I chose Laos over Myanmar for my last country on this year-long trip, mostly because of what I learned while at the Karen refugee camp about the persecution of ethnic groups in Myanmar that continues to this day.
I went to Laos thinking of relaxing and catching up on things. I also knew there was a drop-in volunteer place with a strange name in the city of Luang Prabang. Maybe I would visit there and see what happened.
Big Brother Mouse
Big Brother Mouse is an organization that supports the distribution of books for students in Laos. Education in Laos, from preschool through college, mainly focuses on rote learning. Students repeat and memorize. Books are not common and very few people read for pleasure. Big Brother Mouse has had a huge impact in the community by publishing books, promoting reading, and providing opportunities for English practice. For two hours every morning and afternoon, seven days a week, the downstairs room overflows with Lao students conversing with any English-speaking foreigners who happen to stop by and talk with them. I have never seen anything like it.
The students were mainly high school or college age, though some were younger or older. All were eager to practice English. “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How many people are in your family?” These were some of the most common questions and I admit I grew tired of answering them dozens of times a day with each new person that sat down. But at the same time, it was hard to stay away. Over time, I got to know some of the students better and we were able to have much more interesting conversations.
Most of the students were just finishing their intense year-end exams and starting a three-month holiday. I asked many of them what they would do now that they were on holiday. Every student answered the same, even though they were asked at different times and places. “I will study.” It didn’t matter if they were nine or twenty-nine. The students here are so motivated to learn that they use all of their free time to study. Many are teaching themselves English, Chinese, Thai or another language, in addition to studying their regular school subjects.
A Field Trip
I spent one day visiting Big Sister Mouse, a new school opened by the organization. It is located in the countryside and currently teaches preschool through third grade. There are eight young adults living on the campus who are helping out at the school while continuing their own studies and learning many life skills that will help them in the future. Another volunteer and I spent a good part of the day practicing English with these older students. We also visited the younger classes and I even led a few rounds of the Hokey Pokey, something I never imagined myself doing.
Every student I talked to at Big Brother Mouse, as well as the older students helping at Big Siter Mouse, came from a village in the countryside. They had moved to Luang Prabang, a small city in northern Laos, to study. Their families farm in the villages where there is little opportunity to continue your education. Most of the students were Hmong, one of the three main ethnic groups in Laos. Others were Khamu. The third ethnic group is Lao. The Hmong and Khamu students speak their ethnic languages (which are not taught in schools) as well as Lao. The students understand and speak some Thai as well since many of the TV shows they watch are in the Thai language.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of French colonial architecture, trendy cafes, luxury boutique hotels, quaint guesthouses and hostels, and many temples. The people I met, however, do not have access to the fancy parts of the city. They eat rice when they have it, work and study long hours, and only travel between their village and Luang Prabang. Even the backpackers paying a few dollars for a dorm room are much wealthier than most of the local people. Despite their hardships, travelers are welcomed with sincerity, warmth and peace. You’ll learn more about two students I met in my next post.
In the meantime, here are some scenes from the nine days I spent in Laos.