It was my fourth day in Luang Prabang in January 2001 (and my second week in Southeast Asia). I had a very good feel for the town, listening to the faint sounds of the roosters crowing, dogs barking, temple drums thumping, motor bikes puttering; seeing the sights of the ornate temples, the saffron-frocked monks collecting alms, the serenity of the townspeople always prepared to smile, watching the gorgeous sunsets from atop Mount Phousi, watching women arriving from the opposite side of the Mekong River in the early morning darkness bringing paired baskets of vegetables to sell at the morning market, and the hands full of backpackers sitting in front of guesthouses reminiscing their travels, seeking their next travel destinations, and drinking Beer Lao. I was anxious and ready to explore beyond the protective boundaries of the UNESCO World Heritage site.
As I was traveling back from Khouansi Falls in Thapenh Village, I asked (speaking with my hands) my tuk tuk driver Khammoun to stop by some villages. I was shocked by the village poverty, yet I was awe struck by its simplicity and the projected calm that emanated from the villagers’s welcome. A simple Sabaideeâ would break the ice and I was a welcomed guest. I watched older women preparing yarn for the loom, a girl (surrounded by friends and family) working that their loom on ther ground floor of their stilted homes, girls giggling as they alternated pounding the husk off rice, and women weaving palms fronds to replace their thatched rooftops.
Small children would meekly come up to me and stare. Initially, I did not notice their moving their fingers on their palm. I then became aware of what they were doing, as I walked through this and other villages, where other children were doing the same. Khammoun later told me that they were asking for a pencil and paper to write on. He exclaimed that pencil and paper are expensive for them, and are used sparingly. I was dismayed. It struck me to my core.
I may have found what I was looking for during this backpacking trip. It was only a notion, a notion that I was going to help these children. I continued to visit more villages further away from Luang Prabang center. Many children wearing worn clothes, barefooted, hands and faces filthy were commonplace. Temperatures were warm during the day, but very cool during the evening and early morning hours. Children were clearly cold, holding their arms tightly together, squatting around a fire rotating their hands to catch the fire’s warmth, dressed with ragged shorts and worn r-shirts.
The next day, I asked Khammoun to take me to the market. I bought a pile of pens and writing paper, a soccer ball and some fruit (oranges were in season) and a bag of balloons. I invited three fellow travelers, whom I met and got to know as I traveled the slow boat down the Mekong River from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang. Khammoun asked the naibane (the village leader if he would distribute them to the chidlren). With a big smile, he shouted out something and waved his hands. They brought a table for us. He asked us to distribute what we brought for the children ourselves. Khammoun was wonderful. He orchestrated the kids together and entertained them.
The children’s temperance overwhelmed me. They nop’d (put their hands together in front their face) us, as they looked at us in the eyes and bowed slightly. These children were so incredibly courteous and appreciative.
It was during this day, when I already began to think about coming back to Laos (only ten days after my arrival to Southeast Asia). I was experiencing feelings I’ve never felt before. I liked the feeling and wanted more of it.
I shared this pictured with pride. I shared with people that I was returning to a new found country called Laos, know locally as Lao PDR, to help the children. A flaming passion had been lit. I just needed to figure out how to harness and direct the flame.