Seng Dhong reading a story

All aboard the Library Boat!

Book bags hanging on the sides of the boat
Book bags hanging on the sides of the boat

We spent a wonderful day on the library boat travelling to a village up the Mekong. On this occasion, Seng Dhong, a talented artist who works in the Luang Prabang Library, accompanied us. Under the leadership of Sensei, the boat visits villages up and down the river and often goes out for days at a time. The day after our trip it was travelling downstream for 10 days. Depending on the size of the schools, they either moor overnight and just visit one school in a day, or fit in more if they are small and not too far apart. The visits take a similar format to that of ours that day. Books are delivered in a large fabric ‘book bag’, which have rows of pockets containing up to 100 books. These are donated individually or purchased from money that has been fund-raised. The students visit the boat where Sensei and his assistant give a talk on hygiene, after which they read a story aloud. The children then look at the books. Teachers take the book bag back to the school and the children can each take a book home overnight. They return them the following day before the boat leaves.

There is no tradition of reading or having books at home in Laos. Until recently there was only one publisher in Vientiane. However, that is changing and organisations such as Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang are publishing books and improving education and literacy for adults and children. Change takes time though. Sally, herself, has published a book on puberty for teenage girls and has written one for boys which is at the printers. Both had to be carefully translated and pass the censors before publication.

The morning of our visit dawned cool and misty with the promise of sun and heat later on. We left at 7.30am and had breakfast whilst we were on the move. It was a three-hour trip up river during which we watched the scenery pass by or chatted amongst ourselves. The boat was not as luxurious as some of those we had used and Sally had brought us two cushions each. There was a table and benches otherwise there was space on the floor!

Children singing whilst waiting for us
Children singing whilst waiting for us

The children had lined up on the beach and were singing a welcome song as we approached. They didn’t stop until the boat docked. They then swarmed towards the boat accompanied by a few parents and younger brothers and sisters. They left a pile of shoes by the ‘gang plank’ and the driver hosed the sand off their feet before they were allowed on board. The library boat visiting was a big social occasion!

Boarding the boat
Boarding the boat
Small child transfixed by the falangs
Small child transfixed by the falangs

The first part of the programme was a talk by Sensei and his assistant about hygiene and the importance of washing their hands before eating. It is common for them to wash afterwards as they often eat with their fingers. A graphic display board illustrated the dire consequences of not washing beforehand. Sensei’s talk about brushing teeth was accompanied by a giant set of them. They entertained the children and, hopefully, the children absorbed the information! At least one little girl though was transfixed by the ‘falangs’ standing watching and I’m sure did not hear a word.

Next, Seng Dhong read a story. As it was in Laos, we didn’t understand it but it must have had something to do with balloons as he handed us a packet to blow up. When he had finished reading, we batted them at the children which caused an uproar. There were some very pushy boys who grabbed a handful and deprived their siblings. A number joined the other plastic in the Mekong which we weren’t too happy about.

Seng Dhong reading a story
Seng Dhong reading a story

After the commotion, the older children left the boat and adjourned to the beach to play games. Some of us went with them, whilst others stayed with the younger ones. They must have been rehearsing as they sang several songs to us. Then it was our turn, and we wracked our brains for rhymes we could accompany with easy actions. We also looked at the books with them.

Home for lunch
Home for lunch

A little later, the children lined up on the beach so we could give each of them the items we had brought. These included toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, an exercise book and a pen or pencil. There were also several large bags of the slip-on plastic sandals that many people wear. They all seemed to be large sizes, but the staff assured us each child would take them home and someone would wear them whether they fitted or not! The book bag, on this occasion, was remaining in the village. It contained fiction and specific text books the community had requested.

By the time proceedings finished, it was lunchtime, and the children disappeared back up the hill to their homes in the village for lunch. Some of our group followed to have a look around whilst three of us stayed to clean the beach of plastic and other rubbish.

Meanwhile another boat had drawn up alongside ours. It was the travelling shop selling bras, pants, t-shirts and other paraphernalia. We needed to move so the villagers could board it so, once the others returned, we set off again. Sally had brought a quiche and salads from a restaurant in Luang Prabang for lunch. By this time we were starving so appreciated the food. We were all elated after the visit. It was a relaxing, quicker trip back down river during which we chatted, read or fell asleep in the bottom of the boat.

Mobile shop
Mobile shop
Calm is restored on the book boat
Calm is restored on the book boat

We arrived back about 4pm and I rounded off my day with a visit to Saffron for an iced coffee and cocktails with Jenny and Angela in the garden of the Calao restaurant. I had thought of walking up the steps to Mt Phousi to watch the sunset but drinks by the river seemed a far more appealing option!

Calao restaurant
Calao restaurant

 

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