Sae Lao project part 2,October into November, 2015

  Water buffalo neighbor at first bungalow

We stayed in 3 places at Sae Lao- their classroom building (where they house most volunteers), a basic bungalow up the road, and the ‘blue lagoon’ bungalows. Each had its charms, and we were very happy to be able to swim at the blue lagoon for free as bungalow guests.   


I think Sae Lao likes families and groups to stay at the blue lagoon, but the owners had a family illness so we couldn’t stay there right away. It was nice being offsite because the second week we were done at 7 and I could get the twins to sleep earlier (the classroom has classes until 8).  Below:sunset and butterfly at beautiful Sae Lao 


 The first week we were all quite tired. We were dancing the hokey pokey, singing the alphabet, and leading “heads, shoulders, knees and toes”with the students. Fiercely did theater games, too. Then there was lesson planning and farm work and cooking/cleaning.  Below: Mama pig had to be fed every day! 

 I loved their big compost pile and chose to turn it as a chore- I have a special place in my heart for compost piles ever since I worked briefly on a farm in my 20’s, and after living in the city so long I appreciate a large rural pile’o’compost!

Below: heading to Sae Lao in the morning, the chore board

Below: the glorious compost pile, Cleverly planning a lesson

The students were very sweet, modest young teenagers. They came on bicycles as the sun set each weekday evening. It was tremendous to see them biking on the dirt road to Sae Lao after their school day, cheerful, giggling, eager to learn.  Below: younger kids with Cleverly,  bikes parked on the road 


 Most were shy, but there were a few rowdy ones as well. Women and girls in the area wear hand-woven skirts, usually black with a stripe towards the bottom. They all had long hair. We did see western clothing, but never short hair on the girls and women. The boys and men wore western clothes or dark pants with button-down shirts and all had short hair.

 Nearby, women wove beautiful cloth for sale. We bought some gorgeous silk skirts in the local style.


We also bought a sweet cake sold by this bakery-on-wheels. He had a loud recorded woman’s voice singing about the cakes. We could hear him far down the road. 

 We bought a bunch of cakes one day for a Halloween activity for the young kids group. Bobbing for apples was out because apples are quite expensive. No hands, cake-on-a-string went over well! 
 And there was the cave! We loved swimming at the blue lagoon to cool off many afternoons, and there was also a wonderful cave there. It was a short, steep climb to the entrance. Inside was a golden reclining Buddha, and many passageways to explore. You could rent a headlamp and spelunk to your heart’s content. The kids were like mountain goats running up the path and inside the cave. 

 Above: path to cave, below: inside the mountain!


One Buddha day, the kids went to the annual longboat races in Vang Vieng. I stayed home with Truly, who had a fever. This was a big event; school let out early and lots of people attended. Photos from Cleverly:

Truly was much better, but still had a mild fever after 5 days, so the staff recommended we take her to the local hospital. Sae Lao founder Senkeo kindly went with us to translate. I was amazed that we were seen immediately by a doctor at the ER, had blood work done, got results and then 3 prescriptions, and were out of there in under 25 minutes, prescriptions in hand, for less than $20! She did not have any concerning results, and in fact the fever was gone after that, but I was glad to have her checked out. Some shots of the Vang Vieng hospital. I felt shy about taking too many pictures, but you can see it is an open-air building, not crowded at all, and had some funky specimens in jars on the filing cabinet there:


Cleverly turned 12 at Sae Lao. We had a great time with our new friend L from the Czech Republic in town and climbing the mountain a second time. Below: in town at a cafe and climbing the mountain with L. Monks on bikes as we walked to the mountain path


Random notes and pics from Sae Lao:

More of our animal neighbors, cow with a bell and duck family:

We loved the sticky rice and it was kept in this nice basket:

“Woven walls and crooked cats” is the title for my book if I ever get it together! We saw many walls made in the traditional style of woven bamboo, such as behind the shovel in this photo.  

 And for some reason, many Lao cats have a kink or two in their tails. We thought it was an injury at first, but realized it must be genetic since we saw it so often. 


Staff meal in the restaurant:   
View from the restaurant:

 Repurposed bomb near the bridge to Vang Vieng:

Really with some sugar cane:

 Snails and frogs harvested during rice harvest. We didn’t get to try these, I was curious how they would be prepared. 

And that’s about it for Sae Lao. We were sad to say goodbye; it had been a wonderful time. Also, though, we had been away from Mr. Fantastic the whole time and we missed him. We headed to Vietienne, where we would meet him and go to Bangkok. Next stop, Thailand!

Sae Lao Project, Laos, October, 2015, part 1


 I did the hokey pokey and I turned myself around- that’s what it’s all about! I was making a fool of myself in front of a bunch of barefoot, giggling, Lao middle-schoolers, some of whom were not really paying attention in that way that middle schoolers do. Fiercely was close by, doing something similar, teaching one of the other four classes happening in the same room. It was one of our first days teaching English at the Sae Lao project outside of Vang Vieng, Laos, where the kids and I had decided to volunteer.   

  Above: students outside the classroom building, below is the restaurant

 We were excited to stay on a farm and participate in the eco-conscious projects and English classes there. Oh, and there were two litters of kittens, one set only a couple of weeks old, too! And a puppy!! I think that sealed the deal for the kids.


 Sae Lao is many things- a farm, restaurant, and sustainable development center. Their largest project is teaching free English classes to local Lao and Hmong villagers, with 250 students in the children’s classes alone. Volunteers participate a minimum of two weeks.  

  Above: shower building showing the way to the toilet, below: crepes, potato pancakes, and fresh veggies we made for breakfast

 It was started by a Lao man who is still involved and employs several locals, as well as a few foreigners who stay for varying lengths of time. While we were there, projects included the organic garden and rice fields, a manual brick press that uses local soil, a biodegradable soap-making business for local women, a rainwater filtration project for drinking water, a biofuel system, and of course the restaurant and school. They were also hosting a permaculture workshop soon and building a new structure to house volunteers. Wow, right?! Here are the kids making bricks:

   Our first week, we were the only volunteers and we taught quite a bit-3 classes a day for me, 2 for Fiercely, and 1 class of younger kids done by Cleverly and the twins. This took up our late afternoons Monday-Friday. In the mornings we did chores and made breakfast from scratch, then did morning work like the bricks or the garden.  Here are the younger kids teaching and a Saturday activity of making a sculpture of the new Sae Lao logo with recycled bottles:


 It was really lovely watching my homeschooled kids teach. They mostly loved it, and I think it was a great experience for them and the students. They also helped out a little in the kitchen and restaurant. 

  Below: making noodles and hanging out with the kitchen staff, who doted on them  
 The rice harvest started while we were there. It was hot, sweaty work, but fun for us for a while. We definitely did not have the stamina of the locals! Rice is a labor-intensive crop and I think we all appreciate it more now. Our new friend L from the Czech Republic was a volunteer with us our second week, BTW. 


 So there was a lot of work, but time to play as well. The locals celebrate ‘Buddha day’ once every 8 days or so, following the moon cycles, when no work is done. We did the same, though classes were still taught. Our first week Buddha day we (minus Truly, who didn’t feel well, and Fiercely who chose to stay with her) climbed this mountain to the little hut on top. You can kind of see the hut below, at the top left of the mountain:

 Looks high up there right? It was a steep hike, but seemed short compared to the ‘gibbon experience’ treks! The views were mind-blowing! 

That’s all for now, I’ll write a part 2 on this soon.

Vang Vieng, Laos, October 2015

The next stop was Vang Vieng. We took a minivan for about four hours from Luang Prabang. The scenery was beautiful- rice fields, villages, and mountains. We started seeing the limestone karst mountains that push dramatically out of the ground into the clouds and the blue sky:

Vang Vieng itself was dusty, full of tourists, and under construction. It was small and easy to navigate, again with the easy food like fruit shakes, baguette sandwiches, and crepes.
We crossed this small river to get to the larger one, the Nam Song:

And we had a relaxing two- hour inner tube float down the Nam Song next to the gorgeous mountains. I went back and took pictures of them the next morning with the mist.

I do want to mention that Vang Vieng has had a reputation as a backpacker party town, though they say this has lessened over the years, especially in regards to drugs. There are a lot of bars, however, and tourists who disrespect local modesty norms by being loud and drunk, wearing revealing clothing, etc. I’m all for flaunting what you got, kids, but not here; they actually have signs, which get ignored, asking tourists to cover up as they walk through town. When we first got on the inner tubes, there were so many Beerlao-drinking, European looking college-age kids, I felt like I was in Fort Lauderdale on spring break! Also, there are bars along the river as you float along. They will actually toss you a rope and pull you in if you like. Luckily for us, these seemed concentrated at the beginning of the river ride, and we quickly put them behind us and enjoyed peacefully floating downstream. At the end, we stopped and sat on hammocks and had fruit shakes at a riverside cafe while sitting in hammocks. Later, we carried our tubes back into town. We crossed this bridge back to the town:

I got up early the next day and watched the town wake up. Here are kids heading to school in the morning:

I loved seeing these ducks in a submerged boat:

 Mist over the town in the morning:

This was our favorite place to eat. A lot of places had these low tables on platforms where you remove your shoes, relax with a pillow, and enjoy. They had fruit salad, yogurt and meusli for us tourists, along with delicious shakes like coconut, mango, and pineapple.


One day we got motor scooters and went to the ‘blue lagoon’ swimming spot. I was proud I could drive this thing, though Cleverly loves telling me how slow I went! We wanted Fiercely to try, but she was sick that day and stayed in the hotel room. We had planned on rock climbing but Fiercely did not feel up to it, so we went swimming.


Here is the ‘blue lagoon’, not a lagoon at all as Fiercely pointed out but part of a river with a deep swimming hole and a cloudy turquoise color from the minerals.


Here are the twins jumping off the high tree branch- the crowd loved this! It could get crowded with tour groups, especially Korean tourists. We ended up staying in a bungalow here (see next post) so we swam here a lot.

Lao bathrooms were strange to us at first. The shower is not a separate space, rather the floor is tiled and has a drain. The nozzle is on the wall and you just shower right there. There is a second, lower shower nozzle next to the toilet (we saw this both with sit toilets and squatties) in most bathrooms to be used in place of toilet paper.

While scootering to the Blue Lagoon, we stopped for fruit shakes at this inviting cafe and learned about their community projects and their volunteer program.

It became our home for a little over two weeks! Stay tuned for that adventure!

Luang Prabang, Laos, October 2015

We were optimistic as we left Huay Xai. We had scored the last few seats on the overnight bus and we would be riding with friends we had met on the Gibbon Experience. Luang Prabang was said to be lovely and we looked forward to seeing the famed mystical Mecca in the mountains. Here we are on the bus:  

Things became a little more exciting than we bargained for. As it turned out we had a manic driver who went at breakneck speed and never stopped for any reason. We were thrown to one side of the bus then the other, over and over again, while going up and down northern Lao mountains, where there are no tunnels and no straightaways and we were definitely not in China anymore! The seats were not beds, but rather molded plastic reclined seats, but I did get a little sleep. We arrived about three hours ahead of schedule at 330 am and the place for all its charm was closed and dark and quiet. A kind hotel manager offered the sleepy twins (who were sleeping in papa’s lap on a bench) his own bed, which was so generous, and the three of us slept for a couple of hours while the other Fantastics made do on the stoop where we had been deposited. On the upside, they saw the daily early-morning alms-giving ritual where locals give food or money to monks from the wat, the temple. The next day we were all tired but we saw loveliness all around.

 The food was very easy to get used to- crepes and fruit shakes!

  We went to a beautiful, multi-tiered waterfall called Tad Sae that had been developed as a swimming area. It was touristy, but mostly Lao and other Asian tourists.  We took a boat to get there:


We all swam, and climbed the tiers. They looked like they were made by pouring cement onto the forest, around trees and everything! The water is a cloudy blue color from the minerals. It was refreshing and we spent hours here.


I went walking upstream on one of the many paths near the swimming area. Beautiful!

There was a large hardwood tree, beautiful!

In town, we walked around and saw aged structures and the beautiful temple on the grounds of where the king of Laos used to live. 


We saw this dragon boat housed in an out building on the property:

The gold shone in the sun, the place was exquisite!



In the later afternoon, people began setting up the night market mear this temple. 


I walked around a temple from the 1800’s with beautiful, worn details. 

These are stairs to a temple above the King’s palace area. 

 We loved eating dinner by the glorious Mekong River. There were many restaurants outside on platforms overlooking the river and we loved watching the sunset.  We could watch the boats and see the sky change color. We were there several nights and never got tired of the views.

Then we went to the night market. It glows with color from the lamps and beautiful merchandise, much of it made by hand. We were lucky enough to go during the low season for tourism so we could wander and bargain and just look at the colors. We didn’t buy much, since we have to carry everything in our backpacks.

Below are beautiful paper sculptures that fold into a greeting cards.


That was beautiful Luang Prabang. 

Huay Xai and Nam Kan National Park, Laos, October 2015

The wonder twins at Nam Kan

We left Kunming in the evening on an overnight bus to a town called Mengla near the Laos border. The bus was tight quarters for the male in our family, LOL, but otherwise fine. Three rows of bunk beds, one by each window and one down the middle, upper and lower bunk. You remove your shoes as you enter the bus, then you lie down as there is no other option!

 We got into Mengla and took an easy minivan, a public transportation vehicle to the border. From the drop off, we walked about a mile there and went through an exit process for China, then paid for a short ride to the Laos border building. This was a very impressive building with lots of gold, especially in comparison with the stern, no-frills Chinese beaurocratic one. Sorry, no pics since I was schlepping luggage and trying to figure out how the heck to cross the border.

Once we passed into Laos (visa at border, $45 each, didn’t take long), we hired a minivan for the 4-hour drive to Huay Xai. There were no public busses in sight and we were a bit tired after the night bus. It seemed a bit pricey to me at $100 but we bargained a bit and that’s the best we could do. The drive was lovely since we started seeing the mountains that northern Laos is known for. Also, there were no tunnels as there has been in China, so we went up and down a lot of these mountains.

In the minivan and a view out the window:

We got to Huay Xia and joined the backpacker trail.  All of a sudden things were in English and there were bread, dairy products, signs for short trips backpackers might like to take like kayaking and trekking in the jungle. It wasn’t a beautiful town, but there were lovely spots where people made gardens and there was a temple and a riverside area on the Mekong.


Several places had these little water gardens:

And these little shrines with clown-hat things they make from flowers and banana leaves:

Here’s the main street with mountains in the distance:

We stayed at a guesthouse on the main street across from this temple:


Our guesthouse was very basic and we got 3 rooms for about $7 each. Our big adventure was that we went to the jungle! We went with The Gibbon Experience to the northern Laos jungle. It is an eco-friendly project where villagers who used to hunt the gibbons and other wildlife instead work as guides and zip line instructors to tourists.

There is a three day trek in which you stay in a treehouse in the Park. There are zip lines that carry you high across jungle valleys for 400 meters or more. We stayed in a treehouse accessible by a short zip line, and our meals were brought to us on the same zip line by village women.  We had a tour guide who led us through hikes and zip lines around the reserve, and also joined us early in the morning to look for primates.  Here is the bathroom and kitchen:  

View from the top floor and the stairway to reach it:

We had wonderful snacks and meals, all vegetarian. Peanuts, a green jungle fruit, a type of packaged peanut brittle:

For meals we had various vegetable stews with rice, all in portable pots, very delicious!

Here is part of the hike to get to the treehouse area:

And zip lining! And muddy boots- there was a lot of mud!

The hiking was difficult- very steep and muddy, Mr. F counted 215 steps from our treehouse to the main trail. We hiked several hours each day and we explored all 6 of the treehouses.

On our final morning, we did see primates. We don’t believe they were gibbons, but we enjoyed watching them play in the trees for about an hour. Also, we did hear the gibbons singing to each other, which was really neat. We also saw many birds, a large black squirrel, and of course many plants and bugs (giant caterpillars like we’ve seen in museums!).
We went back to the guesthouse and spent our final night at Huay Xai. Next stop was to be the fabled and mystical Luang Prabang!