I stayed in Luang Prabang for two weeks after the rest of my group left. My intention was to visit Leot English language school each day and chat with students before their classes so they could practise their English. However, I only went three or four times in the two weeks. We had already visited the school as part of our group programme. The students were delighted to chat to native English speakers as the opportunities to do so were rare. In the villages, the English teachers often teach by rote from the textbook as they don’t speak the language fluently. In one of my sessions, the teacher asked me to go through a test with students who had scored badly. It proved an interesting exercise for me to explain the difference between an adjective and an adverb to non-English speakers. I don’t think they understood at the end of two hours but I’m not sure whether that was my teaching or their ability!
I enjoyed my visits as I found out more about the lives of the students. Most of them had come from rural areas to study or work in the city. They are family orientated and all of them talked about going back to their villages but the journey by bus was often too long for them to do so more than once a year. Their families all had land which they always referred to as their ‘farms’. When I went trekking, I observed first hand what they meant. The communities undertake subsistence farming and most families had land and pigs, chickens and sometimes buffalo or cows.
One day, between classes, I took a long walk in the midday heat to UXO Visitor Centre. This was a sobering experience. Whilst Laos was never a participant in the Vietnam war, the Americans bombed it daily between 1964 and 1973 as they tried to destroy the supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which wound through Northern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These cluster bombs (or ‘bombies’ as they are called in Laos) fell every 8 minutes during these years and about 30% of them failed to detonate. Laos is still recovering. All provinces are affected and over 50,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordinance since then. These include children who have picked up the shiny objects to play with, farmers ploughing the fields before planting crops and people using metal detectors in their hunt for metal to sell to augment their meagre income. If the ‘bombies’ kill or maim the main income earner, it affects the entire family. Medical care is not the best and, as many Laos practise animism, they are more likely to consult the local medicine man for their injuries than a doctor. Sometimes the results are not the best. They are slowly clearing the mines and making the land safe, giving priority to agricultural areas. At the current rate of progress it will take another 100 years. A visit to the museum should be mandatory for every visitor.
I enjoyed wandering around the city on my own and exploring different areas. Jenny and I had already discovered a second bamboo bridge (even more wobbly than the first) and I walked over that to get to Leot one day. It also led to the weaving/paper making village which I strolled around with Cathy, an American lady also volunteering at the school. On another occasion, I followed the river downstream as far as possible and observed local life. Some buildings were more rundown than those in the main tourist area and the shops contained some interesting products!
Luang Prabang is full of temples and I visited many of them although I have to admit to being confused by the names and which ones were which! In one, a novice approached me. He enjoyed chatting and wanted to practise his English. I was there for some time as he told me about his life and ambition to go to Bangkok to study social development and then return to spread the word about Buddha. The five Buddhist Beliefs he recited reminded me of the 10 Commandments. It was a wonderful spontaneous encounter, and I came away smiling.
Many of the temples on the peninsula are in excellent condition but I found one near the Bamboo Bridge that definitely needed some tender loving care. It was interesting to see the considerable difference, and I appreciated how much work they had undertaken to restore and maintain the other buildings. I liked the dilapidated one though.
My days weren’t all serious. I saw two films at L’Etranger, a bookshop owned by a French lady who showed films each night on a large television screen in the room above the shop. There were cushions on the floor and a few seats for the less flexible around the room. Entry was free, but they encouraged you to purchase a drink or some food. It was a convivial atmosphere and I much prefer to go somewhere novel like that than to an eight screen deluxe cinema. I also saw the ‘Green Book’ at Ock Pok Toc. It was the first of their regular movie sessions. The price included dinner, and they showed the film on a big screen in the cafe. It was a cold, windy evening (the only one of my stay), and they provided blankets for those of us who, like me, had not come prepared. I went with Sally and a group of ex-pat residents. Ock Pok Toc provided the tuk-tuk back to town. The film, food and company were all excellent!
With three days spent trekking and so many things to do, my time passed very quickly and it was soon time to leave.