Looking back on our 14 months of travel, I wish we’ve done more volunteering – every single time that we took the opportunity, we had an amazing time doing it. Part of the problem is that 14 months is too short – sure it’s more than some people travel in their entire lives, but if you’ve got a case of wanderlust and a finite amount of time, there’s always more to see, do, and experience, and always to little time to fit it all in. There are plenty of possibilities to volunteer out there, yet many require research and a bit of time (like a few days to weeks, not hours), so a bit of dedication is necessary, if you will. In retrospect, and in particular, because of reflecting on Laos, I wish we had been dedication.
Somehow Laos proved to be the general exception to this rule of thumb, where volunteering – whether time, skills, or money – is pretty easy to come by and offer, and requires very little dedication, just willingness to take the opportunity.
There’s so many language classes that are always looking for visitors who speak fluent English, the MAG centers that accept donations to help clean up leftover unexploded ordnance from the War, and local organization like Big Brother Mouse that aim to bring literacy to the far corners of Laos, and which offer opportunities to sponsor village book parties. I am so glad that we took – these admittedly easy – opportunity to engage. Not only did it feel good to give something, anything really, to the communities and culture that received us so graciously, but also it was amazing how much cultural insight and just plain good time we’ve received in return.
I already wrote about Big Brother Mouse and the few afternoons we spent in their headquarters speaking with students who were eager to practice their English language speaking and comprehension on us. What I didn’t mention was the conversation with one of the students who came by for session. We were making small talk, I was trying to articulate, speak slowly, and ask more or less simple questions:
– Where do you study? Where are you from? How long have you lived in Luang Prabang? Oh, that’s interesting, do you go back to visit your family in the village often?
– No, I don’t go back to my village. I live in Luang Prabang with other students. My parents died when I was young. They went out into the mountains to gather scrap metal from unexploded bombs. And they never came back.
Coming into Laos it’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that this country has suffered from a massive bombing campaign during the Vietnam War, but the degree of the impact still felt across Laos did not fully dawn on me until that conversation. I can hear it as clearly in my head now, a year later, as if it had just happened. This nonchalant small talk had turned serious with no warning and took me by complete surprise. It was difficult to hear and process right then, but I am grateful that my conversation partner chose to share his loss with me. Growing up in Russia and living the US, gives you a strange, dual perspective on second half of 20th century history. The two superpowers fueled the Cold War that led to such loss of life and suffering in the region, which for us can — and did at that very moment in conversation — get rather oppressive and shameful. But, we can’t reverse what happened, we can only learn (we had no idea that Laos was the most bombed country on earth until traveling there), share with others, and strive to help where and however we can now.
MAG offices in rural Laos slowly and carefully working to clear UXO.
Since that conversation at Big Brother Mouse, we’ve visited a number of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivor centers in Laos as well as Mines Advisory Group (MAG) offices, which help to clean up unexploded ordnance that still contaminate large swathes of the country and lead to over 100 deadly incidents per year. We’ve shared what we learned with others, we’ve donated money. Yes, it all feels like so little, but if every traveler to Laos pauses at one of the centers to take in the situation, hopefully our collective knowledge and willpower will help to heal the existing damage and prevent future violence.
Learn and Donate
- MAG and UXO offices are located in nearly every population center in Laos – downtown and outskirts.
- Offices in Luang Prabang and Vientiane are well equipped for tourist visits.
- We highly recommend MAG offices in Phonsavan, which host movie showings and in general provide very comprehensive information about the impact of the the so-called Secret War in Laos then and now, nearly four decades later.
UXO ordnance is a huge obstacle to development in Laos – due to unexploded bombs littering the fields and the jungle – tilling rice fields, building new houses, and other simple, daily tasks are a deadly proposition in Laos, and usually undertaken with great caution. It’s a vicious cycle that engulfs many villages in Laos – about one third of the country’s population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. As a result of poverty, education and healthcare are also often lacking, the fact that of course exacerbates the poverty trap.
Even if a school is set up in a village, and children have the opportunity to attend, often proper supplies and education materials are the missing ingredients. According to official statistics there are 49 ethnic groups in Laos, many of whom speak a different language, meaning that Lao language is a second language and is taught in school. Giving the children a chance to learn this official language is crucial to their success. Big Brother Mouse is one of the organizations working to spread literacy in Laos – both to adults and children. The organization publishes books for all ages in Lao language, and invites donors to sponsor and participate in school and library village parties.
We actually purchased several packages of books from Big Brother Mouse intended for children of various ages to donate to a school as we made our way across Laos by motorbike. Driving from Phonsavan to Vieng Xay, we stopped at a school with a recess in session, children playing outside. I am pretty sure that we scared them at first, as they ran up to investigate and immediately scattered with much shrieks upon seeing us disembark from the bike. I wish we could have gone beyond our basic Sabadee! with them. There was a bit of that awkward moment when we explained to the teachers that we came to donate books from Big Brother Mouse, but overall it was a great experience to see the school, classrooms and get to talk with teachers, a good number of whom spoke some English.
learn and sponsor
- Stop by Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang to learn more about the literacy problems that Laos faces, how the organization is trying to help, and what you can do.
- There are a couple of ways to support Big Brother Mouse work, you can donate to the organization and they will sponsor a village / school book party in your name (which is possible to attend), or buy the books to bring to a school as you travel (probably best if you have independent means of getting around, i.e. not a bus).
English Language Classes
Of course learning Lao language should be a number one education priority, but in a small, developing economy like Laos, where many opportunities and better jobs are in the service and tourism sector, knowing English language provides a huge advantage. We were actually blown away by how many people we’ve come across in Southeast Asian countries who are able to hold a basic conversation in English. Much of this is a result of tourism of course, but not all of it is just exposure to hearing and speaking with tourists on the job. Many Lao students diligently learn English in school and at the University, and this is where volunteering at centers’ like Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang makes a difference and an impact.
This is kind of completely random, but also totally awesome: we taught English classes for a day at a local school in Vieng Xay. We were invited by the owner of our guesthouse, who turned out to be an English language teacher in the local high school. We taught new words, explained the meanings behind phrases, had conversations and called on students to answer questions – all in English. I am not sure who took away more on that day, us with silly smiles plastered over our faces from encouraging nods and desire to share as much as we could, or the teenagers who giggled at us and shyly raised their hands to answer our questions.
- In Luang Prabang, volunteer your time and English language abilities at Big Brother Mouse.
- In Phonsavan, we came across similar classes hosted by the Lone Buffalo Foundation. Although we didn’t get a chance to participate, it sounds like another great opportunity to give some of your time. Check Bamboozle! cafe in downtown Phonsavan to get in touch with Lone Buffalo center.
- In Vieng Xay, you can stop by Xailomyen guesthouse and inquire about participating in English language classes at the local school.
The opportunities above are really just the most obvious ways we could give back in Laos, and literary fell into our laps. There are so many more opportunities to volunteer, learn more, and give whether time or funds to good causes. Most important take away for us was: any time you give is a time well spent. So give, and you will not regret it. We hope to do more when we travel again!