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Our family journey to the jungle of Laos

Anders, member of the Aay´s Village Board, traveled with wife Renate and their children to Laos this summer. Renate wrote a blog post on how the family encountered this small jungle village and how they learned that children bond despite of differences in cultures and ways of life.

The day had finally arrived. We as a family were finally going to have our encounter with the jungle of Laos, visiting Aay’s Village. We were going to be met with new experiences through a new culture and a different way of living. Very much different from what we are used to from Norway. Traveling as a family of six, 3 children between the age of 10-13 years, us parents and my mother, we had a lot to look forward to. Before leaving Norway, we had talked to the kids about the encounter with children living very different from what they are used to, and that poverty would come up close. It was important that they were well prepared with what they were going to experience. We talked about respecting the culture, and that we were the visitors and had to adapt to the local way of living. Practical matters like how to sit around a dinner table and eating food very different from Nordic cuisine (that they might not like) was important to discuss prior to arrival.

Our journey to Laos started from Khon Kaen in Thailand. A 3-hour drive took us to Nong Khai on the border between Thailand and Laos. A quick checkout on the Thai border took us across friendship bridge 1 towards a big papermill of VISA documents to be filled and fees to be paid. Some 20 minutes later we were ready to head towards Vientiane, where Aay would be waiting near the morning market. After a quick bite we were on the bus together with Aay, traveling on the bumpy roads towards the village. Traveling with family it was very practical being met by someone local, avoiding the newcomer stress of wondering how to get from A to Z.

Kids are kids no matter where they come from

After around 3 hours on the bumpy roads we finally arrived in the village and the Aay´s Village house. Here we were greeted by some of the team, together with some of Aay’s family. It did not take many minutes until the kids were flying around with footballs and crayons and making new friends. It is fantastic to see how kids are interacting even if they are not talking the same language. Kids are kids no matter where you are in the world. Being inside was the place to stay as it was a brutal meeting with the weather. Being used to a colder climate on the norther hemisphere, one thing that we were not well prepared for was the heat. It was very hot and humid. However, the kids seemed to cope better with it than we did.

Not long after arriving the traffic towards the house began to increase. The rumor had obviously spread around that there were farang people (foreign people) in the village. Especially the kids were of interest as it for most of the locals was their first meeting with foreign children. Waking up the next morning a big group of children had already gathered, and by 7.30 the house was crowded with kids to come and look at us. The adults were more discrete, but the bypassing scouters that seemed to take a few extra laps was followed by many curious looks. Being prepared for this in advance everyone took this quite well, and it did not take long before the kids very all interacting with games and fun. Football, drawing, hide and seek and reading were among the many activities in the house, and we could hear Lao, English and Norwegian language all together at once. The kids were so positive, and it was a joy to watch them. The house was packed with kids playing, and at most it was probably between 20-25 children playing together. There were smaller and bigger kids, and nobody seemed to care about age differences. Our kids got invited to see the local kids houses, and especially our 10-year old daughter were taken all over the village. She constantly had a group of 3-6 girls fighting for attention, holding her hand and giving her candy. Every day she came home with new stories and small gifts that the children had given her. She loved the attention and probably had a much closer encounter with the locals than the rest of us all together. The kids gave her small armbands that they had made, rings and small jewelry, and she was so sad she could not give them anything back. We felt we had to do something about this, so one day we went to the local market and bought all the soda from one of the stores to take back to the house and shared with everyone.

Norway vs Laos

As it was Lao summer holidays the Aay´s Village house seed to be a natural gathering place for the locals. From 7.30 in the morning until 6 pm the house was full of kids every day. At lunchtime some of them went home to eat at home, where others waited patiently outside until after our lunch to continue to play. Then the house was full again until sunset. In the afternoon it was good to calm down after days full of activity with a nice Lao meal. We were accommodated during our 4 days visit in the Aay´s Village house and ended the nights early to be energized for the busy days laying ahead of us.

In addition to all the fun we had in the house, I have to mention that our boys are big fans of football (including dad). Needless to say, they all ended up in a big football match on a field near the house. There were about 20 people playing, young and old, and the match attracted quite a crowd to came to watch the farang play their locals. I am sure the boys got struggled a lot more in the heat than the locals – but it was fun all around.

A visit to the lake

During the weekend there was no teaching, and Aay organized a nice trip to a lake. So, all of us went Lao style on the back of a pickup, including a large fraction of Aay’s friends and family, plus 5 Spanish volunteers whom arrived the day before. A big cultural difference with small kids standing on the back of a pickup on a very bumpy road for half an hour. The lake was a good getaway that also allowed us to get on the lake in a longtail boat. Some people from the military took us on a tour on the lake with 12 people in a boat that was meant for 5! It felt like the boat barely was afloat, but we all loved it!

Earlier the same day Aay took us for a little sightseeing around the village. We stopped by his house where we met his parents. Aay told us that all the houses had been constructed in the same way at the time the village was built by the government. There were some differences though. Our daughter came home one night and told us she had stayed with a friend that had no walls. They had a floor and a ceiling and that was it. Still the family living there seemed to be just as happy as anyone else in the village.

The local market

Touring around in the village you also need to make sure to stop by the local market. Just across from the house you will find a market selling all kinds of stuff, from today’s catch to fruits, clothing, toiletries and more. Speaking of being noticed we could not walk around without getting a lot of attention – and again the kids were attracting most of it. If you stop by in the afternoon you can buy fresh fish or animals caught in the jungle. Maybe you fancy tasting squirrel?

Particularly in the area around the market you will come across a lot of garbage. Having travelled a bit around Asia we know that there is a different attitude towards environmental issues than what we are used to. Aay´s Village is doing a lot to try to change the mentality of the locals, but there is some distance to be passed before people are fully aware of the consequences of throwing plastic and other waste carelessly around.

Creating bonds

As our Lao journey was coming to an end, we wanted to make the most of our last night in the village. So, we let the kids from the village stay a bit longer and we finished off with a good meal in the house. A local girl did not want to part with our daughter, so we ended up having a sleepover in the house. She was firstly invited to the girl’s house for the night but being in a different place and country it felt safer to let the girl stay in our house. When they finally felt asleep the girls were sleeping close together; a touching moment.

It shows that friendships can be created across cultures, ages, language and base. If everyone can be just as open, curious, respectful and open as children can be, there is hope for the future. Let the children lead the way towards a better future.

An adventure on the way back

After a heartfelt farewell with Aay, the team and some of the locals who had turned up to say goodbye, we started on the journey back to Thailand. Aay had arranged for the local bus to stop outside the house where we were to travel into Vientiane and the Thai border. This turned out to be an adventure. At first there were lots of space but ended up being just as overcrowded as you would expect in Asia. A car for 15 people ended up with 21, plus loads of luggage, fruit, vegetables and more. More space was created using plastic chairs in all empty spaces, and someone even stood up for parts of the trip. What an adventure it was! We all sat cramped together for the 4 hours it took back to Vientiane, where we eventually stepped on a few buses that took us back to the border.

Some tips when traveling with family

Our adventure to the Lao jungle has been an amazing experience that we will remember for life. To make the most of your stay with a family, here are some tips that might be helpful:

  • Preparations are everything. Talk to your kids about what they will see and experience. Even if you might not have all the answers, explain that things will be very different from the Western civilization

  • Respect the culture; watch and learn, and ask if you have questions

  • The journey to the jungle can be long. Bring medicine for car sickness if needed, the roads are bumpy and might jolt a reaction. Take some food and drinks with you, and even if the bus will stop on the way it is always good to be prepared

  • If you stay in the Aay´s Village house be prepared that it will be busy from morning to night.

  • Do not wear white clothes as they will be dirty from all the activities

  • Care for the environment and bring your own water bottles. There is a dispenser in the house to refill

  • Be prepared for simple toilet and shower facilities. It’s part of the experience. Make sure you have toilet paper, and if you do not bring it with you it can be bought in the market

  • Bring enough cash. The nearest ATM is a 15-minute scooter ride away

  • Be prepared of the heat and humidity. A fan could be all the cooling you will get both day and night

  • The food is different than what you are used to. Its tasty, but with picky children (like ours) you might face a battle. The key is in trying, as the food is actually very good!

  • Expect to be stared at and even touched. The locals are just curious and when bringing children, they will get a lot of extra attention

  • It can be fun to learn a game in advance to introduce to the local children. Preferably in English, but all games are very welcomed and was a big success for us

As you can see the success is in the preparations. Talk about all your children MIGHT experience and try to provide them with as much information as possible on topics they bring up. It’s also good to talk about the trip afterwards to see if their expectations were met. Our children were fast in asking if we could come back to the village sometimes, to see how things were going. It feels good knowing that they had a great time in the village.

Writing this a few weeks after our visit to Aay’s Village, we look back at a truly unique and amazing experience. There have been strong impressions, memories for life and a hope for a better world for Lao children in the future. Now we will spend some time to let it all sink inn and be grateful for being born in a place like Norway and feel the joy in being able to help someone and to make a difference. Both young and old have made some important lessons that will enriched our lives and look forward to the day we will be back in this truly unique place in the jungle of Laos.

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