Before we headed up ( to me that's north) to L.P., we visited the Laos National History Museum. The most interesting thing to us was the large area dedicated to the war and struggles and victory against the American Imperialists during the time of the Vietnam War and the years following. Their history books have quite a different take on things than we do. As we were boarding our plane for Luang Prabang (propeller style), many people stopped to take a picture of the plane ( Lao Airways ). Seems that they don't have a very good safety record and people just want to verify they actually flew and survived.
I was in LP last year with Bob Smithwick and really did want to return with Linda this year...much more romantic. The setting here is idyllic...the Mekong River runs right along the edge of town. Another river called the Nam Khon flows down from the mountains
and meets the Mekong at the north end of town...shaping LP into kind of a peninsular shape like Florida. High hills and mountains surround the area...a great place for trekking, biking, walking, swimming and strolling and shopping. It has a very French feel with little brick walkways linking the major roads. Lots of great little restaurants overlooking the river and outdoor markets galore. I was acutally able to find our way to the View Kiem Khong Guest House where we stayed last year. ( and again this year ). L.P. was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995, so the old French Colonial buildings are kept intact. We are paying about 17 dollars / nite here (Linda wanted to spring for the cable tv room to keep up with the world), so we are paying a few dollars more than last year. The bad news for Bob(our friend) is that they stopped renting bikes due to too many accidents and I cannot believe how much this city has changed in one year. Lots more restaurants, guesthouses, hotels, markets and people-everything. May soon be too popular for it's own good.
First thing we did last Monday was call Sue-Kim, our contact teacher person here in LP that Denny met last year. This is her 2nd year teaching here. We had brought along some books for her, but as it turned out she teaches at a private Montessori pre-school set up by a French lady and didn't really need much. We gave the rest of them to the lady (Carol) who has opened up a library here in town. We have found it is much harder to find volunteer chances here than it was in Cambodia. The people are more shy and reserved and are not all that open to help from outsiders in general...but are very friendly and polite nonetheless. They just don't come up to you and want to learn English like they did in Cambodia.
Many kids don't go to school at all since the government can't afford to provide an education for them and they just don't have the money. They say they get a free education, but the parents then have to pay for utilities, teacher pay etc. so not really. Education is rote here as well as in Cambodia. The librarian said that she brought a small puzzle of 15 pieces and no one could do it-including the university students. They had to be shown how to think about it. She set up a simple science exploration and no one could even approach it in any way but the simplest solution. Her dream is to make her library into a discovery center as well. Thinking or questioning is not valued here as in many 3rd world countries. Rote memory and drill is the only way of teaching.
Sue-Kim introduced us to a local man named Onuey who has been a great connection for us. He is Lao and was raised by his grandmother after his mother died and then spent several years as a Buddhist monk since she was so poor. At 18 he contacted his Canadian father and went to live in Canada for 10 years. He said he just couldn't stay there knowing how things were in Laos. He is quite a business man and someone who really wants to help the local people. He has connections , money , and his heart is in the right place. He arranged for us to go to a village ( with our own private captain ) about 1 and 1/2 hours up the Mekong. The captain (Mr. Ping ), introduced us to the village teacher and she took us to the school Onuey had helped to build. It was lunch break for the kids, but when they saw us, they all came over to the school and we gave them new notebooks and pens. Much bowing and Kap Jais followed. A nice moment. They cooked us lunch consisting of Mekong seaweed cooked with chilies , stickey rice which we balled up and dipped in the seaweed...takes a while to get used to...and I think a dessert which was a tomato grape type fruit dipped in salt. All this was washed down with boiled water...just don't look at floaties in the tea colored water.
This village (Bhan Khok) was going to be razed by the government, trees cut down, the people moved elswhere, and turned into a tourist trap since it is near the famous Buddha cave across the river. Onuey found out about this and asked the villagers if they wanted to move and they said no, and he went to work to save it. He built the school, a clinic, some bungalows, and other things so that the government reconsided. This past year, it even got electricity...quite a thing along the Mekong. He made them promise not to cut down what he calls the Jurassic Park that surrounds the village. It is made up of ancient trees such as teak and rosewood that are disappearing at an alarming rate in Laos.
On our way back to LP down the river, Mr. Ping invited us to join him for a walk thru the old village of Ban Thinhong where he was a monk for several years when he was young. He carried with him fancy envelopes and was going around to different homes delivering them. Turns out, they were wedding invitations for his daughter's wedding this coming Sunday. This village was very poor w/ no electricity and basically living in straw huts...but did have a pretty nice Buddhist temple like all the villages and fresh water piped down from the mountains. The villages here are much different than in Cambodia. They are a cluster of houses very close to each other. In Cambodia they were spaced out along the roads.