Trip Report (General), 24 June-2 July 2009, PDJ Area, Muang Mok, Sam Nuea

Sunee and I were off to Laos again to check additional school support projects on behalf of the TLCB. We checked out one completed project, investigated the possibilities for another, and checked a third just-about-completed one.

In summary, our road time this trip was:

-- Thailand, round trip, home to Nong Khai and back: 1,325 km = 822 miles

-- Laos, round trip: Vientiane to Phon Savanh to Muang Mok to Phon Savanh to Sam Nuea, and return: 1,551 km = 980 miles; 38:13 hours using moving time in Laos, which is an average of just 26 mph.

-- Total road distance: 2,876 km = 1,802 miles


We left from home on day one, a bit NE of Don Muang Airport. We drove on up to Nong Khai, which is 7-8 hours via the Friendship Highway. We left my van on the Thai side, dealt with immigration formalities, and then drove across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to the Lao side. There was also immigration on that side, followed by a taxi ride to our hotel in Vientiane. We enjoyed an evening dinner and Beer Lao with friends and a couple of new acquaintances at the Sticky Fingers Restaurant, which serves good eats, semi "south of the border style." There are lots of interesting farangs (foreigners) in Vientiane.


With regard to Lao travel, if you're not flying around in Laos like we used to do 30-40 years back, travel in Laos just takes TIME. The next day, we drove on up to Phon Savanh in our rental 4-door, 4WD Ford pickup, via the nicely paved Rt 13N, which rises from Vientiane's 550 ft elevation up to a high point of 5,000 ft, with ups and downs in between. There are lots of beautiful vistas to see if it's not cloudy and drizzling, as it was this day. This is an 8-9 hour run, depending on pit stops and noodle (pho) breaks. Art, our main contact in Vientiane on educational matters in Laos, accompanied us.

Phon Savanh is a pretty active town that has several hotels, guest-houses, and eateries. It is a major crossroads for buses and cargo trucks passing back and forth from Vietnam. We stayed at what has become our sort of normal place now, the Nice Guest House, Hmong owned and operated. There are eats just down the street at the Vietnamese-run Craters Restaurant. Of course, this being the capital of the Plain of Jars (PDJ), the jar sites that have been cleared of UXO (UneXploded Ordnance) are very interesting to visit, which we have done on prior trips. The Mine Action Group (MAG) has an active office here with displays and a DVD to watch or buy.

Our first stop on day three was the Life Skills school building at Ban Phosy, which the TLCB had funded back in December 2008. The school was not in use at the time because school does not start until 1 September. The initial project tore the old building down and rebuilt it with wood reused after planing. The refurbished building looks good with its new tin roof, redone siding, concrete floor, and new furniture. This project ran about $1,500, with $1,250 from the TLCB Assistance Fund and another $250 from a private donation from Bob Resseguie’s cousin; Bob is also a former USAID/Lao guy and a new member to the TLCB.


The villagers had also joined in the project with a major effort to reroute the stream at the back side of the school, which had eroded the steep bank near the old building during high water times. They dug a new channel further out from the bank to prevent additional erosion.


Ban Phosy is a real hard working village, good for self-help projects. Another U.S. NGO is funding a kindergarten at the school, which is also a self-help project. Note the crowd working on the other NGO's project, especially the gal who brought her baby along on her back. I expect we will hear more about a request for further project funding from this village.


We drove on to Muang Mok, old LS-46, to check out the possibility of a somewhat larger project, a dual-purpose building for use as a lunch hall for kids who live too far from school to go home for lunch. The building would also have a classroom and reading area for "life skills," studies, which provides additional, practical information beyond the set school curriculum. This can include “bombie” awarness (UXO), marketing of home products, farming, and such. Mr. Sounduean, from the Phon Savanh Provincial Education Service (PES), joined us on this trip. He is a good guy and we have previously worked with him on two other TLCB supported projects.

Muang Mok was a bit of an adventure to reach, with the trip including some 100 km of dirt road SE of Phon Savanh. With the rains, it took four hours to cover the 60 miles. You can bet that we were glad we had the 4 X 4 Ford Ranger pickup on that road. We had started from Phon Savanh at 3,600 ft, went up to 7,000, then down to 1,500 by the time we reached Muang Moc. This was the highest I have been in Laos with feet on the ground. We wonder if this is about the highest road in Southeast Asia.


While this place is quite isolated, there is daily "bus" service to Phon Savanh, via a six-wheel, covered truck. We also saw a number of motorcycles slipping and sliding along the road because of the drizzle. There is a brand new Bailey bridge across the main river in town. I believe it was funded by the Vietnamese government. There is also the start of what looks like a pretty good dirt road on the other side, and we were told it is only about 1-1/2 hours to the Vietnamese border from there.


Actually, Muang Mok is a very attractive spot and adequately supplied with goods for sale and government services for being so far away from any large towns. The town has cell phone service, but not much in the way of electricity. Upon arrival, we phoned the local school principal and made plans to have lunch with him and some other school staff and a couple of district officials. Following the meal, we went to the school for a meeting. After much discussion, it was decided to put this potential “life skills” project on hold. The local officials other priorities, they have concerns about the increasing primary school population and the lack of classrooms to accommodate them. They requested six additional classrooms, which might well be beyond the TLCB capability to assist at this time.

The principal invited us to his house to have dinner with the same group. Of course, everybody sat on the floor with the food served on large circular trays. The folks were really friendly and there was a lot of talk, which of course was topped off with Lao whisky. Lao lao, ugh.

We spent the night at the District Guest House, after being cautioned to first visit the market and buy our own candles. There was one light out in the foyer, but the electricity was not sufficient to light up the individual rooms. Evidently the electricity is provided by what they call a "dynamo," a small water turbine that is lowered into the river. The problem at the time of our visit was that the river was flowing quite fast and they were afraid of losing the dynamo, so they pulled it out. A 12-volt battery powered the one lonely light. There was cool water for the shower, three hard, single beds per room, and mosquito nets. But the sit-down crapper made my day!

Day four saw us on the road again as we traveled back to Phon Savanh for lunch. Art and Sounduean left Sunee and me at this point to take care of other school-related business there. They will be coming up with some additional projects for Xieng Khouang Province. Sunee and I motored on one hour to Muang Kham aka Ban Ban for the night. Ban Ban is one of the relatively famous "choke points" of yore. Note that we were down to 2,016 ft elevation by then from the 3,600 ft of Phon Savanh.

Muang Kham is a fairly large town these days, but we found only one guest-house. The town is a major junction. Continuing on east takes you to the Vietnam border crossing and on to Vinh and beyond; turning north is the route on to Sam Nuea, and from there on to Hanoi. During dinner at a local restaurant, a couple of long-haul buses stopped with Lao and Vietnamese passengers ready for their evening meal, after which they went on to Phon Savanh. Some motored on all the way to Vientiane, a long, long haul, especially at night.

On the fifth day, we headed on up to Sam Nuea Province via the "Road of 900 Curves." Next time I will take along my click counter to check the number of curves, but I tend to believe that approximate number. Somphou, our driver for seven trips so far in Central and NE Laos, didn't even complain about the hurt in his left knee from pushing in the clutch so many times! This road hits 4,900 ft, then traverses back down to 1,800 ft, then up again to 3,600 ft by the time we arrived at Ban Pakha. All that plus managing the curves! I was glad that I wasn't driving that roller coaster road. We were five hours en route, including a short “pho” breakfast break at the low point. The road is all paved, except the 21 km from where you turn off to head down to Pakha, a one-hour trip.

Ban Pakha is the site of a co-funded school dormitory facility. The TLCB gave $1500 and the ACA provided $4500 toward the project, which comprises a dormitory building, kitchen facility, and a shower/toilet building. The intended beneficiaries are 30 to 40 boys and about 10 girls in secondary school who live just too far to be able to commute to school on a daily basis. Without a place to stay, the girls and boys would have to drop out of school. This endeavor will enable them continue their education.

At Ban Pakha, we met with provincial and Houa Muang District officials and the village leadership. These are the activities and our observations:

-- The buildings look good with freshly cut pine and good carpentry. It is a fine self-help village-level project.

-- A general meeting was held in the dormitory with the group of 20-plus people, including representatives from the 27 villages involved, totaling some 1,262 families/9,766 people.

-- We handed over kip 8 million, which equals $941, the last portion of the total project budget of $5,841 as originally requested. This donation is for the local authorities to purchase bedding, mosquito nets, kerosene lanterns, kitchen equipment, and eating utensils.

-- We also gave kip 4,250,000, which equals $500, a new allocation for building a temporary latrine.

-- The project was described as "difficult" because of several factors including communications and the scattered nature of the villages. They needed to have all lumber hand sawn out in the several villages on a particular quota, then delivered to the dorm site. The project also needed labor and sand and gravel for the concrete floor, also per quota. This all took time, lots of time.

-- More significantly, the project budget, as submitted by the District, was somewhat short sighted in that they deleted several items that have now turned out to be necessary for the final success of the project. Their explanation for this was that they were worried that the almost $6,000 budget would be difficult enough to fund. These deletions include:

a facility with separate shower and toilet facilities for the expected 30-40 boys and about 10-15 girls who will be using the two rooms in the dorm. It is a long 300-400 meters to the school where the officials thought the students could use the existing facilities. This is a decidedly inconvenient distance, particularly in the middle of the night;

paint and preservative for the pine wood walls;

anti-termite chemicals;

eventually, an electric light line and a few overhead bulbs;

a water line for the kitchen and shower/toilet facility.

The District and Province PES officials will work out a plan and a budget for these items. In any case, the facility looks beautiful, and up to this point, is a success in my eyes.

Following the general meeting, there was a small party at the dorm, complete with speeches and the baci string tying ceremony. (http://www.laoheritagefoundation.org/ceremonies/baci.jsp).

We enjoyed Lao lao, sticky rice, chicken, and goat innards, with some lao hai as we departed. The entire group of almost 30 people participated.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lao_cuisine

"There are two general types of traditional alcoholic beverages, both produced from rice: lao hai and lao lao. Lao hai means jar alcohol (wine) and is served from an earthen jar. It is communally and competitively drunk through straws at festive occasions. It can be likened to sake in appearance and flavor. Lao lao or Lao alcohol is more like a whiskey. It is also called lao khao or, in English, white alcohol." I still get what Sunee describes as "chicken skin" when I have that stuff, and I break out in bumps on my arms. Thankfully, the bumps are temporary.


On the way back to the main road, we stopped at "Hin Tang," or "standing stones,” for a photo op. This is a strange place, said to be 2,000 years old. According to some archaeologists, it perhaps marks old burial sites, possibly related in some fashion with the Jars on the PDJ. In any case, origin is unknown.


Day five continued. We moved on to the Houa Muang District education office where we had another meeting. These folks have a thought for another dormitory project in another cluster of villages and will work up the details for the Provincial Educational Service (PES) to review. The District Educational Service staff here is active with people that were good to work with during this trip and look good for potential future projects. This town is relatively new and was relocated from the old site several years ago, it is well built up with shops, local government offices, housing, and good paved road access.


We drove on up to Sam Nuea town for the night. Sam Nuea? It’s kind of strange to be there. I had of course read about the town in the old days when it was the war-time headquarters for the current government. Now? It is a thriving city, busy, shops all over the place, complete with hotels and guest- houses for the many tourists that pass through. There is SAT TV, of course, and as elsewhere in Laos, the Thai soap operas are very popular. This is a very likeable tourist town. Unfortunately, we did not have time to check out the sights and sites, nor visit the caves there or just up the road at Vieng Say. There is air service to Sam Nuea several times a week from Vientiane and there is bus service to Hanoi from here.


The Provincial Educational Service engineer dropped off a proposal for our funding consideration, another dormitory project on further to the northeast at Sop Bao. Given that there are other Lao projects already in the pipeline, this one will be held in abeyance for the time being.


Day six began the three-day "retreat" back home, the seven hour drive to Phon Savanh via the "Road of 900 Curves," RON. Day seven included the nine hour drive down to Vientiane, via Sala Phou Khoun, in the mist and rains. We took a lunch break at Vang Vieng on the way back to Vientiane, and dinner with friends and another RON. On the eighth day, we drove across the Mekong and back to Thailand and headed back home.

Things are looking up for more projects in Laos and we continue to look for additional funding sources!

You can link to photos for this trip here: http://tinyurl.com/m7nb2o or here in the long version: http://picasaweb.google.com/mactbkk/200906PDJSamNuea#

As an aside, we invite readers to sign up with the Thailand-Laos-Cambodia Brotherhood group, www.tlc-brotherhood.org. While this group is comprised mostly of veterans, there is no requirement to be a vet to join and become a full-fledged, voting member. The TLCB has provided approximately $233,000 for small school support projects and other school-related items in the Udorn and Nakhon Phanom areas of NE Thailand. Starting in 2007, there have been several such small projects in Laos.