It’s been three months since my last trip to Laos, and I’m finally sitting down to blog my experience. I knew I needed to write about my trip before I embark on another trip to Laos in two weeks. First off, I want to express how truly grateful I am for the blessed opportunity to travel to Laos as often as I have. I owe my deepest gratitude to my very supportive husband, Tui, who understands my deepest passion outside of family life, is helping the children of Laos. He has gone to Laos with me several times, and the last time we went together, I took him to visit the village Jai Lao built its school. He was so affected by the conditions he saw and felt so moved to further actions saying to me, “What else can we do to help these children?” Since then he’s been more than supportive each time I need to go to Laos to work on a school project for the Foundation.
I have lost count of how many trips I’ve taken to Laos, but I’ve never lost count of the blessings of each trip and what every single trip to Laos means to me. The novelty of stepping foot on Lao soil hasn’t worn off, and it always feels just as exciting as my first steps in 2004. The more often I come home, the more I feel the love, warmth and welcome of a home I left almost 35 years ago. I don’t have any memories of home, but I do know Laos is different today and changing everyday. The biggest changes are within the major city limits, but once you venture out in the rural villages it remains as if time has stood still. I enjoy the modern conveniences and busy lifestyle of living and eating in the capital city of Vientiane, but I also relish in the quiet and charming country side of Laos where the locals bask in the simple and slow paced way of living. No matter how many times I visit Laos, the emotions of joy and peace will never get old and tired. It’s my mother’s land where I feel a special connection and affection towards.
Generally, when I go to Laos, I am on a humanitarian mission for Jai Lao Foundation. It’s very fast paced as we try to do as much as we can in the two weeks time that we are there visiting southern Laos all the way to northern Laos. We’d visit different villages and donate various items of need to the villagers or the schools Jai Lao has built. Some villages are quite far from the city so we’d stay in a guest home near the village where electricity, running water and plumbing sometimes don’t exists. Those experiences are always very humbling. I love being in the villages where life just functions on a whole different way than what we are accustomed to. You can hear your thoughts more clearly and your heart just seems to beat in a soft and soothing melody in the quaint villages. But once I get to the city, I am grateful for all that the village lacks, which is creature comforts of home and good food!
City life even in Laos, is a lot like city life anywhere in the world. There’s lots of hustle and bustle of life from sun up to sun down. The rich and the poor coexists and strive for the same things in life, which is just to survive the day. The traffic in Vientiane is horrendous for being the smallest capital in Asia. Even though there are traffic lights and stop signs, people just do not observe and obey the rules, if there is even any rules. There are tons of motorbikes, but in the last few years there has been a huge influx of automobiles from affordable ones to high end luxury sports cars. Strip malls and mega malls are being constructed by foreign investors, but I don’ think they’ve really factored in the rise in automobile population for parking is awful in Laos. Theres’ even a stock exchange market that went up a couple of years ago. You’ll also be deliciously surprised that Vientiane offers a array of restaurant selections to satisfy any culture cuisine you’re craving for. You can enjoy a $1.50 per person meal or you can walk out of a fine dining that will set you back $150 per person! Despite being a communist government, the choice is still yours when it comes to eating.
On this trip, I went with my sister Noe, and we got to experience life as a local living in the capital city. We’ve made friends in the city over the past trips we took and from Facebook connections. We had the opportunity to attend to weddings in Vientiane, and that was quite an eye opener for us. The weddings in Laos are much more grand than our Lao weddings in the States. Every single person wears Lao silk sinhs and tops, and the men are all dolled up as well. It’s as if they invited the whole city of Vientiane to the wedding, and we just kinda crashed it since we didn’t know the bride and groom personally. And in Laos, that’s quite ok. The way they dressed was very inspiring and beautiful to see. I could sit there and people/clothes watch all evening long.
After the festivities of the weddings, we made our way down to Pakse to join up with Mary Meyers of Indigo Threads. Mary is an incredible American woman from southern California who’s devoted the last ten plus years of life serving and helping the children of Laos in Pakse area. She’s built schools for the rural villages, and now she focuses on lunch programs to provide nutrition and an incentive for the children to attend school. We were given the wonderful opportunity to assist Mary and her staff serve warm soup to 750 students in 7 schools. We started out at 9 am and finished by noon. It was really amazing to see how fast we moved to all the schools riding in the back of a pick up truck and several large pots of soup. Mary leaves me in utter awe and fascination to see her give so much of herself to better the quality of the children’s lives. There is something really special about Mary, and when I grown up I want to be just like Mary.
Driving back to Vientiane was a lot easier this time for several reasons. First off, the road condition is a lot better, less potholes and no cows and buffalos stopping traffic as they did just even two years ago. Things are changing very rapidly in Laos. Sometimes, I actually miss seeing the cows and buffalos and stopping our cars to watch them slowly move across the road. The best reason why it’s more fun and easier than our previous road trips is because we were traveling with our Lao American friends whom we met in Laos and now live in the country. We had so much to talk and share on our ten hour drive to Vientiane. We could relate to each other and share similar feelings about our motherland. I enjoyed our roadside stops to use the bathroom, because it was safer and cleaner than using gas station restrooms. If you’ve never done any road trip in Laos, you should really consider it. The mountains and sceneries will make the drive seem to go faster than what it is. Also, there’s vendors selling fruits, vegetables and other food they caught on the side of the road too. Take the scenic path instead of the plane sometimes, and you’ll see more of the true beauty of Laos.
We rested up in Vientiane for a couple of days before we flew up to Luang Prabang in the north of Laos. It’s a short 40 minutes flight and driving would take about 6 hours on the new road. The old route used to take us 11 hours on a very windy mountain pass. But again, the mountains are breathtakingly beautiful and so are the people who live on the mountain tops. When we drive to Luang Prabang from Vientiane we usually bring bags and bags of candies and dental kits to hand out to kids we see along the mountain road. They’re always so excited to receive our sweet treats, because they don’t access to these simple and sweet candies high up the mountains. I miss the drive and will certainly want to do the drive next time.
Luang Prabang is such a beautiful and quaint place to rest up and enjoy quiet moments. The city runs much slower than in the capital city. You can walk all around downtown along the River and not get lost like you can in Vientiane. I always love shopping the Night Market where most of the vendors are ethnic Hmongs who come down from the mountains to sell their products and return back home in tuk tuks or buses. It’s customary to bargain in Laos, and I used to dread having to do it. Over the years I have learned to bargain, but I do it in a way that’s more business sounding. I never bargain below the belt, and I also know they won’t sell anything unless they make some kind of profit from you. So don’t ever feel guilty to bargain. It’s part of the charm of shopping in Laos.
The most joyful part of my trips to Laos is always when we visit the rural villages where it’s an adventure just getting there. On this trip we drove over 4 hours to visit Baan Pa Toop village. Our God brother Ai Vong and his wife Marie were contacted by the chief of this village for help building a school for their village. So we drove to the village to access the situation and their needs. After getting to the district city, Meuang Ngoi, we had to use the officials four wheel drive truck to drive another 45 minutes into the treacherous mountains in order to reach Baan Pa Toop. The drive was very, very beautiful with lush green trees and majestic mountains all around us. In the village a crystal clear river and stream ran around the village which felt more like paradise than a rural village without electricity and plumbing. I absolutely fell in love with the village and the village children were just as beautiful as the scenery. When we saw the two room school with dirt floor and thatched roof that leaked during rainy days, there was no doubt that these poor children needed and deserved a new school. Five grades met in the two rooms where the teachers would teach at the same time. Some of the little girls smiled and laughed so heartedly when we told them they’d get a safer and nicer school and desk/chairs where they can enjoy their educational experience more.
These very sweet, innocent and smiling faces are the main and most important reason why I return to Laos often and why I dedicate my life serving and helping them. All I want is to see them have some kind of opportunity at life, and education is always a good foundation. My own parents always emphasized that through education can we get out of poverty and have the chance to obtain a good paying job. In providing a better school and a learning environment, I feel that these children will have at least a shot at life. They can have some kind of hope for a better future and have more faith in humanity. I wish for them to feel our love and hope in their future. I know I cannot change the world, but I hope that we can make a difference in some of their lives one village at a time. I remember that when perfects strangers showed their compassion and charity towards my family when I was a little girl, it made a profound influence in how I feel today. I want to give back to others the way others had given back to me.