Flew from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos – a charming monk-filled city situated between the Mekong and Nakong rivers. I was here two years ago and I found that I enjoyed it more this second time around. I understand why tourists come and some never go back to their homes.
GO Campaign has funded 3 projects there. One was support for a small paper-making business in a tiny village near the airport. Due to various factors ranging from the local economy to village land issues, the project has yet to exactly flourish, but it does employ 5 village youth who are finished with school and would otherwise be without work and it is giving them some job training skills they would not have the opportunity to learn otherwise.
The second was support for a small library started by a law student named Leynou. Leynou came and picked me up on his motorcycle and I rode on back (what is it with me and the back of motorcycles this trip?) and he took me to the latest spot for his library. He has moved about 8 times since he started this project (due to expiring leases or inhospitable conditions) and he hopes one day to be able to purchase a small plot of land so the library can have a permanent home. Libraries are not the cultural norm in Laos, and literacy has not been promoted much in the country, so Leynou and others like him have a tough road ahead of them. His library has morphed into more of a English language study center where he teaches youth of all ages to speak and read English. If someone has even the most basic English skills in Laos, their odds of finding a job later in life grow exponentially. The better their English, the better the job. Not to mention the educational opportunities that are open to them through scholarship programs.
The third project we support is a transitional program for boys who graduate out of the local orphanage school. Without support, they would be forced to return to their villages and live with relatives, who will put them to work on the farm in exchange for food and housing. They’ll never be able to save money and will have little to no chance for advancement in life. But thanks to this transitional program that gives them temporary housing for a few months, the boys are able to stay in Luang Prabang and look for work. I met 4 of the recent graduates and they each found work within 2 weeks. 2 as waiters, one as a guard in a warehouse, and another working in a Karaoke bar. Several of the boys – on their own initiative – are making enough money to start taking some college classes so they can get an education beyond high school. Support for a few months may not sound like much, but for these boys it is life-changing, and now they are on the fast track to self-independence.
Laos wasn’t all work and no play. I visited the Orient Express property – La Residence Phou Vao – a gorgeous hotel situated high up on a forest hill, where the GM treated me to lunch by the pool. (Orient Express is a generous donor in our annual GO GO Gala auction). And there is plenty of delicious food and arts and antiques and high-end handicrafts and marketplaces to keep all the tourists busy. Since Lao New Year is in April, I went to bed early on the 31st and I woke up the next morning and got a tuk-tuk driver to take me to a nearby mountain. I hiked a short distance to the most beautiful waterfalls, and because the rest of the tourists arrive later in the day on regularly scheduled buses, I had this entire paradise to myself. You can swim in the Tiffany-blue lagoons underneath the falls. I thought I was the only person there, but after a half hour of solitude, I hiked further and came up on an old monk staring at the falls. It was perhaps the most serene moment I have ever come upon, and what a wonderful way to start 2013! A good omen for GO Campaign and all its supporters? Happy New Year to all of you!