22.09.2014 Community

Going Local in Laos

Volunteer tourism to Phonsovan and the Plain of Jars in Laos
In 2007, on a backpacking tour of SE Asia, we first visited Phonsovan, the centre for the Plain of Jars. These are stone jars over 2000 years old scattered over 90 sites that are believed  to be associated with prehistoric burial practices.  In more recent times, the Plain of Jars was in the centre of the "Secret War" conducted by the CIA from 1964 to 1973.  The US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions - equal to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years - making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.  The legacy of this blanket bombing is millions of unexploded ordnances in the region. The Americans were supporting the Hmong people fighting the communist Pathet Lao who had vowed to annihilate the Hmong.  Even now they are marginalised compared with the lowland Lao people. 

We came in touch with the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) survivors' centres that sparked our joining Mines Victims and Clearance (MiVAC) (www.mivac.org), a mine clearing charity set up by Vietnam Veterans.

We returned to Laos in 2008 for six weeks in the south, riding our bikes from Vientiane to the Cambodian border. We love the country and the especially the people.  

We decided to apply to volunteer with MiVAC and were accepted for a stint in June and July this year based in Phonsovan or Xien Khuang, as it's more often referred to locally.

MiVAC's next development is a joint project with Rotary to extend basic water and toilet facilities to nine disadvantaged villages.  While waiting for government approval of the project we had time to spend assisting five motivated young village women trying to develop an income for themselves and their families through a sewing and embroidery business with assistance from MiVAC. Vicky got them making Lao cotton shopping bags that they are sending to Australia.

Phonsovan had almost doubled in size in seven years. Although as a destination in its own right it doesn't have the attraction of Luang Prabang or Vientiane, despite being the centre for the major attractions of the Plain of Jars and the remnants from the "Secret War", it's a busy regional town with four markets and local and regional government offices. So while tourism is important, the town has an economic life of its own making it a good place to get to know everyday life in Laos.  We shopped every day at the markets for fresh fruit and vegetables brought in early in the morning from the surrounding villages.  

One of the best ways to get around any town or country is on a bike. We took ours over with us and used them for local transport, day trips and an eventual ride through the hills towards Luang Prabang. Being regularly seen on a bike around town also distinguishes you as a "local" rather than a passing tourist.  With an open mind you can be accepted and included by the locals and can assist in helping improve incomes - for example, Vicky encouraged the local baking family to bake wholemeal bread for the tourist and expat market and I drew up some plans for bike touring opportunities for a local tour business.

Malcolm's first journal entry after one week…..  

We've been here in Phonsavan for a week now and we have been through the acclimatisation stages of dehydration and mild rashes so that we took our jackets to the restaurant last night because it might have dropped below 25 degrees.  We are helping MiVAC get a Memorandum of Understanding through the layers of local, regional and national government so that they can get on with getting water and toilets to a group of very poor villages about 40km west of here.  It's a very slow process!

In the meantime we are getting things organised for a group of girls to establish a sewing business. MiVAC has trained them, they have some markets with a craft shop and have made school uniforms.  We are helping them get a bank account - sounds easy but not when your birth hasn't been registered properly and you need a police registration to get an ID card so you can open an account.  So a fun day taking them into town to get passport-style and swing tag photos and sewing material.  We have a local translator/manager who helps us through the language - we are still learning to count!

Bikes are great to get around on locally and out into the country.  On our way to Phonsavan, we rode from the Thai border into Vientiane after a great overnight train trip from Bangkok, just before the coup. 

It's a pity Vientiane hasn't learnt the lessons on traffic from Western cities. They have done up major streets with new pavements and then encourage cars into the city and allow them and motorbikes to park across the pavements, forcing people to walk in the road. But that's sometimes safer than where the pavements haven't been done up as the holes and drops into the drains below can be a hazard.  On the positive side, they close off the new road along the Mekong at night and it becomes a great promenade with a night market in the evening. I think it's a great little city - great places to eat, you can ride a bike around, enough to see for a few days and cheap accommodation - but a lot hotter than us up here at Phonsavan at 1300m. 

Then after a day in Vientiane with lunch at the street kids' training restaurant Makphet we've been to before (and which AusAid used to support) it was an amazing 11 ½ hour trip on the "Sleeper Bus" with a double bed across the front of the top deck of the bus.  We rose off the bed a few times with the bumps but I slept for eight hours and got some great views along the road as the sun came up.  

We rode out to one of the Plain of Jars sites, which we visited six years ago.  It has changed with a big mining road going around it and a new unfinished complex at the entrance.  There is a lot of building happening, including a lake complex for the tourists and a big road out to a golf course!   There's also a museum for Hmong culture, statue and memorial park for Hmong war victims - all about one third built!!

Getting to know the good cafes and market stalls and we have a great house which is good for cooking - Vick's noodle dishes are rivalling the locals!

The Wet has started with thunderstorms of varying intensity in the afternoon, then everything dries out and the market people remove all the tarps.  I hope to get some bike things going with the kids during the school holidays and we hope to do some English teaching so we will busy.  It's nice to have a rest from all the bike advocacy issues I deal with at home and also gives a sense of perspective when we complain about a few potholes. You should see these clay roads after a storm.

Visiting or volunteering in Laos has been fantastic. Come to Laos and support these wonderful people! We are happy to talk to anyone interested. Email: malcolmcowanster@gmail.com