Volunteering in Laos
Looking at a map of the world, Laos is a sliver of land sandwiched between more well-known neighbors: China to the north, Thailand and Myanmar to the west, Cambodia to the south and Vietnam to the east. As my husband and I planned an extended trip to Asia, I had little knowledge of Laos aside from where it was located on a map spread on my living room floor. Laos was not on our initial itinerary, but we wanted to volunteer during our time in Asia and after researching volunteer programs on the web we decided, almost on a whim, to sign-up for a weeklong program in Laos with GlobeAware (www.globeaware.org), a non-profit that coordinates volunteer efforts around the globe. Little did we know that this decision would lead us to one of our most memorable experiences in Asia.
Our volunteer project was centered in the Lao city of Luang Prabang, a place straddling centuries, where orange-robed monks wander narrow streets amongst cafes selling cappuccino and pizza and the spires of Buddhist temples peak above the trees. At dusk the main street is closed to traffic and local merchants gather to sell colorful silks, clothing and jewelry under red tents. Walking to the waterfront on our first evening in the city, we sat enchanted at a café overlooking the muddy Mekong River and listened to the sound of crickets hidden amongst the verdant green mountains rising on the far bank. The next day we would be up bright and early to begin our volunteer project, but the evening was ours to absorb the peaceful vibe of this entrancing town. We settled in for the night at our $25 hotel room, which was clean, air-conditioned and complete with its own resident gecko.
Early the next morning we met our volunteer coordinator, Kelvin. Kelvin is a Laos native and lives just outside Luang Prabang with his wife and young son. He is multi-talented and multi-faceted: he owns and drives a tuk-tuk, guides bikers into Laos’s remote mountain villages, volunteers for an organization that clears landmines from the countryside, has a partial ownership in a shop at the airport and is a handyman and all around go-to-guy for the local orphanage. Kelvin laid out our schedule for the week. We would build a gate at the local orphanage, donate books to a school and village and explore Luang Prabang and its beautiful surrounds which include cascading, tiered waterfalls open for swimming and an otherworldly cave housing hundreds of Buddha statues. First, though, Kelvin gave us an impromptu lesson in Lao culture and language, resulting in much laughter as Ken and I mispronounced even the basics. Lao has an interesting cadence to it and words seem to just trail off at the end, like a foghorn fading into a misty night, easy on the ears, yet difficult to master. With “sabaii dii” (hello) and “khawp jai” (thank you) under our belt, it was time for volunteering to get underway.
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