek all spring, I decided to arrange for some help for the schools I’d visited in December. After sharing my stories with family and friends, several stepped forward with financial donations, and in May I had the opportunity to return to Laos during a business trip to China.

During my short stay Somnuek and I returned to each of the three schoolhouses and discussed specifics with the staff. We drew up lists – corrugated steel for roof and wall patches, concrete and tile for toilets, plywood and paint for blackboards, desks for students and teachers. We then ventured out to buy all the supplies locally (at the Lao equivalent of Home Depot, a motley tool shed of random building materials), hired a local carpenter for the furniture, and arranged for transport of all materials to each school where the local villagers would provide additional labor. With a few dollars left we bought books and supplies for the children.

Within a few weeks the work was completed; Somnuek providing photos every few days showing the progress. New toilets for two of the schools, tables and benches for a hundred kids, roofs and walls patched. The region’s Minister of Education has invited everyone who contributed for a personal thank-you when in town.

Next, Somnuek and I are thinking bigger – his home village is in need of a schoolhouse of its own. Currently their children walk or ride bicycles several miles to a neighboring village and its overcrowded school; a schoolhouse of its own would mean much to this community. What a wonderful opportunity, to create something for future generations - I can't think of a better way to give back.

So we've done some calculations, and Somnuek's drawn up some plans, taking into account what he'll be able to do himself in the small metal shop he's built up in his home, and we figure we can build the entire school for about $7,000, including teacher's salaries for several years. He went to the regional government and told them our story, and has received permission to make it happen. So that leaves us raising some money in the next few months; I'm going to do what I can.

I'm planning my next trip to Laos for later this year, hopefully to break ground during the dry season. I'll stay as long as I can to do as much physical labor as possible, and will leave the rest in Somnuek's capable hands. Friends and family have started to offer contributions for this venture, and for that I'm deeply grateful. Of course we'd welcome any small amount from anyone willing to share - I can't overstate the rewards. Keep in mind that we're not an official institution, just a few people wanting to share good fortune where it's really appreciated. What I can promise you in return is a gracious thank you from some of the kindest people on the planet, and pictures of how every penny is being spent. Send me an e-mail at bill@djbillstephens.com if you're interested, or even Somnuek at SomnuekBounsa@yahoo.com.

And look up Somnuek next time you're in Luang Prabang. You just may never be the same.



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