TRIP REPORT, 13-18 JANUARY 2010, PDJ AREA AND SAM NUEA
Sunee and I were off to Laos again to check additional school support projects on behalf of the TLCB. We were accompanied by visitors from Oregon: my sister Anne, a TLCB member, and brother-in-law, Ray. Art Crisfield, who is resident in Vientiane, also came along for the TLCB portion of the trip. Another TLC brother, Glenn Black, rode over on his motorcycle from Chiang Mai to join us in Phonsavanh.
We checked out one completed project, turned over funds for a newly approved project, investigated the possibilities for two more, and almost by accident, found out about another needful project. Altogether, it was a fruitful trip.
In summary, our road time this trip was:
Thailand, round trip, home to Nong Khai, and back: 1,325 km = 822 miles.
Laos road travel amounted to 1,294 km, 802 miles, almost all of which was on paved roads for a change.
Photos for this trip are at "2010-01": http://picasaweb.google.com/mactbkk/?pli=1
The first stop on the way driving up to Nong Khai, where we left my van, was a Thai temple, Wat Tham Krabok. The purpose here was to drop off a Subway “hoagie,” Italian BMT, foot long, double meat, everything possible on it, to Monk Gordon, an American monk who has been there for almost 30 years. Gordon is in charge of the drug and booze detox section of the wat, for which it is justly famous. Even before 1975, USAID/Laos sent people down there, Hmong, Lao, even a few “world travelers” passing through. Gordon was also my main contact there in 2003-5 when about 15,000 Lao Hmong resided at the temple before they moved on to the U.S. as refugees. There are no Subway franchises out my way, but Anne and Ray were staying downtown and picked one up for him. I usually drop off an extra large pizza when I go by there.
On the road again, we spent one night in Vientiane and had dinner with friends at the Sticky Fingers. We picked up Art and our rental vehicle, with driver, in Vientiane Thursday 14 January.
We passed through Vang Vieng, L-16, on through Muang Kassy, LS-249, and on up to a really nice, and new guest house near Sala Phou Khoun, LS-260, for the night. The place even had fireplaces in a couple of the rooms! It was a tad cool there for us lowlanders, about 50 F in the morning. The elevation there is about 4,200 feet. (Note: The LS and number, or Lima Site, refers to a Laos site/location. If you are interested, you can find airfield site numbers on Jim Henthorn’s super Map Scan project at: http://www.nexus.net/~911gfx/sea-ao.html]
The next morning we continued on up to Xieng Khouang and near old Muang Soui. We met up with Mr. Soundeuan from the Xieng Khoung Provincial Education Service (PES), whom we have been working with on several projects so far in this province. The purpose was to visit Phou Kout District and a proposed school project there at Naxaythong village. The primary need here is a concrete floor for their main school building. We will hear more after they come up with a proposal. We noted and utilized the three-room toilet, but noticed that there was not much water available. When we enquired about the reason for the lack of water, they showed us the broken well pump. The well has lots of water, but no access to it at present. It seemed to me that a simple solution to this problem was to fix the pump. They had no funds, so that evening I passed a $20 bill to Art and Mr. Soundeuan to see if it would pay for a simple solution. After we got home, they sent some photos and as you can see, the water is flowing and everyone is happy.
We had scheduled a late lunch at the village, but it seems like there was a bit of a misunderstanding on just how many people were coming in our group. Mr. Soundeuan had told them “3 to 4” people, but perhaps the cell phone circuits were scratchy because they had prepared food for 34! And good eats we enjoyed, except for the lao Lao, the home-brewed firewater. I still get goosebumps when I have that stuff. Driving out of the village, I noticed a large hunk of iron by the side of the road; it looked strangely like a PT-76. I wondered why it hasn’t been scrapped and re-used.
We drove the 45 minutes to Phonsavanh town and to the Hmong-run Nice Guest House where we usually stay. We consumed early eats with Art, Mr. Soundeuan, and his boss, then joined Anne and Ray for dinner and a Beer Lao or three at the Craters Restaurant. I was going to try the local ATM machine, but could not really decide which side of the street it was on, although it surely seemed like I was standing right in front of it.
The next day we made a visit to another potential project at a school near Lat Khay, Phaxay District. Mr. Soundeuan joined us late for this meeting because he had been held up with a ceremony practice at a provincial-level project in Phonsavanh. He was to be the main presenter with ministry officials coming up from Vientiane, the German Ambassador and others among them. We rented another vehicle for him so he could join us a little later at the school. There are 359 students at this school and 17 teachers. One item they do need is a sufficient quantity of toilets. They have a 2-holer that works, but the water source disappears in the dry season. There is another toilet, a 5-holer, which has no water source and is boarded up. These might be in their proposal for assistance.
After visiting this school, we moved on to Jar Site #3 which was just a five-minute drive and a 10 minute walk away. The school principal came along as the tour guide. He also offered us some lao Lao (ugh!) at his house, but we declined since it was getting on in the afternoon. It is understandable that this area, the PDJ, is known as the Plain Of Jars. Its ancient origin is still unknown.
The next day, we were off to Muang Kham, aka Ban Ban, LS-10, one of the heaviest fought-over and bombed areas of the war. It was a major choke point for road travel coming into the PDJ from the north and the east.
This is a TLCB-funded project, $1,400, for the Chom Thong Primary School, which is right in the main area of town. Their intent is to prepare a part of one building as a demonstration school for the Life Skills project, which basically aims to teach students practical skills and knowledge that they can use in the real world when they finish their more academic studies.
We are funding the partitioning of the main room into classrooms, a library, and the re-framing of windows and doors so that they function properly. There have been some ground subsidence problems in the area there. We signed the project contract with the school, village, and district officials and had a photo op with the TLC banner, modified somewhat for use in Laos. There were UXO posters at the school and an UXO Lao vehicle that we saw down by the market area. UXO survey and clearance work has been going on in Xieng Khouang for a long time and continues today.
We had dinner that evening at a local restaurant where we were joined by five of the local Lao officials, where a good time was had by all. One of the officials raised another potential project that we had not heard of before, which is about 60 km out from the district. Art and Mr. Soundeuan visited this village the next day and are waiting for a proposal from the authorities. This project might be co-funded with a non-governmental organization (NGO), and Art is working with those folks to see what funding/help they can provide.
On the morning of the 18th, we left the guesthouse at Ban Ban at 0600 since we had a long day ahead. After two hours up the early portion of the Road of 900 Curves to Nam Neun, we stopped for breakfast of pho. We then progressed on up to Hua Muang District, in the vicinity of old LS-58, and traveled one hour down a dirt road to what is now my favorite project -- the dormitory at Ban Pakhe. This two-phase $9,400 project was co-funded by the TLCB and the ACA, with the ACA picking up $7,000 of the job. Phase I was a kitchen and the dormitory building itself. This project’s purpose is to accommodate lower secondary students, grades 7-9, who live too far from the school to commute on a daily basis. If these students have no place to stay, they have to drop out.
The original dorm project was designed to house 40 students, 24 boys and 16 girls. On opening day of school in early September 2009, about 155 students showed up for dorm housing! The school authorities pared the number down to 85 students and told the excluded ones that they would have to find other accommodation. At the time of our visit, we were told that residents numbered 87, but we did not see them because the students had returned home for the mid-year break. Some of the other students have found places to stay with families in the village, and a few have built bamboo shacks at the dorm site where they can sleep and share the kitchen, bathing, and toilet facilities.
I think this illustrates the popularity and the necessity of this project. Indeed, the local officials requested funding for another dorm for Ban Pakha; the Hua Muang District education officer requested a similar project for elsewhere in his area, and the provincial engineer also asked for two more dorm projects for districts north of Sam Neua city. Funding? Funding? Funding?
After a late lunch in the school principal’s house, and some more lao Lao of course, we hit the road. At this point, Art and Mr. Soundeuan went on to locate the possible project in Muang Kham District that we had heard about at dinner the night before, which would include possible co-funding with an NGO. They visited it after driving some 20 km. east of Route 6; they surveyed the needs and got back to Phonsavanh at 2300 hours, a really long day for them since we had all started out at 0600.
Anne, Ray, Sunee and I, and Somphou, our valiant driver, went on for some non-TLCB visiting further in NE Laos for a few days.
Our first stop was Vieng Thong, old Muang Hiem, LS-48, for the night. We stayed in a new, two-story guesthouse there, a good one. We were told about some hot springs close by, so we went out in the late afternoon to take a look. It was a busy place, and it seems that lots of the Lao go there for their evening bath rather than endure cold, cold water at home. No one told me about the hot springs when I worked at Sam Thong, LS-20, during the spring of 1969 or I might have tried to go there back then. I might not have however, as the place had changed hands a couple months before I got to Sam Thong.
It was 47 F in the morning for breakfast, which meant eat fast or your eggs get cold! From there, we went west for about five hours to Nong Khiaw, a town on the Nam Ou River, which flows south to join the Mekong River upstream from Luang Prabang. There were good eats there at the CT restaurant and we remained overnight, or RONed, at a kind of rustic bungalow, which was OK, but nothing fancy. The owner of the CT had three “Meo” rifles on the wall, really good ones, two of which had octagon barrels which I don’t remember seeing before. There are lots and lots of foreigners in this town, world travelers coming by bus, van, motorcycle, and bicycle, and it was almost crowded. The place is scenic, for sure, but I guess I am just not used to seeing so many farangs.
On 20 January, Wednesday morning, Ray decided to take one of the boats all the way down to Luang Prabang. This is a common run so the passenger boats run several times a day for the six-hour run downstream to the Mekong then on to Luang Prabang. It takes 10-12 hours going upstream. We decided to stick with the vehicle and headed just 30 minutes west to Nam Bac, LS-203, where I had lived for several months during the spring of 1967. I went looking for the old airport there, and forded the stream to get to the slightly higher ground. I kind of IDed the runway, but everything is well overgrown with trees these days. We did pass by one old wat and stopped in for a look-see. There were no monks, but we talked with the caretaker. It turns out he is a former RLAF H-34 mechanic and still remembers lots of English from his time at Lackland.
We also ran into a truck selling salt, all the way up here from Ban Keun, just north of Vientiane. This salt is distilled from underground saline pools, not iodized salt like we used to buy when I was with USAID back in my “refugee” days, pre-1975. We bought sea salt from Bangkok. I wonder how much of a problem goiter is in upcountry Laos these days.
From Nam Bac, we drove on south to where the Nam Ou River enters the Mekong and we had lunch where the rivers join. On the south side of the Mekong, you can see the Tham Ting Caves, and it is an interesting spot to visit, but we had seen them previously, so we gave it a miss this trip: http://www.pbase.com/khanh_hwang/mekong_river__pak_ou_caves_
We moved on to Luang Prabang for two nights and Ray joined us late afternoon after coming in via the boat. We spent some time shopping and walking around town and the evening “tourist” market on the main drag; we climbed up the 328 steps to the top of Phu Sy; we took time for a photo op with what is left of a post-1975 AA gun there. We enjoyed a view of the L-54 runway, the really nice Khuang Sy waterfalls, and the National Museum, which is a former King’s palace. We finished with eats and Beer Lao. The only dampening thing about Luang Prabang was that it started to drizzle the afternoon of second day. A front had come down from the North.
Our last day was Friday, 22 January, out of Luang Prabang. We were driving in the drizzle and the clouds. It was too bad because we had wanted Anne and Ray to see some of the grand views out over the mountains and valleys as you drop down to the lower elevations at Muang Kassy/Vang Vieng. We arrived in Vientiane at 1700 hours, but we decided not to RON there because we wanted to get an early start for home the next day, which is eight plus hours just north of Bangkok. So, we crossed back over to Nong Khai to RON, eat dinner, and enjoy a Singha or three, then crash.
We arrived back home late afternoon on Saturday and Anne and Ray continued on to Bangkok for a couple of days. I reckon we were all kind tired of road travel, but we did have a bunch of fun, saw some new sites and sights, and felt that we accomplished a few things for The Kids in Laos by looking at and reviewing school projects.