I had an early start as my flight to Luang Prabang left at 9am and Google advised it would take an hour to reach the airport. Google is not always correct, and I arrived in plenty of time. (It also neglected to tell me the metro didn’t open until 6am so I had to catch a bus instead!) The three-hour flight was uncomfortable as I had a middle seat in the back row next to the toilets and the seat didn’t recline. It was a relief when we landed.
My visa on arrival was speedily granted and in no time I was in the arrivals hall where my transport awaited. It was wonderful to be back, and so soon after my last visit in February. The city is as beautiful as ever although looking different. It is now the rainy season and not the height of summer. The flame trees and frangipane are in bloom and enhancing the views of the temples. Purple bougainvillea is a mass of bright colour against the backdrop of rusty roofs, the wooden walls of the houses and the milk chocolate colour of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. There are few tourists around as it is the low season and the streets feel empty. There are only two of us in the guest house. It is excellent for me but not so good for the businesses.
I am staying in the same room at Sayo River. The balcony affords a view of the long boats on the river, (I have already espied some racing each other), the traffic in the street, the occasional tourist wandering aimlessly and the locals as they criss-cross the road from their houses to gaze at the river. One old lady appears each day, usually with a toddler on her hip, and a small dog attached by a different coloured piece of string. There is a plastic bag attached to its collar but I doubt she uses it for the purpose I assume it is intended! One man spent many days hand sawing a pile of wood. Everything here is ‘sa sa’ or slowly, slowly. (But is very hot!)
It is a different experience staying in a place for a length of time rather than rushing through as a tourist. I was lucky enough on my last visit to have visited most of the tourist attractions so do not feel the compulsion to do so again. This was just as well as the week was spent on The Little House project, helping to shop for further sewing supplies and stationery items and then getting to know the girls and building a relationship with them. I have been enjoying closer involvement with the local people and their way of life whilst living in the comfort of the guest house. Having trekked last time and stayed in the villages, I appreciate the benefits of flushing toilets!
Shopping is not as I know it. There are no malls or large supermarkets. In their place are a myriad of small shops and mini marts whose goods spill onto the pavement in front, making walking hazardous on occasion. They make no attempt at display and pile dog food next to gift baskets of jam. There are specialist shops for each range of goods such as clothing, kitchenware, ironmongery and computer repairs. (Given the dust in the streets, I am not sure how the innards of a laptop remained clean as they attempted to repair it in the latter.) The tiny stalls have the ubiquitous Beer Lao alongside bottles of water, packets of snacks and other items that defy logic. There is not the variety or quality of goods Western countries take for granted, and much is imported from China.
It has been hot, humid and dry. The rains should have arrived but haven’t and the rice crops are dying. Everyone was thankful in my first week when the skies opened. Water flooded the roads as the drains couldn’t cope with the volume. Umbrellas appeared, and I marvelled at the ability with which people could drive a motorbike with one hand whilst holding an umbrella over their heads with the other (speaking as one who has never driven a motorbike at all!). As soon as the rain stopped, the ladies appeared in the streets with their brooms, unblocking the drains and sweeping the leaves. Leaf sweeping seems to be a national daily pastime here! It is remarkable how quickly the weather changes. The wind arrives as if from nowhere, the skies darken, shutters bang and there are a few rumbles of thunder and the odd flash of lightening, which slowly increase in volume and frequency. The heavy air freshens but how much rain will fall this time? Will it be enough?
I soon established a routine. I either walked or got a taxi/tuk tuk in the mornings to the ‘ban’ or village where the project is located. The contrast between the central tourist and local areas always inspires me. The morning is spent teaching sewing, maths and some English. I have a translator without whom it would be difficult. We are surprised at the lack of basic maths knowledge and have been doing sums at the level of a six-year-old at home.
As Laos still keeps French hours, lunch begins at 11.30am and finishes at 1.30pm. I return to town for lunch and go back in the afternoon for more teaching. At about 4pm, I saunter back, reflecting on what has happened during the day and all that I am learning, hoping that the girls are benefiting as much as I am.
By the time I arrive, I feel sticky and dirty and just want a shower. The temperature has been in the thirties and the air has been very heavy. A beer Lao on my balcony watching the river life, dinner in one of the many cafes or restaurants and I’m ready for bed!