A white-knuckle speedboat up a mountain river protecting a newborn puppy, a feast on a river bed with a monk, and a serenade from 750 children without homes. For all the types of travel – for adventure, for personal connection, for creating change - never has a trip combined more of these than this most recent southeast trek. And thanks in part to your support, the fruits of our labor may pay dividends for generations to come.
A wonderful opportunity was presented to the three of us - me, my fiancee Robin, and her brother Greg - as we arrived in Luang Prabang to meet dear friend Somnuek and his wife and child Sisamone and Mouri. They’d arranged to take their holiday with us up to Sisamone’s home village in northern Laos for a few days. After several hours to road’s end and a death-defying boat ride to the border of Vietnam, we disembarked to the serene riverside village of Muong Ngoi. No electricity here, no roads, no vehicles, just a warm community of locals who took us in as family.
About a 20 minute walk down a dirt path outside of this quiet village is a series of caves in the side of a mountain. I was not at all prepared for the story of the cave we found ourselves standing in.
Due to Muong Ngoi’s proximity to northern Vietnam, this area endured heavy bombing during what’s referred to here as the American War. And by heavy I mean 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for over ten years. For a decade the entire village moved into these caves while their village and their countryside were decimated. They snuck out at night to reap what they could from their fields, and hid their families and children by day.
In a country that has only opened to foreigners in the last few years, in a remote village that has seen very few Americans in the meantime, to be taken in as family by this community speaks volumes about the peaceful and generous nature of these people. We were treated to song and to feasts and to a special ceremony for luck and prosperity offered to few outsiders. They patiently tried to teach us how to fish the local way, and kindly smiled as we bungled every attempt. We visited the small village schoolhouse and the site of a temple destroyed by bombs that they’ve just started rebuilding; small donations to each were accepted graciously. As is so often the case here, I cannot wait to return to do more.
To consider that each of the village elders who took part in welcoming us as family, including Sisamone’s father Kumla whose broad smile brightened our visit to no end, spent years in those caves, is beyond moving. Yet another perspective-changing experience in the life-changing adventure that is Laos.
Back outside Luang Prabang we found ourselves immersed in a community of an entirely different sort. Near Somnuek’s home village, where his mother and grandmother and huge family of children welcomed us with broad smiles and ceremonial drinks through meter-long bamboo straws, is a school for children without homes – 750 of them. Most of these children are orphans; some come from villages so remote as to have no schools of their own; they cannot afford transport back and forth so they live and grow up here year-round until they are old enough to somehow make it back.
We arrived at a long low structure in mountainous terrain, and to our great surprise were met by all 750 kids in formation singing and clapping to our entrance. Ranging in age from maybe six to sixteen years old, several in bare feet, they greeted us with the huge infectious smiles that so many in this part of the world possess. Their beautiful wide-eyed fix on these tall white foreigners made it obvious that very few outsiders ever see this place.
The small staff of teachers unloaded the van of books, pens, mosquito nets and blankets that we had brought, and once we’d collected ourselves from this most moving welcome we were asked if we’d like to address the children. It was all I could do to invite each and every one of them to my humble village in Colorado – though I warned that if they all decide to come at once I’ll need a bigger kitchen.
The principal explained that the budget for this school is 2,400 Kip per student per day. That’s 28 cents to feed, house, clothe, teach, and raise 750 children year-round. We were shown the kitchen – a row of concrete fire pits that boil barrels of rice twice a day. We signed a guest book for those who have stopped by and contributed to this school – a book with two signatures in it for the last two years, neither of them from the West. Our small donation was accepted with quiet graciousness, and again I’m overcome with the overwhelming desire to do more.
Which leads me to the best news of this latest adventure. You see when it comes to these villages there are different levels of assistance that are needed. At one level there are immediate needs – books, pens, shoes, blankets – items handed to each child that make a difference for a year. At another level there are structural needs – repairing schoolhouses with new roofs, floors, and toilets that create a safer environment for years to come. With your help I’ve been able to offer both types of assistance to several villages, and for that I, and they, could not be more grateful.
For the most far-reaching benefit though there can be no greater gift than a school of one’s own to a village that doesn’t have one. As it is with Somnuek’s village, it’s up to each family whether they opt to send their young child on the several-mile journey each day or week to the nearest school, or keep them home instead to help work the fields. Somnuek and I have dreamt of giving a village such as his the opportunity to not have to make that either/or decision – and on this trip, with your help, we’ve been able to start such a project.
Over the last year Somnuek drew up the plans, constructed a budget, and secured appropriate approvals from the local government to build just such a school. At our request eighteen of you stepped forward with donations towards this cause, and alongside Robin’s and my contribution we were able to come up with about 90% of the funds needed to make this happen.
Somnuek has enlisted some family members to oversee the project in the coming months, and his village will supply most of the labor themselves. He’ll update us regularly on its progress, and I’ll in turn update you. If all goes well there will be a new school in place next year, and that’s a benefit to a people for not just years but for generations to come. Thank you for that. Sincerely.
Because we are still just a bit short, about $800 at this point, any additional support would be welcome at this or any time. Do share this story with friends, and any additional funds will be sent to Somnuek directly to help finish the job – please contact me anytime. I hope to return next year to see it personally, and of course Somneuk and I encourage each of you to do the same – I guarantee you’ll be treated like family while experiencing a life-changing adventure.
Once again, thanks to Somnuek and his family, I have been irrevocably changed by the warmth of the Lao people. Despite a tragic history and having materially so little, the people I’ve met lead rich lives of tight family bonds, warm personal connection, and humble self-reliance; lives to be admired. I always come away with the realization that it is they who in fact have much to offer us as opposed to just the other way around. But that doesn’t keep me from wanting to take part, and if books and shoes and a one-room schoolhouse will bring a smile to those who have treated me so warmly, than I am happy to have a part in it.
And so should you be. Thank you for your part, sincerely. Or, as it's said here, khawp jai lai lai.