After leaving from Vientiane, were were headed back to Vang Vieng where we had just come from less than a week ago. However, the plan wasn’t to go tubing again as the plan was to stay in a small village called Nathong to be part of volunteer project for at least the next 7 days. The name of the project is called SAELAO and is located just outside Vang Vieng and is the place we chose to volunteer after searching at least 3 weeks for a suitable place to do so. It was founded by a guy named Sangkeo (aka Bob) a few years back and to this day, he still runs the entire SAELAO program.
Coming from Vientiane, we arrived into Vang Vieng that afternoon, spent the night in town and then organized a ride out to the Nathong village where SAELAO is located.
And I’m not going to lie, it’s an extremely rough and dusty ride to get out to SAELAO but luckily it only takes about fifteen minutes if you’re traveling by tuk tuk. To ride a bike takes a bit longer and the road isn’t exactly bike friendly. Either which way you get there, you and your bags will surely be caked in dust by the time you reach the village unless you were lucky enough to go after a heavy rain.
When we arrived, Sangkeo (Bob) showed us around the grounds of SAELAO which is made up of the building that faces the road which houses the kitchen, storage room and an apt above.
Further back from the road is the outside dining area for the restaurant, next to that sits a building that is used for knitting silk fabrics by the local village people, and further up the path sits the large SAELAO community center that is used for teaching among other activities.
The land area is actually quite large and at the very back of the property sits a couple of buildings used for sleeping that can accommodate up to 14 people in one place and up to 4 in other building. There is also an organic farm just opposite the road that belongs to SAELAO and it is where they grow all their fruits, vegetables and herbs for both the volunteers and their restaurant customers.
After becoming acquainted with the place and getting settled in, we discussed various ideas of what we could do during the day to help improve the SAELAO project. English classes were always taught in the evening between 6 and 7pm although there were a few days when volunteers were asked to teach at the local school for an hour or so during the work week. But when you weren’t teaching, there were a lot of different projects you could take on during the day. Bob had his own ideas of what he wanted done but he always welcomed suggestions from his volunteers.
After some discussion, we decided to take on a few of the things that he already wanted done but we thought up some other things that we thought we could do while we were there. The first thing we took on was to regrade an embankment near the restaurant and build a swale to provide proper drainage for an area that would be in strong need of it. We were here during Laos’ dry season but the rainy season was coming soon and it would surely be an issue in the area we were working on if it wasn’t properly landscaped. Below is a photo of the end result…(sorry, but I missed the opportunity to take a lot of ‘Before’ photos…)
The next thing I decided to do was just walk the property to find out what needed done and what need improving. Some of the ideas I came up with was to build a bridge in one section of the SAELAO property since there was nothing but some fallen trees they were using to walk across a 7 foot wide ravine. I ended up finding a suitable platform made from bamboo and just dug out the area for some horizontal beams to hold the bridge. Problem solved. Now you could at least carry large tools and equipment across.
Next up was to solve some storage issues. The kitchen counters had little room for cooking when it involved more than a couple people in the room due to the lack of space and shelving so I built a few movable shelves for the counters and also put up additional hooks on the wall above the counters to hold pots, pans and utensils.
The other area that was in dire need of shelving and organization was their storage room just off the kitchen. When I arrived you couldn’t even walk into this 12×12 foot room as all the floor space was entirely taken up with tools, food and other items scattered about. I decided to built 5 shelves along with some hanging racks for their tools for future volunteers so that things could hopefully be found easier such as tools and such. It’s hard to see by this photo since we had already filled up the shelves but this was the finished product:
Another project that was taken on was to bring new life to the signs out in front of the SAELAO entrance along the road. Since the ‘Blue Lagoon’ and Phu Kham Cave just up the road from here bring in so many tourists everyday, the goal was to either build new signs or to re-paint the existing ones to help promote the restaurant for increased business as well as to promote the entire project and its mission. We ended up removing a section of fence to make the entrance more inviting along with many new signs made so that they were all uniform in style and color to make the place more inviting to tourists. Here are some of the photos of what was done:
After having taught a couple lessons to the kids that come in the evenings to the SAELAO community center, I noticed they were constantly trying to take notes using their leg as a desk. Since we couldn’t hardly build desks for all of them (there were usually around 15 kids) I decided one or two long tables would come in handy. Bob and I discussed the design and I ended up making two low tables that could be used in the center of class and they were definitely put to good use the very first night I brought them in!
We also decided it would be great to add something extra to each of them so we bordered each with random numbers and the alphabet and we were trying to come up with some type of proverb or something to write on each in the middle to help the kids learn. Well, I don’t think any difficult quotes would be too good since they were still learning at a beginning level but then I thought… “who doesn’t like Dr. Suess”??? Perfect! We downloaded a few riddles from good ole Google, chose two of them, then went to work tracing them as best we could over blue painted tables before going back to fill in the letters. This was the finished product:
As I mentioned, English lessons were taught every week night and this was definitely the highlight and most rewarding experience while working here. The kids, mostly aged between 7 years old to 15 years old, would arrive on their bikes from the village around 5:30 to 6pm and would want to play games with us until we went in to teach class. This group was very eager to learn and also very appreciative of us. For us new volunteers, it would usually take one lesson before finding out what level the kids were at with their English but after that, we could focus on what areas were needed most to teach them and luckily, there were many props, games and materials for us to use in the center to teach with.
I think the craziest time I had while teaching there though was when I found an eight year old kid in the back of the classroom that was sharpening his pencil with a machete – that was definitely not something I remember having to do when I was in school!
But even though these kids were eager to learn, it didn’t mean that we didn’t have to constantly try and keep them focused. This was probably the biggest eye opener for me… trying to get 15 local Lao kids to pay attention together as a group. Sometimes, you just have to bring out the big guns like teaching them to sing “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”. Yeah, never thought I’d have a repeat of that in my life after a 27 year absence but here it was resurfacing! And it worked!!
Outside of simply working and teaching, we did do a lot of other things while we were here at SAELAO. When you arrive, Sangkeo offers his volunteers a week pass to the Blue Lagoon. Normally it costs 10,000 Kip per day but he offers it for 20,000 for an entire week which is nice because we went there just about every afternoon after working a long day. It also gives you access to Phu Kham Cave which Sangkeo took us to one day.
Since he grew up in this area, he knew every square inch of this enormous cave as well as all the tiny insects and bats that live in it. It was much, much larger than the previous cave I’d been in and has sections inside as high as 150+ feet from the ground to the ceiling.
He toured us around the inside for a couple hours and took us through to areas that no tourists could probably ever find by themselves. When we left there, we took a quick dip in the Blue Lagoon but when we were making the walk back to SAELAO, there was a restaurant along the way that had just finished construction and were having a grand opening party. All the local Lao villagers were there and we were invited in for some awesome dancing and Lao Lao whiskey shots (aka gross rocket fuel). The Lao Lao was getting passed around and just like in many Asian cultures, its very rude to turn it down. And if you have ever had bad ‘moonshine’ from back home, think of how bad that can be and then imagine throwing in pure gasoline and you can then have a pretty good idea of how disgusting this Lao Lao whiskey was! I found out later it was about 180 proof and of course, it was served warm when we had it. Delicious.
So what else did I learn while here at SAELAO? Well, I realized that almost everything, short of appliances, can be made from bamboo. That includes floors, walls, roofs, chairs, benches, bridges, clothes, shower shelves, baskets, bowls, cups, tables, fences…. yeah, just about anything. I also learned that there are areas around this village where they blow up left over missiles from the Vietnam war. Usually about once a day, you’ll here a very loud explosion go off in the distance and from what I’ve been told, they are bombs that were dropped during the war that never exploded. Along with land mines throughout Laos, this has been a problem for the locals for decades. To this day, there still remain thousands of live land mines in Laos that take the lives (or limbs) of many children every year.
While I was here at SAELAO, I also learned about the Laos holidays in which no manual labor can take place and we also learned traditional Lao dance. It was interesting to say the least!
On one night, they cooked us pizzas and to my amazement, it was some of the best pizza I’d ever had. It probably helps that everything onsite is organically grown and picked fresh the same day such as the tomatoes and herbs. And on my last night there, we got the fire going inside the oven to make some banana bread. It took close to two hours to get the coals hot enough in the oven to throw in the bread but once we did, it only took about thirty minutes before it was ready. This oven should be at every campsite back home!
All in all, SAELAO was a great experience for us both and while we were here, we spent time with about 14 different volunteers as some were already here when we started and others got switched out by new volunteers a few days after we arrived. We made some great friends and overall, we felt excited to have been a part of such a project. If you want to learn more about the SAELAO project in Laos, go to http://www.saelaoproject.com/ and if you’re thinking about volunteering and would like to ask me a question, feel free to contact me through my ‘About’ page or in the comments section below…
We truly wanted to stay longer here but after 7 days in this village, we needed to cross borders again due to Visa issues so Vietnam was our next stop and we left the following morning…