After arriving in Laos after Thailand, I was instantly aware of a difference in atmosphere, culture and lifestyle. Not 100% sure what made me feel this way, I slowly began to notice small things that confirmed these gut feelings: children approaching us in restaurants to buy jewellery off them, beggars in the street with their sad outstretched hands. It suddenly dawned on me that Laos was not going to be the smooth sailing adventure that was Thailand. How different it would be, I still did not know. But I was willing to find out.
The first few days in Laos was spent adjusting to a new language and a new environment. We wandered around the town of Luang Prabang, exploring what it had to offer. Instructed by a “To do in Luang Prabang” list, we got a local river taxi boat to the opposite side of the Mekong River in search of an abandoned temple. Instead, we found a local village 2 kilometres from where we got off the boat.
As we walked closer towards the village, two young girls approached us saying what sounded like “pen”. What does ‘pen’ mean in Lao? Surely it is not a greeting? Confused at first, it only took us a few moments to realise they needed a pen for something. My immediate reaction was to reach into our bags and see if we had one they could use. By the time I looked up from my bag 20 other kids had flocked towards us demanding “Pen!”. It was at that moment when I realised what was happening to us. All these kids were begging us to give them pens, some even shouting “Book!” to us.
We didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t just stand there, Surrounded by screaming begging kids. We could keep walking and risk facing the same dilemma in the next village, or we could walk back – having achieved nothing. We decided to stop for a drink in a little mini mart which conveniently also sold pens. The kids knew better. As I walked towards the pens they all ran to that side of the shop to see what I was doing. Chase and I were dumbfounded. Do we buy no pens and disappoint the kids and ourselves? Do we buy one, two or 20 pens? A fellow traveller, a Korean man was sitting in the mini mart with us, and seemed to have a better understanding of what to do. He asked a girl from the crowd to come forward and asked for her schoolbooks, checked her work, then gave her a pen as reward for doing a good job. Yes! It was so simple this pen giving ritual. All you had to do was ensure that you were not just giving the pen to any kid who asked, you had to make them believe that they had earned it. I decided to buy 5000kip worth of pens, they were 2000kip each so I only bought two. That made it easy, Chase had one pen to give, and I had one pen to give. Unbeknownst to me, as I was paying for the two pens, Chase thought he would distract the kids by walking away with his camera and taking a photo of them, in the hope they would follow and not look at what I was doing. That didn’t work. As I turned around to hand Chase his pen, I was alone, faced with what seemed like a hundred kids waiting anxiously for the pens I had just bought.
I felt so scared! I had no idea what to do, so I ran to Chase for moral support. Finally, surrounded by all these children still screaming “Pen!”, I had something to offer them. I chose a girl from the crowd and asked her for her book. After looking through the pages of her Lao schoolbook, I nodded reassuringly, and then in my neatest writing wrote “Hello! From Daniella, from Australia”. I then handed the book back to her with the new pen to accompany it. The happiness that came across her face was so obvious. All of her friends flocked to see what I had written. They all studied my work with intensity. Then, the girl wrote something on the page and handed the book back to me. In her neatest handwriting, she wrote back “Hello!”. It was the most meaningful communication I have had with a local since arriving in Bangkok a month ago. It made my heart swell and I just wanted to hug her and teach her more things and help them all. Chase, being stuck in the same situation, surrounded by big smiles and tiny grasping hands, scanned the group for a lucky recipient. Ignoring the greedy boys at the front who grabbed at him and screamed ‘pen’ he found the smallest, quietest girl and took her hand and placed the pen in her palm. Her surprise and her smile made us both very happy, and satisfied with our experience, we set off back towards the river – speechless, amazed, laughing. I was nearly in tears from the experience. Unbelievable.
The fourth day in Laos gave me a good idea of what I was to expect. Happy people, but living under the shadow of poverty. These children are blessed to be attending school and getting themselves an education, but instead of begging for money on the streets, they beg for pens outside their school. To think that the meaning of a simple item we use everyday at home, something we take for granted, is potentially the key for one child to gain an education. One simple pen. Disappointed and ashamed to admit- I had a pen with me that day. It was a regular ball point pen. But it was my favourite pen and I did not want to give it away. I have another pen exactly the same with me also. As well as several other pens that Chase and I brought with us as back ups. Selfishness and greed are things I felt and still feel. As a westerner, accustomed to certain luxuries and a certain standard of living, I did not want to sacrifice something that in reality doesn’t mean that much to me, but means a lot more to a child in a village who wants to learn! A great lesson has been learnt here and something I must continue to challenge myself with everyday. I must reflect and remember that day in the village. That what I carry around with me on my back, what items I use on a daily basis, what money I have in my pocket: are really things I can live without. Things that people live without every single day of their lives. I know it is not going to happen overnight, but I want to be someone who does not rely on these ‘things’ to be happy. I know deep down that possessions do not create happiness. I hope that when I arrive home, I am reminded of this, and continue to live in a way that is not powered by greedy habits, but selfless actions. In all my life I have never experienced something so moving. I will remember the pen village – as Chase and I so rightly named – for ever!
Luang Prabang Info
Name – Mekong Moon Inn
Contact – (071) 254585, 6899957, 5570953
Facilities – Basic guest house with hot water, comfortable rooms, air conditioning and fans, internet access (no wi-fi), free tea and coffee, free water
Review – The cheapest place we could find that was not totally gross to stay at. The rooms were very comfortable and the location was great. Only a minute walk from the local markets and also the night markets. In a quiet street, apart from the roosters which I don’t think you can escape around the area. Although no wi-fi at our guest house, we were able to sit in the lobby of a neighbouring guest house and use their computers. Would recommend.
Luang Prabang is a nice town, and you can fill your time either in the city itself or taking day trips to the local waterfalls and caves. We went to Khou Si waterfall, which was the most amazing and beautiful waterfall I have seen. You can go swimming in the crystal clear blue water there also. There is also a bear sanctuary at the entrance to the waterfall where bears saved from poachers are taken care of. I believe this was the first time I have seen bears in real life (unless at a zoo which I cannot remember) and yes they are so cuddly and cute. The bear species we saw were Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear.
Activities we engaged in within the city were walking across the bamboo bridge over the Mekong and walked through the town, then walked back over the Communist Era Bridge (which scared the crap out of me as there were huge gaps between the planks of wood and we were about 40 metres high).
There is an exhibition in Luang Prabang which was quite interesting. Located at the Kopnoi exhibition centre, four rooms are dedicated to teaching its guests about the culture, community and the environment of Laos, and offers an extensive list of different activities you can participate in while visiting. The same organisers hold a free fashion show at the nearby Hive Bar every night from 7pm, which show tribal fashion as well as other internationally inspired dress. Also the Kopnoi centre has free tea tastings from 4pm each day where you can try the local tea varieties.