Huay Xai, Laos

There are skills all girls should have; baking a cake, parallel parking, explaining the off side rule. As of yesterday I can now add another to the list: plastering a mud hut.

It all starts at 5am, fresh off the 14h night bus from Luang Prabang, with only a random urban myth about a voluntary project that some Oz guy Matt told me about…

Daauw home, was founded by a Dutch-Laos couple. They are building a centre at their home on the Laos Thai border town of Huay Xai, to encourage the empowerment of local women through cultural exchange, education and support in selling their art and craft work.  The set up is you that you can  homestay with the couple & their extended relatives, eat meals together, play with the kids etc, so it’s instantly like being part of a family. The cost is just $10 USD a day, 75% of which goes towards the project.

Hannah (UK) and Josh (OZ) are both long term volunteers. Josh’s is unofficial gaffa in the construction of the main house. He’s a carpenter in real life, and so knows a thing or two. Hannah has been there since the mud hut was built from scratch. It’s her baby, and she’s vowed to stay till it’s finished.

Today Matt and I are on mud duty. Bet you thought you would never hear from me the secrets of how to plaster a mud toilet. Well here you are. Just in case you wanna get creative in B & Q.

First we sift 3 buckets of sand, then we hack out and sift 1 bucket of clay from the earth nearby, then we mix in one shovel of concrete & some chaff (no one is sure what this is really for). Now, when I say ‘sift’ and ‘mix’ I don’t mean in a mixer, oh no no no. I mean by hand! We sift like old miners would panning for lumps of gold; back and forth with a giant net. We are at it an hour and make just enough to fill a few buckets worth. I over dramatise of course, but it’s what i imagine it’s like to being a cave women. A modern-ish one that has to help the boys and work.

The structure of the hut is already standing with sandbags underneath. Now im an expert, I can get away with sentences like the following. Now, the thing about mud is that a) it’s painstaking work, all layer by layer and has to dry in the sun b) it’s incredibly messy c) the whole thing is like a giant game of Jenga. if you do it wrong it all come crashing down and you lose a few hours of blood sweat and tears.

Our only real objective for the day is to cover the few inches of sandbags still bare by the door. We are there 6 hours without ANY real progress, it’s honestly a lot harder than it sounds! In this time Josh manages to drill up an entire roof structure, and then takes 10 secs to ‘render’ (I learnt a new word – it means ‘smooth over’) a patch that had taken me an hour.  I have a new appreciation for anyone that can actually build/make stuff for a living! Especially in Laos/Asia it’s such a useful talent to be able to share.

We break for a really tasty lunch of sticky rice and salty fish, which we eat with our hands. So of course, I consume a fair bit of the concrete that we have been mixing all morning from under my nails. At 4pm, moral is low. Matt’s doing an only slightly better job than I am, and Josh gave us permission to go ahead and experiment with anything we think will work. In a fit of innovation, I tip a bucket load of water into the mix. Matt siphons it off as an attempt to fix it, and low and behold, between us we’ve only accidentally hit upon the exact right formula. Everyone later agreed it is a true breakthrough for the Mud Building world and surely the blueprint for all future endeavors. We were almost delirious, and in that last hour covered more space than we had all morning. Yes this involved the incredibly messy ‘smeer the gunky stuff or just lob it into the high roof part at times,’ but to hell with neatness, it worked. If I never achieve anything again, it will be ok leaving Huay Xai knowing there is a toilet there for years to come (or probably till it next rains) that I helped to build!

Luang Prabang, Laos

What a difference a year makes. It’s gone from ‘everyone loves LP’ to ‘oh my god it’s so touristy.’ Or so say all the ‘too cool for school’ traveller types.  Newsflash: You ARE a tourist. Just try to like some places for what they are!

I’m guessing its travel trends that have changed not  Luang Prabang itself. I’m pretty sure they didn’t build all the pretty European architecture overnight. It still has cool trinkets stalls on the night market (silver bracelets, ethnic bags, cute baby bibs.) Basically it’s all about lazing in Starbuck-esq coffee shops & organic delis-come-bookshops. You can buy ingredients like feta and smoked salmon bagels for christ’s sake. I know it’s not typical Laos but come on, what’s not to like.

The famous activity of the day here starts at sunrise. At 6.00am some locals (and mostly voyeurs) gather close to the night market for the daily tradition of Alms; the giving of rice and other food to monks. Locals sit on whisker mats and spoonfuls portions of rice to a line of over 100 novices.

Yes it’s become a clash of sacred good will v’s the ogling lenses of  our tourists cameras. But the sight of glowing orange robed monks processioning along colonial streets at dawn is, too touristy or not, an intriguing sight. Homeless charities would arguably kill for this kind of interest in soup kitchens at xmas, so sorry Luang Prabang, your secret is a good one, and it’s out.

One of the other highlights of my day, and perhaps also of my travels so far, came to me in the form of a random poster for a project called Big Brother Mouse. Not a reality tv show for rodents, but  a charity set up to provide books to remote areas of Laos, and increase literacy levels and English ability for kids and adults.

Here I met Lae. Lae is a Laotian monk, aged 20. I volunteered to teach English so was expecting to be teaching ABCs and playing games with kids perhaps.I magine my surprise when I sit down next to a monk. After my morning at the arms giving it felt like good karma. We sat for 2 hours and had without doubt one of the most interesting and moving conversations of my life. We started with families/food/music and ended up him teaching me Korean, and him talking about his parents divorce. This was all done through an eclectic range of annotated scribbles, mimes, and broken English that would wipe the floor with any Pictionary champion. I have gained, probably my most unexpected pen-friend too, as it turns out even monks have hotmail addresses.

Xieng Khuang Province,Laos

Yep, I’m going all Amnesty on your asses again. But some of this really is shocking, and that’s quite a statement when the last country was Cambodia.

So technically Xieng Khuang covers Phonsavan and the surrounding area, but is worth a post of its own purely for the two harrowing documentaries we watched at MAG; the Mines Advisory Group; one of the main Government organisations in Laos which runs a local community cinema in Phonsavan to educate, raise awareness and run outreach projects.

‘Bombies’ and ‘Harvest’ both about The Secret War and Laos’ UXOs. (unexploded Ordinance = bombs)

They were 2h docs, but I’ll keep it to the five most shocking bits we took away:

*Laos still remains the most bombed country in the world, with over 2 million tons of bombs dropped by the USA between 1964 – 73. This is despite the US breaking every rule of the Geneva Convention – whereby Laos was declared a neutral nation, in the neighbouring war with Vietnam, hence The Secret War. The bombing of Laos was widely denied by the US Government and undocumented for years. They still refuse to offer anything but minimal aid in the clear up operation.

*Around 30% of bombs never exploded, meaning 40 years on, the country is still plagued with unexploded cluster bombs that mame and kill.

*Although North Vietnam was often the primary target, weather and their defence strategies often means attacks couldn’t go ahead. This meant US aircraft often couldn’t lose face by returning to base with ‘un-dropped amo’as safety checks were too much admin, so they simply off loaded bombs into Laos villages just to save on the papwerwork, as well as sometimes finding secondary targeting with the supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which extended into Laos.

*A third of all UXO casualties at present are children, who often know the risks but are actively encouraged by their parents to hunt for and dig up ‘bombies’ as the skyrocketing process for scrap metal can feed a family for 3 months.

*Despite the essential work done by organisations like MAG & COPE, If clean up carries on at current rates, it will take Laos 100 years to be clear of UXO.

Phnom Pehn (Revisited)

I am pained to make today’s tale sound like an Amnesty lecture, but I suspect it still does. So save your abuse (Kris) just accept that my blog is going through an ‘oh so worthy phase.’ It will pass.

All of the following happened this afternoon. My point being to demonstrate just what a tangled web of contradictions Cambodia can be, and how easy it is for us all to be hypocritical here. They are all related. Bear with me.

  • We set out this morning with the intention of ‘doing something nice.’ Claire has read about this City Dump Project, whereby volunteers take food supplies to the families that live in slums just out of the city. But from what we read it’s closed down so we needed an alternative.
  • All of us gave a few dollars to the street kids and bought their bootleg Raybands and a few of their pirated books.
  • Lindsey and I gave a street girl half of our $4 cakes from the posh bakery. (You can eat a meal for $25c here, to put into perspective how posh an éclair that was.) She shared it with her brothers/sisters before having any herself.

We also:

  • Visited what we suspect to be a fake orphanage.* More on what constitutes a fake orphanage, below.
  • We refused to by a $60 bag of rice for said orphanage (we learn by asking around that the actual cost price is $16 for 60 kilo)
  • We drank $12 Sauvignon in a riverside cafe, whilst having a debate about poverty/corruption. We are aware of the irony.

The problem is we have no idea which of these lists is good or bad anymore, or interchangeable. All are intrinsically linked with scamming, kickbacks, and the evils of voluntourism.**

*So the fake orphanage story is unfortunately so common. The whole place looks suspiciously like a school; with apparently 108 kids aged 3 – 18. We see about 20 kids, all relatively well dressed, one with a Ronaldo football shit, another with a laptop. We have a quick look around, to see some newborn puppies being man-handled by the kids, some pics of a trip to a waterpark, a TV – which may or may not have donated by tourists. We don’t know truth from lies anymore. They kids themselves are not really allowed to speak to us – the teacher does most of the translating, when I ask where the older ones are, Ronaldo suddenly claims to be 17 next week despite not looking a day over 12. We suspect they are village kids, rounded up and told to play for a few hours and given dubious backs stories. We ask the right questions, we interrogate it on the internet afterwards, but it’s impossible to tell. Our gut instinct was that it didn’t add up. Plus real orphanages have coordinated volunteer programmes, they don’t just let travellers rock up.

**A word on Haters of voluntourism – Save your preaching for the Thorn Tree forum! We are not under any illusions that we were saving the world this morning, but at the same time we like to separate ourselves from the cast of Jersey Shore types that lay around Sihanoukville, abusing local culture and pretending its Magaluf. At the end of the day, voluntoursim, in certain forms, IS better than apathy.

So now we have no real idea whether we are good or evil!

Did we do right by the street girls/wrong by the orphanage or vice versa?

Should we not give money to the street sellers (it encourages them/do they have a choice?)

Should we have donated to the orphanage just in case it was genuine?

Who do we think we are buying $12 wine in Cambodia as girls on a ‘shoestring’ paying $3 for guesthouses and haggling $1 out of tuk tuk drivers and kids?

Isn’t it good that we are here, and contributing, however small, towards an economy?

Shouldn’t charities be run like successful businesses? Shouldn’t grassroots projects be supported?

Are we damned if we care enough to blog about all this, damned if we don’t?

There are a million more. It hurt our brains that much that’s why we needed the wine! But to be honest if you can’t/don’t ponder this stuff you arguably shouldn’t really be in Cambodia.

Quote of the day has to be: “I feel as though if I’d have bought that rice, I’d have funded terrorism.” A joke from the ever so slightly melodramatic, but funny Claire. Are we wrong to have laughed?

Chengdu Panda Breeding & Research Centre, Sichuan, China

The Giant Panda – yes this is what I travelled 37 hours for. Those off of looking cute/eating bamboo/being so lazy they can’t be bothered to have sex.  Silly bears.  Although we did see lots of them cuddle.

My panda friends Charlotte and Lucy (as in I met them on the way there, they are not in fact pandas), anyway, the three of us, were there a meer three hours and just took short of around 300 photos. What can we say, panda’s are cute. Baby panda are even cuter.

There are less than 1000ish of them left in the wild. They get confused when they run out of bamboo, they are too lazy to mate, 48% of the males are gay. (Not the last one. That joker of a boy Mark text me this as one of his panda ‘facts.’ I naively believed him and even dropped it info conversation at dinner which had everyone in stitches.) Anyway.  Nature is against the panda. Do them a favour and sponsor one already, they are so daft they need it.

In other news. I had the oddest experience in the famous He Ming Teahouse in the middle of The People’s Park. A man offered the ancient tradition of clearing the wax from my ears. Yes in broad daylight as people sipped their Jazmin and Lemon Twinings. Gross hey. To advertise this curious service he chimed a metal bar which vibrated on his mad scientist tools. But 2o yen (20p) why not. It was a little like Hannibal when he eats the guys brain. I exaggerate. It was actually just like a more elaborate cotton bud. I can hear the wailing Chinese synth music from miles around now.

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

Blasts From The Past…

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