August 2008 Archive

First Day in Xieng Khouang

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 24, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / 1 Comment »

Aug 24 2008

Yesterday we took a flight from Vientiane to Xieng Khouang. Xieng Khouang province is one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos. We were told not to worry about UXOs in inhabited areas, and that we would be safe. As the plane descended, one can still see huge bomb craters in the land, although we were told there are not as many as before. The craters are often used as fish ponds.

As we came off the plane, it was immediately evident that Xieng Khouang is a beautiful place to visit. The mountains, temperature, and landscape made everyone take out their cameras at once.

We arrived at 3 p.m. and still had a few hours of light left. We quickly checked into our hotel and headed over to Site One of the Plain of Jars. We had the good fortune of knowing somebody in the area already that would lead us there. There are many explanations for the enormous stone jars, some up to 2,400 years old. My favorite is that they were used to preserve vegetables and padect (a fermanted fish product), although that explanation came from someone in our group and not our knowledgable tour guide, Long. Yet I think everyone would agree that the Plain of Jars is certainly magical.

Afterwards, we headed to Manophet’s English Language School. Barbara and Dori, from Give Children a Choice, had met Manophet, who invited them to come and converse with his English language students. They in turn invited us. Coincidently, Elaine had met Manophet on a previous visit and over the years donated to his school. The students had impressive English skills and were very appreciative of our time. After conversing for an hour, Fred tipped off the group that it was Elaine’s birthday and about 100 teenagers sang Happy Birthday to her in English. This will certainly be a brithday to remember!

The Spirit of the Lao People and Children

By: Phitsamay Uy / Posted: Aug 24, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 24 2008

I finally feel like I’ve found people my size–the little preschoolers of Lathsene Village are so adorable. It makes me want to have many children of my own (wink, wink to my husband Virak). Our second day in Xieng Khouang started off with a M.O.U. (memo of understanding) signing with the Ministry of Education and Give Children a Choice for the preschool funded by Legacies of War friends and family. Although today is a Saturday, eleven officials came to the ministry to meet with us. For those of you who don’t know, Xieng Khouang province is one of the most heavily bombed area in Laos. Three out of the 47 poorest villages in Laos are in this province. The deputy minister and her staff graciously welcomed us and thanked us for our efforts to build a preschool in Xieng Khouang Province. After the signing we headed up to Lathsene Village where they have broken ground on the school site.

We were greeted by the village elders and watched workers setting up the foundation for the preschool. Then we joined 30 preschoolers aged one to five years in a room at the elementary school. They were just too cute for words. They sang Lao songs for us, and I tried a rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in Lao (for those of you who don’t know, my Lao is just right for the children). After sharing songs, we gave them gifts: reading books from Big Brother Mouse, crayons (thanks Rani & Richard), coloring books, and of course bubbles. What child doesn’t like bubbles? The children thanked us all with a bouquet of flowers. They were so giving and generous of their time and smiles.

The village elders also held a traditional baci (blessing ceremony) to welcome and thank us by tying white yarn bracelets to our wrists. Lots of food and Lao Lao (Lao version of moonshine) was passed around. I must say that it is rather strong for a novice like me.

From Lathsene Village, we visited the local chapter of World Education in Xieng Khouang. Three of their staff members and two volunteers gave up their Saturday afternoon to share their stories with us. Bounmy and Toumy were both injuried by a UXO explosion in 1996. Bounmy was digging a fish pond when his shovel struck a bombie and he lost his left arm. Toumy was looking for bamboo shoots when his shovel struck a bombie and he lost his left hand. Both men volunteer their time, talking and working with other UXO victims. Again, I am struck by how Lao people are willing to look past their own misery and try to help others in need. As Bounmy was telling his story, he kept telling us how grateful he was because others were in worse condition (i.e., losing the use of their legs) than he was. But instead of just thinking about himself, Bounmy is trying to help others. He embodies the spirit of the Lao people. His resilience and compassion for others makes me proud to be Lao.

Leaving Vientiane

By: Brett Dakin / Posted: Aug 24, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 24 2008

This afternoon, we’re off to Xieng Khouang by airplane, and so it seems a good time to reflect on our week in Vientiane. In a few years, Vientiane will be celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of its founding—-a landmark that gives one pause, considering that the United States has been in existence for fewer than two hundred years. As great powers like the French, Americans and Russians have come and gone, this small city has sat proudly on the banks of the Mekong, constantly adapting to changes at home and abroad. Next year, Vientiane will be hosting the Southeast Asia Games, a regional sports competition in which Laos has participated for many years but will host for the first time in 2009. The impending arrival of these two events have served as an impetus for some major improvements in the city’s infrastructure, completed with international assistance.

When I lived in Laos, from 1998 to 2000, there were no more than four traffic lights in the entire country—-now, nearly every intersection in the center of Vientiane is marked by a shiny new stop light, crosswalk and, in some cases, even audio aid for the blind. Vientiane residents spent the late nineties shielding themselves from a maelstrom of dust and mud as road construction projects dragged on, seemingly without end. Now, the dust has cleared, and the roads in central Vientiane are smooth and clean. Wide, attractive sidewalks have replaced the narrow paths with gaping holes that I navigated during my time here. I’ve been much more attune to issues of accessibility for people with disabilities given our meetings with groups like COPE and the Lao Disabled People’s Association, and the fact is that much of downtown Vientiane is (at least in theory) navigable by a person in a wheelchair. That’s an extraordinary change for this city.they were eight years ago. One of the first things I did upon our arrival (after visiting my favorite iced coffee shop, tucked away on a side street just of Samsenthai Road) was to rent a motorbike of my own. Driving in Vientiane today is a different experience due to the presence of large vehicles on the road; it’s not a large city, so they make quite an impact. While the traffic has increased, however, Vientiane residents’ relaxed approach to driving has not changed much. There might be straight, bright white lines on the roads, but people don’t really pay attention to them. And, unlike other cities in the region (particularly Hanoi), the horn does not get much use. We’ve been here a week, and I’ve heard one blown three times. That’s one of the many reasons why I love this city.

The motorbike is still the preferred mode of transportation in Vientiane—-bicycles went out of fashion years ago, as the per capita income of the average city resident began to rise, and, with very few exceptions, people here simply do not walk—-but cars and pickup trucks are much more common than

The improvement of the city’s road system has also spurred new construction throughout the central city. As I’ve driven around town, visiting my old haunts, more than once I have arrived at an intersection, stopped, looked to my left and right, and had no idea where I was!

Not only old buildings, but entire neighborhoods have disappeared to make way for large new office buildings, shopping malls, hotels—-even, strangely, a water park complete with American-style coffee shop. Over drinks with a Lao friend at a new, stylish bar on Setthatirath Road the other night, I learned of the planned demolition of yet another crumbling pre-war, colonial-era building—-this time, to make way for a new embassy. When the bar’s owner joined our conversation, he mentioned a new housing complex that is planned for the area around That Luang. The changes in Vientiane are just beginning.

On the surface, then, after eight years of improvement, downtown Vientiane is nearly unrecognizable. But, as we’ve been reminded time and again by our NGO hosts in the capital city, Vientiane is not Laos. As in any country—-especially in the developing world—-the capital receives the lion’s share of the country’s resources. Aside from the national government itself, Vientiane is home to the headquarters of countless NGOs, international organizations, and foreign investors; these groups, and the international staff that come with them, have created a demand for private enterprise, and pressure for infrastructure improvements, in Vientiane that does not exist elsewhere in the country.

In fact, one need only drive a few minutes out of the city center—-past the presidential palace, up Lane Xang Road, around Patuxai, not far past That Luang—-to find dirt roads that are nearly impassable after a heavy rain. Most people in Vientiane live in small, simple homes off narrow, unpaved paths. I took a ride out to the neighborhood where I lived during my first year in Laos, and nothing had changed. Of course, from my perspective, that’s a good thing. At least I could find my way around.

Sunset in Xieng Khouang

By: Ova Saopeng / Posted: Aug 22, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 22 2008

From the moment we set our minds on Xieng Khouang to the moment we set eyes on the landscape that is Xieng Khouang, the team felt a huge shift in the pace of this journey. We were shifting from high gear to low gear. “Good-bye”,Vientiane for now and “Hello” Xieng Khouang. After a night of final dinners in Vientiane on our own…our group set ready to leave with a lot of anticipation for the next phase of our trip. Xieng Khouang is place to be to come face to face with realities of war and remnants over 35 years ago. We loaded into two vehicles to the Wattay International Airport to board a 2:30pm flight which we had to wait for 3 hours (just to be safe as Lao Airlines flight schedules may change) that only took less than an hour. Nonetheless, waited with cheerful smiles, games and additional members, Vinya, to the group on this leg of the trip.

Once in Xieng Khouang it was like magic. We were in the Lao countryside…vast greenery everywhere. The air lighter and the weather cooler. We made our way to the Plain of Jars right away and took a hike in mud and wet walkways taking in the mysteries of these ancient fragments. Sheets of rain shrouds reaching from heaven to earth and storm clouds in the distance did not keep us from visiting these wonders of Laos. The sunset lead us out of the Plain of Jars and into a school full of Lao children who wanted to practice their English. We connected with Dori, Barbara and Manophet and had an amazing time in dialog with some 50 or so teenagers at this school and amongst our group we had over 14 conversations with curious minds all wanting to ask questions and share their lives communicating in English. We ended the night with a nice dinner at Sanga Restaurant celebrating Elaine’s big six-O birthday. One magical day from the town of Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang. Tomorrow we enter a village.

Stranger in My Parents’ Home

By: Phitsamay Uy / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

This is my first trip back to Laos and yesterday as I was walking along the streets near the Mekong River and the piles of sandbags lining the shore, I couldn’t help thinking of that line from Notting Hill, surreal but nice. I am a Lao American, born in Houei sai and raised in the United States. Yet the people around me, look like me and talk a language that seems comfortably familiar. The food stalls sell food that entice me and remind me of home and my mother’s cooking. So why does it feel like I have been living a parallel life?

As we have been in meetings with NGO and discussing the effects of UXO and the lives that have been affected by the bombies, I can’t help but wonder what my life would be like if I had not had the opportunity to leave. Would I be working in a NGO? Would I know about the UXOs? Would I be teaching or still studying in university?

One thing I know for sure is that the work of the organizations like COPE and World Education are so amazing and comprehensive. Having worked in non-profits, I remember the daily struggles of making ends meet and trying to find funding to support our programs and the people that our organizations serve. Its those people who inspire us to work overtime, on weekends, and in our sleep. It’s for the Lao people, victims and non-victims of UXO. I learned that everyone is affected here in one way or the other. If not directly, than indirectly, because bombies limit if not destroy economic opportunities for farmers when they can’t work their land. It destroys children’s opportunites to learn if they are out scavenging for scrap metal. It destroys women’s dreams of family and children if they are disabled by a bomb due to social stigmatization.

What role can I play as a practical stranger in a land that my parents once called home?

At Ease in Cousin’s Storefront

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

I didn’t tell my cousin that I would be in town because I knew we would be extremely busy touring the NGOs and other offices. I didn’t think I would have enough time to be with her. But tonight I found my way to her storefront.

We’ve walked pass a couple of times, as we went to dine at the newer dig owned by Australians, and stopped by ‘Big Brother Mouse’ bookstore for gifts to bring to the preschool. Things had changed so much since my last visit in 2005 that when we walked by, I wasn’t sure if it was indeed her storefront. There were so many new, neat, and nice things around.

Well tonight we had a break and after sipping drinks by the Mekong, we headed to a French Restaurant via her ‘storefront’. Tonight I felt compelled to swing in.

A woman was sitting in front of her TV, surrounded by merchandise. She turned around when we walked in and I asked if she knew my cousin Da. After a while, her face turned into someone familiar. She was my cousin Da. She said my name first and we laughed. I told my friends I would meet up with them later.

Cousin Da and I sat in her store, surrounded by merchandise with a Thai TV show running. We chatted, the ease of our conversation broken up only when customers came in. Her customers were foreigners as well as locals. Everyone seemed at ease with her.

As she was attending to customers, I would look outside at the neighborhood. So much has changed in three years around her; the upscale restaurants, storefronts, guest houses. Her storefront though, did not change much. It was still bare and humble.

I found myself appreciating her simple store, especially after running around having meetings all week, and being overly stimulated in the ‘new’ Vientiane. My cousin Da’s and her store reminded me of the Laos I first visited in 1999. It was unassuming, and I felt at ease.

Regular Readers

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

The next leg of our trip to the Xieng Khouang Province starts tomorrow, Friday, August 22nd. We will mostly focus on visiting the preschool that we have successfully raised funds to build in Lathsene Village.

Yesterday we started to prepare for that trip by going to a local children’s bookstore that publishes locally. The bookstore is called ‘Big Brother Mouse’. They specialize on children’s books written in Lao, including many Lao fables. It was a little store with just two bookshelves pushed up against the side walls. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was enriching. This was confirmed when four young boys about 5 years old walked into the bookstore.

They were regulars. Yet when they saw us, they hesitated to stay, and soon moved towards the door. The shopkeeper, who apparantly also illustrates some of the books, had put aside a small section for reading only and told us that the boys come daily to read.

I gestured for the boys to come back in and do what they normally do, and not mind us. They ran in, handled the books, and talked excitedly with one another. It was such a sweet moment to witness, especially knowing that kids in Laos lack resources and support to read stories and novels. Most of their reading is limited to schoolbooks.

So I offered to buy them each a book. I think they responded to me because I spoke Lao, like any other big sister would to them. I asked them in Lao if they would like a book each to take home. With big eyes open wide, they all nodded yes.

They took their time in choosing the book, although it seemed they knew the content of each already. After the purchase, we took a picture in front of the store by the poster of the big mouse, the store mastcot. They each said thank you in Lao, gestured with both hands in prayer position, and ran off excitedly, one after the other.

Mad Hot Vientiane

By: Ova Saopeng / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / Tags: , / No Comments »

Aug 21 2008

The meetings we have had with all the organizations in the heat and air of Vientiane, capitol city of Laos, have been most informative and full of critical and real issues around UXO and Laos. The history of war in this country continues to affect the livelihood of people throughout the country. It is staggering the amount of work it takes to bring education, awareness, prevention, assistance, removal and many other actions to light. The NGO’s and Lao government are all working hard with every effort of funds and people and resources that they have in hand to keep people living and safe from harm. The biggest thing I’ve gotten out of these meetings have been that the problems of UXO in Laos do not have easy solutions. It’s very complicated in many ways due to time, culture, history and present day needs. The people of Laos who are affected by the UXO’s are dependent on the land. Land is important. Without land we cannot survive. Simply put. How does one survive when one lives off the land? Polluted land? Land littered with UXO…many questions among many questions yet to be answered.

NGO’s Tapestry of Laos

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 21, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / Comments Off on NGO’s Tapestry of Laos

Aug 21 2008

As we met with different NGOs in Vientiane our first week in Laos, we started to see how each organization’s work complemented and supported one another like treads in a loom, creating a certain tapestry of Laos for us to contemplate. Similar patterns emerged; all were focused on sustainable, integrative models that train local capacity, and a comprehensive approach that seemed sure to do well. Some of these programs are: micro-financing, veterinary training for farm animals, children education, land clearance, enabling the disabled, data collection, and a new focus on psycho-social needs.

The NGOs presented similar information and yet all had a unique approach and we all left each visit with new pearls of wisdom. As we pack up tonight on our last night in Vientiane, I have to say that we have been privileged and very fortunate to have had our tour with the various NGOs here. They have provided a tapestry of Laos in which we will mull over and see how we can add our unique tread to this great design.

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