Ock Pop Tok – Volunteer
English Teacher/Trainer/Marketing/Public Relations
October 2nd to December 1st, 2013
(Note: If you are considering any volunteer work overseas please stay safe, read our blog disclaimer and consider your personal decisions carefully. Also consider that volunteering with a family in tow, involves far more considerations, compromises and sacrifices, than that of a solo traveller).
My journey with OPT continued and evolved. My projects expanded and included; writing a script for a designer fashion show, public relations, promotion, marketing, tour guiding, liaising with potential business clients, stocktaking, online survey creation, writing and editing, etc,etc …
I learnt how to make star lanterns, gift bags, flower arranging and even gave weaving a go. Plus on a culinary level I tried most of the Lao entries on the Silk Road Cafe menu including the famous – “Worm Poo Tea”. Would you?
Of course, it wasn’t all without it’s challenges and frustrations. Even a day where I found myself very upset and had to take a long walk and talk with a friend to calm down. Some good things you just can’t make happen, some people are hard to help or don’t want to be helped. Sometimes the truth hurts – you and others – but I do believe it prevails. Some things are beyond your knowledge or understanding – especially in a communist country like Lao.
One of my major projects that came to fruition were “Shop Talks”. The idea was to host forum’s that educated the public, showcased OPT products, improved staff knowledge and gave staff presentation skills in English. It was also a rare opportunity for tourists to interact with locals and delve into Lao culture and traditions. Our first Shop Talk was on the “Lao Sinh” at the Vat Nong store.
The “sinh” (long skirt) is a traditional tube skirt for Lao girls and the official national dress of Laos. Traditional Lao clothing has always been part of Lao culture and way of life. The sinh is a long traditional skirt for women that is usually made of silk and that features a wide and often elaborately woven section at the foot.
In the old days, Lao women tended to wear more traditional clothing, which was made from silk and other cloths. Over the generations traditional clothing is worn a bit less. It is common for Laotians to dress in more western clothes such as jeans and t-shirts. Lao teens these days follow western trends, as well as Japanese and Korean fashion trends.
Lao women in traditional sinh are still seen often on the streets of Laos because it is a compulsory uniform for female students. Many employees, people living in rural areas and old women also wear the sinh on a daily basis, others only on special occasions such as weddings and ceremonies.
This talk touched on the charms of the Lao sinh. (Even I borrowed and wore one for a Lao wedding). It told of how the hem of the sinh is often the first thing a girl ever embroiders. How the waist band is thought to hold female power, so much so, that it is bad luck to walk under a sinh on the washing line. How in the olden days it could identify you as married, your age, your position in society and even where you lived – fascinating.
On week 14 of our tour, was the second talk. This time at the newly opened Vat Sen Designer store. This one was about Animal Motifs within Lao Textiles. How the motifs woven reflect the mind and desires of the weaver. How Butterfly motifs, although used for little girls are not used for wedding blankets, because butterflies although beautiful like young girls have a short life, something undesirable for a marriage. It talked about the mythical Siho (half elephant, half lion) and the Xanghong (half elephant, half bird) – motifs of animals joined to share their special powers. How a Hong (swan) can take a shaman on it’s back to communicate with the spirit world. Another fascinating topic.
Mostly, I was bursting with pride for the Lao presenters who were plunging into their first public speaking roles, in their second or third language. The younger Lao social media generation learning about the traditions of their ancestors and keeping such ideas alive. They put in their best effort and accomplished their goals, despite the many obstacles.
So that was OPT volunteer work. The other side of things were the friendships that evolved and flourished. Being slowly allowed into the life of local Lao people if only for a moment was a great privilege and one of the highlights of our time in Luang Prabang. This included not only the people I worked with but also the tour guides, business clients and guests I met at OPT. We had Lao coffee together in the mornings, went to the Phousi markets together, had dinner in their homes, went to a Tai Lue toddlers birthday party, had a Basi ceremony, went to two Hmong New year celebrations, went to a housewarming, shared a herbal sauna together, rode pillion on their scooters and drank a considerable amount of Lao beer together. Secrets were told and heartaches shared. I am now proud to call many of my OPT colleagues and associates – my friends.
Although we now move on, the OPT crowd will remain in our hearts. We will miss them and remember fondly all my many adventures at Ock Pop Tok, over our two months with them. I am grateful for the opportunities I was given, the memories that will remain and the friendships, which will continue to flourish.