Onwards to "happy" Vang Vieng....and a wee bit of volunteering!
August 19th. Took the overnight (ish!) bus from Phonsaven to Vang Vieng and arrived around 2am to a deserted concrete section of town. Really wierd especially at that time in the morning. Met by a guy from a local guest house (impressive entrepreneurship staying up that late to get business!).. so of course we went to his place for the night! Couldnt sleep but luckily my room, although had very dodgy wiring (looked like the place could go up in flames at any moment!) had satellite TV so watched HBO for hours.. ahh the joy of a TV again. Hadn't watched it for weeks so quite nice to just chill out while it poured down outside - yup, think we are now well and truly in the wet season here!
Got up later in the day (still early - you know me, can't waste any time lolling around!) and packed up. Didn't fancy that wiring for another night!!! Checked out the town - yup, another one street town - bit wierd cos the way Lonely Planet describes Vang Vieng, you get the feeling its way bigger than it actually is. The other descriptor from LP was that tired travelers come here to chill out, take alot of "happy" products - shakes, pizzas, garlic bread -you name it, if it has "happy" before it, then you know its laced with either opium, ganga (im learning as i go with all these names) or magic mushrooms! The police know about it but although it is illegal, as long as you dont get out of line, its sanctioned somehow. Very wierd but hey, whatever works for folks!
So you walk down the street, and just like the good ole' LP says, there are bars of floppy cushions and couches, full of exhausted (apparantly in many cases, very hung over folks!) travelers, sitting eating western food watching re-run after re-run of Friends (what an indictement of western culture that that is what people want to watch - what must the Lao people think of us!) or The Simpsons. Nowhere could i find a cafe/bar without a TV so sat down and as i waited for my breakfast i heard a boy say to his girlfriend "Come on, we've seen that episode of Friends before, lets head over to The Simpsons" - what!! How weird is that! Definitely a bizarre wee place, although very beautiful too! Similarly to Nong Khiaw, tons of giant limestone mountains surrounded the town, and so lush and green, just lovely.
Moved to Pan's Place with Adam and Kathryn... great guy called Neil from New Zealand runs it with Pan and her sister Ping! Very laid back and relaxed place...we went for a walk about town (another 2 minute job) then decided due to the stinky rainy weather we would hang out and watch a DVD - picked "Kundun" - quite appropo to learn about the background of Buddhism, while in one of the many Buddhist countries in South East Asia! Into town for dinner - pad thai for me (think i've managed to have it for about 1 month straight now for either lunch or dinner - i do LOVE it!)....and who do we bump into again but Ariel from the Gibbon experience who we left in Luang Prabang! Nice relaxing night of beer Lao, card playing and lotsa chat - what more could you ask for!
August 20-26th. Lotsa pottering going on these days. Had to say my fond farewells to Adam and Kathryn as they were heading off to Vientiene by bus - can't believe we have been together for over 2 weeks.. amazing how time flies yet at the same time you feel you have known your new pals for ever; and you know me, i get so attached to people so quickly - lucky ole' me!
I had decided to stay here for another week and volunteer at the Organic Farm. Read about it in Lonely Planet so headed up there on my bike to check it out. The farm is located in the village of Phoudindaeng, about 4 km north of Vang Vieng. Perched on the banks of the Nam Song river amidst the jagged limestone mountains that surround the Song River valley, Vang Viang Organic Farm was founded by Thanongsi Soangkoun in 1996 with the goal of introducing organic farming methods in an area where chemicals and deforestation were ruining the land. Today, the farm is a vibrant center for a variety of projects that center around the organic production of mulberry trees, along with organic fruits, vegetables, and poultry for the restaurant. The mulberry trees provide leaves to feed to the silk worms, plus mulberry tea, mulberry wine, and mulberry shakes. Wages support the many villagers who work at the farm and the profits provide assistance for the whole community. Pretty impressive! And, then there are the volunteers who come for a few days, and then sometimes stay for weeks, like Nikki and Rob, an English couple who had been volunteering for three weeks. English teachers of all abilities are always needed, and its a really relaxed atmosphere! Those of us who do volunteer have the opportunity to interact with many of the local villagers, who represent 3 distinct cultural groups (Lao, Hmong, and Kmou).
The kids are amazing! Classes were every day from 5:30-6:30 (for the younger children aged from about 3-10)then from 6:30- 8pm for the older students who ranged from 10-21. I also met Ramona at the farm, a feisty Australian who was a brilliant teacher with tons of energy that the kids loved. After speaking with Ramona, I decided I definitely wanted to help out so checked with Mr. T who runs the farm, and got the ok to start right away - yah! Wow - over 50 kids in each class, so much excitement especially the little ones who practically break the door down to get in.. and then how gorgeous they all are. When class ended the little ones all came up and hugged us, and said "see you tomorrrow miss!". So cute!
Some of the lesson plans Ramona and Nikki organized were really effective with the older children, especially in getting them to practice their pronunciation (their written English is really pretty good!).. for example, the class was divided into two teams and we gave points out to those who a) could pronounce some pretty hard tongue twisters and b) had the confidence to come up in front of class and do it! Red lorry, yellow lorry was a really tough one for them. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers was a bit easier! The standing up in front of class was a lot harder for some of the girls so we really had to encourage it, but when they did great, they were so delighted with themselves, it was fantastic to see!
Some of the folks in the older class were very curious that i wasn't staying at the farm (most of the volunteers usually do!) but cycling in and out of town every night. I had my headlamp so there were no probs about riding in the dark, but they were very concerned and all said "arent you scared miss?" and "be very careful miss" every night....so lovely and thoughtful of them; I thoroughly enjoyed my first class but felt like a bit of an idiot as I waved them off saying, "I'll be fine, don't worry about me" and then my stupid chain fell of my bike. So sweet how they boys came over and fixed it for me.. gotta love those Lao men.. such gents!
Got into a bit of a routine here in Vang Vieng. Most days, up and out for breakfast, did some pottering, went for walks, one day i decided to try the famous Vang Vieng tubing. Essentially you sit in a giant tractor tube and float down the Nam Song river, stopping off to jump off giant rope swings and have swigs of Beer Lao on the way...fun fun fun! Another time, Ramona and I went for a great cycle through some of the local villages; the people are so warm and friendly. Laos really is just such a great place, I have to say! Then later in the afternoon it would be time to head up to the farm for classes, which i totally loved. Also helped out a bit with a brochure the farm was developing. Ramona was editing it and needed some new pics so my new camera to the ready, and off we went! But back to teaching!! It is quite amazing what you can get out of volunteering.. I always wanted to do it at home but never had the time, and although it's only a week here, you really get to know the kids quickly and they are so affectionate and happy to have you teaching them! This little girl called Ngun (not sure about spelling!) took a wee shine to me (ok it doesnt look like it here but she and I were inseparable trust me!)and every day when i came to class, she would run over and hold my hand! I'm telling you, your heart would be pretty full by the end of class; and for anyone wanting a baby or having any maternal instincts at all, this place certainly reinforces that feeling! In fact, I wanted to squeeze a few of the children into my backpack (if it wasnt so bloomin' full already!)...So you can kind of see why I had such a wonderful time here in Vang Vieng and was pretty torn about maybe staying longer or moving on to Vientiene.. I'd love to come back and teach for longer next time! But for now, it was lots of fond farewells - I mean how can you not be affected when some of the older kids say things like "I'll never forget you. You were a good and funny teacher and I want you to know I will work really hard to improve my English and thank you for every thing".... and I was only there for a week! I'm not telling you this cos i've got a big head.. more to illustrate how incredible all these children were and how they really appreciated what little teaching you could provide (especially me, 'cos im pretty rubbish to be honest, even tho' i love doing it!). Love it so much I'm thinking that might be my big career change when i get home... well, that's today's idea - things will probably change tomorrow! So there you go - a fab time in Vang Vieng, but now on to Vientiene I go!