Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Child's Dream - Laos

Due to a cancellation there was room enough for the Crouch Potatoes on a Child’s Dream tour of some of their projects in Laos. We had previously had great experiences with them in Cambodia & Thailand and thought it would be a great way to peek behind the tourist curtain in Laos and experience more of Child’s Dreams activities. We weren’t at all disappointed and had a great time with the team, visiting schools, experiencing the traditional Laos culture, food and lifestyle. Here’s some of our favourite moments:

School Opening Ceremony
This was one of the first experiences we had while on the tour and one of the best –admittedly Brad wouldn’t want to ever experience it the same way again though. It started with a 2 hour speedboat ride down the Mekong as there are no roads to the village. When we arrived the entire village was on the banks to welcome us and in no time we were sipping from fresh coconuts and eating the sweetest grapefruit known to man.

After a few speeches (in Lao) we walked up to the school site, the painted concrete building a huge contrast to the timber and thatched structures that make up the rest of the village. Both the teachers and students were decked out in their school uniforms and were excited about the new sports equipment that was presented to them.

The party kicked off with a blessing ceremony in which chicken guts, beaks and feet were handed out to those interested and also to those who weren’t (Miriam) and we were especially blessed by having to eat some of what was left – not Miriam’s favourite moment. Lunch came next and being at the head table with hundreds of eyes upon us we were very nervous about the proper protocol – especially as we were sitting away from the others and could not ask questions. Our nerves were lessened by the frequent toasts of what one can only imagine was pure ethanol. Miriam had the good sense to beg off many of these whilst Brad, trying hard to be a good sport, was not so smart. Traditional dancing came next where we were all partnered with the elite of the village and in one dance Miriam rock-n-rolled with the village leader!

During the week we spent many a meal with locals, both at restaurants and inside their homes. Laotian cuisine does not feature in Western dining much, resulting in many new experiences for us. Some dishes were really quite good, Brad’s favourite - the smoked fish at the opening ceremony whilst Miriam enjoyed the ubiquitous Fish Laap – a tangy minced fish salad.
Some of the least appealing dishes were bamboo worms (think small witchety grubs) and fried crickets, both of which were sampled but won’t be making it into our forthcoming cook book.
One thing we both agreed was fantastic - the BBQ’d pork ribs we had for breakfast....delicious. Another item we’d like to bring back to Australian shores is sticky rice, which is rolled into a ball and dipped into various dishes. Adapted to western taste, this is sure to be a big winner at dinner parties to come.

Rocky Roads
Northern Laos is a remote and rugged place – We’ve done a little 4WD driving before but this trip certainly had the most adventure per kilometre quotient we’ve experienced. One of the roads we tackled earned the name “The Waterfall” and there was many a time we thought that we’d need to get out in knee deep mud (luckily we never did). There were rocky roads that had us bouncing around the cabin like rag-dolls, slippery slopes that took 3 attempts to climb, puddles that were so deep we could swim in them and parts where the road had simply crumbled away.
Evidence of landslides were visible everywhere along the tracks and if not for our vehicle being adapted to suit, we wouldn’t have got very far at all. It’s easy to see how difficult life must be for the villagers in these remote places as transport and infrastructure is very sparse - food, building and medical supplies can be cut off for months at a time especially during Monsoon and the villagers don’t always have the capacity to cope with such interruptions to provisions.

Other Highlights
We visited many schools during the trip and were once again impressed at how Child’s Dream tackled the problems that face them working in such a difficult country. They are currently trialling a number of all-inclusive High School scholarships for remote village students to study in a nearby city (less than 10 hours away!)

Despite the lack of facilities and hardships faced by villagers, teachers and students alike, there is a real hunger for education and the benefits it offers. Child’s Dream requires a partnership with the school community which extends to the villagers and area officials. Locals are contractually obliged to provide materials, labour and active participation in the project management which promotes ownership and empowerment to their leadership – crucial to the future of the school.
It was a wonderful learning opportunity for us and a great way to see with our own eyes what impact organisations like Child’s Dream make for the lives of those less fortunate than our own.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Guess Where Now?

Wrong! we're in Bangkok! After leaving Northern Laos less than 24 hours ago we travelled to Chiang Mai with the Child's Dream team (no pun intended...) and boarded an overnight bus to Thailand's capital. We're doing a bit of shopping here before heading to Malaysia. More about our trip in Laos soon...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lounging around

After the most scenic of bus rides, climbing high up through the beautiful green Laos mountains, we descended into lovely Luang Prabang. Whilst there, we visited a nearby waterfall and swam in the freezing cascading waters. A few days ago, Brad’s team made the finals in a volleyball tournament held at Utopia, a great bar & restaurant where we’ve spent many an hour laying back staring out at the gorgeous vista, chatting with other travellers whilst perched on bamboo platforms above the Mekong. On our last day here we watched the daily procession of monks receiving alms and visited the local markets. Tonight we plan to watch the sunset from Phu Si – a hill side dotted with temples.

We’ll be out of contact travelling with Child’s Dream over the following week, learning more about their work in Laos. After this we’ll be making our way steadily south toward Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where we fly back to Australia on October 7. Not long now....

Friday, September 3, 2010

Lazy Laos

After enjoying a relaxing week on Ko Phagnan not doing a lot, wetravelled for 30 hours by boat, bus & tuk-tuk to get to Laos. We crossed the border and headed south to a place called ‘Si Phan Don’ or ‘4000 Islands’ - a great little area of small islands on the Mekong river system, just above Cambodia. We had a lovely time taking in the beautiful vista from our bungalow with 2 hammocks perched directly above the fast flowing river (all for 30,000 kip/$4.10AUD per night). We hired some bikes and cycled the islands one day, taking in a great waterfall and teaching a local family about Australian crocodiles, snakes & spiders.
Other than that we simply read books and made the most of the social atmosphere.
Thoroughly chilled, we headed north for Kong Lo Caves where we had heard good reports. The cave is 7.5km long and is navigated by boat, set in amongst the lush green countryside it was definitely a worthy side trip on our way to Laos capital Vientiane. In Vientiane we again took in the sights by bicycle, but there wasn’t a lot to do there except soak up the French provincial feel. We moved on to Vang Vieng, the home of tubing and thumping riverside bars.
We enjoyed the picturesque karst mountain scenery, hit the countryside by pedal power and enjoyed the local organic produce (mulberry wine & shakes).
Life’s tough...