Why we are Helping and how YOU can get involved

The remote villages of Laos have never recovered from the 'Secret' war of the 1960's. While rich in culture and tradition, their education, healthcare and hygiene conditions are severely lacking. The average lifespan is only 56 years and average age is only 20.8, caused by poor quality water, poor hygiene and general poverty. BUT with your help we have already made a difference in the lives of over 2700 villagers.

We have built schools in the villages of Pha Yong and Had Chanh, and a 3rd school located in Done Lom is under construction. We have also distributed over 200 water filters systems and completed hygiene training for three entire villages. Each family is required to take this course before a filter is provided, in order to promote a longer, healthier and happier life. A new water source including a dam, water tank and taps has been completed, as has our first bank of hygienic toilets.

It doesn't stop there. We have requests for 34 new projects and with your help, will do what we can to support as many requests as possible.

You can help in so many different ways. Before you do though, note that less than 5% will go to direct overhead costs, contrary to many NGO's who's overheads can reach 80%. Sponsors for every project will receive emailed pictures and details of how the money was spent.

Here are some examples of how you can help with your financial contribution.

- $55 buys a water purification filter for a family of 8.
It will also include your name on the water filter and a picture forwarded to you with the family and the filter unit.
- $12,500 US buys a school for grades 1, 2 and 3. Perhaps you would like to sponsor or assist us to sponsor a school.
- $4,000 US (approx) buys school tables and desks for a three room school and a two-room kindergarten.
- $700 US (approx) pays for a teacher for one year
- $50 US buys education for one child for one year including school fees, 2 uniforms, shoes, backpack and school supplies.
hygienic washroom facilities rane depending on the number of stalls and start at about $3000, but are critical to prevent more disease.

If you would like to become involved and to help the people of rural Laos help themselves lead a more fulfilling life, please email us at AdoptaVillageinLaos@gmail.com. Official Tax Receipts are not yet possible although we hope to receive charitable status this summer. Meanwhile we would still love to hear of your interest.

Please help............we cannot do this alone....

Meanwhile, please enjoy our updates below.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The beginning of our Laos Venture

This blog is about our experiences with the people and culture of Laos and the struggles villagers cope with every single day as they continue their efforts to recover from the Vietnam war of many years ago. Yes, there is some international aid flowing in but per capita, it is surprising how the rural villagers seem to have been left alone to fend for themselves, generally speaking. History shows that most wars start in the remote areas of a nation. I believe this is caused by a lack of education and communication with the rest of the country. This is also about how just a few individuals managed to change our destiny, hopefully resulting in a better life for thousands of Laos citizens.

When we first arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos, after visiting 5 other Far East countries ranging from the third wealthiest country in the world (Singapore) to 2 of the bottom 10, we felt something different. I couldn't quite put my finger on it because I had visited many poor countries during my lifetime. Perhaps it was because there were no beggars on the streets, or dozens of children asking for us to buy from them, or maybe it was the respect they showed towards us, even as tourists. Yet, Laos is one of those countries in the bottom 10. Whatever it was, we certainly never expected that our lives would change so dramatically. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted with 'Sabaidee' by all of the hotel staff that were present, each with their hands folded as if in prayer. Almost everywhere we went, 'Sabaidee' was the common greeting.

Left: we are about 15 steps up from the resort looking left onto the street.

Right: we are in the same spot looking right this time - pedestrian access to the other side with loose floorboards.

During the first trip in February 2010, we did the usual touristy things from Luang Prabang, the main northern hub for tourists - visited temples, traveled by riverboat to a temple cave, experienced the culture of several villages displaying their village specialties including pottery, fabrics and whiskey that tasted more like Newfie screech (with no disrespect to the people of Newfoundland) or perhaps what you would expect from the TV series, Mash 4077. In fact I managed to swallow our free whiskey taster after several tries, only to turn my head for a second to see that it was filled to the top again! We also visited the night market, museum and even managed to squeeze in a ballet, Lao style.

Kind of scary looking...

We have traveled fairly extensively over many years and up until that point our experiences were certainly pleasant and enjoyable, as with many other countries we visited but with the unique Lao flavour. This is when things started to change for me, albeit I didn't realize it at the time. In a building on the museum grounds, a group of students had just arrived from Japan and were laying out rows of derelict Buddha statues in preparation for restoration to their former glory. It was part of their study course however I was impressed with the relationship that Laos must have had with the educators in Japan.

When we travel, we almost always hire a private guide to avoid the 'herding' effect'. Most of us have taken group tours and you just can't 'feel' the experience, especially when so many are talking and laughing when you are trying to listen, or one statement is being translated into several different languages, and even worse, there is always one person on the bus who feels it is their personal tour and do whatever they feel like, showing total disrespect for the culture in the country they are in, for the guide and for other tourists but I digress. It takes a bit of effort to find the right guide or person that is willing to take you where you want to go and experience the true essence of what you see before you.

Left; Mike and Kham Lath
Upper: Mike and Bounmy
Right: Steve, Bounmy & Kham Lath

This is where the next step in our journey to discovery led us. We managed to get to know a couple of the employees of the hotel quite well. Their English was good and you could even joke with them. They went well out of their way to drive us and trek us to the most beautiful waterfalls I had ever seen. It wasn't just the waterfalls with its aqua-marine coloured water but there were so many levels, each with their own mesmerizing landscape and the feeling of true peace. It is no wonder that even the locals go there on their day off from work. They also took us to two villages where tourists never go - talk about culture! With one pump in the middle of the village to serve all, there was a line-up of women waiting for their turn at the pump to fill their buckets with unpurified water.

One Water Pump for Entire Village

The two fellows who arranged this and took us on this amazing little adventure, would not accept money for themselves, just a bit of gas money for the van they borrowed from a friend. I almost couldn't believe it and have been accustomed over the years to expect an ulterior motive...haven't we all? There wasn't one. They just appreciated our company and told us that they just wanted to learn more English. Wow! That was a first for me. At least we were able to talk them into joining us for dinner.

During our final full day in Luang Prabang, I finally met with the manager of the hotel, Le Belair Boutique Resort. I can't say enough about the attention to detail they provided, their wonderful demeanor and attitude, and especially the beautiful rooms. It felt like paradise. Again, I didn't know it at the time, but I think he was the final straw that made us re-evaluate our priorities after we returned home. Mr. Somnuek Bounsa was kind enough to explain the fundraising projects he was working on in the area. They included new schools, hygienic toilets and water supply for those less fortunate. He was even working on an orphanage with a wonderful German couple. I left him an embarassingly small donation of $25 but vowed to learn more and read a blog that a sponsor and friend of his did to describe his own experience in Laos.

Home Again
Back in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada (my home), I read the blog, posted and written by Bill Stephens (www.jbillstephens.blogspot.com). I couldn't believe what I was reading - it was exactly as I was feeling and I have to admit that it was not only refreshing to know that someone else felt like I did, but that I wasn't completely insane for contemplating what I was planning to do.

I couldn't sleep and just thought it was jet lag. It went on for three long weeks and many restless dreams when I did manage to catch a nap. As we started to re-integrate with our friends, we told them about our trip, our feelings and that we were thinking we might build a couple of schools in the northern rural area of Luang Prabang Province. Surprisingly, everyone we spoke with, wanted to help in some way or another. For the first time in my life, three separate friends offered to do fundraisers for me! This was a real shock because I have always been the one sought after to do fundraisers for various charities in Toronto and Port Hope. The list of friends and family who wanted to help continued to grow (and continues to this day). So that was it. I started emailing the hotel manager and the two gentlemen at the hotel who had given us the tour. Before long I had quotes, hopeful timelines and plans.

Before promising anything though, I knew I had to take a better look and if satisfied that everything was legitimate, I would authorize the construction of a school addition of a kindergarten in one village so that the families didn't have to take their young ones to the rice fields with them every day. I would also authorize a complete replacement of a derelict one-room school in another village for Primary Grades 1, 2 and 3. I also knew that water was a problem so I agreed to look at their water supplies for clean, purified water and hygiene with the possibility of installing proper squat toilets.

I started by doing some research in learning more about what foundations and charities in North America sponsor along the lines of schools, kids, water purification and hygienic toilets. I knew that I could not afford to build more than the two schools I was already about to commit to and I wanted to be able to offer tax receipts to those who wished to help us. I also knew a lot of friends from our local Rotary clubs and their connection to Rotary International, and their involvement in clean water and schools on an international level. What I didn't know was that one of my best friends, a Rotarian was actually the liaison with Rotary International.
Rotary also has a connection with a company that makes low cost sand water filters that do not require electricity, a prerequisite for the rural villages. The general response has been positive but it will take a while for everything to happen, subject to final approval of course. With over 21,000 clubs world wide, I am sure I can do something.

I also reviewed a catalogue that was loaned to me by a friend. Out of over 4000 charitable organizations listed, I was able to identify 118 Foundations/Charities that would, in all possibility, help us by donating to the cause.

To this day I am not sure exactly what is considered a hygienic toilet but I can guess for the most part. All of the internet searches resulted in an endless variety of squat toilets for purchase or how to properly use one without walking away with a big wet patch on your butt - Mind you, the lessons came in handy later on.

Still, I had so much to learn (and still do) but I really did not understand enough about the villages themselves and their specific needs. It is wonderful to have all these plans in place but if the village chiefs were not on board or if there was a lot of corruption, I would have to think again about starting such an ambitious project. I definitely needed to experience their way of living and to meet with the village chiefs. There was no way around it.

Back to Luang Prabang for a Better Look
June came along very quickly, although at times it seemed it would never come. Other times I wondered how I was going to prepare everything before I left. More importantly I wondered if I was crazy and just about changed my mind a couple of times.

We arrived in Luang Prabang safe and sound, although tired from the 24 hour journey so we had planned an extra day to rest up before our real adventure began. Instead of resting we spent the day banking and shopping for the villages. We had brought a lot of gifts with us for the kids but I still needed to pick up a couple of soccer and volleyballs, plus I needed an extra camera to leave there so I could keep track of the progress after my return to Canada. I guess I already knew that the decision was already made to build the schools, although just needed to take a better look at what was involved. That day just zoomed along and before we knew it, we were sitting in the back of an open air truck driving along bumpy roads towards Nong Khiaw and then catch a boat to Muang Ngoi. It took us about four hours by truck but must have stopped 50 times to pick up and drop off passengers over the back of the truck. At one point the truck was full and the driver's wife was standing on the back ledge of the truck - I thought we would lose her on every bump. Then the driver stopped again to pick up two more passengers and a rusted old motor bike which they hoped could be squeezed between us somehow. Not a chance - Fortunately everyone rebelled. It would have been difficult to fit a sardine in there.

Once we transferred to the not-so-fast, Fast boat, the rest of the trip was easy and uneventful but the beauty that surrounded us was surreal, just truly amazing. We could see water buffalos relaxing head deep in the river and caught our first glimpse of albino buffalo - there weren't just a few of them either. This was their off season which meant they were free to roam wherever they wanted, until their work season began. Apparently water buffalo are funny that way. They respect only one owner and are wary of all other human beings. I don't suppose the people have to worry about theft for that reason. They are loyal to their owner and are left to forage in the jungle for food, yet they return to their owner every three or four days to spend the night under the owners home. I guess they were looking for work too.

Once we arrived in Muang Ngoi, we set up base camp there because we were told that would be the last place where they had electricity, hot showers, air conditioning and western toilets. Upon arrival we transferred our luggage containing mostly gifts for the villages and especially for the children we were going to meet. Our own clothes barely fit an overnight bag but we were determined to travel as light as possible, knowing about the trek ahead. At the top of the stairs from the riverbank, the proprietor of the bungalows we rented, was waiting for us and had brought a large cart on wheels for our luggage. She was just recovering from having a new child two weeks earlier but looked just as fit as everyone else, although our host pushed the cart. The bungalows had just been completed a couple of weeks earlier. Inside the room was spacious enough and the bed was comfortable but there was no other furniture in the room. She made dinner for us and this was the first village-type meal we chanced to experience.

Sticky rice was the staple of every meal. Thank God for little miracles. With a weak stomach to begin with, at least I could count on keeping my weight up. She made some sort of a fish soup. I don't mind fish of just about any kind as long as it doesn't taste fishy but that was not to be, plus it was extremely oily - one of the ingredients that makes my stomach run so I was pretty careful and stuck mostly to the rice. The last thing I needed at the beginning of the trip was to spend most of my time on the toilet or possibly worse....and yes there were toilets in Muang Ngoi, although no toilet tanks so one had to fill a bucket in order to flush. Right beside the toilet was a hose with a small nozzle on the end so that when you took a shower, the entire room was drenched. It wasn't a problem of course, just a little extra work after each shower. There was no electricity when we arrived either so no hot shower, no fan and certainly no air conditioning unless you opened the window, however the electricity did indeed come on from about 7pm to 10pm every night. You could hear the generator go on down the street for the village - that was the sign for tourists and villagers to jump up from what they were doing, run back to their guest houses and plug in their cameras, shavers, notebooks and rechargeable flashlights. It was a rather comical sight at first.

We spent a couple of days touring through the caves where the villagers lived during the Vietnam war and heard stories about the lives they led during that time. There were days they couldn't eat for fear of giving away their position when they tried to cook over smoky campfire. We even saw garden ornaments throughout the village consisting of empty bomb casings that were found in the area. We visited the local primary and secondary school there and just happened to be there during the last day of the school year for the Grade 5 students. This was the day that all Grade 5ers traveled from the nearby villages, many by boat, others by jungle trek to write the country-wide exams in preparation for secondary school (equivalent to grades 6, 7, 8, followed by high school 9, 10 and 11). Traveling ranged from roughly an hours walk to a an hours ride by boat. After the exams, they all stripped off their uniforms and jumped into the river for a swim before the journey home.

Swimming After Exams

Villagers home during the Vietnam War

While we were in the village, we decided late on the second day to check out the water source for the village, just wanting to get a frame of reference for the villages we were planning to see. the path led us along the back of the village and into the jungle. We were told it wasn't very far so we followed the plastic pipes, wearing only sandals, but after 45 minutes along the muddy trail it was starting to get dusk. The mosquitoes were not only having a field day with us, but we discovered that the leeches were enjoying our feet too. That was it - we high-tailed it out of there, picking the blood sucking critters off of us as we went.

The next morning we rented a slowboat and traveled about 25 minutes to a small beach on the side of a riverbank. We had all of our belongings and gifts for the first village and had been wondering how we were going to carry everything through the jungles, over hills and across rice fields to get to our first village, Pha Yong. We had left the rest of our luggage in Muang Ngoi. We thanked our lucky stars that our terrific host Bounmy, had arranged for his brother and 6 kids to be there to give us a hand. They were swimming at the time but the second they saw us, everyone jumped out, got dressed and stood in line as we sorted out what we thought they could carry. I couldn't imagine what we would have done without them. Had we known that they had been waiting for us since 8am and hadn't even had their breakfast yet, we wouldn't have taken our own sweet time about having a leisurely breakfast, doing a bit more shopping and eventually working our way to the beach for our boat. Yet there was never a complaint, just total respect.

Thinking back, I think most or all of them were barefoot! We managed to keep pace with them for the first half hour. It was sooooo hot and sooooo hunid. We had brought lots of bottled water but still needed a break to try to cool off under one of the farm shacks along the way, used by farmers for eating lunch and resting during the hottest part of the days. Did I tell you it was hot???? What made it worse was that our backpacks were still really heavy. We went for another hour and much of it under direct sun and I was starting to get a bit dizzy. Yes, I was wearing a hat but the sweat was just pouring off me almost as fast as I could drink water to replace it. We found an abandoned home with a nice shade tree, although there were more leaches. We rested there about 20 minutes and redistributed our loads - to be honest, I traded my load with Bounmy's. What a wonderful host don't you think? I didn't realize it at the time but we were only 20 minutes from his village at that point. Along the way he explained to us that he had not been back to his village in 8 years and since that time, the village had been forced by the government to move twice, so he really didn't know where he lived, but still recognized the general area and where all of his dad's rice fields were. He further explained that two tribes, his being the Mong tribe from the valley, the other being the Khiaw tribe from the hills were joined together for scales of economy. Each village in itself was too small to be properly supported by the government.

Trek from Nam Ou River to Ban Pha Yong. Right:Our wonderful angels!

Bounmy continued to point out the locations where his village used to be and once in a while you could see a small remnant or two. He also pointed up into the hills and surrounding small mountains, explaining that nobody was allowed up there for fear of unexploded bombs. During the war, there was an average of one bomb every 8 minutes for 9 years. As the villagers put it, there was one bomb for every inhabitant of Laos. About 30% of the population died during the war...very sad.

Our trek was about two hours in total so it wasn't as bad as I originally thought. Often when a tour guide gives you a time estimate, you often need to double it. By the time we got to the village, they had already eaten and were waiting for us to arrive.

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