Posts by Sakuna Thongchanh

Schools Not Bombs Campaign – Lathsene Village Preschool

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Sep 23, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Sep 23 2008

After a full week in Laos meeting up with various NGOs and organizations in Vientiane, the Legacies of War Learning Tour left for Xieng Khoang province on Friday August 22nd to the town of Phonesavan. We were heading towards Lathsene Village to visit our first Schools Not Bombs Campaign preschool.

The next morning, Saturday August 23rd, we stopped by the Xieng Khouang Provincial Education Department to witness the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Education Department and Give Children a Choice. It was a standard signing ceremony that formalize the building of the preschool.

On our way to Lathsene Village, we traveled on pave road for 25 min. and the rest of the way on dirt road full of potholes. Nonetheless, the view was gorgeous. Rolling green hills swoop down forming valleys with idyllic scenes of village life; bamboo and straw homes on stilts, self made fishing ponds, and peaceful rice fields. Yet with all it’s beauty, we knew that the land around us was barely cleared from unexploded ordinances and extremely dangerous.

Lathsene village is approximately 17 kilometers from Phonsavanh. On the whole, it looks like any ordinary poor village, but what makes this area unique is that there are many bomb craters that litter the tops and sides of mountains and rice fields. Some people have ingeniously built their huts within the pits and others have turned it into a little pond for growing catfish. The village elder and historian is a man who is in his fifties, but looks much older from the ravages of war. His manner was open, friendly and very informative. He shared that he was proud and honored for us to visit his village, speak with him and to receive a brand new preschool.

Lathsene is a village of almost 100 families and 494 people that had survived the massive bombings. The village elder described how his village members had to dig deep fox holes or trenches to jump into and hide when they heard to the US planes approaching. The trenches were built near where they worked in the rice field. They learned that there wasn’t enough time to run home. Whole communities hid for days and weeks in the trenches without food or water. They were finally forced to leave their village as the mounting casualties were too great only to return when the war was over. There are bomb pits littered everywhere.

The very land we stood on was not fully cleaned. In 1986, the Soviet government sent a team of agriculture specialists to help these refugees reclaim the land and grow rice, other corps and raise cattle. They built some building and provided equipment. They remained for nine years. In their opinion, the land was so filled with UXOs and again limited resources, they just back filled it with tons of dirt to cover them.

During the early years after heavy rains, UXOs were found and eliminated by the village engineers and or they just worked around them. The village elder said that it is still very possible that these UXOs will surface and kill some unsuspecting human or animal, but they have no choice but to grow food to eat. After the Russians left, they continued to farm and raise cattle to this very day.

Another major concern was that during the two months during the dry season, they have no water available to wash and drink. They must drive over 5 kilometers to the next town to buy water or get water from the local well. The land is very challenging to work with. Since the village does not have enough water, water is a much needed commodity and it is rationed heavily.

There is a secondary school and a primary school, but the old preschool was dilapidated, ready to fall at any moment. A makeshift preschool program had grown out of the necessity to care for the preschoolers. It was not a school with teachers formally trained in early childhood education. It was more like a daycare center for farmers to leave their children while they work in the fields and while the older children go to school. The teaching was informal and not integrated with any formal government preschool education program. According to Mrs. Xysamone, the Vice Head of the Xieng Khouang Provincial Education Department, the Xieng Khouang education department is only now beginning to understand and recognize the importance and necessity of forming a formal preschool program and are sending existing and new teachers to Vientiane (the Capital of Laos) to learn how to teach children ages 3-5.

We arrived at the preschool construction site in the early afternoon. The foundation and pylons were in place and heaps of bricks laid nearby. About a dozen people were working on the school with the beautiful green hills visible over the horizon.

We were met by the village heads and they lead us towards the primary school. In one small room, about thirty preschoolers sat waiting with their two teachers for our arrival. Their parents were milling around outside. Someone bought in mats for us to sit with the children. Their teachers then lead them in a song and dance about cleaniness.

We stayed and interacted with the children for a while, offering our gifts of books, toys, and clothing. Later, we attended a baci ceremony the village had organize for us to show their appreciation. They gave us blessings and wished us good tidings during the ceremony.

Barbara Shimoda, Vice President of Give Children a Choice, contributed to this article.


Tham Piu Cave

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 26, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 26 2008

On our way to Sam Neau we stopped at Tham Piu cave where at least 374 people were killed by US bombs. They had a little museum with old photos and a painting depicting the people massacred in the cave. The older gentlemen who was the keeper of the musuem and tour guide was one of the survivors from this village. He was actually studying elsewhere when the bombings occured. His family all died. He was still very bitter and was somewhat defensive about people not believing the story of Tham Piu massacre. “Go see for yourself,” he kept repeating. When we told him we were an organization that wanted to share the story of the bombings to the American people, he seemed more relaxed.

On our way up to the cave, we stopped by a shrine to give incense and candle offerings. It was a steep climb to the cave. We were told that the cave entrance had been smaller, but was blown open 4 meters wide with the bombing. From the opening of the cave, we can see a panoramic view of the valley below. It was easy to imagine jet bombers flying over the horizon.

We had natural light inside until the cave dropped off to the right. Apparently it went on for another mile from where the darkness started. This was where most people died. Some were scorched from the bombs, some were buried alive from the dirt and rock falling, and some died slowly from being trapped inside. We were told that corpses were found holding one another–children clinging onto older adults, parents hovering over their children. People died embracing.

After a while, we came out of the darkness of the cave into the beautiful lush landscape. Butterfiles, grasshoppers, and dragonflies of variations only found in national geograpic clips fluttered around us as we descended. It was heartening to think that these beautiful creatures might be the reincarnated spirits of those who passed away in the cave.

We were told that there was a woman who lived in the village below who was the only survivor from the Tham Piu cave massacre. We went to visit her.

She was in her fifties and lived in a very modest, old fashioned Lao house on stilts. She was 12 when the bombings happened. On that fated day, she decided to leave the cave to visit her aunt who was outside in another village. As she descended from the cave, she saw jet bombers heading towards the cave. She knew that she only had time to run for a nearby trench. She was too far away to warn the others. She stayed in that trench until the bombings were over. She didn’t know how long that was. Her parents and siblings all died that day.

It’s been a while, but she still misses them. She is married now and has children of her own. Until this day, however, she has no idea who it was that bombed the cave and killed her family.


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!


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.


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.


Visiting the Lao Disabled Woman’s Development Center

By: Sakuna Thongchanh / Posted: Aug 18, 2008 / Category: Laos Trip / No Comments »

Aug 18 2008

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Normally, Sunday at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center is a day of rest for the students and trainees. However, for our Legacies of War visit about 35 women between the ages of 15-45 were busy doing what they normally do at the center — making handmade paper christmas cards, sewing, and weaving. Some are just learning the trade, others are honing their skills, but all will gain invaluable training to help them be self-supporting when they leave the center.

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The women all have some sort of disability, including many with missing limbs from accidents who now have prosthetics. Four women are victims of UXO accidents. One woman in particular sat at her loom and looked up at us eagerly as we walked by. We found out she was a victim of UXO when she was a little girl in her village. She had a notebook in hand and wanted to share her story with us.

As we interviewed her, she was spinning cotton thread in the back of the building for her next piece at the loom. Her name is Bouma, a native of Xieng Khouang province, one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos. Her story started in her village over thirty five years ago. She was ten at the time and was selected to represent her family to help build a road in her village. As she was working on the road with fellow villagers, four jet planes flew overhead and drombed bombs on them. Many died. Her leg and foot were forever maimed.

Bouma lives with this memory, remembering that day vividly. She thinks that her disability has destroyed her chances of finding a husband and having a family.

Everyone at the center was surprised that she shared her story. The women at the center never talk about their disabilities. In fact, one of the staffers mentioned that the word disability is never used at the center. No one ever talks about their story or how they feel.

As Bouma shared her story with us, she began to cry, and we cried with her. She told us that her story is important for others to hear. We hope it will touch many lives.

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