Week 14 – All dressed up, with a place to go!

25th November – 1st December 2013

Fish Spa at Sabai Sabai Spa

This week begins on our 92nd day on the road! Thats three months  – hard to believe. It also marks our last week volunteering with OPT (in our posts OPT part 1 and part 2) and in Luang Prabang, Laos, (Weeks 5 -14) which has been our little home for the last couple of months. We hope you have enjoyed our travels so far and will continue with us on our family journey – to places yet to be explored.

One Lao Wedding

We were fortunate to be invited to a Lao wedding. Our friend Phone (pronounced Pon) kindly invited us all to the reception of her “sister” (which means close friend or relative here). She also lent me a Lao Sinh which is standard dress for a Lao wedding. Unfortunately, her Lao formal tops were too small. Our guesthouse owner came to the rescue with one of hers and the family across the road – coincidently invited to the same wedding – offered us a free lift with them in their minivan. So all dressed up and with a place to go – we set off to the LP outskirts.

As we drove, picking up another passanger on the way, we saw lots of locals also dressed up on scooters, heading in the same direction. We were soon to learn that Lao weddings are very large affairs. We arrived to see an archway made of balloons and flowers and a huge line of relatives, so a few shots of Lao Lao and a lot of Sabaidee’s later, we were ushered to a prime table. We have since learnt that Lao wedding guests can number up to a thousand, visiting in various events through out the day. Our reception hosted a few hundred! There was lots of great food, free beer and the alure of Lao style dancing – a rotating, arm waving, sedate gyration.

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Smile While You Stay Awhile

It was always our intention to stay a little longer at one main destination in Asia and one in Europe, mainly to experience these places at a deeper level and to get a tiny glimpse of the lives of the people who live there. (Originally we had planned to stay in Taiwan. We had even arranged a welcoming couchsurfing host family there). But as you know, we had an unplanned stop in Laos and secured some walk-in volunteer work, so Luang Prabang became our place to stay.

The decision for a family such as ours involved many factors, but the experience turned out to be a great one for us. Given time we were embraced by those around us and truly felt like we were home. That’s why it was heart wrenching to leave and why LP will always have a warm place in our hearts.

The longer you stay somewhere, the more you see the details. The places and faces become familiar.

You stumble across the tiny shop that sells the best homemade yogurt you have tasted. In a small green tub, only for a one-hour window in the morning, it is available for your family to enjoy at only 2000kip per serve.

You grow fond of the lady at the local deli. She gives you cardboard boxes for your sons’ craft projects. You cuddle her son and feed him pieces of chocolate from your icecream. You watch her breastfeed on the floor, while shopping. You meet her husband and she tells you that her family owns half the street – her mother-in-law the guest house there, her uncle the massage parlour there. You find out that she and her three friends finished off 16 bottles of beer between them on Ok Pansa night! She waves at you when you pass and gets out chairs so your sons can sit down to eat ice-creams in front of her shop. You both look forward to seeing each other and look out for each other when you pass.

The owner of your guesthouse, her grand kids and her adopted son, who manages it become like family, seem to adopt you all. They give food to your children, buy them clothes, invite you to family occasions, drinks with friends, help you whenever they can and give you gifts when you leave. They will miss you and remember you, as you will them.

The relationships you foster on a small daily basis become real and you are touched by the lives around you.

Learning the Tough Lessons

Staying longer brings both wonderful and sad realisations. You don’t just see the preened tourist veneer of a place. You are forced to realise the setbacks that come with living in a small, poor, communist country. It’s not just the superficial things of no international events, no movie theatre, no fast food, plumbing that always leaks, poor electrical safety, no seatbelts, etc.

Unicef say that in 2010/2011 the life expectancy in Lao was 67 and the population below the international poverty line is about 40%. Almost 40% of children (under five in the poorest 20%) are underweight and mortality rate for under 5’s was 42%.

You learn that the friendly man across the road is Akha and although out of work, helps his sister in her business. He can speak a little English, Ahka and Lao but cannot read or write at all. He has never used a computer. (You begin to understand that one of Lao’s greatest problems is that most people are illiterate in their first language).

You are sad when you learn that the local pork stall lady has not been selling for awhile because she badly cut her fingers. You wait and worry for her, for weeks. How will her family survive without that income? Will she keep her fingers or will things only get worse for her with the poor medical care available? (You begin to understand that good medical care here means money under the table and for a serious injury your only hope is to fly to Bangkok). You are relieved and happy when she returns. Her fingers will probably never be the same but she still has them and you try to express without words that you missed her and are glad she is back.

You encounter an admirable lady who runs a charity to improve hygiene and thereby reduce disease in Laos. They mainly install toilets in schools. She tells you that some volunteers she had were interrogated for more than one hour by the local authorities. You hear that some official volunteers were ejected from the Deaf School and you realise why your offer to visit the local primary school was rejected. You realise that below the surface lies something much more sinister and compromising. Land seized at 40% of it’s value and 500 families moved to make way for the new airport. The Chinese in deals to partially dam rivers, build highways and a high speed railway – at what cost to the local communities? Drugs and their trade play their part here too, as do the restrictions on worship and many other freedoms that many of us take for granted.

You realise the lax attitude to safety, nanny state and hygiene has its up side. Yes, it is welcomed to cuddle a new born baby to sleep – the mum will even leave him with you. Yes, it is ok to break off pieces of the rice cake you are eating and give it to children on the street. Yes, sharing a single glass for drinking beer is not only acceptable but traditional. Yes, they would never make sling shots and archery equipment for kids in Australia but they can be great fun. Here the kids are free. They do roam the neighbourhood unsupervised, jump off bridges, understand and experiment with fire, play very rough…

Yet, we also realise the downsides. We still find it hard to accept seeing someone riding on a motorbike, holding a sleeping baby with one arm and steering with the other, even though we have seen it more times than we can count. You know that one bad bump could see that child and mother dead – no helmet, no hope of good medical care. Although we know there are small schools for the deaf and for the blind in Laos, there is little help for other problems. Depression and mental illness and not catered for. Suicide and depression happens here. Families struggle to care for the old and disabled, with pressures to just keep each other sheltered and fed.

Life here is a struggle most people here work very long hours, on poor wages. They often also study or have extra jobs or small businesses to run. They work hard. They have the same hopes and dreams we do but have little opportunity or support to fulfil those dreams. Compromises are often made through necessity.

Early Hmong New Year’s Eve Celebrations

Another friend made through OPT invited Prunella and her work colleague, Chandla to early Hmong New Year (HNY) Celebrations. Due to his work and an upcoming trip to Vientiane (as his father was in a car accident), Leaha would be unable to celebrate HNY’s eve on the 1st. So it was that Chandla picked Prunella up on his motorbike and laden with a few gifts, we were soon travelling further than he had ever been before – about 10km from LP.

We were welcomed to Leaha’s humble abode. We saw his pictures of his celebrated brother who is a doctor. His brother got the advantages of family support to gain an education. Now he works hard supporting his own family and cares for his three youngest brothers. Leaha’s next eldest brother self-educated himself in English and French. He now works as a French tour guide. Leaha now lives with him and is following in his footsteps. They all sent money home to support their ageing parents.

We had a long session of Beer Lao rounds, freshly slaughtered roasted duck, fresh duck blood with herbs, stir fried chicken and vegetables, egg noodles and beer snacks. The sky slowly darkened as we sat by the raised kitchen and open fire. As we talked about life and love, I felt honoured to be a part of this special occasion.

Cooking School

After an effort to organise a private cooking lesson by a friend fell through, we were keen to find a cooking lesson for our resident Sabretoothed chef Reuben happen. So it was that the whole family set off for a wonderful day of education and fun with the Tum Tum Cheng Cooking School. We settled in with a couple from South Africa, two girls from Italy, a fellow Aussie and a guy from Mauritius. A quick cup of tea and we all departed for the morning market. Being the Lao ‘veterans’ (i.e. the ones who had stayed the longest in Laos), we could identify most of the ingredients but a trip to Phousi Markets is always an eye opener. The boys did us proud that day, especially our Reuben, cutting lemongrass, stuffing bamboo shoots, rolling spring rolls, stirring and eating with gusto. The crowd are waiting with baited breath for Felix’s review of our delicious dishes on his blog page.

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Parting Gifts from OPT

We were touched by the many farewell gestures of our OPT friends. Suddenly we were invited for a herbal sauna, dinner in homes, breakfasts, a complementary Silk Road Cafe lunch and showered with thoughtful gifts. Thanks to one and all. Although our roads now part, our friendship will remain and grow stronger with time.

Now follow us a few more days till our next stop Vang Vieng…


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