While I was on the way to the Buddha Park, driving along packed streets of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, hearing the full-on blasting music that is being played all over the place when locals have their weekend parties in the many restaurants lined up along the roads, drinking beer and singing karaoke like there was no tomorrow, I realized for the first time:
This really is my new home for the next year. I have arrived.
Until now it had been only theory, but now it is reality.
I was ecited and at the same time my heart was beating a notch too fast, while my thoughts where jumping from “wow, I really did it, how great” to “am I completely mad to do this?”
But as soon as I thought that I would be back in Luang Prabang soon and that I would see my monks and novices my heart became peaceful and my mouth formed a big warm smile.
For all of you who have read my last blog posting from the end of July from Bangkok you might wonder what had happened in the meanwhile and how or why I ended up coming back to Laos. So here is the shot version: After Bangkok I made my way to the North of Thailand where I enjoyed the wonderful green scenery around Chiang Mai, where I indulged in my favorite Thai dishes and where I finally found some time to slow down and relax a bit. Mid-August I crossed the border to Laos, my final destination of my 9.5 month long round-the-world trip. If someone would have told me back then that I will move to Laos to live here for a year I would have probably laughed at that person and said “no way!”. But the 4 weeks I spent in this country led to a chain of events that had a far-reaching impact on my life.
My original plan was to spend a few days in Luang Prabang and then travel across the country to the far North and South. But since I had planned to do some social work during my trip and Laos was my last stop I decided that I would look for some English teaching opportunity.
As soon as the plane circled over the mighty Mekong River and I saw the little city of Luang Prabang, nestled right between the Mekong and the Nam Khan River, I was overwhelmed by the natural beauty and the incredibly lush hills, displaying all shades of green. I arrived in rainy season and on my day of arrival the sky was grey and it rained cats and dogs Not the greatest weather to welcome you in a new country but all this didn’t matter because as soon as I had checked in my guesthouse and went for a short stroll along the Na Khan river I felt so relaxed, happy and some little voice inside of me said “I feel really comfortable here. I am sure I will like this place” (and BOY was this little voice right!). The next morning I searched for a restaurant that is located right on the river and as soon as I reached it I saw a big printout posted to the front door, saying “Looking for volunteer to teach English to Monks”. As I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason I searched for the contact that was mentioned on the poster and 1 hour later I had agreed with Hamish, a Kiwi guy who runs the Travel to Teach Program in Laos, that I would teach 4 classes for 2 weeks. 2 classes with novices and monks in 2 different temples, 1 class at a school and one class at the House of Dreams, a really great project of the courageous 21 year old Lao boy called Kenny who raises 6 children from his poor rural village in Luang Prabang so that they have a chance to go to school and learn English.
I really cannot put into words how it feels to work with those novices and children because no word can ever describe the energy, happiness and endurance that they show when you sit together with them and study English. The level of English varies from not even being able to read the alphabet to being able to have decent everyday-conversations. But what all those shy, quiet youngsters have in common is that THEY are the reason that I have never been happier in my whole work-life before because I felt that I was doing a kind of work that was truly meaningful and made some difference (even if it was only a little one).
As I had been interested in learning more about Buddhism for quite a while, Luang Prabang was the ideal place for it. There are approximately 2000 novices and monks in this town and every street is laced with many temples. I myself was a bit shy to approach the novices in the temples that I had visited as many of them don’t speak English and therefore almost du a runner when they see you because with their extremely shy mentality they want to avoid of being embarrassed.
Therefore I was all the more happy to get to know Monk Phan, the monk in Wat Taohai temple where I was teaching in the evenings and who offered me to answer any of my questions regarding Buddhism. I started spending more and more of my free time at Wat Taohai, Monk Phan and I had interesting conversations and with all the many questions that I had I ended up spending up to 3 hours per day at the temple, chatting and getting to know the monk and the novices better and better. I started the class with 7 students and over the course of 10 days the number of students doubled which made me very happy and which created a really fun atmosphere. In the evenings I also participated in the daily chantings and as I got a book from Monk Phan that had all the chanting texts transliterated from the old Pali Sanskrit into Latin letters I was able to chant along – much to the amusement of the old ladies from the village who sat next to me in the back row of the temple (and who had wondered for a long time HOW ON EARTH this Falang* was able to chant in Sanskrit!:)
* very important explanatory note: The term falang is a Lao word that is believed to have originated from “falangset” which is how Lao people refer to the country France since they were the first Europeans to be seen in Laos, so in effect all westerners are referred to as French (falang).
I have the highest respect for every single one of all the monks and novices who have to get up every day around 3.30 am and who start their day with chanting, then collecting alms, having breakfast, going to school, doing various chores around the temple during the day, meditating, then going to chant again in the evening and THEN still sit in the English class 5 times a week to learn English voluntarily! Their ages range from 11 to 21 years and each one of them has a really unique and wonderful character that I was lucky enough to get to know better and better.
During the day I was teaching at Wat Visoun Temple, the oldest temple in Luang Prabang and there I had a conversational class with 3 novices named Nui, Koumpha and Si. In the first few days they were so shy that they hardly dared to ask some of the words they didn’t know when we were reading stories. When I go to visit them now we have a BLAST, we laugh all the time and the shyness is (thank God, or should I say thank Buddha) gone!
As the middle of my second week of teaching was approaching one thought went through my mind again and again: how will I be able to leave my students in a few days? I will miss them far too much and I can’t picture leaving them already.
So I decided to stay another week and cut down on the classes, only teaching at the temples anymore. One Saturday I treated the 14 novices from Wat Taohai, Monk Phan and myself to a day at the wonderful Kacham waterfall, about 1.5 hours away from Luang Prabang. As the second half of the trip is via a really bad, bumpy dirt road there are no tourists who shoulder this rough journey and all the more I was overwhelmed by the luxury of having a whole waterfall to ourselves. My absolutely wonderful novices, the monk and me. 15 orange dots, becoming smaller and smaller as they climbed the steep walls of the waterfall, waving down from the top. I was in heaven. This was such a special day for me and I felt so privileged of spending the day with my students there, all alone, in absolute serenity – my new friends and I.
On the way back to Luang Prabang we stopped at the village of Monk Phan who is Khmu, one of the many ethnic groups in Laos. As soon as we stepped out of the car I heard many children hissing the word Falang, some of them being really shy and running away, some of the staring at me as if I were an Alien jaws dropped, and some smiling shyly at me. After we visited the Monk’s family we strolled around the little village and had a little chat with a girl from his family. Within 30 minutes around 30 people had gathered around us and it seemed as if I was the big attraction of the day/month/year. No matter where you go and no matter how little the people have here, their hospitality is amazing, they offer you something to drink and some fruit as soon as you sit down. Once again I was blessed with a very special and unique experience that you don’t get when you travel in an organized tour group.
I guess this was one of the many moments where my idea to collect goods at home in Austria for the people who really have a need for clothes or school supplies evolved but back then I didn’t even think about returning to Laos.
Week 3 almost came to an end and once again the same thoughts went through my mind as the week before. The more I spent time with “my boys” the harder the thought of leaving them became.
And there fate struck once again. I had met a nice Malaysian guy at a wine bar the week before and as we chatted I found out that he was working at the Apsara Hotel which was close to my guesthouse. On the 4th of September I decided to pay him a visit and maybe just ask him if he had any tips for me in case I wanted to come back in spring to look for a job (this was one of the ideas I had very roughly formed in my mind). As I entered the hotel I wanted to ask for him but instead ran directly into the owner of the hotel. Out of an impulse I said “oh, great, you are the owner! Well then I can ask YOU directly if you have any tips for me in case I want to look for a job in spring” and he answered “Well, generally spring is not the best time as this is the beginning of low season. Now is a better time – we for example are looking for someone for our other hotel at the moment”. 2 days later I was shown the hotel, and another 4 days later I had signed the contract and booked a flight back to Austria to pack my bags and prepare for a year in Laos.
What followed most of you already know: 5 weeks of pure frenzy, organizing a donation collection of 12 big boxes with approx. 200 kg of donated goods – clothes, school supplies and IT stuff – from so many people and schools. At this point I want to thank every single one of those persons who donated something and who helped me in getting those things into the boxes from the BOTTOM OF MY HEART. I could have NEVER made it without you! It was a very stressful time and I had moments where I said to myself “Brita you idiot, WHY do you always have to do too much!” – but at the same time I knew that I wanted to use the opportunity to really get things going and collect as many things as possible so that many people and children would benefit from it. And now in hindsight I have to say that all those sleepless nights were worth it because every single piece that I brought over is or will be in good hands.
In the course of my photo-show-evening on one of my last days at home (a recap of my roundtheworldtrip) I was also able to collect a nice amount of money from my friends which I can use perfectly well here as there are simply too many great opportunities to do something good.
And I started with that on my 2nd day in Vientiane on the 21 October where I visited COPE (PLEASE visit the website, it is an AMAZING organization!), an NPO providing access to orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services. Around 30% of the people provided prosthetic devices through COPE’s service have been injured by an unexploded ordnance (UXO). It has been estimated that around 50 000 people have been injured or killed as a result of UXO incidents between 1964 and 2008. Roughly 30 000 of these incidents occurred during the time of the Second Indochina War/Vietnam War (up until 1973). The other 20 000 occurred in the post-conflict era (from 1973 to 2008). It is estimated that more than 50% of victims in the post-conflict era are children and over 80% of victims are male. Ta’s story is just one of thousands of stories which bring tears to my eyes when I read them and therefore I donated a little amount of the donated money to COPE – so one person will be able to receive a prosthetic leg or arm.
During my 3 days in Vientiane is spent most of the time chasing down the shipped parcels and getting the ready for the transport up to Luang Prabang. One day I rented a motorbike, drove around the outskirts of Vientiane and visited – surprise, surprise – many temples (Yes, I m a temple freak!). I also went to the forest temple which is the only place where foreigners can get a 1 hour crash-course introduction to Meditation by one of the monks.While I was sitting in a lotus position for the first time in 5 weeks again I felt that my legs had gotten used to the comfy Western-world chairs far too much again and therefore I suffered from major muscle cramps and didn’t know where to put my legs so that they wouldn’t go completely numb. Also I failed badly at the attempt to clear my mind and think of NOTHING. I think I managed for about 4 times each 10 seconds. That was the best I could do. Quite lame, I know. But before I left Laos in September I was promised by Monk Phan that we would go to a forest in Luang Prabang together and he would teach me how to meditate, so I wasn’t too devastated about my failure and enjoyed being in a nice temple in the forest, hearing the novices chant in a nearby temple (and realizing that I had remembered quite a lot of the chanting melodies and words:)).
On Tuesday, 23rd of October I finally had all my parcels together and hopped onto the bus heading to Luang Prabang. The 10 hour bus ride up north led through some seriously windy roads and past beautiful limestone formations around Vang Vieng. I arrived in LP at 6 p.m. where I was picked up by some people from the guesthouse I was about to stay for a few days and as soon as I had unloaded the parcels I jumped into the shower, go dressed, grabbed a bike and rode up to Wat Taohai – just in time before English class was over (while I was gone a Swiss teacher had taken over). My heart was racing like crazy – I think the best comparison I can come up with is that I was as excited to see my students again as a small child is excited to see a Christmas tree for the first time in its life. I sneaked up to the classroom and stuck my head into the room and as soon as the first students noticed me their eyes got wide and a big smile formed around their mouths. FINALLY, I was back in my second home! I saw Monk Phan and right after the class had finished many of the novices came over and we all sat down together and a lively chit-chat commenced. My heart filled with pure happiness again and if there was one thing I would love then that would be to share with you how wonderful it felt and feels to be back around those wonder-ful people.
In my next posting I will tell you all about my first 10 days in Luang Prabang – my great donation excursions, the amazing Boun Awk Pansaa festival and my new job.
P.S: this posting is dedicated to ALL the many people who supported me with goods, time or money for my donation project. Thanks to the Shipping companies, the individual donators, the schools and teachers and my friends. You ALL helped to make many people here happy! Kop Jai lai lai!!!